by Daniel A. Kaufman
The main moral conviction of the plain man seem to me to be, not opinions which it is for philosophy to prove or disprove, but knowledge from the start.
–W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good
I want to say a few things about morality and intuition and the relationship between the two. One of them is that some variety of what is commonly called “moral intuitionism” must be true … or at least, it must be true, if there really are such things as moral obligations and duties, something about which I remain unsure. But if there are – and if theorizing about them is possible – then our moral intuitions – the feelings of obligation and duty that we experience over the course of our daily lives – ultimately provide the measure against which the accounts we give must hold up. In this sense, they play a role, relative to our moral theories, that is analogous to that played by observations, in the context of scientific theorizing. Just as a scientific theory – say, a theory of motion – must stand or fall on how well it accounts for what is observed, so a moral theory must stand or fall on how well it accounts for our feelings of obligation and duty.
A few points, before continuing on this line of thought:
- It is irrelevant to the role I am assigning moral intuitions that we may be wrong about a felt obligation or duty, in the sense that it might turn out that we are not actually obligated to do something for which we previously felt obligated. (Analogously, it is irrelevant to the role played by observations in science that we sometimes misperceive things.) That an obligation is felt simply means that it is a prima facie duty (to employ a Rossian phrase), but whether it is an actual duty will depend on a full consideration of the circumstances and whether or not other prima facie duties arise that may be overriding, a process that is, of course, fallible.
- There need be no faculty of intuition and one need assign no enigmatic qualities to intuitions to speak of them, in the manner that I am. There is nothing mysterious about feeling obligated to do or not to do such and such, and feeling that way requires no mental apparatus above and beyond that which we already recognize.
- What is distinctive about moral intuitions is that they are unmediated by any process of theorizing or inference. As H.A. Prichard described it, “[t]he sense of obligation to do, or of the rightness of, an action of a particular kind is absolutely underivative or immediate.” This is not to deny that some process of non-moral thinking or acquisition of non-moral knowledge may engender a sense of obligation in a person – learning of American hyper-incarceration of its citizens, for example, may arouse a feeling of obligation on my part to engage in certain sorts of political activity – but is simply to say that the sense of obligation that arises is not the result of inferring it from the knowledge acquired, as traditional moral theories suggest.
- That moral intuitions provide the ultimate measure against which the adequacy of a moral theory is determined is but a specific instance of a more general truth, namely that all theoretical inquiry ultimately is arbitrated against a background of intuition, common sense, and ordinary language and experience. (Even logic looks to intuitions for its basic conditions of adequacy, as there can be no proofs for the logical axioms – no justification beyond their intuitive plausibility.)
Though purely theoretical concerns may cause us to reject a moral theory, it is much more commonly the result of a clash between the theory and our moral intuitions, and it is never the case that a moral theory passes muster, solely on the basis of theoretical considerations.
We may reject Kant’s brand of deontology, for example, because his view that moral duties are indefeasible and outcomes morally irrelevant yields perverse results, such as requiring us to tell the truth, even if doing so yields no benefit and harms an innocent person. We may reject consequentialist moral theories in part, because they deny the moral significance of intentions, which yields counterintuitive results, such as treating cynical, selfish actions as morally equivalent to selfless, altruistic ones, so long as they produce the same outcome.
To the extent that we are inclined to accept moral theories – either in whole or in part – it is because they provide a satisfactory reconstruction of our moral intuitions. It is because Utilitarianism can make sense of the intuition that moral rightness and wrongness admit of degrees, for example, that makes it preferable on this front to Kantian deontology, which cannot. It is because Ross’s moral philosophy provides a framework in which to understand our intuition that there is value in our relationships with others, beyond that of benefactor to beneficiary, that his theory is preferable, on this front, to Utilitarianism.
It can only be with a mixture of puzzlement and amusement, then, that we read the following from Peter Singer, in an article devoted to denying that moral intuitions play a legitimate role in ethical practice. He has just finished describing a study by Joshua Greene, the purpose of which is to explain why we react in disparate ways to Trolley-style cases – why we are willing to pull a switch to divert a train, so that it will kill one person, rather than five, for example, but are unwilling to shove a man in front of a train, to prevent five from dying – when he says the following:
Greene’s work helps us understand where our moral intuitions come from. But the fact that our moral intuitions are universal and part of our human nature does not mean that they are right. On the contrary, these findings should make us more skeptical about relying on our intuitions.
There is, after all, no ethical significance in the fact that one method of harming others has existed for most of our evolutionary history, and the other is relatively new. Blowing up people with bombs is no better than clubbing them to death. And surely the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five, no matter how that death is brought about. So we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions.
Notice how much of the work ‘surely’ is doing here. Singer’s blanket assertion that the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five could be a naked appeal to our intuitions – it certainly looks like one – but in his case, it is almost certainly a product of his Utilitarianism. The trouble, of course, is that the adequacy of Singer’s Utilitarianism itself is a matter of how good of a rational reconstruction the theory offers of our already existing moral intuitions. Far from “not listening” to our intuitions, then, Singer’s statement is an exercise in appealing to them – whether directly or indirectly.
It is quite understandable that Singer would like to banish intuitions from respectable ethical thinking and discourse, as it would seem to be his mission to convince us of any number of very counterintuitive things – that infanticide is morally acceptable and even obligatory, in some cases; that every family barbecue or fishing trip with grandpa is a moral catastrophe; that sex with dogs, pigs, or cows is perfectly ethical, so long as it consists of “mutually satisfying activities” – as part of what look like an effort to effect a kind of wholesale moral revisionism. Singer’s brand of Utilitarianism is what provides the sanction for radical judgments like these, but it is precisely such results that most of us will deem perverse and which will thereby render Utilitarianism unacceptable to us as a moral theory.
Certainly, moral attitudes and intuitions change, given that we change, as people, so we should expect that what seems plausible to us, moral theory-wise, may also change. But moral theories do not and cannot change our moral attitudes and intuitions on their own. For one thing, such changes are not simply a matter of our switching beliefs, but of our changing as people, and our engagement with moral theories is at too intellectual a level for them to have such an effect, and for another, as already indicated, moral theories cannot confirm themselves, but must appeal to our moral attitudes and intuitions, if they are to get off the ground.
Works Mentioned in Order of Appearance
W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).
H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Mind, Vol. 21 (1912).
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739).
Peter Singer, “Should We Trust Our Moral Intuitions?” Project Syndicate (2007).
Peter Singer, “Heavy Petting,” Nerve (2001). http://tinyurl.com/dxp2tqe
49 responses to “Intuition and Morals”
This is a great essay.
“ our moral intuitions – the feelings of obligation and duty that we experience over the course of our daily lives – ultimately provide the measure against which the accounts we give must hold up. In this sense, they play a role, relative to our moral theories, that is analogous to that played by observations, in the context of scientific theorizing.”
Indeed, our moral intuitions are the grounding of our moral theories. Some of us call it our conscience.
Pope Paul VI put it this way (Gaudium et Spes -16, http://bit.ly/WyDi4S) :
“16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.(9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
Atheists will delete the word ‘God’ and replace ‘conscience’ with ‘moral intuition’ but we can still agree on the meaning, if not the source.
The voice of our conscience may become deadened or muffled by circumstances and it is this that opens space for the selfish calculus of utilitarianism.
It all seems like good sense to me. This must be a good point about moral intuitions being pre-theoretical and needing to be explained (rather than explained away) by our theories. Schopenhauer explains altruism as the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth and (if so) this would explain the origin of the relevant intuition and give us a theory of intuition that would be prior to any specific theory of morality. I’d want to go down this path and happen to believe it is the road to the solution. At any rate Singer’s idea of banishing intuition seems misguided and counterproductive just as you suggest.
Nice essay. The W.D Ross book sounds like something I ought to read. I agree that Singer’s Utilitarianism is simply appealing to our existing moral intuitions. If we are to distrust our intuitions we should distrust them all and start with a clean slate.
Labnut, a few things.
1. I am certainly no fan of Utilitarianism, but your characterization of it seems unfair. Utilitarianism demands of us a concern for the general welfare. I don’t see how that’s “selfish,” under any description. Utilitarians are not Egoists.
2. I don’t see how circumstances can play the pernicious role you seem to assign them. It’s the circumstances that tell me what a particular situation demands. If I am on my way to meet you for a lunch date, and I pass a bleeding person lying in the street, it’s precisely those circumstances that tell me that my obligation to keep my promise to meet you for lunch is overridden by my duty to save a person’s life, if I can.
Yes, The Right and the Good is one of the best works in moral philosophy of the last century. It is also short and very readable.
I don’t see how we could chuck all of our intuitions and start with a clean slate. Even the principles of logic depend for their confirmation on intuitions, so if we were to chuck them *all*, we wouldn’t be able to make inferences.
Very nice essay!
I agree that agree that our reasoning process ( or if you prefer to say ‘our theories’) is never pure or free of the influence of our what we call our intuition. I think you have clearly pointed out the problem that pops up when we claim to be operating on some feeling and emotion free utility based logic. In the end there is always an appeal to some intuition.
Mark Johnson has an interesting & relatively new book out that speaks to the relationship between morality, intuition & rationality. He doesn’t think we can separate intuition from the reasoning process as he sees the the faster, mostly unconscious, bodily feelings driven intuition process as inextricable from the slower deliberative reasoning process. He also denies a moral faculty that is separate from a more basic problem solving capacity.
I think one of his key insights is that our default use of rationality is to blindly rationalize when a contradiction appears, resulting in an after the fact confirming our prior intuitions without expanding our perspective. He argues however for a conscientious and imaginative application of our reasoning process that can broaden our prior perspectives leading to a more intelligent intuitive response going forward. I am just a layman, but I really like his approach.
I’m going to check out the Ross book, Thanks.
sethleon: I agree pretty much with everything you’ve written here. I’d like to check out the Johnson book. Do you have a title?
Here is a link to book I mentioned:
Morality for Humans
Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science
I haven’t finished the book yet, but don’t let the title scare you away. He bring in arguments from cognitive science but I don’t think he falls into scientism.
Hi Dan, I don’t have anything to add as I agree with basically everything you wrote. Nice read. I will also check out the Ross book. While I have not read the Johnson book that Sethleon recommended, it sounds like the model of moral cognition emerging from work in neuro/cognitive science. It is something I wanted to touch on in an essay at some point.
The only thing I’d correct regarding Seth’s description (though it may be Johnson’s) is that reasoning does not lead to a more “intelligent” intuitive response, just a more “experienced” intuitive response. It can be adjusting to social pressures to fit in, as much as to the world at large. There is no guarantee that the resulting intuition is the smarter or better thing to do.
The use of the term ‘intelligent’ was my phrasing not Johnson’s. Having said that I do believe that Johnson thinks we can apply normative terms to the conscientious, imaginative, deliberative reasoning process he argues for. If I am reading him correctly I believe he argues that the more encompassing perspectives that emerge from this process are progressive in the sense that as an organism situated in a complex environment (physical,social & cultural) we can build an improved capacity to understand & respond to that complex whole better anticipating the short and long range consequences of our actions. This again is my interpretation and phrasing.
Can’t one just see duties and obligations (and rights) as arising from certain kinds of social interaction? Our intuitions sometimes differ on what a certain person’s obligations might be in a certain situation. Different people have different expectations and values and prioritize their values differently. But it will usually come back to what sort of world we prefer to live in. (By the way, this point appears to tie in with one of the key themes – imagining – of Mark Johnson’s new(ish) book (which I have not yet read).)
I agree that Singer is a disaster in various respects: his general approach to ethics (too big a topic to broach here, but Dan touches on some salient points); and especially his expanding circle idea. I think Singer has done immeasurable harm by encouraging people to indulge their natural intuitions regarding how animals feel and think (animals as reflections of ourselves, but ‘innocent’), effectively and perversely making concerns about non-human issues a marker of one’s moral standing. But again this is too big an issue to go into here.
The philosophical division on morality comes down to foundationalists vs. pragmatists. Foundationalists include those who posit morality comes from one of three basic sources: divine (God-given); biological (science-given); rational (logic-given). Pragmatists (anti-foundationalists) reject all three of these and say our moral code has no “foundational basis”, but is code developed and selected by us based on a variety of influences and measures.
“Atheists will delete the word ‘God’ and replace ‘conscience’ with ‘moral intuition’ but we can still agree on the meaning, if not the source.”
Yes! But I’d go a step further, beyond the vagueness of ‘moral intuition’.
For your quotation we could also replace ‘God’ with ‘metaphysical truth’. On this view we would intuit what is true but have forgotten, as per Socrates and Schopenhauer. Then our conscience can be explained as a response to what is the case regarding the world and our nature as human beings. This approach allows for some metaphysical analysis rather than just a reference to something inexplicable called our ‘conscience’. It’s an option.
This essay was particularly informative for me, a person who did reject the explanatory merits of morality as a teenager. (With my quite moral upbringing, I decided that my loving but sheltered parents had unknowingly tied one arm behind my back, and then thrown me out into a cruel world.) Since morality had failed to answer my deepest questions, and since the philosophy community of the ’90s was highly focused upon morality (as it is today), I decided that I would need figure things out for myself.
I will now propose “…a moral theory [that] must stand or fall on how well it accounts for our feelings of obligation and duty.” The heart of my explanation consists of “empathy,” which I define as a means through which perceptions of another’s qualia, evoke corresponding qualia in a subject. Thus seeing a bleeding person on the street does tend to feel bad, and continuing on without helping could feel even worse. Furthermore a good bit of associated “duty” should come from social expectations rather than empathy alone. Regardless, together these dynamics seem to addresses Daniel’s various provided conditions reasonably well, and I do look forward to associated questions and comments.
I think I agree with labnut that utilitarianism does happen to be a selfish rather than moral ideology. Notice that even our empathy, which is motivated by qualia, illustrates selfishness. But should we then simply fight our selfishness, as he suggests, or rather try to understand what evolution (or a god) created? In my opinion, the latter will be most effective.
Recently Massimo Pigliucci wisely observed that I do not consider things from the standard “moral” perspective, but rather from an “instrumental” one. (https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/food-for-thought/comment-page-1/#comment-99). I do suspect that with such a perspective, the philosophy community could finally gain the use of its “other arm,” just as I was able to as a teenager.
“a disaster…especially his expanding circle idea”. Funny, I always thought of that as a simple description of broad social trends, and an old analogy. Arthur C Clarke’s novel “The Deep Range” has the twist [Spoiler ahead] is that farming whales for meat (to feed an overpopulated earth) is eventually decided to be not a nice thing. He mentions in a postscript that the idea was already disliked by almost all his readers. Based “just” on intuition.
Philosopher Eric wrote:
I think I agree with labnut that utilitarianism does happen to be a selfish rather than moral ideology. Notice that even our empathy, which is motivated by qualia, illustrates selfishness.
Utilitarianism is not grounded in empathy. The principle of utility is derived from the view that happiness is the intrinsic good.
The Utilitarian is obligated to maximize the general welfare. I’m afraid there is just no plausible way to construe this as selfishness.
Good essay. Again reminded of a Chinese philosopher who was asked what he thought the dominant philosophy of China really might be. He said the question misunderstood the situation; ‘we Chinese are Buddhists in the morning, Confucians at work, Taoists when we come home to our families’ (or to that effect).
What I’ve come to suspect, over this past year, is that real ethics, as lived, is a complex of motivations – personal, social, emotional, intellectual – and that attempts to reduce this complex to a single motivation, or to a single ‘proper motivator,’ largely miss what people do in actual practice. There is really no reason that doubt when people say of a given behavior that ‘it just doesn’t feel right,’ nor any reason to doubt when they assert a deontological or morally realist claim that ‘such really ought to be done.’ In any given situation, addressing a given behavior, they may mean exactly what they say, no matter how it seemingly conflicts with, or contradicts, something they’ve said in a different situation regarding similar behaviors. (This suggests that psychological or neuropsych studies into ethical motivations and choices will never quite come together with a predictive composite explanation of how people respond ethically.)
Given the great varieties of human behavior, totalistic moralities have to come up with explanations and excuses for perceived ‘aberrant’ behavior. We see this in the history of sectarian conflict in various religions – a push-pull between desires for stricter or looser rigidity in interpretation. But of course there are non-theistic totalistic moralities with similar histories.
If only one moral motivator were truly preferable or realizable, we’d all be in agreement by now.
In a society governed by law, conflicting explanations are useful in politics, agencies and courts as argument, but ultimately the laws themselves are determined by perceived social necessity – that is, the needs of the state itself. But that’s a different discussion.
(BTW, Singer’s comments on bestiality read embarrassingly like parody written by a poorly informed non-philosopher. Leg-humping is recognizably dominance behavior – he doesn’t know this? Really lowers my respect for his opinions.)
I sympathise with your reasoning and approach but would want to give the final theory a much more solid foundation.
“I will now propose “…a moral theory [that] must stand or fall on how well it accounts for our feelings of obligation and duty.” The heart of my explanation consists of “empathy,” which I define as a means through which perceptions of another’s qualia, evoke corresponding qualia in a subject..”
I feel that altruism is what must be explained. This would be a simplification of the problem, since obligation and duty are a bit of a muddle of altruism, peer-pressure, tradition, the law, social factors, self-perception and other things. Altruism is more straightforward and it seems to be the key ingredients in obligation and duty that would need explaining, their essential motivation.
The ethical scheme of Buddhism is painfully simple and deals with this issue. Our feelings of empathy would arise from a deeper level of our psyche than that of qualia, from a metaphysical level, the level of Reality itself, for at this level that we would be identical, not separate individuals.
In this situation selfishness and altruism would coincide. Where this identity relationship is known to be a fact, is lived as a fact, as it would be for the sufficiently skilled practitioner, then doing someone else a favour would be doing yourself a favour. Where it is not known but forgotten, buried under a myriad of qualia, then we would feel this same equivalence of favours at some level and to varying extents, but would have to put it down to a strange and inexplicable intuition, one that causes a lot of trouble in evolutionary biology.
In this way the idea that altruism is a breakthrough of an underlying metaphysical truth may be the very idea that you would need to put your empathy-based ethical scheme on a sound metaphysical foundation. It would allow you the extend the explanation deeper than qualia and right down into the nature of reality, and thus to connect it up with ontology, even to derive it from ontology. Then it becomes part of a general theory and can justifiably call itself a theory rather than a conjecture.
I wouldn’t expect you to simply go along with this but I wanted to connect up your thinking with Buddhist philosophy, with which it would be consistent, and which really is pretty good at explaining these things.
Given that the discussion has been on moral intuitions rather than intuition generally, I don’t see why not.
I wouldn’t personally recommend doing so, but if we are to abandon the intuition that infanticide is something we ought not to do, then I don’t see why we should keep the intuition that homicide or causing suffering is something we ought not to do.
It seems to me that I should not knock someone on the head and steal their money, but why not? What if they had quite a lot of money and I knew that I could get away with it – even in the long run? After all money is pretty tight. If I could just push aside those pesky feelings of compassion, empathy, guilt and so on then there would be no problem.
Why do people spend lots of time looking for a moral framework without asking the question – why do we need a moral framework in the first place? Why do we treat empathy, compassion and pity as things which need to be obeyed, whereas we regard things like the desire for sweet food, fear of heights and being things that we can push aside if we want to?
I heard Peter Singer being asked why we need morality and his answer was “Because we want people to think well of us after we are dead”. In other words he had not given this any thought at all. Why on earth would I want people to think well of me when I am dead? I am not going to be in any state to care about what people think of me then.
Being able to answer the question of why we need a moral framework in the first place would seem to be an important factor in deciding what the nature of a moral framework should be.
davidlduffy: ‘ “a disaster…especially his expanding circle idea”. Funny, I always thought of that as a simple description of broad social trends, and an old analogy…’
Yes, okay… Singer’s use of the concept then. My point is that we tend to have misleading intuitions about animals* and that Singer’s supposedly rational approach both encourages and exploits such intuitions.
* I base this claim on some knowledge I have of how hunter-gatherers typically attribute human-like knowledge to the animals they are dealing with. I have also encountered many non-hunter-gatherers (like friends and relatives) who seem to have similar views. (This is admittedly an extreme case… Next door neighbour to her child who was making disparaging remarks about their pet parrot: “Don’t talk like that, darling. He understands every word you’re saying.”)
Great essay Dan! Thanks a lot for this. Interestingly, I think the paper you cited by Singer was one which was accepted for publication literally *the day after* it was submitted. If that doesn’t look like an acceptance-bias based on reputation, I don’t know what would.
Anyway, I wanted to bring up one concern and perhaps engage in a small dialogue with you about this.
So my thought was this: you claim that we assess moral theories primarily based on our moral intuitions, I.e whether or not our moral theory accords with our intuitions in various cases.
However, I was thinking that we also assess theories based on one other feature. Specifically, the theory’s ability to tell us what to do when our intuitions conflict. Frequently we find ourselves with conflicting intuitions about some case, where we have a moral intuition suggesting we perform one action, and another moral intuition suggesting we perform some other incompatible action (meaning we can’t perform both actions, we must choose one).
Now, on your view, a moral theory would be preferred if it predicted that we would have conflicting intuitions in a case. In other words, if a moral theory held that we should have conflicting intuitions in these types of cases, it would be preferred. After all, if our intuitions are the “data” or “observations” which we seek to explain, then a moral theory, by your account, should simply explain or predict that we would have conflicting intuitions in these cases.
However, don’t we want a moral theory not to simply predict that. or explain why,we would have conflicting intuitions in problematic cases, but to *tell us what to do* in these problematic cases?
in other words perhaps there are at least two equally important ways we evaluate moral theories. One is on their ability to accord with our intuitions. But the other is, in cases where intuitions conflict, to give us an answer on what we ought to do when our intuitions won’t give us a good answer. In other words, sometimes we want a moral theory to go *beyond* our intuitions and tell us what to do when our intuitions conflict and can’t settle which action I ought to take in some case.
Mark, check your email. I sent you something.
Daniel given your extensive duties here, you must have read and responded to my first comment hastily — I certainly did NOT suggest that utilitarianism was founded upon empathy, but exactly the opposite. Then apparently my friend Peter J took your presumption to wonder why I don’t thus go “full Monty” as a Buddhist, and decide that we’re ultimately all the same. Labnut is the only person I can confidently think understands my “utilitarianism can be incredibly immoral” position, since he does share it, though no one opposes me more strongly than he does (given that I do accept it anyway). Robin Herbert contributed something that I think should generally haunt the field:
Dantip, I may run some scenarios later regarding your questions versus my answers. With the confusion associated with my first comment, however, I’ll now expound up to my 350 daily word limit…
1). As far as my moral upbringing goes, imagine crying your way home to your mother for support given that the big kids had been mean to you. But instead of being given a tangible source of hope, imagine being told “Now that you know how bad this feels, you can make sure not to act like those kids when you’re older.” It’s not surprising that my naive hippy parents were unable to provide me with sensible answers, but observe that the science and philosophy communities haven’t as well! Nevertheless I did manage to win the use of my “second arm,” as well as a life’s passion.
2). Next I illustrated morality as a circumstance which exists through our empathy and social sensitivity, and believe that this theory does address each of Daniel’s stated conditions. Regardless, who believes they could be robbed of those traits, and still have any sense of morality? Thus I consider these features to actually BE morality.
Perhaps 3) and 4) later…
“Again reminded of a Chinese philosopher who was asked what he thought the dominant philosophy of China really might be. He said the question misunderstood the situation; ‘we Chinese are Buddhists in the morning, Confucians at work, Taoists when we come home to our families’ (or to that effect). ”
This may be because all three share the same essential basis. I know a few people find the slightly different emphases and approaches of Buddhism and Taoism useful in different situations but it’s the same approach and philosophical scheme underneath, and Confucianism may be explained as the social realisation of Taoist philosophy. I say this to combat the idea that Chinese philosophy is post-modernism when it can be seen to normalise on nonduality.
“… totalistic moralities have to come up with explanations and excuses for perceived ‘aberrant’ behavior.”
Agreed. If they do not, then they would either fail or not be totalistic.
DanT – I think you’re too quick to claim the Singer citation as “accepted for publication literally *the day after* [submission]”, given that it is an opinion piece on a site advertising as “the world’s opinion page”.
His “surely” follows from “a moral judgment about ‘personal’ violations, like pushing the stranger off the footbridge, showed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with the emotions. This [i]s not the case with people asked to make judgments about relatively ‘impersonal’ violations like throwing a switch…”, again a comment that has been made repeatedly since the advent of mechanized warfare
More generally, I am bemused by the bile that anything by Singer attracts. He’s just as consistent as Kant answering the door to a murderer, Socrates hanging around for his trial, Bentham arguing against the death sentence for homosexuality, the bizarre doctrine of double effect held up by so many people, or Roman Catholic hospitals refusing termination of life-threatening pregnancy. He merely suggests tithing – but not to support a church, and vegetarianism and avoiding harm to animals – practices presumably intuitively pleasing to 400 million Indians at least, but all we hear are complaints that he makes barbecues and watching football feel sinful. At least he doesn’t tell you you are all going to hell, merely that posterity might look back on you as a waster of opportunities to do good.
His discussion of “marginal” cases attempts to explore the space where moral intuitions do clash. The comments on bestiality were in a book review not a philosophy journal – we have to look to Neil Levy, for example, to see a more formal discussion
Yes the linked piece from Dan-K is an opinion piece by Singer, but it is (I think) adapted from Singer’s technical paper published in 2005 which was received on january 25th and accepted on january 26th. Take a look here: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200510–.pdf
This is a bit off topic, but I have to question what PeterJ says here:
‘Confucianism may be explained as the social realisation of Taoist philosophy’
I don’t see how one can make this argument given that Conficianism predated Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, and especially given that the philosophical Taoism ascribed to those two sources sprang up largely in response to the ridged rule based nature of Confucianism.
Why is it, I wonder, that any disagreement with the views of people like Singer, is always referred to as ‘bile’? I can’t see that there has been anything that could reasonably be termed ‘bile’ directed at him.
Hi DanT, I think a moral theory will still be judged based on how one feels (intuitively) about its decision between two competing intuitions.
This might occur in the moment, analogized to flipping a coin to decide between two things one felt were of equal value only to find as the coin is spinning you are rooting for one to win. It could also occur afterward, when one sees how the results affect your life and those of others, perhaps revealing that one intuition would have led to a result you feel would be more “you”, or that many more intuitions should have been considered.
Thus a theory being used to decide between competing intuitions would not avoid the problem DanK presented.
Frankly I find attempts to build normative ethical theories to miss the point of what we are doing in each moment where we are faced with an ethical choice, or dilemma (say between two competing intuitions): discovering who we are. And in looking over the results, making choices to build an identity that we want, from what is available to us.
To me, off the rack, one size fits all moral systems always turn out ill-fitting and ugly.
I was responding to this:
“I think I agree with labnut that utilitarianism does happen to be a selfish rather than moral ideology. Notice that even our empathy, which is motivated by qualia, illustrates selfishness.”
There is no conflict between prima facie duties. There are circumstances in which, however, one duty may be overridden by another. Notice, however, that the overridden remains a duty and leaves “traces” in our behavior. If I have promised to meet you for lunch and on the way to make our date, I pass a person bleeding in the street, my duty to keep my promise to you may be overridden by my duty to help save a person from dying, but this doesn’t render my promise to you a non-duty, and it is one that continues to operate, in the background, which is why I try to make it up to you for standing you up. I may offer to pay for the meal the next time we meet, for example, and certainly, I will apologize.
Now, you may ask, “but how do we know whether or not the circumstances demand that one duty override another.” My answer is that you don’t. That such deliberations are certainly fallible. And that is is folly to think that a moral theory can provide some sort of mechanical way of assuring a correct answer.
Davidlduffy wrote: ” I am bemused by the bile that anything by Singer attracts.”
Singer brings it on himself. He is obnoxious in his moralizing — see “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” — and an utter hypocrite with respect to practicing what he preaches — consider the enormous sums of money he spent on his own mother’s Alzheimer’s care.
The only person who has had a more odious effect on ethics that I can think of is Peter Unger, whose “Living High and Letting Die” is even more arrogant, self-righteous, and obnoxious than Singer’s work.
I am not alone. No less a force in ethics than the late Bernard Williams thought Singer’s influence on ethics was a negative one.
Dear Robin – I think DanK’s remarks above (“obnoxious”, “utter hypocrite”) seem splenetic if not bilious.
Not only does Singer make other people feel guilty, but he doesn’t even feel guilt himself!? I thought it was settled a long time ago that accusations of hypocrisy are not really an answer to an ethical argument. And it does strike particularly ad hom to bring up his mother, who is quoted as saying “[w]hen I can’t tie my shoes and I can’t read, I don’t want to be here”. It does seem hard to define where superrogation starts in any ethical system.
Hypocrisy matters when one is engaged in real arguments with real people, especially on questions of value. Don’t want to get called out on your BS? Don’t be a public scold.
Hmm, some surprisingly pejorative language has crept into the dialogue. Yes, I know that some situations seem to call for ‘forthright’ language, but forthright language need not be pejorative. Even Pope Francis found it necessary to gently chide 300 bishops in Washington when he said(http://nyti.ms/1VahsRj):
“Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor; it has no place in his heart,” he said. “Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
Words to live by.
Argument is like people shouting to each other across across a river. The distance and the noise cause poor communication and bad understanding. We can throw stones at each other, which will only guarantee that we each stay on our sides of the river, thus perpetuating the problem. Or we can build bridges towards each other and find a meeting place where we can hear each other. But people with stones in their hands can’t build bridges.
Do we want to promote affective partisan polarisation(http://bit.ly/1QzJrTO & http://bit.ly/1QzJu2e)?
Pejorative language is intuition uncontrolled by rationality.
I did find dantip’s question above to Daniel to be a good one, but didn’t quite expect the provided answer — I was thrilled! I’ll now give my own interpretation of what was said:
Dantip effectively endorsed the provided “intuition” way of looking at morality (as do I). He also noted that if there were a moral theory which could reasonably predict where conflicting moral intuitions would occur, then this would help validate it. Sure. But then he asked if we could get more out of this theory, or use it to tell us what we ought to actually do in a more ultimate sense? Given my impression that most everyone considers morality in this specific way (beyond me), I simply did not expect Daniel to shoot this notion down. This was fantastic news!
There are plenty of ways that I could potentially rock the boat right now, given that my ideas in general are still quite radical. Thus I’ll simply ask for greater clarification on this. It does seem to me that if we are discussing morality as an intuition based concept, or associated with what people “think” or “feel” they ought to do, then it simply shouldn’t be quite the same as what “truly” ought to be done. Or as Daniel himself concluded the comment “…[it] is folly to think that a moral theory can provide some sort of mechanical way of assuring a correct answer.”
“This is a bit off topic, but I have to question what PeterJ says here:
‘Confucianism may be explained as the social realisation of Taoist philosophy’
I don’t see how one can make this argument given that Conficianism predated Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, and especially given that the philosophical Taoism ascribed to those two sources sprang up largely in response to the ridged rule based nature of Confucianism.”
Hmm. Perhaps I put this badly. I didn’t mean that Confucianism emerges historically as the realisation of a prior doctrine but that it can be derived from Taoist philosophy, regardless of the historical priority. The ‘priority’ would be epistemological and rather than historical. .
As I understand it, (and there will always be uncertainty about some of the this), Confucianism is much later than the ancient shamanic tradition from which Philosophical Taoism emerges. Some old stories have Confucius meeting Lao Tsu and conceding his superior knowledge of reality, and it is not unusual for them to be seen to be teaching at different levels rather than teaching inconsistent things.
But I think that the history is not quite the point. Even if it were the case that Confucianism arises independently of any outside influence it would be still be the case that Taoist teaching can explain its rational and underlying philosophy.
It must be wrong to say that philosophical Taoism arose in response to Confucianism since it arises from ’empirical’ experience, as Lao Tsu makes clear, but it seems likely that its wider popularity was helped by it seeming to be an easier and less fussy doctrine to live with. It may also be to do with the fact that Confucianism lacks a metaphysical foundation while Taoism can provide it with one.
I’m not sure this is a good answer but maybe it’s a start. Your objection raises interesting issues but it’s a bit difficult to say much since it’s so far off-topic. .
Back on topic:
Yogi Berra passed yesterday. He famously stated ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it.
A number of philosophers have used the forked road metaphor to explore the human decision making process. For John Dewey it served as a metaphor that evoked the act of thinking itself:
A man traveling in an unfamiliar region comes to a branching of the roads. Having no sure knowledge to fall back upon, he is brought to a standstill of hesitation and suspense. Which road is right? And how shall perplexity be resolved? There are but two alternatives: he must either blindly and arbitrarily take his course, trusting to luck for the outcome, or he must discover grounds for the conclusion that a given road is right.
Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause.
Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance.Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, ……. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.
Dewey, John (2012-12-12). The Essential John Dewey Collection. Kindle Edition.
I see a lot of overlap here with the 2nd inner chapter of the Zhuangzi which argues argues against a fixed heart-mind (and for suspended conclusions). It suggests:
‘‘Allowing both alternatives to proceed’ & ‘remaining at rest at the center of the spontaneous potter’s wheel’ or at the ‘pivot of the way’ – & ‘Thus the sage sees by the glimmer of chaos and doubt. He does not affirm of anything: “this is it”; his affirmation is lodged in ordinary practice. This is to view things in the light.’
I think it is more fruitful to consider ethical dilemmas from a practical problem solving perspective as opposed to searching for absolute foundations. If we earnestly apply our reflective thought process to life in the manner suggested above I think we can make ethical progress. I don’t think we can ever be sure we are absolutely taking the single right course, but surely with practice we can become better way-makers in general.
To continue on with the theme of my last comment, if we do consider morality in this “intuitive” manner as discussed, then it might indeed be viewed as a sociological illustration of how we behave in practice, but shouldn’t even conceptually provide accurate theory from which to lead our lives and structure our societies. So then why is morality not taken up in a science such as sociology? And then why oh why does philosophy’s branch of ethics functionally begin and end with morality, given that ethics is at least somewhat suppose to teach us about good/bad/right/wrong, or exactly what dantip was hoping for a moral theory to provide?
One plausible answer would be that in practice many philosophers have not accepted a morality definition which is nearly as pure as the one that we’ve been provided with here. In fact, I personally would say that the field of ethics has effectively fostered itself “a bastard” — with morality not practically being either the provided sociological concept, nor speculation regarding that which is fundamentally good/bad for the conscious entity, but instead both.
One bit of evidence which suggests that this may be the case, is that the ethics branch of philosophy is widely believed to not yet have progressed very far. Thus I do mean to help the field at least progress in an “instrumental” manner, or formally identify that which is fundamentally valuable to the conscious entity, so that we might use this understanding to theorize how to “properly” lead our lives and structure our societies. Furthermore if achieved, we might then expect that this instrumental ethics theory could sometimes be quite conflicting with the other side (morals), since apparently “bastard approaches” were quite problematic.
Hi Seth. The great man Yogi Berra does it again, may he rest in peace. The metaphysician has to continually deal with these forks in the path unless he is a follower of the Middle Way. But Kant shows that both paths are no good in logic such that the forks are undecidable, and in Butler’s ‘Erewhon’ the Professors of the College of Unreason likewise conclude that while the mean seems paradoxical, it is always better than the absurdity of the extremes. Chaung Tsu does not dither, he definitely rejects the extremes.
I feel obliged to defend Chaung Tsu here. If we have no ‘absolute foundation’ as yet then we will have to make do without but surely we should not stop looking. It is not my impression that Chuang Tsu would have approved of constructing an ethical scheme without a foundation. He is normally interpreted as sharing the same worldview or fundamental theory/doctrine as Lao Tsu and Nagarjuna, the Buddha et al, or more generally mysticism. It comes with the territory since only this fundamental theory can justify its knowledge claims.
This is a famously difficult absolute foundation to ‘grok’, but it is not the absence of one. In metaphysics it would be a neutral metaphysical position and defensible in logic as such. Only if this is wrong can we say that Chuang Tsu is without a general theory to inform his ethics. It would be just that this view is the rejection of metaphysical extremes and this can easily appear to be the absence of any firm view at all. On this side of the world we do not allow the possibility of an alternative view and so his approach can seem to be a complete rejection of metaphysics and logic. As it is Nagarjuna explains the metaphysics of Chuang Tsu and why he does not affirm anything positive. Not for nothing is his view known as the ‘doctrine of the mean’. His ethics can be derived from his ontology and does not float free as a theoretical sand-castle.
“Thus I’ll simply ask for greater clarification on this. It does seem to me that if we are discussing morality as an intuition based concept, or associated with what people “think” or “feel” they ought to do, then it simply shouldn’t be quite the same as what “truly” ought to be done.”
Not quite disagreeing, but In an ideal world, or for the ideal person, these would be the same thing. This would be (or could be) the final justification for Massimo’s Stoic ethics with its Zen-like emphasis on spontaneity and free action, that if or when our beliefs/knowledge become consistent with what is the case then behaviour that is spontaneous will accord with what “truly” ought to be done for the best. For the rest of us I feel that you’re right, we have to take account of our feelings and intuitions and not simply automate our behaviour according to some grand philosophical conjecture about the nature of reality. Those intuitions may be telling us something about its nature.
“Hypocrisy matters when one is engaged in real arguments with real people, especially on questions of value”
It only matters because you choose to make it matter. Tu quoque arguments have value when they point to evidence of comprehensive dishonesty but then the target is the person and not the argument. We should be very clear in our minds about whether the target of our assertion is the person or his argument. If it is the person it is improper to inject that into a discussion of his argument, which is clearly what we are discussing, as can be seen from five of the last six paragraphs in the main essay. It should not be necessary to say the obvious, that an argument stands or falls on its own merits. Who among us is not fallible, weak, or inconsistent in ways that may contradict our professed beliefs or arguments? I will nominate him for the next beatification.
In normal social behaviour consistency, sincerity and honesty matter a great deal so we quite naturally look for signs of hypocrisy. This useful social trait is harmful when it is not social behaviour we are examining but instead logical arguments. It is harmful because we are appealing to a powerful tendency and this obscures the real issue.
We should not confuse this with the doctrine of unclean hands in equity law. I suspect that this is where the confusion really comes from.
We should be very clear in our minds about whether the target of our assertion is the person or his argument. If it is the person it is improper to inject that into a discussion of his argument, which is clearly what we are discussing, as can be seen from five of the last six paragraphs in the main essay.
I’m afraid we simply don’t agree on this. This kind of purity-of-argument/irrelevance-of-other factors is precisely the sort of artificial approach to argumentation that modern philosophers may cling to — many ancient philosophers would not — but which simply doesn’t apply to real social interaction, which is what actual arguments are. It also smacks of precisely the sort of mechanical application of informal fallacies that is the reason why I don’t teach them.
“but which simply doesn’t apply to real social interaction, which is what actual arguments are. ”
Once again this is confusion between argument and social behaviour. When someone advocates social change his example, character and his behaviour can multiply the force of his arguments, or conversely, destroy the force of his arguments. In this case the arguments are not destroyed but it is the force of his social advocacy which is destroyed. We have to be very clear in our minds about this difference.That is simply the way we are made and in that sense I agree with you. On the other hand it also becomes necessary to examine arguments on their own merit. In fact it becomes a form of intellectual betrayal if we are unable or refuse to examine arguments on their own merits.
Turning now to Peter Singer, we are confronted with the problem that he straddles the divide and hence you and I are talking about two different things. So let’s clarify that. There are two cases here:
1. Singer, the academic, publishes papers for the academic community. Obviously in this case his arguments will only be considered on their intrinsic merits.
2. Singer, the advocate(you call him the scold 🙂 ), advocates(to the public) changes in moral behaviour. In this case he is appealing to society and taking advantage of his position and prestige to multiply the force of his argument. It is this fact that makes him fair game for criticisms of character and behaviour. It is a kind of unclean hands doctrine that we know so well from equity law. John Citizen does this because he is not equipped to fully appreciate the arguments. Instead he looks for clues to trustworthiness and transfers this assessment to the argument. It is an intuitive assessment that works surprisingly well, but can have great pitfalls, which is why critical thinking should become more widespread.
In this post we have confused the two issues of Singer, the academic and Singer, the advocate. You began by discussing his arguments and that is where the discussion should have stayed. You then broadened the discussion to Singer, the advocate. I protested that you were polluting the discussion by failing to distinguish between these two scenarios.
I agree wholeheartedly with you when you criticise Singer, the advocate. Mind you, I dislike his arguments even more than I dislike the person. On the other hand he is promoting greater moral awareness, unlike the detestable Dawkins. But then you might consider it a most harmful sort of promotion.
“It only matters because you choose to make it matter. Tu quoque arguments have value when they point to evidence of comprehensive dishonesty but then the target is the person and not the argument.”
Tu quoque arguments, as has been noted in the Informal Logic literature itself, are evidence of a failure re: a “threshold of commitment.” This then raises the issue that the argument’s strength is apparently insufficient for its proponent, leading directly to the perfectly legitimate inquiry of how good the argument actually is and how seriously we should take the person making it.
“This then raises the issue that the argument’s strength is apparently insufficient for its proponent”
Presumably you mean that if the argument’s strength is insufficient to persuade the proponent to change his own behaviour we should distrust the argument. That is a very good point but it is vulnerable to a ‘spirit is willing but flesh is weak’ reply(which describes all of us). Your reply is a heuristic, or form of fast and frugal reasoning with all the attendant weaknesses of heuristics. Ultimately the only way to resolve the matter is to examine the argument on its intrinsic merits, independent of the proponent.
On the other hand you might reply that your criticism is valid because the only worth of moral claims is the effect that they have on our behaviour. And if the proponent himself cannot change his behaviour it is unlikely to have much effect elsewhere, not least because of the poor example, and so we can discount the moral claims. Moral claims always involve difficult change and we need moral exemplars as living evidence to motivate that change.
My reply to that would be that it is unnecessarily fatalistic. We are fractured, fallible people who must always struggle against our own limitations because it is in the struggle that we find redemption. Even so, I admit the great value of moral exemplars(and that Singer hardly qualifies).
PeterJ I’ll begin with your last observation to me:
The key of course is that most of us do not believe that our world and its people are anything close to “ideal.” Even my hippie parents, who were burdening their beloved son with obligations to help fix an utterly non ideal world through personal altruism, didn’t suppose this! But as I began the topic here, there are two things which constitute morality, and they do seem to confuse the academy.
The first of them is empathy, or that when we perceive sensations in others (especially the negative sort), we tend to feel this way ourselves. Consider being able to do utterly horrible things to one of your children (if you have any), as well as understand what they must be experiencing reasonably well, but still feel nothing personally about their presumed state yourself. That you can scarcely conceive of doing such things without feeling horrible yourself, I think, illustrates the magnitude of your empathy. So that’s one side of morality.
The second is that we seem extremely concerned about what others think about us. In fact given the prominence of this side of morality (rather than magnitude), I’m even inclined to consider this to be the greater feature. In our daily lives apparently what we think others are thinking about us, a boss, spouse, sibling, blogger, or even a random person driving next to us on the freeway, is where good/bad existence seems generally to be played out.
Given our morality, apparently the problem is that the field of ethics has come to be studied in a bastardized way: It’s somewhat considered the sociological concept that Daniel presented so pristinely here, and it’s somewhat considered as a means from which to tell us how to lead our lives and structure our societies. Thus, in my opinion, the failure of ethics and related sciences. It is my belief that a founding theorist shall ultimately sort these fields out.
Eric – I’d agree with most of what you say here but feel you may be missing one thing. The ‘spirtual path’ or the path to knowledge would be precisely the means (so they say) of becoming the ideal person or True Man. Enlightenment would be precisely the marriage of personal morality with cosmic law.
It would not be necessary to believe that this achievement (the ‘chemical wedding’ in Jung’s alchemy) is practically possible in order to make sense of the idea that when we understand the nature of reality our behaviour falls into line with it. Bear in mind that for such a person the ego is no longer in charge, so personal foibles, desires and preferences, would no longer govern our responses to the world. Altruism and selfishness would coincide. Not trying to convert you, but you have to allow for this possibility or refute it.
One vital point would be that his view of knowledge and ethics offers an explanation for this empathy of which you speak, which is otherwise a purely contingent psychological phenomenon with no philosophical (ontological/epistemological) implication. It would operate at a level prior to your ethical scheme and as far as I can see would not contradict it in any way.
Is it not a bit cheeky to think we can invent a moral scheme more philosophically sound than the ancient one that is found across all of mysticism? We’ve been trying without success for long enough and, as you say, have met with nothing but failure.
I suppose I push my luck here going on about what for many would be dismissed as religion, but feel that we cannot just turn a blind eye to these ideas and must sooner or later deal with them.
Peter J if I properly interpret your position it’s that: our behavior tends to fall in line with the nature of reality as we come to understand it, thus bringing altruism. No I certainly cannot refute this possibility, since I actually doubt that any human ever has, or ever will, figure out very much about reality. But surely you mustn’t be referring to a perfect comprehension of “everything.” This leads me to wonder what specifically would need be understood, as well as if you believe that any such transformations have ever occurred?
I must also linger on your “Eric – I’d agree with most of what you say here but feel you may be missing one thing….” (that thing of course being “mystic”). But given that we obviously haven’t all been transformed into altruistic entities, you do seem reasonably satisfied with my message regarding us normal people in general. To be more clear however, my position is that personal qualia defines positive/negative existence for all that does harbor this potential, and because philosophy and the various related sciences have not yet developed their fields from this premise, they also haven’t yet been able to teach us very much about our nature. Thus I believe that founding ideas are still required, and would love for others to earnestly assess my own such theory.
Peter, I do hope that you’re able to give them an objective look at some point — or all I can hope of anyone. Nevertheless the thought that truth brings altruism, does seem quite foreign to me. I doubt that you’ll provide me with evidence that I find very credible on this, but will always acknowledge that you may indeed be correct in the end.
Eric – Thanks for being not completely sceptical. I would be glad to give your ideas an objective look but there would be a problem. I would insist that an ethical scheme must be grounded in metaphysics or be kite flying. Not necessarily wrong, but having no justification. So I naturally adopt the only scheme that has such a foundation. Thus while I can agree about the importance of altruism, empathy and so forth, and also the traditional failure of the usual academic approach to address these things properly, I find that your ideas (as have been mentioned so far) do not entirely escape the same criticism. I have a feeling we could have a useful and interesting disussion about this but now is not the time. I tend to comment on your posts only becase I agree with them to a large extent.
Do you have a link to someplace where you outline your ideas at greater length?
I could agree that for ordinary life we would seem to need a guiding theory something like you’re suggesting. But it seems to be entirely conjectural and any truly successful ethical scheme would surely have to based on knowledge. There are those who argue that without knowledge we cannot exercise freewill in any meaningful sense, so would nto be culpable for our actions. This would be the Buddhist view, for they would see all this as a problem of knowledge and not of ethics. The problem would be, of course, that not everyone concedes the possibility of the required knowledge.
As for your scepticism of knowledge and truth, we cannot go far on that topic here. You speak of qualia as being important and seem to place your theory in the realm of qualia, while for me an ethical scheme would have to work independent of mental phenomena and rest in ontology, or at least in a much deeper psychological investigation more along the lines that Kant recommends, for a view of mind and the world that would extend beyond qualia and ordinary perception (or, as the sages would say, misperception).
While altruism and empathy may, as you say, be underplayed in much of philosophy it would be the entire basis of the ‘mystical ethics’. Empathy would explain altruism, while the nature of reality would explain empathy. So although you may not like this idea it does at least seem far from being inconsistent with your own ideas.
At least we seem to agree that our local-philosophical approach to ethics needs a shake-up.