Why Actions Matter: The Case for Fluid Moral Status

This article received an honourable mention in the graduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Lucy Simpson, Nottingham Trent University student


Throughout the catalogue of work produced by Jeff McMahan, he has discussed what constitutes a being’s moral status, and has advocated the theories of moral individualism and reflective equilibrium intuitionism.[1] It is not my intention in this paper to dispute  these positions. Instead, I argue that if we accept McMahan’s position, then logically, we must accept that a being’s moral character is a morally relevant property which we ought to consider when determining their moral status. As I will explain, this therefore means that moral status is not static; it is fluid. Further to this, in the latter stages of this paper, I consider that if we do accept that moral status is action dependant, then there might be negative moral status. On the topic of negative moral status, I do not aim to give any in-depth arguments either for or against its existence, but rather just flag this as a potential avenue for further exploration if we do indeed follow McMahan’s theories of intuitionism and moral individualism. Continue reading

The Naked Truth?

Stephen Gough, over a series of sentences, has served nearly six years in custody in the UK for refusing to wear clothes in public. He shows no sign of changing his view on the importance of nudity, and it is conceivable that he will spend the rest of life behind bars. Why does he do it? It’s not entirely clear but his position appears to be grounded on the value of living an autonomous life: ‘We can either end up living a life that others expect of us or lives based on our own truth. The difference is the difference between living a conscious life or one that is unconscious. And that’s the difference between living and not living.’

On the face of it, Gough’s decision sounds like a paradigmatic example of the kind of ‘experiment of living’ that John Stuart Mill thought no one should be prevented from attempting except in so far as they harm others: ‘the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them’. But in fact Mill himself would probably have advocated Gough’s imprisonment on grounds of indecency: ‘[T]here are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightly be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency.’

The tension here arises within Mill’s utilitarianism itself. On the one hand, he recognizes the importance to human happiness of our following our own paths in life. On the other, he sees that our so doing can often seriously upset or threaten others, sometimes to the point where the best outcome may involve the restriction of individual freedom.

 But, if that were Mill’s view on the Gough case, would his siding with convention here be a mere product of Victorian stuffiness? Yes, people may get upset, perhaps even quite frightened, by seeing a man wandering around without clothes. But perhaps it would be more valuable, in the longer term, for us to allow experiments of living that upset others: we may discover more valuable ways of life, and even if we don’t our failures will provide a contrast against which truly happiness-promoting modes of existence can stand out. What, really, is the utilitarian value in having taboos concerning public nudity?

 I can see the force of this liberal, pro-Gough argument. It is not difficult to imagine a world in which nakedness is universally accepted, and it may well be that such a world would be happier without our hang-ups about clothes. But a central issue here is feasibility. Even if Gough’s experiment catches on, the upshot is likely to be a large increase in genuine offence and alarm, as well as an increase in sexually motivated exhibitionism universal acceptance of  which is even less likely in the longer term. In a sense, Gough is harmless: there is a possible world in which what he does harms no one. But in this world he does cause harm. And of course the chances of Gough’s changing attitudes and then the law are minuscule, especially in a country such as the UK, where the cool atmospheric climate is matched with a prudish intellectual one. My advice to Gough on release would be either to live in a naturist colony, or to find some less alarming way of expressing himself among the rest of us.