Can normative ignorance help excuse moral wrongs?

In a recent Philosophy Bites podcast professor Gideon Rosen outlined three types of excuses which can help at least lower moral responsibility for bad acts. Those are:

1. Blameless ignorance of the facts

The example Rosen gives is poisoning his neighbour with a cup of tea spiced with arsenic. However, he does not realize that someone has poisoned the tea, or he was not aware that instead of sugar he passed his neighbour arsenic. He has killed an innocent man, yet, it is not his fault. There is a fact about the situation which he did not know, namely, that the tea was poisoned. Therefore, he can be excused.

2. Blameless moral ignorance

In this case the example was a completely homogeneous slave holding society. In such a society, it is acceptable for the master to rough up a slave. Everyone, including the slaves, thinks that such behaviour is acceptable. Therefore, the master is not really morally responsible for his own behaviour. He was ignorant of the moral wrong of beating up his slave (or owning slaves in general for that matter), and he did not have any possibility of learning that it is a moral wrong.
Therefore, he has acted out of blameless moral ignorance.

3. Normative ignorance of the strength of one’s reasoning.

In this case Rosen considers an individual considering telling a self serving lie. In the example, the individual has been caught with the wrong woman and is considering telling a lie to his wife. He knows what the right thing to do is (telling the truth), yet, he considers the implications for himself, and decides that his self serving reason is enough of a justification to lie.

The first two cases are perfectly clear, and I see no issue there. The third however is problematic. The individual sees the proper moral action. Yet, considers his own reasons to be greater than the reasons to act morally. I am willing to concede that the individual is in ignorance of the strength of his own reasons. Yet, it doesn’t seem possible to ever excuse an individual who knows what the moral action is and does otherwise.
Even if an individual has done all of the necessary consideration, has taken the time to think of the consequences of his action and the consequences of his choice. The individual is mistaken, however it is not blameless ignorance because in such a case where the proper moral action is known, reason should command to perform it.


~ by majorshake on September 22, 2011.

2 Responses to “Can normative ignorance help excuse moral wrongs?”

  1. There are circumstances where the consequences of the action are so great that while the right thing to do is clear (rescue a Jew in Nazi Europe), it would be difficult to blame those who were by-standers. Those who acted were heroes; those that stood by aren’t but they are not totally blame-worthy. In these kind of circumstances, we wish that people had more courage but the courage that is called for is beyond what most people are capable of performing.

    • Thanks for your comment Arthur.

      I don’t think that is necessarily a problem. While the consequences are dire I still think that the moral choice is clear. However, it is a difficult choice to make. In such a case there can be very little blame, if at all, assigned to the bystander. But that doesn’t mean that the moral choice wasn’t obvious, and that the moral action was not the one that was best. As Kant wrote in the Critique of Practical Reason: “The way men act doesn’t follow from they way they ought to act”.

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