I propose that a property is morally relevant just in case it must, ceteris paribus, determine the moral status (the rightness or wrongness) of actions having it. The main part of the paper concerns the conditions under which the ceteris paribus caveat is satisfied, that is, when other things are equal. I argue that the caveat is satisfied when, with respect to a proposed set of morally relevant properties, an act differs from its alternatives at most in the degree to which it has one of those properties.
Since other things are seldom equal, it is natural to wonder why what is true when they are equal should be important when they are not. That is, why is moral relevance, as I characterize it, a useful moral notion? I suggest that it is only by recognizing the moral relevance of properties that we are able to engage in useful moral thinking about the future.
Theories incorporating this kind of pluralism have an obvious advantage: they reflect the general structure of common-sense morality. For surely one of the most conspicuous features of common-sense morality is that it involves competing moral demands of seemingly different kinds.3 Constructing a theory incorporating property ethical pluralism also faces a number of challenges, two of which will be the topic of this paper.
The first challenge is to provide an account of what makes a property morally relevant. I will argue for an account that is a distant relation to G.E. Moore's isolation test for intrinsic goodness.4 The proposal is that what makes a property morally relevant is that it is the kind of property that in some idealized situation always determines the moral status of actions having it. The idealized situation that is the appropriate one is captured by the ceteris paribus caveat. So, roughly, the proposal is that a property is morally relevant just in case, other things being equal, it determines the moral status of any action that has it. Explicating the caveat `other things being equal' in a moral context is the core of meeting the first challenge and will be the main focus of this paper.
There is another challenge to the view that I shall defend. It has recently been emphasised by, for example, Jonathan Dancy.5 I am going to characterize a property as morally relevant when, in some idealized situation, it always makes a moral difference. The challenge is to explain how what is true in some idealized situation has any bearing on what is true, or morally relevant, in the ordinary, complicated, non-idealized situations in which we find ourselves. For example, let us say that, other things being equal, lying is morally wrong. Why should we take this to give us any useful information about actual cases of lying in situations where other things are not equal? It certainly does not tell us that we should never lie. What does it tell us about what we should actually do?
I will argue that what properties we accept as morally relevant should not be based on the accident of the situations in which we find ourselves. Instead, it should be based on something quite general, something that I take to be accommodated in an appeal to idealized situations. In addition, I will argue that this sort of generality is required for useful future based thinking about moral requirement.
It would be simplest to take it to be the material conditional, with the appropriate quantifiers. But doing so would be a mistake. The truth conditions for these conditionals allow them to be true if the antecedent is never satisfied. If we allow such vacuous truths, it is too easy for a property to be morally relevant. Any property which is never actually isolated in any action would be a morally relevant property. This includes every impossible property, every necessary property, and every property that, contingently, is never had by an action and every property that, contingently, is had by every act. Alternatively, if we were to add a condition to the proposal requiring that the antecedent is satisfied,6 being a morally relevant property is made too difficult. Since, morally speaking, the world is a complex and messy place, there may be properties that we want to count as morally relevant that never, as a matter of contingent fact, occur in isolation. It is just for these reasons that the `other things being equal' caveat is thought to point towards an idealized situation.
An obvious way of understanding the conditional so that what is morally relevant does not depend on the contingencies of what actually happens in this way is to understand it as a counterfactual conditional.
Indeed one counterfactual account is fairly prominent, appearing to underlie the views of, for example, W. D. Ross and Frank Snare.7This account claims that each actual act that has a morally relevant property could have had it in isolation, and, if it had, its possession of that property would have determined its moral status. It is crucial to note that this is a claim about how each actual action could have been. Consider a possible example. Assume that the only two morally relevant properties are being an instance of not causing harm and being an instance of keeping a promise. That an act involves keeping a promise will not always decide its moral status because some such acts will involve causing a lot of harm. This counterfactual account claims that each act of which this is true could have been one in which promise keeping is isolated, and, if it had been, this fact would have decided its moral status.
An alternative counterfactual account says that a property is morally relevant when some action could have had it in isolation, and, if it had, it would have decided the moral status of the action in which it was isolated. This version differs from the previous one in that it does not require any actual action to be such that it could have had the property in isolation. It just requires that each morally relevant property be such that some action could have had it in isolation.
Although there are particular problems with the first counterfactual account,8the very idea of giving a counterfactual account seems misguided to me. For a property to be a morally relevant property, counterfactual accounts only require that it decides the issue in some situations in which it is isolated in an action. Consider the following counterfactual: If the property P had occurred in isolation, it would have decided the moral status of the action that had it (in isolation). For this counterfactual to be non-vacuously true, it need not be the case that all situations in which P occurs in isolation are ones in which it decides the moral status of actions having it. Of all of the possible situations in which P occurs in isolation, the only ones relevant to the the counterfactual's evaluation are those that are most similar to (or relatively similar to) the actual situation.9 This would mean that what happens when a property occurs in isolation, but in a situation remote from actual situations, is irrelevant to whether a property is morally relevant. This feature of counterfactual accounts seems unsatisfactory.
My view is that an account of moral relevance should require that for a property to be morally relevant it must be possible that it occur in isolation, and, in every possible situation where it does, it must decide the moral status of the action in which it is isolated. Consequently, I believe that the appropriate way to look at the conditional is as one bound by a necessity operator. So, a morally relevant property is such that, necessarily, if it is isolated in an action, the possession of the property by that action will decide the moral status of the action.
(1) Possibly, there is an agent, s, and action, a, such that a is available to s, a has P, a has no other MRP and none of s's other alternatives have P or other MRPs; and
(2) Necessarily, for any agent, s, and action, a, if a is available to s, a has P, a has no other MRP and none of s's other alternatives have P or other MRPs, then a's possession of P decides the issue morally for s.
MRP1 has two glaring problems. The first is that it is circular. The second is that it may be that properties that we want to count as morally relevant cannot occur in the absence of other morally relevant properties.
It is circular because it isolates one property in a class of properties by simply stipulating that the others in the class are being excluded. This circularity is not acceptable when the isolation of the property is essential to characterizing membership in that very class of properties about which the stipulation is being made.
Circularity would be avoided by enumerating the other morally relevant properties. For example, instead of saying that the action does not have any other MRP, we could say that the action does not have any of the enumerated properties P1,..., Pn. But adopting this strategy has an unacceptable cost: it would require a commitment to just those enumerated properties as the morally relevant ones. I believe that this would make the account of moral relevance unacceptably specific. It would be better if the account were neutral among views about which particular properties are morally relevant.10
There is a strategy for eliminating the circularity that I think will work.11Remember, the problem is to isolate conceptually the property under consideration from other morally relevant properties without appealing to the moral relevance of the other properties (circularity) or enumerating them (too specific). We overcome this problem by giving an abstract specification of the class of morally relevant properties.
Instead of directly characterizing properties as morally relevant when actions having them satisfy certain conditions, a general characterization of an entire class of properties is given. We can then say that a property is morally relevant when it is in that class. We do not give conditions for inclusion in the class. We cannot evaluate properties one after another to see if they are in it. Instead, we give some conditions that the entire class must satisfy. It is by the mechanism of considering the entire class that we avoid the circularity problem, while avoiding the problems associated with simple enumeration of the properties. My account will incorporate this.
We first have to say that all properties come in degrees, from degree 0 to degree 1. An action's not having a property is the same as its having it to degree 0. If an action has a property that does not come in varying degrees, then the action has it to the maximal degree it is possible to have that property: degree 1. Given these, I hope harmless, stipulations, we can compare the degrees to which any two actions have some property. We can now say that the appropriate isolation occurs when one alternative has one of the properties in the class to a greater degree than any of its alternatives and, of the properties in the class under consideration, the alternatives differ only in the degree to which they have that property. This notion of isolation solves the above problem because when two alternatives differ at most in the degree to which they have one morally relevant property, the other morally relevant properties, to put it crudely, cancel one another out.
It may be that there are some (morally relevant) properties that are such that the relative degree to which actions have the properties cannot vary independently. This would mean that in every possible situation where an action has one of the properties to a particular degree (say n), the action also has to have another of these properties to a particular degree (say m). If it turns out that there are such odd morally relevant properties, then I am forced to treat them as the same property. Or, rather, as an essentially compound property. This seems satisfactory since when one occurs to a particular degree this is then a certain sign that the other occurs to a particular degree.
Admittedly, this characterization is a bit complicated. However, the idea behind it is not. What it says is that a property is morally relevant when, under certain conditions, it must determine the moral status of acts having it. More specifically, condition (1) requires that it be possible that each morally relevant property be isolable; condition (2) says that when the properties in C1 (positive properties) are isolated, actions having them them are morally required; (3) says that when the properties in C2 (negative properties) are isolated, actions having them are morally prohibited; and condition (4) says that only the properties in C1 and C2 can decide the moral status of actions.
Consider the lawlike statement `other things being equal, one ought to keep one's promises'. On my view, promise keeping can only be morally relevant if it is possible that it occur in isolation from other morally relevant properties. Pietroski could account for its moral relevance even if it could not occur in isolation. This is because each time it fails to determine the moral status of an action having it, there is an explanation of that failure.
Nonetheless, I think that my approach is better. Pietroski's view seems to have the consequence that every ceteris paribus principle is true, or every property is morally relevant. This is because when any possession of any property does not determine the moral status of an action possessing it, there is, presumably, some explanation of why it does not. Consider the following lawlike statement: other things being equal, if a person has blue eyes, that person ought to be tortured. Being blue eyed, I hope that this lawlike statement is false. Yet each instance of a person's having blue eyes and not warranting torture can be explained. The fact that torture causes pain would do as an explanation.
It would be relatively easy to give conditions that exclude complex properties constructed out of `basic' ones and for choosing between equivalent sets.17Conditions could also be given that exclude the trivial satisfaction of MRP2 by the properties of being morally required and being morally prohibited. However, I do not see a need for any of these conditions.
If we allowed classes with generated complex properties, we would still allow classes without them. Also, properties such as being morally required and being morally prohibited are morally relevant and it would be a mistake to think otherwise. It is just that the recognition of the moral relevance of the complex generated properties and properties such as being morally prohibited is not very informative. Being a pluralist, I believe that there is another, more enlightening, pair of classes of properties that satisfy the conditions for moral relevance.
Nonpluralists might also want to allow the possibility of there being different sets of properties that satisfy MRP2. For example, consequentialists who hold that being an instance of maximizing utility can satisfy MRP2 could also hold that individual properties that are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad are morally relevant.18They would be looking at two different pairs of classes of properties. Although the properties in one pair of classes might be more fundamental than the properties in the other, there is no reason to deny that the properties in each are morally relevant. My conclusion about uniqueness is that if it is required, it can be had by tinkering with MRP2. However, it just does not seem to be required.
Each of the negative morally relevant properties, the properties in C2 of C, founds an analogous principle of prima facie prohibition:
The number of principles satisfying these schemata depends on the number of properties in C1 and C2. Each is a fundamental moral principle: they are indirectly defined in terms of moral obligation and prohibition, which are themselves not defined.
If we consider my account, we can put the problem this way: Why should the mere fact that a property determines the moral status of an act in some merely possible situation mean that it is morally relevant to the moral status of any actual act? And why should the fact that a property is morally relevant in some actual act mean that it is relevant in every possible situation in which an act has it? Accounts like mine are supposed to fail to capture something important we want to say about a property's being morally relevant. What is this important something? Dancy, I believe, thinks that theories of moral relevance must be committed to the view that whenever a property is morally relevant it will `make a difference'.21 And accounts like mine do not have this as a consequence.
If moral relevance is about making a difference, then one might expect that the idea of actual moral relevance is the idea that a property does make a moral difference and the idea of general moral relevance is the idea that such properties always make a moral difference. Such a view would take actual moral relevance as basic and characterize general moral relevance in terms of it.
One way of attacking models of this type is first to argue that their acceptance rests on establishing some sort of analogy between the roles of forces in moral theory and in the natural sciences, and then to argue that the analogy does not hold.23 Although I reject the force model, this approach seems inconclusive because it isn't clear just how close an analogy there is, or needs to be, between moral and physical forces. My reason for rejecting the model has to do with what I take to be the nature of the claim that some property is (generally) morally relevant.
Both versions of the force model propose that actual relevance is basic, and say that claiming that a property is generally morally relevant involves some sort of induction on actual cases. This is not how I see things. I take general moral relevance to be the basic notion. The main reason for thinking that this is so is that otherwise the truth of normative theories would be merely contingent. I do not want the fact that being the keeping of a promise is a morally relevant property to depend on the contingent fact that people sometimes make promises. This would mean that if no promises were actually made, then being the keeping of a promise would never have actual moral relevance, and consequently, would not be morally relevant at all.24Since normative theories can be distinguished by what properties they say are morally relevant, if we allow that there could have been different generally morally relevant properties, depending on what properties were actually relevant, we would end up with the possibility that some different normative theory could have been true.25But what normative view, if any, is correct is not generally taken to be a contingent matter.26 One way to avoid the possibility of there being different morally relevant properties at different worlds is to characterize them in the way that I have, which makes true statements of general relevance conceptual claims.27 So my account takes a notion of general moral relevance as the basic one and defines actual moral relevance in terms of it.28
Utilitarians such as G. E. Moore, for example, are not merely claiming that it is contingently true that intrinsic goodness and badness are the most basic morally relevant properties (other than moral rightness and moral wrongness); they are claiming that they are the only properties that can make an act obligatory. Similarly, pluralism, of the sort I would want to defend, claims that there is a plurality of properties that are generally relevant. I need not, as Ross did not, claim that I know what they all are. But whatever they are, it is not a contingent matter that they are morally relevant. It may even be true that some of these properties never determine the moral status of any actual act.29At least nothing I have said requires it. It is enough that they must do so whenever they occur in isolation.
Our thoughts about the future have to be fairly general, because we are not in an epistemic situation that would allow us to know the full details about particular situations that we will face. We cannot imagine future situations in full enough detail to know exactly what will make a moral difference. The contingencies in which we find ourselves are just too complicated. Consequently, moral thinking about the future--for example, planning, prediction and education--all have to rely on our recognition of general features of situations. Recognition of what properties can make a moral difference gives us some of the information that we need for this future based thinking. For example, the reason I try to avoid making promises that I cannot keep is that I know, other things being equal, that I ought to keep each of my promises. That is, I know that the making of a promise is morally relevant to what I should do. Yet I also know that it is possible that I will find myself in situations where I ought to keep few, if any, of the promises that I actually make.
My claim is that the properties on which we focus when we do this future directed thinking are all properties that we think are generally relevant to moral outcomes. They are properties that we think can make a moral difference. It also seems that the very same properties that we invoke in moral thinking about the future are the properties that we invoke in explaining the moral status of present actions and past actions. Consequently, it is hard to see how we could do without some appeal to a notion of general moral relevance, and it is hard to see how we would go about explanation and justification involving present moral situations without appeal to the very same properties that we use in future directed moral thinking.
However, before the view can be defended, it must be stated. Central to a statement of a pluralistic view is an explication of the notion of moral relevance. I have explicated what I believe to be the appropriate notion: a property is morally relevant just in case (i) it is possible that it occur in isolation and (ii) it must determine the moral status of any action in which it is isolated.30
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