Friday, March 1, 2019

Between subjective and objective obligation

I fear that a correct account of the moral life will require both objective and subjective obligations. That’s not too bad. But I’m also afraid that there may be a whole range of hybrid things that we will need to take into account.

Let’s start with clear examples of objective and subjective obligations. If Bob promised Alice to give her $10 but I misremember the promise and instead thinks he promised never to give her any more, then:

  1. Bob is objectively required to give Alice $10.

  2. Bob is subjectively required not to give Alice any money.

These cases come from a mistake about particular fact. There are also cases arising from mistakes about general facts. Helmut is a soldier in the Germany army in 1944 who knows the war is unjust but mistakenly believes that because he is a soldier, he is morally required to kill enemy combatants. Then:

  1. Helmut is objectively required to refrain from shooting Allied combatants.

  2. Helmut is subjectively required to kill Allied combatants.

But there are interesting cases of mistakes elsewhere in the reasoning that generate curious cases that aren’t neatly classified in the objective/subjective schema.

Consider moral principles about what one should subjectively do in cases of moral risk. For instance, suppose that Carl and his young daughter are stuck on a desert island for the next three months. The island is full of chickens. Carl believes it is 25% likely that chickens have the same rights as humans, and he needs to feed his daughter. His daughter has a mild allergy to the only other protein source on the island: her eyes will sting and her nose run for the next three months if she doesn’t live on chicken. Carl thus thinks that if chickens have the same rights as humans, he is forbidden from feeding chicken to his daughter; but if they don’t, then he is obligated to feed chicken to her.

Carl could now accept one of these two moral risk principles (obviously, these will be derivative from more general principles):

  1. An action that has a 75% probability of being required, and a 25% chance of being forbidden, should always be done.

  2. An action that has a 25% probability of being forbidden with a moral weight on par with the prohibition on multiple homicides and a 75% probability of being required with a moral weight on par with that of preventing one’s child’s mild allergic symptoms for three months should never be done.

Suppose that in fact chickens have very little in the way of rights. Then, probably:

  1. Carl is objectively required to feed chicken to his daughter.

Suppose further that Carl’s evidence leads him to be sure that (5) is true, and hence he concludes that he is required to feed chicken to his daughter. Then:

  1. Carl is subjectively required to feed chicken to his daughter.

This is a subjective requirement: it comes from what Carl thinks about the probabilities of rights, moral principles about what what to do in cases of risk, etc. It is independent of the objective obligation in (7), though in this example it agrees with it.

But suppose, as is very plausible, that (5) is false, and that (6) is the right moral principle here. (To see the point, suppose that he sees a large mammal in the woods that would suffice to feed his daughter for three months. If the chance that that mammal is a human being is 25%, that’s too high a risk to take.) Then Carl’s reasoning is mistaken. Instead, given his uncertainty:

  1. Carl is required to to refrain from killing chickens.

But what kind of an obligation is (9)? Both (8) and (9) are independent of the objective facts about the rights of chickens and depend on Carl’s beliefs, so it sounds like it’s subjective like (8). But (8) has some additional subjectivity in it: (8) is based on Carl’s mistaken belief about what his obligations are in cases of mortal risk, while (9) is based on what Carl’s obligations (but of what sort?) “really are” in those cases.

It seems that (9) is some sort of a hybrid objective-subjective obligation.

And the kinds of hybrid obligations can be multiplied. For we could ask about what we should do when we are not sure which principle of deciding in circumstances of moral risk we should adopt. And we could be right or we could be wrong about that.

We could try to deny (9), and say that all we have are (7) and (8). But consider this familiar line of reasoning: Both Bob and Helmut are mistaken about their obligations; they are not mistaken about their subjective obligations; so, there must be some other kinds of obligations they are mistaken about, namely objective ones. Similarly, Carl is mistaken about something. He isn’t mistaken about his subjective obligation to feed chicken. Moreover, his mistake does not rest in a deviation between subjective and objective obligation, as in Bob’s and Helmut’s case, because in fact objectively Carl should feed chicken to his daughter, as in fact (I assume for the sake of the argument) chickens have no rights. So just as we needed to suppose an objective obligation that Bob and Helmut got wrong, we need a hybrid objective-subjective one that Carl got wrong.

Here’s another way to see the problem. Bob thinks he is objectively obligated to give no money to Alice and Helmut thinks he is objectively obligated to kill enemy soldiers. But when Carl applies (5), what does he come to think? He doesn’t come to think that he is objectively required to feed chicken to his daughter. He already thought that this was 75% likely, and (5) does not affect that judgment at all. It seems that just as Bob and Helmut have a belief about something other than mere subjective obligation, Carl does as well, but in his case that’s not objective obligation. So it seems Carl has to be judging, and doing so incorrectly, about some sort of a hybrid obligation.

This makes me really, really want an account of obligation that doesn’t involve two different kinds. But I don’t know a really good one.


Heath White said...

I think the clarity comes in refining the idea of "subjective obligation." As you use it in the first two instances, it is fully explained by the objective obligation to follow one's conscience:

(C) If one thinks one's objective obligation is to do X, then one is objectively obligated to do X.

Obviously, if one is mistaken about one's objective obligations, then this principle, plus other objective obligations, will mean that you are in a moral dilemma with no way to go right. That seems correct--how *are* Bob and Helmut supposed to go right?

In other words, just eliminate the category of "subjective obligation." Now note that you can arrive at wrong moral beliefs in a lot of complicated ways, being mistaken at various points in the reasoning. Whenever that occurs, there will be objective obligations deriving from the facts, and then other competing objective obligations deriving from duties to follow your best moral reasoning. And in cases of mistakes, there may be no way to go right.

Helen Watt said...

Rather than saying there's an objective duty to follow one's conscience, is it better to say there's an objective negative duty not to do any act in bad conscience? Two objective negative duties can then fit nicely together as follows.

There are two choices the person shouldn't make: immediately-wrong choice A and immediately-right choice B, but made in bad conscience. Just as it's wrong to make an in itself-reasonable immediate choice but with a spiteful further motivation, it's also wrong to make an in itself-reasonable immediate choice with the further thought that this is the wrong choice morally to make.

And yes, sadly this means that the right choice may be practically impossible for the person to make at a given time. It's rather like the situation where I have to make a choice in a split second about something very complicated. Even without any moral faults slowing down my mental perceptions, it might take a miracle for me to see the right thing to do in time to do it. So my wrongful choice in good conscience remains wrongful but may not be culpable, at least.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Reducing subjective to objective obligation is very attractive, but it has its problems. An intuitive problem is that you can't say that Helmut is mistaken when he thinks he has an objective duty to kill the enemy. (He is only mistaken as to the grounds of the duty, and he is mistaken in thinking it permissible to kill the enemy.)

But in the present context, a more serious problem may be this. What makes the kind of solution you and Mark Murphy propose work fairly well is that the moral dilemmas it creates are ones that the agent does not know about, and hence the agent still has a clear line of action. Helmut is obligated to kill and doesn't know that he is obligated not to kill.

But cases like Carl's break this when you switch them. Suppose that Dave is like Carl, and has the same 25% estimate of the probability that chickens have rights. But unlike Carl, Dave accepts principle (6). Then Dave accepts the following things:

A. I shouldn't feed my daughter chicken.

B. It's 75% likely that I should feed my daughter chicken.

He accepts A because of the moral risk principle (6) and accepts B on first order grounds. Now the problem has come to roost in the agent's own head.

You might say: Well, not a problem, because Dave *accepts* that (6) is true and doesn't *accept*, but merely assigns a 75% probability to, the claim that he should feed his daughter chicken.

We can, however, get a case with more complete symmetry. For instance, Dave might only accept (6) with credence 0.75. Or, alternately, we could tweak the case in such a way that although Dave's credence that chickens have no rights is sufficiently high for belief, it's not high enough for taking the moral risk. E.g., suppose his credence that chickens have no human-level rights is 99.9%, and over the course of his stay on the island, Dave would have to kill 1000 chickens to keep his daughter from allergic reactions. Now, 99.9% is enough for belief, but a 0.1% risk of killing 1000 beings that have human-level rights for the sake of preventing a moderate allergic reaction is wrong.