Morality, whether you want it or not

People worry. That is, sometimes people worry about whether or not morality is real. If morals were real, then it would mean that there are facts about the world that, by their very nature, motivate us to do good. We would know right and wrong by our instincts.

If morals were real then we would not have to worry about relativism. For if morals were real, then they would be inevitable — we could rest assured that justice will be served in the long run, and it will be served for the right reasons. If morals were not real, then (as Ophelia Benson put it succinctly) it would turn out that it’s a contingent fact that we care.

This is a mind-bendingly, gut-wrenchingly difficult issue. But the thing that makes it difficult is that we are lacking information about human nature, and not because we’re conceptually confused about what makes a thing “real”. In the present essay, I’m going to argue that it is an empirical question whether or not morals are real. Specifically, I’ll argue that, if morality is real, then that means that being witness to suffering is inherently motivating.

Here’s the Coles Notes version:

  1. There are some good reasons for us to use the concept of “moral realism“.
  2. Moral realism asks us to think of morality as independent of the will.
  3. Moral realism entails moral optimism — that all other things equal, the interests of the right will triumph.
  4. Some interests are objective because we didn’t choose them. If moral claims are “real”, it’s because they have a force whether we want them or not.
  5. If moral regularities are “real”, it is because it derives from instincts (sympathy and resentment) that are independent of the will.
  6. Instinctive sympathy and resentment are more important than the other abilities. Consider the psychopath and the autist.


Here are some platitudes that nobody should disagree with, echoing Sam Harris at a distance.

First, we can say that morality is about objective things. For example, when we learn that innocent civilians in the Middle East are dying needlessly — say when we learn about the latest suicide bombing, or we consider the cruel and futile economic sanctions that first-world nations use to starve whole populations — there’s no doubt that we direct moral outrage toward something going on in the world. It isn’t just a nebulous rage, a passing sentiment, a temper tantrum, or a vague sense of guilt. It is a disdain that is directed at the situation, the culprits. And we direct our sympathy to the real people, the victims.

Second, it is also obviously true that wethe moral arbiters — are part of the world. Moral condemnation is an activity that is accomplished by real persons. And our judgments are mental-states that supervene on brain-states. There are no spooky ghosts and devils, apart from the ones that are a part of our neurophysiology.

Third, moral judgments are not arbitrary. Our judgments hang together in such a way that can be investigated by moral psychologists. Specifically, we have the ability to understand each other (empathy), to be sensitive to rules in deliberation (rationality), to make decisions that are coherent across time (ego integrity), and to learn from experience. Furthermore, our morals are motivated by sympathy and/or resentment. All of our laudatory moral judgments involve sympathy, and our condemnatory judgments involve resentment.

Fourth, moral judgments are rationally meaningful. Sincere moral statements like “Genocide is wrong” can be said to be true or false under certain conditions. Sincere moral statements allow us to infer other moral statements: from “Genocide is murder” and “Murder is wrong”, we can infer that genocide is wrong. “Genocide is wrong” means more than just “Boo for genocide”. (Though arguably, insincere moral statements are little more than expressions of “boo” and “hooray”.)

A moral fact, if there were any, would have to satisfy expectations that are similar to those that we have of garden variety facts. First, moral facts would have to be modest, in the sense that moral facts would have to be independent of our minds. That is, in order for there to be moral facts, it would have to turn out that we could be shown to be rationally mistaken about the moral attributions we make to situations, even when we are well-appraised on the details of the case. Second, we would have to think that we (those who have the required abilities) had reliable access to that feature of goodness or badness. And this kind of access would shape how we make our judgments. Third, in order for these two conditions to be met in some meaningful way, they would need to apply equally across all those subjective knowers that are possessed of the requisite abilities: both for the individual and the collective. At the very least there must be some features of moral judgments that apply across all morally competent persons.


If you’re a spirited anti-realist about morals (carrying the fire of J.L. Mackie), this whole conversation will already seem like a stupid effort. In some sense it is obvious that there are no moral facts. There are no moral particles floating out there in the world that we can detect by plugging in our moralometers. Presumably, if everybody on Earth died tomorrow, then there would be no good or evil left in the universe, while mountains and molecules would remain unchanged. The moral anti-realist wants to point out that moral attributions are dependent upon our mind in this crucial way.

The spirited anti-realist is coming from the right place: they are particularly antagonistic to the claims of naive theologians who would think of good and evil as features of the universe that correspond to God‘s opinions. Since the naive theological picture of the world leads us to empty prostrations and vapid rhetorical games, I will not consider it further.

Thankfully not all moral realists are naive theologians. Some moral realists argue that we’ve set too high a standard for what counts as real. They point out that we can weaken the meaning of “mind-independence” to a point where we can talk about morality as real. They would argue that things can be independent of the mind in some useful sense without it being necessary for us to imagine a world without observers.

I think that’s right. I don’t think we would need to be committed to the view that the real world is independent of all observers. Sure, if everybody died tomorrow, colors would no longer exist, since colors are complex facts about the way that the world relates to us and vice-versa. That doesn’t mean colors aren’t real. It just means that they’re the kinds of facts that relate us to the other stuff going on out there. They are observer-dependent.

Colors are also dependent on the mind in the sense that they’re dependent on our evidence. There is no color without evidence of there being color. Colors, like morals, are observation-dependent: if we could not find any cases that inspired moral judgments, then there would be no such thing as morality. In that sense, both colors and morals are dependent upon the (individual and collective) mind.

Colors are independent of the mind only in the sense that colors don’t exist just because we decided they exist. If you have a working pair of eyes, a certain kind of neurophysiology, and a cooperative environment, then the experience of colors comes for free. Colors are independent of the will. The color concepts have nothing to do with our choices and commitments. (Well, the primary and secondary colors are independent of the will, at any rate. Paint store colors may be a different story.)

Perhaps a similar story could be given for morals. If it turned out that morality was independent of human explicit expectations and contracts, choices and commitments, then we could call ourselves objectivists about morality, just as we can call ourselves objectivists about colors. On the other hand, if Benson is right — if it’s a contingent fact that we care — then we are going to end up with different conclusions.


At this point, the critic might ask: “fine, but what would we have achieved in this case? It seems like bafflegab, poppycock, dross, and lunacy to pretend that some of our interests are objective.” It sounds like a category mistake, a non-starter. Maybe human interests just aren’t the sort of thing that admit of objectivity — they’re just a subjective kind of thing. And this concern is grounded by the fact that our analysis has become rather shifty. After all, it seems as though we’re at the stage where we’ve watered down the meaning of “independent of the mind” to the point where it borders on homeopathy. Why should we accept that “will-independence” is a respectable stand-in for mind-independence? Surely the mind is made up of more than just the will!

From the start, I have assumed that the thing that motivates the debate between realism and anti-realism is the sense that justice is inevitable. The idea is that the demands of morality will eventually be recognized for what they are (by people in similar circumstances), and then be applied prospectively. The gambit of the moral realist is that there are some stable features of the human conscience that can be expected to persevere, and eventually, to triumph — at least, so long as all other things are equal.

If this is the sense of “moral realism” that we are interested in, then it becomes clear that will-independence is entirely appropriate. If morality is riddled with human choices and commitments, then it could only be by accident that people would arrive at morally sound conclusions. Far from being inevitable, it would only be through luck or circumstance that people would come to treat each other in a decent way.


The next question is, “would it be absurd for us to talk about some of our interests as “independent of the will”? After all, aren’t all of our interests based on our choices and commitments?

Suppose we were able to show that some of our interests are objectively real in the same sense that colors are. If we can show this, then we will have shown that it is possible for us to convince ourselves that our moral interests are objectively real as well. If there are such things as objective human interests, then that would show that it isn’t absurd to think that morality might be objective, too.

Here’s an argument that is based on an analogy to colors (inspired by Peter Railton and John McDowell). We are directly acquainted with colors through the experience of sight. Still, colors are ultimately just physical events in the world. The experience of seeing a color is composed of the relation between the neurophysiology of an animal, the lighting conditions of the environment, and so on.

Some of our felt desires are more persistent than others. We learn the difference between wants and needs after we’ve been put through the grinder of hard won experience. So we learn that we need to ingest certain proteins in order to stay nourished; we learn that it is a dumb idea to drink milk on a hot day; etc.

Let’s call the stuff that we discover to be our needs later on in life our “objective needs”. Our objective needs are like colors, in that we think we have a special acquaintance with them. But our objective needs also supervene on natural, psychological, and social facts – and they would have to, or else we’d be led into making the kinds of decisions that put us early into the grave. Natural selection demands that at least some of our preferences are objective.

Vital human needs are objectively real. They are mind-independent, because they’re composed in large part by features of the world (and our reactions to the world) that we had no say in. There was no group vote on whether or not we need warmth, sustenance, air, stimulation, and satisfaction — we just do need these things. Some interesting people can trick themselves into thinking they are hungry, even when they are not; or that they are sated, when they are starving. But the fact of the matter about their thirst or hunger does not depend on how they have chosen to interpret their bodily signals.


So, some of our interests are objective. Are moral interests objective in a similar way, or do they depend on the choices and commitments made by the will?*

It’s not a question of whether or not morality originates from divine commands and moral particles, it’s a question of whether or not morality is contingent upon the stuff we do on purpose. Quite a lot depends on what kinds of morally salient mental resources we think are independent of the will. If our moral radar is powered by abilities that are independent of the will, then the prospects of moral realism will disappear entirely.

I have characterized the moral capacity as being made up of empathy, ego integrity, prudential learning, and rationality, and powered by instinctive sympathy and resentment.

  • Our ability to learn of deleterious and beneficial consequences of actions tells us something about real facts in the world. And by learning about the world, we learn facts about our objective interests; and our objective interests are salient to any plausible idea of morality. General learning, then, is independent of the will.
  • Ego integrity is essential to doctrines of personal responsibility. Ego integrity is synonymous with the ability to choose and the ability to make commitments that last across time. As such, it is dependent on the will.
  • Instinctive sympathy and instinctive resentment might draw from unconscious drives that possess some distinctively moral pattern, like the instinct for reciprocity. They are constitutive of the will, but are also independent of it. Insects don’t have a will of their own, but there is no denying that they have instincts.
  • There are no straightforward answers to questions like “Is rationality is innate or learned?” and “Does rationality discover or create these systems of rules?” Answers to questions that aim to be even approximately accurate will depend entirely upon the details of the case. There is no “rationality module” of the brain that we can fit neatly into the boxes of “objective” or “subjective”. Hence, when taken on its own terms, it’s a neutral conception, neither dependent or independent of the will.
  • However, when employed for the purposes of moral tasks, rationality seems to be social and conscious, and hence dependent on the will. Foundational rules like the categorical imperative, the maxim of utility, and the maximin are not hard-wired into our brains. They are abstractions that are grounded in an admixture of assumptions about human nature, social consequences, and the things we think are worth caring about.

  • Empathy, in the sense of “putting yourself in another’s shoes”, is a faculty of the imagination. As such, it is dependent on the will. Empathy allows us to reduce the social distance between persons. Not incidentally, explaining empathy as choice-dependent explains why certain kinds of moral arbiters are reluctant to understand the plight of persons who are at a distance, and who they find morally repugnant. They are self-consciously afraid of empathy, because while they can choose whether or not to empathize, they can’t choose whether or not to sympathize.

So on balance, it seems as though morality is dependent on the will. For while prudential learning and the moral instincts are independent of the will (at least on the face of it), empathy, rationality, and ego integrity are all dependent upon our choices and commitments.


But the critic might point out that not all of these abilities are equally significant to morality. Some are more important to ethics than others. Although all of them are necessary for morals, the instinctive sense of sympathy (and resentment) appears to be what is characteristic of moral deliberation.

To see the relative contributions of the different abilities, consider the cases of autism and psychopathy.

Some high-functioning autists haven’t got a rich sense of empathy. According to research by Simon Baron-Cohen, autists can’t simulate other minds, or “put themselves in another person’s shoes”. So, at least initially, they fail various experiments, like the “false belief” task where they’re asked to figure out what false beliefs other people are thinking. They’re terrible at deception — both detecting it, and performing it. But they can get along in the world, compensating by learning new rules, like rules of folk psychology, morality, and propriety.

Autistic morality depends on conventional rules. From a naive perspective, the discovery that autists can display broad moral competence on the basis of explicit instruction will force us to conclude that conventional theories and learned behaviors are more involved in moral cognition than anything else. But that can’t be entirely right. After all, even the autists that are the subject of the above reports have an instinctive sense of sympathy. When someone else is hurt, they become physiologically aroused.

Morally speaking, the real odd case is the psychopath. Psychopaths don’t have an instinctive sense of sympathy — but, bizarrely, some of them are evidently able to empathise in ways that the autist finds challenging. Uta Frith observes: “Children with psychopathic tendencies, who were educated at special schools because of severe behavioral problems, were not only very good at mental state attribution, but even superior to children of the same mental age.” That’s precisely what makes them so frightening — they empathize, and can deceive, but don’t care. No arousal. They are the perfect case to show that morality strongly requires a natural disposition towards sympathy.


The upshot here is that while rationality is able to compensate for a deficit in empathy, there is no way to compensate for a lack of instinctive sympathy. Given that instinctive sympathy is the crucial ingredient to morality, and given that it operates independently of the will, it would seem that we have reasons for optimism. So, in that very thin and vaguely disappointing sense, morality is real.

And yet bombs keep exploding, women are stoned to death, economic sanctions starve thousands, first-world governments assassinate or deport democratically elected leaders in the global south. Sympathy seems to be in short supply. How can that be?

If we can explain this as a failure of empathy, then it would turn out that it’s only a contingent fact that we care in the same sense that it’s a contingent fact that we can close our eyes and block out the colors around us. And if it turns out that we can turn off our instinctive sympathy, as if turning off a light switch, then there would be no hope for moral realism.

I don’t quite know what to think. But I do think that, whatever the answer may be, it will be answered through empirical means.

Further reading

*[Sept 2: Section edited for clarity, and to clean up an inconsistent statement left over from an earlier draft]Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. You think it’s a “platitude” that mental states supervene upon brain states? If by “supervenience” you mean that you endorse materialism of a non-reductive character then this is hardly platitudinous: in fact it’s deeply mysterious. And if the scope of “supervenience” is intended to include type identity then far from being straightforward it is in fact deeply objectionable (in the sense of being eminently open to objection, not morally dubious).

    This isn’t a quibble. If you are going to develop a moral realism that is consistent with naturalism you need to get the whole soul thing nailed down. For my part I endorse moral realism as a consequence of divine command theory. But I’ll admit that my own position carries its own difficulties: possibly as many as two or three :-)

  2. I think it’s a platitude that there’s some kind of supervenience, yes, though that means either type or token. There’s no defensible case for dualism, and the case for the mysterians and skeptics can’t survive inference to the best explanation. But maybe they’re not platitudes. I can just as happily reiterate that they’re things that people should agree with!

    I think the position you’re describing (re:divine command theory) doesn’t work, and leads us very far afield. The DCT makes realism itself unintelligible, hence moral realism gets tossed to the curb.

  3. Type and token are versions of identity theory, not of supervenience. And there is a more than defensible case for dualism made intentionally by people like Plantinga or John Foster, and less intentionally by Hume or Ayer. Ayer probably was committed to an idealist metaphysics, truth be told.

    I think that if you want to be a moral realist and to defend the idea that our moral beliefs are not contingent then DCT is your best bet. You are, of course, entitled to stipulate the parameters of your discussion, but be careful what you rule out of court.

  4. When we learn about the latest suicide bombing, or we consider the cruel and futile economic sanctions that first-world nations use to starve whole populations — there’s no doubt that we direct moral outrage toward something going on in the world. It isn’t just a nebulous rage, a passing sentiment, a temper tantrum, or a vague sense of guilt. It is a disdain that is directed at the situation, the culprits. And we direct our sympathy to the real people, the victims.

    I wonder about the “we” in the above paragraph: what percentage of the population really cares or is concerned about “futile economic sanctions” directed against third world nations.

    My daily experience is that most people are not especially concerned about or empathetic towards others, outside of their
    family group and social circle.

    For short periods of time, they can be led by the media to feel outrage at or indignation about injustices which don’t affect them personally, but that indignation rarely leads them to alter their life-style or their daily routine.

    What’s more, most people are willing to tolerate and close their eyes to serious injustices: racism, sexism,
    economic inequality, xenophobia, colonialism, when it benefits them economically or when it reinforces their sense of identity or of self-worth or of superiority to oppressed and powerless groups.

    So at the risk of seeming very heretical, given the state of relations between us, I agree with Ms. Benson that ethics are contingent, very contingent.

    Our values come from many sources, from genes, from our culture, from life-experience learning, from interaction with other cultures, from online debates, but we chose our values or let our values be chosen for us, if we let ourselves be passive with respect to the culture around us, the media, etc.

    In fact, ethics are not only contingent, they are terribly fragile, as anyone who studies history or who watches the indifference of most people and their passive complicity with injustice in daily life with open eyes can testify. If we are concerned about a better world, whatever that means, it’s up to us.

  5. Andy, it’s both. All identity theories involve supervenience.

    A lot depends on the details, and on what kind of dualism you had in mind. Substance dualism is completely out of the question. Property dualism is dubious, but even if it were true it would have no effect on the argument above.

    The argument against DCT, and of treating the divine as a viable option in epistemology at all, can be found in my previous four posts. I have outright and explicitly argued that it’s more than just an implausible theory — it’s a theory that obliges us to scrap the distinction between realism and anti-realism. Methodological naturalism (of a certain sort) is mandatory in epistemology.

    Amos, I would respond to those cases with the example of colors. We can control whether or not our eyes are open, but that doesn’t mean that colors are unreal. The point is that, if there is something we would call morally real, then it would be because when people are exposed to suffering, they experience a jolt of that pro-social instinct. Empathy can be turned off and on, but sympathy is supposed to be automatically elicited by stimuli.

  6. All identity theories will include a commitment to supervenience. But supervenience is not a sufficient condition either of type or token identity. It is possible to accept that facts about the mental will vary with facts about the brain. This does not imply that the former is identical with the latter.

    Methodological naturalism is not mandatory in epistemology. To state otherwise is to ignore extant debates such as whether naturalism contains the grounds for disbelieving naturalism (cf Plantinga’s critique of foundationalism and his argument that (unguided) evolution is a defeater for naturalism).

  7. Anyway…now I AM quibbling….great post Benjamin.

  8. Alright, reading back on the sentence you were responding to, I accept your correction. :)

    My intention was to express the following: forms of supervenience that are not identity theories are non-starters. If two units can’t even be in a token-token relationship, we have to ask whether we’re talking about stable knowledge, or just stretching our imaginations for the fun of it.

    Naturalism is absolutely necessary; we don’t agree. But that’s a matter for the other posts, not this one. Admittedly, I do ignore the debates you’re referring to, since I haven’t yet been given a reason to think they’re on solid ground.

  9. I thought you contradicted yourself, or made a mistake somewhere -

    You said that colours are observer-dependent AND observation-dependent.

  10. John, you’ll have to say more, because that’s what I argue, and is not a contradiction. Colors are both dependent on there being some observer and some observation. A similar case might be made for the moral capacities.

  11. Ben,
    This is really got me going. It’s my intent to eventually comment on this entire essay, but I feel a need to comment on the first few paragraphs or I’ll bust. Remember, as you read this, I’m trying to understand it.
    The first line gives a necessary condition for morals to be real, viz. “there are facts about the world that, by their very nature, motivate us to do good.” Then you go on to explain what this means more explicitly than the words themselves indicate: we wouldn’t have to worry about relativism (I assume because universality in some way is built in,) they’re inevitable (no one can avoid them,) and in the long run justice will definitely be served.

    [Just an aside: “In the long run” is a slippery term. A number of years ago my urologist told me in the long run every man gets prostate cancer. How can you tell? Men die without ever having had pc. The obvious answer then is that they hadn’t lived long enough.]

    Clearly, none of the three above conditions you stated are true about morals, therefore it follows immediately morals are not real in the way you’ve presented them.
    But I must be wrong in the way I interpreted the first paragraph because you go on in the second to say “This is a mind-bendingly, gut-wrenchingly difficult issue.” Further you say it’s our lack of understanding of human nature that is the difficulty and not what it means for morals to be real. So what was the first sentence? I agree that it wasn’t definitely presented as a definition of morals being real but it did give us enough information to discard the possibility of their existence. I guess I’m naive enough to believe I understand human nature a great deal more than what real morals are.

    “Are morals real?” Isn’t that the type of question Wittgenstein would have had a fit about?

  12. Ralph, I like your urological analogy. Maybe I can say something in order to make the claim about “in the long run” sound less dogmatic. The idea is that morals will end up being real only so long as our circumstances, choices, and commitments don’t “close our eyes”, so to speak. A corollary to this view is that so long as vital circumstances are controlled for (i.e., economic and technological circumstances), people will tend to organize themselves with greater and greater allowances for sympathy. It is not clear to me that this is false.

    It’s a difficult question because I’m not particularly attracted to the language of moral realism, and would prefer to speak in terms of moral optimism or pessimism. However, after reading Wright, I realize that this is premature, based on how I’ve come to understand the word “realism” as meaning modesty plus presumption. There is a weak sense of realism afoot, in the sense that we can understand modesty as meaning ‘independent of the will’. Or at least that’s what I argued. If we can’t, then we might as well abandon that language.

  13. Though I hasten to add that when I say “it’s not clear to me that this is false”, it’s also not clear to me that it’s true. And the “false” camp may be more plausible, if we were to look at the moral attitudes of peoples during stagnant historical periods where there were no technical or economic innovations. The “inevitability” corollary could be debunked in that way.

  14. Benjamin,
    If you say that colours are observer-dependent then that doesn’t appear to entail that colours can be found or are really, in themselves, out there.

    But if you say that colours are observation dependent it seems to entail that colours can be found, and that they really are out there.

    So that’s two different views of colours – colours not real in themselves, and colours real in themselves.

  15. John, that’s fair. If you think that things have to be things-in-themselves in order to be real, then you’re not going to agree with the argument. But there are at least two problems. One is the question of how we know of these things without basing it on other (veridical) knowledge we have. The other is, how do we make sense of observer-dependent facts that are real, but relational — like the principles of economics, or deforestation?

  16. [Admin Edit]: Hello! I am a troll. Do you have any bridges for sale?

  17. Benjamin,

    Regarding “observation-dependent” facts:
    As Kant says – and I can’t see how it is possible to argue against this – whatever is “external” can never be sensed for what it is.
    There isn’t even an approximation of what our senses tell us “is there” to what is “actually there” (or “in itself”, which means the same). If we try to introduce knowledge, or even the concept of knowledge by stipulating that facts are “observation dependent” then, folowing Kant’s fatal criticism, we fall straight into sceptism about reality or what is really out there.
    The only benefit of adopting such an abysal scepticism of an “observation dependent” philosophy is that it brings us pragmatism – enter Quine and his lot.

    ON the other hand, we logically can’t make sense of “observer-dependent” facts because by the definition of observer-dependent there is nothing that is independently there to be made sense of. We create “observer-dependent facts”. These facts aren’t really facts as such – they are immediate, and so cannot be objects of knowledge.

  18. John, first I have to quibble. ‘The external’ is neither here nor there when we’re talking about observer-dependence. It is a correct interpretation of Kant to say that things as they appear to us are dependent both on observers and (in a limited sense) on observations, while the noumena are observer-independent. But it is not a correct interpretation to conflate what is “actually there” with the noumena! Kant is not a naive idealist — he’s a self-described empirical realist. The objects of perception are real, as the feeling for causality is hardwired through the categories.

    And actually, this charitable attitude towards the external wasn’t even unique to Kant. Even the naive idealist — say, Berkeley — acknowledged “the external”, or “outness”, of sense perceptions, as this was an essential premise in his argument for the existence of God. To put it starkly: the external that we know of is observer-dependent. That may sound strange, but as for these gentlemen, it is true.

    But on to your main point. You’re right that Kant was a skeptic when it comes to observer-independent facts. I suspect that his argument has some holes in it, but I’m not in a position to argue it at the moment. And so far I’ve only just presumed it to be correct, more or less dogmatically. So if that’s a place where we part ways, then I don’t blame you, since the burden is on me to provide some kind of reasons to question Kant’s skepticism towards the noumena.

  19. Benjamin,

    Kant’s externality is different to Berkeleys. Kant’s external objects are not the source of their own reality while Berkeleys objects (God AND ideas) are the source of their own reality. THis makes Kant a transcendental idealist and Berkeley a transcendental realist.

    The objects of Kant’s externality are not subject to sceptical doubt, while Berkeleys external objects are subject to sceptical doubt.

    Kant’s morality would not be subject to doubt or assessment, but Berkeleys would.


    (Kant said that we can’t know about objects that appear to us if objects are the source of their own reality. Also, Kant said that we can’t know about objects that lie behind appearances (things in themselves).

    If there is a difference between these two ways of considering objects, I can’t see it.

    Kant’s solution was to propose that objects are not the source of their own reality but, as you say, are empirically real – nothing stands behind them, they are themselves, as they appear, real.

  20. On ‘externalities’. No doubt that’s a decent contrast (according to Kant, anyway). And I quite like the way you put it. To talk about the objects of knowledge as being “the source of their own reality” for Berkeley and not for Kant is helpful. However, this language concerns facts about the objects themselves, and not the relation of the objects to subjects; hence it cuts across the divisions of observer and observation-independence instead of replacing them.

    So my point was just that both Kant and Berkeley do have senses of the external to their accounts. Given the differences between their senses of the external, (and even the differences between one sense of external and another in Kant,) talking about the external alone is not going to be productive. We have to be more specific. Your division is a plausible place to begin, although I wonder whether or not it will do the trick. After all, to think of an object’s relation to itself is already to do something that is merely speculative, for Kant. One wonders whether you’re a secret advocate for the noumena yourself!

    What gets subject to skepticism and what doesn’t is really the crux of the issue. Much of the question depends on what we think skepticism can or cannot touch. And, as I was suggesting, I’m not confident that skepticism is so powerless that we can’t infer anything about noumena. But I am not going to argue it, because I may or may not be saying things presently that I will regret after a week of thinking about it.

  21. I don’t think the truth or falsehood of “naturalism” (I think this means what I would call “physicalism” or what use to be called “materialism) is relevant here, nor the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings or even God. The same ethics would exist no matter what universe we are in.

    Something is right or wrong because it is right or wrong. That isn’t the problem. The problem is we fool ourselves or are fooled by our “consciences” into ethical error (the conscience, I presume, being a mix of genetic instincts and culturally learned behavior rules).

    Another problem is ethical absolutism–the casting of a certain thing as “always wrong.” Lying and even murder are not always wrong. In fact, scenarios can be constructed where not lying or not murdering are what are wrong.

    In short, we cannot trust our feelings and we cannot trust any body of rules (short of one of near-infinite length that deals with every possible situation).

    So are our ethical ideas illusions? I think the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. Just the fact that we have such a strong judgmental proclivity–especially as applied by ourselves to ourselves–as well as the fact that, generally in the short run and pretty much always in the long run, what we do comes back on us (criminals end up in jail, etc.)

    Perhaps the best, although not perfect, course is to go with our feelings most of the time, tempered very much by ethical axioms (such as the Kant notion that one must not use another sentient being or the Hobbes notion of a studied look at all reasonably foreseeable consequences).

    In the end, however, we really do not know and all we can do is do the very best we can.

  22. Frank, I think you bring up a possibility in your fifth paragraph that I didn’t touch on.

    Suppose that historical optimism were true, but the human sentiments didn’t play a big part in that. Suppose development in the sense of fairness came about because of an impersonal social mechanism — like the enlightened egoism of Hobbes. If that were the case, then moral realism would be false, because the human sympathies would be irrelevant to social consequences.

  23. Well I dunno; our conscience–both instincts and the capability we are born with to acquire as firm beliefs the norms of our culture–have to do with biology and anthropology, and are subject to natural processes. I don’t think right and wrong are.

    I suppose we confuse the two because they tend, for easily seen reasons, to usually come out on the same end of things, but not always. A sense of fairness as you mention it, as well as a sense of compassion, a sense of fitness or propriety, and who knows what else, are the result of our evolution.

    That they generally coincide with right and wrong seems to me likely, but I might be completely off base.

    The relevance of right and wrong to consequences, both social and otherwise, derives, I would guess, from connections between ethics and consequences that one can try to explain according on one’s taste.

    It is just that bad acts overwhelmingly do have bad consequences, and vice-verse, and this is, I would say, experientially obvious. I don’t think, however, that efforts to draw a detailed explanation of the nature of the connection have ever been more than just slightly successful.

  24. I think I should stress that the idea of historical optimism isn’t quite the same as consequentialism. It might be the case that the moral good and the moral right will as a matter of fact inevitably be recognized by people. But that doesn’t mean that the right is simply constituted by the good. The right and the good might both arise by accident, both being caused by a third variable — namely, our instincts for sympathy and resentment.

    As far as consequentialism goes: I’ve only lightly brushed the topic here because I think the most plausible version of consequentialism has almost nothing to do with moral realism. You can be an anti-realist and a (certain kind of) consequentialist. Consider the kind of consequentialist that associates the right action with the *best prediction* of good outcomes. On this version of consequentialism, it’s no surprise that the right and the actual good don’t map onto each other in some perfectly straightforward way. That’s because our best predictions often, in a word, suck. Because our predictions are highly contingent upon our capacities for reason, and reason is an ontologically neutral ability, this kind of consequentialism is consistent with either realism or anti-realism.

    The less plausible kinds of consequentialism would make the stronger claim, that the right just is the actual production of the good. But this is a bold theoretical claim that sounds very brave when it comes to the assessment of facts in hindsight, but is without much normative (prospective) use. And if it were put into normative use, then it would be a cold and cruel doctrine that effectively denies that people are responsible for things that are foreseeable and under their control. But for all that, it’s certainly a realistic doctrine.

  25. I’m not sure I understand all the -ism’s you speak of, and whether consequentialism is what I am arguing for.

    Let me say that I do not think consequences make an act good or bad, but something different, that a good act necessarily must have good consequences, etc. The two are definitionally, not causally, linked

    We don’t live in a world of geometric proofs and dimensionless lines, nor is our world one of purely good or purely bad acts, so the visibility of my position is muddled by the fact that no human act is purely good or otherwise. This tends to hide, or at least obscure, the reality that good acts cannot help but have good consequences, etc.

    Still, I think the evidence is that good leads to good and bad leads to bad. It is also obscured by the fact that “good consequences” often vary according to the perspective of the observer–a volcano is bad to the villagers but good to future farmers on the land.

    This is a diversion, albeit a valuable one, from where I was heading in the first place–which was to demonstrate how difficult if not impossible it is to be sure what we are doing is right or wrong.

  26. So you’re referring to the idea that good deeds are defined by whether or not they bring about good consequences. But while this may or may not be true, it can’t be definitional, can it? After all, we can say without contradiction that we’ve done a good deed that has had terrible consequences.

    Suppose I give twenty dollars to a street kid, and unbeknownst to me this is enough for him to buy the switchblade he needs to murder his classmate. To some degree, I still did a good deed despite the fact that it had bad remote consequences. It was a slightly good deed, or something.

    But the thing is, the idea that it was only a slightly good deed comes in conflict with the fact that I know I was doing an unqualified good deed as I was doing it. If the goodness of the act is determined by the goodness of the consequences, and this is linked by definition (as you put it), then the fact that I knew the quality of the action when I was doing it, ought to entail that by definition I also knew the consequences later on (when the kid shanks a peer in the washroom). But that’s absurd.

    You can say that I was mistaken about the goodness of the action at the time I was performing it. But then that leads us floating out on the empty sea, as far as morals go. For one thing, this leaves us without any sense while we’re acting that we’re doing anything good at all. That leaves the good actor with no guidance on what the good even looks like, apart from what they’ve learned in the past. They’re stuck in nostalgia, like flies in amber. For another thing, you leave us in the dark about how we ought to live our lives — what the right thing to do is. You haven’t supplemented a theory of the good with a theory of the right.

    This is where consequentialism comes in. It is defined by the slogan: “The right thing to do is to bring about the best consequences.” Consequentialism gives us a theory of the right, and says that it is intimately tied with the good. This is the view that I mistakenly attributed to you earlier.

  27. If you had the intention of doing a good deed, but the immediate consequence was bad, then there are three possibilities. The most likely is that other factors beyond your good deed interfered, muddling the result. It is also possible that the deed was not really good, as you mention. The third possibility is that you have too short a time frame–the good consequences may not yet have had the chance to develop.

    I have already made the point a couple of times that we do not live in a world where one can do geometric proofs on physical issues. Scientific evidence must be statistical, since we cannot make deterministic predictions in such a complicated world (at least most of the time–occasionally we can design the experiment to eliminate other factors–but when talking about events in the world at large that isn’t possible).

    I’m not sure I really meant to say the connection between good deeds and good outcomes is definitional. It may be that, but it may also be something more profound–something about the nature of goodness (and evil) that projects itself into the future.

    This idea is anathema in the West, of course, and also heretical and superstitious and likely to get the academic bonfires burning. To me it seems an invitation to mysticism (at least it use to), but consider that we are already talking about the reality of good and bad as things in themselves–something already getting spooky.

  28. That’s fair. And I understood your point about contingency. I was primarily complaining about the “definitional” claim.

    Because I don’t want to invite obscurity by excessive use of pronouns, I’ll call your view “proto-consequentialism”.

    I don’t think proto-consequentialism is anathema to the West, if only because I don’t know what The West is (except the place on the horizon where the sun sets). Also, I’m a Westerner, and a vaguely utilitarian sort of ethicist, and once you put aside the ‘definitional’ thing I think you’re pretty much right as far as the connection between the good and good results are concerned. (Though I don’t share your skepticism about the right and the wrong; but let’s put that to one side for a moment.)

    It must depend on who you think has the power, and what their ethical systems look like. Unlike the creeds of naive theologians, proto-consequentialism does not trade on the intrinsic goodness or badness of things. Proto-consequentialism says, the good and the bad are in the consequences. So I guess it depends on how much you think naive theology (of a vaguely Catholic sort) is characteristic of what the West believes. Stereotypes of the Church and Hollywood might think that good and evil reside in the heart, but Business probably doesn’t. I think the world of Business would be far happier to agree with a restricted kind of proto-consequentialism. After all, for them the value of any commodity is its exchange value.

    Terry Eagleton is one person who isn’t a naive theologian but who does advocate the idea that evil is an intrinsic quality. I only mention it because I was thinking of doing a post about his most recent book.

  29. It’s autistic not autist. What would be more appropriate is to call the population people with autism.

  30. I adopted the term from Uta Frith (cited above), so you can take it up with her.

  31. I thought ‘being moral’ had to do with trying to avoid harming others with what we say and do. That goes beyond instinct and/or rules. Doesn’t that make morality objective?

  32. Peter, I don’t know where the maxim you mention comes from, if it doesn’t come from the abilities I’ve been talking about (sympathy, empathy, integrity, and rationality). You’d have to say more about where you think your proposal comes from.

    Still, I think your proposal demands a reply. Strictly speaking, there are plenty of harms that we commit upon others that are moral. Some of the things we resent are legitimate — we are entitled to resent them. And not all of these things we resent are reactions to harms that other commit — we morally resent negligence of parents towards their children, or we morally resent the inaction of onlookers in the Kitty Genovese case who failed to provide aid when it was needed. So we can’t say that being moral means avoiding harming others, because sometimes morality demands that we take on active duties, and even sometimes that we be confrontational.

    But my answer here to your proposal actually seems to erode my own proposal as well. I haven’t talked about entitlements at all in the above post, for instance, let alone said where they come from. But then, the question I’m really asking in this post, but was not at all clear about, is: are there any natural patterns of sympathy and resentment that motivate and determine our moral entitlements? And I’m calling those instincts “moral”, even though in all strictness they are actually amoral.

  33. To be moral is to do what is “right.” Whether that is limited (I don’t think so) to just not harming others could be said, but I think sometimes the right thing might well be to harm someone else (say in preventing them from hurting a third person).

    The thing is, we just don’t know what is “right” or how to determine it. Most people think they know right from wrong, but often it is just their cultural prejudices, or their particular interpretation of some tradition.

    The efforts of others to try to find a rational basis for moral rules seem to all fall short in one way or another. Utilitarianism is the best known of these but in my opinion Kant’s “moral imperative” is better.

    In an earlier posting someone accused me of skepticism, I think because of the fact that I don’t think people can ever be sure what they do is right or wrong. My view is that this is not so much skepticism as realism. Too many people do great harm by plunging ahead doing what they think is right in a sort of blindness caused by moral arrogance.

    On the other hand, we surely are sometimes compelled by moral considerations. It is just that a lot of introspection and humility are sorely needed around this topic.

  34. Frank, you’re begging the question! If it turns out that there is a regularity to our judgments of sympathy and resentment that is independent of choice, then it would demonstrate that the position that you describe is unrealistic. Your anti-realism might be right, mind you, but it’s something that has to be shown.

  35. I tend to go away from these conversations when people start their messages with things like “You are begging the question.” That is argument, not conversation; it is attaching labels with a high potential to irritate.

    I am also not an anti-realist, whatever the hell that label means. I think I am as realistic as anyone, although of course everyone thinks that about themselves.

    What kind of evidence do you need? I think it is fairly obvious that there is no sound basis for making moral judgments of any but the grossest sort, and I have already demonstrated that, seemingly without objection.

    I dare say our reactions of sympathy (“compassion” is perhaps a more accurate word), and so on, are probably independent of choice, but they are not independent of the sort of person we are–both born and nurtured and, as we age, as we make ourselves, and our choices come in at this stage. Besides, choice doesn’t enter into our reactions, but what we then go on to do.

  36. But rational (sincere) argument is the point of philosophy. True, pointed criticism can be irritating, but then getting to the bottom of things is often a challenge.

    Sorry for not being clear in the above comment about realism / anti-realism. In this context, moral anti-realism means: a skeptic, a constructionist / relativist, or a nihilist. You’re an anti-realist about morals, but a realist about everything else.

    I suggested at the end of my post that the issue comes down to whether or not human beings by their nature can “turn off” an instinctive sense of sympathy. If we can, then I’d say you’re right. If we can’t, then I’d say you’re wrong. Granted, it isn’t obvious what empirical tests would be involved in proving or disproving the hypothesis. But for what it’s worth, that’s what it is. You might disagree that this is significant, you might point out that it’s amoral and watered down, and so on, but that’s where I drew the line.

    The next step would be to figure out what that means empirically. We need some ways of verifying or falsifying the above claim. I offered the idea of historical optimism as one entailment that we can verify or falsify. And sure enough, pessimism is probably more plausible, which would make for a better case for moral anti-realism. But there are surely other ways of figuring out what’s going on, i.e., experiments and surveys in moral psychology. So when you say “that there is no sound basis for making moral judgments of any but the grossest sort, and I have already demonstrated that, seemingly without objection”, you may consider this an objection, because I haven’t seen any demonstration.

  37. The colours analogy is interesting. Seeing yellow and claiming you see blue is an error. Seeing “right” when you see “wrong” is also an error. But it is deeply mysterious to claim the two errors are the same type of error.

  38. I find that when people say things like, “You are begging the question,” that such statements are more often propaganda than truth (such statements tend to distract the thread from the issue to whether or not the accusation is true).

    Even when it is true, it is to my taste an ineffective way to proceed, since it irritates and sours the milk.

    It is funny that y6u indirectly accuse me of nihilism; that is just about the last thing I would imagine. My view is that knowledge (by human beings) of right and wrong, except to various levels of approximation (depending, I suppose, on how wise one is) is not possible, and that people who think otherwise about themselves are dangerous. I do not say that right and wrong do not exist.

    As to our having an instinctive sense of compassion (as well as an instinctive sense of propriety and of humor and of beauty and of fairness, etc), I don’t doubt it. However, as with all inherited traits, it is molded by our upbringing and culture, and will be stronger or weaker from one person to another (and, it appears, be completely absent in some–the sociopath).

  39. Andy, true. Although the question is, are they ontologically different kinds of errors? Ultimately that’s what we have to answer.

    Frank, I think a bad way of proceeding would if I were unclear about my expectations. I will do everything in my power to be friendly, engaging, and cooperative — but I won’t pull punches either. Part of having a friendly argument is coming to terms with being challenged under certain conditions. I don’t want to sour the milk, but I don’t want to make it too sweet to digest either. (To stretch a metaphor.)

    On BTQ. Sometimes you’re begging the question only in the sense that you’ve presented a proposal that trivially entails an opposite conclusion to the one under investigation, but not given any independent reasons to support your proposal. However, it’s certainly true that sometimes the phrase is used in less warranted ways, i.e., in order to criticize the effectiveness or cogency of the premises that *really have been* offered. This can be either legitimate or illegitimate, depending on the case, but when it’s illegitimate then yes it’s propaganda. If I’ve made an illegitimate complaint, then it must be because I missed your evidence. In that case this could all be cleaned up if you restated it. Why do you believe that knowledge of definite (non-approximate) right and wrong is impossible? (And doesn’t that entail that we are barred from saying in all sincerity: “‘Genocide is wrong’ is definitely true”? Are we dangerous for saying that?)

    To be clear, I accused you of skepticism. I may have been very wrong about that — you might be more of a constructivist or relativist, depending on how you answer the above questions. The definition of anti-realism (including the possibility of nihilism) was only offered in response to your admission that you did not know what it meant. Now you do!

  40. I am not uninformed about the various terms you use, it is just that I didn’t see the sense of how you were using them, so I assumed you had a special meaning, and I was in effect asking for that.

    I don’t like labels–neither labels identifying a logical error nor labels pigeonholing a person’s views into some ‘-ism.’ In other words, if I think someone has made a mistake, I don’t say, “You made ‘such-and-so’ mistake (usually it has a Latin name but “begging the question” falls into that category). Instead, I say (for “begging the question” error), something like, “It seems to me you have assumed your conclusion in your premises, for the following reason, . . ..”

    In the present case, since I was presenting evidence, not a logical argument, the label seemed to me almost outrageous.

    Now, you ask for me to repeat my reasons for thinking that human beings cannot, except as a more-or-less approximation, be expected to make accurate moral decisions for themselves and the same judgments of others.

    Where do these moral judgments come from? Some people say they come from authority–a divine edict or something along those lines–in my tradition some passage attributed to the Buddha. Do I need to point out the problems with this approach?

    Others try to derive moral principles in a logical way, asserting axioms that are presumed to be universally acceptable–say Kant’s “Never use another sentient being,” or the utilitarian “The greatest good for the greatest number.” Again, the history of these ideas indicates that while they are useful guides, they do not always succeed, and sometimes are seriously problematic.

    Most people rely on their opinions, often called their “conscience,” but this approach is most flawed of all, since we understand that this set of notions is often prejudice of the culture, and would be determined, if genetic, by natural selection, and if not genetic, by our culture and personality–none of this including consideration of what really is right and what really is wrong.

    So I conclude that moral measurement is always only approximate and subject to serious error (nothing is ever completely good or bad–there are only shades), and, as with all human measurement, we can perhaps achieve a high level of precision, but never exactitude.

    As for the danger involved in people arrogantly (I use the word deliberately) assuming that they know right from wrong, just look at all the crusades and wars and pogroms and so on that have been carried out by people who were sure of their moral correctness.

  41. Morality defined as “trying to avoid harning others in what you say and do” doesn’t mean you can’t defend yourself or others. I’m not convinced morality requires the opposite “doing good.”

  42. Can we really say we have a “right” to defend ourselves? Isn’t running away better? How do we come by a right to defend ourselves?

    Obviously the one attacking us has no right to attack us, but that doesn’t somehow magically give us any special right, especially one to attack back.

    If all you mean is warding off blows, then, yes, you do have such a right, but not responding with violence on your own part.

    A glaring exception to this principle hits me in the face–we don’t have a “right,” but we might have a moral responsibility to see to it that such an attacker is restrained and handed over to the law–so as to protect others.

    This would require balancing one evil (using violence) against another evil (allowing the attacker the opportunity to attack others).

    Regarding your other comment, that we don’t have moral responsibilities to help others, how would you describe the necessity, if we should come across a child alone in the desert, to take it to a place of safety?

  43. Frank, sorry about that. I must have seemed quite a bastard. I’ll try to press on the issues that are going on here with a bit more finesse.

    I should say from the start that while I understand your dislike of labels, and sympathize to an extent, I don’t agree and don’t share those convictions. Confession: I *do* like labels! Granted, labels do all sorts of bad things — they reify, they can be used improperly (i.e., for purposes of mere propaganda), and all that stuff. But they also do good things — they are helpful heuristics, they help us to sharply signal our intentions and convictions, and so on. While I can see what you’re saying, I ultimately reserve the right to use the labels, because the alternative demands that I adopt subtle mannerisms that make me too nervous to speak or to think straight.

    You and I are on the same page with respect to divine command sorts of views (although the example of the Buddha is debatable).

    But we’re not on the same page when it comes to the principles of utility and the categorical imperative. The history of these ideas has shown them to be extremely attractive. They are perhaps not necessary or sufficient conditions for morality, but they are entrenched (as are other rules — like the Golden Rule, and the principle of liberty). Moreover, all of these different theories seem to share a syndrome. The history of the debates over these ideas has been lively, in part because each of them have often tried to capture similar intuitions concerning sympathy and resentment. Mill accused Kant of being a utilitarian, for instance.

    You might emphasize that there are salient differences between these doctrines, and you’d be right to do that. But for the purposes of the present post, I have the underlying moral syndrome in mind (if there is one). In that way, even if there appears to be a lot of disagreement on the surface, I’m interested in the underlying tacit agreements. And these underlying agreements might be provide us with stable, definite convictions about what is right and wrong in particular cases; i.e., torturing babies for fun.

  44. May I comment on one part of your message, where you say:

    “But we’re not on the same page when it comes to the principles of utility and the categorical imperative. The history of these ideas has shown them to be extremely attractive. They are perhaps not necessary or sufficient conditions for morality, but they are entrenched (as are other rules — like the Golden Rule, and the principle of liberty).”

    I think we are on the “same page” here too, and am puzzled why you think not. Yes, I was criticizing the overall logical approach, but heaven knows I don’t want anyone to stop following any maxim or principle that in net, when used intelligently, results in more morality in the world.

    I would also say that the main problem with this sort of logical approach is that it seeks certainty–simple rules that allow us to always know what is right. At that they all fail.

    In short, as rules we can use to help us assess moral questions, they should go into our toolbox, but we must not be fooled into thinking that they always work.

  45. @Frank and Benjamin

    I think that a problem I’d have with your discussion is that whilst utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative have certain things to recommend them (they capture certain of our intuitions of what a moral system should look like) they are also woefully incomplete and overlook what might be essential requirements of any ambitious moral project. For example: concepts like shame. I don’t wish to teach anyone to suck eggs but I’m fairly confident that Bernard Williams covered all this. And to Frank a quibble: I don’t think that Kant would agree that an appropriate interpretation is “don’t use sentient creatures”. Sentience is not a moral signifier for Kant; reason is.

  46. Frank,
    alright, perhaps we are on the same page as far as they go. But what I’m hung up on is your claim that we don’t know any definite moral rights and wrongs — that we only know of rights and wrongs approximately. What about “Torturing babies for fun is wrong”? I am very tempted to say that we definitely know this is wrong. I think you may have overgeneralized your critique of rule-based systems to all possible moral claims, and that this may in fact be much too hasty.

    Williams was certainly an important ethicist and meta-ethicist, and he had some valuable insights that we can’t ignore. It’s in part because of him that I remembered to include “ego integrity” in the canon of relevant moral abilities.

    But his critique, and the critiques it inspired, are not very strong. (Sam Sheffler’s critique of consequentialism comes to mind.) Moreover — if I could offer a brash summary verdict — the integrity theorists have provided us with a research agenda that is split between being useful (when narrow) and indistinct (when broadened).

    In the class of “indistinctly broad”, we might mention the literature on internal v. external reasons, which (if I recall correctly) has been watered down into a near-meaningless pedantic argument. It also doesn’t touch on the moral realism thesis that I’ve been pushing, since you might concede that all reasons are internal reasons (assuming that means anything!) while also claiming that such reasons are independent of the will.

  47. Benjamin

    You might have a point in that it seems to me that the easiest way of characterising Williams is in terms of a negative: he pointed out that utilaitarians and Kantians had no answer to the question of why we should see what is morally right and feeling therefore to act in a morally appropriate way.

    But if you look at a book like “Shame and Necessity” it seems to me that he offers a mature attempt to reconstruct something like an account of moral character. I don’t buy that reconstruction myself because I’ve never shared the classicist interests that were his (I didn’t attend Balliol). But he’s doing something interesting,and what he’s doing quite undermines the orthodoxies of utilitarianism and Kantianism.

    Or so it seems to me.

  48. It seems to me that all the strategies, methods, and rules philosophers have devised over the centuries to help people be moral are just codifications of the harm principle. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, each one has limitations.

    We have unlimited rights, including the right to defend oneself and our loved ones. We agree to limit our rights so that we can live in a society with minimum conflict.

    Leaving a child in the desert, presumably to die, is certainly doing harm. So morality would say to help the child to avoid the harm. This is different from trying to do good, which would require searching for situations in which good can be offered, such as volunteering in a soup kitchen.

  49. Andy, I can’t say anything about Shame and Necessity, since I don’t know anything about it and haven’t read it. :)

    However, I can say that I find it very strange to claim that either Kantians or utilitarians had no account of effective moral motivations.

    For Mill, this was (using my words) a matter of the gradual enlargement of compassion, due to increases in both intentional empathy and sympathy. Ostensibly, these features both motivate moral actions and provide a foundation for the principle of utility. (I’ll have to check back to see if he says anything about resentment as well; it would be peculiar if he didn’t, but I don’t remember at the moment. I recall having the impression that he thought negative feelings like envy were significant, as opposed to Rawls, who didn’t.) If Mill is wrong, and Williams is right, it’s because Mill was overly optimistic about the sympathies of humankind — not because Mill missed some deep features of the human condition.

    For Kant, the motivation for moral action was eleutheronomy (my blog name!), which meant “the inner tribunal”. But the inner tribunal was not the cold desert of reason. Kant explicitly said that the inner tribunal involves happiness or satisfaction — but demanded that the satisfaction occur after the proper action has occurred and not before it. (Eleutheronomy is unlike the eudaimonism of Mill et al., for whom happiness could precede the action; with characteristic wit, Kant criticizes eudaimonia as “the euthanasia of morality”.) But for all that, the inclination towards eventual satisfaction is surely not in question. On my interpretation, Kant is essentially saying that smug self-satisfaction with respect to deeds that are yet undone is not especially moral. It’s true that he tells us that virtue necessarily presupposes apathy, and hence he might seem to have a strange account of moral motivation. But by apathy in deliberation, he means something like tranquility or equanimity combined with willful respect for the law, which is not the same as indifference. In this way, Kant had a sophisticated account of effective moral psychology and action. If he had been an advocate of indifference, it seems to me that then and only then would it be appropriate to say that he lacked an effective moral psychology.

    But as I said, I’m coming from a point of view that is unimpressed by the “internal v external reasons” literature.

  50. To me moral realism is connected with harm done or avoided.

  51. Torturing babies for fun is wrong, and we know this with a level of certainty similar to “The sun will come up tomorrow.” In neither case, however, can be be sure that it is always the case, under every possible set of circumstances.

    Most ethical issues are of that sort–not difficult for the normal human being to sort out–but some fool us, mainly when other beliefs (ideologies or religions or cultural traditions) are involved. Hence we must be cautious when we take strong actions to enforce our moral beliefs.

    For example, before the nineteenth century, few people saw any moral problem with slavery, although today the problem is obvious.

    Your point about Kant and “rational being” rather than “sentient being” is well taken. I have not read Kant directly, and must say that most of what I have read of him comes from Buddhist sources. Buddhists sometimes use “sentient” and “reasoning” almost as synonyms, and prefer “sentient” because it can include many animals whereas they are aware that to many the word “reasoning” does not.

    Kant, however, was a Christian and the objective of his work seems to have been to build a logical apology for Christian ethical rules. Christians exclude animals from the notion of being able to reason–something strange to many Asians, since animals can be observed to be behaving in ways that seem to indicate reasoning processes at work.

    Most Westerners, even scientists, do not seem to have escaped the Cristian belief that animals are mechanisms (Descartes) rather than living beings. It comes from the Adam and Eve myth, and flies in the face of the fact that the ability to reason had to have evolved just like all other things living things do, and so would be expected to be present in animals.

    It did not appear as a special creation just for people.

  52. Frank, it might not be a categorical imperative, because there’s probably no such thing. But if we know it just as well as we know the future, then we’re on pretty solid ground. If we’re realists about the world in general, then we get to be realists about morality too.

    I’m satisfied to say that we have definite knowledge in both senses. Though there’s a performative aspect to my saying that — I’m also daring people to motivate a substantial case by forcing me to imagine some non-gratuitous circumstances that are consistent with the evidence.

    The rest of your comments were directed at Andy. :)

  53. Your point is correct: I only point out that many ethical questions are not so easy.

  54. Alright, I think we have an understanding. But there’s a huge gap between fallibilism and skepticism, and your phrasing is decidedly in the latter category, which is what I’ve been rejecting. You said “that knowledge (by human beings) of right and wrong, except to various levels of approximation… is not possible, and that people who think otherwise about themselves are dangerous.” I deny that this knowledge is impossible, just as I deny that knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow is impossible. We can have high confidence that some ethical claims are definitely true — i.e., that whatever cases of “torturing babies for fun” arise, they will be cases of wrongdoing (for humans). Even if fun baby torture was unavoidable, even if it led to extremely good consequences, it would be wrong (since in a no-win scenario, we’re often faced with the choice between doing wrong and doing another wrong).

  55. Benjamin: Williams wrote the book as a specific refutation of the idea that there could be universalisable features of moral judgment that were also motives to action. And he invokes a specific set of refutations aboout classical interpretations of tragedy to make this point. In other words: he addresses the points made in this thread. So it seems to me that a nod and wink dismissal along the grounds “Nothing to see here….never read him” is not quite good enough.

  56. And they might be very good arguments indeed. But I haven’t read them, just as a matter of autobiographical fact, so it would be wrong to attempt to comment. I have no immediate access to the book, since it’s evidently been taken out of my school library. And no arguments have been raised here to give me a sample of what I’m up against, so it would be baseless for me to concede any ground, because I wouldn’t know why I’d be doing it.

    No doubt it’s one more book to add to the pile (always, always too many books). But I need to know a little more about what is being argued in order for me to get the sense that I’m committing an intellectual misdemeanor.

  57. Benjamin: I hope you think that I was making a slightly deeper point than that. I’m not basing an objection on the fact that you might or might not have read a book. My point is that the argument so far adumbrated makes no mention of the points made in that book.

  58. Of course, and this may be entirely right. But it would be far more useful to make use of those arguments instead of just mentioning them.

  59. Or, indeed, disregarding them.

  60. It’s hard not to disregard things you have no access to! But you can buy me a copy of the book if you like, that would clear things up quite nicely. Or, better yet, briefly argue on their behalf.

  61. I guess I do the same think myself: assume there is something called a Western philosophical canon and set myself up as a consequent expert in it because I was paid to teach it. But there is no arrow of truth whose trajectory Plato, Hegel, Kant, Wittgenstein etc plucked out and gave expression to. Even those like Rorty who deny this had to be defensive. If you go out and throw into the air those formative experiences: the books you read, the films you saw, that bit in Laurel and Hardy etc….why do you think any of that is less descriptive of an arrow of philosophy than the fact that Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty and Leotard are now disregarded?

  62. And you end up with the ludicrous position we have in Western philosophy now whereby it is assumed that if you can teach the subject you must be original in it. And if you are original in it you must be good at teaching it. You might as well argue that to be a good car salesman you must be a good mechanic.

  63. Morality is about avoiding harm to others. It’s not about some magic theory cobbled together that we hope will cover every eventuality. Thousands of years of philosophy have taught us that there is no universal moral theory that will work for every situation. But the harm principle comes mighty close!

  64. If morals were real… “We would know right and wrong by our instincts.”

    Funny, but I don’t think one would normally “get” general relativity through “instinct”.

    For all of the intellectuality atheists profess, and given their affinity for empiral evidence, one would think that they would realize that good morals do actually work toward a successful society, and that societies that discard morality fall by the wayside.

    Rome wasn’t sacked because of the strength of the opposing armies, it was sacked because it rotted from within.

    So, whether or not we understand every single intricacy of morality, the empirical fact remains that it works. In fact, I’d say there’s more empirical evidence of this than there is for evolution.

  65. Justin, sure — but then again, general relativity isn’t primarily about us and what we believe is right, so we wouldn’t expect those instincts to make much of a difference.

    In theory, I agree about the relation of morals to social consequences. So I wrote: “I have assumed that the thing that motivates the debate between realism and anti-realism is the sense that justice is inevitable. The idea is that the demands of morality will eventually be recognized for what they are (by people in similar circumstances), and then be applied prospectively. The gambit of the moral realist is that there are some stable features of the human conscience that can be expected to persevere, and eventually, to triumph — at least, so long as all other things are equal.”

    I doubt very much that there is any evidence that morality works, in the relevant sense. I simply do not know whether or not a society tends to become more moral in periods of technological stagnation; I’m not even sure there is any literature that addresses this as a question to be answered. And so I would gladly contrast this with evolutionary theory, since it has been so thoroughly documented that it easily trumps idle skepticism.

    Rome was sacked for lots of reasons. Like all sociological questions, it’s a product of multiple complex causes. It is sheer reductionism to say that moral disintegration was the cause while the others weren’t, so I don’t agree.