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Posted by on Jan 11, 2013 in Ethics, Philosophy | 2 comments

Bad acts and wrong acts

I’ve been re-reading George Sher’s interesting little book, In Praise of Blame (Oxford University Press, 2005). As the title suggests, this is, in fact, a philosophical justification of the practice of moral blaming (a practice whose legitimacy many philosophers challenge).

One small point that I found interesting was a distinction between “bad acts” and “wrong acts”. I’m not sure that the distinction Sher makes here tracks our intuitions about these words, but perhaps it tracks some of them.

For Sher, a bad act is simply one that violates some moral rule, or produces bad consequences, or would be classified as morally bad by whatever standards we might normally adopt to classify acts that way. However, we sometimes think that people can commit certain bad acts without it reflecting badly on their characters. E.g., I might steal something under coercion (someone has a gun trained on me, perhaps, to stick with our recent gun theme) or when labouring under some non-culpable misapprehension. Sher is not going to call these “wrong” acts, though they are bad ones, in the sense that stealing is a morally bad thing to do. (Let’s set aside any skeptical doubts about morality – we could probably translate all this language into appropriately relativist or morally skeptical, or whatever, terms if it seemed necessary for conformity with our metaethical systems.)

I tend to use the terminology a bit differently, but, again, we do seem to need something like this distinction.