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A Puzzle About Morality and Rationality

A Puzzle About Morality and Rationality January 9, 2017

NOTE: This post has been edited since it was originally published in light of a very important observation from commenter Angra Mainyu. His comment revealed that I made an error in my original presentation of the puzzle. If you would like more information about this issue, please see the third footnote at the end of this post.

In the comment thread for my post about Derek Parfit, many of us have been talking about whether a person can ever deserve to suffer. In one comment, Keith Parsons made the following very interesting observation:

Aristotle said that no one can claim to be ignorant of the “universal,” that is, the basic principles of right and wrong. Surely, even Assad knows that bombing, gassing, and starving innocent people is wrong, despite any self-serving justifications he tells himself. When people choose to do what they know is wrong, then they are failing to act as rational agents, and we rightly morally censure them.

I am inclined to agree with Keith about this, but I think that his comment suggests a puzzle that is worth thinking about.

Before I get to the puzzle, I need to make some preliminary remarks and clarifications:

Because I think that my points are better made with a fictional person (not to mention that I find Assad’s actions atrocious and don’t really want to talk about them in any context that is not dedicated to condemning and/or stopping Assad), I am going to change the example. My example involves Ralph, a stock-broker who steals money from his elderly clients even though he knows that it is morally wrong to do so. Call Ralph’s immoral act ‘RA.’ [If you don’t like this example, you can let ‘RA’ stand for any immoral action you choose.] So, let’s grant that Ralph knows that RA is morally wrong. Let’s assume what I take to be true, namely, that to say that an action is morally wrong is to say that there are (at a minimum) strong reasons to not engage in the action. And we’ll understand ‘reason’ to refer to any factor that counts in favor of some course of action or inaction. So, to say that Ralph knows that RA is wrong is to say that Ralph knows that there are factors that count strongly in favor of not engaging in RA.

With that out of the way, the following question arises: Why does Ralph do what he knows to be morally wrong? Presumably, as Keith’s comment about self-serving justifications suggests, and given that he is a rational being (by which I mean a being who acts on what he takes to be reasons), Ralph has his reasons. By this I mean that Ralph believes that there are factors that count in favor of his engaging in RA. Of course, that he believes that there are such factors does not imply that he is right, and indeed he is not right; there are no such factors that count in favor of Ralph’s engaging in RA. But, given that Ralph is rational and that he engages in RA, he must believe that there are such factors. So, even though he believes that it is wrong for him to engage in RA, Ralph also believes that he has reasons to engage in RA.

So, what is the puzzle? Well, first notice that it doesn’t seem like we have yet accounted for the fact that Ralph engages in an action he knows to be wrong. We have two claims:

(M) It is morally wrong for Ralph to engage in RA.

(O) Ralph has reasons to engage in RA.***

Ralph believes both (M) and (O). However, (M) and (O) conflict and point to different outcomes. If Ralph is motivated by (M) (or the factors that count in favor of Ralph’s not doing RA), then he will not engage in RA. If he is motivated by (O) (or the factors that, as Ralph believes, count in favor of Ralph’s doing RA), then Ralph will engage in RA. So far, then, we don’t have an explanation for why Ralph engages in RA. We need something else. Presumably we have left something out of our account of why Ralph engages in RA. What we have left out is that Ralph believes that, in his situation, it is permissible for him to engage in RA; i.e. Ralph believes that it is permissible to respond to the reasons that, as he believes, count in favor of his engaging in RA despite the fact that it would be morally wrong for him to engage in RA. Maybe we should say that he believes that his reasons for engaging in RA are stronger than his reasons for not engaging in RA. Regardless, on the assumption that Ralph is rational, I don’t think that we can account for Ralph’s decision to engage in RA unless we attribute some such belief to him. But if Ralph does believe something like this, then he believes:

(P) It is permissible to engage in an action that is morally wrong if there are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of so-acting.*

(P) gives Ralph a way of adjudicating the conflicting reasons that, as he believes, are present in his case and which are referred to in (M) and (O). So, if Ralph also believes

(Q) There are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of Ralph engaging in RA.

then he will be motivated to engage in RA.

But it is hard to read (P) as anything other than a moral belief. That is, the ‘permissible’ in (P) refers to moral permissibility. If that is right, then we have a puzzle. Since we know that Ralph knows that RA is wrong, we know that he believes (M). But if he also believes (P) and (Q), then he believes,

(T) It is morally permissible for Ralph to engage in RA.

So, it looks like Ralph believes both (M) and (T), but then Ralph believes a contradiction since it is impossible for ‘(M) and (T)’ to be true.

You might be inclined to dismiss this as a genuine puzzle because you think that we should not regard Ralph as a fully rational person. But this is actually the point: It looks as if the puzzle arises only when we assume that Ralph is fully rational. This is true, at least, on the account of rationality that I have been assuming in this discussion. What I am assuming is that a rational being is one that always acts on what she believes to be reasons. Thus, when a rational agent acts, she believes that there are factors that favor her action and she acts on those factors.**

So, if we assume that Ralph is rational, we get the puzzle. Here it is again, stated more briefly: Given that Ralph is rational, when he engages in RA, he believes that he has reasons for doing so. The assumption that Ralph believes (M) and (O) [that it is morally wrong for him to RA and that he has reasons to RA] shows us that the fact that Ralph believes that he has reasons to RA is not enough to account for his actually engaging in RA. Given his beliefs (M) and (O), he is at an impasse because he does not know what he should do, all things considered. The best way to account for the fact that Ralph does engage in RA is to assume that he believes (P) and (Q). This allows him to break the impasse and conclude that, once everything has been considered, he should engage in RA. But if he believes (P) and (Q), then he believes (T) and so he believes (M) and (T), which is a contradiction. But it is not rational to believe a contradiction.

So, on the assumption that Ralph is rational, it follows that he is not rational.

I am not convinced that this is a genuine paradox. I think that it is a puzzle that has a solution. The solution that I prefer it to reject the account of rationality that I assumed while generating the puzzle. I think that to be rational it is not enough that a person believes that there are reasons that count in favor of her actions. To be rational, a person must appropriately respond to the reasons that are actually available, regardless of what she believes about her reasons. But I wonder what other people think.

 


*There are other principles that will do. For example, he could believe (W) It is required to engage in an action that is morally wrong if there are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of so-acting. But (W) is not very plausible. Ralph could believe any claim which implies that, at least in relevant circumstances, it is not morally problematic to engage in an immoral act. The point is that Ralph needs some principle that tells him that responding to the factors that, as he believes, favor his engaging in RA even though engaging in RA is immoral.

**She probably also has to believe that these factors constitute good reasons, but I think we can ignore this for now.

***The original version of (O) was as follows: (O) Ralph ought to engage in RA. Angra Mainyu pointed out, I think correctly, that we often use the word ‘ought’ when we are talking about what we should do, all things considered; sometimes this is called the “overall ought.” Since Angra is right about this, my original version of (O) was, at the very least ambiguous and so I need to adjust my presentation of the puzzle. What follows is my account of the problem that I created for myself and how I fixed it.

The upshot of Angra’s observation is that if the ‘ought’ of ‘Ralph out to RA’ is the overall ought, then if Ralph believes that he ought to engage in RA, then he believes that he reasons for engaging in RA that outweigh whatever reasons he has for not engaging in RA. That is, to say that Ralph (overall) ought to engage in RA is to say that, once everything has been factored in, what Ralph ought to do is engage in RA. But if this is the case, then we don’t need (P) or (Q). Ralph’s believing that he ought to engage in RA does the job; that is, it accounts for why Ralph, being rational, engages in RA.

So, we need a version of (O) that does not carry the implication that, all things considered, Ralph ought to engage in RA. My new version of (O), which is Ralph has reasons to engage in RA, does the trick. This is what I had always intended to say, but, since I was a bit sloppy, I ended up saying something ambiguous and potentially quite different from what I intended (not to mention incoherent). I’ve changed (O) in the text above and made some minor changes to the body of the post that were necessitated by that change. My thanks to Angra Mainyu for pointing out the problem.

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