A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Is morality part of wellbeing?

In ethics, there is a common view that part of human wellbeing includes being a morally upright person. This is a rough sketch of an argument against this thesis. I'm not certain how much weight to give to my argument, but it seems to be worth recording.

The thesis I am attacking is closely related to internalism about moral motivation (the view that moral beliefs are inherently motivating). Indeed, perhaps they are the same thing. I don't know enough about the subject to know, so for the purposes of this essay I shall refer to my target as "morality as a constituent of wellbeing", or MCW.

P1: If MCW is true, then attempting to cause other people to act morally is paternalistic.
P2: In general, it is impermissible to be paternalistic to other people.
L1: If MCW is true, then in general it is impermissible to attempt to cause other people to act morally.
P3: It is not in general impermissible to attempt to cause other people to act morally.
C: Hence, MCW is false.

P1 I'm uncertain about. Is paternalism confined to forcing people to act in a way that you regard as good for them, or can it apply to a wider range of cases where you privilege your own reasoning over some else's?

P2 seems right. My position is that paternalism is usually wrong except in cases where the patient is incapable of acting rationally, or in accordance with their own considered judgement.
One response might be that by acting immorally, and therefore (according to the defender of MCW) irrationally, people demonstrate that they fall into the "incapable of acting rationally" category. But this seems highly dubious. Most obviously, the fact that someone chooses to act irrationally does not mean that they couldn't have acted rationally.

L1 follows from P1 and P2.

P3 seems sensible. In the words of Leah Libresco, "Breaking a promise is a betrayal, but walking with your friend or partner into evil isn’t loyalty." We rely on our friends and family to keep us on the straight and narrow.

One possible intervention, which could come on either side of the debate, is Joseph Heath's idea that self-binding is one of the crucial "benefits of co-operation". I can see this being used to argue in favour of P3; on the other hand, I can also see it being used to argue that forcing others to act morally isn't really about paternalism.

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