Wrongs and Faults

By Gardner, John | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Wrongs and Faults


Gardner, John, The Review of Metaphysics


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Wrongs and Faults
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.