The Most Proper Option is the Right thing to do

(HT: Debbie)

{Just=right=moral=proper=not culpable=not blameworthy}  =/= {unjust=wrong=improper=culpable=blameworthy}

We must take care when speaking and avoid introducing new words which mean the same thing and then use them as if they do not.

I will not simultaneously call a just act one that is also improper/wrong/blameworthy/immoral because moral/just/praiseworthy/proper/right are synonymous and are exclusive to their negations.  It is a contradiction.  Multiple different determinants can be moral or immoral, but no single part, or the whole, can be finally judged as both.  The whole or each piece need not be binary.  But they need be a measure of one, or the other, or be irrelevant.

The most proper action is also right.  We can imagine a continuum of propriety/rightness/praiseworthiness on one end of a spectrum and impropriety/wrong/blameworthiness on the other end.  This continuum is ordinal.  There are always better and worse options which we do not know about or can not perform given other constraints.  Propriety can not be cardinal.  Otherwise, all cardinally-proper choices which were not possible due to undeveloped institutions or technologies were “wrong” in the past when the constraints were limiting.

For example, the physician of 1300ad might have bled a patient thinking that it was the most proper choice.  In our common circumstances today, such an action is blameworthy because there are more proper/right choices.  The constraints are different.

Or we can think about externalities.  Is human emission of poisonous carbon dioxide wrong? No.  It is the most proper choice in common circumstances.  Is recklessly throwing a rock and it falling through a neighbor’s window wrong?  Probably.  More proper options exist.

To say that the actions of the past were both wrong and also the best of poor alternatives is the same as saying that a person can not do what is right.  But is a person culpable for the level of technology which surrounds them?

Today, in the market, a supplier competes with other suppliers.  If one supplier produces more cheaply and provides goods at a lower cost and price, then the competitors will be worse off. The value of their means to produce deteriorates. They will experience a negative externality.  But we do not call this improper.  It is not wrong because marketplace competition is the most proper action of the choice set provided.  HOWEVER, if in the future, when competition can just as easily lower prices and NOT harm the competitors, then it would be blameworthy/wrong/improper to allow the competitors to be harmed as such.  The choice set determines propriety.  In this way, the most proper action is ordinal.  It is the best choice given the possible alternatives as defined by the constraints.

Of course, each action has different parameters which individually may be more or less proper.  We may want to measure propriety on multiple scales and then judge the interaction of the various measures.  But the full consideration and final judgment of an action falls somewhere on the continuum [in light of the circumstances].  If you say that the blood-letting physician is, in final consideration, blameworthy, then you must also make him culpable.  One can not be simultaneously do right en total and wrong en total.

The prostitute is not doomed to an immoral action.  She is not culpable for her constraints.  She can do what her most proper action is.  Just like any of us do our most proper action given our constraints.  That is what makes our actions right – not some absolute cardinal judgment.  To say otherwise is analogous to ignoring the process of justice and advocating just outcomes (a huge mistake).

Advocating that murder is always wrong can create a norm of not considering murder as a valid option.  And most of the time, this can have a good outcome and be proper in most circumstances. People will refuse to even consider the option.  But if 7 billion people have to die because one refuses to murder a single person, and that is considered wrong, then this rule for propriety is obviously not the best standard of propriety universally.  The choice set which faces an agent may not be pleasant.  But aesthetics, ease, and convenience are not at issue.  Poor choices do not an improper action make.

Another example:  Some people say that they never meet a tax decrease that they don’t deem proper.  And given the level and range of current government activities, such advocacy can be good.  But in the world of smaller government, less taxation may not be the most proper thing if it induces a complete lack of government or other ill effects.

So advocating an ideal rule can create norms which are good in most circumstances.  But ‘most’ is not the same as ‘all’.  In this way, advocating an ideal rule can be good [most of the time].  But that there are exceptions proves that such a rule is not the perfect defining determinant of propriety.

Nor can there be limits to the continuum of propriety.  There is no cardinally ‘most proper’ action. The physician example and the market externalities example demonstrate this.  If there is a god (even allegorically), then I don’t think that we can be doomed to damnation due to our lack of technology (which limits our choices and therefore our best option).

Cardinality demands that we are all doing wrong unless we already happen to have access to and exercise the most objectively “right” choice.

I avoided using animal examples at all in this post because it introduces ‘nature’ and a status quo bias.   Also, it introduces varying costs to action which should be held constant in order to determine the crux of the argument.  That you can do nothing to stop all of the lion-on-deer murders is exactly why doing nothing is the most proper action.  It is your best option.  It is not wrong.  This argument requires no cardinality.

That you can do nothing to stop all of the man on man murders is exactly why that doing nothing [to stop ALL murders] is the most proper action.  It is your best option.  It is not wrong.

You may be deontological.  And that’s fine.  So am I.  But we must not axiomatically ignore variables as a determinant of propriety (right and wrong).  We are not automatons which receive the inputs of a morality function and then discover the right thing through sources independent of our environment.  By this I mean that we must take care not to ignore the uniqueness of circumstance as a determinant of propriety.  It isn’t cardinally defined a priori.   I strongly induce that to say as much is an error.

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