Monday, December 15, 2014


176. Moral failure

The multiple causality of moral conduct set out in the preceding item in this blog can be employed to analyse moral failure.[i]

It can be put together in the following scheme

material cause > formal cause  >  final cause > moral action
perception           moral ability  >   motivation        |
                                        |                          |              |
                            conditional cause     efficient cause
                            moral principles       moral position, role
                            context of action               

Moral failure can now be traced to lack in one or more of the causes.

First, moral principles may be lacking. Second, one may fail to have the requisite perception of a situation. Third, one may be unable to see its moral salience in relation to the specific context of action, or one may be unable to conduct the requisite action (for example inability to swim and make a rescue). Fourth, there may be lack of motivation to act accordingly. One may disagree with the moral principles (people ‘should be left to fend for themselves’), be weak in will, be simply too lazy, give priority to self-interest (afraid to drown oneself), or be confronted with conflicting duties (leaving an infant in hazard on the embankment if one jumps in). The last depends on the position of the agent and roles he has to play.

Moral role models help to develop especially moral ability and motivation. Think of parents, friends, teachers, sages, etc. Here literature may help, as an exercise in moral judgement, as I argued in items 92 and 120 of this blog. Take, for example, Ian McEwan’s latest book (The childrens act), in which a judge is faced with a series of moral conflicts and paradoxes. 

In tragedy, the moral agent has a choice only between morally bad options. The classic case is that of the Greek general Agamemnon who had to choose between sacrificing his daughter or the army he led. As DeLapp pointed out, here moral failure can be condoned, but it would be morally dubious if the agent were not plagued by qualms of self-doubt or self-recrimination.

As DeLapp also pointed out one may profit from a morally dubious situation without being causally responsible for it. The example he uses is profiting from discrimination (in getting a job, say), while disapproving of it. But the question then is how much effort one is making to ‘change the system’.

In item 166 I discussed the issue of moral justification of harm that is foreseen but not intended. Collateral damage of bombing, for example. I showed how this can be approached distinguishing between guilt and punishment. To establish guilt one should look at one’s responsibility as a cause of harm. For punishment, on the other hand, mitigating circumstances are taken into account, such as the ones discussed above, lack of ability, pressure of self-interest (e.g. survival), conflicting obligations. Past conduct and expectations of future conduct also matter. Did the culprit admit guilt, express regret, and was that credible in view of past conduct?

What about the conduct of bankers in the recent financial crises? They made profits while hiving off risks of failure onto society. They claimed that they were not aware of the risks of their conduct for society (material cause), or that their conduct was dictated by the demands of capital markets or organizational culture (conditional cause), or that they obeyed prevailing ethics in financial markets (conditional cause), and were unable to escape from them (formal cause), or were forced by the responsibilities of their positions (efficient cause). Those arguments are either not credible or not adequate. They are mostly excuses for masking the self-interest of profit, bonus or job (final cause).  
 


[i] As in the preceding item in this blog I employ the moral issues raised by Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013. However, my arguments and conclusions differ.