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Why moral paradoxes matter? “Teflon immorality” and the perversity of life


“Teflon immorality’’ (or TI) is immorality that goes on unchecked—the wrongdoing is not stopped and its perpetrators, beyond the reach of punishment or other sanction, often persist in their immoral ways. The idea that the immoral prosper has been recognized as morally (and legally) disturbing presumably for as long as humanity has been reflective, and can be found already in the Bible. The reasons behind a great deal of successful immorality are important practically, but uninteresting philosophically. Sometimes, however, we face events that are more interesting philosophically, and Teflon immorality results from oddities such as moral paradoxes and perversions. These, however, have remained largely unnoticed. I will outline a tentative survey of this topic. After showing its pervasiveness and importance, I will briefly reflect on its relevance to the way we should think about morality and about the means to further it, and confront possible objections.

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  1. A broad category that might also be placed under the heading of “Teflon immorality” concerns excuses from blame and punishment due to limitations in agency. Here we find, for example, the difficulty that people doing awful things when intoxicated could be faulted for becoming intoxicated but not, or at least not obviously, for what they have done under the agency-debilitating influence. Likewise, those who have non-culpable false beliefs may do wrong but later be morally excused because, it may be thought, they did not know that what they were doing was wrong. Some interpretations of the free will problem may also, in the broadest sense, be thought to provide a blanket excuse for wrongdoers, leading to absurdity (see, for example, Smilansky 2011). These topics are philosophically interesting and have been discussed at great length in the past. The more useful approach would thus be to limit the discussion of Teflon immorality to instances of people knowingly and freely doing wrong but nevertheless escaping from paying the price or, in other words, to the “Teflon effect” as it comes into action once no doubt is thought to exist about moral agency.

  2. The “Teflon” element and the immorality are distinct. We can of course have non-Teflon immorality, meaning immorality that can either be stopped or where wrongdoers are punished for their wrongdoing. More interestingly, the Teflon effect can be operative in morally good cases, creating “Teflon morality”. Imagine a father in the former Communist East Berlin who sacrifices his well-being in order to smuggle his son to West Berlin. He will be captured and pay a very severe price, but he may think that all that really matters to him is his son’s having the opportunity to live freely. In a sense, then, he cannot really be harmed, and he will have triumphed irrespective of what ensues. My focus here, however, is on the more disturbing issue of Teflon immorality.

  3. Daniel Statman (2008) considered the question of whether the just side has a right to fight back against its victimizers in self-defence when it has no realistic chance of victory or, in other words, whether the prospect of success is indeed a condition of just warfare. He concluded that upholding the victims’ honour could permit such a hopeless struggle. But even if people are permitted to engage in hopeless struggles so as to defend their honour, this decision is particularly problematic when the combatants are risking not only their own lives but those of many other innocent people. Hence, even if Statman’s argument has some merit, it does not necessarily follow that third parties ought to support the hopeless struggle of the weak (even setting aside the issue of humanitarian intervention). Matters would surely also depend on the particular circumstances. In any event, this issue also exposes the “trap” element and shows how the strong may enjoy TI status simply because they are stronger.

  4. I am focussing here on the difficulty in compensating the direct victims (and perhaps their close relatives). For a broader notion which may include the need to compensate everyone in the society, see e.g. Boonin (2008). “Wrongful life” cases also pose a challenge to the idea of compensation but from a very different direction. In such cases, victims complain about certain actions or forms of negligence that, had they not occurred, the victims would not have been born. The courts have often refused to convict wrongdoers because these complaints appeared paradoxical. Their paradoxical quality, therefore, stands in the way of both compensation and accountability. These unusual cases have received extensive attention but, as I have argued, a much broader problem emerges regarding compensation.

  5. Gregory Kavka (1987) ingeniously explored the advantages of such measures and their accompanying paradoxes in the extreme context of nuclear deterrence.


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Versions of this paper were given at the Jurisprudence Discussion Group, Oxford University; Henry Shue’s and Seth Lazar’s Oxford war and terrorism workshop; at the Centre for Law, Ethics, and Public Affairs, Warwick University; and at the Department of Philosophy, University of Witwatersrand, and I am grateful to participants in all these forums for their helpful comments. I am very grateful to Aliza Avraham, David Boonin, Zohar Geva, Amihud Gilead, Laurence Goldstein, Iddo Landau, Tal Manor, Ariel Meirav, Juha Raikka, Talia Shaham, Daniel Statman and the editor and an anonymous referee for Philosophical Studies, for extremely helpful comments on drafts of the paper.

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Correspondence to Saul Smilansky.

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Smilansky, S. Why moral paradoxes matter? “Teflon immorality” and the perversity of life. Philos Stud 165, 229–243 (2013).

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