Thursday, January 11, 2007

Scanlon: the idea of moral self-sacrifice and its justification

The possibility of distinguishing moral worth from well-being, as I have argued in the previous post, presupposes that the following principle or something like it is true:

M1: there can be cases in which morality requires from person p that she Fs, even when F-ing decreases p’s well-being or fail to maximize it, p desires to F (despite her awareness of well-being cost) and she is committed to respect values which justify the requirement in question.

We can see that this principle can be justified in terms of two principles that are - taken singularly, at least - more widely shared than M1 itself. The first being:

M: morality can require from p the performance of an act F that decreases p’s well-being or fails to maximize it

M, by itself, does not grant the possibility of self-sacrifice in the full, i.e. the voluntary, sense. M only says that some people, maybe very wicked people who would never do a moral act voluntarily, that is to say, people who could not be brought to desire - in the sense involving only the having of a pro-attitude - to act morally, would end up worse off if they were to do what they morally ought to. It leaves open the possibility that the rest of us, i.e. people who can choose do what is morally good do not loose any well-being by performing such acts.

M is therefore still compatible with a range of theories about well-being that have what is usually considered a vice: the vice of turning every action into a self-interested one, that is, the vice of turning self-sacrifice as a conceptual impossibility. Unrestricted desire theory may entail, for example, that if we decide to sacrifice our life in order to save the life of all other citizens in our country, because we love our country more than we love ourselves, we end up better off, since we get what we most wanted.

It is another relatively uncontroversial and widely shared claim about theories of well-being that they should allow us to talk consistently about self-sacrifice as a voluntary sacrifice of well-being. But once this much is allowed, it seems that those cases in which someone is committed to a higher goal than the maximization of her own well-being, and performs voluntarily an action that he knows being such as to involve a loss of well-being, are the ones to which we shall attribute the highest moral worth. So the most plausible rendering of Scanlon's idea that sacrifices of well-being can increase the moral worth of our lives is given by M1.

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