Sunday, August 23, 2009

Three dimensions of evaluation of bad actions

To steal pears without intending to sell or eat them is not only immoral, but hard to understand. To kill a rich and annoying uncle is easier to understand, but morally worse. And of course serial killers commit crimes that are both hard to understand and morally bad. The two dimensions, thus, appear to diverge.

Notice an interesting asymmetry between the morally good and the immoral. A morally good action may excite wonder, but it is not that hard to understand. It is only the immoral and the neutral action that can be really hard to understand.

A third dimension, which I indicated in an earlier post, is the degree to which the deed is reflective of a bad character. This dimension is to some degree independent of the preceding two. It is equally understandable why someone might kill for money or to defend a friend's honor in a duel, but the former reflects a more vicious character. Tormenting an invertebrate is less bad than killing to defend a friend's honor, but more reflective of a vicious character.

The dimensions are not entirely independent, however.


Dan Johnson said...

Morally good actions aren't hard to understand? Surely the disciples' abandonment of job and family to follow Christ borders on absurdity in many eyes; also the apostles' subsequent completely self-sacrificing obsession with preaching the gospel, and (following Kierkegaard) Abraham's willigness to sacrifice his son are likewise impenetrable to lots of people.

It seems to me the "hard to understand" stuff is remarkably person-relative. Understanding involves being able to think yourself into another's reasoning, and the deeper the disagreement the harder it is to think yourself into the other's shoes. And the gospel and the actions it commands, being foolishness to the Greeks, is surely hard for many to think themselves into.

Does that sound right to you?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was thinking of some sort of "understanding" for which it is sufficient to understand the sorts of reasons that would lead to the action. Now if I see the disciples' abandonment of job and family as morally good, then that seems like a reason for them to do that. Of course, if I don't see the abandonment as morally good, the action may be incomprehensible. So there is some subjectivity here--the morally good action is only understandable to those who see it as a good action. That's a qualification I need to make. It's still asymmetric with the bad action, because the bad action becomes less comprehensible the more I see it as bad.

But one might still be puzzled about how these knights of faith "managed" to do the morally good actions they did. It's not so much that the actions are incomprehensible to us, then, as that we realize that our fallen nature would make these actions impossible without a miracle. This is a different kind of absurdity, I think. It's not a rational absurdity.

I wish I knew how to make all the right distinctions here...

Peter Youngblood said...
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Peter Youngblood said...

I think the distinction you made is the right one. It's easy to accidentally equivocate "hard to understand" or "incomprehensible". For example, we would say it's "incomprehensible" how someone could get 23 for the answer of 10 x 3. We may also say it's "incomprehensible" how Einstein could have formulated the theory of relativity. In that sense, it seems to be a sort of hyperbole or rhetorical devise to indicate we are very impressed by an incredible achievement or to say "I don't know that I could ever do that". It is hard to say it in one word, though. The first sense says something about the objective world and the second about my own subjective experience. Perhaps "rational incomprehensibility" and "psychological/emotional incomprehensibility"? I don't think that will do either.