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Thursday, October 19, 2017

‘But you can’t do that!’ Why immoral actions seem impossible

Jonathan Phillips
Aeon
Originally posted September 29, 2017

Suppose that you’re on the way to the airport to catch a flight, but your car breaks down. Some of the actions you immediately consider are obvious: you might try to call a friend, look for a taxi, or book a later flight. If those don’t work out, you might consider something more far-fetched, such as finding public transportation or getting the tow-truck driver to tow you to the airport. But here’s a possibility that would likely never come to mind: you could take a taxi but not pay for it when you get to the airport. Why wouldn’t you think of this? After all, it’s a pretty sure-fire way to get to the airport on time, and it’s definitely cheaper than having your car towed.

One natural answer is that you don’t consider this possibility because you’re a morally good person who wouldn’t actually do that. But there are at least two reasons why this doesn’t seem like a compelling answer to the question, even if you are morally good. The first is that, though being a good person would explain why you wouldn’t actually do this, it doesn’t seem to explain why you wouldn’t have been able to come up with this as a solution in the first place. After all, your good moral character doesn’t stop you from admitting that it is a way of getting to the airport, even if you wouldn’t go through with it. And the second reason is that it seems equally likely that you wouldn’t have come up with this possibility for someone else in the same situation – even someone whom you didn’t know was morally good.

So what does explain why we don’t consider the possibility of taking a taxi but not paying? Here’s a radically different suggestion: before I mentioned it, you didn’t think it was even possible to do that. This explanation probably strikes you as too strong, but the key to it is that I’m not arguing that you think it’s impossible now, I’m arguing that you didn’t think it was possible before I proposed it.

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