Tuesday, January 12, 2010


A colleague asked me what I would say about a choice between a really minor wrongdoing and an action that has really bad consequences. I had a hard time thinking up an interesting case, because most of the minor wrongdoings I could think of are violations of ceteris paribus (c.p.) moral laws. (Lying is an exception—some cases of lying are only minor wrongdoings, but lying is not merely c.p. wrong. But I didn't want to talk about the case of lying because my colleague and I disagree on the morality of lying.) For instance, promise-keeping (which my colleague suggested as an example) is sometimes only a minor obligation, but either we will say that keeping the promise is only a c.p. duty, or we will say that a promise becomes null and void when fulfilling it would lead to great evils (this is perhaps related to the fact that promises to do something immoral are invalid). And so in neither case could one have a choice between the obligation to keep a minor promise and tolerating or producing some great evil, because given the choice, the promise would not generate an ultima facie obligation (or maybe even a prima facie one, if one takes the null and void view). So I was hard-pressed for a case.

However, there is a quite interesting family of minor moral evils which have no ceterisparibusness to them. If E is morally wrong, then to morosely delectate in E is likewise wrong, and to a degree proportional to the wrongfulness of E. It is clearly vicious to delight in an immorality, and what is vicious is also wrong. Moreover, interestingly, even if E is only c.p. wrong, delectating in a wrongful case of E is not merely c.p. wrong, but wrong simpliciter and ultima facie. For instance, it is typically a minor evil to deliberately cause a minor embarrassment to a friend, and the prohibition against causing such embarrassment only holds c.p. (there are even times when it is one's duty to embarrass a friend). However, to freely mentally delight in an actual or hypothetical unjustified causing of a minor embarrassment (i.e., one in which the c.p. clause is not triggered) to a friend is vicious, and this viciousness is not merely c.p. wrong, even though the causing of embarrassment to one's friend is merely c.p. wrong. But if the embarrassment is minor, and the delectation is not of great intensity or extended over a great amount of time, the amount of wickedness in the delectation will be merely small.

So, this gives us a nice tool for generating examples of small (as small as we like, in fact) wrongdoings that are not merely c.p. wrong. And so we get the slightly paradoxical conclusion that while it would be acceptable to embarrass a friend in a minor way to save a life, it would not be acceptable to delight in unjustifiedly causing an embarrassment to a friend, howsoever minor, even to save a life. (Imagine a mind-reading villain who will kill someone—your friend, if you want to make the case harder—unless you morosely delectate in embarrassing a friend.) I think some of the paradox is only apparent, because it is trivially also wrong to unjustifiedly cause an embarrassment to a friend even to save a life (if it were not wrong to cause it, it would not be an unjustified causing), and so, too, it is wrong to delight in such an unjustified action.

I do not find this counterintuitive. But of course some deontologists may say that it's not wrong to morosely delectate on evils, or that it's only c.p. wrong. However, I do not think the Christian emphasis on purity of heart would allow that.


Mike Almeida said...

. . . it would not be acceptable to delight in unjustifiedly causing an embarrassment to a friend, howsoever minor, even to save a life.

On a more general question, I'm not sure how you're determining that one particular minor evil is p.f. wrong or u.f. wrong. What's giving you that information, moral intuition? On a smaller point, I find the claim quoted above incredible. I encourage you, please, to delight in my embarrassment to save a life. The laws--including the moral laws--are made for you, not you for the laws.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was using moral intuition here. But there are some rough reasons that can be given.

1. To deliberately delight in something is to turn one's will towards it. To turn one's will towards an evil is vicious--it is to misdirect one's will, and that is obviously vicious. The moral laws are made not primarily for the production of good results, but for the good of the moral agent.

2. To delight in an unequivocal evil happening to another is to be unloving towards that other. And that is always wrong.

3. It is always wrong to act contrary to a morally significant nature. But to delight in an evil is contrary to the nature of delight, and delight is something morally significant.