Scalar Properties, Binary Judgments

34 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2005  

Larry Alexander

University of San Diego School of Law


In the moral realm, our deontic judgments are usually (always?) binary. An act (or omission) is either morally forbidden or morally permissible. Yet the determination of an act's deontic status frequently turns on the existence of properties that are matters of degree. In this paper, I give several examples of binary moral judgments that turn on scalar properties, and I claim that these examples should puzzle us. How can the existence of a property to a specific degree demarcate a boundary between an act's being morally forbidden and its not being morally forbidden? Why aren't our moral judgments of acts scalar in the way that the properties on which those judgments are based are scalar, so that acts, like states of affairs, can be morally better or worse rather than right or wrong?

I conceive of this inquiry as operating primarily within the realm of normative theory. Presumably it will give aid and comfort to consequentialists, who have no trouble mapping their binary categories onto scalar properties. For example, a straightforward act utilitarian, for whom one act out of all possible acts is morally required (and hence permissible) and all others morally forbidden, can, in theory at least, provide an answer to every one of the puzzles I raise. And, in theory, so can all other types of act and rule consequentialists. They will find nothing of interest here beyond embarrassment for their deontological adversaries.

The deontologists, however, must meet the challenges of these puzzles. And for them, the puzzles may raise not just normative questions, but questions of moral epistemology and moral ontology. Just how do we know that the act consequentialist's way of, say, trading off lives against lives is wrong? For example, do we merely intuit that taking one innocent, uninvolved person's life to save two others is wrong? Can our method of reflective equilibrium work if we have no theory to rationalize our intuitions? And what things in the world make it true, if it is true, that one may not make the act consequentialist's tradeoff? I do not provide any answers to these questions any more than I provide answers to the normative ones. But they surely lurk in the background.

Keywords: threshold deontology, informed consent, preemptive strike, burdens of sacrifice, consequentialism, coercion, duties of rescue, equality

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Larry, Scalar Properties, Binary Judgments. San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 07-19. Available at SSRN: or

Lawrence Alexander (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

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