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January 22, 2010


Richard Yetter Chappell

Some thoughts...

(1) It's plausible (and perhaps trivial) that inflicting harms without right is impermissible. But it doesn't seem remotely plausible that violating such negative duties is the only way to act wrongly. (Cue the standard "drowning child in a pond" cases. Better yet, cue a case where you can prevent great harms to others at no cost to yourself. If your theory implies that one can permissibly ignore such opportunities to help others, few will find this credible.)

(2) On the difference between promising vs. conditionally permitting appropriate harms, note that only promising obligates me to avoid triggering the condition. This is just like the difference between laws that forbid X (on pain of a $100 fine) vs. laws that permit X so long as you pay a $100 fee.

(3) I don't think it could be permissible to torture someone merely to extract a meager benefit (say they promised me a penny), even if there was no other way to obtain what was owed. Quite aside from any prudential costs, it just isn't worth it morally. Getting what you're owed is not the most important thing in the world. It can't license such disproportionate suffering.

P.S. I think Seana Shiffrin and others have done some relevant work on promising (and whether its normative status is to be explained as a matter of raising expectations, or transferring rights, etc.) that you might want to look into.



1. Well I’ve had may say about drowning children elsewhere but please don’t confuse my retrograde moral opinions with Retributive Theory itself.

Retributivism can be extended by including harms allowed (or maybe, as you say, just to “great harms”) as well as harms caused in the same way that utilitarianism could be limited to disutility caused as opposed to allowed. It doesn’t render the analytical strategy unstable.

So feel free to read “and doesn’t allow (great/easily rectifiable) harm to others.” as one of the “F” factors or build it into the main clause. On a retributivist analysis this would be read as the claim that it would be permissible to force me to save that drowning child or for those starving millions to take arms, storm Princeton and seize Peter Singer's book royalties. That would accord with your views would it not?

I hope that one of the merits of Retributivism is that it leads us to discuss moral disagreements, like our disagreement about positive duties, with a clearer sense of their upshots rather than just tut-tutting about intuitions.

2. I don’t understand your argument here unless you are insisting that conditional permissions to harm are insufficient for “obligation” properly so called. I renew my challenge: what is missing? Here are X and Y. X has told Y he would do A and X has given Y permission to use any means necessary force X to do A. Still, you say, X has no obligation to do A. What’s missing?

3. As I said in the post, you don’t have to buy my story about how much violence you are entitled to commit to accept the retributive analysis. Apparently you think torture is impermissible unless the benefits are great. Fine, tell us how you do the calculation of what you call “the moral costs” and benefits? Remember, in this scenario, it must be that I am willing to undergo anything short of torture rather than pay you the penny. That is proportionality of a kind.

I would be interested in your answer and, again, I think it an argument for Retributivism that it allows us to frame moral questions in this consequential way.

And, finally, I know that many philosophers have had much to say about promising. But I remain unaware of any account which claims, as I’ve claimed, to identify promisings in non-moral terms.

Thanks for your comments.

Michael Zeleny

Whether or not I had lent you any money makes no difference to the illegality of my appropriation of found money that belongs to you, pursuant to the law of trover. In this scenario it would help me to think of myself as one of many possible creditors that that have a legitimate claim to your money. Hence the institution of bankruptcy courts that mediate our recovery in an orderly lawful fashion. The fact that my right to your repayment nowise translates to my entitlement to a full compensation, implies a conceptual incongruity between moral rights and legal remedies.

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