An Interesting Asymmetry in Common-Sense Morality

I was driving Dave Schaffer to the bus station this past week–Dave’s a member of this blog, but has never contributed and, possibly, never visited, a speculation this very comment should confirm or disconfirm–and he pointed out an interesting asymmetry in common-sense morality.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Suppose there is an action, A, that harms you but benefits me.  The fact that A benefits me is not a moral reason for doing A.

But suppose that A harms me but benefits you.  The fact that A benefits you looks like a moral reason for doing A.

What I mean is this:  If I’ve harmed you, then pointing out that the harm done to you benefited me appears to carry no moral weight whatsoever.  But if I’ve harmed myself, then pointing out that the harm done to myself benefited you seems to carry at least some moral weight.

The possible tension is this:  It seems plausible to say that morality is all about coming to recognize that no one person’s interests, including my own, count for more than the interests of others.  This idea is at the heart of both Kantian moral theory and Utilitarianism, albeit developed of course in very different ways.  But if no one person’s interests, including my own, count for more than the interests of others, nor should they count for less than the interests of others.  But from a moral point of view it does seem–at first glance, anyway–that my interests count for less than the interests of others, since it’s harder to justify, morally speaking, the harm I do to others than the harm I do to myself.

This is an interesting tension.  Any thoughts?

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9 Responses to An Interesting Asymmetry in Common-Sense Morality

  1. Josh says:

    Seems like confirmation that Nietzsche was right – “common sense” morality is just systematized, self-hating resentement.

  2. Nates says:

    Well, before we leap to Niezschean egoism, is there any chance the difference has to do with our autonomy? We think it important that we have certain moral rights to do what we want with our own lives–including harming ourselves. So, when I harm you, I do two wrongs: the harm itself and the violation of your autonomy. When I harm myself, I do only one wrong. Thus, it’s easier to justify the latter than the former. Does that work?

  3. David says:

    Hi Nates,

    I think that’s a very intuitive response, but I suppose the problem I have with it is this. (You will have heard this line of response from me before.) Suppose you are feeling miserable because your wife left you and you lost your job. Creditors are at the door, and you’re feeling hopeless. In fact, you want to end it all, but you’re squeamish, and so you ask me to kill you. My intuition is that I do something more seriously wrong by satisfying your irrational request than you would do if you killed yourself. In neither case, however, has your ‘autonomy’ been violated.

    I think two responses are available to you, neither of which strikes me as wholly satisfactory. First, you might just deny the intuition that your suicide is less immoral than your consensual homicide. Second, you might say that your autonomy is violated in the consensual homicide case because your ‘consent’ or ‘request’ is clearly irrational. The problem here, however, is that this would seem to imply that you violate your own autonomy when you irrationally kill yourself.

    What do you think?

  4. Nates says:

    I think I’m willing to bite the bullet and say that irrational suicide violates one’s own autonomy. In fact, I don’t think it’s as weird as it first sounds. After all, part of the tragedy of these situations is that we believe the person would have acted differently if they were capable of thinking clearly. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, in these cases, powerful and destructive emotions that are alien to one’s autonomous self (because they are not amenable to reason) end up violating one’s autonomy.

  5. David says:

    This is convincing, Nates.

    There remains the following question. If Nates’ (i) irrational suicide and (ii) Nates’ (irrational) consensual homicide both involve violations of Nates’ autonomy, and both inflict the same amount of harm on Nates, why do we intuitively judge the action in (i) less seriously immoral than the action in (ii)?

    It occurs to me that here you may want to say something like the following. Well, these actions are equally immoral, but they are not equally *blameworthy.* After all, the agent in (i), Nates, was in the grip of powerful and destructive emotions that were not amenable to his reason and which undermined his control. But the agent in (ii), David, was not in the grip of any such emotions, should have known better, etc. Thus what we initially take to be an intuition about the relative wrongness of the acts is really an intuition about the relative blameworthiness of the agents who perform these (equally) wrong acts.

    That actually sounds pretty good. I think you’ve shown me how to answer a question that has been puzzling me for some time. Thanks!

    • Juan says:

      quick thought,David:if you are right about the distinction between blameworthiness and morality of actions, it seems that more would need to be said to justify this.if i haven’t violated anyone’s autonomy and my action caused the same amount of harm, why would i be more blameworthy? one would normally think that assignments of blameworthiness are grounded in one’s actions, but in this case the actions are just as immoral. so another ground needs to be found in order to justify the intuitions of blameworthiness we have.finding such a ground may not be easy.
      one could just say that the intuitions are just misguided and the two persons are just as blameworthy.im afraid this will collapse back into the old view where there’s no point in drawing the distinction in the first place (because you might as well stick to the reply that says that our intuitions about the immorality of the action are wrong,and that the two are equally immoral, and end the story there).

      in your reply above, you suggest that one might be blameworthy for using their reason in the wrong way.that, however does not achieve the level of discrimination we need, it’s too general.we would have to say, on this view, that the person who kills you is just as blameworthy as me who smoke when i know i shouldn’t. we both are using our reason in the wrong way(because,again, the killer is not judged to be blameworthy on the basis of his action:that is just as immoral as suicide).perhaps there are degress of using your reason in a bad way?

      another objection is this:maybe Nates is not in the grip of destructive emotions when he wants to kill himself, and he is perfectly rational.what then?unless we make it analytic that whoever kills themselves is not acting reasonably/rationally.i dont see why this is anaytic.even if you have a reply to the previous paragraph,this still seems to be a problem,because you need another source for blameworthiness (not non-amenability to reason,yet something else, but what?)

      • David says:

        Good to hear from you, Juan! I suppose my thought was that the actions may be equally immoral, but then considerations involving the circumstances of the agents–circumstances both external and internal–may underwrite judgments of unequal blameworthiness. Of course, I also think this can be run the other way–that is, we can imagine cases where we think agents are equally blameworthy despite performing actions that are not equally immoral (for example, this is how I’m inclined to regard two assassins, one of whom hits his target while another misses due to divine intervention).

        I didn’t mean to suggest that suicide is by definition irrational. To the contrary: I’m inclined to think that when the captured spy swallows his suicide pill rather than face torture-unto-death acts rationally. My point was that the person who commits suicide (S) MAY be less blameworthy than the person who helps another person commit suicide (H) if, for example, S’s will was impaired but H’s was not.

        • juan says:

          this looks fine to me.so a person’s blameworthiness is a function of (at least) 2 things: 1.the action (how much harm it causes,say) 2.the internal state of the agent. variation along any of these 2 parameters may yield to differences in blameworthiness.
          ill let u know if i have any further comments.for now i am very satisfied with your reply.

  6. Nates says:

    Yeah, that sounds like it works. I was actually having some nagging doubts about the difference between (i) and (ii), but I hadn’t figured out what to say there.

    Hmm, this philosophy blogging is good stuff…

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