Non-Moral Values Can Override Moral Values

It seems to me that there are states of affairs in which an agent ought to act immorally to secure non-moral goods. Here is one example:

Suppose that Michelangelo had to steal the marble that he used to form David. There was no other way to secure the materials to construct his sculpture. Michelangelo noticed that there was a marble dealer who had excess marble that he planned on selling for a massive discount. It was obvious to Michelangelo that the marble dealer would not miss the excess marble, since it would not impact his profit margins in a significant way. However, that excess marble belongs to the dealer; he has property rights over the marble. So by taking the marble without paying, Michelangelo has violated the dealer’s property rights. In other words, he did something immoral. But by virtue of crafting David, Michelangelo has instantiated aesthetic value that seems to excuse or maybe even justify his theft.

It seems like Michelangelo ought to have stolen that excess marble in this situation. The aesthetic values instantiated by David seem to override the moral requirement not to steal from the marble dealer.

Potential responses that occur to me are:

1. Those aesthetic values are actually moral values.

2. Michelangelo ought not to have stolen the marble.

3. The aesthetic considerations don’t override the moral considerations because they are incomparable.

The first response is to affirm that morality is tyrannical, which I have discussed in previous posts (here, here, and here). The second response just denies that Michelangelo ought to have stolen from the marble dealer. Since this thought experiment is intended to elicit intuitions from people, it does not constitute an argument in favor of the thesis that Michelangelo ought to have stolen the marble. However, for those who find the thought experiment convincing, they will need an argument for why their elicited intuitions are mistaken. So proponents of the second response need an argument for why the property rights of the marble dealer override the concerns of Michelangelo.

The third response is the most promising, and I will discuss comparability of values in later posts. For now, I will say that it seems like you can compare courses of action that would either instantiate moral values or aesthetic values in terms of whether or not the outcomes are on par. If two outcomes are on par, then it seems to me that the agent making the decision is free to go in either direction. So there seems to be at least some sense in which different kinds of values can be compared (which is not to deny that there are other senses as well).

Let me know what you think of the thought experiment and if I missed any promising responses to it in the comments below.


  • I am not sure what to say about this example. But here are a couple of other possible responses that occur to me:

    4. The property rights that the marble dealer has are not moral rights; they are legal rights. There may be moral duties to respect legal rights (at least in many instances), but the legal rights are not themselves moral. Legal rights can be overridden in certain circumstances by other non-moral values.

    5. While aesthetic values are not, strictly speaking, moral in nature, they do have moral significance. In general, making the world a beautiful place is a (morally) good thing to do. Thus, it is not that the aesthetic values override the moral values in this case. Rather, the moral value of producing something with aesthetic quality overrides the moral value of respecting the property rights of the marble dealer.