Saturday, 26 January 2013

Which Sense of "Right"?

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 1

The words right and wrong have two possible senses: they could be equivalent to correct and incorrect or they could be equivalent to moral and immoral. While these are conceptually distinct (the first set of senses pertain to claims while the second set of sense pertain to actions), the way we use these terms becomes confused. For instance, when you are hiring "the right person" for a particular position, what sense of right is meant? It seems that it tends to mean "correct," but it may not always be so. While this semantic confusion is not the subject of this post, I'm generally thinking about the way correctness and morality have been collapsed and I will try to un-collapse them.

(Do people know what I mean when I say "collapsed"? I am not sure if this is an academic/humanities term which has no currency outside of that field.)

I remembered getting into a disagreement with a friend over whether I ought to do a particular kind of action; I thought that it was an unethical kind of thing to do, but she thought that it was perfectly acceptable and probably even advisable. I'm sure I've had this kind of disagreement many times with many people, but what made this time memorable is that we rather quickly got at the heart of the disagreement: I believe that ethical action in that case was based on the altruistic attempt to prevent discomfort and other harm in those around me, while she believes that ethical action is primarily based on supporting fair action and acting fairly yourself. I value making others feel safe; she values equitable action. I was concerned that she thought that I thought that she was unethical, so I assured her that while I disagreed with what she thought was ethical practice, I recognized her as a good and principled person.

In other words, I was saying that I thought she was incorrect about what was ethical, but that, given her error, she was being ethical. (Or, if you like, she was wrong about what was right, but given her wrongness, she was right.) Presumably she would make the same claim about me.

Such a claim can destabilize morality, I quickly realized. How do you assess if someone is a good person?* Is that assessment based on ethical action--that is, the person's actions are typically in conformance with morality--or ethical intent--that is, the person honestly endeavours to adhere to morality? I ask because if such an assessment is based on action, then I would presumably only decide that those who adhered to my sense of morality are ethical people. If such an assessment is based on intent, then I would presumably decide that anyone who acted in accordance with their own sense of morality could be a good person; they may simply be a good person who does not-so-good things. My statement that I believed my friend was a good, ethically-oriented person, despite our disagreement about the best way to think of morality, seems to fit in the second claim.

The obvious trouble with this way of thinking about the goodness of a person is that, under such a rubric, someone like Hitler would be a good person. I do think some people would count as not-so-good people: there are probably quite a few folks who do not honestly attempt to do the right thing, either because they do not bother to define what the right thing is or because they have a strong sense of entitlement (that is, what they expect of other people differs drastically from what they expect of themselves). But there are selfless, well-intentioned monsters, and they count as good people as I seem to be defining it. So is there a way of tweaking this conception without either giving up the capacity to make such judgements or limiting goodness to only the way I understand it?

I have three provisional approaches to this problem:

1. A person might need to be within an acceptable degree of error. Some ethical approaches are more incorrect than others; if we say that radically incorrect kinds of ethics should be obvious in their flaws--that is, that only a person who did not do due diligence in thinking about ethics could subscribe to such a way of thinking of ethics--then we might be able to say that being too incorrect about ethics is itself unethical. Messing up the ratio between fairness and harmony/comfort is not so bad because both are goods and it just the ratio that is in error; advocating for racial purity is pretty bad because racial purity is not a good at all.

2. A person might need to have a particular set of ethical beliefs in order to be considered good; any other error is acceptable so long as this set of beliefs is intact. For instance, my friend and I both believe that compassion and altruism are important as bases for other ethical considerations. So is it possible to list a set of ethical beliefs that are non-negotiable? If so, I would put compassion and an incredible distaste for violence on that list, but I know that there are radical consequentialists who would not. (As Mycroft says to Sherlock, “Caring is not an advantage.")

3. It may be the case that I am reasoning from the interpersonal ethics of friends and small groups to the society-wide ethics of politics. Getting the balance between fairness and comfort honestly incorrect might be acceptable when we're talking about whether you should date two people at once (for example), but it might be absolutely unacceptable to make an error in the ratio of goods when we're talking about economic policy or immigration law.

Index Post

*I recognize that the legitimacy of making this kind of judgement is in question, and it needs to be. I will talk about this in a later post.

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