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.