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Proponents of relativism would argue it's easy to see that it is possible to take an inanimate object that someone in one system of belief considers not harmful, and yet find someone who believes such an object is innately evil or bad regardless of its lack of intentionality or agency. How does a contemporary theory of ethics account for the fact that this object can be considered innately evil, immoral, or bad independent of intentionality or human intention of those that use the object?

In a world where an object lacks moral agency, how can there still be an assignment of immorality, evil, or badness by a theory of ethics or which theories provide such an answer?

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    I edited your post to remove references to free will since it is irrelevant here and will only serve as a distraction. Whether agency is compatible with the absence of free will, and whether free will is compatible with determinism, are separate and controversial issues. But it is not controversial that inanimate objects lack even minimal agency, and hence cannot be morally "good" or "bad" whatever their properties are.
    – Conifold
    Nov 12, 2021 at 0:40
  • @conifold I like your edit (: The goal of my post is to see if there have been philosophical arguments against the claim that "inanimate objects can not be (morally) good or bad". That some opinions are not "controversial" isn't important to me.
    – ActualCry
    Nov 12, 2021 at 1:13
  • "moral agent" means an agent. An inanimate object can be an "agent"? Nov 12, 2021 at 7:56
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    " ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are purely human concepts. It would never occur to anyone to argue about whether a fish, or a tree, were good or evil, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another. It follows that arguing about whether humans are fundamentally good or evil makes about as much sense as arguing about whether humans are fundamentally fat or thin." - Graeber & Wenigrow
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 12, 2021 at 9:57
  • Edited to bring question in line with ActualCry's intentions as per: "@TedWrigley Don't worry about it. I just remembered my questions were edited by someone, and they must have removed the "which philosophies" question, as they did with the word "free will". Either that, or I forgot to put in the "which philosophies" question. You couldn't have possibly known what I originally wanted to ask. It's nice of you to participate in the thread at least 😊 – ActualCry, yesterday"
    – J D
    Nov 15, 2021 at 14:42

4 Answers 4

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It depends greatly on your ethical system, your metaethical system, and to some extent, on how you define the terms "good" and "evil" when they are used to describe objects (most ethical systems focus on defining those terms with respect to actions, and not objects or people).

For example, under a consequentialist framework, we analyze goodness or badness in terms of the consequences which an action creates. It is not immediately obvious how we should analyze the "consequences" of an object (or even a person, for that matter), because objects are not actions, and we don't normally think of objects as having consequences. Similar objections attach if we try to use a deontological framework (which focuses on the duties and obligations that the action fulfills or violates), as well as many other common ethical systems.

For artificial objects, we may sidestep this objection by asking about the morality of creating the object. For both natural and artificial objects, we might ask about the morality of destroying them. These are actions, and may be morally analyzed in whatever fashion your preferred ethical system prescribes. You might then decide that an object is "evil" if destroying it is good, or if creating it is evil. This is not a bad definition, although it is not necessarily the best definition we could use. However, I think this line of reasoning may be missing the point of your question, because the act of creation or destruction itself implies an agent who does the creating or destroying, and you're specifically asking about a world which lacks agents altogether.

So let's start over. Instead of focusing on actions, we can focus on the object itself. It is possible that some objects might inherently exemplify certain virtues or vices, in which case you could argue that those objects are (respectively) good or evil under a system of virtue ethics. It's unclear how this would be extended to other ethical systems, or indeed whether an object can truly exemplify a virtue in the first place, but it's better than nothing.

The major problem with virtue ethics is fairly straightforward: A typical modern account of virtue ethics is still rooted in the motivations and preferences of agents, because it needs to offer an account of what "virtue" is and how we should distinguish it from vice. The explanations for this vary, but they nearly always appeal to some sort of relationship between the agent, the action taken, and the agent's motivations or thought processes. If there are no agents, then there might be no virtue for objects to exemplify.

There's a solution to this, which is to characterize virtues as abstract, metaphysical Platonic ideals that may exist independently of agents, just as the number 2 might exist independently of agents (under a Platonist account of mathematics). However, this is likely to be unappealing to the hardcore physicalist, because it more or less requires the existence of abstract, non-physical objects.

So much for ethics. What about metaethics? Well, there are a lot of different positions you might hold, so let's quickly run through a few:

  • Mind-independent realism probably has the best shot of working without agents. It posits that moral statements are statements of objective fact which do not depend on the opinions or beliefs of agents, so removing the agents from the equation altogether should not break anything.
  • Sentimentalism is complicated. It says that ethical statements are statements of our "sentiment" or emotional reaction towards a situation, and it seems unlikely that you can reconcile that with a lack of agents. However, there are versions of sentimentalism which look more like a theory of epistemology than of metaethics, and under those interpretations, it's less of a problem (but you still need to pair it with a realist theory of metaethics for this to actually work).
  • Relativism and non-objectivism are both dependent on agents in an even more fundamental way, since they both want moral statements to be interpreted differently by different agents. I don't think either system is compatible with a world where agents don't exist.
  • Non-cognitivism (moral statements do not have truth values) and error theory (moral statements are all false) are extensible to objects in the obvious way, but aren't terribly interesting to analyze once you've done so.
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  • Upvoted. Very thorough! :D
    – J D
    Nov 15, 2021 at 14:43
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"Say, there's a dangerous object that can do harm under the right condition. Can this object be considered innately evil or bad"

In plain terms, yes. Flamethrowers, gas weapons, bayonets with a triangular blade etc are considered 'bad' by their very nature and we have conventions to prohibit their use.

More poetically, it would not be unusual to describe say an instrument of torture or something used in a horrific crime as being "an evil thing".

Indeed the very lack of agency can be considered evil. an "evil scientist" is personified as someone who passionlessly and robotically carries out their plans regardless of the human consequences.

Even if we defined evil as requiring agency we could imagine problematic objects such as traps designed to tempt people into evil acts.

Obviously you can define your ethical system in such a way that these things are defined as 'not evil' but it is clear that to humans they appear evil.

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    – J D
    Nov 13, 2021 at 15:39
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Short Answer

There are theories that accommodate the assignment of ethical or moral value to the inanimate. One way to defend this is the axiological presupposition that claims of value can be an expression of emotion instead of logical content. One such theory is held by a position called emotivism often identified with A. J. Ayer.

Long Answer

Consider a man in a stone-age culture being asked about what he thought about an airplane in the sky after being told men have invented airplanes. He might claim that the 'That thing is evil, and men should not make such things'. How does a theory of ethics account for a claim like this? Enter emotivism which accepts the fact that not all judgements have defensible rational justifications, but that sometimes people make claims coming from a place of emotion.

For the logical positivists, and those who believe strongly that truths come from claims of coherence and correspondence to an external state of affairs, the notion that an utterance contains concepts doesn't mean that the statement can even be true or false. From the WP article:

Ayer argues that moral judgments cannot be translated into non-ethical, empirical terms and thus cannot be verified; in this he agrees with ethical intuitionists. But he differs from intuitionists by discarding appeals to intuition as "worthless" for determining moral truths,[22] since the intuition of one person often contradicts that of another. Instead, Ayer concludes that ethical concepts are "mere pseudo-concepts":

Here, any agent manifesting signs of emotion and intentionality can make claims invoking concepts giving them ethical value, but those concepts might simply be understood as a use of linguistic reference. Now, some philosophers might insist that a proposition must be somehow logical in nature since it shows some signs of logical relationships, such as identity. To that, evolutonary psychology can be invoked to argue that communication might be understood to have survival value, and that the simple use of human language has a long, shared history with other Hominids as a way to share intentionality which predates human language. In fact, a theory that attempts to address the evolution of such is put forth by Michael Tomasello in his Origins of Human Communication.

In this way, evolution might provide a basis for arguing the truth of an emotive theory of truth.

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The moral concepts of 'good' and 'evil' are rooted in the intention of the actor, not in the objective action itself. Thus they both require a moral agent: someone capable of forming intentions. Consider the following cases:

  1. A mountain lion kills a hiker in the woods
  2. A thief kills someone during a robbery
  3. A soldier kills an enemy soldier during a war
  4. A young child finds a handgun and kills someone
  5. A shoddy ladder breaks, killing a person climbing on it
  6. A police officer kills someone because they don't show enough 'respect'
  7. A serial killer kills someone for no particular reason
  8. A tree falls and kills someone
  9. A lynch mob kills someone they suspect of a crime
  10. A virus infects someone and kills them
  11. A person kills someone in self-defense
  12. An architect designs a building which eventually collapses, killing someone

In each of these cases the overt (objective) event in the same: something happens, and someone dies. But as you can see intuitively, the cases are not morally equivalent. They break down into four cases:

  • Random events that result in death (8, 10)
  • Actions by non-agents, who do not understand consequences and are not capable of applying ethical rules (1, 4)
  • Actions by moral agents without the intention to harm (2, 5, 11, 12)
  • Actions by moral agents with the intention to harm (3, 6, 7, 9)

The first two cases are rarely judged in terms of good or evil. They are acts of nature or unfortunate events that we wish hadn't happened, but did. The third and fourth are usually evaluated as good or evil, though often the evaluation is disputed. Crafting goods and raising buildings are considered worthy; a commitment to a nation as a soldier or a community as an officer is considered honorable. But when these latter acts are done with callous indifference, willful ignorance, active selfishness, or malice or animus they are morally repugnant.

Objects are not considered evil in themselves. A land mine is not 'evil' even though its only use is to kill random passersby. Its use may be considered good or evil depending on the intentions of the person who planted it. There is no way to evaluate good or evil except in terms of agency.

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  • I didn't ask for your opinion. I did not ask what most people consider good or evil. What did I ask? If there are any philosophies in which natural events, the land mine, whatever can be considered evil. There's no reason why non-agents can't be considered good or evil. It's just your subjective preference to not consider non-moral agents evil. The preference to consider non-moral agents like a land mine, tree, lion, humans themselves, or whatever evil is no less valid than your preference.
    – ActualCry
    Nov 13, 2021 at 18:33
  • @ActualCry, a mine is not an event, but an entity. If you accept a naturalized epistemology, the rejection of objects as opposed to agents being subject to the labels of moral and immoral is a function of the telelogical constraints of morality which is a mechanism of biological altruism. Essentially, if you accept evolution, then you have to regard that moral is about social relationships. People don't have moral feelings about objects proper.
    – J D
    Nov 13, 2021 at 19:05
  • That is to say, there's no logical constraint, but there is a rational and empirical one
    – J D
    Nov 13, 2021 at 19:06
  • I'm upvoting because human morality is not subjective willy-nilly but governed by certain problems of natural law. I would caution that it's conceivable to differentiate between agency and moral agency; bonobos manifest agency, but not morality, in a strict definition.
    – J D
    Nov 13, 2021 at 19:10
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    @TedWrigley Don't worry about it. I just remembered my questions were edited by someone, and they must have removed the "which philosophies" question, as they did with the word "free will". Either that, or I forgot to put in the "which philosophies" question. You couldn't have possibly known what I originally wanted to ask. It's nice of you to participate in the thread at least 😊
    – ActualCry
    Nov 13, 2021 at 20:12

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