Category Archives: Moral Harm and Moral Worth

The Moral Harm of Flouting Cost-benefit Calculation

This post offers further considerations about the notion of moral harm introduced in my Dec. 27, 2013 post.

Might people who hold that cost-benefit calculation is the fundamental way of making moral judgments, eg. utilitarians accept the following? If they would, that would indicate acceptance of the notion that there is a type of moral harm based in the nature of how humans ought to be. And this harm is not the type of harm they consider in cost-benefit calculations! In this case, the “abused” component of our nature is our economic rationality. It is possible for a person to engage in a cost-benefit calculation and choose a less than the best alternative on a whim or some hunch “Oh, what the f—, let’s do it anyway.” This flouting of economic reasoning might be how “people escape from prisoners’ dilemmas.” I suspect some young men have entered years of imprisonment because of imprudent choices expressed with such a phrase.

A few philosophers even dismiss the possibility of cost-benefit calculation being used in moral reasoning. Grizez, Finnis et al. have argued that cost-benefit calculation cannot be moral deliberation since, for them, moral deliberation has to offer alternatives for choice. They hold that once a cost-benefit calculation is made the choice of what is best must occur. See Ch. IX of their Nuclear Deterence, Morality and Realism . I disagree. Recognition of an alternative as best is different from choosing it. Causality amongst peoples’ mental states is statistical. If there is deterministic causation for what we desire, believe and choose it lies at the physiological level. Suppose then someone decides by cost-benefit calculation that a certain act is not most beneficial but nonetheless chooses it, that person made a wrong, or irrational, choice. In addition to the excess harm resulting from the wrong choice, there might be additional harm. The additional harm is the acting contrary to the way a rational being ought to be. Utilitarians may implicitly hold that there may be a moral principle that the way a rational being ought to be is to choose the most beneficial act. And that principle is in addition to their utilitarian principle. Might not utilitarians have a moral judgment and sense that feels repelled by and condemns whimsical or willful imprudence? If so, they have “more morality” than utilitarianism.

Moral Harm and Victimless Crimes

The purpose of this short post is to point out how the notion of moral harm can be used to clarify the notion of victimless crime. See posts for Dec. 27, 2013 and Jan. 4, 2014 for introduction of the notion of moral harm.

There are wrong acts in which no one suffers any harm beyond the occurrence of acts and conditions which are not as they morally ought to be. There is nothing for which anyone should receive reimbursement for medical treatment. If to be a victim is to suffer some
injury for which a person needs treatment, there are victimless wrongs where the wrong may not be a crime. If the harm suffered is moral harm only and the act is illegal there is a victimless crime. Of course, there are in fact victimless crimes in our several communities. The perpetrators of some victimless crimes quite clearly suffer moral harm. For instance, a pimp,in a municipality outlawing prostitution, who treats his girls well incurs moral harm as well as committing crimes.

Are there are victimless crimes where “crimes” means acts which should be illegal. I do not develop a social and political philosophy in my book Confronting Sexual Nihilism . So I do not address carefully questions about criminalizing sexual wrongs which are primarily, if not totally, moral wrongs. My bias is toward decriminalizing sexual immorality which harms no one physically or psychologically. However, I am not a libertarian who holds that we have no business trying to use the power of law to help us becoming morally better. I disagree with Kant who wrote “Woe to the legislator who chooses to use force to implement a constitution directed towards ethical ends.”

Expect subsequent posts on the clergy sexual abuse scandal which make me uncertain about a sharp demarcation between moral harm and other harms.

Moral Harm vs. Sense of Offense

This post relates to my Dec. 27 post in which I introduced the notion of moral harm. Moral harm is the status of the violator of a moral law which results simply by violating the moral law over and above any other consequences of the violation. Here I want to distinguish moral harm from any sense of offense, including guilt, resulting from what we judge to be an immoral act or way of being.
Our moral instincts also include a capacity to feel offended by acts and ways of being.

Our sense of offense is not the kind of moral harm about which I am talking. A sense of offense by itself is not a reliable guide to what is wrong. A moral instinct gives rise to the sense of offense and the normative thought that the act is wrong. The normative thought tells us what the moral harm is. The moral harm is acting contrary to the norm expressed in the instinct. The sense of offense provides a stimulus to think more carefully about what if anything is wrong. However, the sense of offense is not the harm because the sense of offense may diminish after repeated exposure to the wrong act while the instinctive judgment of wrong remains. The harm is derived from the judgment of wrong. An example illustrates distinguishing moral harm from moral offense.

The Target corporation has a “gay friendly” employment policy. Such a policy offends me but after due thought and deliberation I judge it to be morally permissible. Once when I was returning a defective camera the appearance of the courteous and competent young man who served me at a Target service desk highly offended me. Lip-stick and pinkish red fingernails made me avoid eye contact. Still, I do not think that his dressing as he did was immoral. I did not judge hastily by assigning high probability to a suspicion that he engaged in homosexual acts when off-duty. I judge that those acts are morally wrong. The moral judgment flashed through my mind without any sense of offense. Perhaps if I had to witness some of those acts, I would have a sense of offense. However, if I happen to witness the paradigmatically morally proper sexual intercourse of a recently married young couple, I might feel offended or negatively disturbed in some hard to describe way.