In a couple of conversations that I’ve had recently, I’ve been surprised to find that several moral philosophers believe that when we are morally obliged to do an act, this “act” that we’re obliged to do is an act-token, not an act-type. In my view, this is confused: the act that we’re obliged to do is always an act-type.
There are two main views of act-tokens out there:
- Act-tokens are Davidsonian events, which are concrete particulars, individuated by their basic physical properties (including their position in the causal order).
- Act-tokens are Kim-style entities corresponding to a trio consisting of an agent x, an act-type A, and a time t, such that the agent x does something of act-type A at time t.
On either view, the idea that moral obligation applies to act-tokens runs into grave problems.
First, there are negative moral obligations -- e.g. obligations to refrain from rape and murder and the like. Suppose that you fulfil your moral obigation not to murder me. Your not murdering me seems to be an omission rather than an act. Was there really an act-token of your not murdering me? If so, when and where did it happen? Or were there several act-tokens of your not murdering me? If so, how many?
This problem is fatal on the Davidsonian view, on which the non-occurrence of an event is not itself an event. It is not quite fatal on the Kim-style view, since we could in principle say that you are at every time in your life the agent of an act-token of not murdering me. Indeed, it seems, over your life as a whole you are the agent of a vast (presumably infinite) number of act-tokens of not murdering me (not murdering me today at noon, not murdering me today at 9 am, not murdering me yesterday at 6 pm, ...). If moral obligations apply to act-tokens, then your obligation not to murder me is in fact an infinite set of obligations not to perform each of these act-tokens. This seems an uncomfortable position to be in.
It seems easier to suppose that your obligation not to murder me is an obligation to ensure that whatever you do belongs to the general act-type not murdering me. (Of course, almost all acts that you could do -- singing a song, writing a blog post, paying your bills -- would belong to the very general act-type of not murdering me. But that's all right: one of the convenient features of negative obligations is that there are so many more ways of fulfilling them than there are of fulfilling positive obligations....)
Secondly, suppose that you have a positive moral obligation to pay me £20 by midnight tomorrow. You could fulfil this obligation equally well either by giving me the £20 today, or by giving it to me tomorrow.
As I shall shortly argue, the act-token A1 that you would perform in a possible world w1 in which in which you gave me the £20 today cannot be identical to the act-token A2 that you would perform in any possible world w2 in which in which you gave me the £20 tomorrow.
It is clear that on the Davidsonian view, A1 (the act that you would do if you gave me the money today) cannot be identical to A2 (the act that you would do if you gave me the money tomorrow), since their physical properties and their positions in the causal order are completely different.
On the face of it, the Kim-style view of act-tokens also says that A1 and A2 must be distinct act-tokens, because they are located at different times. Someone might suggest that we could allow A1 and A2 to be identical to each other if we allowed the “time t” to be a 48-hour stretch of time including both today and tomorrow. But that suggestion faces severe problems. For suppose that in a third possible world w3 you give me £20 today and also give me £20 tomorrow. Clearly there are two act-tokens in w3. But each of them corresponds to the trio consisting of the agent (you), the act-type (giving me £20) and the “time” (the 48-hour stretch in question). Still, these two act-tokens in w3 are two – they are not one and the same act-token. The best way to avoid this problem seems to be to define the relevant “time” as the precise temporal location of the act-token, not a long stretch of time within which the act-token occurs. But then A1 and A2 must be distinct act-tokens.
If this is right, there is no such act-token as your giving me £20 either today or tomorrow. There are at least two different act-tokens each of which would be an instance of your giving me £20 either today or tomorrow. Since you are obliged to give me £20 either today or tomorrow, your obligation is simply to perform an act of this type.
Of course, if you fulfilled your moral obligation to give me £20, there would be a particular act-token of which you would be the agent. But you weren’t obliged to be the agent of precisely that act-token. You were only obliged to be the agent of some act-token or other of the relevant general type.
The exercise of generalizing this argument to apply to all moral obligations (and indeed to all reasons for action, etc.) is left to the reader!