Thursday, March 31, 2022

Deontology and the Spanish Inquisition

  1. If a person acts in a way that would be right if their relevant non-moral beliefs were correct, they are not subject to moral criticism for their action.

  2. If consequentialism or threshold deontology is correct, then inquisitors who tortured heretics for the good of the heretics’ souls acted in ways that would be right if the inquisitors’ relevant non-moral beliefs were correct.

  3. The torture of heretics is subject to moral criticism.

  4. So, neither consequentialism nor threshold deontology is correct.

Let me expand on 2. The inquisitors had the non-moral beliefs that heretics were bound for eternal misery, and that torturing the heretics had a significant chance of turning them to a path leading to eternal bliss and generally increasing the number of people receving eternal bliss and avoiding eternal misery. If these non-moral beliefs were correct, then the inquisitors would have been acting in a way that maximizes good consequences, and hence that would have been right if consequentialism is true. The same is true on threshold deontology. For while a threshold deontologist has deontic constraints on such things as torturing people for their beliefs, these constraints disappear once the stakes are high enough. And the stakes here are infinitely high: eternal bliss and eternal misery. Infinitely high had better be high enough!

Another way to put the argument is this: If consequentialism or threshold deontology is correct, then the only criticism we can make of the inquisitors is for their non-moral beliefs. And yet surely we should do more than that!

If we are to condemn the inquisitors on moral grounds, we need genuine absolute deontic prohibitions.


SMatthewStolte said...

Can’t we sometimes be subject to moral criticism for the ways we went about adopting non-moral beliefs? If I have a friend who suffers from an addiction, and I take him at his word that he hasn’t been using again, even though I have plenty of evidence that he is, I’d be morally blameworthy both for that non-moral belief and for some actions that this belief would rationally justify.

To save (1), you would need to say that I haven’t captured enough of the relevant non-moral beliefs when I just focused on the belief that my friend hasn’t been using again. So my actions would be subject to moral criticism because (for example) I believed that I found some hidden drug paraphernalia and thus should have known better.

But if the relevant moral beliefs don’t just include the beliefs close to the action under consideration but also all the beliefs that should function as evidence for beliefs close to the action, then I don’t think we can maintain the truth of (2). For surely there was evidence available to the inquisitors that rationally necessitates rejecting many of the things they believed about the likely effects of their actions.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think in your example, you might be morally criticizable for your belief but not for the resulting actions. For concreteness, suppose that the action is refraining from insistently recommending treatment. But now consider this: when you believe that your friend isn't using, insistently recommending treatment is a bad thing, something you should be morally criticized for. I guess you could say that in this case you would be criticizable both for insistently recommending treatment AND for refraining from doing so. But that seems wrong to me.

Furthermore, our judgment that the Inquisitors' actions actions are morally criticizable does not require us to have made a serious investigation of their epistemic position vis-a-vis the non-moral beliefs about the connections between heresy, torture, heaven and hell. I take it that few if any of us have made such a serious investigation, and yet we all think they are morally criticizable for their actions.

Tomasz M. said...

Wouldn't a consequentialist reject (1), arguing that acting according to false non-moral beliefs does not maximize good consequences? Similarly, a threshold deontologist would claim that a person acting in a way that would be right if her relevant non-moral belief were correct is not subject to moral criticism for her action IF her action does not produce enough bad effects.

Thus I think that (1) could not be used to reject consequentialism or threshold deontology.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Some consequentialists might say that, but I think a better thing for them to say would be that the action is wrong, but the person cannot be criticized morally for performing it.

Here's a standard kind of example. You have unconscious miners trapped in one of two tunnels. You don't know which tunnel. They have air for six hours. It takes five hours to clear the way to one of the tunnels. There is only enough manpower to clear the way to one tunnel. You know that miners spend 75% of their time in tunnel A and 25% in tunnel B. So you dig to tunnel A. Alas, when the collape happened, the miners were in tunnel B. The classic consequentialist will say you did the wrong thing by excavating tunnel A, but it would be implausible to say that you are to be criticized morally for doing that wrong thing. I think the classic consequentialist CAN consistently say: Excavating tunnel A was wrong, but you are not to be criticized morally for it.

Tomasz M. said...

I see. But that would be really an extremely hardened consequentialist ;-) I suppose that most would be rather inclined to tie the wrongness of an act with the blameworthiness of the agent, and would insist that an act is wrong only if it does not result in the greatest expected (as opposed to the actual) good.