Friday, August 8, 2008

Thick ends

In an earlier post, I offered the hypothesis that an action's end already includes the means under some description, perhaps specific or perhaps general. If this hypothesis is right, then we get an interesting simplification of moral evaluation. Traditionally, deontologists have had to evaluate both the end and its means. But if the means are built into the end, then one of the steps in moral evaluation is removed.

How might one do this? Well, one might say that regardless of what E is, the end "E by any means" is the wrong end to pursue. Why? Because the specified means include morally illegitimate means. If this is right, then a virtuous person only wills ends like "E by any legitimate means" or "E by means of morally licit training" or "E by means of pressing the seventh button on the left when this is permissible".

This has some interesting consequences. Suppose that x is a virtuous agent who erroneously believes that a particular means m to E is morally licit. Then, x being virtuous wills "E by the licit means m" or something like that, and hence when x executes m to gain E, she fails to achieve her end, since her end is not just E but "E by the licit means m". Hence, we can say something about what goes wrong when someone in good conscience does wrong, or at least does wrong in this way: she fails to achieve what she was trying to achieve.

In such cases, we get a different way of answering a puzzle that Cardinal Ratzinger raises: Why not count as fortunate people who in good conscience act wrongly? Aren't they lucky that their conscience leads them astray, since as a result they are non-culpable in their wrongdoing? (Ratzinger's solution was that errors of conscience are preceded by earlier sins that led to the errors.) The solution is that, at least in cases of inappropriate means, the virtuous person who in erring conscience does wrong is one who fails to achieve her ends, though she may erroneously think she succeeds. But a failure to achieve one's ends is surely an unfortunate thing, and hence we cannot count this person entirely lucky. True, it is better to fail innocently than to clearheadedly do wrong and be culpable, but it is clearly better yet to do clearheadedly succeed at doing right.

If one can extend the theory to include the circumstances in the ends, we achieve a further theoretical simplification.

Of course, as in all simplifications, one runs the risk of losing some important distinctions when one does these things.

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