Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Self-regarding moral reasons

Many contemporary ethicists believe that:

  1. Moral reasons are always other-regarding.

Add this very plausible premise:

  1. No action that is on balance supported by moral reasons is bad.

Suppose Alice is out of food on a desert island. She will die of starvation in a week. A malfunctioning robot shows up and offers her a deal (Alice verifies the robot’s buggy software to ensure it would follow-through on the deal). In exchange for her agreeing to be tortured horribly for the week of life that she has left, the robot will fly to the other side of the world, and tell a joke to a random stranger who will have a minute of enjoyment from the joke.

Clearly, Alice has a moral reason to go for the deal: it will brighten up a stranger’s day. By (1), accepting the deal is on balance supported by moral reasons, for the only relevant moral reason against the deal is the harm to Alice. Thus, the action is not bad by (2). But it is clearly a bad action.

I suppose one could reject (2), but it seems to me much better to reject (1), and to hold that prudence is a moral virtue, and if Alice takes the deal, she is morally failing by imprudence.


Ibrahim Dagher said...

Why think, though, that Alice's action is immoral? It seems the correct thing to say is that Alice's action is not obligatory, for her deciding not to torture herself for a week in order to provide a stranger with a minute of enjoyment is not by any means morally obligatory. I don't know, though, that it is correct to say Alice must refrain from the action, or that it is the morally correct thing to do. It is just non-obligatory. So, it is not a relevant counterexample to (1) & (2).

Michael Gonzalez said...

If God exists, then Alice could have an other-regarding reason not to take the deal.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I didn't say it was immoral, but it is defective, bad. She would be a practically stupid person to do it.