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.


Tyrannical Reasons

In a previous post I outlined what I think it is for a moral theory to be tyrannical. One kind of tyrannical moral theory takes the class of our moral reasons to be identical to the class of our all things considered reasons.

When we act, we do so for reasons. Reasons are things that count in favor of acting one way or another, or refraining from acting. I have a reason to eat breakfast in the morning because I feel hungry. My feeling of hunger is a reason to eat breakfast, which is to say that it counts in favor of acting in a certain way. However, I may be running late to a very important meeting, and I cannot make and eat breakfast in the small amount of time I have to myself this morning. So, my hunger may not count as an all things considered reason (ATC reason) to eat breakfast. There are overriding reasons not to eat breakfast that are grounded in the fact that the outcome of my meeting is more valuable than satiating my hunger for a few hours. In other words, I have an ATC reason not to eat breakfast, but rather to attend my meeting.

Some moral theories classify moral reasons as ATC reasons. One example is hedonistic maximizing act consequentialism. On such a view, all of our moral reasons are grounded in the maximization of pleasure among sentient beings, and if a person acts in a situation such that she fails to maximize pleasure to the best of her ability, then she is morally blameworthy in some way. The reason she is morally blameworthy is because she did not act according to her ATC reason, which is to maximize pleasure. This sort of theory entails that if you can maximize pleasure when you can act a certain way, then you ought to maximize pleasure by acting that way, which is to say that maximizing pleasure is our ATC reason. So, on hedonistic maximizing consequentialism, the class of ATC reasons is identical to the class of moral reasons; they are one and the same.

Theories of this kind are tyrannical because they moralize everything. Our actions, when rational, are done because of our ATC reasons, which means that all of our rational actions are based on all things considered reasons. ATC reasons are themselves grounded in values, so to have an ATC reason to do something is to have a reason to do something because it is valuable in some way and its value overrides other considerations. If all of our ATC reasons are moral reasons, then not only are all of our rational actions necessarily moral actions, actions that are morally evaluable, but all of the values in which our ATC reasons are grounded must be moral values. So, the view that all ATC reasons are moral reasons is tyrannical.

Another way to bring out this entailment is by considering Henry Bemis, the protagonist of the Twilight Zone episode called Time Enough at Last. To cut to the chase, Henry finds himself emerging from a bank vault after a nuclear attack. He notices that there is nobody around to stop him from spending all of his time reading books, so that’s what he does, until he unfortunately breaks his glasses.

Henry seems to have an ATC reason to spend all of his free time reading books, and to devote the rest of his time to maintaining his health so he can keep reading. But this does not seem like a moral reason. Before his post nuclear war life, Henry did not have ATC reasons to spend all of his time reading, because he had a job that imposed duties onto him that prevented him from being able to justifiably read all the time, not to mention his wife who was unhappy with how he spent his free time. It seems odd to say that once those duties vanish he is now morally evaluable as bad or as having done something wrong if he spends a bit of time not reading or maintaining his existence to keep reading. He may be acting irrationally because he has an ATC reason to read as much as possible, but he is not acting immorally. So, it seems wrong to say that Henry’s ATC reasons are identical to his moral reasons.

Those who disagree with me about tyrannical moral theories will probably not have the same intuitions as I do when considering cases like Henry Bemis, or if they do, they will have stronger intuitions supporting some particular (kind of) theory or other which override the intuitions about these cases. However, for those who think there is a distinct realm of non-moral value, or that our ATC reasons are not necessarily moral reasons, cases like Henry’s will reveal the implausibility of tyrannical moral theories.



Tyrannical Virtue

A moral theory is tyrannical when it entails that every value instantiating action an agent engages in or avoids is morally relevant. When an agent is morally evaluable because she acted or refrained from acting, that action or omission is morally relevant.[1] In a previous post, I explored how hedonistic act utilitarianism is tyrannical. In this post, I will explore eudaemonist virtue ethics.

Eudaemonist virtue ethics is a tyrannical moral theory. Every aspect of an agent’s life is moralized on this view because they are all relevant to her flourishing as an agent. If an action can contribute to the cultivation of a virtue, or avoidance of a vice, then that action is morally relevant. It would be morally better if an agent engaged in exercise every morning than if she didn’t, because she would be cultivating various virtues if she formed a habit of exercising in the mornings. So, she has a moral reason to exercise in the morning.

While some may feel comfortable with moralizing personal health choices like exercise routines, many will not. However, there are even more counter-intuitive consequences of such a virtue theory. For example, if we grant that being sociable is essential to flourishing, then we have a moral reason to cultivate a sense of humor, among other traits that lend themselves to being a likable person. But it seems like being sociable, while relevant to enjoying life, is not a moral imperative.

Another example is Henry Bemis from the Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough at Last. Henry finds himself safe in a bank vault during a nuclear attack. He emerges to see that there are no more people around, so he now has all the time he wants to devote to reading books. He no longer has anybody he is responsible to, like his wife or boss. It seems like he can do whatever he wants, given that there aren’t any survivors he could help. But the eudaemonist virtue ethicist will say that Henry should cultivate his virtues that are not related to social interaction. So, perhaps Henry needs to exercise regularly, find healthy food to eat, and read a variety of books so he develops his intellectual virtues broadly, rather than narrowing in on a particular topic of study. Henry has moral reasons to do things like this because they would contribute to his virtues, and help him avoid vice. However, it does not seem like Henry has moral reasons to engage in those kinds of actions. Rather, Henry has prudential reasons that are not moral. It could be that Henry’s desires are non-moral reasons to engage in those actions. Or, Henry could see value in those actions and their consequences, which gives him reasons to do them, but that value is not moral.

The reason that this version of virtue ethics is tyrannical is because eudaimonia is a property of a person’s life. A person’s life is affected by, arguably, all of her actions. The ways in which a person’s life is affected by her actions will usually contribute to or detract from her flourishing. Any of the actions that are relevant to flourishing are thereby morally relevant, because she can be morally evaluated in light of them. So, most if not all of her life is moralized, because all of her decisions contribute to or detract from her flourishing, which is the measure of her moral success or failure as an agent.

For those who are fine with one’s life being suffused with moral relevance, this may be a welcome conclusion. For those who see this as a tyrannical moral theory that denies the non-moral dimensions of life as an agent with a will, this is not a welcome conclusion; it is a reason not to accept this virtue theory.


[1] Acts can also be evaluated morally, but virtue ethicists typically evaluate agents.

The Tyranny of Morality

There are values, and they come in morally relevant and morally irrelevant varieties. The value of the tastiness of my espresso seems to be morally irrelevant. Promoting such a value is not to do something moral. Otherwise, sipping my coffee in the morning constitutes a moral act. However, some moral theories do not allow for this natural line of reasoning.

Any theory that takes the maximization of value to be a moral imperative will deny that there are morally irrelevant values. For example, a hedonistic act utilitarian will take the only intrinsic value to be pleasure. Everything else is valuable insofar as it promotes pleasure. Since the only duty we have on this form of utilitarianism is to maximize pleasure, that means that sipping my coffee this morning constituted a moral act. It was morally good that I drank coffee instead of water this morning, because the coffee was more pleasurable. In fact, I had a duty to drink coffee instead of water, as long as I was in a position to know that the former would be more pleasurable.

The problem I have with such a view is that it moralizes everything. We act in relation to perceived value or disvalue. When I engage in an action, I do it because I have some reason to, and that reason is typically because the action or consequence is valuable in some way. The same goes for avoiding actions because of their disvalue. But if our one moral duty is to maximize value then all of our actions are moralized. Nearly every action we engage in can be criticized on moral grounds because it could have promoted more value than it did. Call this the tyranny of morality.

A moral theory is tyrannical when it moralizes everything. All of our actions ought to be in the service of the good, despite any of our plans, interests, or desires. So our actions are all morally relevant, because they are all related to value in some way. I take this to be the real source of the common objection to forms of consequentialism that require value maximization. Such theories are far too demanding, as the objection goes. But the reason they are too demanding isn’t usually articulated, besides attempts at eliciting intuitions about demandingness. The reason these theories are too demanding is because they are tyrannical. They moralize all of our actions, because we are the sorts of creatures who act for reasons, and reasons are intimately related to values.