Moral Innocence as Illusion and Inabilityby Zachary J. Goldberg

Philosophia

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Year
2015
DOI
10.1007/s11406-014-9580-4
Subject
Philosophy

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Moral Innocence as Illusion and Inability

Zachary J. Goldberg

Received: 12 June 2014 /Revised: 8 October 2014 /Accepted: 21 December 2014 # Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Abstract The concept of moral innocence is frequently referenced in popular culture, ordinary language, literature, religious doctrine, and psychology. Themorally innocent are often thought to be morally pure, incapable of wrongdoing, ignorant of morality, resistant to sin, or even saintly. In spite of, or perhaps because of this frequency of use the characterization of moral innocence continues to have varying connotations. As a result, the concept is often used without sufficient heed given to some of its most salient attributes, especially those germane to moral agency and the moral community. In this article I intend to identify these attributes and propose that moral innocence is best defined as an inability to enter the moral community as a result of a trust in moral illusions. The content of the illusions pertains to several factors including one’s role(s) in the moral community, one’s ability to wrong or harm others, the intricacies of one’s moral interaction with others, and the corresponding manifold complexities tangled up with the concepts of good and evil. Maintaining these illusions impedes or even prohibits an appropriate exchange of praise and blame with others. As membership in the moral community requires precisely this ability to engage in such an exchange, moral illusions necessarily give rise to an inability to participate in the moral community.

Keywords Moral innocence .Moral community .Moral illusion .Moral imagination .

Moral agency . Responsibility

The concept of moral innocence is frequently referenced in popular culture, ordinary language, literature, religious doctrine, and psychology.1 The morally innocent are often thought to be morally pure, incapable of wrongdoing, ignorant of morality, resistant to sin, or even saintly. In many literary and religious contexts, moral innocence is associated with sexual innocence and is considered an attribute that an individual should try not to lose, or should try and regain. In spite of, or perhaps because of this

Philosophia

DOI 10.1007/s11406-014-9580-4 1For example: See Blake (1789); Wordsworth (1807); Brontë (1847); Golding (1954); Davis (2011); Munzer (2012). The FBI Database for tracking violent crimes against children is called, “Innocence Lost” (http://www. fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/cac/innocencelost). The International Movie Database lists 467 films with the theme of innocence and innocence lost.

Z. J. Goldberg (*)

Institut für Philosophie, Universität Regensburg, Universitätsstraße 31, 93053 Regensburg, Germany e-mail: zachary.goldberg@ur.de frequency of use the characterization of moral innocence continues to have varying connotations. As a result, the concept is often used without sufficient heed given to some of its most salient attributes, especially those germane to moral agency and the moral community. In this article I intend to identify these attributes and propose that moral innocence is best defined as an inability to enter the moral community as a result of a trust in moral illusions.2

In the first section, referencing John Martin Fischer’s and Mark Ravizza’s account of moral agency, I demonstrate that moral innocence is a status characterized primarily by the presence of moral illusions. The content of the illusions pertains to several factors including one’s role(s) in the moral community, one’s ability to wrong or harm others, the intricacies of one’s moral interaction with others, and the corresponding manifold complexities tangled up with the concepts of good and evil. Maintaining these illusions impedes or even prohibits an appropriate exchange of praise and blame with others. As membership in the moral community requires precisely this ability to engage in such an exchange, moral illusions necessarily give rise to an inability to participate in the moral community.

Following this section, I present a two-part negative argument addressing what moral innocence is not. The argument proceeds to distinguish moral innocence from both “simple moral ignorance” and moral purity. I posit “simple moral ignorance” as the absence of any moral acumen whatsoever. To equate moral innocence with simple moral ignorance is inaccurate because the morally innocent do indeed recognize a moral order, albeit one that is rudimentary, unsophisticated, and illusory.3 Defining moral innocence as moral purity is likewise mistaken because moral purity is determined by evaluating someone in terms of standards set by moral rules and principles. In contrast, the morally innocent are not yet subject to any terms of moral evaluation.

In the third section of this essay, I examine the specific characteristics related to inabilities associated with innocent illusion. Participation in themoral community requires an ability to make appropriate responses to others.Members of themoral community are defined by their ability to engage other members through recognizing the accountable origination of their actions and the responses those actions elicit from others. I clarify the salient features of this ability by explaining it in reference to a distinction between “seeing” and “seeing that”. This distinction establishes that the ability to “see that” certain actions and events have the moral significance they have is the hallmark ofmembership in themoral community.4 Holding fast tomoral illusions results directly in an inability to see that certain actions and events have the moral significance they have. Therefore, moral innocence is most accurately understood as illusion begotten inability—specifically, an inability to participate in the moral community.

What precisely is the ability to participate in the moral community? I have briefly remarked that it is the ability to engage in “appropriate exchanges of praise and blame 2 To be clear, I do not mean to investigate particular innocence, or the status of not being morally responsible for a particular act. This kind of innocence applies to individuals qua moral agents who have an excuse or justification for what they have done and are not, as a consequence, blameworthy in a particular set of circumstances. My task is to examine moral innocence as the status one has prior to becoming a moral agent in the moral community. We might call this status global or general innocence in contrast to local or particular innocence. 3 This is not to say that ignorance does not play any role in moral innocence. However, the morally innocent are not “simply ignorant”. 4 A general ability to see that events have moral significance does not require that an individual moral agent always correctly or actively utilizes that ability. Analogously, I maintain the ability to run even if I am not running at this moment, run awkwardly, or run without proper form.