Some philosophers – let’s call them “teleologists” – believe that there is an intimate connection between deontic terms like ‘required’, ‘ought’, and ‘permissible’, on the one hand, and evaluative terms like ‘better’ and ‘best’, on the other.
Teleologists face a problem with the intuitive idea of supererogation. This is the idea that sometimes we are not morally required to do the morally best thing, but may permissibly take options (e.g. to pursue our own personal projects, or to safeguard our own interests) that are morally suboptimal. As Sam Scheffler would say, we sometimes have an agent-centered prerogative to act in morally suboptimal ways.
In this post, I shall argue that two attempts at solving this problem – a simple threshold view, and a dual-ranking view – face serious intuitive difficulties. The best solution, I shall suggest, is not a dual-ranking view, but a triple-ranking view.
Teleologists think that the acts available to an agent can be ranked, from morally worse to morally better. (In my view, this need not be a ranking of the acts’ [total] “outcomes” or “consequences”, in the consequentialists’ style: it may fundamentally be a ranking of the acts themselves.)
Intuitively, it seems clear that supererogatory acts of heroic or saintly self-sacrifice are morally better than the acts that are just barely morally permissible. So, according to one simple view, there is just a threshold on the moral ranking of acts. What is morally required of the agent is that she should do something that is at least as good as the threshold. In effect, this is a kind of satisficing view: what is required of the agent is just that she must do something that is good enough.
However, this approach seems intuitively wrong. Suppose that I make a big sacrifice of my own interests to save some people’s lives, but I save these people in a way that doesn’t save their sight – they all end up becoming blind – even though at no greater cost to myself I could have saved their sight as well as their lives. At least so long as these people’s losing their sight wasn’t part of my intention in acting, this act seems to be morally better than my just doing the bare minimum required – i.e., just doing nothing and allowing all those people to die. So the act is above the threshold. But it seems morally impermissible: in this case, I am morally required, if I save these people, to save them in a way that saves their sight as well as their lives.
Reflections on this case may seem to motivate a “dual-ranking” view of the sort that has recently been developed by Douglas Portmore.
One key insight behind the “dual ranking” view is that the notion of what is morally required is not the same as the notion of what one ought to do, all things considered. I ought, all things considered, to buy a new pair of shoes, but I am not morally required to do so. There seem to be two main differences between these notions.
The reasons that make it the case that I ought to do something can include non-moral reasons, but the reasons that make it the case that I am morally required to do something must primarily be moral reasons.
If I am morally required to do something, then – unless I have an adequate excuse – I can be appropriately blamed by other people for failing to do it; but there are some acts that I ought to have performed (like buying a new pair of shoes) that no one else is entitled to blame me for.
What I ought to do, all things considered, is determined by how much all-things-considered reason I have in favour of each of the available acts. In this way, these acts can be ranked in terms of how much reason, all things considered, I have for doing them. So, we can make sense of two different rankings of acts: a ranking of acts in terms of how much moral reason I have for these acts, and a ranking in terms of how much reason I have for these acts all things considered. According to the dual-ranking view, an option is morally impermissible if and only if it is inferior to an alternative on both rankings.
This dual-ranking view handles the case that we have just discussed. In that case, the option of saving-no-one is not inferior to any alternative on the ranking in terms of reasons all-things-considered (and so this option counts as permissible), but the option of saving-these-people’s-lives-but-not-their-sight is inferior to the option of saving-both-their-lives-and-their-sight on both rankings (and so counts as impermissible).
Nonetheless, this view has problems with other cases. Suppose that I face four options: (a) I could sacrifice my own life and thereby save 5,000 people’s lives; (b) I could do nothing and save no one; (c) I could save 1,000 people at a cost to myself of $2,000; or (d) I could save 1,000 people at a cost to myself of $5,000. In the moral ranking, let us assume, (a) is morally best, and (b) is morally worst, while (c) and (d) lie in between (a) and (b). In the ranking in terms of all-things-considered reasons, let us suppose that (a), (b) and (c) are none of them inferior to any alternative, while (d) – in which I pointlessly impose an additional cost of $3,000 on myself – is inferior to (c).
In this case, the dual ranking view implies that option (d) is morally impermissible: it is inferior to option (a) in the moral ranking, and inferior to (c) in the ranking in terms of reasons all-things-considered.
But it is surely much too demanding to say that (d) is morally impermissible. Suppose that I help other people in a way that is not heroically virtuous, but goes significantly beyond the bare minimum that is morally required. Then, even if I do this in a way that imposes some unnecessary costs on myself, my action is surely not morally impermissible. No one else would be entitled to blame me for making the mistake of imposing these unnecessary costs on myself, given that I am also clearly going above and beyond the call of duty in helping people.
To solve this problem, we need a different approach. Roughly, I propose that what we need is a triple-ranking view. According to this view, there are three rankings: the ranking in terms of the moral reasons, the ranking in terms of all-things-considered reasons; and a ranking in terms of the non-moral reasons (such as the reasons of self-interest and the like).
On this triple-ranking view, an act is morally impermissible only if (i) it is inferior to an alternative on the all-things-considered ranking, and (ii) that fact is explained by the moral reasons against the act, and not by the non-moral reasons against it.
In effect, to be morally impermissible an act must not just be inferior to an alternative act in both the moral ranking and the all-things-considered ranking; it must also be inferior to an alternative act in the all-things-considered ranking precisely because it is inferior to an alternative in the moral ranking, and not merely because it is inferior to an alternative in the purely non-moral ranking.
In the example that I gave, the reason why saving 1,000 people at the unnecessarily high cost of $5,000 to myself is suboptimal in the all-things-considered ranking is not that it is morally suboptimal; the reason is that the act is suboptimal in prudential / self-interested terms. This is why the fact that it is suboptimal in both rankings is not enough to make the act morally impermissible.
Some readers might think it is too complicated to appeal to so many different rankings. But each of these rankings just reflects a different value or family of values. The idea that there are many different rankings is just the familiar idea that there are plural and conflicting values. This familiar idea seems to necessary to make sense of our intuitive judgments of moral permissibility.