Monday, May 17, 2021

Being a (counter)example

Consider a case where there is a spectrum of behaviors such that without considering influence on others A is bad, B is moderately good and C is the best. It seems likely (by analogies to the studies on political opinions hardening in the face of opposition) that sometimes when people see someone engaging in behavior radically different from theirs, this strengthens their commitment to their own behavior. Thus, someone who does A upon seeing someone do C might be hardened in doing A. One might easily think about the person doing C: “That behavior is really out there, and so only crazy people don’t do A”. On the other hand, seeing someone do B might actually shift one’s behavior away from A.

And so we can imagine a case where although C is best when one doesn’t consider influence on others, the difference between B and C is sufficiently narrow, that overall it is better to do B, because one is more likely to influence others for good by doing B rather than the “crazy” C.

On the other hand, no doubt there are cases where seeing the radicality of another’s behavior, and the contrast between that radicality and one’s behavior, could shake one up. Thus, when I was a teenager, I was converted from some of my sins upon reading Augustine’s Confessions and seeing the contrast between my sinful ways and the radical holiness that Augustine strove for. Had Augustine only striven for B in contrast to my A, I perhaps wouldn’t have been converted. But he strove for C, and that impressed me.

What’s the lesson? I don’t know. Maybe just this: Absent specific data about the likely influence of one’s actions in a particular case, maybe we do best to do what’s best without considering the influence.


Ibrahim Dagher said...

Personally, when I assess the ethical nature of an action X, I take it that part of the moral calculus includes consequentialist worries about how much influence on others X has.

This is at least an intuitive pull I have. So, I don't know how much sense it makes to say actions such as C are 'actually better' than actions like B: I would simply say B is better than C. What sense does it make to talk of actions as better than others absent certain *important* consequences, such as influence? One might as well say any bad action is good, *absent the very consideration that makes it bad*.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We do need to break up various aspects of the action and consider them separately for ease of moral evaluation.