Sunday, August 14, 2016

Virtue and mistaken conscience

Being fully virtuous is compatible with doing some things that are wrong. A juror, call her Alice, while acting in the best conscience, send an innocent person to prison, say because enough witnesses for the prosecution are particularly effective liars. It can even be the case that sending the innocent person to prison is done out of virtue and further contributes to virtue.

But now suppose Bob is a juror brainwashed through no fault of his own into thinking that members of some ethnic group should be found guilty whether or not they really are guilty, and that Bob voted to convict. He may well be acting in good conscience. But Bob is a vicious person, even if, I shall suppose, not culpably so. (If this case is possible, that creates trouble for claim (4) here.) Moreover, even though the only way for him to avoid incurring guilt is to unjustly vote to convict (for then he is inculpable, but if he voted to acquit, he would have been culpable for violating conscience), by voting to convict she contributes to her vice.

It is natural to distinguish the cases of Alice and Bob by noting that Alice's wrongful action comes from ignorance of non-moral matters while Bob's comes from ignorance of moral matters.

But that's not quite the right distinction. For instance, the question whether the accused person was in fact innocent may itself hinge on some moral question. Imagine that a perfectly truthful witness testified that either vegetarianism is not morally required or the accused was holding a knife, and this witness refused to say which disjunct is true. If Alice mistakenly (let's suppose) thinks that vegetarian is morally required, she could thereby come to an error about whether the accused committed the crime, on the basis of a mistake about a moral question.

Furthermore, there is a third case. Consider Carla, a good doctor who needs to make a decision whether to perform some procedure. The moral issues are quite unclear, and Carla cannot figure them out on her own. But Carla has good reason to trust her hospital's ethics committee. She acts in accordance with the committee's recommendation, even though in this case the committee is mistaken. Carla acts wrongly. Moreover, her wrong action comes from a mistake about moral matters, indeed a mistake about the specific moral matter at hand. But Carla's action need not (though this may depend on details of the case) be incompatible with full virtue--morality can be complex, and even a fully virtuous person may be unable to figure out all the intricacies of cooperation in evil or triple effect, say. Given enough complexity in the case, Carla may be sufficiently isolated from the wrongmaking features of her action that she does not become morally worse by acting wrongly.

So if we want to draw the distinction between a type of ignorance of what is to be done that detracts from virtue and a kind that does not, that distinction is not to be drawn by distinguishing between ignorance about moral matters and ignorance about non-moral matters, even if to get out of the vegetarianism case we refine this to be a distinction between ignorance about the morality of the matter at hand and other kinds of ignorance.

So how do we draw the distinction? I don't know.


Nick S said...

This is going off an a tangent, but it brings to mind the question of whether or not any adamant atheist has ever sent an innocent person to prison without adequate evidence to support the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard. And, if so, what would it take to convince the same adamant atheist, beyond a reasonable doubt, that God did it. What constitutes reasonable doubt?

Heath White said...

I think neither of these cases is really a counterexample to the "mistake about moral matters" suggestion.

Alice does in fact make a mistake about a moral matter, but it leads directly to a mistake about an empirical matter. And since that is the more immediate or relevant mistake, we don't fault Alice.

Carla on the other hand reasons this way:

What the ethics committee says is a good guide to what I should do.
The ethics committee said I should perform the surgery.
So, I should perform the surgery.

Carla has no mistaken premises here, she just has defeasible reasoning that gets defeated. No blame attaches to that, I don't think.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The only mistake I can think of regarding a moral matter and Alice is the mistake that the person should be sent to jail. And I don't see what empirical mistake follows.

Carla's reasoning has a false conclusion. Since she believes a false conclusion, she makes a mistake about a moral matter.

Heath White said...

I meant that Alice reasons

Either vegetarianism is not morally required or the accused was holding a knife
Vegetarianism is morally required
Therefore the accused was holding a knife
Therefore the accused is guilty.

She does make a moral mistake in the second premise but presumably this is only relevant in contributing to a mistake in the first conclusion, which is an empirical matter. It's not a moral mistake about killing, i.e. about the issue in question.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right, but all this leads to a moral mistake in turn: the accused should be jailed.

It's true, though, that the reasoning leads through a mistake about empirical matters, and depends on that mistake.

So the structure is: moral error → empirical error → moral error.

Here's another case with the same structure. Imagine a Nazi who starts with a moral error: he thinks that it's permissible to enslave Slavs. Since it's permissible to enslave Slavs, he concludes that Slavs are not human--an empirical error--since it's wrong to enslave humans. He then reasons that if Slavs are not human, it's permissible to kill them--a second moral error. This has the same structure: moral error → empirical error → moral error.

The Nazi's error is of a kind acting on which is incompatible with full virtue, however.

Heath White said...

OK, I think we're closing in, and I think there are two candidate explanations.

(1) Subject-matter restriction. The Nazi's initial moral mistake leads to another one about the same subject matter: loosely, the moral status of Slavs. Whereas Alice's mistake about vegetarianism has nothing to do, subject-matter-wise, with her mistake about jailing the accused. We might say that a false moral conclusion is culpable if it rests on a moral mistake "in the same neighborhood" as the false conclusion. The idea is that the moral rot is spreading. Obviously this is a vague matter.

(2) Culpability of the initial mistake. We might think Alice is not culpable because her belief that vegetarianism is required is justified, whereas the Nazi is culpable because his belief that it is permissible to enslave Slavs is not justified. And we might have this view because we believe in natural knowledge of the moral law with regard to enslavement but not vegetarianism.

But what if we consider Bob the Nazi in the jury, listening to a credible witness who testifies, "Either it is not permissible to enslave Slavs, or the accused was holding a knife," and concludes that the accused was holding a knife and therefore ought to be jailed. Is he vicious *for reaching this conclusion*?

My instinct is to say that he's vicious for thinking it's okay to enslave Slavs but no extra blame attaches (no extra vice is demonstrated) for reaching the false conclusion about jailing the accused. Error is propagating but moral rot is not.

If that is right, it tells in favor of (1) and against (2).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am pretty sure it's a subject-matter restriction...