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Intentions and permissibility

At a recent symposium on Victor Tadros's book The Ends of Harm, Victor and I were debating whether the Means Principle (MP) is best thought of on a subjective interpretation (for A to use B as a means, A has to intend that B play some role in bringing about a good) or an objective, causal-role-based interpretation (for A to use B as a means, B has to serve as a causal means in bringing about some good that might be offered to justify A doing what she does). Victor argues for the subjective interpretation; I argue not exactly for the objective, but for the relevance of causal roles in a principle that has more or less the same range of application as the means principle.

This led to our discussing whether the critics of the subjective view–principally JJ Thomson, Frances Kamm, and Tim Scanlon—have ever offered any good reasons for their views (no, says Victor) or whether they have, or at least whether their arguments provide a good starting point for building an argument that the subjective interpretation faces an uphill battle (yes, say I). Victor then suggested that I post this as a topic for debate on Pea Soup. So here we are.


I want to begin, then, by rehearsing the classic arguments. I then address two cases that Victor offers to argue that we need to appeal to intentions to understand our judgments about permissibility (this is taken from my reply to Victor, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of Law and Philosophy). Finally, I offer a liberal, anti-perfectionist argument—which I draw from a paper I published in Philosophy and Public Affairs, “The Doctrine of Illicit Intentions”—that we should not think of intentions as fundamentally relevant to permissibility.

I.          The Classic Arguments

As I read them, the classic arguments have two threads. The first makes room for the idea that we can do without intentions, at least on a basic deontic level. The second presents a reason to accept that we should do without them on that level.

A.         Thread one: Making room

I like the way Tim Scanlon framed the first thread. He argued that intentions have only derivative or secondary significance. In the context of discussing and rejecting the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), and in particular in the context of discussing its use in the law of war and the prohibition on terror bombing, he says that dropping bombs where there is no munitions plant or other legitimate military target, but where noncombatants would die, is impermissible “because the circumstances do not provide a justification” for killing people in that way. (Moral Dimensions, p. 29.) In other words, there is some appropriate principle of justification that needs to be appealed to, and it would refer to harms causes in a particular context; it would not refer to the intentions of the agent causing the harm.

What is important is how Scanlon articulates what he means by saying that intentions are not fundamentally relevant, not whether he has actually found a principle that can do without intentions. He puts the point this way:

[A] person who intends to kill noncombatants in order to shorten the war … acts wrongly—she has intentions that she should abandon. But this truth should not be taken to suggest that intention has a fundamental role in determining the impermissibility of this action, in the way claimed by the [DDE]. The intention is wrongful because the act intended is wrongful, and the act is wrongful because of its likely consequences, not (fundamentally) because of the intention. (id)

 Again, this presupposes that some principles can be articulated that would plausibly explain why the acts that agents might intend would or would not be wrongful independently of the intention with which they are performed. Such principles would have to do more than pay attention to likely consequences. They would have to capture much of what the DDE and other intention-focused principles capture. But if we assume for the sake of argument that such principles can be found—part of what I presented at the symposium was an abbreviated version of what I call the Restricting Claims Principle, which claims to be an objective, causation-focused alternative to a subjective interpretation of the MP—then the point is that we can understand the misleading appeal of intentions by seeing it as based on a confusion. Their appeal is based on confusing a sort of secondary significance that they do have—that it is wrong to intend to do that which is wrong—with the thought that they do primary work making acts wrong.

In support of this, Scanlon argues that we can understand a number of ways in which intentions are relevant to the permissibility of actions that are clearly secondary to other primary wrong-making features of a situation. In that vein, he describes what he calls expression and expectation cases. These are cases in which one presents oneself as motivated in a way that others will find acceptable, when one is really motivated in another way. What is really doing the moral work in such cases is the right of others, in certain limited circumstances, to demand that those with whom they interact have certain motives—for example, if you want to socialize with me, it must be because you like my company, not because you want me to give you money—and the right they have not to be deceived. These rights do not specially concern intentions. They could just as well concern clothing: if you want to socialize with me, you have to dress informally, as I’m an informal person and I choose not to socialize with people who dress formally.

In other cases, the “predictive significance” of an intention—that it makes it too likely that an agent will do something impermissible—can explain why it is impermissible to act on some intentions. My favorite example of this—not, I believe, one of Scanlon’s examples—is the intention of a doctor to help her patient die, the intention in play in physician assisted suicide. It is at least plausible that such an intention can be the basis for a legal ban on such actions, on the ground that if we allow physicians to act this way, too many of them will help people to die rather than offer them help which would allow them to regain the desire to live. In other words, from the state’s point of view, it might be predictable (a) that more patients will die, who should be helped to live, if doctors are allowed to act intending to aid their patients in dying; (b) that this loss will outweigh the gain of helping patients to die who should be supported in their decision to end their lives; and (c) that there is no way to effectively carve out a small range of cases where this balance would be reversed. I don’t actually believe this, but I grant that it is plausible.

A third kind of case—one that Scanlon does discuss—involves collective bad effects of acting on a certain kind of intention. The most obvious example is racism as a basis for action. It makes sense both for law and morality to say that it is impermissible to make decisions over a wide range of matters that are normally open to the public—going into stores, buying houses, applying for jobs—on the basis of race (leaving open the Q of whether affirmative action might sometimes be appropriate). But to be clear, the problem is not that discriminating on the basis of immutable features is always impermissible. If someone wanted to run a shop and let in only people over 6 feet tall, that would be seen simply as odd. The problem with racism is that it has been so pervasive that it needs to be prohibited quite thoroughly to provide people of races that have suffered from racism a fair chance at a good and dignified life.

None of this is not to say that all of what Scanlon says on this topic is plausible. What he says about attempts, in particular, is rather implausible: that it is wrong to do something attempting to commit a wrongful act because one is making it more likely that one will commit the act (the “predictive significance of intent.” (id., p. 43)). This seems a poor account of why attempts are impermissible. It would be better simply to say that it is impermissible to form and act on the intention to do something impermissible. Nonetheless, I think Scanlon was right to say that whenever intention seems to be relevant to the permissibility of acts, one can always explain its relevance in terms of some prior judgment of wrongness, or some independent right that a others have that a person not act on a particular intention in a particular situation.

It is important to be clear about the logical structure of the argument before moving on to the second thread in the classical argument. And it may help to establish just what the point is to say more about the contrasting view found in the DDE, which holds that there are two possible wrong-making features of actions. One is the balance of harms and goods; the other is the intention of the agent. The DDE holds that even if an act will cause more good than harm, it is impermissible if the agent intends the harm. And it holds this to be true not because an agent who intends the harm is disposing or committing herself to do impermissible things, but because it is a basic principle of morality that such intentions are impermissible. Theorists who support the DDE offer reasons to accept it: it disrespects persons or basic human goods or something like that to intend harm. Nonetheless, according to the DDE, there is no way to get a full account of the range of impermissible acts without appealing to the intentions of the agents who perform them, and thus intentions cannot be secondarily relevant to permissibility. They make acts impermissible, just as causing harm can make acts impermissible. The view Scanlon and I embrace, in contrast, holds that intentions may make acts impermissible, but only because they dispose or direct agents to perform acts that can independently be determined to be impermissible, or they have a tendency, when widely shared, to cause harms or injustices, or others have a right, in limited contexts—a point that will be explored in part III—that agents not act on certain intentions. In all of these ways, intentions are of secondary importance to wrongful action.

B.         Thread two: Proper focus of concern

The second thread in the classic arguments is that the view that intentions are a fundamental wrong-making feature of actions directs an agent to think too often, in the wrong cases, about the intention with which she is acting. Agents should, according to this view, not focus inwardly on their intentions, but outwardly on how to act in ways consistent with the respect that others deserve. J.J. Thomson deserves credit for pushing this line (See her “Self-Defense,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 20 (1991): 283-310).

One way to bring the point into sharp relief is to think about an expression and expectation case, when it does make sense for an agent to focus inwardly on the intention with which she acts, and to contrast that with another case when it doesn’t. So let us start by thinking about an agent who wants to be social with me, and whose reason for doing so is that she hopes that I’ll give her money. Especially if I have made it plain how much I would resent such mercenary socialization, she should respect my right to restrict the circle of people with which I socialize in that way. She should therefore look into her heart, as it were, and take not of her reasons for actin. If she sees what I just said was there, then she should choose not to socialize with me. Alternatively, if she can find that she values my friendship after all, for the joy it brings her or for the affection she has for me, then she can permissibly seek my company.

Contrast that case with someone dropping bombs on strangers. Does it really make sense for him to be looking into his heart and saying that he may not drop the bombs if he would do it for bad reasons, such as hatred or the desire to use the lives lost to promote victory for his side? I say no. The cases are simply different. On the one hand, it is true that such a bomber should say to himself that there is something wrong with him if he values the deaths of civilians from an enemy nation, either intrinsically or instrumentally. He should try to work on his values, to bring them more in line with those that are morally sound. But, on the other hand, when it comes time to fly his mission, if he happens still to have those bad values, he need not say: “I must stand down unless I can either change my values or choose not to act on them.” He can permissibly say: “It doesn’t matter for the permissibility of what I do what my reasons are; what matters in this kind of context is that I am dropping bombs where it is permissible to drop them. No one can complain that I performed an act that was not justified, and no one has any rights over the intentions with which I act—this is not a consensual type of interaction.”

There is room to object that I am simply wrong here about the ill-motivated bomber. I will return to consider this in the third part of this post. For now, I want simply to conclude that this is, as I see it, the core of the classic set of arguments that intentions are not fundamentally relevant to permissibility.

II.         Victor’s Cases for Intentions

Victor now comes back with a set of examples that he thinks show that intentions are, at least sometimes, fundamentally significant for judgments of permissibility. I will start by describing two cases that he develops, then give a reply in terms of my Doctrine of Illicit Intentions, then consider an objection from Victor, and offer a reply.

A.         Victor’s cases

 The first example involves a duress case. Victor imagines a gang of criminals who have each pledged to kill the family members of anyone in the group who tries to back out of group activities. He then imagines that the group has decided to rob a post office. We are to suppose that all but one member of the gang think that this is a good idea, but one member has decided that she does not want to engage in criminal activities. Still, given the threat to her relatives, she engages in the robbery. She should be able to make use of the defense of duress; the others, despite facing the same threat, should not. In other words, she acts permissibly (with justification, not just excuse—I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that armed robbery can ever be justified by the necessity defense) because she acts for the reason that she is trying to save her family; they act impermissibly because they don’t act for that reason, despite the fact that they have the same sort of reason to act. What determines the permissibility of the act—what distinguishes the two sets—is the reason that is motivationally active in them.

Victor’s second case involves two people, A and B, who independently put poison into the water pipe leading to a victim, V’s, house—the Poisoned Pipe case. They each put in sufficient poison to kill V, and they are each aware of the other’s actions. Moreover, “A’s poison alone or B’s poison alone would lead to a very slow and painful death for V. Their poison together kills V swiftly.” (The Ends of Harm, p. 159) If they were both acting trying to kill V then they would both be acting wrongly. But we can imagine that B acts with benevolent motives. She can’t stop A or in any other way save V, but she can add her poison to the water to provide V a quicker, more painless death. It is at least plausible that the beneficent B is acting permissibly. (Again, I am willing to accept, for the sake of argument, that this would be permissible. But there are good reasons to doubt it. It would not be permissible to poison someone, without her consent, who is dying a slow, painful death of cancer. It is hard to see why this situation should be different.) If so, then in this case, as in the duress case, what is permissible depends on the intention of the agent.

B.         Reply with the DII

 The Doctrine of Illicit Intentions (DII) provides an alternative explanation that allows us not to have to say what Victor says about the significance of these cases. This is not the place to spell out the DII in detail. What I can do is spell out the basic idea and show how it applies to these cases.

A core distinction the DII makes is between an illicit reason and an illicit intention. An illicit reason is a reason for action that flouts the limits of moral permissibility. The bomber who drops bombs on an acceptable target area because he wants to kill the noncombatants who live there acts on an illicit reason. An illicit intention, in contrast, disposes an agent, in ways that depend on the circumstances she finds herself in, to perform impermissible actions. This same bomber would not act on an illicit intention as long as he is committed to dropping bombs only where they can justifiably be dropped. He would have an illicit intention if and only if his intention would direct him to drop bombs where they may not permissibly be dropped, at least if circumstances unfold a particular, foreseeable way.

It is important to note that the DII presupposes that intentions often are not simple linear affairs with the shape: Do act A to achieve goal G. They are often complex affairs with a shape more like this: To achieve goal G, do A1 in condition C1; do A2 in C2; do A3 in C3, etc.; and if you have done A1, then do B1 in C1a, do B2 in C1b, etc.; and look out for conditions K1-Kn, in which case do nothing to pursue G. I call the range of actions that an intention might direct its holder to perform an intention’s scope. The thought behind the DII is that an agent normally has no good reason to form an intention with a scope that includes impermissible actions. Because it is easy for an agent to restrict the scope of her intentions so that they exclude the performance of impermissible actions, at least those that she can easily see she might be directed to perform, and because she can have no good reason to include impermissible acts within the scope of her intentions, it is reasonable for morality to require her not to form intentions with impermissible acts in their scope.

It is also important to note that the DII does not direct agents to focus inwardly on their intentions; it directs agents to focus only on what they will do. It involves their intentions only insofar as it directs them to commit themselves to framing intentions that exclude impermissible acts from their scope. It does not matter how they do that; it matters only that they do that. Yet the DII still concerns intentions because it gives us a ground for condemning someone who performs an otherwise permissible act on an illicit intention. It says not that the final act itself was impermissible, but that acting on an illicit intention, one that could well have directed her to perform an impermissible act, was itself an impermissible choice.

Now we can apply this to Victor’s two cases. Start with the case of the gang members, one of whom is robbing a post office under duress. The one who is acting under duress is acting on an intention whose scope seems intuitively to contain no impermissible acts. We can assume that the only reason she is robbing the post office is to protect her family, a condition under which that action is, we can assume, permissible. If freed from such coercive threats, she would presumably not engage in post office robbery or any other impermissible actions. By contrast, her fellow gang members are ready and willing to engage in post office robbery. Even if the mutually enforcing threat were to drop away, they would still rob the post office because they think the money they get is justification enough for them. Thus they act on illicit intentions; she does not.

The same thing is true of beneficent B in Poisoned Pipe. Assuming that her act is permissible, it is permissible only in this odd circumstance in which by adding poison to the pipe, she helps V suffer a less bad death. Beneficent B would add poison to the pipe only in such a highly unusual circumstance, so her intention is licit. By contrast, her maleficent counterpart would perform the act of poisoning whether it would help V or not. She then clearly acts on an illicit intention, and that is why she and not her beneficent counterpart act impermissibly.

C.         Victor’s objections and my replies

 In the symposium on his book, Victor objected to the DII on two grounds. First, he said that I can’t distinguish someone who would order coffee willing to shoot the barista if she doesn’t sell him the coffee, but ready to pay normally if she does, from the bad actor in Poisoned Pipe who kills for the money: the acts are objectively justified in both, and both are ready to perform acts that aren’t. Second, he says that I’m just getting the wrong in Poisoned Pipe wrong: it’s killing, not acting on an illicit intention.

Here I must pause to say how grateful I am to Victor, as I hadn’t thought about the DII paper in some years, and I didn’t deal with this problem or the problem of comparative culpability in it. Nonetheless, I now have the following view. Taking the second problem first, let’s assume the poisoner is not aware of the justification for the act—assuming again that the justification is successful. He is adding the poison to kill and get the money. I say that if he kills and was unaware of the justification for doing so, he is guilty of attempted murder. Why attempted murder and not murder? My answer is that no death was caused that could not justifiably be caused. Thus murder does not fit. But from the agent’s point of view, he was trying to cause an unjustified death. Thus he should be held culpable for attempted murder.

Now what if he is aware of the justification but it was just a fortuity of the case; he would have killed anyway? Then we’ve got the coffee case in view. But I think a big difference in culpability can be traced to the reason acted on. If the reason is a murderous one, and the person got lucky, finding that in this case it turns out that the act is permissible, then the act is culpable on the level of attempted manslaughter. Why manslaughter? Because the intention was reckless, and but for good luck, he would have killed impermissibly. (And such a reduction in culpability might not be available in cases like that of the gang, where people set it up that they have the reason to do the crime—much as one cannot escape mens rea requirements by getting drunk so that one doesn’t know what one is doing.)

If, however, the reason is itself innocent—to get coffee—then acting on the illicit intention is still morally impermissible, but the culpability is low enough that the law should be reluctant to criminalize it at all. I’d say that the law should criminalize acting on an illicit intention, grounded on a morally neutral or good reason, only if the person was essentially taking active steps to be ready to act impermissibly.

Victor can still object that this view is quite peculiar. I would have those who kill with nothing but bad intent in cases like Poisoned Pipe guilty only of attempted murder. This just shows, he can say, that I’m getting the cases wrong. Again, I treat the wrong as one of acting on an illicit intention, but the wrong is killing.

Here I must simply acknowledge that my view is in this way counter-intuitive. We are not used to thinking of such cases as involving anything less than murder. But he and I both agree that it would be permissible to encourage the person to add the poison in such a case (again, assuming the justification works). And in that regard my view is less counter-intuitive. For all I have to say is that I’m encouraging someone to attempt to perform an impermissible act, while actually performing a permissible and good act. He has to say that it is permissible to encourage someone to murder. This is not to say that my view is now intuitive. It is only to say that there are peculiarities however one slices the terrain up, which probably indicates that our intuitions don’t all make sense. Therefore I am not too worried if I have to admit that my view is somewhat counter-intuitive.

III.       The Liberal Anti-Perfectionist Case Against Intuitions

Let us go back to the terror bomber who drops bombs where they may permissibly be dropped. And let us suppose that he was committed to constraining his actions to conform to those that would be performed by a tactical bomber who only hit targets where the civilian damage would not be disproportionately high. One might say: why not require him not to act on the illicit reasons that he accepts?

There are a number of bad answers worth rejecting before spelling out my answer. One such bad answer is to say that if he accepts illicit reasons for action, then he cannot know that they are illicit, and thus he cannot be acting impermissibly. But there is no gap between intentions and actions on this score. One might think it is permissible to hit noncombatants where there are no legitimate targets in the area. That mistake does not make one’s action permissible. So why should a mistake about what reasons are morally licit?

One might also say that if he thinks that he has sufficient reason to target noncombatants, then he cannot choose not to do so, at least not while still performing the bombing run. Scanlon makes this argument: that an agent cannot have a reason for an action and choose not to act on it without also choosing not to perform the act that the reason would direct her to perform (Moral Dimensions, pp. 56-61). But Victor and I both reject this claim. We both think that an agent can take herself to have a reason R1 to do X, take herself to have another reason R2 to do X, and choose whether or not to do X acting on R1. That is, we both think that, at least in many cases, she can frame an intention to do X by appeal to R1 or not, as she chooses.

But now if the bomber could choose to fly the mission—which, we should suppose, there is good reason for him to fly—and if he could choose to do so without acting on his desire to kill enemy noncombatants or his belief that doing so would be a good thing, then why not say that he must fly the mission for better reasons, such as that it will take out legitimate military targets? Why not say that he acts as a murderer if he flies it for bad reasons?

Indeed, one might think that as a supporter of the DII, I should be quite open to this, as I think that one can be guilty of something close to murder, attempted murder, if one acts on illicit intentions that would lead, under some circumstances, to actual murder.

But I reject that view because I think there is a meaningful difference between illicit reasons and illicit intentions. The latter concern disposing oneself to perform acts that are impermissible. That seems to me to inherit the wrongfulness of simply choosing to do something impermissible. It is a close cousin of that other choice, and the presence of permissible acts in the scope of the intention does not seem enough to neutralize the wrongness of having impermissible ones there—especially given that it is not hard to frame an intention that excludes foreseen or easily foreseeable impermissible acts from its scope.

Illicit reasons, on the other hand, are not about acts, they are about how one thinks, how one reasons. I don’t deny that morality has something to say about this process. But I do deny that it can say it in the voice of a judgment of impermissibility. I think our basic freedom of conscience and of thought precludes that sort of deontic judgment.

What I am saying here is that there is an important sense in which we have a right to do wrong. And contrary to the dominant view of that right, the right is not just about what others can do to us. It is not primarily a right to be free from outside interference. It is fundamentally a right to choose to be immoral in certain ways. And this right is grounded in our right to lead our own lives, and to decide how and when to work on perfecting ourselves. There are limits to our permissible self-indulgence. We may not indulge vice to such an extent that we lose our ability to respect the rights of others and otherwise do what we are morally required to do. But within those limits, we are basically permitted to be vicious. The obligation not to be is an imperfect one, an obligation to take as one of our ends our own perfection. But that imperfect obligation does not give rise to perfect duties—to duties that it is impermissible to violate—unless, again, one needs to act to enable oneself to conform to the perfect duties that otherwise exist.

Now it can be objected, drawing on the inspiration of Warren Quinn, that people do have rights to the intentions of others. On Quinn’s view of the DDE, the terror bomber who kills by dropping bombs where a tactical bomber might permissibly drop them wrongs his victims because they have not only a claim not to be killed, but an especially strong claim not to be killed by a person acting on a vicious or illicit reason.

My response is that this objection seems deeply illiberal. Generally speaking, people have rights over the intentions of others only when the interaction should be consensual and they can withhold their consent to have the interaction on a variety of grounds, including that the other is acting on an intention they object to. But in cases that involve inherently nonconsensual interactions, like dropping bombs that kill people near military facilities, or turning trolleys away from some and onto others, it’s hard to see why those who are affected have any extra claim over the intentions of the actors. I think society has a claim that the actor at least know that the act is permissible; otherwise the actor is essentially recklessly or intentionally killing, and that should be a crime. But if the actor knows the act, abstracted from the intention with which it is performed, is permissible, and there is no other problem with her intention (like racism or having other impermissible acts in its scope), then it is hard to see why the victim gets to dictate what reasons the actor may act on.

The victim may claim that it adds insult to injury to be acted upon by one who thinks so hatefully or instrumentally about him. But we just aren’t entitled to demand that others not have insulting thoughts about us. Take a variant on a racism case, where no collective action problems will arise: suppose someone doesn’t like me because I remind her of a past lover who she now hates because of the shabby way he treated her. She chooses not to sell her house to me because of her irrational dislike for me based on my physical resemblance to someone else. If I want the house, I could reasonably be insulted. But I have no right to demand that she sell it to me. She is permitted by law to refuse to sell on that idiosyncratic reason. And in truth I think she is morally permitted to refuse to sell to me for that morally idiosyncratic reason. She shouldn’t take out on me her feelings for someone else. But if she has those feelings, she is morally entitled to indulge them in this way. It is her house, her feelings, and her choice to make.

At bottom, I cannot see why the fact that one is a victim of a harm worse than not being able to buy the house one wants—being killed—gives one more right to control the reasons for action of another. There are reasons to be concerned with intentions, to prohibit people from acting on them. But from what I can see, the right not to be thought of badly as another does what she otherwise has a right to do does not give rise to a new basis for saying that intentions matter quite generally to the permissibility of actions.

CODA: some are also tempted by a sort of Aristotelian position that acts are to be distinguished from reflexes by the fact that they are performed with an intention, and often it is the intention that defines the act as the type of act that it is. For example, burglary is distinguished by the specific intent with which one enters a building: the intention to commit a felony therein. Banning burglary is banning an action that can only be identified by the intention of the actor.

To this I say yes, but we can still describe physical act types, like entering a building, and we can still describe relevant circumstances, like doing it without permission, and we can still identify a range of conditions that would justify or fail to justify such an act, all without knowing the intention with which the person entered the building. We can then add to the considerations the fact that the person performed an act with a particular intention to see if it makes a difference. Sometimes it might, sometimes it might be relevant only to level of culpability if the act is already on the impermissible side of the line. None of that undermines in any way what was said above.

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7 Responses to Intentions and permissibility

  1. Brad C says:

    Hi Alec,
    I assume you think there are moral requirements and permissions that govern personal relationships.
    If so, I wonder what you would say about this “Anscombian” pair of parental punishment cases:
    (Reluctant Randy) Randy punishes Randy Jr. because that will help junior learn to do better.
    (Gleeful Glenn) Glenn punishes Glenn Jr. because that will help junior learn to do better and because he will enjoy inflicting pain on junior.
    I assume it is not objectionably “illiberal” to claim that, if we specify the case a bit more, Glenn acts impermissibly but Randy does not.
    I wonder how you will handle this case — given your optimism about our ability to determine the scope of our intentions, I am thinking Glenn can avoid acting on an impermissible intention, as you understand those, and he seems to be acting impermissibly because he is acting on an “immoral reason”.
    I think this is an objection, but it might just show I have failed to absorb the details.
    My general worry is that your overall claim that, “the victim may claim that it adds insult to injury to be acted upon by one who thinks so hatefully or instrumentally about him…but we just aren’t entitled to demand that others not have insulting thoughts about us,” sound plausible when we think only of relations between strangers but will break down in various more personal cases.

  2. Alec Walen says:

    Nice set of cases. I am torn between 2 reactions. One says that Gleeful Glenn does not ACT impermissibly. Rather, he lives in a really morally bad state, that of being a parent who enjoys inflicting pain on his child. He has a strong moral reason to fix that about himself, but insofar as he is constraining himself to doing what is permissible, he acts permissibly. After all, what is he to do? Not inflict the deserved and helpful punishment? And even if he can avoid acting On his sadistic feelings, he may not be able to avoid Having them while he administers the punishment. And perhaps its the Having of them that is really objectionable.
    My other reaction is to say, no, you’re right, there is something Extra objectionable about acting On the sadistic reason. But then it’s not really that hard for me to take this on board. It’s a special relationship point. Parents have special duties towards their children that in many ways are like the duties one has towards those with whom one makes voluntary commitments to treat them in special ways. And with those special duties comes a special responsiveness to the needs, both emotional and physical, of the others. So this could really be categorized as a kind of expression and expectation case: it’s an expectation case where the special relationship grounds a special right to expect respectful reasoning.
    In other words, I am more or less happy to accept your last line, that my point about my liberal, anti-perfectionism, namely that it may apply mostly between strangers (thought also, perhaps, in certain business contexts, and other contexts of a less than intimate nature).

  3. Victor Tadros says:

    I am grateful to you, Alec, for this excellent post. I learned a lot from our discussion. There is a wide range of issues in the post, and we might be best focusing on a smaller range at first.
    One thing that you could clarify is your idea of the right to do wrong – doesn’t this give the game away, in that where a person has a right to do wrong, although that person may not be interfered to prevent her from acting wrongly, she nevertheless acts wrongly. If she acts wrongly, she doesn’t act permissibly. Hence, on your own presentation, it seems that intentions are relevant to permissibility – it’s just that others may not interfere with a person on that basis.
    Secondly, let me respond, first, to your way of dealing with Gang (the case of the post office robbery) and Poisoned Pipe.
    One difficulty with your account is that it indicates that members of the gang in Gang and the poisoner in Poisoned Pipe would act permissibly if they form an intention only to act in the same way that a person with good intentions would act. This doesn’t seem plausible to me. Suppose that A in Poisoned Pipe poisons in order to receive a reward that he has been offered by Boss for the killing of victim. However, he does this only on condition that B also acts. He does this only because that will allow him, if he is caught, to offer the inevitability of B’s action as a justification for his action. On the DII he has done nothing wrong. That is hard to believe.
    Another difficulty is this: it seems that A and B, if they act in order to kill Victim simply out of hatred or for the money, not only act wrongly, but are liable to preventive, compensatory and punitive harm. These liabilities that they have are importantly related to the magnitude of harm that Victim is threatened with or suffers. We can focus on compensation, as that is the simplest case. It is highly intuitive that A and B may be harmed in order to provide compensation to Victim. The intuitive way to calculate the magnitude of compensation owed, compares Victim’s circumstances with the circumstances that she would have been in had neither A nor B acted. Furthermore, if A acts only in order to benefit Victim and B acts in order to kill Victim, B alone owes Victim compensation, calculated in the same way. These judgements seem compelling. They suggest at least that liability to pay compensation depends on intentions. But liability to pay compensation is at least importantly related to permissibility.
    Here is one final idea. You acknowledge that your account is counterintuitive in that it implies that there is no murder in Poisoned Pipe. You then claim that my account is counterintuitive in another way. I agree that if we cannot encourage A to act with good intentions in Poisoned Pipe we ought to encourage him to act with bad intentions, for doing so will benefit Victim. This is even clearer in cases like Bad Trolley Driver – if we cannot encourage the bad driver to turn the trolley in order to save the five, we are justified in encouraging him to turn it to kill the one.
    This, you suggest, has the counterintuitive implication that we are justified in encouraging wrongdoing. I argue in The Ends of Harm that there is nothing counterintuitive about that idea – it is familiar in other circumstances. I aim to demonstrate this with the following disgusting case (invented by Matthew Clayton for a slightly different purpose):
    Claw Hammer. I am standing on the shore of a lake and a boy is drowning out of reach. There is a boat on the shore and only one person can get in the boat. Unfortunately, though, I’m no sailor and if I try to rescue him I will almost certainly fail. You, an experienced sailor, are standing next to me. I encourage you to save the boy, but you are unwilling to do so. You are wearing a shiny new suit, and once you get out to the boy your suit will almost certainly get wet. I have a claw hammer and I could give it to you. That would allow you to save the boy without damaging the suit. But unfortunately you would have to jam it into his eye to pull him out.
    It is wrong for you to save the boy with the claw hammer. Yet I am clearly justified, perhaps required, to provide you with it – better that the boy is saved with the clawhammer than not saved at all.
    The moral structure suggested by the case is as follows:
    You have these three options:
    1) save the boy at the cost of your suit
    2) save the boy with the clawhammer
    3) don’t save the boy
    I, in contrast, cannot motivate 1). Unlike you, I cannot bring it about that the boy is saved without him losing an eye. The best that I can do for the boy is ensure that you choose 2) rather than 3). The same thing is true about Poisoned Pipe. A, in that case, could act in order to save Victim (we agree about that). He will not do that – he will only act for the money. He has an option that I cannot get him to take. I have two remaining options – let Victim suffer a slow and painful death or encourage A to act wrongly, improving Victim’s condition. As in Clawhammer, I am justified in encouraging A to act wrongly for the sake of Victim.

  4. Alec Walen says:

    I’m so glad to see your reply Victor, and I’m glad you started your reply with the right to do wrong.
    No, my position that the act is wrong doesn’t give the game away. You’re failing to distinguish should from must. There’s ambiguity in the concept of an act that is morally wrong. It can be one that the agent should not perform, or one that she may not perform. Put third person interference to the side. Just from the first person point of view, there is a difference. One can say to oneself, I know I shouldn’t do X, but screw it, I want to and I will. Of course one can also say to oneself, I know I must not do X, but screw it, I want to and I will. The difference is that one can see oneself confronting different kinds of norms, different levels of stringency in the moral address. The “should” address takes the form, essentially, of a request. It’s like morality saying to you: It would please me if you did not do X. But it leaves you the privilege to say back: I know, but I am sorry, it matters more to me to do X than to please you. The “must” address takes the form, essentially, of a command or a demand. It’s like morality saying to you: Stop. Given that you move in the space of rights, and make demands of others, so you must respect this demand now: you have no privilege to do X.
    We learn this difference as children. Parents use it all the time when they say, for some things, “I wish you wouldn’t do X” and for others “You may not do X.” And as we internalize the voice of authority and turn it into the voice of morality, we retain the sense—I think—that there is a difference between the requests of morality and the demands or morality. We can take morality seriously and turn down its requests, but not its demands.
    One more point: don’t confuse this point with the supererogatory. The supererogatory is not a matter of request; it is simply a matter of praise for going above and beyond any request. There’s more to be said there, but all I need now is to ward off the confusion.
    Turning now to the Poisoned Pipe cases, I simply disagree with your intuitions. But let’s be real clear about the cases.
    First, I know you know, but to be clear: I can easily avoid approving of A and B conspiring to poison V, arranging to put poison in the pipe only if the other does, and then only because they would get the reward. If that is the situation, there is no inevitability of the other putting poison in. The DII can handle that by saying that the choice to conspire was wrong.
    But if we hold constant that A will put poison in, then surely what you say about B being liable to preventive harm is wrong. The whole premise of your example—which I granted you for the sake of argument, though I actually think it’s wrong—is that we should want B to put the poison in. And once I have that, it’s hardly so clear as you make out that B should be liable for compensatory or punitive harm.
    In fact, I think part of the problem with your intuitions is that your example is actually a bad one. We do not think that B should be able to poison A, even to speed A’s death, because, as I said in my original post, it is like poisoning a person dying a slow painful death due to cancer: you still need his permission.
    So let’s change the example to someone who would turn a trolley from 5 onto 1 but only for the sake of killing the one, her enemy. She wouldn’t kill him if it weren’t permissible for someone in her position to do so, but she’s a moral loopholer: she kills not for the sake of the five, but because of her hatred of the side-track man. Does she owe compensation that another wouldn’t owe to the side-track man’s family? May she be punished? I think the answer to each is clearly no.
    Finally, I HATE your clawhammer example, but OK, you brought it back up again, and to good purpose. I agree that we may encourage wrongdoing. But, as I argued in a paper called “Permissibly Encouraging the Impermissible,” Journal of Value Inquiry 38 (2004): 341-354, there are scales of difficulty in justifying the performance of acts that are more or less extreme on the impermissible spectrum. In that paper I considered three types of encouraging cases (in all of which it is important that the thing be done): (a) the person knows how to do the thing in a permissible and in an impermissible way, will take us only to be encouraging her to do the thing, and yet we believe she’ll choose to do it in an impermissible way; (b) the person doesn’t know that there is a permissible way to do the thing, though there is, and thus will take us to be encouraging her to do the permissible thing in an impermissible way; (c) the person is demanding that we encourage her to do it in the impermissible way or she won’t do it (in your case: she demands that you chant at her: stick him in the eye, go ahead, do it!).
    Well, just as I think that spectrum moves from easy to justify to hard to justify—for reasons I go over in the paper—so I think that it’s easier to encourage someone to attempt to do something wrongful (attempting is itself an impermissible act, so one is still encouraging the impermissible), than to do an act that is actually a crime. So in that regard, I think my account still comes out ahead in this way.

  5. Victor Tadros says:

    Thanks Alec
    so, you are better of not to say ‘the right to do wrong’ but rather ‘the right to do what one shouldn’t’ (given that what is not wrong is permitted and what is not permitted is wrong, which I take it is the standard view)
    you disagree about whether it is permissible for A to put poison in the pipe even though this will give victim a swift rather than a slow and painful death. We can adjust the case to make it more compelling (though I think it clearly compelling enough). Just make Victim’s death instantaneous if both put poison in and really slow and really painful. If you are worried that Victim lives longer if she has a slow and painful death than if she has a swift death (which might drive your judgement about the cancer case), correct for that by making the time of death identical in each case, but if only B puts poison in the pipe, the lead-up to death will be painful, but not if both A and B do so.
    I have given Poisoned Pipe to many audiences, and almost no one shares your intuition that A and B are not liable if they act on bad intentions (off the top of my head I can’t think of another person). But perhaps other Pea Soupers will jump in to your defence here. Some people respond by claiming that liability tracks blameworthiness in this case rather than permissibility. That has other problems.
    I think the explanation of cases like clawhammer is much simpler than you. What we are permitted to do depends on our other options. You cannot rescue the child with the clawhammer because you could rescue him in a way that harms him much less at a tiny cost to yourself. The option of the child being rescued at this tiny cost is not available for me. For me, it’s either the child gets saved at the cost of an eye, or he dies. So I am permitted to assist in him being rescued at the cost of an eye. This explanation applies equally to cases like poisoned pipe (given that, as we agree, A could act on an intention to benefit Victim). So I don’t see the advantage that you claim for your view.

  6. Alec Walen says:

    Hey Victor,
    I think you are simply mistaken about the standard view of what is meant by wrong in the right to do wrong. The classic source for this issue is Waldron’s piece, and his examples all concern vices such as stupidity, cowardice, tastlessness, etc. These seem more like “should” cases than “must” cases. Granted, he dismisses the idea that what is important in the right to do wrong is the first-person privilege to do so. But I think that was a deep mistake on his part.
    I don’t know what to say about your intuition polling. I suspect it would change if I presented the case to audiences with a persuasive background theory, allowing us to say that the persons acting on bad reasons deserve censure, but nonetheless act permissibly. In saying that I’m just taking the Scanlon & Thomson line, and I guess they’ve presented their position to many audiences as well.
    Lastly, I get the set up of clawhammer. I just say that one should be more uncomfortable with this class of cases than with cases in which that act performed is itself permissible.
    Well, we may have run out of steam between us. Perhaps others will pick up a thread or two. Or perhaps by posting the longest post in Pea Soup history I’ve doomed the discussion to oblivion. I hope not.
    Best,
    Alec

  7. Tom Porter says:

    Hi Alec and Victor,
    Thanks for this absorbing discussion. I’m not familiar with this debate at all, but I’ve found myself puzzled by and sucked into it by your arguments. Thanks! (I think.)
    I have two questions. I hope that they’re more interesting than an invitation to rehearse Intentions & Permissibility 101. If not, please feel free to direct me elsewhere.
    The first is simple: is it an assumption of the debate between you that intentions are, at the fundamental level, going to be either relevant for all judgments of moral permissibility or irrelevant for all judgments of moral permissibility? I ask because it seems that one might suppose that judgments of permissibility could be intention-sensitive for certain acts (e.g. helping someone carry his shopping into his house) and intention-insensitive for others (e.g. not stealing from someone), and that there might be a systematic explanation of the distinction between acts of one type and acts of the other. Is that possibility ruled out or accommodated by everyone in some way (or have I misunderstood something)?
    The second question is for Alec. If I understand you aright, you want to explain a right (here, a privilege) that we have to do wrong in certain ways by appeal to the more fundamental right (which must itself be a privilege, in order to do the explanatory work) to “lead our own lives, and to decide how and when to work on perfecting ourselves”. And you want to explain the existence of the more fundamental privilege and the fact that it makes sense of the privilege to do wrong by appeal to the idea that the duty to work on perfecting oneself morally is imperfect, which, as you interpret it, makes room for a permission to be vicious.
    Could you say more about how the imperfection of the duty to perfect oneself morally makes room for or is a permission to be vicious? On the face of it, since you might think that one can on a given occasion be failing to work on perfecting oneself morally without thereby being vicious, it doesn’t look like the imperfection of the duty to work on perfecting oneself morally must make space for permissible viciousness.
    Suppose that things are as they appear here—that it’s not the case that the imperfect duty to work on perfecting oneself morally must make room for permissible viciousness. Then the existence of any fundamental privilege to lead our own lives that is explained by the imperfect duty isn’t necessarily a reason to think that we have the right to do wrong in your sense. And in that case, insofar as the liberal anti-perfectionist view is the view that there is such a fundamental privilege, it doesn’t ground any case against intuitions of intention-sensitivity by itself. We need some reason to think that the imperfect duty to work on oneself morally implies a permission to be vicious. Do you have such a reason that amounts to something different from and so capable of explaining the view that it’s sometimes permissible to be vicious in your sense?
    Again, apologies if these questions betray misunderstandings that it’s boring to correct, and do feel free to direct me elsewhere if so.