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Running risks morally


I defend normative externalism from the objection that it cannot account for the wrongfulness of moral recklessness. The defence is fairly simple—there is no wrong of moral recklessness. There is an intuitive argument by analogy that there should be a wrong of moral recklessness, and the bulk of the paper consists of a response to this analogy. A central part of my response is that if people were motivated to avoid moral recklessness, they would have to have an unpleasant sort of motivation, what Michael Smith calls “moral fetishism”.

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  1. Here is one argument against the claims of the last two sentences. Assume that, as is realistic, Agnes wants an abortion because her life will be worse in significant ways if she becomes a parent (again) in the near future. And assume that Agnes has a moral duty to herself; making her own life worse in significant ways for no sufficient reason is immoral. Then it could be immoral for her to continue the pregnancy. I don’t find this reason particularly compelling; it seems to me odd to say that people who make heroic sacrifices are immoral in virtue of paying insufficient regard to their own welfare. But the issues here are difficult, and I certainly don’t have a strong argument that we should give no credence to the view that there are substantial duties to self that make misguided sacrifices on behalf of others immoral. Still, I’m going to set this whole line of reasoning aside for most of the paper, while just noting that this could be a way even for an internalist to reject the practical arguments I’ll discuss below. I’m grateful to conversations with Elizabeth Anderson here (but not only here!).

  2. Moller (2011) offers an interesting different analogy to motivate something like the ‘Might’ Argument. I think that analogy is a little messier than the one I’m focussing on, and I’ll discuss it separately below.

  3. It would be a bit of a stretch to say this is Moore’s own view, but you can see how a philosopher might get from Moore to here. Appreciation of beauty is one of the constituents of welfare in the objective list theory of welfare put forward by Finnis (2011, pp. 87–88).

  4. Thanks to Julia Markovits for suggesting the central idea behind the Bruce example, and to Jill North for some comments that showed the need for it.

  5. Though note that Moller’s own position is more moderate than what the ‘Might’ Argument suggests; he thinks moral risk should play a role in reasoning, but not necessarily so strong a role as to make the ‘Might’ Argument go through. I’m advocating what he calls the “extreme view, we never need to take moral risk into account; it is always permissible to take moral risks” (p. 435).

  6. In Weatherson (2013) I make a similar objection to normative internalism in epistemology. It’s this point of connection that’s made me focus on normative internalism and externalism, not moral internalism and externalism. The issues in ethics and in epistemology are very closely connected here.

  7. The Huckleberry Finn case has been discussed extensively by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder (Arpaly 2002, 2003; Arpaly and Schroeder 1999, 2014), and I’m relying heavily on their analysis of the case in what I say here and elsewhere about Huckleberry Finn. More generally, the picture I’m assuming of moral motivation owes a lot to those works.

  8. To be clear, I’m conceding that these motivations are consistent with the argument of the paper. My own view is that while realising that something violates the Golden Rule could be a motivation, as is evident from how we teach morality to children, realising that it violates the categorical imperative should not be motivating. But the argument of the paper doesn’t turn on my quirky views here. What matters is that we distinguish wrongness itself from properties like harming another person, not what other properties we group in with wrongness.


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I’ve discussed this paper with just about everyone I know. Thanks to Elizabeth Anderson, Rachael Briggs, Lara Buchak, Sarah Buss, Justin D’Arms, Tom Dougherty, Dmitri Gallow, Alex Guerrero, Elizabeth Harman, Scott Hershovitz, Ishani Maitra, Julia Markovits, Jill North, Timothy Schroeder, Andrew Sepielli, Ted Sider, Rohan Sud, Sigrn Svavarsdóttir and Julie Tannenbaum for suggestions that particularly improved the paper. This paper was presented to the EDGe group at the University of Michigan and the philosophy department at Ohio State University, and I got valuable feedback at both of those presentations. The paper also served as my inaugural lecture as the Marshall M. Weinberg Professor at the University of Michigan. Marshall has been a wonderful supporter of the University of Michigan for many years, and especially of its philosophy department, and this was a tremendous honour. And the paper was presented at the 2013 Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference. This is close to the Platonic Ideal of a philosophy conference. I’m incredibly grateful to Ned Markosian, and to all of the people who work with him to make this conference happen every year. And I’m very happy to have been able to present this paper at the 2013 conference. So to Marshall and to Ned, thanks.

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Correspondence to Brian Weatherson.

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Weatherson, B. Running risks morally. Philos Stud 167, 141–163 (2014).

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  • Normative externalism
  • Moral recklessness
  • Moral uncertainty