Shoulds and Shouldn’ts

Allan Gibbard

  • Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame by T.M. Scanlon
    Harvard, 247 pp, £19.95, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 03178 4

A tyrant, imagine, spares an innocent man from torture, but solely in order to reap good publicity. He does what morality demands, but not for the reasons that demand it. T.M. Scanlon’s new book Moral Dimensions plays on the two kinds of moral evaluation this case illustrates: the permissibility of an act, and the meaning of the way one does it. Half the book uses this distinction negatively, to refute two widespread claims about why some acts are impermissible. The other half tackles blame, as a response to an action’s meaning.

Scanlon has been noted above all for a comprehensive moral thesis he calls contractualism, which he elaborated in his long book of a decade ago, What We Owe to Each Other. There he formulated a general account of moral impermissibility. An act is wrong, he said, if it ‘would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced general agreement’. This mouthful, Scanlon argued, explains which sorts of act are wrong and why they are wrong, and he devoted much of the book to drawing out its implications. Readers disputed whether his formula had real content, or whether, rather, he was fudging to get whatever conclusions he wanted. His new, shortish book contrasts with that earlier effort. Here, Scanlon’s comprehensive account of what we owe to each other plays no overt role. He sets out not to cover a unified topic, but to rethink a few different issues. These do tie in with a theme – the permissibility and meaning of actions – but chiefly, I take it, he picks topics on which he has new thoughts. The first half of the book, on permissibility and meaning, amounts to masterful and insightful philosophical housekeeping. The second half is revolutionary in the ways it tells us to think about blame.

First, then, moral permissibility. Even in a war that needs to be fought, some things are morally out of the question. Terror bombing is one of them: it is never permissible to aim to kill non-combatants with the aim of sapping enemy morale, even if that promises to reduce the total amount of killing. Other acts with equally horrific consequences, though, may be morally permissible in some circumstances. Bombing to damage the enemy war apparatus – ‘strategic’ bombing – may sometimes be permissible, even though one foresees that it will kill many innocent bystanders. The difference between terror bombing and strategic bombing lies not, it seems, in the deaths, but in the aims. The strategic bomber aims to destroy factories and the like and to kill enemy combatants. The terror bomber aims to kill innocent non-combatants. The results may be the same but the aims differ, and that is what makes the difference.

Or so it has seemed to many. Catholic moralists, drawing on Aquinas, have long elaborated this diagnosis as the doctrine of ‘double effect’, and a wide range of moral philosophers have found it plausible. The diagnosis raises a puzzle, however. What can be permissible or not, we might think, is what one does, not one’s aims in doing it. Sparing a man from torture is morally permissible – indeed, mandatory – however malign one’s aims may be. The Oxford philosopher W.D. Ross argued in 1930 that motives never bear on whether an act is right. He proposed using the word ‘act’ for the thing done and ‘action’ for the doing of it from a motive. Acts are right or not, he said, whereas actions are what can be morally good or bad. How, then, when bombing kills non-combatants, do the commander’s motives make a difference as to whether the act is morally permissible or not?

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