A number of philosophers have argued that there can be actions that are at one and the same time immoral and admirable. These philosophers sometimes take the existence of admirable immorality (AI) to show that there must be nonmoral values that are at least sometimes capable of outweighing or overriding moral values (since such an action would not be considered admirable unless its immorality were being overridden.) It seems to me, though, that this may be too quick. There is a different picture of what may be going on in cases of AI that does not support value pluralism, or the overridingness of nonmoral values, at all. In fact maximizing consequentialists, who reject the idea that the moral requirement to maximize the good can ever be overridden by any sort of nonmoral concern, can nonetheless accept the existence of admirable immorality.
In “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” Peter Railton draws a distinction between subjective and objective consequentialism. The subjective consequentialist thinks an agent ought always to aim at the good directly and explicitly; the objective consequentialist, by contrast, thinks that an agent ought always to behave in the way that actually brings about the most good, whether or not this involves constantly engaging in explicitly consequentialist deliberations. After all, thinking always in consequentialist terms can be inefficient and distracting, and can lead the agent to be alienated from those around her, and even from herself.
Let us suppose, then, that Jenna is a sophisticated consequentialist agent of this sort, and that she lives in a community of such agents. Let us suppose, too, that the community in which Jenna lives shares a set of moral rules and guidelines I will refer to as the moral code—a code that is widely regarded as justified on objective consequentialist grounds. Thus, this code will tell people to behave in the ways an objective consequentialist agent would behave—promoting the good to a large extent, but not pursuing the promotion of the good to the degree where that pursuit becomes counterproductive. Let us assume, too, that in Jenna’s society, as in most societies, the moral code is very closely tied to questions of moral evaluation, and that following the dictates of the code automatically provides one with a moral justification for one’s behavior.
Suppose that Jenna believes herself to be faced with a situation in which following the moral code’s dictates will not maximize the good. Rather, all things considered, the good will here be maximized by betraying a friend, a type of action which the moral code forbids. She knows, of course, that engaging in such behavior is always risky; indeed, one of the primary motivations lying behind sophisticated consequentialism is the fact that moral agents are often incapable of accurately predicting the consequences of their actions, so that a consistent adherence to certain reliable rules will usually produce more good in the long run than will a reliance on case-by-case judgments. She knows, too, that many sophisticated consequentialists would not judge this situation to be one of those exceptional cases in which violating the ordinarily accepted moral rules would be seen as clearly justified. Nevertheless, Jenna decides to take the risk, and betrays her friend. And suppose that the consequences are exactly as she predicted them to be, and that the costs (in terms of damage to her relationship, harm to her friend, etc.) are outweighed by the benefits produced.
Any evaluator who shares Jenna’s moral beliefs, who is aware of the facts of the situation and, in particular, is aware that things worked out precisely as Jenna predicted and intended, is likely to regard Jenna’s action as an instance of admirable immorality. Her action was admirable, first, because it was intended to bring about the best and second, because it did in fact succeed in doing so. (Had Jenna failed, it is much less likely that anyone would regard her as admirable; she would be much more likely to be seen as reckless and dangerous, not to mention untrustworthy.) However, the action can also be held to be immoral, for three reasons. First, the action did in fact fail to accord with the moral rules promulgated in Jenna’s society – moral rules which, moreover, are accepted by Jenna herself, and supported by the consequentialism to which she is committed. (Recall that we specified that most of her fellow consequentialists would not, prior to her action, have judged her contravening of the rules to be justified, and that she herself was aware of this.) Second, from the perspective of the betrayed friend it may be hard to appreciate the consequentialist justification for the betrayal in this particular case; thus, to the extent that we empathize with his position, we will find our admiration for Jenna’s action somewhat less than unalloyed. Finally, Jenna’s action was, as we have said, a significant risk: if the projected benefits had not materialized, or if the costs had turned out to be greater than anticipated, Jenna’s action would have been regarded by everyone (including, presumably, Jenna herself) as a clear case of wrongdoing, no matter how admirable the intentions with which it was performed. There are good reasons, indeed good consequentialist reasons, to encourage agents not to take such risks. And had she decided to play it safe by following the moral code it would have been quite impossible to criticize Jenna on moral grounds, despite the fact that by doing so she was giving up (what she perceivedto be) an opportunity to bring about a significant amount of moral good.
So what we seem to have, interestingly, is an action that is both immoral and admirable—and indeed, admirable in explicitly moral (and explicitly consequentialist) terms. And while I have described the situation in terms of consequentialism, that is not necessary; the account can be generalized to cover many sorts of moral theory. We should, I think, expect cases of admirable immorality of this sort to be present, or at any rate possible, in any situation that possesses the following features:
(1) There is a moral code: that is, a socially accepted set of instructions for bringing about outcomes that are justifiable in terms of considerations that have moral weight.
(2) Actions that go against the dictates of the moral code are considered immoral.
(3) Due to the complexity of the moral universe, and to pragmatic limitations on the nature and complexity of moral codes, the moral code occasionally dictates action that fails to bring about the best possible outcome, as judged from the perspective of those considerations that have moral weight.
Thus, the existence of admirable immorality does not in itself provide evidence for any conclusion regarding the strength, or even the existence, of nonmoral considerations.