Monday, December 12, 2016

Actions that are gravely wrong for qualitative reasons

Some types of wrongdoing vary in degree of seriousness from minor to grave. Stealing a dollar from a billionaire is trivially wrong while stealing a thousand dollars from someone poor is gravely wrong. A poke in the back with a finger and breaking someone’s leg with a carefully executed kick can both be instances of battery, but the former is likely to be a minor wrong while the latter is apt to be grave.

On the other hand, there are types of wrongdoing that are always grave. An uninteresting (for my purposes) case is where the gravity is guaranteed because the description of wrongdoing includes a grave-making quantitative feature as in the case of “grand theft” or “grevious bodily harm”. The more interesting case is where for qualitative reasons the wrongdoing is always grave. For instance, murder and rape. There are no trivial murders or minor rapes.

Of course, even if a type of act is always seriously wrong, the degree of culpability might be slight, say due to lack of freedom or invincible ignorance. Think of someone brainwashed into murder, but who still has a slight sense of moral discomfort—although her action is gravely wrong, she may be only slightly culpable. My interest right now, however, is in the degree of wrongness rather than of culpability.

We can now distinguish types of wrongdoing that are always grave for qualitative reasons from those that are always grave merely for quantitative reasons. Here is a fairly precise characterization: if W is a type of wrongdoing that is always grave for qualitative reasons, then there is no sequence of acts, starting with a case of W, and with merely quantitative differences between the acts, such that the sequence ends with an act that isn’t grave. Grand theft and grevious bodily harm are examples of types of wrongdoings that are always grave merely for quantitative reasons.

On the other hand, it is intuitively plausible that murder and rape are not gravely wrong for merely quantitative reasons. If this intuition is correct, then we get some very interesting substantive consequences. In the case of rape, I’ve explored some relevant issues in a past post, so I want to focus on murder here.

The first consequence of taking murder to be always gravely wrong for qualitative reasons is that there is no continuous scale of mental abilities (whether of first or second potentiality) that takes us from people to lower animals. An unjustified killing of a lower animal is only a minor wrong (take this to constrain what “lower” means). If there were a continuous scale of mental abilities from people to lower animals, then murder would be gravely wrong only for quantitative reasons: because the victim’s mental abilities lie on such-and-such a position on the scale. So once we admit that murder is gravely wrong for qualitative reasons, we have to suppose a qualitative gap in the spectrum of mental abilities. This probably requires the rejection of naturalism.

A second consequence is that if killing a consenting adult in normal health is murder—which it is—then euthanasia is gravely wrong. For variation in health and comfort is merely quantitative, and one cannot go from a case of murder to something that isn’t gravely wrong by merely quantitative variation, since murder is always gravely wrong for qualitative reasons.

I suspect there are a number of other very interesting consequences of taking murder to be gravely wrong for qualitative reasons. I think these consequences will motivate some people to give up on the claim that murder is gravely wrong for qualitative reasons. But I think we should hold on to that claim and accept the consequences.


Heath White said...

Two possible objections:

1. On rape. I can imagine a sorites sequence where there is nearly no penetration, then progessively more, then full penetration. At the latter point I think we have a full rape. But I doubt there is a non-vague cutoff. So maybe rape is one end of a quantitative spectrum of sexual assault? I'm not sure how I feel about this idea.

2. Your murder case requires the wrongness of murder to depend on the victim's mental abilities. But humans really can have any level of mental ability along a wide spectrum, so this view can be saved only if we think of "ability" as something like "potential of the species". Then it seems like species-membership is doing the real moral work, since that does not come on an actually-existing spectrum. On the other hand we might imagine progressively dumber species (maybe our distant hominid ancestors) killings of whom (or which) we might think to be progressively milder wrongs.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Regarding the first, I wonder if one might not be able to block the argument by supposing there are natural kinds of activations of faculties or something like that.

Regarding dumber and dumber species, maybe there is a qualitative difference, like being able to grasp moral truths or not.

Arcane Spork said...

Could one not hold that there is a vague qualitative difference?

Such that there are cases in which one is definitely not committing an intermediate wrong, but it is vague whether one is committing a minor harm or a grave one.

This makes morality non-operationalizable in some sense, but one can hold that this interacts with culpability in some interesting way. Perhaps we are less culpable in vague cases.