Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Wrongs and Faults

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Wrongs and Faults

Article excerpt

I

THE ELEMENTARY MORAL DISTINCTION. The ultimate objects of moral assessment are people and their lives. I will call this the "elementary moral distinction." Many today seem to have lost sight of it. How often are we told that we should show respect for other people, only to discover that what we are actually being asked to show respect for is how those other people live? (1) The equation of the two should be resisted. We do not always respect a person by respecting how he lives. Sometimes quite the reverse. If someone is wasting his life but still deserves to be respected, the default way to show him the respect that he deserves is to do something that improves the way he is living--shake him out of it, block his path, change his incentives, shield him from further exploitation, and so forth. Sometimes, of course, there is no action open to us that will yield any improvement in how he lives, while on other occasions the only things we can do are disproportionate. In such cases we have to tolerate his continuing to live as badly he does. But toleration is one thing, and respect is quite another. Toleration is the moral virtue of those who appropriately curb their wish to eliminate what they do not respect. One cannot respect the way someone is living and tolerate it at the same time. (2)

In philosophy, the contemporary neglect of the elementary moral distinction owes much to Kant. I am not thinking here of Kant's much-advertised (and much-misrepresented) doctrine of respect for persons. Insofar as Kant said anything of note about respect for persons, his views were consistent with those I just sketched. (3) Rather, I am thinking of Kant's more distinctive doctrine that a morally perfect person cannot but lead a morally perfect life. This doctrine is now often remembered, thanks to a famous exchange between Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, under the heading of "moral luck." Kant is cited by both Williams and Nagel as the philosopher who most sweepingly rejected the possibility of moral luck. (4) But on closer inspection Kant did nothing of the kind. He merely argued that morally perfect people cannot be morally unlucky in their lives. (5) Thanks to the nature of morality, he said, they cannot live lives falling short of the morally perfect lives that they deserve to live. But Kant never denied nor gave us any reason to doubt that morally imperfect people can live lives that are morally worse, or indeed morally better, than those that they deserve to live. Nor, for that matter, did he deny or give us any reason to doubt that whether someone is a morally perfect or a morally imperfect person could itself be a matter of luck.

So Kant certainly did not attempt to abolish the elementary moral distinction. But it is true that a decline of philosophical sensitivity to that distinction has been among Kant's most enduring philosophical legacies. Kantian thinking, philosophical and popular, has simplified and radicalized Kant's own views on the subject of moral luck. So much so that even a retreat to Kant's own more modest views is sometimes perceived as a bold anti-Kantian move. Consider, for example, the group of contemporary moral philosophers who march, albeit not in an orderly fashion, under the banner of "virtue ethics." Claiming to revive a pre-Kantian tradition of ethics traceable back to Aristotle, many of them favor "virtuously" as an answer to the question, "How should one live?" (6) Ironically, this was precisely Kant's answer to the same question, and it was one that Aristotle explicitly rejected. (7) One should of course be a morally virtuous person. That much is analytically true and accepted by Aristotle and Kant alike. But no amount of moral virtue, on Aristotle's view, ensures that one leads a morally perfect life. The morally perfect life, rather, is the life that a morally perfect person would want to live. Owing to bad luck, even a morally perfect person may live a morally imperfect life. …

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