Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
In a clear and elegant style, T. M. Scanlon reframes current philosophical debates as he explores the moral permissibility of an action. Permissibility may seem to depend on the agent’s reasons for performing an action. For example, there seems to be an important moral difference between tactical bombing and a campaign by terrorists―even if the same number of non-combatants are killed―and this difference may seem to lie in the agents’ respective aims. However, Scanlon argues that the apparent dependence of permissibility on the agent’s reasons in such cases is merely a failure to distinguish between two kinds of moral assessment: assessment of the permissibility of an action and assessment of the way an agent decided what to do.
Distinguishing between these two forms of assessment leads Scanlon to an important distinction between the permissibility of an action and its meaning: the significance for others of the agent’s willingness to act in this way. An action’s meaning depends on the agent’s reasons for performing it in a way that its permissibility does not. Blame, he argues, is a response to the meaning of an action rather than its permissibility. This analysis leads to a novel account of the conditions of moral responsibility and to important conclusions about the ethics of blame.
between what is permissible and what is impermissible. It might be objected that an agent’s intention in both of the senses just mentioned is crucial to identifying what it is that he does, and that A would be performing a diﬀerent type of action in each of the three situations I have imagined. This is quite correct. But what is at issue is not whether the agent’s intent can determine the type of action he or she performs. (Obviously, it can.) The question is whether the agent’s intent is crucial
idea that in one case, but not in the other, the eﬀect on the one person is a means to saving the others. 121 4 Blame In this chapter I oﬀer an account of blame, based on the distinction between permissibility and meaning presented in the preceding chapters. Blame is a familiar aspect of moral experience, but it is surprisingly unclear exactly what it involves. Accounts of blame tend toward two ideas. The ﬁrst idea is essentially evaluative: that to blame someone is to arrive at a negative
example, can establish a special connection with someone whom one has never met, perhaps because this person lived long ago. Such a person may have a special place in our understanding of our own lives, as the person who developed a certain idea or who advanced in some way a goal to which we are committed. If we learn that in fact this person failed to live up to this value, or failed to fulﬁll the obligations of a member of this group, our relation with him or her will be impaired, the
indicate untrustworthiness that impairs our moral relationship. G. A. Cohen identiﬁes several other ways in which a person’s standing to blame can be undermined.42 He observes, for example, that if you have told me to do something, ordered me to do it, or knowingly facilitated my doing it, then although you can correctly say that what I have done is wrong and blameworthy, you cannot blame me for doing it.43 This can be explained in the same way as the cases I have just discussed. Your involvement
carrying it out. Would you be intending to kill the civilians, or would their deaths be merely an unintended but foreseeable (albeit beneﬁcial) side eﬀect of the destruction of the plant?”5 Holding ﬁxed the actual consequences of the raid and what the parties have reason to believe these consequences to be, might an action be permissible if performed by an agent with one intention but impermissible if performed by an agent with a diﬀerent strategy in mind? I agree with Thomson in ﬁnding this