A Theory of Human Dignity, #11–The Lesser Evil Principle*.

By Robert Hanna

Prüfung,” by Edith Breckwoldt (2004)



I. Introduction

II. Refuting the Dignity-Skeptic and Debunking a Dignity-Debunking Argument

III. The Metaphysics of Human Dignity

III.1 What Human Dignity Is

III.2 Real Persons and Minded Animals

III.3 A Metaphysical Definition of Real Personhood

IV. Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

IV.0 How Nonideal Can a World Be?

IV.1 The Skinny Logic and the Fat Semantics of Moral Principles in Broadly Kantian Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

IV.2 How to Solve the Universalizability and Rigorism Problems

IV.3 How to Solve the Problem of Moral Dilemmas

IV.4 Policy of Truth: The Murderer-at-the-Door Revisited

IV.5 One Last Thing, By Way of Concluding This Section

V. Some Hard Cases For Broadly Kantian Nonideal Dignitarian Moral Theory

VI. Enacting Human Dignity and The Mind-Body Politic

VII. Conclusion


This installment contains section IV.5.

But you can also download, read, and/or share a .pdf of the complete text of this essay HERE.


IV.5 One Last Thing, By Way of Concluding This Section

By way of concluding this section, here’s one last thing that I’ve already anticipated in sub-sections IV.2 and IV.3 above. Corresponding to The Lesser Evil Principle is a further constraint on moral judgment to the effect that a moral agent is required to choose, in any given act-context, what seems to her to be the first-order substantive ceteris paribus objective moral principle that is the lesser of several evils in that context, in the sense that this is the moral principle which in that context seems to the agent to keep faith with the Categorical Imperative to the greatest possible extent. I’ll call this The Lesser Evil Principle*.

In line with the sharp distinction I noted in sub-section IV.1 between objective moral principles and moral judgments, The Lesser Evil Principle* is not to be confused with The Lesser Evil Principle itself. The moral judgments of “human, all too human” moral agents, perhaps especially including philosophers, are always fallible — so, for example, obviously I could be wrong in my considered moral judgment about which principle to choose in the murderer-at-the-door case, even despite all my rational confidence in that judgment. As a matter of psychological fact, I don’t seriously think that I could be wrong about that judgment — but of course I might be. Nevertheless, errors in human moral judgment are not in and of themselves errors of objective moral principle. We mustn’t confuse the very real difficulties of moral judgment, and the very real human pathos and tragedy of real local moral dilemmas, with the actuality or real possibility of global moral dilemmas. That would be to commit the flatlander fallacy.

Moreover, errors in moral judgment also might not be something for which a moral agent can be legitimately criticized, blamed, or punished. More positively put, my broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory-based view is that when a moral agent messes up her moral judgment, but still satisfies The Lesser Evil Principle*, then this isn’t a flaw in her objective moral principles themselves, and not a lapse for which she can be legitimately criticized, blamed, or punished. She cannot be legitimately criticized, blamed, or punished for trying her hardest to select the lesser evil and keep rational faith with the Categorical Imperative. Here we must morally blame, criticize, or even punish the act that picked out the greater evil in that context, but we mustn’t morally blame or criticize the character of the real person who was wholeheartedly trying to choose the lesser evil.

For example, it seems clearly and distinctly true (to me, anyhow) that the boy in Sartre’s story made the morally wrong choice by staying with his mother. He should have joined the Free French Forces. The Nazis were harming and killing literally millions of innocent people and treating them as mere means or as mere things — like pieces of garbage or offal — and they had to be resisted and if possible, stopped. Here we can usefully compare and contrast the boy in Sartre’s story with the story of Rick in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic film, Casablanca: If Rick had stayed with Ilsa and had not joined the Free French Forces, then that would clearly and distinctly have been the morally wrong choice, even though it is equally obvious in the movie that Ilsa is going to be miserable without Rick, and doomed to a loveless marriage with the noble but Karenin-esque Victor Laszlo.[i] In Sartre’s case, we can morally criticize the boy’s act. But I also think that we would be moral purist fanatics to criticize the boy’s character for his trying wholeheartedly to choose the lesser evil.

In this way, and for the logico-semantically-driven, broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian hierarchical structuralist moral reasons I’ve spelled out, it’s really possible for us to live with real local moral contradictions or dilemmas in this thoroughly nonideal natural and social world. Thereby we can avoid the many small-minded hobgoblins of foolish consistency that are so rightly derided by Emerson, and also fully acknowledge Sartre’s and others’ deep existential insights about these morally tragic situations. Yet at the same time, we arestill able to stop well short of the moral abyss of real global moral dilemmas and The Moral Doomsday Scenario. We can be defenders of full-strength broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory, emphatically with a tragic sense of life, but also without becoming moral nihilists. That’s what The No-Foolish-Consistency Interpretation is all about.


[i] The force of this analogy between Sartre’s case and the Casablanca case of course depends to some extent on how one thinks about mother-son relationships vs. romantic love-relationships vs. marriage-relationships (in short, how we think about the Anna Karenina scenario), not to mention how we fill in various important details that are not provided either by Sartre or by the many scriptwriters of Casablanca. But to make my point more intuitively vivid, imagine that Laszlo had been played by a relatively unattractive actor with a ponderous manner — say, Basil Rathbone or Ralph Richardson, who played Karenin in the 1935 and 1948 film versions of Anna Karenina respectively — and not by the more attractive and charismatic Paul Henreid.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 7 June 2021

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo


Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.