Monday, December 12, 2022

More on non-moral and moral norms

People often talk of moral norms as overriding. The paradigm kind of case seems to be like this:

  1. You are N-forbidden to ϕ but morally required to ϕ,

where “N” is some norm like that of prudence or etiquette. In this case, the moral requirement of ϕing overrides the N-prohibition on ϕing. Thus, you might be rude to make a point of justice or sacrifice your life for the sake of justice.

But if there are cases like (1), there will surely also be cases where the moral considerations in favor of ϕing do not rise to the level of a requirement, but are sufficient to override the N-prohibition. In those cases, presumably:

  1. You are N-forbidden to ϕ but morally permitted to ϕ.

Cases of supererogation look like that: you are morally permitted to do something contrary to prudential norms, but not required to do so.

So far so good. Moral norms can override non-moral norms in two ways: by creating a moral requirement contrary to the non-moral norms or by creating a moral permission contrary to the non-moral norms.

But now consider this. What happens if the moral considerations are at an even lower level, a level insufficient to override the N-prohibition? (E.g., what if to save someone’s finger you would need to sacrifice your arm?) Then, it seems:

  1. You are N-forbidden to ϕ and not morally permitted to ϕ.

But this would be quite interesting. It would imply that in the absence of sufficient moral considerations in favor of ϕing, an N-prohibition would automatically generate a moral prohibition. But this means that the real normative upshot in all three cases is given by morality, and the N-norms aren’t actually doing any independent normative work. This suggests strongly that on such a picture, we should take the N-norms to be simply a species of moral norms.

However, there is another story possible. Perhaps in the case where the moral considerations are at too low a level to override the N-prohibition, we can still have moral permission to ϕ, but that permission no longer overrides the N-prohibition. On this story, there are two kinds of cases, in both of which we have moral permission, but in one case the moral permission comes along with sufficiently strong moral considerations to override the N-prohibition, while in the other it does not. On this story, moral requirement always overrides non-moral reasons; but whether moral considerations override non-moral considerations depends on the relative strengths of the two sets of considerations.

Still, consider this. The judgment whether moral considerations override the non-moral ones seems to be an eminently moral judgment. It is the person with moral virtue who is best suited to figuring out whether such overriding happens. But what happens if morality says that the moral considerations do not override the N-prohibition? Is that not a case of morality giving its endorsement to the N-prohibition, so that the N-prohibition would rise to the level of a moral prohibition as well? But if so, then that pushes us back to the previous story where it is reasonable to take N-considerations to be subsumed into moral considerations.

I don’t want to say that all norms are moral norms. But it may well be that all norms governing the functioning of the will are moral norms.

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