Category Archives: General

Scheffler's Agent-Centered Prerogative – a Viable Solution to the Problem of Autonomy in Utilitarianism

Matthew Foust, John Carroll University

Utilitarian moral theories purport to be in favor of maximizing the well-being of all concerned. In accordance with this principle, several of an agent’s values must receive protection while practicing any form of utilitarianism, considering protection of human rights to be conducive to human well-being. Autonomy would seem to be one such value. In utilitarian theory, however, autonomy appears to have its value only in its existence as a means to the greater end of well-being. This observance raises the question of whether or not a utilitarian agent could be robbed of all remnants of his or her autonomy, this removal considered to be in the interest of the agent’s well-being. It is my claim that a viable solution to this problem can be found in a component of one philosopher’s consequentialist theory of morality. I contend that Samuel Scheffler’s agent-centered prerogative is able to provide utilitarianism with a way to value autonomy such that the conflict between the well-being of an agent and the agent’s autonomy would be rendered impossible.

Many philosophers have written on utilitarianism, directly or indirectly addressing this issue. Bernard Williams and J.L. Mackie consider autonomy to be fatally wounded by utilitarianism. Peter Singer and John Stuart Mill, however, consider autonomy to be merely infringed upon by the justifiable demands of the moral theory. The views of these four philosophers are presented in this paper in order to outline the particular nature of the problem that I claim finds its solution in the conciliatory writing of Scheffler.

Arguing in Utilitarianism: For and Against, that the moral theory presents a significant threat to agent autonomy, Bernard Williams asks the following question, with apparent reservations concerning utilitarianism’s ramifications:

How can a man, as a utilitarian agent, come to regard as one satisfaction among others, and a dispensable one, a project or attitude round which he has built his life, just because someone else’s projects have so structured the causal scene that that is how the utilitarian sum comes out? (116)

It is ridiculous, Williams believes, for any agent to be required to abandon his or her projects simply because utilitarian calculus dictates that maximization of well-being could best be met by doing so. This requirement, Williams continues, is an attack on the agent’s integrity. Williams makes this claim, reasoning that by following utilitarian guidelines of action, the agent actually gives up his or her sense of agency, forcing him or her to be “a channel between the input of everyone’s projects, including his [or her] own”(116). It seems that for Williams, this surrendering of agency that utilitarianism is responsible for renders the utilitarian agent a kind of slave to his or her system of morality, the agent’s personal convictions and agendas deemed worthless in the eyes of the subjugating utilitarian theory. It is clear that for Williams, utilitarianism makes far too large of an infringement on personal values. By undermining the importance of one’s personal ideals, utilitarianism forces agents to dismiss that which is important to them. A system admitting of such a feature, Williams assures, simply cannot be the best one for any agent.

Holding an entirely different opinion of the alleged autonomy-shunning nature of utilitarianism is Peter Singer. In his Practical Ethics, he argues that utilitarianism entails an “obligation to assist” such that “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it” (168). Singer illustrates his claim with the hypothetical situation of his noticing a child drowning in a pond, on the way to his lecture. No one, Singer insists, would deny that he morally ought to save the child’s life, regardless of the potentiality of unfavorable outcomes resulting from doing so, such as his clothes being ruined or his being late for the lecture. If complete agreement to this occurs, then no one should disagree that we morally ought to take steps to prevent other harmful conditions, if we are similarly able to do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. Singer notes that the case of the drowning child is rare, but the case of poverty, to name one example, is not; it is an ongoing problem in the world everyday. If we recognize poverty as a bad thing, and are able to contribute to the minimization of it without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, Singer contends that we should. He displays this argument for the obligation to assist in premise form:

  1. If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of

comparable significance, we ought to do it.

  1. Absolute poverty is bad.

  2. There is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing

anything of comparable moral significance.

So, C: We ought to prevent some absolute poverty.

Singer does not stop there, conveying a commentary on the act of helping:

We have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty which is no less strong than our obligation to rescue a drowning child from a pond. Not to help would be wrong?Helping is not, as conventionally thought, a charitable act which it is praiseworthy to do, but not wrong to omit; it is something that everyone ought to do. (169)

This statement of Singer’s is a concession to the notion that agents are to be held morally culpable for not preventing bad actions, even if those actions are not those of their own doing. What Williams perceives as an erasing of autonomy is, for Singer, a real obligation to do good (or prevent bad) for others. This requirement, Singer holds, is not at all unreasonable, as it serves as a conclusion to simple, uncontroversial premises that neither consequentialists nor non-consequentialists would have difficulty endorsing.

It seems, however, that John Stuart Mill, a pioneer of utilitarian morality, would contest Singer’s brand of the theory. In speaking of actions done out of utilitarian duty, Mill, in his famous “Utilitarianism,” makes the following statement:

It is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought, to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large. The great majority of good actions are intended, not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up. (118)

The ethically good person, Mill explains, is not required to worry about the projects of those outside his particular concern, “except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights of any one else,” where “rights” are “legitimate and authorized expectations” (118). Although Mill has included an obligation to not violate the rights of other agents, autonomy seems to thrive in his utilitarianism. The requirement of concern for the other is not a strenuous one, as its nature of yielding to those concerns of the individual makes it appear incapable of performing the kind of suffocation that Williams anticipates. Williams, Mill would state, wrongly interprets the motive of utilitarian action as the rule of it. Mill’s allowance for emphasis of the utilitarian agent’s concerns makes Singer’s position appear to be overdemanding, a form of utilitarianism that could best find its appropriateness in a society of saints. Human morality is meant to be a practicable guideline of behavior for humans, and having allayed Williams’ fears about practicality, and humanized Singer’s take on utilitarianism, it seems as if Mill has constructed a system that suits humans well.

Despite the seeming strength of Mill’s theory, J.L. Mackie expresses serious doubt about its ability to function with universalizability in a social setting, the setting in which the vast majority of individuals, especially those concerned about morality, are situated. In his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Mackie criticizes Mill’s utilitarianism as largely impractical, maintaining that the fitness test of a proposed act being its ability to maximize the happiness of all, by first considering the rights of all, is grossly overdemanding and unrealistic. Mackie considers the difficulty of the expectation that all members of a community be directed toward the promotion of the well-being of all, pointing out that “?such total cooperation is out of the question?where the ‘all’ are to be the whole human race, including its future or possible future members, and perhaps all other sentient beings as well” (130). Mackie appears to think that Mill’s system could work, if the world were comprised of just Mill and perhaps a handful of others. The world, however, is comprised of many more human moral agents than that, and as the sample size increases, so does the difficulty of upholding Mill’s utilitarianism. It is impossible, Mackie argues, for an individual to have concern for the well-being of all members of a society, as the sheer volume of “all” is too great to have the capacity to be concerned for.

Elaborating on the nature of human society, Mackie provides another obstacle that he contends that Mill’s utilitarianism must face:

All real societies, and all those which it is of direct practical use to consider, are ones whose members have to a great extent divergent and conflicting purposes, and consequently will not only not be motivated by a desire for the general happiness but also will commonly fail the proposed test of being such as to maximize the general happiness. (130)

Holding that Mill’s utilitarianism is inapplicable to “real” societies, Mackie terms it “the ethics of fantasy” (129). Its principles, Mackie asserts, are not guides to action, but are equivalent to “a fantasy which accompanies actions with which [they are] quite incompatible” (131-32). He explains that Mill’s requirement poses a direct conflict to those agents on which it is imposed, as a vested concern for one’s self is a permanent fixture in the makeup of human nature. With this impetus looming constantly over every human agent, the expectation of human motivation tending toward the general happiness is one that could only be thought to be reasonable in a state of fantasy.

Acknowledging that beneficence does exist, Mackie makes clear that it has nothing to do with a universal concern, but instead with others whom the agent has a particularly special connection with, such as friends or family. Mackie also acknowledges affections of a wider scope, considering those of religious or political nature, for instance, maintaining that these, too, are void of claims about the welfare of “all.” While an agent may express concerns about the welfare of others, as others participate in these categories, this unselfishness is not equivalent to an unflinching concern for “all.” It is, rather, a natural sentiment felt by a human with altruistic regard to those closely tied to him or her.

Upon inspection, Mackie’s claims run into a large problem, namely that their foundation rests upon a gross misconstruing of Mill’s utilitarianism. Mackie’s protests seem to be oriented toward act utilitarianism, though Mill clearly subscribes to rule utilitarianism. The views that Mackie argues against that he has ascribed to Mill are, in fact, opposite to those actually held by Mill. Mill explicitly states that agents are not expected to “fix their minds upon?the world,” and distinctly denies that they must carry motivation for the general happiness, citing preference instead for motivation marked by a desire for the good of “individuals, of which the world is made up” (118).

Despite the error in his attack, Mackie’s observation that societies are comprised of members with divergent and conflicting purposes presents a problem for Mill’s theory. Consider the separate cases of two expedition leaders on journeys with groups of explorers. Both leaders find themselves, along with their groups, five feet from what they recognize to be the most lethal snake in the world. Knowing that the snake is startled and eager to attack, the leaders halt and order their groups to do the same, all the while knowing that it is too late, as whoever is closest to the snake five seconds from now will unavoidably perish. Leader A adopts Mill’s utilitarianism, considering the greatest good for all to be the preservation of the several younger members in his group, rather than his one older life. He orders the group to back away as he steps toward the snake. Leader B adopts Mill’s utilitarianism, considering the greatest good for all to be for the weakest member to become the snake’s next victim. She concludes that if one person must die, it ought to be a particular member of the group who is injured severely, whose depletion of the group’s medicine has proven costly and fruitless. Adhering to Mill’s utilitarianism, she reasons that her potential action would be in accordance with the member’s wishes, and would give the greatest general benefit to the concerned “all,” so she pushes him toward the snake.

The difference in conceived purpose with regard to the sudden and difficult decision the leaders must make gives Mackie’s argument against Mill some substance. Mill’s system is constructed as such that two agents adopting it, while in identical situations, may commit acts of entirely different natures, one agent (Leader A) appearing to be morally better than the other (Leader B), under the microscope of moral conventions. This inconsistency, Mackie would attest, can only be accounted for by Mill’s overly strict demand for a concern of “all.”

The commentaries of Williams and Mackie portray utilitarianism as a harsh system, its requirements stealing from agents the very basic and highly valued commodity of autonomy. Possessing a strikingly different point-of-view, the commentaries of Singer and Mill portray utilitarianism as a soundly practicable system, with the concern for “all” a realistic and unobtrusive demand. These polar positions on the acceptability of utilitarianism on the basis of its treatment of autonomy appear to warrant some sort of compromise, making both pairs of writers able to agree to a notion of acceptability with reference to a utilitarian moral structure. Not purporting to advocate utilitarianism, but rather, consequentialism, a broad category of moral theory of which utilitarianism belongs as a specific type, Samuel Scheffler appears to create this middle ground in his Human Morality.

Scheffler grapples with the issue of demand, holding that accusations of an overly demanding nature pose a significant threat to a proposed normative moral theory’s acceptability. Such conflicts between agent and theory suggest that what a moral theory prescribes as and what an agent feels to be the morally right action can often be at odds with one another. In order to alleviate this problem, Scheffler introduces his notion of an “agent-centered prerogative.” It is my claim that in doing so, Scheffler unveils a viable solution to the problem of autonomy in utilitarianism.

Scheffler’s agent-centered prerogative is conceived as a cure for the conflict between morality and agent interest, a problem that finds its root in the problem of autonomy. Scheffler points out that the accusation that a moral theory is too demanding is made for one of two reasons. The first reason is that the theory allows for a minimal number of options of morally right behavior. For example, a Kantian agent who has a gun pointed to his head and another placed in his hand is coerced to take the life of a third party – or he will be the one to incur an abrupt demise. There are many possible courses of action he could take, but under his moral theory of choice, no option seems to be void of moral violation. If the agent complies, he commits a moral wrong by killing. If he refuses, he commits a moral wrong by endangering his own life. The second reason that a theory may be accused of being too demanding is that its requirements result in too much cost to the agent. For example, a consequentialist theory that strictly requires each agent to perform only those acts which will bring the greatest good to the greatest number would demand that an agent forgo his desire to pay rent to his landlord at the deadline of 5:00 P.M., so as to avoid his family’s eviction, if presented with the chance to distribute food to hundreds of starving people at exactly the same time. Scheffler realizes that, in cases such as these, morality’s demands seem overbearing. He does believe that morality is deserving of its impersonal aspect, but feels that the most appropriate moral point-of-view is one that is agent-centered, at the heart of which should rest the agent-centered prerogative.

Revealing the nature of the agent-centered prerogative, Scheffler explains that it permits each agent “to devote a certain proportionately greater weight to his or her own projects than would be licensed by an exclusive appeal to an impersonal calculus” (104). By granting more weight to the agent’s own personal outcomes, the agent-centered prerogative lightens the obligation to the “all” that is called for in utilitarian theory. Adding this component to the theory makes it far more readily abided by, as without this adjustment, an agent’s own concerns could quite often “lose out,” under circumstances the likes of which Williams and Mackie describe.

Careful to not discard the notion that moral principles should apply to everyone, Scheffler points out that the agent-centered prerogative does not “apply to me or any other individual in particular; [it] quantif[ies] over everyone and [it] therefore appl[ies] to everyone” (103). Anticipating a possible attack of his idea of a reasonable consequentialist theory as being tantamount to egoism, Scheffler explains that granting more weight to an agent’s own interests than is allowed in common consequentialist theory is not equivalent to granting exclusive emphasis on the agent as the object of morality. Endorsement of the agent-centered prerogative is not a “claim that people are of unequal value or importance in impersonal terms,” nor a “challenge [to the] coherence or validity of impersonal assessments of value” (Scheffler, 107). It merely affirms one’s position that an impersonal code of moral qualification, such as that characterized by utilitarianism, ought not erase the significance of the agent’s personal projects. Support for the agent-centered prerogative is support for a decrease in the (extreme) degree of impersonality that consequentialist theories typically embody, as attested to by Williams and Mackie.

The remarks of Singer and Mill, however, cannot go forgotten. It is, to them, an uncontestable fact that situations arise in which agents are morally obligated to abandon their own projects in order to benefit others. Scheffler insists that acceptance of the agent-centered prerogative does not present an incompatibility with this obligation, explaining that those who would adopt it would “believe that there are indeed circumstances in which one must forgo one’s own projects in order to prevent harm or provide benefit of others” (108). Continuing, he says that they would “not regard moral assessments as simply coinciding with assessments of the agent’s own interests” (108). The extra weight given to the agent’s projects, then, is not so much that the morally right decision in Singer’s example would be for him to ignore the drowning child. No matter how lofty Singer’s ambition might be to keep his clothes from being ruined or be on time for his lecture, the child’s probable ambition to live simply carries more weight, agent-centered prerogative considered. By explaining that agents who adopt the agent-centered prerogative are indeed morally required to maintain an observance for the interests of others, Scheffler dispels the charge of selfishness that Singer or Mill would likely leap to level against his agent-centered prerogative.

Just how much weight does the agent-centered prerogative give to personal projects? In answering this question, Scheffler appears to create a problem for himself, as the weight allotted to the agent’s interests is hazy at best, his most clear description assigning it “a certain proportionately greater weight?than would be licensed by an exclusive appeal to an impersonal calculus” (104). Even if Scheffler could furnish a fixed “amount” of weight to the agent-centered prerogative, he would have the dubious task on his hands of explaining how he arrived at such a determination.

This apparent flaw in Scheffler’s case is, in actuality, a strength that bolsters the fortitude of his argument. Scheffler makes clear that a consequentialist theory ascribing the agent-centered prerogative allows for a level of autonomy somewhere between the smothered, minimal amount that Williams and Mackie identify in utilitarianism, and the exclusively self-concerned free-reigning amount highlighting egoistic theories. For Scheffler to be more specific by placing a precise value to the amount of weight the agent-centered prerogative should carry for all agents, he would have to perform a job marked by arbitrariness and despotism.

Human morality is a complex subject, as it is a divergence of two exceptionally complex topics, humans and morality. Unless Scheffler knows all there is to know about humans and all there is to know about morality, it is impossible for him to declare a specific “amount” of autonomy the official, appropriate amount. If he were so bold to do so, he would perform a groundless, arbitrary act. Another reason that Scheffler is justified in not assigning a specific weight to autonomy in human morality is that if he were to do so, he would be guilty of the despotism that Singer and Mill’s critics view them as embodying in their respective theories. The requirement that the agent-centered prerogative carry “X” weight would establish a uniformity that every moral agent would have to accept. This intrusion on personal interest entirely defeats the notion of an “agent-centered” prerogative. To diminish the haze surrounding the allotment of weight afforded to the agent-centered prerogative is to diminish the very autonomy that the agent-centered prerogative provides. Autonomy dwells in the haze. It survives in the agent’s ability to prescribe the weight of his own prerogative.

The agent-centered prerogative functions as a tool in the hands of each moral agent, used at his or her discretion, when the situation seems to call for it. A carpenter makes a judgment of when a saw is the best tool for his or her task, followed by judgments about what type of saw is best, where to apply the saw, in what manner, and for how long. If mistakes are made about any of these judgments, including the appropriateness of using a saw, the carpenter learns from them, and attempts to ameliorate his or her performance with respect to the saw. The assumption is that the carpenter wishes to be the best carpenter he or she can be, and make the best creation or repair he or she can make. Similarly, the agent-centered prerogative is a tool that the agent can use when he or she sees fit, making judgments about the amount of weight it carries in what situations, at what times, and with what other agents. The moral agent will learn from mistakes made with regard to use of the agent-centered prerogative, and attempt to ameliorate performance with regard to it, as the moral agent wishes to be the most morally good agent possible.

With his agent-centered prerogative, Scheffler has established a positive aspect of a normative moral theory of consequentialism that proves to be beneficial to all agents who observe it. It is the centerpiece to a moderate moral system, including permissions for individuals to pursue their interests, while simultaneously including rules that individuals are obligated to follow. This moral structure, resting in between the most rigid and lax of moralities, commanding moral demands and allowing freedoms both at once, would be of good use imbedded within the utilitarian framework discussed by Williams, Singer, Mill, and Mackie. A utilitarian system requiring the course of action producing the greatest outcome for all, when combined with the preservation of autonomy, as could be supplied by the agent-centered prerogative, would be a largely acceptable moral theory, that would manage to be agent-friendly while exacting observance to moral obligation from its followers. It is apparent that Scheffler’s agent-centered prerogative is indeed a viable solution to the problem of autonomy in utilitarianism.

Works Cited

Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin Books,


Mill, John Stuart. “In Defense of Utilitarianism.” Conduct & Character: Readings

in Moral Theory. 3rd ed. Ed. Mark Timmons. California: Wadsworth

Publishing, 1999.

Scheffler, Samuel. Human Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University

Press, 1979.

Smart, J.J.C. and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge,

England: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Tagged ,

The Case Against the New Casuistry

Mahesh Ananth, Bowling Green State University

Casuistry or case-based analysis is one of the methodologies employed by bioethicists and clinicians to address the many complex medical decisions that most people must face at one time or another in their lives. Casuists declare firmly that the only way to resolve the complex issues in medical settings is to focus simply on the actual details of specific cases and then determine what to do in the given cases. Notably, casuistry is manifest in the current literature in at least four distinct permutations: (1) Albert Jonsen’s and Stephen Toulmin’s “Single-Paradigm” formula, (2) Baruch Brody’s “Model of Conflicting Appeals, ” (3) Mark Kuczewski’s “Communitarian Casuistry,” and (4) Carson Strong’s “Two-Paradigm” version of casuistry. To make this inquiry tractable, I will provide an account of a version of casuistry offered by Jonsen and Toulmin [hereafter JT]. Next, I will provide some of the central criticisms of this approach that would appear to render it rather moribund. I will then explain and evaluate Carson Strong’s recent attempt to defend the JT strategy. My analysis will reveal that Strong’s defense of the JT version of casuistry is not nearly as puissant as he purports. The final upshot of this analysis, which includes two criticisms of my own, will make clear that casuistry-at least JT’s version of it-is inadequate as a serious methodological framework from which to make difficult decisions in medical settings.

One method of encouraging civil debate when ethics issues arise is by working toward increased ethical literacy in the hunting community. I propose eight steps that would help hunters and non-hunters interested in ethics to establish a common base to begin discussions of ethical dilemmas. These steps include teaching standards for the instructors, a set curriculum, a mentoring program, and stricter requirements for first-time hunters in a state.


Either it's Moral or ''Taint

An Exploration and Application of Moral Taint

Moral Taint in the context of 21st Century Ethics

“Taint is best understood as determined not only by what we do but also who we choose to be.

Given that this society has become increasingly globalized, it is not surprising that recently more consideration has been given to the idea of collective responsibility. Every individual is affected to some extent by his or her membership (voluntary or required) in certain groups (e.g. gender, race, education, etc) and thus, it is beneficial to explore the relations of the individual to these connections in terms of ethical behavior, morally required action, and expected emotive involvement. This paper will examine the idea of moral taint as it relates to collective responsibility, several alternative views, and some implications of this concept-such as metaphysical guilt. Finally, the concept of moral taint will be applied to a pending lawsuit regarding whether reparations ought to be given to the descendants of American slaves.

One of the most evident characteristics of contemporary culture is the tendency to think individualistically, particularly in terms of moral responsibility. In Ancient Greece and other cultures, to be responsible was construed somewhat differently than it is currently viewed. In ancient times when one member of the family performed a morally reprehensible action, the entire family, and possibly some close friends, felt and were seen as polluted simply because of that one person’s action. This idea of moral pollution or contamination, which is synonymous with “moral taint,” has a common analogue in the 20th century as well. It has been documented that many Germans feel contaminated because of the actions of their Nazi countrymen even when they themselves performed no such atrocities-they were merely both members of the same people group. But is this a proper response to the monstrosities that were perpetuated by their fellow countrymen?

For the purposes of this paper, let us say that to say that some individual or group is responsible is to say that the individual or group is accountable and liable. Let us also say that to hold someone responsible is to require an explanation for actions apparently contrary to established criteria and to compel them to make rectification for consequences of actions contrary to the criteria for behavior. Furthermore, let us also say that if someone is responsible for, they have an obligation, or they have brought about some circumstance. Lastly guilt is one’s response to toward the awareness and agreement that one has done something for which he or she is responsible and/or ought to be held responsible because of an obligation.

It is also necessary to understand what a collective is and what its relation is to the idea of moral responsibility. A collective is a group of people bound together by something held in common. A collective (as an entity) can be held responsible. A collective’s being responsible for the results of an action entails that the collective’s conduct played a significant role in causing those results. That a collective can be held responsible is not to be disputed in this paper, but the purpose of this paper is to examine the issue of whether or not an individual who is not a member of a specific (relatively narrow) collective, but only closely related to it (e.g. a German, but not a Nazi) ought also to be held responsible in some manner. The person is not morally guilty, but they are certainly affected in some manner, as many historical and current social practices seem to indicate. Is there an alternative to moral guilt in this context? Could moral taint be the concept we are looking for?

There are three basic positions as to the nature of moral taint and being held responsible. Anthony Appiah holds that only one’s moral integrity, or the society’s view of that individual’s moral status, is affected when one is associated with a harm but is not a member of the specific collective which is responsible for the harm. For Appiah, an individual merely associated with a collective is in no way responsible for the harms done to other people and ought not be held responsible (Mellema Collective Responsibility 72). Gregory Mellema says that taint is virtually identical to moral guilt. Mellema’s position suggests that association is enough to attribute responsibility (Mellema Collective Responsibility 72). This view is at the other end of the spectrum from Appiah’s account. Larry May (and the late Karl Jaspers) hold the middle ground, calling moral taint “metaphysical guilt,” a term which will be defined shortly. All three of the positions involve the idea of moral taint. They are distinct in that the first position says that one who is tainted is neither morally guilty nor responsible. In the second position, the tainted individual is morally guilty as well as responsible. This final position suggests that one is not morally guilty but metaphysically guilty and a type of responsibility, which shall be termed ‘solidarity responsibility,’ flows from that. An in-depth explanation of why this position is preferred to the others is outside of the scope of this paper.

There are two main concepts that contribute to an explanation of metaphysical guilt: solidarity and social existentialism. Metaphysical guilt implies that one has obligations to other people-these obligations arise by virtue of human solidarity. For the purposes of this paper, solidarity requires humans identifying each other as humans without regard to various differences between individuals. Along with this universal identification, solidarity is formed by “ethical habits and reciprocal moral obligations internalized by community members as grounds for trusting each other.” (Fukuyama 9) These habits and internalized obligations cannot be formed by means of rules or regulations alone; some kind of internal incentive to comply with these norms is necessary. Samuel Oliner found that highly moral people view themselves as having “connections with others in relationships of commitment and care and the belief in a basic universal similarity”(Oliner 259). He also found that these relationships and beliefs are valued above social status and that moral obligations protect this solidarity.

Moral taint always requires a community that shapes the character of the individual. Everyone is a member of one same collective-humanity-but each person is also a member of other, more specific collectives (e.g. female, white, middle class, etc.). It is on the basis of the one shared collective of humanity that much of metaphysical guilt theory is formed. Solidarity creates obligations not to harm others and to prevent others from performing harms. These obligations are not moral obligations but rather are of a different form-they are grounded solely in solidarity. The nature of those obligations will be discussed later. Even those not directly involved in harming others are metaphysically guilty due to their not having attempted to prevent the harm, that is, due to their failing to comply with solidarity obligations.

One issue that must be considered in regard to the concept of moral taint is what role a person must have in a harm in order for him or her to be considered tainted, that is, what role does solidarity play in determining the range of association? Most thinkers who concur with the idea of moral taint agree that an individual can be polluted even if his or her association with the harm is inadvertent. Thus, one can be metaphysically guilty by unaware association. This is quite an encompassing position given that there is solidarity among humans, as we have previously set forth. Everyone in the entire world is not morally responsible for everyone else, although one may experience metaphysical guilt due to solidarity and personal attitude/response.

The second aspect of an explication of metaphysical guilt is an understanding of social existentialism. Social existentialism theory stems from much of Jean Paul Sartre’s position which asserts that an individual chooses how to define his or her own existence. It also has its roots in Martin Heidegger’s theory of the social construction of the self. May takes the following position: “It is possible for a single person to choose which societal influences he or she will be exposed to, and hence, which kind of self he or she will become. . . . Here . . .there is no essence of the self; it is social experience or existence as well as individual choosing, that constructs the self” (May 3).

Living authentically involves knowing who one is and recognizing solidarity responsibility for the harms that occur in the world. Sartre said that “authenticity consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate. There is no doubt that authenticity demands much courage and more than courage” (quoted in May 149). Because one makes choices that create an authentic being, there is an element of responsibility involved, even though one cannot avoid making that choice. When one refrains from choosing, a choice is still made in that process. The existentialist asserts that one always has the power to change one’s own attitude regarding a situation, his or her own position, and also how one approaches the world. Sartre would say that authentic individuals must meet head-on their own faults and the faults of the communities of which they are a part. May would perhaps depart from Sartre and assert that responsibility goes beyond bringing about a state of affairs and includes solidarity responsibility for one’s attitudes toward a harm if one is not directly associated with that harm.

Social existentialism says that an individual is responsible in some way for his or her attitude toward a harm that could potentially occur or has actually occurred. Even if no harm actually occurs, the individual who had the harmful attitude risked a harm by maintaining the attitude and, thus, shares responsibility for the harm because he or she did nothing to curb the risk. It is not necessary that circumstances ever come about that would allow for action based on the attitude. By maintaining a harmful attitude, a harm is risked and that person had a significant role in potentially causing the harm since they did nothing to halt the harm (which would have actually occurred had the appropriate circumstances come about). Thus, one has a type of obligation toward the community at large, although since no physical action was performed, (only mental in maintaining the attitude) he or she is not morally responsible, but solidarity responsible. Thus, metaphysical guilt theory is grounded in the fact that each person inevitably chooses to maintain certain attitudes and chooses to create his or her own identity under social influence. That is, choices concerning attitude and identity make metaphysical guilt possible. To illustrate, if one chooses to maintain an attitude of disgust toward a Jew, for instance, but does not physically harm a Jewish person, while another is influenced by that attitude, that is cause for metaphysical guilt.

There are degrees to which one’s character and choices are influenced by the social context and, therefore, there are degrees of solidarity responsibility. For instance, if an individual can do nothing to prevent a harm being perpetrated by his or her community, there is still an element of responsibility, which arises from obligations toward the community. If verbal disagreement is not possible or beneficial, the individual can at least mentally denounce his or her group and dissociate his or her self from the group when it takes a morally wrong action. In this situation, the individual has the opportunity to hold the community responsible for harms rather than the community holding the individual responsible. Those who can distance themselves from the group but choose not to are subject to being metaphysically guilty and are solidarity responsible.

To summarize, metaphysical guilt theory is based on a shared identity of humankind (solidarity) and individual choice (social existentialism) in the following manner. Solidarity is the identification of humans as individuals without regard to differences. It, along with social existentialism, provides the ground of an individual’s obligation toward others to at least express disapproval of morally wrong actions and this holds even if that individual did not participate in them (nor was he or she even a member of a group who did perform the harm). Thus, social existentialism, or the view that attitudes and choices are formed under group influence, are grounds for solidarity responsibility. Therefore, one may be metaphysically guilty when one did nothing to prevent a harm that one ought to have-especially if one refrains from even internally disapproving. Also, one may be metaphysically guilty if one benefits from harm performed at a previous time.

Moral taint, as we have described it, is synonymous with metaphysical guilt. An individual’s state of taint can never be fully abolished. Instead, there are actions one may take to partially alleviate moral taint. Several thinkers suggest that one take “reasonable steps” to distance one’s self from the taint that could be inflicted (May 159). These steps will vary depending on the situation. May suggests one ask of oneself, “have I done all that can reasonably be expected of me to distance myself from this harm?” (May 159). While one will always be tainted, the levels to which the taint is applied may vary according to the response of the one who was tainted.

If there is nothing that an individual could have done to physically prevent a harm, then he or she cannot be held morally responsible. But that person has solidarity responsibility with respect to the choices he or she has made. One of the differences between metaphysical guilt and moral guilt is that one cannot be morally guilty for not sacrificing one’s life when there is nothing to be gained. But, should that person survive when others have been killed, he or she will often have what we have termed “metaphysical guilt.” This has been something that many Germans who lived through World War II have had to deal with-they feel “guilty” for being alive when so many were killed, particularly in situations in which they could have sacrificed their life, but it would have done nothing to alleviate the situation. They still may feel a type of guilt even if they made the choice to dissociate themselves with the collective who performed the harm, i.e. the Nazis. They can by no means be considered morally guilty and they are less tainted because they chose to, at the very least, mentally separate themselves from those who acted wrongly. Still, the situation has left them with a slightly tarnished sense of self-morality.

What if someone benefits from a harm that has occurred and is tainted by it at the same time? What is the appropriate ethical response? Recently consideration has been given to a class action lawsuit for reparations to benefit descendants of American slaves. It is argued that these reparations ought to be paid by corporations, Southern families, and, by extension, the general American public. The theory of metaphysical guilt may shed light on this issue.

Few would question the fact that slavery has had great effects upon living African Americans as well as their communities. All white Americans are members of a collective that is tainted because of that happened during the time of slavery. White Americans are seen as less than pure morally, because of the actions of their ancestors performed, even though some individuals did not preform a harm. White Americans must also question whether they have repudiated their morally wrong attitudes which would perpetuate the harm. Have they dissociated themselves from other members of their group who did perform the harm? But, taint does not imply moral responsibility which would be necessary for the application of traditional reparations to be assessed. Instead, metaphysical guilt is implied by taint. In terms of their solidarity responsibility, have white Americans done all that can be reasonably expected of them to distance themselves from the harms of slavery? Can members of other races see the needs that exists in African American individuals and communities and do what is expected of them as fellow human beings to help alleviate those needs? This attitude is imperative for there to exist solidarity among Americans of all colors. Is it plausible or beneficial to bring in the judicial system to mediate in this matter?

Since all Americans to some extent have received economic benefits from slavery, ought they be required to make reparation for what their ancestors and for what their fellow Americans did in oppression another group of people? What type of payment is appropriate for solidarity responsibility? Currently, it has been theorized that the basic crux of the lawsuit will be to prove that one is subject to being compelled to make rectification for the consequences of a harm-to show liability. The main difficulty in this case arises when most white Americans and most corporations do not consider themselves to have done anything for which they ought to be held responsible. If an individual or their ancestor emigrated to the U.S. after slavery was abolished, they are still tainted by virtue of solidarity and have solidarity responsibility as well. Thus, the burden is to show that solidarity is a necessary condition to a well-functioning society and personal choice is integral in forming solidarity. Personal attitudes and choices that lead to a lack of solidarity are, therefore, the ground upon which one could justify reparations.

It seems that this piece of potential litigation essentially seeks to create a feeling and environment of solidarity that apparently does not exist currently because the harms of slavery have not been sufficiently rectified. It is on the grounds of justice that solidarity is championed. But would the lawsuit create solidarity? Francis Fukuyama suggests that solidarity can only be formed by internal beliefs and habits not rules or regulations (Fukuyama 9). Thus, affirmative action or other similar programs cannot create solidarity. It seems that change is created through individual interaction, not government programs. If this is true, it would seem that just giving every descendent of a slave a check for $1000 will not create meaningful change. Several attorneys involved with this case have recognized this and suggested that the reparation money be used to create programs of social and moral education (Hitt 43). There is possible danger in this solution as well because it may alienate other minority communities who feel (and perhaps rightly so) that they have been oppressed as well. The following solution may or may not be possible, but perhaps the money from the lawsuit could be used to educate whites as well as blacks on their common ground-individuals meeting individuals and recognizing each other as such-not discounting the past but growing and moving on through it. This might be a specific qualification attached to the social programs.

It seems appropriate that some type of reparation is in order. There are other professionals who are much more capable of deciding what is appropriate and would do the least harm to the nation politically, legally and socially. But, theoretically, the form of reparation given above would seem to be appropriate.

An objection that is sure to come up with such a comprehensive position on moral taint is that the idea of personal responsibility will cease to be powerful because everyone is tainted by something or someone. There is an underlying fear of “incessant responsibility.” Moral taint offers the concept of a non-obligatory but ideally virtuous life whereby even though all are tainted, and ought to regret that taint, that does not necessarily entail that one has failed in his or her moral responsibility.

May’s rejoinder to this position is that because individual identity is shaped by group membership, this provides motivation for re-shaping the groups one has membership in, or at least one’s attitude toward the group, if membership happens to be involuntary. It is defeating to resign oneself to having an identification shaped by things which he or she did not choose. May asserts that humans must reshape their attitudes. People must feel motivated to avoid directly causing harm, but this motivation does not necessarily have to be weakened because moral taint adds another item on the list of things for which one ought to feel a sense of moral responsibility. May gives an example saying that “people continue to feel strongly motivated to avoid committing murder, even though there are other, lesser laws, such as traffic laws, that they are legally obligated not to violate” (Mellema Collective Responsibility 82). He asserts that people in a community ought to be motivated to avoid taint because they recognize their responsibility to the lives of other community members. If one’s own moral status is interrelated with a collective, that will negate the tendency to ignore serious evils.1 Perhaps this is just a complicated instance of positive peer pressure.

Idealistically speaking, it would be quite beneficial to live as though there really were

human solidarity. This does not seem to be logically plausible, though, because for there to be a state of inclusion, there must also be an idea of exclusion and the potential to carry the exclusivity out. One of the difficulties that arises from Jasper’s position is that because moral responsibility is as pervasive as moral guilt, unless a person does something to distance him or her self from the harm, they are held co-responsible. But how does one distance one’s self from the collective of all humankind without ceasing to be human? Perhaps one ought to maintain an overarching sense of the solidarity of humankind but at the same time recognize that it is when one is a member of a smaller group that he or she can form his or her own authentic identity. By sustaining a sense of solidarity, community is fostered which helps create an ethical society due to the closeness of relationships, while it is within one’s smaller groups that he or she can choose what kind of person to become and be responsible for his or her character.

Would anything change if one could be tainted by positive things rather than by harmful acts? How would the concept of moral taint be affected if consideration was given to individuals being tainted by morality rather than immorality i.e . benefitting from morally praiseworthy actions of others within one’s group. It seems this is what commonly occurs during the Olympics in televised human interest personal biographies. When a Kansas farmer chooses to relate or identify with a Russian ice skater, all the world seems to applaud because solidarity is often what this athletic phenomenon is intended to achieve. When it is a matter of the triumph rather than defeat of the human spirit, everyone wants to be “tainted” by this success. Why ought we seek to avoid metaphysical guilt when we pursue joy in identifying with others’s successes? If we accept the one, perhaps we ought to accept the other as well-particularly because metaphysical guilt is involved in one’s personal sense of morality and not just one’s sense of triumph and victory over various difficult odds.

Moral taint, in the form of metaphysical guilt, forces individuals to evaluate their lives and consider whether or not they are happy with the type of person they have become. This theory can cohere with many world-views and many religions. Within those groups a greater sense of community is formed due to the prevalence of metaphysical guilt and the solidarity that must exist previous to its formation. It seems that metaphysical guilt can be used to benefit humankind because it encourages greater responsibility within various groups, which is an advantage to all people.


Appiah, Anthony. “Racism and Moral Pollution” Philosophical Forum, 18, (1987), pp185-202.

Fukuyama, Francis. Trust. Free Press, New York. 1995.

Hitt, Jack. “Making the Case for Racial Reparations” Harper’s Magazine (Forum), November (2000), pp 38-51

Klassen, Johann. “Punishment and the Purification of Moral Taint” Journal of Social Philosophy, 27 (1996), pp 51-64.

May, Larry. Sharing Responsibility. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1992.

Mellema, Gregory. Collective Responsibility. Rodopi Press, Atlanta. 1997.

Mellema, Gregory. Individuals, Groups, and Shared Moral Responsibility. Peter Lang, New York. 1988.

Oliner, Samuel and Pearl. The Altruistic Personality Free Press, New York. 1988.

Schultz, Walter. Kinesis “Towards a communitarian liberalism” Vol 21 number 1, Summer 94.

The quote in the title is from Mellema “Collective Responsibility” p 76.

1See Oliner’s book for further explanation.

Dante's Inferno: Theatre of Transformation

Elisabeth Burke, University of New South Wales

This essay examines the relevance of ethics within a theatre production of Dante’s Inferno. Following a very brief overview of the structure, context and dramaturgy of the production I then elaborate some behind-the-scene stories that emerged during the period of the production. Each story is followed by a reflection on the impact of relationships on art making or of art practices on non-arts communities. Could theatre & arts practices hold the germ of an ethics approach for the non-arts community? I feel an urgency to explore this terrain as both the arts- and non-arts communities are increasingly indistinguishable. Both focus on product over process, entertainment over art, training over education, profits over people. I am less interested in examining the moral dimensions of the SUBJECT in art; such an emphasis can lead to censorship, or to regulatory ethics. Rather, my interest is both in how creativity and imagination is forged within the flux of relationships, and in that delicate balance between individual human flourishing and the community or group-dynamic. Process is important because it gives spirit to a product. All the stories in this essay are from and about relationships; each emerged from the threshold of life and theatre, from the group dynamics that were forged or became manifest in the processes and planning of the theatrical event P not on the stage itself. Many big ethical subjects emerge: power, knowledge, recognition, money – between the institutions and the individual, between professional artists and the amateur. At core were issues of trust and personal integrity. I conclude that conditions for a moral minimum of an ethics of creativity and imagination might include the need to: leave space within relationships for individuals to flourish on their own terms; re-enforce the value of working towards mutuality between the individual and community; maintain a deep critical perspective on the pitfalls of groups and organisations to regulate behaviour and thus create an amoral environment; have the courage to invest passion and take risks in one’s relationships with others; take hope from the fact that placing people and the quality of relationships before aesthetic and commercial outcomes enables the heart to dance with reason and imagination and enables human flourishing to begin; be willing to change and break through patterns of our personality that prevent us communing positively with others. These and other characteristics become a blueprint for a theatre of transformation.

Tagged ,

Weird Science: Testing Moral Claims

Lee Peck, Ohio University

Are there facts about how we should act? Can we test moral claims just as scientists test whether there is truth to a theory? Gilbert Harman believes there is “a real problem of testability in ethics, a problem that can be formulated without making mistakes about testability in science” (1986). Moral facts have no explanatory role, he says, and therefore ethics is immune from observational testing.

The Cornell realists have another view, however. The Cornell realist, Blackburn (1998) explains, “thinks we can identify the ‘truth-makers’ for our ethical thoughts, identifying what properties of things make them true, rather as the scientist identifies the property of stuff that identifies water or gold” (pp. 88-89).

In this paper, Harman’s and Sturgeon’s conflicting views will be presented. I argue Harman’s argument is the more feasible, but that Harman can make his argument stronger by presenting additional differences between the methodologies of ethical decision-making and scientific research.

Tagged ,