“Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reasons,” (Guest Post by Mitchell-Yellin for Normative Ethics July)

It is Normative Ethics Month at PEA Soup. Today’s post is by Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin (Sam Houston State University). Take it away Benjamin:

Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reasons

There are two senses in which a piece of conduct may be “immoral.” On the one hand, it may be impermissible; it offends against the dictates of morality. On the other hand, it may be blameworthy; it licenses criticism of the agent. Correspondingly, there are two kinds of moral theory: those according to which impermissibility and blameworthiness can come apart and those according to which they cannot. On the first kind of view, one may do something immoral in one sense but not the other. On the second kind of view, conduct that is immoral in the one sense is also immoral in the other. My aim in this post is to offer an argument in favor of the first kind of moral theory.

Astute readers may be scratching your heads. Mill’s (2017, 43) savior and Kant’s (1997, 11) shopkeeper are famous examples of folks who did something blameworthy-but-not-impermissible. What’s new to see here? Well, these are cases of someone doing the right thing for the wrong reasons; I want to focus on cases of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Such cases may be rather widespread. And they anchor an interesting argument in favor of moral theories that allow that the two senses of immorality can come apart, one that can supplement familiar considerations in this ballpark.

Here’s a sketch of what I have in mind. Our conduct is sometimes (often? always?) constrained by institutional structures. Some of these institutional structures require impermissible conduct. But one may act within such institutional constraints with the best of intentions, and so do something that is impermissible-but-not-blameworthy. We should prefer a moral theory that allows for this category of conduct.

To illustrate further, consider the case of a judge presiding over the sentencing of a young, single, black mother for possession of crack cocaine in a jurisdiction with disparate sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine. He is deeply pained by the racial disparities that both explain and issue from the harsher sentences for crack, has written about this in legal journals, and acts on his convictions by donating to political groups working to repeal the relevant statutes. He thinks there are no good legal or moral grounds for treating the one form of cocaine different from the other. And he does what’s in his power to minimize what he sees as unjustified extra harms that come with a crack conviction. For example, he gives the mother the minimum sentence allowed by law, places her in the closest prison to her child’s future residence, and adds notes to her file in support of the earliest possible parole and release. As much as cases like this pain him, he recognizes that if he were to step down or try to avoid hearing them, some other judge would. And the outcome would likely be worse for people like this mother. Other judges may hand down harsher sentences than the minimum, not take an interest in placing her close to her child, and so on. In short, though he thinks the legally mandated sentence in this case is wrong, he takes an active role in issuing it in order to minimize the harm to this woman and her family.

Two things strike me as true about this case (though I’d be very interested to hear from those who disagree). First, our judge does something wrong, in the sense of impermissible, in handing down this sentence to this woman. This would appear to hold given any of a number of accounts of wrong action—it offends against the virtues of justice and fairness; it decreases overall happiness; the sentence is justified only by reasonably rejectable principles; etc. Second, his handing down this sentence is not blameworthy. Nothing about our judge’s attitudes or the reasons for which he acts are objectionable. He is doing his best to mitigate a harm he recognizes and continues to take active steps to eliminate from the criminal justice context. His conduct may not be permissible, but it also doesn’t lack moral worth and doesn’t display bad moral character. We might summarize the situation as follows: our judge’s heart is in the right place, but his hands are tied by a morally unjustified criminal justice system.

This case illustrates the main claims in the above sketch of an argument. Moreover, it should be easy to come up with other cases with relevantly similar features—that is, cases where institutional constraints require impermissible conduct, but where one may engage in such conduct in a manner that renders it not blameworthy. The issue is not confined to esoteric features of our social world. Thus, we appear to have good reason to conclude that our preferred moral theory should allow for the possibility of impermissible-but-not-blameworthy conduct.

In closing, let me say something about what agreeing with me about this commits you to. First, it’s compatible with various moral frameworks—virtue theoretic, consequentialist, deontological, and so on. So it should be a widely acceptable conclusion. But, and this is a second point, it’s not toothless. There are different ways of fleshing out a moral framework of a particular sort, and some fleshed out views would be ruled out by our conclusion. For example, one may need to adopt an Aristotelian, as opposed to Platonic, virtue theoretic approach (Cf. Slote 1997). The point I hope to have convinced you of is this: no matter your preferred framework, your moral theory should recognize the possibility of doing something impermissible-but-not-blameworthy.

Works Cited

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. and ed. Mary Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism: with related remarks from Mill’s other writings, ed. Ben Eggleston (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2017).

Michael Slote, “Agent-Based Virtue Ethics,” in Virtue Ethics, eds. Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 239-262.

25 Replies to ““Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reasons,” (Guest Post by Mitchell-Yellin for Normative Ethics July)

  1. Interesting piece. My immediate reaction is that this is an instance of a contrary-to-duty-obligation (if there are such things). There is an extensive literature on this topic, and I assume that the locus classicus is Chisholm’s ‘Contrary-to-Duty Imperatives and Deontic Logic’, Analysis 24 (2):33-36 (1963). I’m sorry to say that I don’t (at this point) have anything interesting to say about the topic. I’m very interested to see what other people have to say though.

  2. Interesting!

    I take it that dirty hands cases don’t have to arise in institutional settings (although they often do, such as in cases of the politician who has to order a torturing). Do you think that the institutional setting is particularly important, and is there a distinction between your sort of case and cases of dirty hands?

    I also wonder what impact blameless wrongdoing has. Stephen de Wijze thinks that the politician who thinks torture is wrong but who orders that a suspect be tortured because it is likely to avert a tragedy might rightly be punished. Can the judge be punished (say, by fellow members of the political pressure groups to which he donates)? And what sort of impact does blameless wrongdoing have on the judge? John Gardner thinks that such a thing might blemish one’s life, even though one did as well as one could… what do you think? Does the judge live a worse life in duty of having to hand down this sentence?

  3. Surely the relevant test for utilitarianism is not whether an action “decreases overall happiness”, per se, but how it compares with other actions. If we assume, as you imply, that the judge has no better available options (he could resign, but then the woman would get a worse deal; he could attempt to break her out of prison, but that will fail), then it’s false that he does something wrong according to utilitarian standards. (I appreciate that you don’t explicitly say that his action is wrong by utilitarian standards, but I assumed this was what was implied by the observation that his action decreases overall happiness).

  4. Interesting stuff, Ben. I don’t want to get hung up on particular examples, but I don’t find the judge blameless. Indeed, I think it’s pretty hard to be blameless in ordinary, modern life, especially given widespread information about how our actions affect others. But that’s because I take blameless to be without *any* blameworthiness, so even small degrees of blameworthiness would suffice.

    Why should we be confident in thinking the judge blameless?

  5. Hi Kent: Thanks for the reference! I’ll be sure and take a look at this literature, with which I’m not very familiar. At present, I’m not sure whether the sort of case I’m describing in the post fits the model of a contrary-to-duty-obligation. But I suppose it is worth noting that one thing that attracted me to thinking about these sorts of cases is that they seem to highlight different aspects of our moral thinking. It seems to me that making sense of what to think about the judge’s conduct is best served by distinguishing between two perspectives we can take on people’s conduct. Scanlon (2008) has nice labels for the distinction I have in mind: we use moral principles in their *deliberative* mode when answering questions about permissibility; we use them in their *critical* mode when answering questions about blameworthiness. Looked at in this way, the judge case doesn’t look like one of competing duties or obligations, but rather one of competing perspectives (on our part). But I’ll go ahead and admit that I’m not certain whether appearances are misleading here; perhaps it’s better to understand the case such that the tension in our thinking is resolved into a case of competing duties and obligations.

  6. Hi Jake: Thanks for your questions! I’m not sure that there is a distinction between the sort of case I have in mind and cases of dirty hands, but I’m also not sure they’re identical. They certainly seem to share many similarities. But (and this hopefully comes out a bit in my response to Kent, above) I think that the way I am suggesting we should think about these cases is different than the ways in which I am familiar with people thinking about the problem of dirty hands.

    As for the institutional context, I’m not sure it’s essential to cases of impermissible-but-not-blameworthy conduct. But I do think that the institutional context is probably a source of many such cases; it is a way of bringing out their ubiquity. Furthermore, I think that the way of thinking about these cases that I suggest in the post provides a nice way of thinking about the moral life of individual actors within institutional settings. We are prompted to describe individual actors as doing something impermissible, as opposed, say, to describing the case in terms of an institution doing the wrong thing. This strikes me as a helpful corrective to lots of discussion of structural injustice. Such discussion, in my view, often misleads us into ignoring the important roles that individual actors play in perpetuating injustice. But I think it’s important to see that there’s some needed nuance here. Individual actors may be doing their best to mitigate institutionalized harms; we recognize this in claiming that they’re not blameworthy.

    As for punishment, I am inclined to think that the judge’s blamelessness precludes the propriety of holding him responsible, say, by punishing him. But I’d be interested if others disagree. And I’m not entirely sure what to say about his quality of life. I suppose I think that his life is worse for him having to hand down this sentence. It would be better if he lived in a world where there were no such sentencing disparity. Indeed, he’s working to make this so. So, I think even he’d recognize that this blemishes his life. But his efforts to mitigate the harm seem to me to show that his life could be going much worse; he could, for example, gleefully hand down this sentence in the most punitive way possible. He could conduct himself in a blameworthy manner.

  7. Hi Ben: Thanks for the comment. I am inclined to think that it’s so much the worse for the utilitarian if their view has it that the judge does nothing wrong. On the one hand, it seems clear to me that something wrong has been done to the defendant here. And, on the other, if you claim that the wrong wasn’t committed by the judge then you’ve located it in the wrong place. Noticing that the judge has done something wrong helps to highlight the role that individual actors play in the context of immoral institutions. It would be unhelpful to say that the wrong was committed by the criminal justice system, or something like that. But, and this is why it’s helpful to pair this claim about impermissibility with one about lack of blameworthiness, it’s also helpful to note that in doing wrong the judge is not criticizable. This helps curb against undue criticism, say, of those trying to reform the system from the inside, as it were. What do you think?

  8. Hi Ben – Thanks for an interesting post (which I should have said before, sorry). On the utilitarian point, my aim was just to push back a bit on the implicit suggestion – which may not have been intended – that the judge does something wrong on a standard utilitarian account.

    While I can certainly see the appeal of the view you set out, let me try to outline a case for the opposite view a bit more. Imagine that the judge asks a similarly-minded friend what he ought to do. Indeed, he could even ask the defendant herself what she thinks he ought to do, though that would be problematic for obvious reasons. In either case, it seems entirely natural for the person he asks to say, “Well, given your situation, what you ought to do is apply the minimum sentence”. That seems the right thing to say, and it implies (though by no means proves) that the judge then does the right thing (i.e. the thing he ‘ought to do’).

    You suggest that this kind of view is going to be unable to highlight the role individuals play in immoral institutions, and that it would be unhelpful to say that the wrong was committed by ‘the system’. I certainly disagree with the second part: noticing that a wrong is primarily systemic can be very important in guiding us about where we ought to devote our energies and attentions (e.g. not at this particular judge, but at those who set the institutional rules, the general unexamined public attitudes that contribute to a racially biased culture, etc.).

    On the first part I’m unsure; I can certainly see that the judge might (perhaps should) feel guilt and shame at participating in such an unjust system, even if he thinks he has done the best he could out of all his options. Maybe that’s sufficient for concluding that he did something wrong. But it might also be sufficient for concluding that he’s (a bit) blameworthy: certainly guilt and shame may be forms of self-criticism, and so this would also seem to contradict your suggestion that he is not criticisable. We might say that, though he did the best he could (and so his wrong was less serious than it might have been) he still did the wrong thing by enforcing the norms of an unjust system. And though he deserves some credit for applying the lightest available sentence, he still deserves some blame for applying an unjust sentence.

  9. Hi Matt: Thanks for your question! I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince you, and I’d be really interested to hear why you think the judge is at least a little bit blameworthy here. Also, I think I agree that it’s very hard to be blameless in real life. In fact, trying to come up with a case in which it seems plausible that the judge is not blameworthy, even a little bit, is tricky. (I hope folks think I succeeded!)

    Here’s what I have in mind when I say that I think he’s not blameworthy: it seems to me as if his attitudes are not criticizable; he exhibits good quality of will; he correctly responds to the relevant reasons; he doesn’t impair his moral relationship with the defendant, her family, the community, and so on. As this list suggests, I think that the claim that he’s not blameworthy is supported by various accounts of blameworthiness, so I’m not trying to rest my case on a particular account (though I do have my preferences, and I’d be really interested to hear if others think that I can’t help myself to certain accounts). My basic thought is that the judge is doing the (morally) best he can in a really (morally) bad situation. And as the case is set up, bowing out would be a morally worse course of action. So, given that he has to do something, he is doing his best and in so doing displaying the right kind of sensitivity. Thoughts?

  10. Thanks for the reply, Ben. You’re raising some great challenges to the view I suggest in the post. I’ll try to respond to each point, but please feel free to point out if I miss something.

    On systemic injustice: Part of what I was trying to say in my earlier remarks is that in order to properly guide our energies and attentions towards systemic injustices, we need to make claims of systemic problems more transparent to the roles of relevant actors within the system. Now, you might disagree about my interpretation of the role the judge plays in this case. But your comment about lawmakers and the public suggests that you do think that combating systemic injustice will be aided by identifying particular actors playing key roles in developing and maintaining the system. So our views are pretty close here. What I want to claim about the judge is that it’s important to acknowledge that his handing down this sentence is morally wrong, because this highlights important features of the system. First, it highlights the fact that he has been coopted by it. Second, it highlights how thoroughly he has been coopted by it. Even trying his best to mitigate the harms, he can’t eliminate the wrong in this case–at least, not immediately and by himself. Third, it highlights the predicament of well-meaning actors within unjust institutions. They are often called on to do wrong, and the best they can do, sometimes, at least, is to try and mitigate the harms wrought by their conduct within the institutional context. Fourth, we should want some such actors as the judge because (a) we have unjust institutions and (b) there are willing actors who might otherwise step in to play these roles and who would gladly do more harm in executing immoral policies. And treating the judge as blameless strikes me as a way of encouraging him to work within the system to reform it for the better. Fifth, I don’t want to rule out paying attention to other actors (such as the ones you suggest), but I don’t want to lose sight of the judge’s role either. I’m sure there’s more to say here, but I’ll move on.

    On guilt and shame: I’m not entirely sure what to say here. I think that part of the importance of maintaining the claim that the judge does something wrong here is that it helps to make sense of why these reactions may seem appropriate. I mean, if the judge went home feeling completely satisfied with his day’s work, that would seem to count against his moral character. But I’m not sure that he should feel guilty. Perhaps he should fell morally sad. And perhaps this moral sadness would prompt even more advocacy work to try and change the system. But that’s not the same as saying he should feel guilty or ashamed. After all, he has something to say in defense of what he did; he mitigated the harm as best he could, given the context.

    A final point: You say at the end of your comment that “though he did the best he could … he still did the wrong thing by enforcing the norms of an unjust system.” I totally agree with this (though I disagree with he next sentence about deserving blame). But I’m having a hard time squaring this with your claims to be pushing back on my interpretation of the case by defending the utilitarian view that he does nothing wrong here. It seems to me that by the end of your comment we’re on the same page, at least with respect to the impermissibility of the judge’s conduct. Am I missing something? I fear that I must be. Sorry for that.

  11. A quick clarificatory question: is it stipulated that the judge does the morally best action available to him in the circumstances? Or is it an open possibility that what he really ought to do is engage in a kind of legal ‘nullification’, i.e. giving less than the legal ‘minimum’ sentence?

    If he really does the morally best thing, then I don’t think it makes sense to still call the act ‘impermissible’. (You’d have to endorse moral dilemmas then.) The problem does seem to lie entirely with the system, and not at all with the judge. Alternatively, if he merely does the best of the options compatible with respecting the system, when he really should instead simply violate the institutional rules, then I don’t see the grounds for calling him blameless.

    P.S. For a different approach to “blameless wrongdoing” (which you may already be aware of, but flagging just in case), see Parfit’s *Reasons and Persons*. Parfit’s cases involve suboptimal acts that stem from optimal (caring) motives, e.g. buying your kid a nice birthday present instead of donating the money to effective global charities.

  12. Hi Richard: Thanks for your questions and comments! I suppose I was imagining that the judge does the best he can in the situation. Now, I’m not entirely sure what to say about moral dilemmas. But I’m also not sure that I completely understand your proposal.

    On the one hand, you say that his doing the morally best thing in this context undercuts the intelligibility of saying that his conduct is impermissible (on pain of endorsing moral dilemmas) and also that, in this case: “The problem does seem to lie entirely with the system, and not at all with the judge.” But why draw a sharp distinction between the two? The judge, acting as a judge, is part of the system. And the sentencing guidelines seem to require that judges hand down morally impermissible sentences. So, I’m not sure how to avoid the conclusion (granting the stipulation you highlight) that what the judge does is impermissible. In other words, I’m not sure why we should say that the system wrongs the defendant, rather than that the judge wrongs the defendant. It seems to me that the system wrongs the defendant in virtue of the judge handing down the sentence required by the system.

    On the other hand, you note that we could allow that the judge could (and ought to) violate the guidelines. But in this case, you say, he wouldn’t be blameless in handing down the required minimum. I wonder why you pivot to blame here. Wouldn’t you want to say, in this version of the case, that what he does is impermissible, as it violates what he morally ought to do? He may also be blameworthy, in this version of the case. But, even if the case I present in the post isn’t convincing on this point, I don’t see that we get to straightaway read off blameworthiness from wrongdoing. So, I wonder what you have in mind here that leads you to focus on blame in the version where he has a morally better option.

    (And I appreciate your flagging Parfit’s discussion of related issues. I’ll go back to that!)

  13. Why draw a sharp distinction? Well, it allows us to avoid saying strange things, e.g. that it’s impermissible for the judge to perform the morally best action. 🙂

    We can say the system is a bad one because of what it requires of the judge without this normative evaluation transmitting to the judge’s action. Why? Because different alternatives are relevant to the two evaluative focal points. The system is worse than an available alternative (i.e. which gave the judge better options). The judge’s action is not worse than any available alternative. So there are criticisms that are apt to apply to the system (in virtue of its effect on the judge’s actions) that are nonetheless *not* apt to apply to the Judge’s actions.

  14. Thanks Ben – The issue isn’t with your understanding, but with my clarity! Essentially I’m conflicted, because I can see the plausibility of the utilitarian view (as also outlined by Richard Y-C), in that it seems strange to say that the judge acted wrongly in doing the morally best thing! However, I can also see why the judge might have certain justified emotional responses (as might the defendant, her family, etc.) that would suggest some level of wrongdoing. As I say, that seems to me also to be evidence for blameworthiness. But I think that’s why my response was unclear – it’s because your original post is pulling me in two directions! I’m very interested by your five-point defence of describing the judge’s action as impermissible, and I’ll have to think about it some more. Cheers.

  15. Aren’t there trivially lots of cases where people do the wrong thing for the right reasons when they have bad moral luck?

    Whenever an agent has misleading evidence about what the good or bad making features of an act we can construct a case where she acts for the right reasons (her evidence tells her that her act has the best balance of right and wrong making features) but it turns out that the act is wrong (her act had some sufficiently sub-optimal level of wrong or bad-making features).

    Suppose a hundred miners are trapped in a mine collapse. A rescue worker has two courses of action available to her. Of her two options, her evidence tells her that option A is most likely to save everyone while option B is most likely to get everyone killed. Hence she takes option A. Unfortunately, as a result, of taking option A, everyone dies. If she had taken option B instead, she would have, against the odds, succeeded and saved everyone. Option A turns out to be wrong even though her evidence indicated that it is right. Clearly the worker acted for the right reasons even though she acted wrongly.

    If the above example is too consequentialist, consider the following one instead. If a baby and a parrot are trapped in a burning building, while it may be permissible to not rescue either at great cost, it is impermissible to rescue the parrot but not the baby. If there was only a parrot inside the building, it would be permissible to rescue the parrot. Suppose a firefighter goes into the building and knows there is a parrot but does not know that there is a baby. She therefore rescues the parrot, but not the baby. She therefore acts impermissibly. However, she acted for the right reasons.

    We can diagnose a general formula for such cases. In general, people can act only on the basis of evidence-relative or belief-relative reasons. Most theories of morality posit that at least some of the right or wrong making features of actions are fact-relative. That is, what makes an action wrong or right depends at least in part on how the world actually is. As long as an agent has misleading evidence about these wrong or right-making features but is motivated in the right way, she can act wrongly for the right reasons.

  16. Hi Richard: Sometimes things are strange and we may have to say strange things to accurately describe them. I’m honestly not sure what to say here. But I really appreciate your pressing me on these points. I’ll have to think a bit more about them. (This isn’t meant to shut down conversation. If you’ve got more to say, I’d love to hear it!)

  17. Hi Murali: Thanks for bringing up these cases! They’re an interesting alternative to the sort of case I present in my post. But I’m not sure they’re as straightforward as you present them in your comment.

    For one thing, it’s pretty standard to think that ignorance is excusing only if it is non-culpable. So, the firefighter, for example, would have to be non-culpably ignorant of the baby’s presence in the house for her to count as acting for the right reasons. If she just rushed in without doing a proper search, didn’t ask the residents about who might be in there, etc., then there seem to be good grounds for claiming that she did not act for the right reasons, despite her ignorance.

    For another thing, it seems reasonable to think that non-culpable ignorance may be exculpating. If there are no good grounds for thinking that the firefighter should have been aware of the baby’s presence in the house, it may be the case that she didn’t act impermissibly.

    The bottom line seems to be that it can be tricky to get the details of the case to work out such that the firefighter acts both impermissibly and blamelessly. So, while there may be cases in this ballpark that would work in the way you suggest, I’m not sure that there are trivially lots of them. Thoughts?

  18. Hi Ben,
    You’re right that the firefighter has to be non-culpably ignorant of the baby’s presence. We can think that each of the baby’s parents thought the other parent had the baby and so did not report that the baby was still inside. She would not have acted on the right reasons if her ignorance was culpable.

    Suppose that the firefighter was non-culpably ignorant. It’s unclear why that means that the firefighter acted permissibly. After all, it seems appropriate for the firefighter to feel regret or maybe even guilt if she later discovers that there was a baby that she could have saved but didn’t. If this latter intuition is correct, then while she is blameless, she did make a mistake and hence acted impermissibly.

  19. Hi Murali: I’m not sure. Perhaps it may be appropriate for the firefighter to feel regret or guilt. But you can regret things that aren’t wrong; maybe the same can be said for guilt, too. You might do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Also, it may be appropriate to suggest that she shouldn’t feel this way. “After all,” her friend might say, “you didn’t know about the baby through no fault of your own. No one could’ve known.”

  20. Hi Ben,
    Interesting post!

    I’m curious to hear what you think about the stronger, positive, claim one might make about the judge’s conduct–namely that, not only is it not-blameworthy, it’s praiseworthy (yet wrong). Of course, I understand why it might not be felicitous to advance the stronger claim, as a dialectical matter, until one’s established that the judge is not blameworthy for acting wrongly (but I’m not sure about this.) You at least come close to the idea that the judge may be praiseworthy for his wrongdoing, when you say that his conduct “doesn’t lack moral worth” (though it may be worth noting that on many standard views of moral worth, what’s necessary is doing the *right thing* for the right reasons), or in reply to Matt, when you write that he exhibits good quality of will and respond to the relevant reasons.

    It’s not difficult to imagine that budding judges concerned with racial inequality might view the harm-minimizing judge’s conduct with admiration, giving him credit for, as you say, doing the (morally) best he can in a (morally) bad situation (especially when this is viewed as part of a larger effort, involving his legal research and political donations, to ameliorate the relevant racial disparities). I think it’s compatible, by the way, with the judge’s being praiseworthy that he fittingly feels certain negative self-directed attitudes about what he’s done (e.g. agent-regret/reflexive pain in it’s being *he* that hands down the unjust sentence to the mother, etc.).

    Anyway, part of why I think this is relevant is that my judgement that the judge is not-blameworthy follows on the heels, in some sense, of my positive assessment of the judge. It’s not just that I take the judge to have an excuse for his unjust conduct; rather, given that he’s acting from good will, exerting considerable effort and energy to bring about the best practically available (but nonetheless unjust) state of affairs for the mother and her child, his conduct strikes me as a way of acting praiseworthily in an unjust world.

  21. An interesting topic and debate. A small side point. Why do you think Kant believes that the shopkeeper who is honest from self-interest or from inclination is blameworthy? Sure, he’s not praiseworthy, but that is not enough to show he deserves blame.

  22. Hi Dan: Thanks for asking a really interesting question! I’ve been sitting here trying to formulate a response, and I’ll just go ahead and admit that I’m really not sure what to say. You give some good reasons for thinking that the judge is praiseworthy, especially the idea that he seems to be an admirable role model for up-and-coming judges. But you also correctly note that, since I claim that the judge doesn’t do what’s right (he does the wrong thing), this wouldn’t square with standard views of moral worth. And it just feels off to me to praise someone for doing wrong.

    Maybe the thing to say is that he’s admirable for how he comports himself in the context of the moral quagmire he finds himself operating in, but that doesn’t make him praiseworthy. This way we avail ourselves of your attractive thought without taking on unnecessary baggage. Thoughts?

  23. Hi David: Great question! You’re right to point out that I may not be accurately describing Kant’s interpretation of his case. Lacking moral worth, or not deserving praise, doesn’t amount to deserving blame. For that matter, I may not be describing the case in a manner that most people would be on board with. I may even have described the two cases (Mill’s and Kant’s) in ways that go beyond what I need them for. What I need these cases for is to show that assessments of conduct in terms of rightness/wrongness can come apart from assessments of conduct in terms of praiseworthiness/blameworthiness; one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons (or, perhaps better, not the right-making reasons). I take it that this isn’t a radical idea, and that these cases are used by others to this effect. But perhaps my terms weren’t as precise as they should’ve been.

    That being said, I’m not sure that Kant’s grocer isn’t blameworthy, even though he did the right thing. [Note: Here I’ve changed the description a bit, from “not-impermissible” to “right.” I think this is more standard.] I’ll try and say something about why. I envision the case as going something like this: the grocer sees a young child walk into his store, realizes that he can easily rip her off, but refrains from doing so because he knows this will hurt his future profits. The very same motivation that almost gets him to overcharge the young customer is the one that gets him not to: profit-motive. What he does accords with duty, but he is not motivated by duty. Nor is he motivated by any number of other morally relevant considerations–e.g., respect for her, concern not to harm her, fairness, etc. He is motivated by his desire to get more money. In acting from this motive, and in failing to exhibit any of the other motives just listed, it seems to me that the grocer has exhibited poor quality of will, failed to respond to relevant moral reasons, impaired his moral relationship with her, and so on. He strikes me as blameworthy. It’s not simply that what he does doesn’t rise to the level of deserving praise; he has conducted himself in a manner that deserves blame.

    Again, I don’t want to claim that this is how Kant must be understanding his case. But it strikes me as a plausible way of understanding it. What do you think?

  24. Many thanks for the helpful expansion of the sort of example you have in mind. I do think that the shopkeeper in the case you describe is open to moral criticism. The issue that I find perplexing is whether his act or his conduct is itself blameworthy, or whether, as you rightly say, it is his character, or his poor quality of will that is blameworthy. My worry about all these complex cases, and the excellent discussion has shown their complexity, is there is a danger – to which philosophers are prone – of having too few boxes as it were. We can assess his action (and part of the issue is what is included in that), or his attitude, or his motives, or the quality of his will, and so on. If I am given one category to assess, namely his act, and just two tick boxes, namely permissible / impermissible, blameworthy / not blameworthy, I am inclined to protest that the nuanced verdict I want to give is being forced into a straitjacket.

  25. Hi David: I’m glad you found my reply helpful. Your question was a great one. I wholeheartedly agree that this discussion has revealed some important complexities in these kinds of cases. I have a great deal to think about, including your further comment about a paucity of boxes. Thanks!

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