Negligence and Excuses

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 18, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s guest post is about the moral theory I defend, desirism, and is written by Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.) See Fyfe’s other posts here.


Today we come to the subject of negligence.

A couple of months ago, I decided that since Luke invited me to use this spot to discuss issues in “applied ethics”, that I would use it to take a look at some common moral categories. They include murder, rape, slavery, theft, lying, and sophistry.

The topic of negligence has a special significance to me.

I presented the desirist case on negligence in an earlier post on the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There, I reported some of the history of ‘negligence’ and ‘desirism’.

Briefly, for the sake of those who do not wish to travel back to that other article:

(1) I presented a paper in graduate school giving a basic argument for desires being the ultimate object of moral evaluation.

(2) The head of the philosophy department dismissed the idea out-of-hand, telling me that a 19th century philosopher by the name of James Martineau presented such a theory, and Henry Sidgwick demolished it for all time.

(3) I read Martineau’s book and Sidgwick’s response and wrote a second paper – not for class credit. In that paper I wrote:

(a) Here is what Martineau argued – that actions get their value from the value of the desires from which they spring. Oh, and desires get their value from God – who has directly written our knowledge of their value into our souls.

(b) Sidgwick responded that Martineau’s theory cannot handle negligence. A negligent action is bad, but it does not spring from a bad desire. Negligent acts spring from common desires. A negligent person does not intend or even want to do harm.

(c) Sidgwick’s argument does defeat Martineau’s theory. But it doesn’t apply to what I am proposing.

(d) On my account, it would be legitimate to condemn negligence because negligence demonstrates a lack of concern for the well-being of others. This ‘concern for the well-being of others’ is a desire that people generally have reason to promote, and the social tools of praise and condemnation (praise for the careful; condemnation for the careless) are one method that people generally promote greater carefulness.

Now, Sidgwick had another objection to Martineau’s theory. Martineau’s theory could not deal with the fact that a person can do the right thing for the wrong reason. A person might turn his brother into the police for raping neighborhood girls simply because he enjoys causing harm to his brother. However, the act of turning his brother in is still the right thing to do – that which ought to be done. Here, too, we have a counter-example to the claim that an act get its value from the desire that motivated it.

Desirism handles this case by saying that the act of turning the brother in is still the act that a person with good desires would have performed – that is, an act that a person with those desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote would have performed. So, here, too, desirism has an answer to the question that Martineau’s theory could not answer.

Desirism also had a way of determining the value of a desire that (1) explained the use of praise and condemnation as a part of our moral practices, and (2) did not rely on God or intrinsic values or other forms of magic. A desire gets its value by its tendency to promote or inhibit other desires and by its ability to be molded by social forces such as praise and condemnation. It makes no sense to offer condemnation where condemnation can do no good; thus, we get the principle we find in morality that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’.

After reading that paper, the head of the department then said, “Okay, if you are looking for a dissertation topic, this is it.”

Unfortunately, life got in the way and the dissertation never got written.

However, nothing in my personal history is relevant to the question of whether this thesis – that morality is ultimately concerned with the evaluation of desires and, in specific, with malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit through social tools like praise and condemnation – can explain the moral category of negligence (and also the category of ‘right acts done for bad reasons’).

Whatever competing theory that one might want to hold desirism up to, one question to be asked is: “What does your theory have to say on the category of negligence?”

The theory also explains the types of claims one makes in attempting to demonstrate negligence. A negligent individual is one who performed an act that a careful and concerned person would not have performed. A careful person’s interest in preventing harm would have lead him to look for and discover the element of risk involved, and motivated him not to take the risk. That the negligent person did not look for or find the harm and put others at risk demonstrates that he does not have the level of concern people generally have reason to promote.

It also explains the types of answers that are legitimate against the charge of negligence. A person defends himself from the charge of negligence by showing, “Here’s all the steps I took to make sure that the action would not cause harm – which demonstrates that I was, in fact, worried about possible harms and motivated to prevent it. Here are the specific set of events leading up to the harm which, as you can see, would have caught a properly careful and concerned person by surprise.”

Why are these elements found in the moral category of ‘negligence’? Because morality is primarily concerned with evaluating malleable desires – looking for those that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit through social forces such as praise and condemnation.

This identifies another moral category that desirism explains: the category of the ‘excuse’.

An ‘excuse’ is a claim that breaks the inference between a prima-facie wrong action and the desires of the agent that brought about that action.

Why were you late? What is your excuse?

Answer: “There was this terrible accident on the highway and traffic was stopped for two hours.” What does this mean? This means that “while a person with good desires would have been motivated to be here on time, even the most careful person would have been caught by surprise by the fact that this accident blocked traffic for two hours. Thus, the fact that I did not show up on time does not allow a legitimate inference to the conclusion that I lacked a sufficiently strong desire to do so – the desire that a person with good desires would have had. Thus, you – and people generally – have no good reason to target me with your social forces such as condemnation.”

Of course, nobody is making a conscious appeal to desirism when they offer an excuse for a prima-facie wrong action. However, desirism still explains what an excuse is, what structure it must have, and what would count as a valid or an invalid excuse.

So, if your oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, this generates a prima-facie ‘wrong action’ – it is certainly an action that a person with good desires would have wanted to avoid. It provides prima-facie evidence for an accusation of ‘negligence’.

A defense of the charge of negligence in this case would take the form of, “Look at all of the efforts and safeguards that we put into place to make sure that nothing like this happens. This demonstrates that we had motivation to act in ways that prevent this kind of harm. And also to prove that we feel really bad about this – that we really do regret the harms caused by this event – we offer our most sincere apologies and promise to do all these things to mitigate against the harms caused to others because our oil rig exploded.”

If this type of response didn’t materialize, then perhaps we are dealing with people who did not have the level of concern for the well-being of others that others have many and strong reasons to promote. Perhaps some condemnation or even ‘making an example of’ the people in question (through the application of lawful sanctions and punishments) is the way to go.

These are among the reasons why I like desirism as a moral theory. It is a theory that actually makes sense of the elements that we find in morality – the elements of negligence, excuse, ‘right actions for bad reasons’ and so on – explanations that other theories can’t offer.

To make this point more explicit, these are just three of the elements of morality that desirism can explain.

Others include:

Supererogatory actions or actions “above and beyond the call of duty”. While we have many and strong reasons to promote certain desires, we admit that some desires can only become as strong as we have reason to want them to be in a small segment of the population. We give these people the highest praise – because they exhibit desires we have reason to promote. But, at the same time, we recognize the fact that most people just can’t be expected to have such a strong desire. These ‘heroes’, then, act ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.

Desirism can explain why there are three categories of action – obligatory (acts that a person with good desires would perform), prohibited (acts that a person with good desires would not perform), and permissible (acts that a person with good desires may or may not perform, depending on the presence of other desires people generally little or no reason to universally prohibit or promote).

Desirism can account for mens rea as an element in criminal punishment (to condemn somebody through punishment requires demonstrating that the agent really had bad desires – malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit or lacked good desires people generally have reason to promote).

Desirism explains why people treat moral claims as propositions (they are propositions), the types of evidence people bring up to defend moral claims or to challenge them, and the basic fact that praise is associated with being a good person while bad people are condemned.

Desirism explains what the emotivists get right (moral claims contain an element of praise and condemnation – of cheers and jeers).

Desirism explains what the subjectivists get right (moral value is ultimately grounded on desire and there can be no value without desires).

Desirism explains what the objectivists get right (moral claims are propositions with truth value, some of them are objectively true, and their truth is independent of the beliefs or the desires of the person making the claim).

Desirism explains what the error theorist gets right (all statements that refer to ‘objective values’ understood as ‘values that exist independent of the desires or interests of agents’ are false).

Desirism explains what the realist gets right (desires, relationships between states of affairs and desires, relationships between malleable desires and other desires, are all real – as real as anything studied in any field of science).

And, back to the subject at hand, it explains the moral category of negligence, the notion of a ‘right act for the wrong reasons’, and the concept of an ‘excuse’ as a defense against accusations of negligence.

- Alonzo Fyfe

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher November 18, 2010 at 11:31 am

is that a picture of Cthulhu coming out?


Luke Muehlhauser November 18, 2010 at 12:42 pm

No other comments so far? This is my favorite post of Alonzo’s in the last couple months!


Charles November 18, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I think most of us are more at the level of the podcast when it comes to desirism. I’m very interested in claims like, “Desirism explains what emotivists get right, what subjectivists get right, what error theorists get right, and so on.”

I’m waiting the explanation.


Bill Maher November 18, 2010 at 1:54 pm


this is a very well written and interesting piece, but most of your readers that have been coming here for a while are already familiar enough with desire utilitarianism.


Razm November 18, 2010 at 2:29 pm

As for as the first read through goes, it does seem to be a pretty good article. I’ll probably need to give it a another read or so,though.


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe November 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm

There really should be a single post (or a paper) dedicated to “the breadth of Desirism”, instead of having bits and pieces all over the place. For example, this one post is a shining example, where Alonzo shows some compatibilities with other theories of morality. I remember one other post whose title I forgot on his blog, where he has a similar list.

On another topic, I regret that Luke hasn’t updated the so-called Ultimate Desirism FAQ in over a year now :-(


Luke Muehlhauser November 18, 2010 at 4:31 pm


Right now Alonzo and I are really freakin’ busy doing the research and writing and recording for the podcast, but I, too, would like to update the Ultimate Desirism FAQ (or replace it with a wiki) once we’re “done” with the podcast (whatever that means).


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe November 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm


You do amazing work, and I actually wonder where you get the time for all this stuff. Aren’t you worried that your gal(s) is not seeing you enough :-)


Zeb November 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Yep, desirism seems to do a good job explaining the underlying rules of the game for morality as it is practiced. That’s quite an achievement, which amazingly seems to have eluded thinkers for thousands of years. I’m not sure if it helps me answer the question of whether or how I should play the game though.

One aspect I am not sure of on the descriptive side is malleability. We often condemn a person for desires that are not malleable in that person. Pedophilia today, homosexuality not long ago. Those desires were called bad because they thwarted other desires, not because calling them bad could change them. Even when people accept that someone’s “bad” desires are not malleable, they tend to condemn that person as incorrigibly evil rather than somehow handicapped. Does desirism have an account for that moral behavior?


Jake November 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm

When you say that “Desirism can explain why there are three categories of action …”
I wonder how useful you think the further division of permissible actions into three categories: blameworthy, praiseworthy, and maters of mere preference?


Kip November 28, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Even when people accept that someone’s “bad” desires are not malleable, they tend to condemn that person as incorrigibly evil rather than somehow handicapped. Does desirism have an account for that moral behavior?

I think the response would be that if the desires are not malleable using moral tools, then we should not use moral tools to try to change them.

One of these days, it may be possible to change desires that are currently not malleable using our “moral tools” (praise, condemnation, etc.). The question can still be asked, though: should we? In the case of homosexuality, I don’t know of any good argument that can be made that says we should. However, in the case of pedophilia, I think a good argument could be made — although, I think it would be best that we use social tools to let those with pedophile desires opt to change their own desires using more invasive techniques. If they choose not to, then we just keep an eye on them, and stop them from hurting anyone, and if they do, we lock them up.


Leave a Comment