Monthly Archives: August 2019

Respect For the Moral Law

In my normative theory of moral harm, I first proposed that moral harm is an ad hoc prescription that harm ought to occur because of a violation of a moral law. For instance, if the moral law is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” and a man perjurers himself by falsely accusing his neighbor of theft, the ad hoc moral prescription is “Harm ought to happen because of this violation.”

Throughout my posts on moral harm, I have usually allowed the ad hoc proposals to be specified in more detail as “Harm ought to happen to perpetrators and accomplices in some proportion to the nature of the violation.” To specify that the harm be to perpetrators etc., helps make my theory closer to common sense.

Nonetheless, once harm is required for violation of a moral law, it remains to ask “For whom?” and “How much?” However, in this post I do not explore the questions of “To whom?” and “How much?” So, feel free to understand these ad hoc prescriptions for harm as demanding punishment to fit the crime for perpetrators. When I discuss collective guilt, inherited guilt and substitutionary atonement it is useful to bring out the separation of the issues of “to whom?” and “how much?”

Here I want to explore the significant enhancement of the theory made in the previous post. The enhancement is that genuine moral thought requires a type of fear. The ad hoc prescription cannot be interpreted simply as a normative statement that harm ought to be done for the violation. As I put it at the end of the previous post on wrath of God.

The major “take-away” from this post is that the prescription in morality that harm ought to happen upon violation of a moral law cannot be regarded as simply the statement of a prescription for harm. It needs to be understood as the expression of a being offended by the violation of a moral law, with the authority to command the harm threatened by the moral law and some capability to bring about this prescribed harm.

Similarly, the basic moral laws are to be understood as the actual commands of a being with the authority to issue the commands. Moral laws are not to be understood as primarily statements of the moral law.

The suggestion that moral laws are primarily statements of what ought and ought not be suggests a distorted picture of morality. It suggests that experiencing what is required by morality is obtained by consulting some moral law book to learn what is required. Now the distortion is not the suggestion of a immaterial moral law book. The distortion is the suggestion that experiencing the moral law is learning the fact that such-and-such IS written in the book. OUGHT cannot be based merely on what IS; not even what is commanded. An ought- an obligation- must be experienced as the reception of a command.

I admit that the suggestion of hearing a command from an immaterial moral authority is no clearer than the suggestion of reading a statement of a moral law in the immaterial law book of an immaterial moral authority. But the analogy to hearing a command corresponds better to the experience of being obligated than to reading a statement of the law.

Unfortunately, any serious discussion of the basic moral concepts will come in conflict with a dominant bias that there is nothing over and above that which can be investigated by the methods of natural science.

Let us return to the main question of this post. Amongst the constellation of concepts for moral thought we have uncovered that in authentic moral thought there is a concept of a type of fear. What is this fear? Like almost all concepts this concept of fearing to violate a moral law is a mixture of cognitive and emotional components: a feeling structured by thoughts. (Sometimes I like to call these thought/feeling complexes attitudes.) There is an emotion of fear but it is structured by thoughts about the moral commands. It’s a fear of the ability and willingness of the moral authority to have the harm which ought to occur upon violation of the law to actually occur. There is this fear about both violating the general moral laws and not having the ad hoc prescriptions for harm not being fulfilled.

I think we can call this fear of violating a moral law RESPECT for the moral law.

(I confess to being influence in selection of this English term for his German term Achtung as the concept characterizing the attitude of genuine moral thought towards moral laws. But I make no pretense of interpreting Kant.)

Why use “respect” which suggests more thought than feeling?

Moral laws are too frequently violated to suggest that people live in terror of the moral authority. Those who try to follow moral laws could be characterized as having a thoughtful fear. Even those of us who think moral laws are commands of God and violations provoke the wrath of God, I think could be characterized by having respect for the wrath of God. We do not expect God to send down fire and brimstone at, say, the many sexual sins. We think that God is offended by what goes on in bathhouses and believe that harm is and will be occurring because of what goes on. But we do not expect anything dramatic to happen. I am personally reluctant to classify the AIDs epidemic as God’s wrath blazing. But maybe I should.

But most of all it must be emphasized that fear of violations of moral laws and prescriptions is not so strong that it overwhelms our free will. Despite fear of violating moral laws, we can, and do, choose to violate them. Yet we can never choose to violate a moral law and have it be a correct choice. “Respect” is a good term for an attitude towards a rule that we know we can violate but can never be right in violating it.

Moral Harm as The Wrath of God

In my previous posts on moral harm, morality has been discussed from a secular perspective. There was no mention of God or divine beings who cared about human morality; let alone created it. I did not take this secular perspective because I do not believe that God cares that humans follow the morality He gives us. I take the secular approach because I want to find the simplest or most basic concepts in our moral thinking. Thinking of a violation of a moral law as simply a violation of a law is simpler than thinking of the violation of a law commanded by God. Finding the simplest concepts in our moral thought enables us to recognize its structure. Recognizing the structure of our moral thinking increases our understanding of what we are thinking when we think morally.

In this post, I want to introduce the concept of moral laws as commands of God. Looking at moral laws as divine commands enables us to think of violations of moral laws as sins. Previously, I proposed from the secular perspective,Revision of Normative Theory of Moral Harm, that moral harm is the addition to morality of a negative prescription that harm ought to be done because of the violation. This negative prescription was characterized as dirt or junk in moral thought because it was something out of place in moral thought. This way of characterizing moral harm makes moral harm something formal or even verbal. However, with moral thought personalized as the thought of God on how humans ought to behave, the prescription that harm ought to occur because of the violation is not simply words. The prescription that harm ought to occur is God’s thought. A thought of God that harm ought to occur because of a violation of one of His laws can be fairly characterized as the wrath of God.

So from a religious perspective common in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the moral harm produced by simply violating a moral law, is the thought of God that now some harm ought to occur to humans – usually the perpetrator.

Unless God relents what He thinks ought to occur will occur. So, when we add a religious perspective, moral harm seems much, much more harmful than when described merely in secular terms.

The major “take-away” from this post is that the prescription in morality that harm ought to happen upon violation of a moral law cannot be regarded as simply the statement of a prescription for harm. It needs to be understood as the expression of a being offended by the violation of a moral law, with the authority to command the harm threatened by the moral law and some capability to bring about this prescribed harm

Moral Harm vs. Moral Injury

I need to distinguish the concept of moral harm from the concept of moral injury. Moral harm is a concept I have introduced to connect a collection of concepts used in discussing morality. These are concepts such as retribution, atonement, collective guilt and penance. The concept of moral harm is offered as a concept to be used in characterizing what morality is – a concept for use in moral theory.

Moral injury is a concept introduced into clinical psychology to discuss the damage done to a person’s moral thought and sentiments after experiencing the stress of situations strongly violating the person’s moral beliefs and sentiments.

“Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound ‘moral disorientation’. The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma. Distinct from pathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event. ”
Continue reading Moral Injury. for more details.

Usually, morally wrong acts cause harm in the natural world: physical or psychological harm. Moral injury is one of many kinds of natural harm which are caused by immoral acts. Moral injury is damage done to individuals by immoral acts. In contrast, moral harm is damage done to human morality simply by the violation of a moral law.

Two examples may illustrate the difference between moral harm and moral injury.

A young soldier has grown to admire the character of his platoon leader during training. This sergeant has become his model of how a man ought to be. He is a good father and husband as well as being a disciplined soldier. However, under combat conditions this sergeant “goes rogue.” He puts bullets into the heads of two prisoners after interrogation and on one occasion shot a woman going to a well because he said she was going to place a bomb in it.The sergeant lets it be known that anyone who reports him might not live long. Besides the physical damage this sergeant inflicts on his victims he also inflicts psychological harm on the young soldier who admired him. The young soldier becomes disorientated in his moral thinking. How could a good man be a killer?

Now the moral harm brought about by the sergeant’s egregious violations of the moral law “Thou shalt not kill” is addition to morality of a negative prescription that ought not be in morality. The prescription is that harm ought to occur to the killer. Morality is burdened with this negative prescription until it is cleaned up by the suffering of harm by the murderous sergeant.

For another example, consider the case of a fourteen year old Catholic boy who is struggling hard not to become a porn seeking masturbator. He recognizes the moral prohibition against intentionally seeking an orgasm outside coitus with a woman to whom he is committed for life. This boy seeks the advice of a priest. After several sessions with this priest, in some of which the priest has viewed pornography with him under the pretext of resisting temptation, there was a session in which they performing mutual fellatio. The boy left in shame and horror. He was painfully confused by sexual impulses and thoughts. Losing direction about what is right and wrong sexually is painful because you are totally under pressure from others on what you can and cannot do; and that direction from the outside, as opposed to inner direction, is totally ambiguous. Destruction of a sense of sexual inner direction along with losing hope in help from religion is a moral injury the priest inflicted upon the boy.

When we talk of sexual abuse, I propose that we restrict it to cases in which there was moral injury inflicted on one of the parties. I doubt that my proposal will be followed.

In this case of the priest and the boy, the moral harm is the damage done to morality by the priest violating the moral law against seeking orgasms outside marriage is a negative addition to morality of the prescription that harm ought to befall him. Our morality will be cluttered up with this negative prescription until some appropriate harm befalls this priest – until justice is done.

If the priest dies before any harm happens to him because of his seduction of the boy, many will lament that justice will never get done in this case. That failure to have justice done will remain forever in our morality as a failure to have a prescription fulfilled.

My notion of moral harm may not be a thought that people want to use explicitly. Indeed I do not know whether anyone has used it before. However, using it does help us understand some moral concepts we do use such as just illustrated: justice being done.

Compassion Undercuts Morality

This brief post draws a corollary from the theme of my previous post You Can’t Have Morality and Deny That There Is Moral Harm. in that post I pointed out that it is irrational to claim “X ought not be done but no one ought to suffer harm if X is done.”

Here I call “Full compassion” a belief and attitude that no one ought ever suffer harm. Of course, full compassion is not ordinary compassion for some individual we see suffering. So-called full compassion requires reflection. However, I submit that it is a widely held attitude. It does not require some bizarre philosophy to develop a belief that we ought to prevent all harm and if that is not possible we ought to alleviate harm as much as we can. But thinking that we ought to struggle to prevent or alleviate all harm is incompatible with seriously thinking that some acts are morally wrong.

Acceptance of morality requires accepting some “hardness of heart.” To be moral we have to be prepared to let some harm happen or even on occasion to inflict harm!

You Can’t Have Morality and Deny that There is Moral Harm

The goal of my exploration of a concept of moral harm is not development of a theory of punishment ; let alone a theory of retributive punishment.

I offered a post The Virtue of Taking Retribution in which my main goal was to show that the notion of moral harm could be used to articulate a concept of punishment as an effort to repair moral harm. Punishment understood as infliction of harm to repair moral harm is retribution.

I admitted that the punishment could have goals such as deterrence, re-education and prevention which all in some way harm the perpetrator. However, the initiation of harm on a perpetrator needed to be for retribution and the amount of harm from deterrence etc., had to be guided in some way by the thought of proper retribution. This discussion was too sketchy to be offered as a theory. It only showed a link between the concept of moral harm and concepts used in developing theories of punishment.

If I am developing any theory, it is a theory that the notion I am articulating as moral harm represents a fundamental notion in human moral thinking. My remarks on punishment were offered primarily to support my theory about the fundamental role of the concept of moral harm in our web of moral concepts. Helping make sense of the notion of retributive punishment provides evidence for the notion of moral harm as fundamental.

Here I want to show that it is inconsistent to make a moral judgment and deny that there is moral harm. I hope that simply reading the claims alleged to be inconsistent will
convince readers of the claims being an assertion along with a rejection of what is asserted.

I consider what I think are the two levels of moral imperatives: Second person and first person.

Second person moral judgments are standard. The judgments are made that a plurality, usually everyone, ought not do such-and-such.
It is inconsistent to assert: X ought not be done but nothing harmful ought to happen if X is done.

For those who might develop a moral theory that each individual had to decide for a particular situation what he ought to do, it is still inconsistent to assert: I ought not do X but nothing harmful ought to happen if I do X.

Revision of the Normative Theory of Moral Harm

Note added 11-1-22 The definition of moral harm below needs revision to make it perfectly clear that the non-moral harm a violator of the natural law prescribes as morally obligatory cannot be the harm the violator chooses by violating the moral law. We canot allow the damage someone brings about in a crime be retribution for the crime. See italicized segment in definition of natural moral harm.

The normative theory of moral harm needs revision. The main result of this post will be some working definitions, based on he revised theory, to be elaborated in subsequent posts.*

If interested see July 5, 2019 version Moral Harm is Moral Judgment.

My normative theory proposed that the moral harm of violating a moral law is the harm which ought to occur because of the violation. As I try to articulate a notion of moral harm, my greatest dissatisfaction with my own normative theory is that according to the theory moral harm is essentially potential and only accidentally actual. This is because whether the harm which ought to occur ever actually occurs is contingent upon natural causation from facts that people think about the violation, e.g. punishment, or natural consequences, e.g. AIDS following upon homosexual activity.

Consider a case of a detective who presents false evidence to convict a man of a murder to ease his work-load. Assume the crime is a killing during a fight in a homeless camp. Suppose also that the man on trial was too intoxicated to know whether or not he had committed the crime. Now on my normative theory the moral harm of a perjury is the harm a perjurer ought to suffer. But if the perjurer gets away with his lie and feels no remorse for his crime no pain which ought to occur because of the violation occurs. The poor wretch languishing in prison is suffering because of the violation of the eighth commandment; not the harm that ought to occur if the eighth commandment is violated.

So I have to go back to the post in which I developed my normative theory of moral harm. In that post I confronted my self with a dilemma. The dilemma emerged when I maintained that over-and-above the harm of any act violating a moral law the mere violation of the moral law was harmful. But what is that harm of merely violating the law? The dilemma is quoted below.

1] am faced with a dilemma between inventing some type of special harm which is necessarily connected with mere violation of a moral law or claiming that some natural harm always results from the mere fact that a moral law is violated.
2]If I invent some special non-natural type of harm such as creating disharmony in the moral order or even offending God, I make claims which I cannot justify since I want to justify my claims about morality on natural grounds.
3]If I claim that some natural harm, such as law abiding diminishes, situations can be invented as Pinker did with Julie and Mark, that shows the harm does not always occur.

I developed my normative theory of moral harm by rejecting [1] . I argued that the harm which ought to follow upon violation of a moral law was natural harm to human beings. However, the natural harm which ought to follow violation of a law frequently never actually occurs.

To revise my theory I reject [2].

I specify a subject – an entity- which necessarily suffers a wound when a moral law is violated. I bring out that what happens to this entity is rightly called harm even if no harm to the mind and body of any human being. While doing these two things I hope to indicate that this subject and its harm are not defenseless phantasies of a philosopher.
Human morality is harmed by any intentional violation of a moral law. There is a human morality even if there are conflicts within it. You can believe in the reality of human morality even if you think that it has been only a product of human thinking.

Human morality is harmed in two ways by violation of a moral law. First it puts junk moral laws into human morality. (Junk is stuff which does not belong.) This junk morality is made up of the new moral prescriptions specifying that harm for humans ought to occur. This is junk in moral thought because moral thought is for promotion of good.; not harm. So, my previous theory that moral harm is the harm which ought to follow upon violation of a moral law is modified to maintain:

Moral harm is the occurrence in human moral thought of a prescription that harm ought to occur because of a violation along with a stress in morality’s authority until the harm which ought to occur upon violation of a moral law actually occurs.

In the case of the lying detective human morality has been burdened with a prescription that some harm ought to befall him and the tension that disobedience to the moral law has not been rectified. Some harm happening to this detective would fulfill, and thereby eliminate, the prescription that he ought to suffer harm and return morality, at least with respect to this case, free from tension of losing its authority.

Upon this definition of moral harm, some definitions are proposed for discussion in subsequent posts

Natural moral harm is the harm which ought to be as a consequence of violation of a moral law and the harm chosen in the violation. Upon violation of a moral law a prescription for natural moral harm necessarily occurs in human morality but it is contingent upon circumstances in the natural world whether or not natural moral harm occurs.

Moral purification for a violation is the removal of moral harm of the violation from morality by the occurrence of the natural moral harm specified by the moral law. Purification removes the junk prescription requiring harm and eliminates the stress in morality of having its threat unexecuted

Moral punishment of a violator of a moral law is the intentional infliction on a violator of what is believed to be the natural moral harm for the violation.

Retribution for a violation is moral purification for a violation by punishment.

Retributive justice is the theory and practice of determining and applying proper punishments.

Penance for a violation is moral purification by a perpetrator by self inflicted harm.

I do not want any blog post to become a treatise although my series of posts on moral harm are steps towards treatise. So, let these definitions suffice for now.

* In conclusion, please note that the revision of the normative theory of moral harm does not affect the value of the moral harm syllogism for attacking an alleged moral principle. See Use of Moral Harm Syllogism in Making Gay OK.