Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The right cannot be derived from the good

Consider the following thesis that both Kantians, utilitarians and New Natural Law thinkers will agree on:

  1. All facts about rightness and wrongness can be derived from descriptive facts, facts about non-rightness value, and a small number of fundamental abstract moral principles.

The restriction to non-rightness good and bad is to avoid triviality. By “rightness value” here, I mean only the value that an action or character has in virtue of its being right or wrong to the extent that it is.

I don’t have a good definition of “abstract moral principle”, but I want them to be highly general principles about moral agency such as “Choose the greater over the lesser good”, “Do not will the evil”, etc.

I think (1) is false.

Consider this:

  1. It is not wrong for the government to forcibly and non-punitively take 20% of your lifetime income, but it is wrong for the government to forcibly and non-punitively take one of your kidneys.

I don’t think we can derive (2) in accordance with the strictures in (1). If a kidney were a lot more valuable than 20% of lifetime income, we would have some hope of deriving (2) from descriptive facts, non-rightness value facts, and abstract moral principles, for we might have some abstract moral principle prohibiting the government from forcibly and non-punitively taking something above some value. But a kidney is not a lot more valuable than 20% of lifetime income. Indeed, if it would cost you 20% of your lifetime income to prevent the destruction of one of your kidneys, it need not be unreasonable for you to refuse to pay. Indeed, it seems that either 20% of lifetime income is incommensurable with a kidney, or in some cases it is more valuable than a kidney.

If loss of a kidney were to impact one’s autonomy significantly more than loss of 20% of your lifetime income, then again there would be some hope for a derivation of (2). But whether loss of a kidney is more of an autonomy impact than loss of 20% of income will differ from person to person.

One might suppose that among the small number of fundamental abstract moral principles one will have some principles about respect for bodily integrity. I doubt it, though. Respect for bodily integrity is an immensely complex area of ethics, and it is very unlikely that it can be encapsulated in a small number of abstract moral principles. Respect for bodily integrity differs in very complex ways depending on the body part and the nature of the relationship between the agent and the patient.

I think counterexamples to (1) can be multiplied.

I should note that the above argument fails against divine command theories. Divine command theorists will say that about rightness and wrongness are identified with descriptive facts about what God commands, and these facts can be very rich and hence include enough data to determine (2). For the argument against (1) to work, the “descriptive facts” have to be more like the facts of natural science than like facts about divine commands.


Apologetics Squared said...

I think Utilitarians might try to say something like, "If governments took kidneys, this would have a different psychological effect on society than if they took 20% of our income. Because of this accidental feature of our psychologies, it actually would be more harmful for them to take our kidneys, and look here I can show how this extra harm is unjustifiable via my abstract moral principles."

Heavenly Philosophy said...
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Heavenly Philosophy said...

What if someone responded to your stance by citing Matthew 22:34-40 and Galatians 5:14? It seems to indicate the moral law is built on a few, general, fundamental principles.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In _One Body_, I argue that love needs to be sensitive to the nature of the lover, the nature of the beloved and the nature of the particular kind of love. All three are complex.