The correct place for moral valuation

Interesting thought here. Where does it make sense to attribute immorality?

[ul][li]If we say, “As a consequence of actions,” then only the man who actually ran over the child is immoral. Perhaps this feels right at first glance, but what about when the case is not so clear? For instance, what about unintended consequences? Is a mother immoral who, in her sleep, rolls over onto her child? Or what about something vastly more reaching: is Jesus immoral because he led people to have the conviction to kill (surely it cannot be denied that people have killed in the name of Jesus)? Do we really want to say that people should be held as [morally] responsible for unintended consequences as they would be for intended ones? I should think not. So then, “Immorality is a consequence of actions” is not quite right.[/li][li]If we say, “As a consequence of their intent,” then the man who ran over the child isn’t immoral at all. But is this case—is this how we feel? For though he didn’t set out to kill children, was he not negligent in his behavior? Is he not morally culpable to some degree? Or is he instead morally obligated to take some responsibility for caring for the child? (is there really a difference?) Or are we instead simply rationalizing our response so that the man is still culpable? [/ul][/li]In the first choice we are set on a measure of determinism: to what extent can a person be said to have caused an event? No small issue, as this strange scenario (though, shall we say, probably not entirely unheard of) hopefully demonstrates. For instance, consider this quick little back and forth dialogue (that I just made up):

Anyone care to tell me why either of these people are wrong? And what we could say to them to shine the light? Person B seems to imply that the person really has no moral culpability, and from that (probably) no moral responsibility afterwards, while Person A is willing to accept any justification he can find, because it seems he just knows this guy is at fault. What do you say? What can we say?

Intent matters, but a lack of intent to make sure that he wont hurt anyone is almost as bad as setting out to hurt someone. If you go out drunk driving you have no intention of killing anyone, but you are definately responsible if something bad happens.

An interesting question. B or A could both be right given the circumstances. but what does the LAW have to say avbout this? I’m afraid i don’t know law very well, but given the circumstances described, WOULD the driver, by law, have to pay and make compensations?

Person A is wrong because The Guy is not wholy at fault, where were the kid’s parents? They share some of the blame for not watching the kid or teaching it to fear the road.

Person B is wrong because your actions are your responsibility, no matter what happens that is not your fault. By getting into a car and driving, you realize that the above scenario can happen and you accept it as a condition of driving. By trying to play off your guilt by saying it was an accident and accepting no responsibility you are getting away with murder. What if the guy plowed into 30 children instead of one? it would still be an accident, but would he still try to weasel out of any punishment?

In conclusion, the dude should be punished because he killed someone, but not put up in front of a fireing squad, because it was an accident. I don’t think i can come up with an acceptable punishment.
And Law is not the end all justification of morals. Slavery used to be legal, but that didn’t make it moral.

Okay, here’s my analysis:

  1. What do we mean by “morality”? One working definition might be “a system of ideas of right or wrong conduct.”

This should be considered as a separate matter from what is or is not “legal.” Drug use is illegal; breaking the speed limit is illegal; running a business without a license is illegal – but not necessarily immoral (depending upon who you ask).

  1. In evaluating the morality of a given act, we cannot make assumptions about factual things we don’t know – i.e., “he was probably speeding.” To do so changes the situation we’re attempting to evaluate (from one where he was not speeding to one where he was).

  2. In the absence of intent to do a particular act (dropping the brick on someone’s head on purpose, running a child down with your car on purpose), we are left evaluating the morality of carelessness – i.e., Is it a moral failure to act with that type and degree of care other people in society may reasonably expect of an individua?

I would say that it generally is not. (Assuming we’re not talking about gross violations, such as a disregard for the safety of others that is so inexcusable as to approach the level of intentional conduct.) IME, the morality of a given act is an inquiry appropriate only to intentional conduct, because it is only through our intentional conduct that we can adhere to (or diverge from) subjective principles of moral “right” or moral “wrong.”

Is it “wrong” to hit a child with your car? Obviously yes, because it produces serious negative consequences to the life of the child, his/her friends and family, and society at large – consequences you had no right to impose. And the existence of concrete consequences to the victim (or passive party) justifies concrete consequences to the hitter (or active party). But is it morally wrong, if you did not mean to do it? IMO, no.

This analysis is subject to innumerable qualifiers, of course. For example, it is morally wrong (IMO) to drive drunk because the driver knows of the increased risk of accidents and intentionally impaired himself/herself. It is morally wrong (IMO) to drive recklessly because the driver knows of the increased risk of accidents and intentionally increases that risk. BUT IMO it is morally worse to cheat on your eight-grade history paper than it is to injure or kill someone in a true accident – morally worse, not objectively worse, or worse in terms of consequences – because the former action is an intentional violation of known and accepted standards of right conduct, while the latter is unintentional and therefore definitionally not immoral.

My $.02.

Also please note that in evaluating the morality of given hypothetical conduct, I am not foreclosing the imposition of consequences or punishment for the illegality or unacceptability of that self-same conduct. “I didn’t mean to” is not a legal defense (or, at least, not a complete defense) when our conduct injures others. That’s why I was careful to emphasize that I was talking only about morality and not legality.

And, yes, FOX, if you hurt or damage someone or something else, under the law you probably will have to pay for the consequences of your actions, and rightly so. But that doesn’t really address the question of morality. And I said (and as TARS said), morality and legality are not the same things.

Are you saying that death must result in punishment, regardless of circumstance? That, as the operator of the vehicle, the circumstances under which the child was killed cease to matter because the child died?

What about the careless child circumstace? Let’s say the child in question is waiting behind a van parked on the side of the road. As the car approaches (alert driver dutifully proceeding at or below the speed limit), the child leaps out in front of it to scare the driver[sup]1[/sup], who is unable to react in time to prevent the childs death. Must the driver still be punished, or is the death of the child solely the fault of the deceased?

To put it another way: At what point can you deny responsibility without “weaseling”?

[sup]1[/sup]I’ve seen children do dumb things which could result in death. Bear with me.

Ok, very nice responses so far. Let’s see what I can do with them.
Sterra, “If you go out drunk driving you have no intention of killing anyone, but you are definately responsible if something bad happens.” Morally responsible? This is why my Person A was so flim-flam… the line between legal compulsion, moral responsibility, and moral culpability were all a mess for Person A. As far as we can see A made no distinction between any of them, and if an attack on the driver on one of those failed, another would do just as well. More on the quoted point above will follow in response to Jodi.

Fox: the law would probably hold the man responsible for damages in some manner, and possibly find him criminally negligent if it could be demonstrated as so.

Tars, do you find that acceptable, really? Could the man be free from moral condemnation if it could be demonstrated to your satisfaction that the child’s presence in the street was solely a function of bad parenting?

And in your response to Person B was one of responsibility only, not of moral culpability. The man didn’t behave immorally, so why should he be compelled to do anything? Or did he behave immoraly? If it was an accident, how can you say it was “his action” in the context of, “your actions are your responsibility, no matter what happens that is not your fault.” Again, it wasn’t his action to kill a kid, it happened that a kid died because the man was driving down the street. In what manner do you feel the situation would be different if the driver merely ran over a largish stone which, when coming in contact with the tire, flew up and struck the child in his own lawn, killing him? Is the man still morally responsible even if not morally culpable? And how can we meaningfully distinguish moral responsibility for actions which we are not culpable for (in essence, a generalization of altruism)?

Jodi: We agree on your comment of the first point. The statement immediately following the number one, however, asks almost a rephrased question of the OP. I am asking: “We have morality, which is a system designed to place values on expectations.” But expectations of what? Where is it appropriate to place moral valuations (and, possibly, under what conditions)?

  1. I agree completely. But I wonder: do you feel the conversation was really not unreasonable? Have you not heard people discuss things in this manner? (seriously-- I did try to make A and B be somewhat extreme character types, but not unreasonable ones) Further to that, though, A was seeking to justify the condemnation he already had by bringing up specious facts, though (I tried to make him be a person such that) he had already made up his mind.

  2. The presence of degrees of immorality is not something I would argue with. I think we all pick our battles, and in some sense it seems silly to assign a negative valuation on someone. I tend to agree with you that without intent we have no ground for value assignments in a moral frame. But should we say that we place these valuations explicitely on intent, or on what the actor thinks the consequence of his willed intent would be? That is, do we collapse into consequentialism in a different guise?


Right, but I think we should assume, for the sake of argument, that we know exactly what the circumstances were, and that the two actors (the one whose negligence causes harm and the one who is negligent and lucky) are working under identical circumstances.

I would say that one can only be held (morally) responsible for things over which one has some control, which is just another way of saying what you said.

Yet you go on to say that it is generally not morally wrong to act negligent. I disagree. To use a slightly different analogy: Person X backs out of his driveway without looking behind him and nothing happens. Person Y does the same but runs over a child. We assume that both X and Y are in an area in which there could likely be a child on the sidewalk. I agree that Person Y is not on the hook for killing the child, per se, because he did not intend to and he had no control over whether or not the child was in the way. He is responsible, however, for negligently assuming that risk, i.e. for failing to look behind him, over which he did have control. Just how responsible one is for negligence depends on how likely and severe was the potential harm, and how aware of that likelihood the person was. Persons X and Y are equally responsible, morally. IMO.

However, this is only a moral judgement. I think there are good practical reasons for attaching more severe legal responsibility to harm actually done.
– Jer

Well that is certainly a simplistic way of looking at things. You are truly fortunate to be able to control all of lifes variables so you won’t ever have an accident that hurts someone else. The reality is that much of peoples lives are out of their control. You can decide not to run a red light or not to drink and drive. A child could still dart out from a parked car or you might be temporarily blinded by the glare of someones headlights. Arbitrarily waving your hand and saying “they should accept that risk as part of driving” is nonsense. By your logic, those people who were hit by a car should accept that the street is potentially dangerous and that getting hit is a possible scenario.

Morally, one has an obligation to act in a reasonably safe manner. That includes not driving recklessly, casually tossing bricks off highway overpasses or other actions where harm to others is an expected outcome. People do make mistakes however. Honest mistakes should not be punished by ruining another persons life.


I don’t understand this. I assume you mean “values” as in moral values and not “value” in the sense of worth, but what do you mean by “placing values on expectations”? I think expectations of good conduct spring from values. Meaning that we generally expect people to act in conformance with their own values and with society’s broader values. (Value => Unprovoked assault is bad. Expectation => People will not randomly and without provocation assault each other.)

I think this gets more to the question of what values are and why we have them. IMO it is clearly appropriate to place moral valuations on actions that produce negative impacts on other individuals or on society as a whole. It is more problematic to justify moral valuations that have no immediately obvious negative impact – i.e., we shouldn’t commit incest; we shouldn’t torture animals. This in turn implicates the value (meaning worth) of the idea of a “higher good,” and touches on the sociolgical mystery of why some actions are simply considered “taboo.”

I thought the conversation was pretty illogical because one of the speakers was attacking the other’s judgment of the event by changing the facts (or add additional facts) – as if under difference circumstances we must still make the same judgment.

Well, people do this all the time. But I don’t think that implicates the value (worth) and place of morals so much as it does the human tendency to want to arrange the facts to fit with our own preconceptions. Nothing is more annoying than an inconvenient fact.

Again, you lost me. The intent I’m speaking of is the ultimate intent. You may intend to fire a gun but not to hit a person; that does not make your shooting of the person intentional. Intentional actions can have unintended consequences, at which point we’re on the continuum of the likelihood that your actions will have given consequences. If it is extremely likely that the given consequence will result (you fire your gun in a crowded room), then your disregard of likelihood approaches, in terms of moral culpability, an intentional act. If OTOH it is extremely unlikely the consequence will result (you fire your gun on a firing range, reasonably believing no one will be down range), then the consequences of your intentional action is more obviously truly accidental, and therefore not immoral. So the question is not “is it immoral to fire a gun?” (Depends, right?) but rather “is it immoral to fire a gun knowing there is a high likelihood an innocent person will be injured or killed thereby?” If a person disregards that likelihood – fails to reasonably weigh the odds and judge the circumstances – then that disregard is willful (intentional) and therefore may be morally judged. IMO. I don’t think this devolves to consequentialism, or at least it should not.


Well, if I said that, it’s not what I meant. :wink: Or at least not fully. I think negligence can be morally wrong if the failure to act with reasonable care can be attributed to a judgment (an intentional choice) leading to the damages or injury. If I hit your child with my car because I’m fiddling with the radio, then I have acted negligently (because I didn’t intend to hit your kid). But I have also acted unreasonably (failed to watch where I was going) due to my intentional choice to fiddle with the radio momentarily instead of watching where I’m going.

I agree. This is that continuum of moral (and, not incidentally, legal) responsibility (or culpability) I was referencing above.

Well, IMO that depends on whether we’re talking about negligence or intentional conduct. If I intentionally shoot at you and miss (attempted murder), but you accidentally shoot and kill . . . oh, let’s make it that kid we’ve been running over in our cars :slight_smile: . . . then I don’t think the “harm actually done” should be solely (or even generally) determinative of the legal consequencees.

A person’s morality has to be evaluated in terms of both intention and action. Actions matter insofar as one is/is not carrying out a particular intention. Intentions matter to the degree in which they are evident in one’s actions.

First let’s assume, as I think we are doing, that the man did not deliberately run over the child with his car.

Person A’s point of view is extreme because it focusses on the action: the man was driving the car that killed the child and therefore is solely responsible for that result. In A’s view the intentions of the man have no bearing on his culpability – or worse yet, A makes unwarranted assumptions about the man’s intention to be negligent.

Person B’s point of view is also extreme because it focusses on intentions: the man did not set out to run over a child with his car and therefore he bears no moral responsibility for that result. In B’s view, the man’s actions (was he being careful, being negligent, obeying the speed limit, using his cell phone) have no bearing on his culpability.

Both points of view are limited. The man would be morally responsible if his intentions not to harm anyone (which we assume he had) were not borne out by his actions. If he was obeying the speed limit, keeping his eyes on the road, not using his cell phone, sober, aware that children might dart out from between parked cars, etc. then I don’t think he can be held morally responsible, because to the best of his ability his actions – skidmarks included, perhaps – reflected his intention to do no harm. In this case, it would be an honest mistake, as msmith537 says: the man did what he could, but something happened which was beyond his control.

However, if it could be demonstrated that he had been negligent while driving – speeding, not watching the road, “fiddling with his cell phone”, drunk, etc. – then he can be held morally responsible because his intentions did not translate into action. (This is not to say he alone would carry that responsibility; the intentions/actions of the parent(s) and, if appropriate, the child would have to be considered as well.)

In my view this also eliminates B’s specious arguments about the “morality” of speed limits: I am certainly not driving down a residential block at 60 mph, no matter what the posted speed limit, because in my estimation that does not reflect my intention to drive in manner which is safe for myself and other people.

As for punishment: this seems a legal, rather than moral, issue, because in order for the man to be punished for his moral culpability, someone – an individual or society at large – has to make a judgement about how well the man’s intentions carried over into his actions, and/or whether the intentions themselves were sufficient or lacking. Then we get into evaluating a situation based on what an average person could be “reasonably” expected to do, intention- and action-wise, and away from individual morality, which is what I think we’re discussing.

Jodi’s last post, especially the bit about likelihood, is pretty much what I was getting at, too.

Jodi, re: “We have morality, which is a system designed to place values on expectations.” Value is, IMO, any heirarchial organization, and morality works off of expectations in that we either “don’t expect this to happen” (don’t want it) or we “don’t expect people to want it.” We have expectations, we arrange them in some order, and this order is morality. But what are we expecting? That people won’t behave a certain way (or, that people will), or that things won’t happen (i.e.—I don’t care what your reasons are, kids just shouldn’t be subject to molestation).

Well, I was certainly trying to implicate that in A’s case (who was meant to view only the results), but in B’s case the intent was to try and isolate what really “went wrong”.

Ok. I’m just having trouble seperating your estimation of immoral intent from your (apparently) consequential view of why this intent is immoral (in the context of negligence-gone-wrong, not as a formal process in all moral judgements). You look toward intent to make the primary decision process, but the intent seems to get lost in statistics and pragmatism.

Maybe if I said: when we focus on intent we creep toward moral commandments (even if they are contextual in nature), but when we focus on the likelihood of outcomes we creep toward some view of consequences.

See what I mean there?

Nowhere. Ever.

I believe you’re familiar with my views on this, Eris, but for the sake of newbies, I’ll summarize it. Because we all are separated by inviolate moral frames of reference, none of us can make an adequate judgment of the morality of anyone else.

This principle was a centerpiece of Jesus’ teachings. To give you some idea of the problem, let me ask you this. Which man is more moral, the man who hits a child and then regrets it or the man who misses hitting a child and then regrets that he missed?

I separate morality from ethics, considering the former to be between a man and his God (or conscience for atheists), and the latter to be between a man and his fellow man. Although a society might require retributive judgment against actions, there is no reliable commentary on morality therefrom.


I’m still not sure I 100% understand this, but to the extent I think I do, I disagree with it. “Values” are “principles, standards, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable.” They are definitionally abstract, whereas hierarchical organizations are not. Values are not paternalism, though they may be passed down. Nor are personal values societally determined, though they are clearly influenced by society.

I disagree, because I think you have the cart before the horse. I do not have the expectation that you will not steal from me, and therefore decide that stealing is generally wrong (immoral). Rather, I assume we hold in common the general moral principle that stealing is wrong, and from that flows my expectation that you will not steal from me. Even in that case, the expectation flows not from the morality itself, but rather from the assumption that we hold it in common and will both adhere to it. I may hold as a personal moral tenet that it is always wrong to lie – no matter how tiny the lie, no matter how white – and simultaneously not expect that you or the rest of society will follow that moral principle. That does not negate the moral principle itself.

Again, this expectation is based on the assumption of a morality held in common, and IMO flows from the morality rather than giving rise to it.

But I never said that intent was immoral on a consequential basis. In fact, I said the opposite – i.e., the morality of your intent to commit murder is not lessened merely because you failed to succeed. I have never speculated at all regarding why some things are immoral, except in passing (societal good, individual good, belief in some “greater good” to whom (or which) we have a duty to be good, bowing to unexplained societal taboos).

But I don’t think it gets lost. IMO, as a moral matter, it is worse to try to kill someone (no consequences) that it is to suceed in hitting them. (Because IMO it is morally “worse” to kill than to hit.) This has nothing to do with “statistics” (what statistics?) and little to do withpragmatism. Morals are often not pragmatic, in that the path of least resistance is often to do that which is easier but immoral as opposed to that which is moral but hard. (Taking, say, marital fidelity to be an example.)

Eh, I don’t think focusing on intent constitutes a creeping toward “moral commandments.” Rather, it rightly focuses on whether you meant to do the thing you did – regardless of whether the “wrongness” of that thing springs from law, personal morality, or societal censure.

The “statistics” comment was directed at moral responsibility and culpability with respect to negligent behavior’s likeliness of certain outcomes. And the heirarchy was meant to mean any ordered system of importance, not paternialism. And, er, let me sit on the rest for now. :slight_smile:

FWIW, I didn’t take Jodi’s statements about “likelihood” in a statistical or similar way. Rather, I took them to mean that (moral) responsibility often takes the form of having to consider the possible outcomes of an intended action under a specific set of circumstances, and then choosing appropriately.

But Libertarian raises a very important point: only a person and his/her God/conscience truly know what the intention was, how thoroughly the possible consequences were considered, and how deliberate or willful the act was. And this is part of what you need to know, in order to determine whether something/someone is moral/immoral.

Actually delving into and ascertaining a person’s intentions in this way can be difficult, if not impossible. I look at it on a hypothetical level – as I did in my last post – but in a real situation I’d have a hard time allocating “moral responsibility” because I would never feel that I fully knew what that man’s intentions had been or how well he carried them out.


I absolutely disagree with this, but then I disagree with your definition of morality altogether.

Both are equally immoral, assuming that both intended to hit the child without justification. The fact that one succeeded and one failed does not impact the immorality of the attempt, as I have already said, though the one who succeeds will obviously have to bear the consequences of having succeeded. After-the-fact regret may mitigate the punishment (if any), but cannot serve to change the essentially intent-based morality of an action already taken.

While I can see the rationale for drawing this distinction, and in fact think it’s a handy one, it’s not one that has been being employed in this thread thus far.

I disagree. The fact that society punishes certain actions – or the degree of severity of punishment imposed – may itself be a reliable commentary on the morals held in common by the society in question.

I said “I absolutely disagree with this, but then I disagree with your definition of morality altogether.”

I should clarify that I do not necessarily disagree with this definition in the abstract, I disagree with it here because it is not the definition we have been working under in this thread.