Hi all,

Tom Hurka is back for a second helping of Soup!  His post is below the fold.


“More Importantly Right”


my first post I asked whether we can make sense of the idea that some acts are
more seriously wrong than others. I suggested we can if the properties that
make acts wrong admit of degrees, though there are different ways of doing so.
We can say a wrong’s degree of seriousness depends on the absolute strength of
the prima facie duties it violates, or on the size of the gap between those
duties and the ones, if any, it fulfils, where this gap can be measured in
either absolute or proportional terms.

now turn to a different topic: whether there is or can be a parallel idea
whereby some right acts are more seriously or importantly right than others.

may well think there can’t, so rightness and wrongness differ in this respect.
For one thing, many of the manifestations of more serious wrongness don’t seem
present here. You deserve more severe punishment for a more seriously wrong
act, but don’t deserve any reward at all for acting rightly – that’s expected
rather than something specially commendable. And whereas you should feel more
guilt after committing a more serious wrong, it can be argued that there’s no
feeling that’s appropriate after acting rightly, or if there is, it’s the same
mild satisfaction for all right acts.

Tenenbaum suggested to me that you should feel more satisfaction if you acted
rightly in the face of greater temptation, but we should distinguish between
attitudes to acts as right or wrong and attitudes to the motives behind them.
Thus guilt, which is about acting wrongly, differs from shame, which can be
about your motives. (You can only feel guilt about something you could have
avoided, but can feel shame about something outside your control.) I think that
in Sergio’s example what you feel satisfied about is that your desire to do
what’s right was strong enough to overcome the temptation, so your object is
your motivation rather than the rightness of your act.

may be, then, that there’s no rightness-concept that admits of degrees, and
Shelly Kagan suggested an elegant theory that explains why. An act is right so
long as it meets some standard, which it either does or does not. But an act is
wrong if it falls short of the standard, which it can do either more or less. And
an act can also exceed the standard, as it does if it’s supererogatory, and it
can do that more or less. So in the middle there’s a concept of rightness that
in no form admits of degrees, while below and above it are concepts of
wrongness and supererogation with forms that do. And an act’s degree of
supererogatoriness can be determined in the same ways as its degree of
wrongness: by looking at the absolute strength of the prima facie duty it
fulfils, or the size of the gap, either absolutely or proportionally, between
that duty and the weaker prima facie one you were required to fulfil.

I’m not 100% certain this is right. First, the materials that allow a concept
of more serious wrongness are also present for rightness, i.e., any right act
has properties that make it so, and some right-making properties are more
strongly right-making than others, such as saving 100 people vs. saving 2.
Second, I think there are some
concrete manifestations of more important rightness.

recently attended a history/political science conference (it happened to be
about the 1963-68 Canadian government of Lester Pearson). One speaker quoted an
apparently well-known poli sci view as saying that in evaluating a political
leader the main question to ask is, was he right about the major issue of his
day? He’ll have been right on some issues and wrong on others, but was he right
about the most important one he faced? (The speaker thought for Pearson this
was Canadian national unity; for George W. Bush it was presumably Iraq.)

sounded right to me, and led me to think that a retired political leader
looking back on his career should care most about how he handled his biggest
issues and feel most satisfaction if got them, rather than any smaller ones,
right. This looks similar to feeling most guilt about your most seriously wrong
acts. And we may also give him something like rewards for getting his biggest
issues right; you can get the Nobel Peace Prize for making large contributions
to peace but not for small ones no matter how well judged. Which all suggests
the presence of a concept of something like more important rightness.

concept can be specified in ways that again parallel more serious wrongness. A
right act can be more importantly right because the prima facie duties it
fulfils are in absolute terms stronger, or because the gap between them and the
duties fulfilled by some alternative is larger, i.e., because being right in
this situation made a bigger difference. There are, however, some distinctive
difficulties here.

it can’t be all absolutely strong prima facie duties that make for more
important rightness. The duty not to kill – even more so, the duty not to
commit genocide – is in absolute terms very strong, yet fulfilling it isn’t
something you should feel great satisfaction about or for which you deserve a
big reward. Maybe only the duties to promote good and prevent evil, or those
plus a few others, are such that weightier instances of them make for more
significantly right acts. And there’s a further difficulty about any kind of
gap measurement. In the case of more serious wrongness, we compare the wrong
act you did with just one alternative: the act or disjunction of acts you had a
duty to do, or the moral standard you were required to meet. But here there are
several possible alternatives to the right act: the least seriously wrong act
you could have done instead, the wrong act you were most likely to do (but then
does your act score higher if you were tempted by something worse?), the wrong
act most people would do, and perhaps others. Which one of these should we use
to determine the relevant gap? I don’t know how to answer this question or how
a gap view could be applied to more important rightness.

if there is a concept of that type, it seems less important morally than that
of more serious wrongness. It’s less clearly present in common-sense morality,
which talks less about it, as are its manifestations. Even if it’s fitting to
feel more satisfaction about more important right choices, it’s not as fitting
as feeling more guilt about more seriously wrong ones. And rewarding right acts
is surely something common sense cares less about than about punishing wrongs.

may be that, taking everything together, there isn’t a coherent or useful concept
of more important rightness. If so, that makes for an interesting asymmetry
with wrongness, where there is a useful concept that admits of degrees.
(Actually, if Shelly is right there isn’t an asymmetry, since including
supererogation makes for an overall symmetrical view.) But I’m not sure. Part
of me thinks that just as George W. Bush should be especially troubled that he
made bad choices about Iraq, Lester Pearson should be especially pleased that
he made good ones about Canadian unity. And that suggests that those decisions
were, though not more right, more importantly right than many other right ones
he made.


21 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Tom Hurka (Part 2)

  1. Hi again Tom,
    another interesting post. A question: is it important for you that acts be more importantly right as opposed to simply being, say, more praiseworthy or more worthy of encouragement? My thought is that perhaps we think it is a little funny to say that some action is more importantly right than other available actions, but that there is nothing funny about thinking that one action is worthy of more praise and encouragement than others. And so the question is if this gives us all we need – or whether saying that some action is also more importantly right adds something that is not already captured in the idea of certain actions (or policies etc.) being more worthy encouragement and praise than others.

  2. Hi Tom,
    How about this:
    An act is more importantly right insofar as performing it comes at greater personal cost (or risks greater personal cost).
    Personal cost could be spelled out in terms of well-being, projects, those plus near and dear, or what have you.
    On this view, telling the truth when lying would get me ahead is more importantly right than telling the truth when I benefit by so doing. And that seems right to me!

  3. Hi
    We might think that the more important a decision the more effort one should make (e.g. more time spent deliberating, more evidence sought etc) to ensure that one makes the correct decision. Obviously how much effort one should expend on decision is also proportional to how difficult the decision is: some important decisions are relatively easy.
    We tend to praise as ‘importantly right’ decisions which are difficult to get right, and which the person made on good grounds (i.e. he was not simply lucky to get the decision right) as well as making a significant difference to others and the world.
    Would I be right in thinking consequentialists don’t have any problem with the notion of ‘more importantly right’, because for them the most important decisions are simply those for which the difference between the worst consequences your choice may have and the best consequences, is greatest? And according to them one should apportion one’s limited deliberative resources in such a way that one maximises the overall good (or whatever the consequentialist in question seeks to maximise).

  4. Perhaps one reason to believe in degrees of rightness or wrongness is that this is needed to explain what is right or wrong in other cases. So, it is wrong to take my tennis racket without my permission but it is more wrong to take my kidney without my permission. And that difference helps explain what is permissible in other cases. If you need to borrow my racket to ward off a deadly attacker you may do so. But you may not take kidney even if doing so is needed to save a life. The difference in the degree of rightness/wrongness between X and Y can help explain why X + Z is right and Y + Z is not. Or so I in effect argued in a recent paper.

  5. Sven,
    Thanks for that question, and it’s certainly important to distinguish judgements about “more importantly right,” if there are such, from other judgements like ones about praiseworthiness. My thought is this. How praiseworthy an act is depends on several factors. One is how importantly right the act is. Some of the others concern your mental state, e.g. how strong the temptation was to do something wrong (this relates to Brad’s point about personal cost), how hard epistemically it was to figure out what is right, and perhaps more. This parallels the case for “more blameworthy” or “more deserving of punishment,” which would likewise turn both on how seriously wrong your act was and facts about your mental state, e.g. how big or small was the gain that led you to do wrong, were you malicious vs. negligent, and so on. So the idea is that “more importantly wrong” is different from “more praiseworthy” because it’s only one of several factors that bears on “more praiseworthy.”

  6. Brad,
    Your suggestion looks like the one of Sergio’s I discussed in the post, since more personal cost seems to me to equal greater temptation to do wrong. And while I agree that you deserve more praise when the right act involved more personal cost, I think that’s because your motive was better, and while motive is one factor that bears on praiseworthiness, I think of degree of importance of wrong as a separate one.
    Think of a political case. One of the big decisions of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s term was not to participate in the Iraq War. This didn’t have any personal cost for him; as things turned out, it benefited him. But don’t we praise him more for being right in that decision than for being right about some minor judicial appointment? Political decisions sometimes don’t involve much cost for a politician at all — e.g. they involve foreign affairs, which voters don’t care about. But can’t they be more importantly right, if they concern a more important issue?

  7. Dan,
    Yes, consequentialists have an easy time with “more importantly right,” as they do with “more seriously wrong,” though as I suggested in my first post there are different ways of determining this, e.g. how much good in absolute terms did the act produce, how big was the gap between it and some other act, etc.? I guess one thing I’ve been doing is generalizing the ideas by suggesting how they can figure in non-consequentialist views too.
    I agree that the more important a decision the more time you should spend on it, and the harder the decision epistemically the more praise you deserve for getting it right. In my reply to Sven I suggested this last point, about praise for getting an especially difficult decision right. But I don’t think those are the only factors.
    Imagine a politician who has to make a hugely important foreign-policy decision quickly, so he can’t spend much time on it. And imagine that the decision isn’t harder than deciding between two very equally qualified candidates for a minor judicial appointments. But his right decision results in preventing a war and saving tens of thousands of lives. I think he deserves more praise for getting the faster, easier decision right, and I think the reason is that more was at stake, i.e. his decision was more importantly right.

  8. Dave,
    Thanks for the comment. I guess I’m trying to distinguish three pairs of concepts. One is of the right- and wrong-making properties, which certainly admit of degrees. Thus you can benefit another more or less, break a more or less serious promise, and so on. Then there are rightness and wrongness simpliciter, which don’t admit of degrees — an act either is right/wrong or it isn’t. And then there’s the additional pair of more seriously wrong/more importantly right, which is meant to be different from the other two. It’s distinct from the first, because it concerns the act as a whole rather than some one aspect of it. (An act can have several right- and several wrong-making properties at the same time, but its being e.g. more seriously wrong involves its overall moral character, and if it’s more seriously wrong it’s not right at all.)
    I guess what I don’t see in your examples is how they don’t involve just right- or wrong-making properties, rather than overall concept I’m trying to discuss. Thus being a taking of your tennis racket is a weak wrong-making property, while being a taking of your kidney is a strong one. That’s why the first is outweighed by the potential benefit of saving a life while the second isn’t. But what I see here is just wrong-making properties, rather than my third type.
    Could this analogy help? If we think of height first there’s the concept of how tall someone is, e.g. 6’3″, 5’6″, etc., which admits of degrees. Then there’s the concept of being at least 6′ tall, which doesn’t admit of degrees. Then there’s the concept of being a lot vs. a little more than 6′ tall, which does admit of degrees but is different from the first concept. I’m trying to discuss a concept analaogous to the third, whereas what I think is needed to make your judgements is a concept analogous to the first.

  9. Thanks Tom, that is helpful. It seems to me that we can make the act as a whole that we are evaluating be the taking of the racket (perhaps just because you admire it and want to play tennis with it). Let’s say that when we take that as our whole to be evaluated we decide it is wrong. Similar things go for taking a kidney, evaluated as a whole, (where you again take it merely out of curiosity). Then we can move on and evaluate what we once took as a whole to be part of a larger whole. When we consider the pair of (borrow racket to save an innocent life) and (take kidney to save an innocent life) let’s say we get the judgment that the former is permissible but the latter is not. We could, I guess, just say that all of these assessments of wholes are completely independent of each other and in no way compositional. I do not doubt that there are some organic unities like that. But I was thinking that in a lot of cases the judgment we reach of the larger whole can be seen as somewhat compositional from the judgments we reach on the smaller wholes. Roughly, “that act of taking a racket is less wrong than taking the organ, so it is easier to make the former permissible if we understand it as being the means to a significant good.” At a minimum, I don’t think I am confusing your first and third set of concepts in saying this. Perhaps you will think I am confusing your second and third set, but I don’t myself see that yet.

  10. Many thanks for the reply, Tom. It definitely further clarifies what you are after in talking about things’ being more importantly right as opposed to, or perhaps in addition to, being more praiseworthy. I wonder, however, if more importantly right could not simply be cashed out in terms of actions being more worthy of encouragement, where this is then in turn explained in terms of which actions (or policies) do more to protect and promote the basic moral end or ends. (That’s what I would say, I think, about the idea of actions/policies being more importantly right if I were forced or otherwise prompted to analyze that idea, but I suspect that you would say that whereas that is one way to go, it is a little too consequentialist in nature.)

  11. Dave,
    I’m having trouble following your talk of wholes. You first say taking the racket just because you want to play tennis with it is a whole. Then you say we can consider that as part of a larger whole in which you take the racket in order to save an innocent life. But if you’re taking the racket *just* because you want to play with it, you can’t be taking it in order to save a life, can you? So how can the first whole be part of the second? I’m afraid I’m not following.
    By “wholes” I meant concrete particular acts though counting all rather than just some of their morally relevant properties. And I guess what I’m seeing in your examples — and correct me if I’m just being thick — are right-/wrong-making properties from my first pair of concepts, i.e. taking a racket without permission (mildly wrong-making), taking a kidney without permission (very strongly wrong-making), getting to play tennis as you want (barely if at all right-making), saving a life (fairly but not very strongly right-making).
    And I’m not assuming any organic unities, just the (possibly false) view that the overall rightness/wrongness of an act is determined by summing its prima facie/rightnesses/wrongnesses. So I’m absolutely seeing compositionality.

  12. Sven,
    I think you’re suggesting a consequentialist account of “more importantly wrong,” which could go along with consequentialist accounts of other concepts like duty, blame, etc.
    Rightly or wrongly, I was trying to give an account of the concept that isn’t tied to any specific moral theory, and in particular not to consequentialism. In the earlier thread Jussi suggested the account could go with many different moral theories, and I take that to be a virtue.

  13. Tom,
    You wrote: “But if you’re taking the racket *just* because you want to play with it, you can’t be taking it in order to save a life, can you? So how can the first whole be part of the second? ”
    That is right so I will need to think about whether I can re-formulate my thought without making that mistake. Thanks!

  14. Hi Tom,
    I can see the similarity but I meant for it to go beyond temptation cases.
    I am thinking that if a hero of virtue does the right thing at great personal cost and without temptation, that act is just as right as a similar act performed by someone who is only continent; regardless of whether one is tempted or not, it is “harder” to do right acts that come at personal cost so they are more importantly right.
    I agree that absolute duty strength, or something like that, might also be part of the equation. So in your Jean Chretien case I can agree that not entering the war is more importantly right than some minor right decision. I would just add that even in the war case it would be even more importantly right if there were serious personal cost involved. I think this case is actually a bit confusing because it is unclear whether we should build in personal cost or “personal” cost to the nation. I guess I am inclined to say that when judging politicians we should probably take into account both.
    So if Jean Chretien had said no to entering the war and this was both bad for him politically and costly for Canada that would be a harder and therefore a more importantly right choice. And that would be true regardless of whether he had been tempted or not.
    Not sure that is right, but it was the idea that came to mind!

  15. How about if we say that the first act is a taking of a tennis racket with the subjective motive of just using it to play. Then the second act is that same act but now understood as in fact the means to the saving of a life (unbeknownst to, or in any case motivationally irrelevant to, the actor). It seems sane to say that that the former act is objectively wrong (say it fails to maximize, for example) and the latter act is objectively right. Seemingly now the first assessed act is a proper subset of the second assessed act as the second act is the same act but with an additional causal upshot. And if so, then that hole in my case would be fixed.

  16. Brad,
    That’s an interesting suggestion, and I’ll have to think about it. In a way it’s grist for my mill, because the main line I’m pursuing is that, once you start to think about it, there are different ways more seriously wrong/more importantly right could be characterized.
    But I find your suggestion puzzling in one respect. If cost to the agent is a morally relevant factor, as I think it is, then the greater the cost the smaller the gap between the prima facie rightness of the right act and that of the alternative in which you avoid the cost. But that means that the gap view — which, admittedly, you didn’t like in some wrongness cases — should say an act is *less* importantly right the greater the cost to the agent.

  17. Dave,
    That clarifies the example, but I’m still not seeing why what’s doing the work in generating the different judgements — taking the racket for a selfish reason is wrong when it won’t save a life, right when it will — isn’t just the right- and wrong-making properties of my first concept-pair.
    Maybe I’m just bad at a connecting the parts of an argument that’s spread over more than one blog post!

  18. It can be trickier to tell over the internet when pursuing a line of thought switches from wanted feedback to badgering. But hoping I am still on the former side, I was thinking the following sort of situation needs some explanation. The situation is where we have an act A and an act B which are both wrong. We add to A some causal upshot, perhaps, that is clearly morally good, perhaps the saving of an innocent life. Let’s call this new act to be assessed A+. We add the same sort of good causal upshot to B, creating B+. We aim to have this added feature be as symmetrical as possible. In the sort of situations I am interested in A+ is morally permissible and B+ is not. Offhand that seems to call for explanation. One possible explanation is that there are organic unities involved. But another explanation, and sometimes I would think the best, would be that A was less wrong than B and that is why adding the good causal upshot to it makes it ok but adding it to B does not make it ok.

  19. Dave:
    There is no badgering on the internet!
    But I’m still not seeing why your case involves more than concepts from my first pair, the right- and wrong-making properties.
    So we have the taking of a tennis racket (a somewhat wrong-making property) and the taking of a kidney (a massively wrong-making property). If the consequence of each is just the gratification of curiosity both acts are all things considered wrong. Now add to each the saving of an innocent life, a seriously right-making property. Since that’s enough to outweigh the somewhat wrong-making property of taking a tennis racket, the first act is now all things considered right, but since it’s not enough to outweigh the massively wrong-making property of taking a kidney, the second act is still all-things-considered wrong.
    I take it that fits what you want to say, but I’ve only spoken of wrong-making properties (= Rossian prima facie duties) and *not* of seriousness of all-things-considered wrong, which my initial post was about. Ross, for one, never discusses that seriousness concept, and some people in the earlier thread wanted to reject it, by arguing that no all-things-considered concept admits of degrees. That’s a possible position, and allows what I said in the previous paragraph about why taking a racket to save a life can be permissible while taking a kidney to do so may not be. So as I see it the “more seriously wrong” concept isn’t needed to yield the results you want in your cases. It’s more relevant to questions about how much guilt you should feel after acting wrongly, how much you should be punished, etc.

  20. Hi Tom,
    That worry makes sense and I am not sure my worry about the gap view transfers over to the case of right actions. I will have to think about it.

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