Objectivity and Horror in Morality
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John Kekes OBJECTIVITY AND HORROR IN MORALITY All moral traditions have some lighdy regarded conventions whose violations incur only disapproving duckings. But there are also others, and they go very deep indeed: they set limits not to be crossed; they are the moral equivalents of the sacred. Observing these limits may or may not be reasonable, depending on what makes conventions deep. I think that some conventions are deep because they protect factual, hard, and inexorable conditions ofhuman welfare. They provide morality with some objective content, and this is why their violations are unreasonable. Our intellect and will are certainly involved in discovering these conditions and in formulating and conforming to the conventions which protect them, but the existence and identity of the conditions themselves are as objective as any other natural necessity. If morality is concerned with good and evil—understood as human beings benefiting and harming each other and themselves—then the domain of morality is wider than the domain of human intellect and will. For what actually benefits and harms human beings need not coincide with what we can reasonably be said to know and intend. We may refer to the sphere within which our intellect and will operate as the domain of human autonomy. One consequence, then, of the objectivity of morality is that the domain of morality includes but goes beyond the domain of human autonomy. My aim in this article is to explore the significance of this consequence. If the domain of morality is wider than the domain of human autonomy , then there must be possible cases in which moral agents violate the requirements ofmorality and thus act immorally, even though they are ignorant of the relevant facts and have not intended to produce 159 160Philosophy and Literature harm. Or, more strongly, in some cases agents are liable to adverse moral judgments on account of having caused harm, even though if they had known what they were doing and could have avoided it, they would have done so. Thus the appropriateness of the charge of immorality in some cases depends on the harm produced and not on the beliefs and intentions of the agents. This consequence of the objectivity of morality strikes our modern sensibility as positively barbarous. For it involves leveling the serious charge of immorality against agents of unchosen actions. Yet, it seems to me, if morality is objective, in the sense explained, then we must accept the appropriateness of this charge at least in some cases. Some people no doubt will find this an added reason for rejecting the objectivity of morality. But the possibility I shall argue for is that the fault lies with modern sensibility, which, I may as well confess, I share. My argument requires a plausible case to support it. The most plausible case will not be one in which other people charge an agent with immorality for having performed a harmful action without knowing or intending it. For the agent, or the agent's defenders, may indignandy reject the charge. The strongest case supporting my argument will be one where the charge ofimmorality for unknown and unintended harm is self-directed, where the agent is both the judge and the accused, where the accusation is laid by oneself at one's door. Such a case is Sophocles' version of the tragedy of Oedipus.1 Oedipus unknowingly and unintentionally violated two deep conventions he had accepted as fundamental to his moral outíook and he caused serious harm. When he realized what he did, he was horrified. I shall refer to this experience as self-inflicted moral horror, or, for short, moral horror. Moral horror, in this sense, is a rare but significant experience . It is rare, because normally our actions are successfully guided by our intellect and will, and moral horror occurs only in some cases when their guidance fails. But it is significant that this may happen, because it shows that our intellect and will do not exercise a perfect control over the good and evil we do, and hence moral horror is highly suggestive evidence for my claim that morality extends beyond human autonomy. Even if modern sensibility rejects this and its consequences, the...