January 11, 2010

Doing What You Believe to be Right vs. Doing What Is Right

Many, perhaps most, people disagree with the majority of my moral beliefs. When I find myself in a situation to advise such people, I often try to persuade them to adopt my moral beliefs, but if this fails I generally advise people to follow their own considered beliefs, rather than mine. Similarly, where there are disagreements on matters of fact, I take it that it is most important to persuade people to believe according to their own considered evaluation of the evidence available to them. Attempts to show that the evidence best supports my own position are secondary.

The reason for this approach is simple: I believe that it is important for people to believe the truth. While I obviously believe that each of my beliefs, taken individually, is true, I don't believe that conforming your beliefs to mine is a reliable method for arriving at truth. (See the Preface Paradox.) The most reliable way for an idealized free being to act rightly, would be for it to have correct moral beliefs and follow them. This is the method of action we should strive to approximate as nearly as possible. As a result, you should follow some reliable method of arriving at moral beliefs and then act on your moral beliefs. At least, that would be the best way for you to be reliably virtuous in your actions.

There is an interesting discussion of these sorts of issues in Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics, 3.1.3:

[I]t would, I conceive, be universally held that no act can be absolutely right, whatever its external aspect and relations, which is believed by the agent to be wrong.[1] Such an act we may call "subjectively" wrong, even though "objectively" right. It may still be asked whether it is better in any particular case that a man should do what he mistakenly believes to be his duty, or what really is his duty in the particular circumstances - considered apart from his mistaken belief - and would be completely right if he could only think so. The question is rather subtle and perplexing to Common Sense: it is therefore worth while to point out that it can have only a limited practical application. For no one, in considering what he ought himself to do in any particular case, can distinguish what he believes to be right from what really is so: the necessity for a practical choice between 'subjective' and 'objective' rightness can only present itself in respect of the conduct of another person whom it is in our power to influence. If another is about to do what we think wrong while he thinks it right, and we cannot alter his belief but can bring other motives to bear on him that may overbalance his sense of duty, it becomes necessary to decide whether we ought thus to tempt him to realise what we believe to be objectively right against his own convictions. I think that the moral sense of mankind would pronounce against such temptation, - thus regarding the Subjective rightness of an action as more important than the Objective, - unless the evil of the act prompted by a mistaken sense of duty appeared to be very grave.[2]

[1] It is not, I conceive, commonly held to be indispensable, in order to constitute an act completely right, that a belief that it is right should be actually present in the agent's mind: it might be completely right, although the agent never actually raised the question of its rightness or wrongness. See p. 225 [of the Hackett edition].
[2] The decision would, I think, usually be reached by weighing bad consequences to the agent's character against bad consequences of a different kind. In extreme cases the latter consideration would certainly prevail in the view of common sense. Thus we should generally approve a statesman who crushed a dangerous rebellion by working on the fear or cupidity of a leading rebel who was rebelling on conscientious grounds. Cf. post, Book iv. chap. iii. sect. 3.

My intuitions are actually not totally clear on Sidgwick's case in the second footnote. Here, however, is a case where I think an agent is praiseworthy for acting against her moral convictions:
Suppose an agent grows up in a culture which practices slavery and believes the enslaved class is naturally inferior. It is believed that the members of this inferior class must be beaten periodically. It is believed that this benefits them by reinforcing their natural subordinate role. Thus the beating of slaves is believed to be a moral obligation for masters. The agent is indoctrinated with this belief and comes to believe it quite firmly. However, due to her position in society, she does not, in her childhood, actually witness the beating of any slaves. As an adult, she comes upon a slave being beaten, and is so moved by compassion that she intervenes on his behalf. She does not change her beliefs and is burdened by guilt over her action.

In this case, my intuition is that the agent is praiseworthy for having the virtue of compassion in such a great degree that she is compelled to do what is (objectively) right, even though she believes it to be wrong. Nevertheless, the case is problematic because compassion unrestrained by reason can lead to wrong action, such as failure to appropriately discipline one's own children, or trying to prevent just punishment by legitimate authority.

The agent in the story is clearly not an ideal moral agent. An ideal moral agent would be able to critically examine her upbringing and reject the erroneous moral beliefs with which she was indoctrinated. Nevertheless, I intuitively judge the story as, on balance, testifying to the agent's virtue. I don't have a theory to back this up, but it's how the case seems to me.

Posted by Kenny at January 11, 2010 2:56 PM
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i believe you could back up your case with basic theories of utilitarianism.

Posted by: roga at January 12, 2010 6:19 PM

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