Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Moral Perplexity of Moral Cognizance

By Ori Herstein
Consider the following two maxims of morality:
· One who performs a morally bad action is morally worse – in terms of blameworthiness (moral culpability) – if one is aware of the wrongness of the action. Call this Maxim I.
· It is morally better – in terms of virtue – to be morally cognizant, i.e., reflective, informed, caring, inquisitive and sensitive to moral facts and dilemmas, than it is to be morally oblivious and ignorant. Under this maxim the moral value of being morally cognizant is intrinsic and not purely instrumental (cognizance of the good is more likely to lead to good actions). Call this Maxim II.
The two maxims appear to clash in the following case:
Person A is highly cognizant of the world’s evils and moral issues. She reads human rights reports, watches ‘real news,’ is informed about world famine and genocide, notices homeless people and panhandlers on the sidewalks and is generally reflective about moral issues. Person B is mostly oblivious to such matters. She is unaware of the ills of society, unconsciously avoids the news, is disposed to focus on ‘the positive’ and is not inclined to reflect on or inquire about questions of social justice and other moral issues and dilemmas. The actual actions of both A and B are of equal moral worth: neither person is especially active in terms of promoting good, avoiding doing bad, or doing what is right.
Who is morally worse, person A or person B?
According to Maxim I, person A is morally worse. Not only does she perform actions that are morally bad (or at least do little good) but she is fully aware of the moral implications of her conduct. Meanwhile, while B’s actions are no better than A’s, B does not ‘know better’ and therefore seems less reprehensible than A. Here moral cognizance serves to impute and exacerbate moral badness (in terms of blameworthiness).
In contrast, according to Maxim II it is person B who is morally worse. Unlike person A, person B lacks the virtue of moral cognizance: she is insensitive to moral issues, does not care enough about justice to even bother to inquire about the ills of the world, is unconcerned with the moral nature or effect of our actions, and is generally morally unreflective and ignorant. Here moral cognizance is a virtue that ascribes moral goodness.
This ‘clash of the maxims’ plays into many everyday dilemmas producing conflicting prescriptions as to moral cognizance. For example, for many years I avoided (at least partially unconsciously) the moral question of vegetarianism vis-à-vis the bleak reality of the meat industry. I think I understood that reflecting on, knowing and understanding these issues would either force me to give up eating meat – something I did not want to do – or would make me into a worse person for continuing to eat meat after having been exposed to the negative moral implications of my conduct. Still, I think I was morally tainted by my lack of attention to and reflection on what many seemingly moral people believed was an evil practice. The years past and finally Peter Singer – one of the world’s leading moral philosophers writing on vegetarianism – rolled into town. Somehow I felt that I could not attend his lecture and continue to avoid the whole issue of whether or not carnivorism is immoral.
As a consequence of attending the lecture I finally came face to face with the evils of the meat industry. And, I felt a better person for it. To an extent it seemed to have cleansed me of my previous moral obliviousness, making me more cognizant of the moral implications of my everyday actions. Ever since, I have been attempting (with intermittent success) a conversion to vegetarianism. Under Maxim II I am now a morally better person than I was, because I am no longer oblivious and “blissfully ignorant” and am more aware, concerned and reflective about the moral issue of meat consumption and of everyday moral dilemmas in general. In other words, my character is now more virtuous than before. In contrast, under Maxim I I am now a morally worse person than I was because I still occasionally eat meat even though I am now fully aware of the evils of my conduct. In other words, I still perform the same actions I once did, yet now I am more blameworthy and morally culpable than I was before my transformation into a more virtuous person. So, am I now a morally better or worse person than I was?
Assuming that changing oneself is difficult enough, let alone changing the world, and considering that awareness of moral reasons for actions often does not suffice for triggering action, should one who desires to be morally better aspire to more or less moral cognizance? Being less morally cognizant seems prima facie lacking in moral virtue, yet in practice it seems that moral cognizance often makes people morally worse in terms of moral culpability and blameworthiness.


Michael C. Dorf said...

Interesting reflections, Ori. Herewith, three reactions.

1) I'll make you a better person under Maxim II and a worse one under Maxim I by pointing out that "vegetarianism" (as opposed to veganism) is intimately linked with the meat industry (as noted repeatedly by Sherry and others on this blog and explained nicely by Gary Francione at
"Animals used to produce dairy and eggs generally live longer than 'meat' animals, are arguably treated worse, and end up at the same slaughterhouse after which we consume their bodies anyway. There is probably more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak."

2) As to the more general phenomenon, I wonder whether Maxim I might not carry with it a kind of reservation under which people who deliberately remain ignorant of harms they either cause or could but do not ameliorate are estopped from invoking their ignorance as a defense against knowingly causing or failing to ameliorate harm. Consider U.S. constitutional jurisprudence under the 8th Amendment, which makes prison staff culpable for "deliberate indifference" to harms to prisoners. Indeed, one might think that Americans more generally are deliberately indifferent to the awful failings of our prisons.

3) That in turn leads me to think there's a close connection between violations of both maxims. “Perhaps,” as Stanley Cohen says about official denials of immoral acts, we “have already entered a post-modern version of the Oedipal state: knowing and not-knowing at the same time, but also not caring.” STANLEY COHEN, STATES OF DENIAL 116 (2001).

Sam Rickless said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I have a few thoughts on the issue, which I believe dovetail with Mike's comments.

I think there is a way of resolving the "clash" here. One who performs a morally bad action and is aware of its badness if morally worse than one who performs the same action and is non-culpably unaware of its badness. Whether one is non-culpably unaware depends on whether the relevant facts are facts one *should* know. For example, suppose, to use an example of Judith Thomson's, that a light switch in X's house just happens to be connected to a detonator, so that if the switch is flipped a bomb will go off and kill Y next door. If X flips the switch knowing that it will kill Y, then X is a blameworthy. If X flips the switch without knowing that it will kill Y and without having violated any epistemic obligation vis-a-vis Y, then X is blameless. But suppose that there was evidence readily available to X that Z had set up such a device in X's house to kill Y, and suppose that X simply turned a blind eye to this evidence, then X is not blameless.

On this maxim, both A and B in your scenario are blameworthy, A because she is doing something bad knowingly, and B because she is failing to discharge her epistemic duties. (Actually, the way you describe the situation, B is also blameworthy for having the wrong moral dispositions independently of her epistemic vices. But this is an unnecessary complication, I think.)

Bottom line: If consuming animal products is bad and you either know or should know that it is bad, then you are blameworthy for doing so whether you do it knowing that it is bad or not knowing that it is bad. Mere ignorance is no excuse.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In the examples given by Sam and myself, the person at issue doesn't know--either blamelessly or culpably--facts about the world. This seems straightforward, at least in some instances. Thus, I take it to be uncontroversial that X acts blamelessly when she flicks the switch without knowledge or reason to know of the connection to the detonator in Y's house.

Suppose, however, that X' knows about the connection between the light switch and the detonator but that X' is a Nazi and Y a Jew. X' sincerely believes that turning on the light is not only blameless but laudable. Is X' in any way less blameworthy for killing Y than would be X, who is not a Nazi, but likes having the light on and is callously indifferent to the resultant death of Y. If there is a difference between X' and X, isn't X' worse, because X' arguably intends Y's death, whereas X merely foresees it as an inevitable consequence of an act undertaken for a different reason?

Ori's schema pre-supposes some version of moral realism, and so the relevant mental states would appear to be about intentions rather than normative beliefs.

Ori Herstein said...

I concede the vegan point. Sadly, I am not there yet.

The point about culpable ignorance is of course correct – that one did not know that doing x is wrong is no defense for doing x if one should have and could have known that x wrong. Yet, there are degrees of blameworthiness that often correspond to degrees of responsibility. Wronging intentionally and even merely knowingly carries more blameworthiness than wronging negligently or even recklessly. Person A is good in terms of moral cognizance (in the sense laid out in maxim II) yet is highly blameworthy for knowingly wronging. Person B lacks moral cognizance and therefore, in terms of maxim II, is less morally good than A, but is only negligently culpable for wronging, and therefore, in terms of maxim I, not as bad as person A. I agree that neither A nor B are chaste, yet I wonder who is better/worse. As such, I think the problem still stands, no?

Paul Scott said...

I hope you take this in the good spirit it is intended. The problem with "trying" to be vegan is that you are trying. As Yoda would say, "Do, or do not. There is no try."

I recommend that you just make the decision to be vegan. Once you do that, you will find it to be markedly easier than trying to be vegan.

Trying to be vegan does not mean that you are committed, but are having difficulty finding good vegan food. Trying means that you really want to enjoy to product of torture, but recognizing it as torture you "try" so as to justify to yourself your moments of "weakness" in an otherwise strongly moral life.

Your "trying" has almost certainly resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of time you spend participating in torture, and that is certainly a good thing. From a utilitarian perspective "trying" is better than not "trying" (and eating "only fish and dairy" or "only dairy" is certainly better than just being a willing omnivore), so I am happy for the reduction in harm resulting from your choices.

I am just suggesting (as someone - and Mike and Sherry both fit this as well, and I suspect Neil as well - who has moved from Omnivore, to fish + dairy, to dairy to vegan) that the best way to become vegan is to make the choice and do it. The obstacles to veganism that you may think currently exist, you will find disappear withing a few days to at most a week or two once your choice has forced you to learn what you need to do. that is, contrary to what most believe, the barriers to entry into being a vegan are really quite small and short lived once you make the choice.

Paul Scott said...

Let me also try and put this a different way.

I do not regret my days as an omnivore because I was taught to be one and really gave it no consideration. I do regret the several years I spent transforming myself to vegan from the time I first started exploring (both factually and introspectively) the process of putting meat on my plate.

Once I knew that consuming animal products was morally reprehensible, I should have simply become vegan. I didn't. It would have been an easy choice to make, and I do have some guilt over not having done it.

I don't know if Mike and Sherry and other vegans feel likewise, but I find, from personal experience, Maxim I to be far worse, morally, than Maxim II.

Sam Rickless said...

Mike: I'm not sure whether X' has to be judged worse than X. Your principle seems to be that if both X and X' flip the switch knowing that it will kill Y, but X' intends Y's death while X does not, then X' is worse (deserving of greater blame) than X. As a matter of vice, is intending great evil worse than callous disregard of this magnitude? Both attitudes at bottom manifest a fundamental failure of respect for persons, and once that threshold is crossed, I am not inclined to find degrees of vice.

Ori: A discharges his epistemic duties and then does something bad knowing that it is bad. B fails to discharge his epistemic duties and then does something bad without knowing that it is bad. Which of A and B is worse? Well, I suppose that depends on how important the relevant epistemic duty is and how easy it is to discharge it. Suppose that A looks in the gun chamber and finds six bullets, aims the gun at C, and fires. Suppose that B does not look in the gun chamber (and does not otherwise know whether the gun is loaded) and playfully aims the gun at C, and fires. I would say that A and B are equally blameworthy for C's death, that A and B are equally vicious (though in different ways).

Sherry F. Colb said...

Someone may want to blog separately about this case, but I thought it would be interesting, in the light of the topic, to note here that the Kansas court trying the man who killed George Tiller is going to allow the defendant to offer evidence that he (defendant) sincerely believed that he was acting in defense of others (by killing a doctor who performs abortions to save the unborn). The evidence is being allowed in as relevant to a manslaughter reduction from murder, given that the defendant unreasonably but sincerely believed he was acting in defense of others.

This, to me, raises the distinction that Michael highlighted earlier from Ori's post -- between being ignorant of empirical facts (e.g., that flipping the light switch will kill a neighbor) and being ignorant of moral facts (e.g., that it is wrong to kill people on the basis of their religion). I think the judge in the Kansas case might have been confusing the two. The defendant was not "mistaken" because he erroneously thought he could save fetuses from George Tiller when he actually could not (maybe he could; maybe he couldn't; no one is really contesting it one way or the other); he was "mistaken" because he thought that killing a doctor to prevent an abortion is morally justified. Just as ignorance of the law is no defense, it would seem that "ignorance" of moral propositions is no defense either.

Ori Herstein said...

I guess what I meant by “trying to be vegetarian” is that I try not to eat meat for moral reasons. Mostly I succeed, but not always. Seeing that I am not always successful, I cannot really claim to be a vegetarian. I guess what I would like to learn more about is what you mean by “being vegetarian” beyond "not eating meat for moral reasons."

As I understand your example, A intends to kill C while B does not really care one way or the other. To me, A seems worse than B: A meant to kill C while B did not. All other things being equal, I would judge A more harshly (as would most legal systems).

I find the ‘epistemic duties’ point very compelling, yet I wonder what would you do with the following case where complying with the epistemic duty is very easy and yet our intuitions of blame are different between a negligent and an intentional actor: Think of two drivers, A and B: A looks into his side mirror, realizes that the only way he can make the left turn is to run over the motorcyclist to his left, and decides to do just that. B, driving under similar circumstances, is engrossed with listening to the radio and neglects to look into the side mirror while taking the left turn; he also runs over a motorcyclist. Is A not more to blameworthy than B, even though the epistemic duty is very easily complied with?

Sam Rickless said...

Ori: Ah, the side-mirror case. Very compelling. But...

In general, I know that if I make a left turn without looking, the chance of my hitting a motorcyclist is actually quite small. Recall that I mentioned two parameters: (i) how easy it is to discharge the epistemic duty, but also (ii) how important it is to discharge the duty. If I know that the chances of my discovering some critical piece of information by looking in the side mirror are low, then this places less of a premium on my discharging the epistemic duty. By contrast, if I know that the chances of my discovering some critical piece of information by looking in the side mirror are high, then this places more of a premium on my discharging the epistemic duty. So I think the principle I articulated can explain why driver B is (in the usual case) less blameworthy than driver A.

Suppose we tweak your case a little. Imagine now that A and B both know that they are driving next to a bicycle race with thousands of contestants on a straight road. A turns left and hits cyclist C intentionally. B turns left and hits cyclist D because B was listening to Car Talk. A is a monster. But, honestly, so is B. Although B does not know that he will hit D (or any other cyclist) when he turns the steering wheel, he exhibits a monstrous form of callous indifference to human life.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Just to add to Paul's encouraging words to Ori (and others!) about becoming a vegan, let me concur that it is easy, healthy, delicious, and -- most importantly -- the right thing to do. If you are trying to be a vegetarian, I would propose in place of that that you try to be a vegan (by which I mean consume increasingly less and ultimately no animal products). What Michael was saying in point #1 was that replacing flesh with dairy and eggs actually does not help animals; it likely harms them. (This is what Gary suggests in speaking of greater suffering in milk than in steak).

Drinking milk and eating cheese or cream or butter is the moral equivalent of eating veal; consuming eggs is the moral equivalent of consuming male chicks who have been suffocated and mutilated to death.

I hope to post some time soon on the whole "vegetarianism" phenomenon, because it is certainly a socially common phenomenon, but it does not make any sense or rest on any morally relevant distinctions (any more than only eating pigs whose ears are of a particular length would be).

If you're going to "try" (and I would agree with a wise scholar who persuasively argues that there is no duty to try but a duty to succeed), try to be a vegan, not a vegetarian. And then succeed! :)

Ori Herstein said...


I feel I am pushing the examples towards a negligence scenario and you towards a recklessness scenario. I think that in order to establish that sometimes ignorant wronging is not as bad as intentional wronging all I need to show is that there are such cases. I agree that in the examples of highly reckless conduct – turning into a lane easily known to be filled with motorcycles or shooting a gun at someone without checking whether the gun is loaded – the blameworthiness gap between informed/intentional conduct and ignorant/non-intentional conduct diminishes. Yet, do you not agree that there are many cases of negligent wrongful conduct that are not as wrong as informed/intentional conduct, such as many negligence cases?


The duty not to cause animal suffering is definitely a duty to succeed! Yet, thinking in terms of virtue I wonder whether the person who tries yet fails is not better in some sense than a person who does not even try yet, for unrelated reasons, performs to a similar standard. Or, put differently, is it not better in some sense to be a person who thinks about animal welfare, is open intellectually and emotionally to animal rights arguments and tries to become a vegan – yet is not fully successful – than it is to be a person who could not care less yet just happens to consume the same amount of animal products as the first person?

Anyway, I promise to try – making me a more virtuous person – and hope to succeed – making me even better yet!

Sherry F. Colb said...

Yes. I do think that it is better to try to do the right thing and to succeed part-way than it is not to care at all (and to happen to do as much as the person who is trying). I also applaud your switch from trying to go vegetarian to trying to go vegan, and I know you will succeed if you really try. One method that Gary has proposed for people who are not willing to go vegan immediately is the "1 2 3" method, by which you begin by going vegan for breakfast, do that for a few days or a week, then go vegan at breakfast and lunch, and then go vegan at all three meals (or however many you have). Good luck (though you won't need it)!

Sam Rickless said...

"Yet, do you not agree that there are many cases of negligent wrongful conduct that are not as wrong as informed/intentional conduct, such as many negligence cases?"

Yes, I agree. Let's go back. Originally, you were worried about a clash of maxims. On the one hand, it is morally *worse* to do something bad knowingly than it is to do it unknowingly. On the other hand, it is morally better to be informed, and so it would seem to be morally *better* to do something bad knowingly than it would be to do it unknowingly. This is a clash.

My response is to say that both maxims are false. This gets rid of the clash.

First, it is not always worse to do something bad knowingly than it is to do it unknowingly. This is the point of the gun case and the revised motorcycle case above. The reason is that there are two duties at issue: duties not to cause or intend harm, and epistemic duties. Sometimes it is critically important to discharge one's epistemic duties, and moreover it is easy to do so. If one fails to discharge one's epistemic duties under these circumstances, then when one causes harm one is as culpable as when one has the requisite knowledge.

Second, as you say, it is not always better to do something bad knowingly than to do it unknowingly. This is the point of the *mere* negligence cases. Again, there are the same two duties at issue. But sometimes it is either not critically important to discharge one's epistemic duties or it is particularly difficult to do so. If one fails to discharge one's epistemic duties under these circumstances, then when one causes harm one is not as culpable as when one has the requisite knowledge.

The bottom line is that there is no clash. Morality is consistent. Now I can breathe more easily and enjoy my vegan egg salad sandwich. ;-)

By the way, I've really enjoyed this post and the conversation we've had. I may be making mistakes, which you should obviously feel free to correct. I just wanted to register that this has been a very stimulating thread.

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