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What should we do about moral paradoxes?

By now we should have a reasonably good idea of what a moral paradox is, of how a moral paradox differs from other things that might seem like it but are not, and of (some of) the sources of moral paradoxes. But what should we do about moral paradoxes? Some of the answers here will be surprising.

The question of what to do about moral paradoxes is not simple, partly because it is made up of a number of distinct questions. First we need to ask what attitude we, as philosophers, should take towards paradoxes. As philosophers, the proper reaction to a paradox is to try and solve it. That is our job. Whether we succeed or not, it should increase our understanding. If we succeed, then that is a philosophical achievement. As we saw earlier, a solution need not dispel all of the sense of paradoxicality, and indeed the mark of a philosophically interesting paradox may be that it remains somewhat paradoxical even after we see how to resolve it. If we have not succeeded in solving the paradox, then this may be due only to our limitations, and we need to try harder. But, to recall an earlier distinction, it might be that we have uncovered an “existential paradox”. In an “existential paradox” the conclusion is absurd, but this does not mean that we have made in our assumptions or in our argumentation an error that needs to be rooted out, thereby resolving the paradox. Rather, the absurdity lies in (moral, in our case) “reality”, which simply IS absurd, and the paradox reveals this absurdity. In an “existential paradox”, then, an absurd conclusion is derived by acceptable reasoning from acceptable premises (or indeed even through impeccable reasoning from undeniable premises). The paradox is not here a temporary perplexity that needs to be resolved, but a discovery, an absurd result that we then need to fathom and live with.

Are “existential paradoxes” good or bad? In order to answer this question (or even understand it better) it might be helpful if I introduced one more of the paradoxes in 10 MORAL PARADOXES. This is a paradox about morality and moral worth. I shall not go into all of the details but, in a nutshell, the idea is this. We are permitted to demand sacrifices from people for the sake of morality when there are real, external, moral needs (such as extreme suffering or injustice) that have to be met. When people risk or sacrifice much for the sake of morality, they acquire moral worth. That is a unique type of value, and perhaps the height of human merit (think about non-Jews risking their lives in WW2 to save Jews from the Nazis, or human rights activists in the former Soviet Union or in Argentina under the generals). But we are not permitted to create needs artificially so that, if people meet them, they will acquire high moral value. For example, we are not permitted to spread diseases so that medical doctors could risk their lives combating them, nor bring to power dictatorships so that people can acquire moral value by resisting them. On the contrary, the logic of morality requires that it combat things such as suffering and injustice. However, by so doing we reduce those situations in which people can achieve high moral value. This is not merely a philosopher’s game. There are in fact already societies (Denmark or New Zealand, perhaps), in which social morality is approaching such a state; in which there are no very great demands for moral sacrifice, and hence it is typically easy to behave morally. (I am bracketing the idea of assisting people in other societies, such as giving much of one’s income to the Third World.)

If we put it all together, we see that highly valuable moral action risks being like one of those mythological animals that swallow their own tails: when it succeeds, there will be no more opportunity for acquiring high moral value, for great sacrifices for the sake of morality will not be NEEDED. In a perfect society, there will be no high moral value. The good is absurd. This is not a mistake, for, again, morality cannot artificially create the conditions that will bring forth such value, as we must aim to limit suffering and grievous wrongs. But by doing so, we will have eliminated the height of human value.

If this is indeed an “existential paradox” then there is no escaping it. The interesting thing is that, although we are permitted to feel some ambivalence, the existence of this paradox is clearly good. We should welcome the elimination of suffering and grievous wrongs. The further the moral improvement, the greater the paradoxicality. We should welcome the paradoxicality, as it is an indication that things are morally good. If fact, we should enhance the paradoxicality, making the world better, and at the same time more morally absurd. The absurd is good.

This conclusion applies also to some other paradoxes. In earlier posts I presented a paradox about Justice and the Severity of Punishment, and the Paradox of Beneficial Retirement. There is perhaps nothing good about the punishment paradox: if people stopped committing crimes then this paradox would disappear, and that would be only a gain. But that is not the case with the Paradox of Beneficial Retirement. Recall that the problem here arises because there is a pool of candidates that are professionally better than one, thereby raising the issue of whether one should retire, to be replaced by someone who would do a better job. But solving the paradox in practice (that is, eliminating the paradoxicality) would not normally be a good thing. If people did not choose professions in which what they do matters much, or required special skills, then they would not need to worry whether a possible replacement would do a better job than themselves. Similarly, if fewer people were to enter a profession, then gradually the pool of candidates would dry up and those people already inside the profession would not need to worry. But clearly we do not wish those things to happen, even if that solved the paradox. In fact, at least up to a certain level, we want more people to wish to go into such professions, and aim to excel. Or, in other words, we want to ENHANCE the paradoxicality. Neither the good life nor the good society lies with the elimination of the sort of moral risk involved in the Paradox of Moral Retirement. We should aim, then, to make the world safe for paradox.


  1. 1. Posted by Wayne Yuen | November 3, 2007 3:35 pm

    I think this assumes that we cannot obtain moral virtues from refrainment, which I think is false. We live in a morally perfect world, does that mean that there are no moral virtues being exhibited? Absolutely not! The fact that we live in a morally perfect world, exemplifies the fact that moral virtues are being practiced on a perfect level, by all of the citizenry. Nobody robs, steals, cheats, etc.

    Sure there won’t be the good samaritan anymore, but being a good samaritan is a supererogatory duty, and if there are no instances in which we can try to be a good samaritan, we cannot judge a person to be worth less because they never could. Ought implies a can. These people cannot fulfill their supererogatory duties, so we shouldn’t even say that they could be better… they can’t.

  2. 2. Posted by Saul Smilansky | November 4, 2007 9:25 am


    Thanks for your post. (I was starting to wonder if there is anyone out there…) Some points in response:

    I do not claim that in a perfect or near-perfect society no moral virtues will be exhibited, but just that the top of the pyramid of virtue (and hence of acquiring moral worth) will be absent. I do not spend my life restraining myself from killing, raping or even stealing from people, and it does not take much of an effort to refrain. If I were very poor, the temptation at least to steal would be greater. But that is the point: certain social circumstances require unusual efforts in order to remain good, and other environments are less demanding. In the second type there is simply not much opportunity to acquire very high moral value. So perfection certainly means that everyone is behaving well, but this still does not tell us how difficult it is to do so. If it is fairly easy, then we might have perfection with zero high-moral-value.

    I don’t think that the high moral value that I am speaking about is wholly supererogatory. If you lived in certain countries in Europe during WW2 (and were of the right age etc) then arguably you had a duty to fight the Nazis, and would typically have been conscripted. If you were Swiss, however, you had no chance to fight the Nazis as a soldier, for your country was neutral.

    Finally, on “Ought imples can” here: I am not saying that anyone who lives in an untaxing moral environment and hence does not attain high moral worth is at fault. She cannot attain it. But that is the point. In some sense it is “bad moral luck” to be fortunate in that way.

  3. 3. Posted by Chris Hallquist | November 6, 2007 6:04 am

    This brings back a lot of memories from discussions of the Problem of Evil, but discusses the relevant issues in a secular way. I’m curious–do you know of any places where that’s been done in a more formal context? Would help personal quest to learn as much as possible about the PoE.

  4. 4. Posted by Wayne Yuen | November 7, 2007 12:55 am

    Heh, I’m reminded of the movie Unbreakable. You’re right in that it seems to necessitate great evils, for superheroes to exist… But if the world was perfect, could Superman still be a super man? I think so… He could still run faster than trains even if there was no reason to do so.

    Similarly, couldn’t, in the perfect world, we try to manufacture scenarios to act bravely, even when there was no need to? Perhaps there might be a moral prohbition against endangering needlessly, but there is still something brave about “braving” a mountain, and it certainly doesn’t seem immoral to climb a mountain for the sake of climbing it.

  5. 5. Posted by Jeff Huggins | November 7, 2007 2:13 am

    In considering the problem of unproductive and harmful behaviors (and in extreme cases, you may choose to call some of them ‘evil’), I’d suggest three books, among many: Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution Of Cooperation; M. Scott Peck’s People Of The Lie; and relevant sections of the DSM-IV, i.e., The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the latter book, which is quite thick, I’d suggest the short sections specifically on Antisocial Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Of course, the problem does not seem to be going away any time soon, and there is more room than ever for well-meaning, wise, ethical heroes of all shapes, sizes, types, genders, and walks of life. (As an aside, I’d also suggest a great documentary movie, called Blind Spot, which is a lengthy interview of Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, by Sony Pictures Classics.)

  6. 6. Posted by Saul Smilansky | November 7, 2007 3:27 pm

    Thanks all for your comments. The problem of evil isn’t my area, but I asked a colleague and for recent analytic work he recommended a collection called POE: A Reader, edited by Mark Larrimore, and van Inwagen’s book titled simply POE. Hope this helps.

    Wayne – interesting points to think about. I think, first, that we need to distinguish between moral and amoral heroism. There may be no supply of the moral version if there is no need for it, but one could always do daring things and perhaps be an amoral hero. Could someone be a potential moral hero? Maybe, although we might have an epistemic problem here (we couldn’t just take her word for it). But while that does matter, it isn’t quite the same (potential heros rightly don’t get medals – they haven’t done anything to deserve them). So I think that most of my point would persist.

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