Elusive Rights (and Wrongs)

Everyone knows that theft is wrong. But if stealing a gun is the only way to stop a madman on a killing spree, we feel that someone should do it—that it would be right. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that most arguments about ethical philosophy divide according to how a person prefers to resolve this sort of dissonance. Some would say that even though you should do it, it's still wrong to steal the gun. Others would say that theft isn't in fact wrong, but we say it is because most of the time we don't like it. Both of these sound a little crazy, don't they? To my ears the latter sounds less crazy than the former, but reasonable people may disagree, and in any case wouldn't it be better if we didn't have to say anything crazy at all to get out of this problem?

In one of the most underappreciated philosophy papers (PDF) of the past 20 years, David Lewis comes up with a simple solution. (His subject matter is epistemology, but the situation in ethics is formally equivalent.) When we say something like "theft is wrong", there's a tacit understanding that this statement could be followed by a sotto voce ". . . except in cases we're properly ignoring". This sort of convention is commonplace: when we say we love a good rare steak, we don't normally specify all the conditions under which we would not actually want a steak, such as if we were already full, or when we're very ill, or while driving to work in the morning.

But of course, once some smart-allecky ethical philosopher gins up an ad hoc and outlandish counter-example which under most circumstances we'd properly ignore, we're nolonger ignoring it and will then conclude that theft is right within the context of the hypothetical case. There's nothing terribly remarkable about this because the context changed between the times the two statements were made: theft can be, and is, wrong in most contexts we're likely to encounter, but right in a few highly uncommon contexts. We can admit that in the hypothetical case stealing would be right, and then go right back to saying "stealing is wrong" as soon as the philosopher walks away, without fear of contradiction.

Looking at it this way, we have the ironic result that philosophizing about ethics is largely an exercise in destroying ethical norms. Which is what makes notions of right and wrong are so elusive: they're context-sensitive in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle, and when we try to analyze them too closely they vanish, a bit like how your hands vanish when you zoom in on them with a high-powered microscope. Nevertheless, here is a hand.

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