Hello all.  It's my supreme pleasure to introduce our inaugural featured philosopher: Tom Hurka!  I'm especially pleased because Tom has agreed to do not one but TWO posts on his current thinking.  His first starts below the fold.  (Second to follow on Friday.)

Tom certainly needs no introduction, but just a cursory glance at his body of work shows that he's clearly one of the top moral philosophers of our time.  His work on value theory, including Perfectionism; Virtue, Vice, and Value; and The Best Things in Life have certainly influenced the thinking of countless Soupers and others, including myself.  I'm tempted to say a lot more, but I don't want to dilute his post with my blathering.  So, without further ado, I'm very happy to introduce our first featured philosopher, and one of my philosophical heroes: Tom Hurka.


“More Seriously Wrong”


like to raise some questions about a topic I’ve started to think about and
discuss with other philosophers. It may be that there’s already a literature on
the topic and I’m just repeating or ignoring points it’s made. If so, I’d be
grateful for references.

topic is the idea that among morally wrong acts some can be more seriously
wrong than others. I take it this idea is part of common-sense morality, which
thinks, for example, that cold-blooded murder is more seriously wrong than
breaking a trivial promise. And the idea has concrete manifestations. If one
act is more seriously wrong than another, you should feel more guilt after
doing it; if retributivism is true, you deserve a more severe punishment for
it. But how can an act be more seriously wrong? And if it can, what makes it

a sense of ‘wrong’ that doesn’t admit of degrees. Here an act is wrong just in
case it’s not permitted, and since any act either is permitted or is not,
there’s in this sense no more or less wrong. But any wrong act is made so by
certain properties it has, and if these wrong-making properties admit of
degrees – if some are more strongly wrong-making than others – this can provide
the materials for an account of “more seriously wrong.”

all theories of wrong-making do this. Consider the version of the first
formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative that says an act is wrong if the
attempt to universalize its maxim results in logical contradiction. (I think
this is called the “contradiction in conception” test.) Since contradictoriness
doesn’t admit of degrees – something either is contradictory or is not – any
two acts that come out wrong by this test, as I take it murder and
promise-breaking are both meant to, must be equally seriously wrong. I guess
that means capital punishment for promise-breaking. (I’m indebted here to Todd

other theories do allow degrees of wrong-making. The paradigm is Ross’s theory
of prima facie duties, each identifying a property of acts that tends to make
them right or wrong. To judge an act on balance we identify all its right- and
wrong-making properties, add up their respective weights, and then see on which
side the greatest weight lies. It’s assumed here that some right- or
wrong-making properties are weightier than others, i.e. do more to determine an
act’s final deontic status, and this allows an account of more serious
wrongness. But it can be constructed in different ways.

view says a wrong’s degree of seriousness depends on the absolute strength of
the prima facie duty or duties it violates, i.e. the ones you had a duty all
things considered to fulfil. This gives the right result about murder and
promise-breaking. The prima facie duty not to murder is very strong,
outweighing duties to promote even significant amounts of good. The duty to
keep a promise is much weaker, outweighing only duties to promote minor goods.
So murder comes out more seriously wrong than promise-breaking. Call this the absolute-strength view of the
seriousness of wrongs.

there’s an alternative. It says a wrong’s degree of seriousness depends on the
size of gap in strength between the prima facie duties it violates and the
prima facie duties, if any, it fulfils. That this gap view can have different implications is shown by a pair of
cases involving the duty of beneficence. In the first case you’re required to
produce 100 units of good and produce 90; in the second you’re required to
produce 20 and produce 5. On the absolute-strength view the wrong is more
serious in the first case, because the duty to produce 100 is stronger than the
duty to produce 20. But on the gap view your act is more seriously wrong in the
second case, because a shortfall of 15 is larger than a shortfall of 10. (I
assume for simplicity’s sake that the strength of the duty to produce an amount
of good is proportional to that amount.)

yet another possibility. In stating the gap view I assumed that what matters is
the absolute size of the gap between what you did and what you should have
done, but the gap can also be measured proportionally, so we see what
percentage of the strength of the duties you violated the duties you fulfilled
had. To see how this is different, consider a third case, where you’re required
to produce 10 units of good and produce 1. On the first version of the gap view
this is less seriously wrong than in the 20-5 case, because 9 is a smaller gap
than 15. But on the second version it’s more seriously wrong, because 1/10 is a
smaller proportion than 1/4. Call these the absolute-gap
and proportional-gap views.     

far we have three views about what determines how seriously wrong a wrong act
is: the absolute-strength, absolute-gap, and proportional-gap views. It may be
that the best account of “more seriously wrong” uses only one of these views,
though it could in principle be any of the three. The best account could also
use any two of them together, or even all three, and the resulting combined
views can then differ in how much weight they give their various components.
One can say a wrong’s degree of seriousness is determined mainly by
absolute-strength considerations with a small addition from absolute-gap and
none from proportional-gap. Another can say it depends primarily on the proportional
gap with a smaller contribution from absolute-gap and an even smaller one from

are further possibilities. So far I’ve considered only cases where you have one
required act and one wrong one. But what if in the first case there are several
acts that will produce the required 100 units of good? None of these is a duty
but each is right in the sense of being permitted, and what you’re required to
do is choose some one from among them. Or what if, as well as being able to produce
100 units of good, you can produce 99, 98, 97, or 96? Is your producing just 90
more seriously wrong in these cases, because there are more ways in which you
failed to do something better? Is missing more opportunities to fulfil a
stronger duty worse? (I owe this suggestion to Selim Berker.) If we think it
is, we can switch from what I’ll call one-time
to total versions of the above three
views. A one-time version of the absolute-strength view measures the absolute
strength of the one strongest duty you failed to fulfil; a total version adds
the strengths of all the duties you violated. A one-time absolute-gap view
measures the one gap between what you did and what you were required to do; a
total version adds a number of gaps, for example, between 90 and 100, 90 and
99, 90 and 98, and so on. (There are obvious difficulties here about how to
identify and count the better alternatives to a given wrong act. But I take it
the general idea that an act is more seriously wrong when you missed more
opportunities to do something better is clear.) If we add the difference
between one-time and total versions to the three views distinguished above and
their various combinations, there’s an even larger number of ways the
seriousness of a wrong could be determined.

not suggesting common sense has a clear view about which of these views is best
– its thinking about the topic is far too inchoate. But common sense does, I
think, believe that some acts are more seriously wrong than others, and if
that’s so, it should be possible to say something about what makes that the
case. Is one of the views I’ve distinguished more plausible than the rest?
Should they all figure in a combined view, and if so, what should their
respective weights be? Or is some view I haven’t mentioned even more plausible?
I don’t have clear views on these questions and am interested to read comments
from others.

a follow-up post I’ll ask whether there’s a parallel concept of a more
seriously or more importantly right act. Can we construct a notion that admits
of degrees for right as well as for wrong?


27 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Tom Hurka (Part 1)

  1. Tom,
    Can you say a bit more about the role you expect this idea to play or what you think may turn on it? You introduced it via the thought that it might justify feeling more guilty for a more serious wrong than a less serious wrong. But that doesn’t help me a lot since I think I’m capable of maxing out on guilt pretty easily (at least at a moment). I’m not disagreeing that common sense admits this sort of thought, I’m just wondering if you have more suggestions for a role it plays.

  2. Hi Tom (if I may),
    two points. I would, firstly, think that the most straightforward account of how actions could be more or less seriously wrong would be based on the idea that actions are wrong to the extent that they harm others (inflict different types of pain and suffering upon them, or harm their social status or reputation or whatever it might be). This view would then say that acts are more seriously wrong in proportion as they do more harm to others. (Perhaps you think that this sort of explanation of degrees in wrongness or in the seriousness of wrongness is subsumable under the ideas you mention about gaps above.)
    Second, as regards Kant I read Kant as not really associating blameworthiness and/or punish-worthiness with wrongness in the way that most of us would do. In his philosophy of law Kant does indeed talk about punishment for those that perform actions that are incompatible with the freedom of all under a universal set of laws. But in his virtue ethics – what I think would correspond to what most writers would think of as morality or ethics in general – Kant talks very little about what we should be blamed or held accountable for. So the idea that somebody like Kant would endorse equal moral sanctions for, say, promise-breaking and murder seems to not go together with Kant’s approach to “the doctrine of virtue”: he doesn’t think of it as centrally being about what we should hold people morally accountable for or what justifies moral sanctions. Kant’s substantive ethics seems to me on the whole to be much more about ways of governing oneself than about what to blame or hold others accountable for. The question in Kant’s case, therefore rather seems to be – if we are thinking about degrees in seriousness of wrongness – whether there are some things that require more strenuous efforts of self-control and self-government than others.

  3. Mark: Thanks for the comment. If you can max out on guilt at a time pretty easily then I’d say you’re either a very guilt-feeling guy or have a low guilt ceiling. More seriously, I would have thought most people can feel very differing degrees of guilt even at a time, and there’s also the issue of duration. If an act is very seriously wrong, you should feel guilt about it for a long time; if it’s just trivially wrong, you can get over it more quickly. But this was just meant to be one manifestation of a concept you agree is in common-sense morality, and if the concept is there, it’s worth asking how it might be more fully explicated.

  4. Sven: Thanks for commenting. I agree that in many cases how seriously wrong an act is is determined by how much harm it does, but I don’t think these can be all the cases. First, some acts are wrong because, though they don’t cause harm, they fail to provide benefits they should; my beneficence examples are like this. Second, surely some deontological failings are more seriously wrong than others, e.g. you can break a more serious or more binding promise, tell a black rather than a white lie, interfere more extensively with a person’s freedom (even though your act benefits him on balance), and more. And even when the seriousness of a wrong is determined by the harm it causes, can’t there be all the options I distinguished in the post, i.e. what can matter is the absolute amount of harm caused, the gap between the harm caused and what you should have done, etc.?
    The remark about capital punishment for promise-breaking was meant to be a joke. I hope we’re allowed to tell jokes about Kant.

  5. Hi Tom,
    Very interesting. Thanks. What about a fourth alternative: the Reasons View? Reasons have different weights and, hence, come in degrees. Thus, on the Reasons View, the wrong acts that are more seriously wrong (or more morally bad) are those that we have more (stronger/weightier) moral reason to refrain from performing. And we can assess the strength of the reason that we have to refrain from performing some wrong act in terms of how much it would take to justify it—converting it from an impermissible act into a permissible one. Thus, my murdering you is a much more serious moral wrong than my failing to keep my promise to meet you for lunch, for it would take a lot more to justify my murdering you than it would to justify my not meeting you for lunch. I could justifiably fail to keep my promise in order to save a child drowning in a shallow pond that I encounter on my way to meet you. But I cannot justifiably murder you even in order to save a child from drowning.
    Not only can we appeal to the Reasons View in order to account for why some morally wrong acts are morally worse than others, but also to account for why some morally permissible acts are morally better than others and, thus, supererogatory. If I’m obligated to spend my entire office hours, but not more time, helping one of my students, then staying beyond my office hours to help the student is supererogatory, because I have more moral reason to do so than to head home and relax after office hours are over. And spending two hours of my free time is morally better than spending only one hour of my free time helping the student, because I have more moral reason to do the former than to do the latter. It seems like this phenomenon is just the flip side of the phenomenon that you’re interested in and should probably get the same treatment.
    (to be continued in next comment…)

  6. (Here’s the rest. I had to break into two parts, because long comments get block by the spam filter.)
    Lastly, we can account for the phenomenon that you explain by appealing to total as opposed to one-time versions of your three suggestions by appealing instead to the fact that there are what I’ve called ‘imperfect reasons’. The fact that my X-ing is the only way to achieve some end E is a perfect reason for me to perform X, whereas the fact that my X-ing is one of many equally good ways of achieving E is an imperfect reason for me to perform X. Thus, if I have an imperfect duty of beneficence, and if this requires me to make over time significant sacrifices for the sake of promoting the good of others but doesn’t require that I help any particular individual on any particular occasion so long as I do a certain amount of good in the end, then I have an imperfect reason to promote the good of others. And so if I violate the duty of beneficence by failing to make any sacrifices for the sake of promoting others, then how morally bad this wrong-doing is is a function how strong of an imperfect reason I have to promote the good of others.
    Is this Reasons View equivalent to one of your three? If not, are there reasons for preferring some combination of your three to this view?

  7. Hi Tom,
    If I understand it correctly, I worry that the gap view(s) could give weird results. Take Andy, who owes Bob money and robs and kills Calvin to have enough to pay back Bob. Compare him with Phil who kills Rashid but not in order to pay off any debts. I think it would be odd to say that Andy’s murder of Calvin is less wrong than Frank’s murder of Rashid, but the gap, I take it, might be smaller in the former case.
    The oddness of that implication shows up, I think, when we think about whether Calvin’s family should temper their resentment of Andy when they discover that by killing their loved one he was able to pay off a personal debt. Even if I am right here (and understanding the gap view correctly), this might just show that the gap view should not be applied to cases in which a (absolutely) serious duty violation is coupled with a minor duty fulfillment.

  8. Thanks for the reply, Tom.
    I of course realized that the capital punishment-remark about old Kant was a joke. But since you seemed to be cashing out degrees of seriousness of wrongness in terms of how much guilt one should feel and (I was presuming) in terms of how much punishment or blame is warranted, I thought it was worth reflecting on whether the joke, so to speak, really gets at some fishy aspect of Kant’s view, or whether the whole discussion does not quite fit with Kant’s approach to ethics. (This is not to endorse Kant’s approach to ethics as some sort of self-control or self-government.)
    As for your second philosophical point above, a friend of the harm-view could, it seems to me, respond that whether something is a more serious instance of promise-breaking, of lying, or of interference with somebody’s freedom depends precisely on whether these do greater harm to the person on the receiving end. But discussing whether these instances of wrongful action are related to harms or not would probably take us too far away from the original subject.
    So I will instead just make a brief remark about the absolute harm and the gap between it and what somebody has a duty to refrain from doing. It seems to me that this is a possible way of thinking about degrees in the seriousness of wrongness, but that it is less straightforward than simply thinking in terms of how much harm people go around inflicting on others. A little in line with Mark’s first comment: why move to the more complicated way of thinking about these issues?

  9. Tom, your thoughts remind me of some work Robert Adams did on “moral horror” a while back. Adams (found it: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017849) defends a theological category of moral horror that involves violation of the sacred and wouldn’t have much application in your work. But I wonder whether you would entertain the idea that actions can be wrong in more than one way. Not just “wrong…seriously wrong…really, really, badly wrong,” but wrong in different ways. Cannibalism involves murder, but is that the only thing wrong with it? Is the extra something along the same dimension as the murder, or a different dimension altogether? I worry that focusing too much on thin evaluations encourages flattening and attenuating moral discourse…

  10. Hi Tom, thanks for the post. Thought provoking.
    There is a similar problem brewing in the responsibility literature (i.e. your old colleague Ish Haji’s new OUP book ‘Reason’s Debt to Freedom’ or Justin Capes 2012 PPQ piece ‘Blameworthiness Without Wrongdoing’).
    But before we can talk about degrees of wrongness we should get clear on what we mean by something being ‘wrong’. For me, wrongness is failing to meet an obligation. I don’t see how this can come in degrees. You either meet it or you don’t. Now, linguistically we sometimes say something is more or less wrong but what I think we are getting at is the harm being done. Acts are wrong or they’re right, the degrees talk, or so it seems to me, comes into play when discussing harm. One can be harmed more or less but the wrongness seems stagnant. Wrongness seems to be an act evaluation, the act is either wrong or right and the ‘wrong-maker’ seems as though it must be tied to axiology.

  11. I agree that this is a phenomena that all moral theories should be able to accommodate. I like Doug Portmore’s suggestion about reasons but that’s just because I tend to think of Ross’ Prima Facie duties in terms of reasons (as I think Philip Stratton-Lake does). And, with reasons, you can go for particularism too and yet have the same results of degrees of wrongness.
    Just few comments about other views:
    a) I take it consequentialists have an easy time accommodating this. All you need to think of is how far you are from the ideal option.
    b) Virtue ethics initially seems unable to cope with this if you think of wrong in terms of what a fully virtuous agent would characterically do. However, you might think of how much less virtue you would need to have in order to do the given act to get degrees of wrongness going.
    c) Contractualists too seem to be able to accommodate degrees of wrongness. Take the given act that is wrong and thus forbidden by the non-rejectable principles. You can then think of the principles that would allow this and how much more burdensome they would be if generally internalised. Same procedure seems to create degrees of wrongness for rule-consequentialists. You could think of how much worse consequences the principles that would allow the given wrong act would have.
    d) I’m more optimistic of Kantians able to deal with this. Here’s just few alternatives. Kantians think of wrong in terms of maxims that could not be consistently willed to be universal laws.
    Perhaps the wrongest possible act is the one for which there is no maxim whatsoever that could be consistently universalised. For many acts, there are some maxims that could be consistently willed and some that could not be. An act would then be more wrong the fewer maxims for it could be universalised.
    Another way to Kantianise degrees of wrongness would be to think of Korsgaard’s practical way of understanding contradictions in willing. On this view, contradictions in willing are based on the idea that you would be less effective in pursuing the end of your maxim in circumstances in which everyone shares your maxim. You might think that the less effective your maxim is for your ends in the circumstances of universal adoption of that maxim the more wrong your action is.
    Finally, based on Nomy Arpaly’s work, there are reasons to think of psychological consistency in a holistic way. You can think of any given desire how well many other desires it conflicts with and how many desires it coheres with. With this understanding of conflicting willing, you would also get degrees of conflictedness in the universalisation test.
    In any case, I agree that this is an interesting phenomenon but I am more optimistic that different theories can cope with it. And, you are right that they should do so.

  12. I’ve been thinking about this issue myself lately, although not nearly as systematically, especially since researchers are often using scales to measure moral judgments. A quick thought: I notice you almost always attach “seriously” in between “more” and “wrong.” This is interesting. Do have thoughts about what work it’s doing? For me, the phrase “more wrong” sounds odd (it sounds to me like “more illegal”). Yet adding “seriously” makes it at least somewhat better. Could this be adding something to wrongness to make it come in degrees? But in that case it might not be that wrongness itself comes in degrees.

  13. Doug:
    I like your reasons view, but I guess I don’t see how it’s different from the view I proposed. To me — and tell me if you disagree — talk of reasons and talk of prima facie duties/oughts other things equal/right-making tendencies are all equivalent, just different ways of expressing the same concept. But I prefer “duty” or “ought” talk because the multiple ambiguities of “reason” can cause so much confusion. I’m not saying this is present in what you say, but it’s all through recent moral philosophy. (This is also relevant to Jussi’s post.) And your method of assigning weights to reasons also looks the same as mine for right-making tendencies. Both are comparative, so reason/tendency A is stronger than B if A outweighs some C but B doesn’t. What you propose looks like just one of my views, the absolute-strength one, but otherwise it seems, at least to me, to be pretty much the same. More in a follow-up.

  14. Doug:
    I also like your suggestion about supererogation. Prolix as I am, I have a follow-up post coming in which I ask if there’s a parallel notion that admits of degrees for rightness. In the course of that I say, as you do, that there can be more or less supererogatory acts, with their degree determined like that of seriousness of wrong. So great minds think alike!
    But I don’t see how your imperfect reasons/duties help. Consider a pair of cases just at one time. In one I can give either myself 10 units of good or A 100 units; in the other I can give either myself 10 or one (but only one) of A, B, and C 100 units. If I have a duty to give at least 100 units, my duty, if I understand your definitions, is perfect in case 1 but imperfect in case 2. But, first, the two duties seem equally strong, i.e. my duty to give the 100 to A in case 1 is exactly as strong as my duty to give 100 to one of A, B, and C in case 2. But, on the view Selim Berker suggested, my giving myself the 10 in case 2 would be more seriously wrong, because there were more better acts I could have done. This isn’t just a matter of the strength of the duty, which is no greater, but of the number of options. And I don’t see how the imperfect duty helps in the other case I described, where I could give A 100, B 99 or C 98. In this case giving the 99 or 98 would be wrong, but on Selim’s suggestion giving the 10 to myself would again be more seriously wrong here, because there were more better options. They weren’t however, options covered by a duty, perfect or imperfect.

  15. Brad,
    Thanks, that’s a very interesting case and I’m not sure what to say. I like the gap view and so part of me wants to say yes, Andy’s act is less seriously wrong. But the gap here is so large that it would be misleading to focus on this small reduction in it. But another part of me shares your intuition, which points to the absolute-strength view.
    Another possibility is that seriousness of wrong is determined differently for violations of different duties. For beneficence the gap view looks very plausible, i.e. producing 99 units of good when you ought to produce 100 looks less seriously wrong than producing 10 when you ought to produce 100. Do you agree? But maybe for acts that violate deontological duties the absolute-strength view is better. That would make things more complicated!

  16. Sven,
    I’d resist the view that the seriousness of a wrong is always just a matter of how much harm it caused. Ross has a discussion of the strength of the duty to keep a promise, which he says turns partly on how much harm breaking the promise will cause and partly on how the promise was made, e.g. one made solemnly on a stack of Bibles is more binding than one made by a casual “Sure, I promise.” Your suggestion really implies that there’s only one duty, to avoid causing harm, and my pluralist heart resists that.

  17. Michael,
    You could take what I say as generating one scale of seriousness of wrong but leaving open the possibility that there are other scales. But don’t we have to compare items from the different scales, e.g. say whether cannibalism is or isn’t more seriously wrong than a murder that doesn’t involve eating? That to me implies that there really is just one scale.
    As for attenuating moral discourse, I’m afraid I’m a thin-concepts guy. Daniel Elstein and I had an article in CJP a couple of years ago arguing that the most influential argument against the reducibility of thick to thin moral concepts, due to John McDowell, assumes that any reduction will take the stupidest possible form; more sensible reductions aren’t touched by the argument. So I like my moral concepts thin and all the rich content a matter of substantive, not conceptual claims.

  18. Justin:
    In the post I tried to distinguish between wrongness, which doesn’t admit of degrees, and an associated but distinct concept of seriousness of wrong, which does. Or to ask whether, alongside the first concept, there’s one of the second kind. Is this so unusual? The concept of being at least 6 feet tall doesn’t admit of degrees; you either are or are not. But surely we can say one person is a lot more than 6 feet while another is just a little more.
    This is also relevant to Josh’s comment. The reason I use “seriously” is to recognize that in one, and perhaps the central, sense “wrong” doesn’t admit of degrees, and to signal that if there’s a related concept that does admit of degrees, it’s a different concept.
    Back to Justin: as in my reply to Sven, I would resist the idea that the concept that admits of degrees turns only on the harm done. Breaking a promise can be more seriously wrong not only because it will cause more harm but because of how the promise was made, e.g. more solemnly vs. more casually. And then the degree isn’t just a matter of axiology.

  19. Many thanks for this second reply, Tom.
    (Informal comment: the following sentence takes home the award for funniest comment in the discussion so far: “Ross has a discussion of the strength of the duty to keep a promise, which he says turns partly on how much harm breaking the promise will cause and partly on how the promise was made, e.g. one made solemnly on a stack of Bibles is more binding than one made by a casual ‘Sure, I promise.'”)

  20. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for the reply. I agree that talk of reasons and talk of prima facie duties are equivalent – “just different ways of expressing the same concept,” as you put it. However, I’m not sure that talk of reasons and talk of right/wrong-makers is equivalent. Take rule consequentialism. Being prohibited by the ideal code (the wrong-maker) doesn’t come in degrees. Thus, breaking a promise and committing murder are both equally prohibited by the ideal code. But a rule consequentialist could hold that the latter is more seriously wrong, because, not only is an act’s being prohibited by the ideal code a moral reason not to perform it, but also an act’s producing disvalue is a moral reason not to perform it and the more disvalue it produces the weightier the reason. So, on some views, there may be moral reasons against performing acts that don’t simply track the wrong-makers. Perhaps, Kant could make the same move in your example, saying that there is a moral reason not to violate someone’s autonomy (and that the more severe that infringement on autonomy the weightier the reason) in addition to a moral reason not to perform actions that fail the contradiction in conception test. So it seems to me that the Reasons View may be more theory-neutral than your suggestions.
    Another reason that I like the Reasons View is that some acts are more seriously irrational than others, and it seems that those that are more seriously irrational are those that have weightier reasons against them. So why not say the same thing with respect to act being more seriously immoral?
    Regarding the Selim Berker view, I misunderstood. I don’t find that view at plausible.

  21. Hi Tom,
    That makes a lot of sense, and I do lean towards thinking the gap view is counter-intuitive when it comes to deontological duties, or at least some of them.
    Here is another case I am less sure about, though: Jane should temper her resentment at Dan’s infidelity because by cheating on her he was able to get enough money to send their kids to good colleges. I find it intuitive to think she should temper her resentment a bit, but perhaps this is because his wronging her enables them to better fulfill their joint parental “duties”?
    This case also makes me wonder whether the views you mention should be complicated by facts about the agents’ intentions. Take cheating Dan. Perhaps Jane’s resentment should be tempered if he cheated in order (with the intention) to get the money and benefit their kids, but if he cheated just in order to enjoy some forbidden fruit and merely foresaw getting the money, she should not temper her anger.

  22. Jussi,
    Sorry to be slow answering your post. I agree that many moral views can account for the phenomenon. All that’s required is that, while wrongness doesn’t admit of degrees, the wrong-making properties do. And there can be many views about the wrong-making properties that satisfy that condition. I just thought it interesting that the view in Kant’s “contradiction in conception” test, though perhaps not in his “contradiction in the will test” doesn’t satisfy it.

  23. Doug:
    Let me try a couple of cases to motivate the view that the number of better alternatives affects the degree of seriousness of a wrong, the view Selim suggested to me.
    You’re hiring, and in case 1 decide two candidates, A and B, are above the threshold. You hire A but then 5 years later it turns out that B is much better.
    In case 2 you decide 5 candidates are above the threshold, A and B as before but also C, D, and E. You again hire A and discover 5 years later that B is much better and is in fact the best of the 5. But C, D, and E are also considerably better than A.
    While you may feel badly about your choice in case 1, don’t you feel worse in case 2? There you missed 4 opportunities to make a better hire, not just 1.
    I think I would feel worse in case 2, which suggests to me that the choice in case 2 was more seriously wrong, because, to put it a little technically, it involves a greater number of pairwise wrong choices.

  24. Brad:
    Another good point, about intentions or mental states more generally. On the one hand, I think it’s important to distinguish between guilt, which is an emotion directed at an act or choice as wrong, and shame, which can be for the motives you acted from even though your act was right. So I’d want to say your degree of guilt shouldn’t be affected by your motives. What about intentions? They’re certainly relevant to wrongness if something like the doctrine of double effect is true, but that doctrine concerns bad intentions, not good ones like the intention in your example of Dan. And I tend to think good intentions *aren’t* relevant to rightness. Does your term “resentment” maybe run together attitudes toward acts and attitudes toward motives/mental states?
    That said, another manifestation of seriousness of wrong is retributive punishment, and that does seem to be affected by mental states. You are and on most views should be punished for pre-meditated sadistic murder than for a spur-of-the-moment killing even if both violate the same prohibition of murder.
    A minimal claim is this: degree of seriousness of wrong is at least one factor bearing on the degree of guilt/resentment/punishment appropriate to a given wrong act, even if it’s not the only one. Other things equal, a more seriously wrong act calls for more guilt/resentment/punishment.

  25. Thanks to Tom for this very interesting post! I too am very interested in this issue and I’m very interested in seeing what other people think are the best ways of going here. (Sorry in advance for bombing this comment thread. I saw this thread late and it generated a lot of questions in my head.) Here goes:
    First, I may not be interpreting Tom correctly, but one thing his discussion here seems to be neutral between is the following two pictures:
    Picture 1: To say of a pair of acts, A and B, that A is more wrong than B is is to say that A has an amount of wrongness which is greater than the amount of wrongness B has.
    Picture 2: To say of a pair of acts, A and B, that A is more wrong than B is is to say that A and B both have the property of wrongness & that [insert here something comparative about the things in virtue of which they each have the property of wrongness]
    On Picture 1, wrongness, fundamentally, is a relation between acts and quantities. On Picture 2, wrongness is a monadic property. On both pictures that in virtue of which the property or the relation holds of a certain act is something degree-theoretic, but only on the first picture is wrongness itself, fundamentally, degree-theoretic.
    Here are a pair of analogies that might (perhaps only ‘might’) make the distinction between these pictures clearer.
    On picture 1, an act’s being wrong is like a particle’s being negatively charged. For the particle to be negatively charged just is for it to be negatively charged to some degree or other. The fundamental thing is the degree theoretic thing. A particle has the monadic property of “being negatively charged” (if there is any such property at all) only in virtue of its standing in the “having negative charge x” relation to some quantity or other. (Another parallel here: a thing’s having the property “having mass” is a property it has only in virtue of its standing in the “having mass x” relation to some quantity.)
    On picture 2, an act’s being wrong is like winning an election. There are bigger and smaller wins, but to say that X won bigger than Y did is not to say that there is a winning relation that one stands in to some quantity. Rather, it is to say that, though both X and Y have the monadic property “winning the election”, something else is true about the facts in virtue of which they each won, viz., X got more votes than Y (or X’s margin of victory was greater than Y’s was).
    As I say, I think Tom’s discussion is neutral as between these two pictures. (He does say that only views according to which the things in virtue of which acts are right or wrong admit of degree-theoretic treatment can accommodate degree of wrongness talk. But though that seems right, even if you do accept a theory that has it that the in-virtue-of base of rightness and wrongness is degree-theoretic, that still leaves the choice between picture 1 and picture 2 open.) I only ask because, I believe, given some correspondence I’ve had with Doug in the past, I think he’s partial to picture 2 (degree of wrongness talk is just elliptical for talk about the in-virtue-of stuff). I wonder whether Tom is thinking more along the lines of picture 1, picture 2, or whether, at this stage, for him it doesn’t really matter. (Or is there some third picture that I’ve missed?)
    (Also, I’ve been assuming we’d want to capture wrongness cardinally and not merely ordinally—for surely we want to make sense not only of talk of A’s killing B being more wrong than either A’s punching B or A’s pinching B, but also of the degree to which A’s killing B is more wrong than A’s pinching B being greater than the degree to which it is more wrong than A’s punching B.)
    Now you might think that there isn’t much that hangs on the choice between these two pictures. That may be right, but I’m not sure. I do think there are degrees of wrongness. And I appeal to it in some places to try to argue for certain views I favor. I may be wrong, but I think my arguments need something like picture 1; and I’m partial to it independently.
    Here’s another reason why the choice between pictures 1 and 2 might be important, however. If there is the kind of asymmetry between rightness and wrongness—that though there are degrees of wrongness, there are no degrees of rightness—that Tom mentions in his second post (and to put my cards on the table, it seems to me that there is this asymmetry—while the following does seem (at least to me) a perfectly ordinary thing to say, “what each of you did was wrong, but what you did was more wrong than what he did”, the following is absolutely bizarre to me, “what each of you did was right, but what you did was more right than what he did” (also, for what it’s worth, I don’t think “more wrong” is any more awkward than is “more good”, but I don’t think anyone wants do deny that goodness comes in degrees)), then if we accept picture 1, we have good reason to think that wrongness is more fundamental than rightness. Why? Well, presumably we want to hold onto the conceptual truth that
    – An act A is wrong iff it is not right.
    Given this conceptual truth, there is theoretical pressure to conceptually reduce either rightness to wrongness, wrongness to rightness, or both to some third concept. (“Reasons-people” presumably want to reduce both of them to reasons talk, but I find that I get lost too quickly when things devolve into reasons talk and so I’d prefer not to do that. (Note: I suspect that anyone who makes appeal to the distinction between “requiring” and “non-requiring” reasons can’t carry out this reduction (Why? Because the “requiring”/”non-requiring” distinction implicitly makes appeal to the very kinds of notions that are supposedly being reduced to reasons).)) And it’s absolutely straightforward how to go about reducing monadic “is-right” talk in terms of the wrong-to-degree-x relation—A is right iff A stands in the wrong-to-degree-x relation to zero. There is no way of reducing “wrong-to-degree-x” talk in terms of monadic “is-right” talk, however.
    Second, if I’m not mistaken, Tom’s discussion involved only cross-situational comparisons of wrongness. But these are not the only kinds of wrongness comparisons that we make. We also make intra-situational wrongness comparisons. In one and the same situation, I may have 5 different options (o1-o5), and we’ll sometimes want to say that though o2, o3, o4, and o5 are all wrong, o3 is more wrong than any of the others, and that o4 is more wrong than either of o2 and o5, each of which is equally wrong to the other. Now my concern is that it’s not at all clear to me how we’ll integrate our theory of cross-situational comparative wrongness claims and intra-situational comparative wrongness claims. Presumably, it’d be better to have one unified treatment (am I really referring to two different relations when I make a cross-situational wrongness comparison and when I make an intra-situational wrongness comparison?). But to get a unified treatment we’ll need to make sure that whatever account of “more wrong” talk we go in for (1) it can apply both intra-situationally and cross-situationally, and (2) it’ll preserve the very general conceptual requirements that any degree-theoretic account of wrongness will have to preserve (that it is transitive, antisymmetric, etc.) both within and across situations. I bring this up because it isn’t clear how to apply all of the views Tom offers as candidates to the intra-situational case. Take the absolute-strength view and a case in which I have an obligation to produce 100 units of good and one of my options is to produce 90 units and one is to produce 30 units. Presumably the second option is more wrong than the first, but on the absolute-strength view they’re both equally wrong. (On second thought, maybe it is clear how to apply this view in this case; it’s just that it is completely implausible in the intra-situational case.)
    One final point, and here I’m just pointing out the obvious, I think: In investigating this issue we’re going to have to make some important conceptual choices early on and the choices we make are going to very significantly affect how we go about giving an account of degrees of wrongness (especially if we want a unified account of cross-situational and intra-situational degree-of-wrongness claims). Take Ross, for instance. On one way of reading Ross, in the following situation
    Option 1 – do nothing
    Option 2 – save A from drowning
    Option 3 – save A and B from drowning
    Option 4 – save A, B, and C from drowning
    none of my options is prima facie wrong at all (none has any wrong-making properties). It’s just that some of them are more prima facie right than others and it is virtue of that that some of the options are wrong, and some are more wrong than others. (Ross says: “The more correct answer would be that the ground of the actual rightness of the act is that, of all acts possible for the agent in the circumstances, it is that whose prima facie rightness in the respects in which it is prima facie right most outweighs its prima facie wrongness in the respects in which it is prima facie wrong.”) Another way to go would be to say that some of these options are prima facie wrong in virtue of facts about other of my options. (I don’t think this is how Ross would have understood the matter, but it is another way of going.) But the kinds of decision we make with respect to this will affect how we go about giving degree-theoretic account of wrongness we end up going for. We’ll certainly have to make some decision or other on this, and in doing so we have to be careful to avoid double-counting kinds of concerns. (Similar issues arise for a reasons-based account: is it the case that Options 1 – 4 are all such that I have some reason to perform them and no reasons not to perform them and the wrongness of the options is going to depend on the comparisons of the amounts of reasons I have for the different ones OR is it the case that I have some reasons for and against each of options 1-3? Again, we’ll have to make some choices here and we’ll have to make those choices keeping in mind not to engage in any double-counting.)
    Again, sorry for this massive comment.

  26. Pete,
    Thanks for this. I gave some explanation of what I had in mind in my first answer to Dave Sobel in the second thread, and I think it’s your view 2. Thus wrong-making properties admit of degrees, wrongness doesn’t, but we can introduce a third property, seriousness of wrongness, which does admit of degrees and is constructed somehow from the first properties but requires that something have the second property, the one which doesn’t admit of degrees. The three are like tall (which admits of degrees), taller than 6 feet (which doesn’t), and a lot/a little taller than 6 feet, which admits of degrees but involves a concept that doesn’t.
    So I think that’s a version of your view 2. What I was trying to suggest that’s original is that there are several different ways of constructing the third property from the first, i.e. the absolute-level, absolute-gap, and proportional gap, all in either one-time or total versions.

  27. I’m new to this field, so please bear with me and let me know if I have it all wrong.
    Concerning the example Brad gave: “Take Andy, who owes Bob money and robs and kills Calvin to have enough to pay back Bob. Compare him with Phil who kills Rashid but not in order to pay off any debts. I think it would be odd to say that Andy’s murder of Calvin is less wrong than Frank’s murder of Rashid, but the gap, I take it, might be smaller in the former case.”
    In this example, you have two actions: Andy murders Calvin, and Andy pays back Bob. Paying back doesn’t result in a gap. The murder of Calvin results in the same gap as the murder of Rashid by Frank. So in my opinion, there shouldn’t be any difference between the murder of Calvin and the murder of Rashid.
    Am I too quick in assuming that you can’t just “balance” actions towards difference persons and see if a gap results? This would also solve the objection Brad stated about the gap theory.
    I have to admit that I have trouble applying these theories when the persons involved value the actions differently.

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