Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Mistaken conscience and failure

Alice is a sniper tasked with stopping Bob the terrorist who is about to set up a bomb that will kill many. Let’s take it for granted that shooting Bob would have been permissible and even praiseworthy. Now, Alice takes all reasonable precautions but she misidentifies Carl the innocent as the terrorist and shoots Carl.

Among the infinitely many ways that we can describe Alice’s action, two are of particular moral relevance:

  1. Trying to shoot Bob the terrorist.

  2. Shooting an innocent person.

Alice is morally responsible for, and even praiseworthy, for performing (1). She is not responsible for (2), since she did (2) unintentionally and in non-culpable ignorance (remember that she took all reasonable precautions).

Did Alice do a morally impermissible action? It sounds like (2) is impermissible, and Alice indisputably did it. But perhaps this is too quick. For it is not clear to me that Alice’s shooting an innocent person is an action. Suppose that while Alice was sleeping, an evil tinkerer set up a pressure-sensitive switch connected to a gun pointed at David the innocent, and Alice rolled over onto it. Then Alice shot David, but we cannot say that she did anything: shooting David wasn’t an action, but a mere event. And if she didn’t do anything, she didn’t do anything impermissible.

Now, Alice’s trying to shoot Bob the terrorist identical with her shooting an innocent person. And since Alice’s trying to shoot Bob is an action, it follows that her shooting the innocent person is also an action. So it seems that Alice did do something impermissible.

But even this may not be quite right. For it may be that it is not quite right to say that (2) is impermissible. Rather, what are impermissible are actions that are non-accidental cases of shooting an innocent. And both the shooting of Carl and of David are accidental cases (and that of David isn’t even an action).

If this is right, then we can say that Alice did nothing wrong in either the case of Carl or of David.

Now, let’s switch to a harder case. Alice has a reasonable but false belief that she is pursuing a just war, but she is not. She shoots Ella the enemy combatant. Did Alice do anything morally wrong? It seems that she did: she shot Ella. But perhaps we can say something very similar to what we said above. There are two ways to describe Alice’s action;

  1. Trying to shoot enemy combatant Ella in pursuit of a just war

  2. Shooting enemy combatant Ella not in pursuit of a just war.

Action (1) is permissible, but unbeknownst to Alice was doomed to failure as the war was not just. Now, what is impermissible is non-accidentally shooting enemy combatants not in pursuit of a just war. But Alice did this accidentally: she reasonably thought it was a just war. So perhaps Alice is entirely off the hook for doing something morally wrong. Instead, she accidentally did something that it would be have been wrong to do non-accidentally.

Let’s switch to an even harder case. Alice has a reasonable (given her flawed upbringing and culture) but false belief that in order to save lives in the pursuit of a just war it is permissible to shoot innocent non-combatants, and she shoots Fred the innocent non-combatant. Can we say that Alice didn’t do anything wrong, but merely accidentally did something that it would have been wrong to do non-accidentally? Perhaps. Perhaps we can describe Alice’s action in two ways:

  1. Trying to permissibly shoot the innocent non-combatant Fred to save lives

  2. Shooting the innocent non-combatant Fred to save lives.

Action (5) is permissible, but doomed to failure. And it is impermissible to non-accidentally do (6). But now it seems that we cannot make the move of saying that Alice only accidentally did (6). For she was trying to do (6), though she was trying to do more than just what is included in (6): she was trying to do (6) permissibly.

But perhaps there is a similar move possible to the one we made before. Perhaps what is impermissible is to do (6) as such, where the “as such” includes both non-accidentality and the assumption that no further relevant factors are involved. And Alice wasn’t trying to do (6) as such: she was trying to do (6) permissibly.

If so, this would give us a nice account of what happens in cases of honestly mistaken conscience. We are intending to do something permissibly, and we fail at this. Instead we accidentally end up performing only a part of our intention. That part would be something that it would be impermissible to attempt as such, but we didn’t attempt it as such, but we intended it only qua permissible.

For this account to work, it has to be the case that if we are to act well, we should positively include permissibility among our intentions. Virtue may help here.


JCarver said...

Who is this for?

Helen Watt said...

Isn’t it better simply to separate wrongdoing from culpability for that wrongdoing? After all, some choices will never be permissible: it’s not simply about further relevant factors being involved or otherwise as in the case of near-absolutes which aren’t literally absolutes.

Adding a good further intention (to do what’s permissible) won’t change the essential wrongdoing in cases of literal absolutes though it may remove/lessen culpability. The information that would lead a morally informed person to reject the action is already on the table.

Torture might be one example. To intend to torture permissibly is an intention that is psychologically possible but doesn’t make sense for non-contingent moral reasons. To intend to apostasize permissibly is another example. Aren’t these cases different from simple factual mistakes (about the sniper victim being innocent for example)?

The example of the just war is interesting as the person may be unaware of factual information (say, due to government propaganda) or they may be morally ignorant (the factual information they have would lead a fully-virtuous person to reject the justice of the war).

Arguably though, choices can be morally wrong without being intended in a way that latches onto every wrongmaking feature. There may be ‘unintended morally determinative aspects’. So suicides are wrong without our necessarily intending the wrongmaking feature of usurping God’s rightful authority over our lives.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Separating wrongness from culpability is the standard move, but it has the cost of implying that there are real dilemmas: it is wrong to violate conscience and it is wrong to phi, but then someone who thinks that they are required to phi does wrong whether they phi or not. Some people (especially Mark Murphy) want to live with that. But I want to avoid real dilemmas, and I also want to be able to explain why it is that the obligation to follow conscience is in some sense primary.

I agree that it is impossible to torture permissibly. The case is similar in that respect to the squaring the circle. But on the theory I am trying out, I want to say that squaring the circle and torturing permissibly are both permissible---though neither is possible. Torturing permissibly is akin to torturing painlessly. (Imagine someone who thinks contradictions are possible and is trying to find a painless method of torture!) Thus, the person who tries to torture permissibly because they mistakenly think they are obligated to is in the same boat as the person who tries to square the circle because they promised to square the circle and hence mistakenly think they are obligated to (there is no obligation to do the impossible!).

I do not know that I want to make a sharp distinction between moral mistakes and non-moral mistakes. Moral mistakes are often rooted in non-moral mistakes (perhaps the most common case is where someone misinterprets a piece of Scripture).

p.s. There are cases of "trying to torture permissibly" which we all would agree are morally OK. For instance, one way of trying to torture permissibly is to mentally go through all the available methods of torture trying to find one that is permissible: this is similar to one way to try to square the circle, where one goes through all the methods one can think of, trying to find one that works.

Alexander R Pruss said...

On the other hand, it's hard to avoid thinking that some cases of mistaken conscience generate moral dilemmas (see my post today), so my motivation for my view is now much weaker.