Thursday, December 17, 2020

A multiple faculty solution to the problem of conscience

I used to be quite averse to multiplying types of normativity until I realized that in an Aristotelian framework it makes perfect sense to multiply them by their subject. Thus, I should think that 1 = 1, I should look both ways before crossing the street, and I should have a heart-rate of no more than 100. But the norms underlying these claims have different subjects: my intellect, my will and my circulatory system (or perhaps better: I as thinking, I as willing and I as circulating).

In this post I want to offer two solutions to the problem of mistaken conscience that proceed by multiplying norms. The problem of mistaken conscience is two-fold as there are two kinds of mistakes of conscience. A strong mistake is when I judge something is required when it is forbidden. A weak mistake is when I judge something is permissible when it is forbidden.

Given that I should follow my conscience, a strong mistake of conscience seems to lead to two conflicting obligations: I should ϕ, because my conscience says so, and I should refrain from ϕing, because ϕing is forbidden. Call the claim that strong mistakes of conscience lead to conflicting obligations the Dilemma Thesis. The Dilemma Thesis is perhaps somewhat implausible on its face, but can be swallowed (as Mark Murphy does). However, more seriously, the Dilemma Thesis has the unfortunate result that strong mistakes of conscience are not, as such, mistakes. For the mistake was supposed to be that I judge ϕing as required when it is forbidden. But that is only a mistake when ϕing is not required. But according to the Conflict Thesis, it is required. So there is no mistake. (There may be a mistake about why it is required, and perhaps one can use that to defuse the problem, but I want to try something else in this post.) Moreover, a view that embraces the Dilemma Thesis needs to explain the blame asymmetry between the obligation to ϕ and the obligation not to ϕ: I am to blame if I go against conscience, but not if I follow conscience.

Weak mistakes are less of a problem, but they still raise the puzzle of why I am not blameworthy if I do what is forbidden when conscience says it’s permissible.

Moving towards a solution, or actually a pair of solution, start with this thought. When I follow a mistaken conscience, my will does nothing wrong but the practical intellect has made a mistake. In other words, we have two sets of norms: norms of practical intellect and norms of will. In these cases I judged badly but willed well. And it is clear why I am not blameworthy: for I become blameworthy by virtue of a fault of the will, not a fault of the intellect.

But there is still a problem analogous to the problem with the Dilemma Thesis. For it seems that:

  1. In a mistake of conscience, my judgment was bad because it made a false claim as to what I should will.

In the case of a strong mistake, say, I judged that I should will my ϕing whereas is in fact I should have nilled my ϕing. But I can’t say that and say that the will did what it should in ϕing.

This means that if we are to say that the will did nothing wrong and the problem was with the intellect, we need to reject (1). There are two ways of doing this, leading to different solutions to the problem of conscience.

Claim (1) is based on two claims about practical judgment:

  1. The practical intellect’s judgments are truth claims.

  2. These truth claims are claims about what I should will.

We can get out of (1) by denying (2) (with (3) then becoming moot) or by holding on to (2) but rejecting (3).

Anscombe denies (2), for reasons having nothing to do with mistakes of conscience. There is good precedent for denying (2), then.

I find the solution that denies (2) a bit murky, but I can kind of see how one would go about it. Oversimplifying, the intellect presents actions to the will on balance positively or negatively. This presentation does not make a truth claim. The polarity of the presentation by the intellect to the will should not be seen as a judgment that an action has a certain character, but simply as a certain way of presenting the judgment—with propathy or antipathy, one might say. Nonetheless there are norms of presentation built into the nature of the practical intellect. These norms are not truth norms, like the norms of the theoretical intellect, but are more like the norms of the functioning of the body’s thermal regulation system, which should warm up the body in some circumstances and cool it down in others, but does not make truth claims. There are actions that should be positively presented and actions that should be negatively presented. We can say that the actions that should be positively presented are right, but the practical intellect’s positive presentation of an action is not a presentation that the action is right, for that would be an odd circularity: to present ϕing positively would be to present ϕing as something that should be presented positively.

(In reality, the “on balance” positive and negative presentations typically have a thick richness to them, a richness corresponding “in flavor” to words like “courageous”, “pleasant”, etc. However, we need to be careful on this view not to think of the presentation corresponding “in flavor” to these words as constituting a truth claim that a certain concept applies. I am somewhat dubious whether this can all be worked out satisfactorily, and so I worry that the no-truth-claim picture of the practical intellect falls afoul of the thickness of the practical intellect’s deliverances.)

There is a second solution which, pace Anscombe, holds on to the idea that the practical intellect’s judgments are truth claims, but denies that they are claims about what I should will. Here is one way to develop this solution. There are times when an animal’s subsystem is functioning properly but it would be better if it did something else. For instance, when we are sick, our thermal regulation system raises our temperature in order to kill invading bacteria or viruses. But sometimes the best medical judgment will be that we will on the whole be better off not raising the temperature given a particular kind of invader, in which case we take fever-reducing medication. We have two norms here: a local norm of the thermal regulation system and a holistic norm of the organism.

Similarly, there are local norms of the will—to will what the intellect presents to it overall in a positive light, say. And there are local norms of the intellect—to present the truth or maybe that which the evidence points to as true. But there are holistic norms of the acting person (to borrow Wojtyla’s useful phrase), such as not to kill innocents. The practical intellect discerns these holistic norms, and presents them to the will. The intellect can err in its discernment. The will can fail to follow the intellect’s discernment.

The second solution is rather profligate with norms, having three different kinds of norms: norms of the will, norms of the intellect, and norms of the acting person, who comprises at least the will, the intellect and the body.

In a strong mistake of conscience, where we judge that we should ϕ but ϕing is forbidden, and we follow conscience and ϕ, here is what happens. The will rightly follows the intellect’s presentation by willing to ϕ. The acting person, however, goes wrong by ϕing. We genuinely have a mistake of the intellect: the intellect misrepresented what the acting person should do. The acting person went wrong, and did so simpliciter. However, the will did right, and so one is not to blame. We can say that in this case, the ϕing was wrong, but the willing to ϕ was right. And we can say how the pro-ϕing norm takes priority: the norm to will one’s ϕing is a norm of the will, so naturally it is what governs the will.

In a weak mistake of conscience, where we judge that it is permissible to ϕ but it’s not, again the solution is that under the circumstances it was permissible to will to ϕ, but not permissible to ϕ.

There is, however, a puzzle in connecting this story with failed actions. Consider either kind of mistake of conscience, and suppose I will to ϕ but I fail to ϕ due to some non-moral systemic failure. Maybe I will to press a forbidden button, but it turns out I am paralyzed. In that case, it seems that the only thing I did was willing to ϕ, and so we cannot say that I did anything wrong. I think there are two ways out of this. The first is to bite the bullet and say that this is just a case where I got lucky and did nothing wrong. The second is to say that my willing to ϕ can be seen as a trying to ϕ, and it is bad as an action of the acting person but not bad as an action of the will.


Mariel. C said...

Mr Pruss, this isn't related to the the post, but do you know something about the Existential Inertia objection? Lately Joe Schimid formulation has been popular. What are your thoughts on that?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm enough of four-dimensionalist that (a) existential inertia seems ridiculous, and (b) I am not particularly impressed with any special metaphysical need to explain persistence over time.

Time is like space, on four-dimensionalism. Given this, think about how absurd existential inertia would be in terms of space: it would mean that bodies naturally extend on all sides unless something stops them. Why would anybody think that?

But I think extending forwards in time is not very different metaphysically from extending in space. And so while I think one needs an explanation as to why we extend forwards in time as we do, that explanation need not be any metaphysically more difficult than the explanation of why we extend in space as we do.

Mariel. C said...

Do you consider that EI has a different view of what existence is, in comparison with the Thomistic 'esse'?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know.

KelâmM said...

Happy birthday Dr. Pruss, may God give a good life :)

Alexander R Pruss said...