Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Wronger and wronging

Here’s an interesting thing. An act doesn’t necessarily become any more wrong for wronging someone.

Alice and Bob respectively come across a derelict spaceship. Their sensors show that there is intelligent life aboard. Each blasts the respective spaceship as target practice. Bob’s sensors malfunctioned: there was no intelligent life on the ship he blasted. Alice’s sensors were just fine. Alice wronged the people she killed. Bob wronged no one, as there was no one there to be wronged. But what Bob did was no less wrong than what Alice did.

Note 1: Bob’s case differs from standard cases of attempted murder. For in standard cases of attempted murder, the intended victim is wronged.

Note 2: I am not claiming that Bob wrongs no one. Bob wrongs both God and himself. But Alice also wrongs God and herself, just as much as Bob does, and additionally wrongs the people she kills. That additional wronging doesn’t make her act wronger, though.

Note 3: One might argue that Bob and Alice wrong all the people who have the property that they might (epistemically? alethically?) have been on the ship. Sure, but what if there are no such people in Bob's case? Perhaps Bob, unbeknownst to himself, is alone in his universe.


Angra Mainyu said...


I agree, and I think even a stronger hypothesis is true:

H2: Necessarily, an act is not more or less wrong depending on whether someone is wronged, who is wronged, how many people are wrong, the moral character of those who are wronged, etc.

Here, "act" includes the actor's intent, and counts other mental properties such as what information the actor had access to at the time (H2 is silent on the synchronic vs. diachronic issue, to be precise).
An underlying hypothesis is that the degree of wrongness necessarily depends only on features of the mind of the perpetrator.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Now let's go one step further. Let's say that Bob is really alone in the universe and, in fact he is the only sentient being. God doesn't exist.

The alien ship is simply an illusion created by Bob's mind and so is the blasting of the ship. In reality everything happens in Bob's mind.

Is Bob's actions still wrong? And if it is, why?

I realize of course that if God is necessary, the above scenario is impossible, but it is a thought experiment that, I think, has interesting implications.

Angra Mainyu said...


Yes, I would say it's just as wrong. If I had to speculate as to why, I would say that it's because it's immoral to attempt to kill intelligent beings one has no further information about, as target practice. Sure, one could ask "why?" again. I don't know. But then, at some point I think we all reach an "I don't know" (i.e., there is no infinite chain of reasons why something is immoral for a human to do).

All of this is assuming Bob's ability to make choices is not compromised by his mental condition (i.e., his mind's creation of those illusions does not affect other parts of his mind), so whether it's some part of Bob's own mind creating the illusion is not relevant.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I completely agree with you, but I wonder what Dr Pruss think about this.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am inclined to agree, too, though I don't know that Bob could know what is right and wrong of there were no God. He would only have justified true beliefs, I think, about it.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Probably the same way Bob could know that 1 + 1 = 2 and not 3, that is, if you think Bob could know that in a Godless world, of course.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The only story I have about how Bob could know that 1+1=2 in a world without God goes something like this. That 1+1=2 helps explain certain empirical facts about the world, such as that if you put an orange beside another one, you get two oranges. These empirical facts might be partially explanatory of Bob's belief that 1+1=2. So, that 1+1=2 might be partially explanatory of Bob's belief that 1+1=2, and that might help make the belief be knowledge.

Can I tell a similar story about moral truths?

It just occurred to me that I can, but only on Aristotelian metaphysics. Maybe the moral truth that Bob is forbidden from murder is grounded in some facts about his nature, which facts also explained by his revulsion at murder.

Anonymous said...

In this case, I think the answer is to use Alexander's sword (the Great Alexander of Gordian fame, not the great Dr. Pruss) to carve out the distinction between subjective and objective evil: subjectively, Bob is guilty of intending the same evil as Alice, but objectively his act was different. Often we are interested mainly in culpability, but Alice's act really is wronger objectively, because she actually did murder a lot of people and Bob didn't. If we flip the situation around so that Bob thought he wasn't killing anyone, he would, subjectively, not be culpable at all, even though he still objectively committed a great evil. (In that case, the 'paradox' would be that he wronged all those people without doing anything wrong!)