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.
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.