Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Nonoverriding morality

Some philosophers think that sometimes norms other than moral norms—e.g., prudential norms or norms of the meaningfulness of life—take precedence over moral norms and make permissible actions that are morally impermissible. Let F-norms be such norms.

A view where F-norms always override moral norms does not seem plausible. In the case of prudential or meaningfulness, it would point to a fundamental selfishness in the normative constitution of the human being.

So the view has to be that sometimes F-norms take precedence over moral norms, but not always. There must thus be norms which are neither F-norms nor moral norms that decide whether F-norms or moral norms take precedence. We can call these “overall norms of combination”. And it is crucial to the view that the norms of combination themselves be neither F-norms nor moral norms.

But here is an oddity. Morality already combines F-considerations and first order paradigmatically moral considerations. Consider two actions:

  1. Sacrifice a slight amount of F-considerations for a great deal of good for one’s children.

  2. Sacrifice an enormous amount of F-considerations for a slight good for one’s children.

Morality says that (1) is obligatory but (2) is permitted. Thus, morality already weighs F and paradigmatically moral concerns and provides a combination verdict. In other words, there already are moral norms of combination. So the view would be that there are moral norms of combination and overall norms of combination, both of which take into account exactly the same first order considerations, but sometimes come to different conclusions because they weigh the very same first order considerations differently (e.g., in the case where a moderate amount of F-considerations needs to be sacrificed for a moderate amount of good for one’s children).

This view violates Ockham’s razor: Why would we have moral norms of combination if the overall norms of combination always override them anyway?

Moreover, the view has the following difficulty: It seems that the best way to define a type of norm (prudential, meaningfulness, moral, etc.) is in terms of the types of consideration that the norm is based on. But if the overall norms of combination take into account the very same types of consideration as the moral norms of combination, then this way of distinguishing the types of norms is no longer available.

Maybe there is a view on which the overall ones take into account not the first-order moral and F-considerations, but only the deliverances of the moral and F-norms of combination, but that seems needlessly complex.

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