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Forgiving dumbsh*t decisions

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I make many dumbsh*t decisions, by which I mean decisions that are made without taking obviously important and relevant information or moral considerations into account. And I’m not alone: we are all guilty of this. I believe we are morally responsible for these decisions, and blameworthy for them. But I also believe that many or most of them should be forgiven.

So, for example, when I make the dumbsh*t decision not to offer you a ride home (when it’s obvious that you need one) I should be able to say to you, “I’m sorry I didn’t offer you a ride home; I can’t even explain why I didn’t, other than it was just a dumbsh*t decision on my part,” and you should probably reply, “That’s okay, but please try to be kinder next time.”

But they should not always be forgiven. If a doctor told me, “I’m sorry I didn’t try to save your leg; I can’t even explain why I didn’t, other than it was just a dumbsh*t decision on my part,” I wouldn’t forgive her, and don’t believe she should be forgiven.

So my question: what are the conditions for a dumbsh*t decision to be worthy of forgiveness?

Here are some that come to mind: (a) the consequences must be fairly trivial, (b) the person shouldn’t repeat the dumbsh*t decision more than a very few times, (c) all the other conditions that should apply to making a bad decision forgivable — like, the person’s apology must be genuine, etc.

Can anyone think of other conditions, or exceptions to these? Or can anyone come up with a general explanation for why we find some but not all dumbsh*t decisions forgivable? (Or just call them “dumb” decisions, if you prefer, and forgive my choice of terminology!)

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4 Comments

  1. Kleiner says:

    I really like this new category of “dumbsh*t decisions”. But further distinctions are in order. Here is my spin:

    Huenemann has suggested two main categories: ‘serious vs trivial’ and ‘thoughtless vs thoughtful’. To put a bit more meat on those bones, I’ll make an appeal to the traditional distinction between mortal and venial sin.

    Mortal sins are defined as sins that are (a) of a grave matter, (b) are committed with full knowledge that it is a grave matter, and (c) it is committed with full consent. Mortal sin, tradition has taught, “destroys charity in the heart of man” and breaks communion with God.
    Venial sin, on the other hand, is either a sin of a less serious matter or when we disobey the law without full knowledge or complete consent. Venial sin allows charity to subsist in the heart of man and does not break communion with God.
    We could secularize this into (a) serious matters that destroy relationships and (b) less serious matters that do not destroy relationships.

    Given these categories, we have 4 possible kinds of decisions:
    (i) Thoughtful (full knowledge and consent) decisions about serious matters
    (ii) Thoughtless (not full knowledge or consent) decisions about serious matters
    (iii) Thoughtful decisions about trivial matters
    (iv) Thoughtless decisions about trivial matters

    Clearly instances of (i) do not qualify as “dumbsh*t decisions. Instances of (ii) look like unforgivable dumbsh*t decision (Huenemann’s example of the doctor). Instances of (iv) look like the best candidates for being forgivable dumbsh*t decisions. Instance of (iii) are an interesting case though. What if I thought of offering you a ride and still did not offer? Surely that makes it somewhat less forgivable than if it had simply not occurred to me. There is something operative here that is similar to, say, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary ignorance.

    What do we conclude from this? If a decision regards a serious or grave matter, that is a sufficient condition for excluding it from the class of ‘forgivable dumbsh*t decisions” – whether it is thoughtful or thoughtless. In other words, a necessary condition for being a a forgivable dumbsh*t decisions is that it concern trivial matters.
    But what of the degree of thoughtfulness in decisions regarding trivial matters? I think we should distinguish between these two. I am inclined to say that a forgivable dumbsh*t decision must be both (a) trivial and (b) thoughtless. Let’s name all of them:
    (i) Firing offense: A seriously wrong decision that results in the end of a friendship (you fire your friend).
    Ex: Your friend has an affair with your wife.
    (ii) Fire-able offense: A seriously wrong decision that would justify you firing your friend. But the relationship is not as broken as in (i). While seriously damaged, genuine apologies and serious behavior modification might save the relationship in some form.
    Ex: Your friend has an affair with your wife, but he does not realize it is your wife.
    (iii) Friendship diminishing offense: A trivially wrong decision that does not justify firing your friend. But it certainly weakens the relationship, and you would be entitled to call your friend “pretty lame”. It would probably be sufficient for excluding the person from any kind of “best friend” status.
    Ex: Your friend tells you a white lie (“No, you don’t look fat at all in those pants”) or thinks of doing something nice for you but chooses not to (he thinks of giving you a lift home, and even though it would not put him out that much he selfishly refuses to offer).
    (iv) Forgivable dumbsh*t offense: A trivially wrong decision that does not justify firing your friend, or even riding them much about it. Not a big deal, not much of an apology required.
    Ex: Your friend would have been happy to give you a lift home, but he had a lot on his mind so simply didn’t think of it as you both left the office.

    Did that advance the discussion at all?

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  2. […] Your Reading Pleasure Jump to Comments A recent post at Philosophy@Utah State opens an accessible discussion about moral distinctions. This is another […]

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  3. Huenemann says:

    Nothing like some Thomism to clear the waters! (Part the seas?) I like the 4-fold distinction among decisions. I’m curious now about types 2 and 4, the thoughtless decisions about trivial or serious matters. (Thoughtless = dumbsh*t, roughly.) I suppose that thoughtless decisions about serious matters are forgiveable in cases where the consequences of the decision are surprising, and the agent can’t reasonably be expected to have foreseen them. Example: I thoughtlessly give a poor grade to a student, and it’s the last straw, and the student detonates a nuclear device. I may be forgiven for the unwitting role I played in the tragedy.

    Also, thoughtless decisions about trivial matters might become unforgiveable if they happen too frequently. A friend might suspect that I really don’t care about his welfare, since I keep making these stupid decisions that affect his well-being.

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  4. Kleiner says:

    This is where the voluntary and involuntary ignorance distinction might be useful. Briefly, one is voluntarily (or “vincibly”) ignorant when their ignorance could have been avoided. One is involuntarily (or invincibly) ignorant when the ignorance could not have been avoided.
    Decisions made in voluntary ignorance are inexcusable, because the error could have been avoided, while decisions made in involuntary ignorance can be excused since it renders the act, in some way, involuntary.

    Let’s try to introduce a similar distinction within the “thoughtlessness” or “dumbsh*tness” of a decision. So some dumbsh*tness is voluntary (avoidable) and other dumbsh*tness is involuntary (unavoidable).

    Regarding the prof who thoughtlessly gives a poor grade to a student for whom it is the last straw and he goes on to detonate a nuclear device: that looks like a pretty good candidate for involuntary thoughtlessness. Since he could not have been expected to know (indeed, perhaps he could not have possibly found out) that the student would respond in such a way, his thoughtless decision becomes excusable because of its involuntary character.

    Regarding the type ii and iv decisions. Let’s refine these further – introducing the voluntarily and involuntarily dumbsh*tness distinction. We’ll forgo discussion of the involuntary dumbsh*tness, since that tends to be excusable.
    Common sense seems to suggest that voluntary thoughtlessness is more understandable in trivial matters than in serious ones. In that sense, a singular voluntarily thoughtless decision regarding a serious matter is really inexcusable. (If a doctor could have easily checked for an infection, chose not to, and you die from it, he should not be excused). But a singular voluntarily thoughtless decision regarding a trivial matter is quite excusable (Your buddy does not realize that you were interesting in some girl and so he hits on her … he could have asked you if you were interested). Why is this? The gravity of serious decisions entails a moral imperative that one be as thoughtful as possible.

    This would help us with the friend that frequently makes trivial dumbsh*t decisions. One, or even a few, repeated voluntarily dumbsh*t trivial decisions are understandable. But, at some point, they cease to have an involuntary character. At some point (especially if you have, like a good friend would, corrected him along the way) his thoughtlessness becomes voluntary and so his dumbsh*t decision becomes less forgivable.

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