Consider the following case:

Immanuel concludes that he must never lie – not even to save a life. Then a would-be-murderer shows up, asking after Gotlieb’s whereabouts. Immanuel, though quite tormented, lies to save Gotlieb. Immanuel believes he did wrong, but feels guiltily relieved, as he cares about human lives at least as much as you and I do, weird views about morality not withstanding. That is why he lied in the first place.

In the past, I have argued that someone like Immanuel – the sort of agent I labeled an Inverse Akratic many years ago – is praiseworthy for her action in so far as it is true that she acted for good moral reasons, even if she doesn’t think they are good moral reasons. In other words, in so far as she is motivated by the right-making features of her action. I emphasized the following: a good person acts for praise-conferring motives, but a good person does not have to have a true ethical theory or even be a good ethicist. To be praiseworthy for an action you need to do it for the sake of the right or the good – de re. I thus defended, among others, Huckleberry Finn and some rather kind young people who espouse Ayn Rand’s views. Here is one question that I get a lot:

“Ok, it’s praiseworthy to follow morality de re. But doesn’t one also get at least some moral credit for caring about morality de dicto? Not even a little bit?”. Relatedly, I get “isn’t Immanuel’s conscience also a good thing about him?”

 My answer to the second question is: yes, a modestly good thing (I’ll get there in a moment). However, my answer to the first question is: no. We can’t have it both ways. If caring about the right de re confers praiseworthiness then caring about the right de dicto doesn’t.

An analogy: suppose that to have good taste in novels you have to like good novels for their good-making features. Imagine someone who likes Redeeming Love. Why? Because it’s good, she says. What makes it good? It has a heartwarming Christian message and it expresses strong emotions.Isn't that what makes books good? This person has terrible taste (and if she likes Crime and Punishment for the same reasons, it doesn’t speak well of her taste either). Consider an Ayn Rand fan motivated to close a ruthless business deal. Why? Because it’s moral, he says. What makes it moral? It promotes the agent’s self interest.Isn't that what makes things moral? I think the moral case is analogous to the aesthetic case. This person is not well-motivated. If she saves a life for the same reason, it does not speak well of her.

Why does it often seem as if the very action of deliberating about the question “what is the right thing to do?” speaks well of the agent?

Immanuel deserves some kind of moral credit for what prompted his moral deliberation: roughly, caring about truthfulness, a consideration relevant to morality for real. Huck is more complicated: he is tormented by concern for Miss Watson’s imaginary rights over her slave. But this misguided torment is indicative of concern for real property rights. Unlike those whose motivation to return a slave was anger at the “uppity” slave, Huck is confused because he was told that helping a slave escape is stealing and he is averse to stealing – in itself a good thing. People who ask themselves “what is the right thing to do?” often start asking and deliberating because something morally relevant (for real) bothers them. They wonder, say, whether to tell someone his spouse is cheating – displaying concern for both truthfulness and another person’s wellbeing. They wonder whether they may have an abortion – because they treat killing seriously. All of these concerns are morally relevant and praiseworthiness-conferring. There is no value to moral fetishism (to use Michael Smith's term) –  but a real live moral fetishist is hard to find.

The less a person’s act of deliberating on the question “what is the right thing to do?” comes from morally relevant concerns, the less praiseworthy it is. Consider again the case of Gwendolyn, tempted to secretly lose her virginity with the man she promised to marry in two months. She asks herself “would it be morally wrong?” and thus torments herself. Why? Because having such sex might be slutty. Concern with not being a slut does not speak particularly well of anyone. Gwendolyn is a borderline case of moral deliberation. A person who suspects he is vicious simply because he lacks wit, say, isn’t concerned with morality anymore (or, in the case of Aristotle, isn’t concerned with morality yet). Wit is just too far removed from the right-making features of actions and the good-making features of people. Some people have metaethical reasons to object to my view here.

Still working. Contemplating the relationship between this and infamous moral ignorance cases. Would love to hear from you.

14 Replies to “Moral Concern De Dicto (Again)

  1. Interesting questions, as usual! I find your specific examples convincing, and feel the temptation to agree that de dicto concern with rightness is no good and no ground for merit.
    But I am not convinced, because I think there can be something good about de dicto concern with rightness, when the relevant notion of rightness is spelled out in an appealing, substantive way. Take Scanlon, who explicilty holds that rightness is a reason for doing what one should, over and above what you would call the right making features. His view is not a view about rightness understood in just any old way however, and it is unclear how your examples would bear on his view.
    Take your Randian. It is hard to imagine that the Randian is really de dicto concerned with moral rightness of the sort that Scanlon elucidates. His thought is about morality, but he does not think (roughly) that others have sufficient reason to reasonably reject and feel indignant about his unselfish actions because they are unselfish. And he is not thinking that one must act selfishly to achieve relations of mutual recognition.
    Of course Scanlon does not claim to be analyzing the concept of (narrow) morality or moral rightness, so he can allow that the Randian is still thinking his actions are moral because they are self-interested. The Randian, I imagine Scanlon saying, has a bad conception of morality; one we should reject in favor of his contractualist conception.
    This leaves me wondering why you don’t think that acting out of de dicto concern for Scanlonian rightness is a ground of merit. It seems to me that it might well be, even though I am no Kantian Contractualist myself.
    Imagine here somone who tries to figure out whether her actions can pass the Scanlonian test, with a special focus on my potential objections. She does this out of respect for my alleged rational dignity and out of a desire to share a reation of mutual recognition with me. But she is very bad at imaginig my point of view, due to a lack of empathy. She bungles her assessment of how I could reasonably object and treats me in ways that are in fact bad and morally wrong on Scanlon’s view. It seems to me that there is still something to be said for her trying to do right by me in the specific Contractualist sense. Her concern with moral rightness, as Scanlon understands it, may be admirable, or at least a redeeming feature of her make up, even when it goes astray…much as you hold that Huck’s concern with proprty rights may be admirable or redeeming even when it goes astray.
    So I am left thinking that I should admire the fetishes of my Kantian friends even though I think their views are philosophically problematic and rationally optional in ways they do not. Do you disagree? Or are you not aiming to target views like Scanlon’s?

  2. Hi Brad,
    Your friend’s motive – “respect for my alleged rational dignity and […] a desire to share a relation of mutual recognition with me” – is not concern for morality de dicto and does not have to be accompanied by concern for morality de dicto (though it can be). It is equivalent to concern for utility or for respecting persons. One can be motivated by a desire to maximize utility without thinking that it’s a particularly moral desire and one can be motivated by a desire to share a relation of mutual recognition with a fellow creature with rational dignity without thinking it has anything to do with morality, either. In other words, I don’t think Scanlon’s view of morality is metaethical, even if he thinks it is. I think it’s a normative view like Kantianism or utilitarianism. There is no “morality in the Scanlonian sense” except in the way in which there is “morality in the utilitarian sense” or “the Kantian sense”.
    If Scanlon’s view is true than anyone who is concerned with imagining point of view of a fellow rational being etc is concerned with morality de re. You say you are not a contractualist, so presumably you think Scanlon’s view is false. However, you don’t think it is a crazy, way-out-there view, either. Unlike avoiding sluttiness, which is not in fact a morally relevant consideration (even if some people think it is), giving another person’s point of view the same weight as one gives one’s own surely is a morally relevant consideration – even if it is not the be all end all of morality. I don’t know what your own view is – sorry about that! – but if you are a common sense moralist you probably respect something like the Golden Rule as part of morality, if you are Neo-Aristotelian you think justice is a virtue, and even if you are an act-utilitarian you emphasize that one person’s utility never counts more than another person’s utility – in short, there is some overlap, however small, between your view of morality de re and your Scanlonian friend’s view: you are both concerned, say, with avoiding a certain type of treating one’s self as more important than other people. It is this (or similar) concern, rather then concern for morality de dicto, that you admire in your Scanlonian friend, even if you think he or she ends up with a distorted version of it.

  3. Thanks for the excellent post, Nomy! Your take on Immanuel and Huck sounds spot on, and I’m really intrigued by your points about thick properties. But I wonder if you might be selling short some cases of moderate “fetishism” (“mere moral kinkiness?”) involving cooperation.
    In the cases I have in mind, the agent is epistemically cut off from the reasons why X-ing is right, but in hopes of doing the right thing (de dicto) Xs anyway. In at least a few instances, it’s pretty clear that the agent does deserve some credit, in a way that you haven’t acknowledged. But these might not be too troubling for your view, since the relevant kind of credit might not be the sort you’re concerned with–the sort that’s supposed to evaporate as one’s deliberation drifts away from the morally relevant features.
    Case 1: Fernanda, who’s too young to understand why X-ing is right, is informed by her parents that she should X. She obliges–not to get praise from her parents, but simply because she trusts her parents’ judgment that X is the right thing to do. (After all, they turned out to be right about Y-ing and Z-ing.)
    Case 2: Scott has been making lots of well-intentioned moral blunders lately. In the moment of action, after taking stock of all the relevant features of his situation, Y-ing seemed obviously wrong, but upon reflection Scott realized that there wasn’t actually anything counting against it and lots counting in favor. He sincerely and appropriately regrets not X-ing. (The same for recent tragic instances of not V-ing and not Z-ing.) So, as Scott decides whether to X, he ignores his intuition that X-ing would be wrong and instead listens to his reliable friend Ernie’s advice to X.
    In this sort of case (and others involving (appropriate) obedience, respect, etc.), I do get the sense that the agent deserves at least a little credit. But I don’t think it’s the right kind of credit to make trouble for your view, since (here comes the conjecture) these agents aren’t making their decisions all by themselves. The source of moral understanding here is located elsewhere (in the advice of family, friends). In trusting the external source, the agent (perhaps) cedes some of her agency to it. So the agent doesn’t get full credit for exercising good moral agency, but she does get credit for being a good moral accomplice. And I think you can acknowledge that without giving up anything essential about your view on fetishism–though note that, while the agent who does the right thing for the right reasons gets more credit than mere accomplices, she doesn’t get the credit that comes with being a good accomplice.

  4. Hi Daniel, thanks for your kind words and the great idea of “moral kinkiness”. Far be it from me to claim that I can solve the problem of moral expertise- certainly not in one post (I have been to a whole conference on the subject, though I was in a medication-induced fog through all of it).
    On to the cases.
    Fernanda: I am a bit confused. You say she is too young to know why X-ing is good, but when you explain why she does what her parents told her you cite the fact that “after all, they were right about Y-ing and Z-ing”. But if she is too young to know why X-ing is good, how does she know that her parents turned out to be right about Y-ing and Z-ing? She can’t judge that unless she has some idea of what makes things right. Did you mean to describe her as having such an idea or not?
    Let’s start from the possibility of “not”. If her reason for action is simply “mom said I should” (without a background story about mom’s proven moral acumen), then she is not X-ing for a moral reason, her X-ing does not have moral worth and she is probably too small to have real virtue. This is not to say that when an adult acts for a moral reason her action is somehow less praiseworthy if it turned out that her responsiveness to moral reasons was somehow instilled in her by her parents (I think there are a lot of things that we first do to please our parents that we end up desiring intrinsically).
    The other possibility is that Fernanda does respond to moral reasons as a rule. Perhaps she is not that little, after all. Perhaps she is just relatively inexperienced in life, and needs the advice because X-ing is an action which concerns some complex situation and it’s hard to see its right-making features (or lack thereof) if one has not accumulated some experience with suchlike situations. This scenario is similar to Scott’s. Let’s look at Scott.
    Scott: does not know whether to X, and, of all the many people he can ask for advice, chooses Ernie because the latter is “reliable”. Why does Scott consider him reliable?
    As per Sartre, a person’s choice of advisor is significant. A related issue in this case would be the reasons for which Scott regretted his past actions. Let us suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that genuine moral reasons are, roughly, reasons of fairness and benevolence. Did Scott regret his past actions because he found that they led to injustice or misery in ways that his intuitions did not predict? Does Scott call Ernie “reliable” because of his stellar record of Solomonic fairness-related decisions and/or success in contributing to the wellbeing of his fellow creatures? If yes to both, Scott gets some genuine credit for consulting Ernie.
    If, on the other hand, Scott chooses Ernie because Ernie is his priest in the Church of Satan or his mentor in the KKK, surely he does not get credit for being Ernie’s “accomplice”. If anything, his choice can count against him. If Scott’s reason for X-ing is simply “because Ernie said it was right” – no background story about Ernie’s credentials – then, since he is not a child, I’ll be glad to call him “morally kinky”. His X-ing has no moral worth, as “Ernie said so” is not a moral reason. He might be blameworthy for abdicating his adult responsibilities to join a personality cult, and vulnerable to the famous criticism “and if Ernie told you to jump off the roof, would you jump?”. If Ernie is using some kind of cult mind-control on Scott maybe he is not thus blameworthy.
    That’s my guess as to how my view should handle your cases as you describe them. Even if it is successful, there are ways to make the cases harder. I’d happily discuss them but I am trying to avoid paper-length posts….

  5. Hi Nomy,
    Thanks! That clears up your view a lot and I can now see why you say just about no one is a fetishist in your sense. Thought you were targeting traditional Kantian ideas about the value of acting from duty, etc., but I can see how you aren’t because of your meta-ethical views.

  6. Brad, I wonder what my metaethical views are…. Do you know?
    I have a problem with the Kantian motive of duty ONLY if it is interpreted to amount to, or require, believing that your action is right. It is quite often interpreted this way (as is Aristotle’s “for the sake of the noble” motive). I have nothing against the motive of duty if it is interpreted as, say, a kind of respect for persons or a will to follow only universalizable maxims.

  7. Hi Nomy,
    This is a very interesting and thought-provoking post. But I’m not sure what your argument for this claim is supposed to be:
    “We can’t have it both ways. If caring about the right de re confers praiseworthiness then caring about the right de dicto doesn’t.”
    If I understand you rightly, you claim that in cases where a person has good moral judgment, her concern for right-making features of action makes her decision praiseworthy. And in cases where a person has bad moral judgment (e.g. Gwendolyn), there is nothing praiseworthy about her concern for the features of action she regards as right-making. What I don’t understand is how this is supposed to establish the point that we can’t have it both ways, and praise _both_ de re and de dicto concern for morality. All the above can be accepted, while also saying that there’s _something_ praiseworthy about Gwendolyn’s concerns, namely that she is concerned to do the morally right thing, understood de dicto.
    The cases of Fernando and Scott raised by Daniel Muñoz could be bolstered by stipulating that each of them firmly believes moral particularism to be true. That way, when they consult their advisors, we can only understand them as doing so because they believe that their advisors are reliable at picking out right-making features, understood de dicto. And this seems like a praiseworthy concern to have (at least in circumstances where their only reasonable option is to consult such an advisor).

  8. Hi Simon,
    Thanks! This is very thought-provoking.
    Let’s start with the particularists who decide to follow a moral advisor. I don’t think they are a problem for me. Particularists, too, have to choose their advisor, and don’t regard all advisors are equal, but rather, no doubt, go for the advisor who is good at responding to moral reasons – even if this means responding to holistic configurations of reasons. That, too can be done well or badly. In Daniel’s example of Scott, it is said explicitly that the advisor is chosen for his good track record at coming up with right actions. He is not chosen merely for always doing what he regards as right – while I don’t think we all do, it is perfectly possible that Scott, in his much-regretted past, always did what he regarded as right as well, and he doesn’t need an advisor for that. Ernie the moral expert is chosen for picking up the actual right – the right de re.
    The other issue is more complicated.
    You are right that there is no -conceptual- impossibility in the view that both moral concern de dicto and moral concern de re confer praiseworthiness. I was going too fast there. What I do think is that there is tension in such a view. If moral concern de re is praiseworthy then there are a few challenges for the person who espouses the view that de dicto moral concern is praiseworthy.
    Here are three thoughts – the longest one first.
    Ordinary arguing in favor of the view that de dicto moral concern is praiseworthy even when it takes the form of so-called (I remember the expression from a Tom Hill article) goes through the premise that moral ignorance functions the same way as factual ignorance. Gwendolyn’s moral concern, which results from a worry about being a slut, has a lot wrong with it. For one, it implies disrespect for women – and only women- who are not chaste. There are, of course, worse types of moral concern – consider a soldier who believes it is his duty to his country to pillage and rape, say (I am going to skip Nazis for the moment – as I have posted in response to Richard Arneson, I think they are complicated). Why should I believe there is anything praiseworthy about a devotion to female chastity, never mind to pillaging and raping, just because they are desired under the mistaken description “the right thing”? The way to get there is through the “good intentions” model of the wrongfully dutiful agent. In other words, the pillager/rapist who believes that he is doing the right thing is analogous to someone who, with good intentions, gives me what he thinks is vitamin C but is in fact poison. Even if she is blameworthy because should have checked the label on the box more closely (which isn’t always the case), her (modicum of) good will shines like a jewel.
    This view is incompatible with Huck Finn (or Immanuel or other Inverse Akratics and people who practice better than they preach) being praiseworthy. If moral ignorance is like factual ignorance then Huck Finn, who does what he believes to be wrong, is analogous to a person who gives you what she believes to be poison, even though in fact it is vitamin C. Thus he cannot be praiseworthy and there are plausible grounds for suspecting he is blameworthy (Michael Zimmerman bites this bullet). In short, if the pillaging soldier is well-intentioned, Huck is ill-intentioned. On the other hand, if moral ignorance is different from ordinary ignorance, my interlocutor has to find some other way to explain what is good about the wrongfully dutiful agent.
    Second thought: the right action can be desired or willed under many descriptions. Imagine for a moment that Mill’s moral theory is right. In this case, the right action can be desired or willed as: “promoting pleasure”, “the action of which JS Mill would approve” or “increasing neural activity in the X part of the brains of humans (Tim Schroeder isn’t here to tell me what part). Some of these desires or willings are praiseworthy, some are not. It is not praiseworthy for an alien who does not know anything about pleasure to care about promoting activity in the X part of the brains of humans, and it is “morally kinky”, as Daniel put it, to desire (de dicto) to do what JS Mill would approve of). Why is the description “the right thing” one of the praiseworthiness-conferring ones? I am not saying my interlocutor has no answer but she needs to give me one?
    One last thought: basically, the aesthetic analogy again. It is good taste to love good books because of their good-making features, and not good taste to love good books because you think they are good or because of what you regard as their good-making feature. A view that went “to have good taste you need to either love good books because of their good-making features or because of what you think are their good-making features” is not incoherent, but it is rather awkwardly disjunctive, putting Nabokov lovers and Danielle Steel lovers side by side……

  9. Hi Nomy! Thanks a lot for your really interesting post, which I find very persuasive. I particularly like the analogy to the aesthetic case, which I think does a really nice job of illustrating how de dicto concern doesn’t in general count as having the right sort of praiseworthy sensitivity. Apologies for the excessively long comment to follow…
    I was also wondering about how cases of moral deference (of the sort Daniel Muñoz raised) might complicate the story. I’m very inclined to agree with your reaction to these cases as well. Is this a fair way of putting your view? Many cases where deference looks appropriate/praiseworthy – cases where the deferring agent is in a position to recognize the appropriate “expert” to defer to, because she can recognize a good moral track-record when she sees one – might be better understood as cases of deference to the expert about which action has the relevant right-making properties (the ones that have made for right actions in the past)? If that’s right, then these cases of deference look less like actions done from a purely de dicto concern for morality. Other cases of moral deference don’t look so praiseworthy, because just doing something because the person you take to be an expert said so, when you’re in no position to assess that person’s moral track record (because of your own moral ignorance), isn’t praiseworthy, even when you do it out of a desire to do the right thing, de dicto (and even when you end up doing the right thing). As you put it, “because Ernie said it was right” is not, in these cases, a right-making reason. So maybe there are no cases that look both like cases of justified deference and like cases of purely de dicto concern?
    But I’m wondering whether there are (as you said you suspected) trickier cases. I’m inclined to think there are, but also inclined to think these cases don’t pose a problem for your general thesis that morally praiseworthy action is action done for right-making reasons. This is because it seems to me that testimony from reliable and recognizable experts (in both the non-moral and the moral case) can sometimes be a right-making reason. Some cases to help motivate that thought:
    (1) The fact that Adam’s generally reliable doctor, with a known good track-record, tells him to give his sick child some medication makes it right for Adam to give the child that medication. That is, his doctor’s testimony can be a right-making reason. Adam will, if his doctor says this is the only medication that will cure the child, be obligated to give it the medication even if in fact the doctor made a mistake. Of course, “that my doctor said so” is not a fundamental or even a non-instrumental right-making reason – it’s a reason to give the medication that derives from a more fundamental reason to do what is most (subjectively) likely to promote the child’s health. This is just to suggest that expert testimony can sometimes be a right-making reason of sorts.
    (2) Let’s say Bert thinks that literary aesthetic value is an important value, and Bert wants to promote it, but knows himself to be literary-value-blind. He’s tried to read the great classic novels, but he just can’t get through them, and much prefers reading Danielle Steel or Dan Brown. What’s more, the “great” novels all strike him as boring and wordy and confusing, even though he trusts the consensus view that they are much more than that, so he doesn’t trust himself to distinguish great literature from literature that really is just boring and wordy and confusing. Now Bert’s been put in charge of awarding a fellowship to a promising young novelist, and all the candidates’ work looks indiscriminately boring and wordy to him. But he wants to get the decision right – after all, he does think promoting literary value is important, and he regrets his poor literary taste. So Bert defers entirely to his advisory board, made up of prominent literary critics and former Booker Prize winners. It seems like Bert’s motivated by a concern for literary value de re, and that Bert gets at least some “literary concern” credit for that. It also seems to me that in a case like this, the fact that Bert’s advisory board recommended a certain candidate makes that candidate the right person for Bert to choose, in the sense that he gets most literary-aesthetic credit for choosing that candidate, even if in fact his advisory board advises him badly in this case.
    (3) Very artificial but clean moral deference case: We’re in some sort of whimsical despot scenario: Celia has to push the left button or the right one, with dramatic, but hidden-from-her consequences to follow. Her generally morally-reliable friend (let’s say she’s Celia’s moral peer, and Celia knows this) is allowed to advise her as to which button to push, but isn’t allowed to tell her anything more about what will happen if she pushes each button. The friend tells her “pushing the left button is the right thing to do”. It seems to me that if Celia pushes the left button because Celia says it’s the right thing to do, she acts praiseworthily, and she acts out of de dicto moral concern, but she also acts for a right-making reason – in fact, she does the morally right/obligatory thing – the thing the morally sensitive person would do in her situation – even if her friend in this case gives her bad advice (what makes her act (subjectively) right is that her generally reliable friend told her it was the (objectively) right thing to do. (Maybe you’d want to say Celia acts from de re sensitivity if, for example, she assumes, on the basis of her friend’s advice, that pushing the left button minimizes pain. But this may not be the case, since morality is probably more complicated than a simple utilitarian theory would have it, and since Celia might not be a very sophisticated moral theorist, and so not have any opinion on what it is that makes her friend think pushing the left button is the right thing to do.)
    (4) A less artificial but less clean moral deference case: Daniel has to make a moral decision that will benefit Person A and harm Person B. Unfortunately, he has a strong bias against Person B (for reasons unrelated to B’s deservingness). So he asks his friend, whose judgment he trusts (and whose moral instincts are generally in line with his own) how he would decide, and follows that advice. We can imagine that Daniel knows all the relevant non-moral facts, and which way they weigh morally, but he doesn’t trust himself to balance the considerations correctly. So it seem to me that he isn’t deferring about what the right-making reason are, but rather what the right thing to do is. He knows which actions have which non-moral properties, and maybe also which has which think moral properties, but he doesn’t know what’s right, and wants to do what’s right, de dicto. This may be a case of praiseworthy action motivated by concern for what’s right de dicto, but it again seems to me a case where (given his unavoidable bias) Daniel’s choice is made right by the friend’s advice – that what the morally-sensitive person in Daniel’s situation would do is act on the friend’s advice. So the friend’s advice seems to me in this case to be a right-making reason.

  10. Thanks for the detailed, thoughtful reply, Nomy! A lot of great stuff is going on in this thread, so let me just add one more case, and then one comment about the normativity of advice.
    (3*) Delia is told by her known moral peer that pushing the left button is morally right and pushing the right button is morally wrong. Other than this, she has no clue as to the consequences of her decision. Delia ignores the advice and pushes the right-side button for no particular reason. She just feels like it.
    I don’t think anyone wants to say that Delia’s action is morally neutral; she’s clearly blameworthy. But what could explain this other than her lack of de dicto moral concern? (She should have been morally kinkier!) There is another possible explanation–that she lacks concern for the right-making features that have to be there for pushing the left button to be right (e.g., the causing of pain). If that explanation works, then we’re back to morality de re.
    Well, does it work? One problem is that it seems superfluous. We can add to (3*) so that the explanation doesn’t apply but the agent still deserves blame: suppose that Delia doesn’t infer from the act’s rightness to the nature of its rightmakers. This will be permissible if Delia is permissibly unaware of the structure of moral concepts–and it’s definitely permissible if particularism is true! In this new case, Delia is still blameworthy, but it can’t be because of her lack of concern for the things that matters de re; she’s blamelessly out of touch with them.
    On to Julia’s post:
    On a standard view of advice, advice isn’t normative in the same way that commands are. While some commands have the capacity to obligate, advice can only inform–it can illuminate, but not add to, the normative forces that bind an agent.
    Julia’s comments on (3) seem to me to undermine this view. If you get needed advice from a source you know to be reliable, that generates a reason. This is a weird sort of reason, because it evaporates once you’re fully informed. Still, we have plenty of reason to admit that it’s there. Celia clearly acts wrongly in (3*), and not just “subjectively” wrongly. She does the wrong thing in the ordinary sense of “wrong.” (Not to be confused with Parfit’s “ordinary” sense of “wrong.”) So, since wrongness typically needs a wrongmaking reason, why not say that the peer’s advice is the reason?
    One final thought: moral advice–advice about what’s right and wrong de dicto–doesn’t give reasons of the ordinary sort. These reasons evaporate when the agent is fully informed. They don’t seem to count in favor of actions in the same way that de re, objective, fact-relative reasons do, and (perhaps for that reason) they don’t add up well. After a while, it’s superfluous to seek more advice, but it’s generally not superfluous to promote more pleasure. I wonder if good advice is an essentially subjective favorer. “That some reliable sources told me it was right” really does favor doing it–but only when your ignorance compels you to rely on them.
    Anyway, sorry for taking this so far from your original points, Nomy, and thanks again for sharing your ideas!

  11. Julia, Daniel,
    I think you are both overlooking the Sartrean point – the point that under normal circumstances, an earnest, half-way reasonable choice of advisor on a moral matter already betrays a substantial ethical view on part of the chooser. Beyond some relevant nonmoral considerations such as intelligence, whom you crown an expert – who “your hero” is – or even whom you admit as a peer in terms of virtue or moral knowledge – depends legitimately on some substantial normative ethical views on your part. By choosing, as many people would, to consult a person as an expert because he is priest, or by refusing, as many people would, to treat a person as a moral peer because she makes a living as a prostitute – you betray yourself as having certain moral views already. Sartre liked to overdramatize – but didn’t have to make up – the fact that in some cases, choosing the advisor might even be the most value-laden part of the decision.
    How does one choose a plumber? Roughly speaking, according to her track record in terms of making plumbing work, or according to whether or not she possesses the kind of knowledge that has proven sufficient to make plumbing work. Do we choose a moral advisor, analogously, by her track record of good moral decisions? Sure, but how do we know – or, as undergrads are so fond of asking, “who decides” – what moral decisions are good? I think, for example, that Mother Theresa’s track record of decisions regarding painkillers and contraception, if it’s what I have read it is, disqualified her as a reliable moral advisor. Other people would say this track record enhanced her credentials as a moral advisor or that I am fussy to think that it mattered very much one way or another. It makes things even more poignant that when it comes to moral knowledge, it’s exactly the potential advisor’s past record regarding relatively tricky decisions that counts most. No-brainer moral decisions can be very praiseworthy or even heroic, but they don’t qualify one as an expert (or, as Julia would have it, a sage).
    We have all at some point had the experience of hearing someone recommend some unknown person as a moral role model or as a candidate for a morally significant position and, upon hearing the recommender’s justifications, reacting by forming a negative opinion of that recommender’s own moral character – because the recommender’s list of reasons to put one’s trust in her recommended betrays a false view as to the good-making features of people and, ultimately, the right-making features of actions (no need for complete moral knowledge. Whatever the exact true view is, we are pretty sure it’s not that one). I dare say this experience happens to particularists just as often as it happens to me.
    Do I have a reason to press the button recommended by a someone who is forbidden from telling me her reasons? Sure, but only if I think she is at least a peer. There is no way for me to rationally conclude that she is a moral peer that is independent of my beliefs about what makes actions right – even if all I do is examine her past actions, having a view as to which of them are right implies having a view as to what makes actions right . Does she have a letter of recommendation from God? That’s great, but Plato already pointed out that even in that case, the letter has to come not from any God but from a good God. I would not accept the moral authority of the God described by The Onion in their classic story “God diagnosed with bipolar disorder”, because he has a really bad track record. He does things like kill innocents on a whim and approves of them. The moment I take this as a disqualification, I am not a total moral fetishist anymore: I have some opinion as to what the content of morality is. If, on the other hand, I’ll do whatever God says regardless of his track record, I am not praiseworthy anymore. Reminder: on my view, a truly virtuous person who, not being smart enough to see through rhetoric, gets convinced by some supernatural entity or some nefarious ethics professor that saving people from senseless torture is morally wrong would decide, like Nietzsche that morality is not for her. As the country song goes, “if loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right”.
    There is more to answer – be back soon.

  12. Hi Nomy, thanks very much for your detailed replies. I find myself in agreement with Daniel and Julia here. You write:
    “even if all I do is examine [my advisor’s] past actions, having a view as to which of them are right implies having a view as to what makes actions right”
    Yes it does, but it doesn’t entail that I have any view at all about what will make *this particular* action right, if I am a particularist. And having no view about this matter precludes my concern to do what is right in this case being understood as a de re concern to act for the right-making features of the action (except as these are understood as Julia suggests).
    The particularist who defers to an advisor is like a gambler who asks a reliable tipster to place a bet for him on the 3:30 this afternoon, hoping that the tipster will place the bet on the winner (let’s suppose the winner will in fact be Red Rum). The gambler knows that the tipster has been right in the past, and that rests on the gambler’s knowledge of the tipster’s past predictions and of what kind of thing a race winner is. But our gambler only has a de dicto motivation to bet on the winner of the 3:30 this afternoon. If he had a de re motivation to bet on Red Rum, he would have no need to ask the tipster to place the bet on his behalf! (Some of what you write above seems to suggest, by analogy, that this gambler’s motivation would only count as de dicto if his real concern was to place the bet on whatever horse *the tipster thinks* will be the winner, without regard to which horse will win. Of course, this will not describe our gambler’s concern – he primarily wants to place a bet on *the winner*. But this standard would draw the line for having de dicto concern in the wrong place: even if the gambler only cares about the tipster’s opinion insofar as it tracks actual winners, our gambler lacks a de re motivation to bet on Red Rum). Similarly then, the particularist who is motivated as in Julia’s case (3) lacks a de re concern to act on whatever (ultimate/fact-based/ideal/objective) reasons would make pushing the left button morally right. Yet this individual seems praiseworthy in one respect that is lacking in Daniel’s case (3*).

  13. One quick point: race track and moral expertise analogy pretty tricky.
    Horses only have only one winner-making property – the one brought into being by the rules that say that the horse that completes the race first is the winner. Tipsters might know other properties that winners are likely to have but they are not the winner-making features in the sense of “making” I care about. Thus, race track particularism is unheard of (and also false). . My iPhone is dying – long essay coming up soon.

  14. Dear all,
    Any particularists in the house?
    Here’s where I am. I said that doing as a someone says can be morally praiseworthy only if you identified her as a moral expert due to both of you being aware of the right-making features of actions. The fact that she responds to the right-making features of actions means that the action she tells you to perform is likely to have these features. If the normative ethical truth is more complicated than “maximize utility” or “respect persons” than what you know about the probable nature of the action can be disjunctive (e.g that it is an instance of justice or benevolence) or just complicated (it is the most benevolent action that can be performed given the constraints of justice). Then you asked about particularism.
    Upon reflection, and some joint deliberation with Zach Barnett, I realized I really don’t understand how either moral expertise or the detection of moral expertise can happen if particularism is true. I take a moral expert to be someone who can in general be trusted to give spot-on moral advice next time you ask them for some. Look at nonmoral experts for a moment. They seem to be well-versed in patterns and regularities and to derive predictions from there. The same is true of people I think of as “wizards” – people who reliably produce true predictions but don’t really know how. These people, too, detect patterns and regularities. If we investigate a putative wizard and discover that there are no patterns that explain her predictions we are forced to conclude that she is not a wizard, just very lucky (people who could predict a lot through Rorschach tests were called “wizards” by their fellow shrinks. It turned out they were great cold readers – like good psychics. But I digress). If particularism is true, especially the extreme sounding version you ask me about, then patterns and regularities are missing when it comes to what makes an action right. There is a unique story behind the rightness of every action. You cannot rule out the possibility that one day you’ll run into an action that is right because it increases the beauty of ducks (simpliciter, not because looking at pretty ducks causes pleasure) or even an action that is right because it is cruel. So how can you conclude from the fact that Hans gave correct moral advice in the past that he is likely to give correct moral advice in the future? If one action is right because it respects autonomy and another action is right because it increases the beauty of ducks, how do we expect the same person to be an expert both when it comes to autonomy and when it comes to the beauty of ducks? We can’t say that Hans is an expert because he always gets the balance of reasons right, because for a real particularist of the sort you are talking about the right balance methods are also different from action to action. It’s hard for our intuitions to break free of the race track analogy, but remember: the ability to detect the very fact that someone has a good moral “track record” with making nontrivial moral decisions depends on having some degree of moral knowledge yourself (quite a bit – nothing analogous is true of a plumber’s track record and plumbing knowledge, never mind a tipster’s track record and horse knowledge). You need to know something about which actions are right so that you can see that a person made a lot of right decisions. Without pattern-detection, how do you do that? It seems that the only property that you can do induction with here is rightness itself. Perhaps there isn’t, strictly speaking, such a thing as a right-making feature and rightness is just a Moore-like property, and if you have moral knowledge you can detect it, thus allowing yourself to think “Hans’s actions do have a pattern to them: they have always had the property of rightness, and so they are likely to have it in the future”. As far as I can remember, the particularist does not want to believe that only rightness is a right-making feature: she wants to believe there are many, many such features. I don’t like the idea of rightness as the only right-making feature, either. So, would anyone who knows more about particularism please explain to me how moral knowledge and expertise (or even wizardry) work in a particularistic setting?
    OK, I won’t make it a long essay after all. Nice to have more questions to think about than I have time to write about.

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