Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bestowing harms and benefits

A virtuous person happily confers justified benefits and unhappily bestows even justified harms. Moreover, it is not just that the virtuous person is happy about someone being benefitted and unhappy about someone being harmed, though she does have those attitudes. Rather, the virtuous person is happy to be the conferrer of justified benefits and unhappy to be the bestower even of justified harms. These attitudes on the part of the virtuous person are evidence that it is non-instrumentally good for one to confer justified benefits and non-instrumentally bad for one to bestow even justified harms. Of course, the bestowal of justified harms can be virtuous, and virtuous action is non-instrumentally good for one. But an action can be good for one qua virtuous and bad for one in another way—cases of self-sacrifice are like that. Virtuously bestowing justified harms is a case of self-sacrifice on the part of the virtuous agent.

When multiple agents are necessary and voluntary causes of a single harm, the total bad of being a bestower of harm is not significantly diluted between the agents. Each agent non-instrumentally suffers from the total bad of bestowing harm, though the contingent psychological effects may—but need not—be diluted. (A thought experiment: One person hits a criminal in an instance of morally justified and legally sentenced corporal punishment while the other holds down the punishee. Both agents are equally responsible. It makes no difference to the badness of being the imposer of corporal punishment if instead of the other holding down the punishee, the punishee is simply tied down. Interestingly, one may have a different intuition on the other side—it might seem worse to hold down the punishee to be hit by a robot than by a person. But that’s a mistake.)

If this is right, then we have a non-instrumental reason to reduce the number of people involved in the justified imposition of a harm, though in particular cases there may also be reasons, instrumental and otherwise, to increase the number of people involved (e.g., a larger number of people involved in punishing may better convey societal disapprovat).

This in turn gives a non-instrumental reason to develop autonomous fighting robots for the military, since the use of such robots decreases the number of people who are non-instrumentally (as well as psychologically) harmed by killing. Of course, there are obvious serious practical problems there.


SMatthewStolte said...

I’m not sure I agree that the virtuous person is unhappy to be the bestower of justified harms. Granted, I would be unhappy to do such things. But I am not a perfectly virtuous person. And the unpleasantness of having to play the role of a punisher might be a consequence of my being aware of my own moral weaknesses, rather than a consequence of my virtue. For example, if I were to take pleasure in justly harming a criminal, I might worry that the source of that pleasure had very little to do with the justness of the action. “Do I just enjoy having power over others?” I would worry.

Why shouldn’t we say, instead, that the virtuous person is happy to do what justice requires, whether it involves bestowing harms or benefits, partly because the virtuous person knows she can do these things well. And the fact that she knows that she can do it well makes her happy to take on this role.

What would you say if you heard a teacher say the following? “When I first started teaching, I used to hate failing students for plagiarizing. But now, I feel completely at peace with this part of my job. I still find it unpleasant to realize that a student has plagiarized, but I also realize that the best thing for me to do, to maintain the integrity of the university, is to enforce our policy on academic integrity. And I wouldn’t hand that part of my job off to anyone else, even if I had the opportunity to do so.”

I think it would be odd to say that a teacher like that must be lacking in virtue.

Anonymous said...

I would respond to the statement about the teacher that the teacher has become corrupted, because the reason that teachers hate failing students for plagiarism is because plagiarism does not objectively merit failing.

Obviously plagiarism does not significantly reduce a student's understanding, or even significantly impede it. If the student has a weak understanding of the material, they will have a weak understanding whether or not they plagiarize. So given that it doesn't make much difference to the student's progress in school, why should plagiarism be punished so harshly?

The reason is that it is an attempt to steal status. But this suggests that the school considers itself in the business of allocating status, rather than in the business of educating. And that's bad, since schools should be in the business of educating people.

Of course this is all immaterial to your general point, since it was only an example.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The school provides education and certifies to the provision. Both are important. Compare how a rope manufacturer provides a product with a specified strength and certifies to that strength, and both are important.