Monday, August 10, 2020

Do "one thought too many" objections work?

Consider “one thought too many” objections in ethics, on which certain considerations that objectively favor an action are nonetheless a “thought too many”, and it is better to act without them. Examples given in the literature involve using consequentialist reasoning when saving one’s spouse, or visiting a sick friend because of duty.

I’ve been sympathetic to such objections in the past, but now I am inclined to think some of them wrongheaded. Let’s say that I set out to visit my sick friend for the “right reason”, namely friendship. But on my way to my friend, I might get a brilliant idea how to get past an obstacle in a video game that I’ve been playing, and that might result in a temptation to go back home and try out the idea. Moreover, given my free will, there is a non-zero chance that I will wicked succumb to that temptation, sacrificing friendship to a video game.

But the chance that I would have sacrificed friendship and duty to a video game would have been lower, since in general the more reasons I am impressed by in favor of a choice, the more likely I am to make that choice. In other words, the “one thought too many” makes my determination to visit my friend more resilient. Liable to temptation as we are, it is a good thing if we keep before our minds all the reasons that favor an action.

But what if I were morally perfect, and there were no chance of succumbing to temptation? Would there still be a benefit to still having that allegedly unneeded “extra thought”? Typically, yes. For suppose that on my way to visit my friend, I find myself obtaining morally significant reasons to do something else, reasons that are strong but do not rise to the level of a duty. If the only reason to visit my friend were friendship, these new competing reasons might well be morally sufficient to outweigh the reason for the visit. But if I have the additional reason of duty in favor of visiting my friend, then these reasons may no longer outweigh. In other words, acting on all the reasons favoring the visit to my friend makes me ready to rationally respond to new reasons to the contrary.

I have argued that God is omnirational: that God acts on all the (uncanceled) reasons that favor his actions. The above considerations suggest that we should approximate this omnirationality.

There is still room for a “one thought too many” objection in some cases. Sometimes the extra reason is a bad reason. Then of course we have a thought too many. Sometimes, too, counting the extra reason involves double counting: “I have two reasons to keep my promise. First, I promised. Second, it’s my duty.” But in cases where the extra reason is a good reason, and it’s not canceled by some higher order reason, it’s a good thing to keep that extra reason around, to be more resilient in the face of temptation and to be better at weighing new reasons.

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