The Moral Perplexity of Moral Cognizance
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.