Sympathy and Accidentality

Mill famously pointed out that a great way to make a moral theory look bad is to assume “universal idiocy” along with it. It’s an old trick, and yet sometimes contemporary Kantians (and others) seem to pull off something pretty similar when they make compassion look bad.

Consider a celebrated example from Barbara Herman. If I see a man leaving the art museum in the middle of the night struggling with a heavy package, says Herman, sympathy, if unchecked by duty, which she takes to involve concern for morality de dicto, would move me to help him carry his package. Unaware of Mill’s saying, an undergrad of mine responded to the example by saying that there would have been nothing to check in his case: “I’m not an idiot. I wouldn’t have sympathized with an art thief!”. Thus he denied what some Kantians imply – that when we help for reasons other than concern for moral duty or self-interest our motivation is something they call “sympathy”, which seems to be a childish impulse, perhaps even a compulsion, to remove suffering – an impulse almost entirely indifferent to the context in which the apparent suffering occurs. Christine Korsgaard, who does not accept this view, refers to it as Kant’s belief that emotions are stupid. I call it the Sympathy Myth.

Zoe Johnson King, Keshav Singh and Paulina Sliwa seem to hold a related view: that when I help someone, or do something else morally right, while thinking it wrong, I am at most moved by one of the moral considerations relevant to the case (such as “someone is suffering”) and not by any of the others. If that were true, it would make it quite the accident that I do the right thing in any case to which more than one moral consideration applies. Perhaps Huck Finn seem to have an appropriate reaction to Jim’s predicament – a person being deprived of freedom is prima facie a bad thing – but it is still an accident that he does the right thing because, for all we know, he would have helped Jim even if he were not an escaped slave but an escaped serial killer (worse than an art thief!), or a man suffering from severe psychosis whose pursuers only wanted to provide him with decent treatment, or in any number of possible situations in which helping him escape would not have been the right thing to do.

If Huck Finn would just as soon have helped a known serial killer escape, his action has no moral worth. I have always assumed he would not have done so and I doubt “pre-theoretical” readers of Twain often suspect that he would. To avoid the distraction of arguing literary interpretation, let’s leave Huck alone for a moment and consider Ted, who is not the stuff of great drama. Ted believes drinking alcohol is morally wrong (along with smoking, gambling and non-marital sex). One day Ted meets his friend Clarissa, who tells him about a crisis she is enduring. He knows her well, and he surmises it would greatly cheer her up to have a drink with him, which would help her talk about her crisis. For that reason, he offers to buy them drinks, feeling a bit guilty in the process. Assume that in this case, Ted does the right thing. Does he get any credit?

No, say my interlocutors. It’s an accident that he does the right thing. How lucky is it that she is not an alcohol addict, that he hasn’t solemnly promised to be somewhere else, that Satan did not tell him that the Nazis will take over the earth the next day if they have that drink – well, you see what I mean.

Would Ted have bought Clarissa a drink in all of these possible scenarios? We can’t infer that from the simple fact that he believes he’s doing wrong. We cannot, however, rule out that he would have, at least in some of them. That seems enough for some to conclude that it is an amazing accident that Ted did the right thing. How likely is it, after all, that Ted has beliefs, desires, concerns, and what-have-you such that he would have done the right thing in all of these scenarios?

Note that if they were correct, my interlocutors wouldn’t have yet refuted the view that concern for morality de re brings moral worth. They would not have refuted the view that if utilitarianism is true, a Kantian who, to his chagrin, keeps doing the utility increasing thing in order to increase utility acts with moral worth. They would, however, have indicated that I cannot argue for this conclusion using halfway realistic examples (ouch!), especially not if there are more types of moral considerations than utilitarians believe (spoiler: there are). So, a question rephrased: how realistic is a Ted who, despite not trying to do the right, would have done right in all of these scenarios?

Very much so. Let me explain.

Complicated desire structures are a dime a dozen. Imagine that Goldie, who is middle class, wants to be rich. This sounds simple. However, suppose Goldie is forced to articulate her desires more carefully: perhaps we ask her, by way of a game, what she would wish for if faced with powerful but dreadfully literal-minded Genie. If Goldie is fairly ordinary, she will say something like this: she wants to be rich, but not through a beloved person dying, not if she has to work more than 60 hours a week (unless it’s doing something exciting!), not if a communist revolution is coming soon in which all the rich will be thrown to prison, certainly not if she has to turn into a duck shortly after she signs her lucrative deal with the relevant non-natural entity, and so on. Some of Goldie’s caveats would be idiosyncratic, but many would be banal and easy to imagine, even if next to impossible to present in full (h/t Nic Bommarito, see Don Hubin).

It is equally easy to imagine Ted, a fairly ordinary person who wants the wellbeing of people in general and his friends in particular, would buy Clarissa a drink but wouldn’t have done so if he knew her to be an addict (that falls under my undergrad’s “not an idiot” clause), and not if he solemnly promised to be elsewhere (because, as is also common, he wants to keep his promises) and not if the event would result in the Nazis taking over the earth (because he very much doesn’t want a lot of people to die). The desire or care or preference structure that underlies these choices might be hard to articulate, but it is, like Goldie’s, commonplace.

It is also worth noting – Keshav Singh agrees with me here – that when we have an agent who does the right thing because she does believe it to be right, we also don’t thereby have a guarantee that she would not have done the same thing in circumstances where it would be wrong. Suppose we replace Huck with Chuck, who helps Jim escape because he takes it to be right. Are we sure he won’t have helped a serial killer escape? No, because perhaps Chuck is an anarchist and thinks freeing a criminal is the right thing to do. Are we sure he won’t have let a psychotic escape treatment? No, because perhaps Chuck believes psychiatry is purely evil, a belief I had at some point when I was 15. Similar things happen if we replace Ted with Fred, who buys Clarissa a drink because he thinks he should. Would he have bought her a drink if she were an addict? Possibly, as the morally-minded, too can be factually misinformed. What if he had solemnly promised to be somewhere else? For all we know his simplistic form of utilitarianism leads him astray when it comes to the importance of solemn promises. What if Satan threatened a Nazi takeover of the world? Well, for all we know Fred believes it to be the right thing to promote Nazism. Many people do.

The “long form” of the moral agent’s reason for action is a fascinating topic. Recall that the term “accidentality” as we use it in the moral worth literature is a proxy term for a disconnect between the content of your motive and the rightness of your action that stops that rightness from speaking well of you. On my view, the disconnect consists of the reason(s) for which you acted being different from the reason(s) for which your action is right. If these reasons are complicated – if the full story behind “it protects her wellbeing” is something like “it protects her wellbeing within the limits of respect for her autonomy and without doing anything unfair to others”, questions do arise as to what moral worth looks like, and one of them is whether any partial credit is ever due to those who respond to important components of the story but are missing a piece or two. To be continued.