Nazis vs Bankers: the Silver Lining View

Consider a case of a morally ignorant agent who is doing bad things. Helmut is a devoted Nazi, or at any rate some type of ideologue who does terrible things to members of certain groups because he believes them to be right, whether his victims are Jews, blacks, gays, the infidel, etc. His belief that what he’s doing is right is an honest mistake he picked up starting with his primary school textbooks– not the result of self-deception, hate-filled rationalization, or other motivated irrationality.

There are two common ways to look at him.

Team De Dicto sees him as a person who respects morality (a good thing) but sadly has false beliefs about what it requires.

Team De Re sees him as a person who respects morality-given-some-false-beliefs-about-what-it-requires – which is not a good thing to be respectful of, any more than my-friend-given-the-assumption-he’s-a-murderer is a good person to be respectful of.

A natural way for Team De Dicto’s approach to go would be to declare that Helmut is excused for his bad actions. After all, he is motivated by concern for morality de dicto, which is a good motivation, and only false beliefs make him act badly. So why not say that moral ignorance excuses, in exactly the same way that factual ignorance does?

Some people think this view, defended by Gideon Rosen, too extreme. Do we really want to say that so many Nazis are blameless? (“As a German, I can’t accept this view”, said one of my students). More needs to be said against the view that Helmut is excused – I said some in a paper called “Huckleberry Finn Revisited”. Today I would like to pick on someone else.

Which leads us to the third view, that of Team Having it Both Ways. Look, they say, moral motivation de re is praiseworthy, but moral motivation de dicto is also praiseworthy. Helmut is not excused, because despite his concern for morality de dicto, his indifference to such important de re considerations as the pain of his victims makes him blameworthy. However, his concern for morality de dicto makes him, in a sense, also praiseworthy. Not enough to overwhelm the badness of his lack of concern for morality de re. If he’s a war criminal or a suicide bomber? Not even close, but still, there is a kind of silver lining around his blameworthy actions (and/or bad character), a silver lining consisting in his having the kind of motive that, when resulting in right actions, makes them worthy of esteem. 

Here is an argument against the Silver Lining View.

Premise 1: A motive that leads to unexcused wrong actions does not grant moral worth.

(Standard Kantian assumption, as the fact of a motive leading to unexcused wrong actions indicates “accidentality”. That’s why Kantians think sympathy does not grant moral worth to actions made out of it: sympathy can lead to unexcused wrong actions, as in the case of paternalism, and so when it leads to good actions it does so accidentally).

Premise 2: Concern for morality de dicto leads to unexcused wrong actions.

(The Silver Lining Theorist agrees to that. She holds that 1.the wrong actions of a dutiful Nazi are motivated by concern for morality de dicto and 2. that they are nonetheless not excused.

Conclusion: Concern for morality de dicto does not grant moral worth.

If concern for morality de dicto does not grant moral worth, could it still have some points in its favor? Sure. Even Kantians who think sympathy is only contingently related to morality (and therefore, even when it leads to good actions, does not make them morally worthy) – even they think there are reasons to cultivate sympathy in yourself, or regard yourself as fortunate to have it. After all, a sympathetic person might, as an empirical matter, be more inclined to help people, and thus do the right thing more often. Some Kantians think similar things about a sense of honor. Perhaps, some suggest, something similar can be true for concern for morality de dicto (Sure, it would only increase your chances of doing right in conjunction with the right moral beliefs, but well, a sense of honor would only increase them if you are surrounded by the right people). Even if that worked, it would not give concern for morality de dicto quite the respectability that Team Both Ways wishes for it. In Kantian terms, to really have it both ways one needs to show that those with moral motivation de dicto deserve not only encouragement but also esteem.

You might at this point feel that there is a still a way I’m missing in which Helmut’s concern for morality de dicto – or, at least, his devotion to it – is something about him that is intrinsically good. To nail down this feeling, it is useful to ask: whom is it that Helmut is compared with when he is awarded an intuitive “silver lining” by those pre-theoretically inclined to award it to him? it seems clear to me that Helmut is often contrasted with a person who commits the same crimes for fun, or for her self-interest alone. Or, without even demanding that other things be equal, we compare Helmut to Monty Python’s Merchant Banker, a link to whom is provided above.

Banker is a person seemingly devoid of any motivation other than self-interest. One suspects that his makeup makes him incapable of other motives somehow, or even of grasping them, as he fails entirely to discern them in other people. Helmut, by comparison, “at least has values”, “at least has integrity”, “at least believes in something”.

Wait. At least? The idea that self-interest is somehow a worse motive than the belief that Jews and blacks should be killed is a strange one upon inspection. Take an average person, think of their wellbeing, and think of it as a cause. It is not automatically a bad cause, though one can care about it too much at the expense of equally or more important things. Lucy’s wellbeing is by default a perfectly fine cause for me to have as her friend, for example, or as a benefactor of a more impartial sort for whom she is a case in point. Why, then, does it sound strange to say that it would also be a fine cause for Lucy herself? It’s not in the content, but in the sense that taking up a cause means readiness for (some) sacrifice, which Lucy wouldn’t show by pursuing her own wellbeing. If there is any way Banker is inferior to Helmut, it has something to do with such readiness. Here it shouldn’t matter much if Helmut acts out of flavorless moral motivation (see my previous post) or out of devotion to a hopelessly contaminated idea of morality, or even flat out so that people of certain ethnicities, religions etc. not have good things – as long as there is something for which he is willing to suffer net harm.

Is this really a moral advantage of Helmut over Banker? No. It is not a way in which Helmut is a morally better person than Banker. One could, however, speculate that Banker, if something in his character excludes sacrifice, is missing something that is essential to being a full blown human being or living a full blown human life. He is not a morally worse person, but perhaps he is, in a more Aristotelian fashion, worse at being a person. Writers on meaningful lives can disagree fiercely on whether a Nazi’s subjectively fulfilling life of ideological crime could give his life meaning, but they need not disagree on Banker: he is missing out on meaning, even if, thanks to an invisible hand, he does not find it necessary to perform any immoral actions. What matters here is not so much his lack of concern for morality de dicto (or de re!) but his indifference to all that isn’t his personal balance of good and harm. If one has been under the impression that most people are a lot like Banker, Helmut might seem to have, if not a moral silver lining around him, a kind of psychological “at least” clause attached to him: he has proven himself capable of sacrifice, even though his choice of cause shows that he is flat out evil.

If we compare Helmut not to a homo economicus but to a human-all-too-human type, our intuitions might vary. Consider Heidegger’s fans, who for years hoped for it to turn out that Heidegger collaborated with the Nazis out of self-interest and seem disappointed as it turns out that the man was an honest, ideological Nazi. It’s not that they hoped he was Banker, but they hoped he was a banal sellout rather than a more sinister sort of person. That goes well with my own view, which I have no space to defend here: flavorless moral motivation is morally neutral, as is self-interest, but most Nazis, white supremacists, Islamist terrorists and so on do not act from either. They follow what they take morality to be, which is at least in part antithetical to true rightness, which is at least partially about treating people as equal in some ways. Their bad motives grant their wrong actions something like the opposite of moral worth.