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Posted by on Jan 11, 2013 in Ethics, Philosophy | 2 comments

Bad acts and wrong acts

I’ve been re-reading George Sher’s interesting little book, In Praise of Blame (Oxford University Press, 2005). As the title suggests, this is, in fact, a philosophical justification of the practice of moral blaming (a practice whose legitimacy many philosophers challenge).

One small point that I found interesting was a distinction between “bad acts” and “wrong acts”. I’m not sure that the distinction Sher makes here tracks our intuitions about these words, but perhaps it tracks some of them.

For Sher, a bad act is simply one that violates some moral rule, or produces bad consequences, or would be classified as morally bad by whatever standards we might normally adopt to classify acts that way. However, we sometimes think that people can commit certain bad acts without it reflecting badly on their characters. E.g., I might steal something under coercion (someone has a gun trained on me, perhaps, to stick with our recent gun theme) or when labouring under some non-culpable misapprehension. Sher is not going to call these “wrong” acts, though they are bad ones, in the sense that stealing is a morally bad thing to do. (Let’s set aside any skeptical doubts about morality – we could probably translate all this language into appropriately relativist or morally skeptical, or whatever, terms if it seemed necessary for conformity with our metaethical systems.)

I tend to use the terminology a bit differently, but, again, we do seem to need something like this distinction.


  • Umm, Russell, I have not read the book, but thinking about your stealing bread example, it ain’t clear to me why that would be either morally wrong OR bad. Depending on the context it seems to me that stealing a loaf of bread could be both moral and also good.

  • RussellBlackford

    True, Udo, unless you see stealing as absolutely forbidden by the moral law or some such thing (which you and I would probably both consider madness).
    But the example of stealing was for illustration only. Think of any example of an action that you’d normally condemn morally, except that, say, it was powerfully coerced (a gun at the back, or whatever). Perhaps what makes it morally bad is its net consequences. Sher would say it is a bad act, but it does not reflect badly on the agent’s character, as even ordinarily good people can’t be expected to resist sufficiently powerful coercion. The law does make this distinction, at least in some cases, and I think commonsense morality does as well. What I thought was novel was Sher’s use of this terminology of “bad acts” and “wrong acts” – I hadn’t seen those expressions used in that way before.