Ethics, Criteria, and Moral “Thickness”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

When speaking of morals, the overwhelming view among philosophers is that they are criterial.  Something – some action or a state of affairs – is right or wrong, obligatory or prohibited, because it satisfies certain criteria; criteria that typically come from a larger moral theory.  Thus, for a Utilitarian, actions are right or wrong, obligatory or prohibited, because they either succeed in or fail in meeting the criterion of promoting the general welfare.  And for a Kantian, actions are right or wrong, obligatory or prohibited, because they succeed or fail in meeting the criterion of rational universalizability.  Indeed, the very idea of a moral theory is defined, in part, in terms of identifying the general characteristics of moral rightness and wrongness, obligation and prohibition and this is tantamount to providing a criterion for the application of the words ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘obligation’, and ‘prohibition’.

That morals are criterial also seems embedded in the very way we speak about them; specifically, in the giving of reasons for our ethical judgments and actions.   People ask us why they ought to do something or why we have a certain moral attitude towards a given state of affairs, and in providing what we think is a moral answer, we offer reasons that mention various features of the action or of the state of affairs in question.  In doing so, we are effectively appealing to criteria.

That this view is so prevalent among professional philosophers is interesting, in part because the criterial view of terms and their application has faced a number of very tough challenges, over the course of the last century, to the point that it is largely in tatters.

Wittgenstein showed that the substantial and open-ended heterogeneity that one finds in the extensions of common terms like ‘game’ and ‘art’ renders it impossible that they might be applied by appeal to criteria. (1)  Keith Donnellan and Hilary Putnam argued that natural kind terms like ‘mammal’ or ‘lemon’ cannot be criterial,  in light of atypical and borderline cases.  (2) Saul Kripke maintained that proper names cannot be criterial, because the person to whom the name refers might not have had the characteristics associated with him, and in speaking of that possibility, we would still be speaking about him and not someone else.  (3) And philosophers like Frank Sibley have pointed out that aesthetic terms like ‘delicate’ and ‘vibrant’ cannot be applied by appeal to non-aesthetic criteria, because the very same characteristics may be found in something to which these terms do not apply or even worse, to which the opposite terms may apply.  The very same non-aesthetic characteristics that make one thing “delicate,” for example, may make another “insipid.” (4)

One might wonder, then, about the prevalence of the criterial view in moral philosophy.  After all, if scientific terms like ‘mammal’ and common words like ‘game’ cannot be applied by way of criteria, what chance is there that terms like ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ or ‘obligatory’ can?   This seems a fair question to ask, before we even get to the further question of the merits or faults of any particular moral theory.  And when we do turn to moral theories, what we find is a mess of wildly different views, many of them mutually exclusive, invoked and applied in a haphazard, inconsistent manner, often by the same person, in a single day.  An encounter in the morning may provoke me to think and act with regard to the general welfare, and another, in the afternoon, may elicit concern for another person’s dignity and rights.  Of course it is possible that our words, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘obligatory’ and the like have different meanings on each of these occasions, so that when I say “this is the right thing to do” in the morning and “making you do that wouldn’t be right” in the afternoon, I mean entirely different things by ‘right’, but the simpler and in my view, much more plausible way of interpreting these facts is that our applications of moral terms are not criterial.

Of course, not everyone who has worked in moral philosophy over the last century has embraced the criterial view.   The largely ignored and in my view, criminally underrated  Intuitionists – notably, H.A. Prichard and W.D. Ross – rejected the idea that our moral judgments and actions are the result of applying criteria.  “The sense of obligation to do, or of the rightness of, an action of a particular kind is absolutely underivative or immediate,” Prichard wrote.  “[W]e do not come to appreciate an obligation by an argument, i.e. by a process of non-moral thinking…,” which means that we do not determine whether the word ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ applies to an action, by seeing if the action meets a set of required, “moral-making” criteria. (5) We know this, because whenever we try to derive an obligation, say from the claim that some action is intrinsically good or has a good result, we wind up with an infinite regress (for such an inference to go through, we must presume that what’s good ought to be the case, which is simply to invoke another obligation).  And when we consider what we actually do when we wonder whether we were right in thinking something is a duty, we don’t consult a theory or look to criteria, but rather place ourselves back in the situation and see whether the sense of obligation arises again. (6)

It is important to be clear that Intuitionists like Prichard are not suggesting that perceiving some fact about an action or a state of affairs cannot get a person to the point that they feel obligated to act in a certain way or find some action or state of affairs to be wrong.  Seeing a person suffering from cancer may lead to my feeling obligated to donate to cancer research and I might feel that I ought to reciprocate, when I remember that my neighbor has done me a kindness.  But this is not the criterial view of morals, according to which it follows from the fact that an action or state of affairs has certain characteristics that the word ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ applies to it and therefore, that I ought to do or accept it or not.

Another non-criterial approach to obligation, associated with the Wittgensteinian philosopher Cora Diamond, sees obligations as often arising from the application of concepts that are, themselves, morally “thick,” meaning that their moral content is implicit, rather than inferred, on the basis of criteria.  We are all familiar with morally thick concepts, as they are what one typically finds in moral codes like the Ten Commandments.  ‘Stealing’, ‘Murder’, and the like are morally thick, insofar as they have both descriptive and moral content.  To steal is to take someone’s property wrongfully, and to murder is to kill someone wrongfully, and thus, the statements “Stealing is wrong” and “Murder is wrong” are analytic and necessarily true, whereas their morally neutral, “thin” counterparts, “Taking someone’s property is wrong” and “Killing someone is wrong” are synthetic and only contingently true (or false).

Diamond maintains that concepts like ‘person’, ‘neighbor’, ‘friend’, ‘pet’, and others are also morally thick in this way and that looking at things from this perspective far better explains our behavior than the criterial approach.  In her famous paper, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” Diamond dismantles the criterial approach to our treatment of both people and non-human animals, and specifically with regard to so-called “ethical eating” practices, like vegetarianism and veganism. (7)

Ethical vegans want to say that we shouldn’t eat non-human animals for the same reason that we shouldn’t eat people: we satisfy the same moral criteria.  The reason why we shouldn’t eat people – so the story goes — is because they have a certain morally relevant characteristic, namely the capacity for suffering, and since non-human animals also have this characteristic, we shouldn’t eat them either.

As Diamond points out, however, if this is the reason why we shouldn’t eat people, then there is no reason not to eat our dead, so long as the person in question was not unjustly killed and so long as the meat is good to eat.  Likewise, there is no reason why we shouldn’t eat amputated limbs, so long as the same caveats hold.  And yet, most of us in the modern world don’t think that we should do either of these things, other than in the direst of circumstances (like if we find ourselves in a Donner Party-style scenario), which means that whatever the basis of the prohibition against eating people, it does not lie in the fact that they meet certain criteria.  Diamond maintains, instead, that it is because the concept ‘people’ is morally thick and as a result, people are not things to eat.

The same is true on the non-human animal side of things.  If the reason why we shouldn’t eat beef or chicken is because  animals like these are capable of suffering, then there is no reason why a vegan shouldn’t eat an animal that has died of natural causes or been struck by lightning or lost a limb, in an accident.  That vegans eschew all meat eating shows, therefore, that whatever the reason, it is not because cows or chickens have certain characteristics and thereby meet certain criteria.  And consider, even, the non-vegan or non-vegetarian person.  I might be more than willing to eat Gaegogi (dog), in a restaurant in Seoul, while at the same time being appalled at even the suggestion that I might eat my pet Bichon Frise.  Is this because the dog used to make my Bosintang lacked some morally relevant characteristic that my dog possesses?  Or is it like this: I think of my Bichon Frise as a pet; ‘pet’ is a morally thick concept; and pets are not things to eat.

One might wonder how certain things manage to fall under morally thick concepts while others don’t.  Certainly, there will be a story in each case – one that explains, for example, why this Bichon Frise and not some other dog became my pet – but there may be as many such stories as there are cases, and it seems highly unlikely that there will be some general principle, unifying them all, which could serve as some kind of meta-criterion, by which the criterial view can be saved.

The criterial view of ethics is part of a broader rationalism in philosophy, about which I have been quite critical. (8)  It renders ethics procedural and thus transparent and scrutable, and this is both comforting and flattering to us.  In contrast, the anti-criterial approaches to ethics that I have described treats ethics as a matter of perception, feeling, conception, and naming, which are not procedural and which render morals opaque, ultimately unreasoned, and thus, somewhat inscrutable.  This is far less comforting and flattering, but it does have one tremendous advantage over its criterial competitor – it may actually be true.

References

  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations ( 1953), §66.

http://danielwharris.com/teaching/394/WittgensteinInvestigations.pdf

  1. Keith Donnellan, “Necessity and Criteria.” (1962)

http://www.thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Readings/Donnellan%20-%20Necessity%20and%20Criteria.pdf

Hilary Putnam, “Is Semantics Possible?” (1970 )

http://www.thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Readings/Putnam%20-%20Is%20Semantics%20Possible.pdf

  1. Frank Sibley, “Aesthetic Concepts.” (1959)

http://rci.rutgers.edu/~tripmcc/phil/poa/sidley-aestheticconcepts-controversy.pdf

  1. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (1970)

http://www.class.uh.edu/phil/garson/NamingandNecessity.pdf

  1. H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912), pp. 7 & 9.

http://www.hist-analytic.com/PrichardObligation.pdf

  1. Ibid., pp. 16-17.
  2. Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People.” (1978)

https://ethicslab.georgetown.edu/phil145/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Diamond-Eating-Meat-and-Eating-People.pdf

  1. Daniel A. Kaufman, “Excessive Reason”; “Rationalism in Mainline Philosophy: A Discussion.”

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/28/excessive-rationalism/

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/03/28/rationalism-in-mainline-philosophy-a-discussion/

Categories: Essay, Essays

25 Comments »

  1. Consideration of computability theory in mathematics and computer science lead to the idea that human cognition is creative in the sense that any formal theory about it is incomplete and cognition can move out of the scope of applicability of any such theory. If this is so, formal theories of human cultures and societies are impossible (i.e. always incomplete or vague). If a complete formal descrition of human culture, society and thougt is impossible in principle, the idea that ethical theories (as derivative, formal theories) should be possible, appears rather outlandish. Living together in societies forces us into ethics, but it seems to me like we collectively improvise it, on a case by case basis, without the possibility or necessity of a consistent theory.

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  2. “ethics procedural and thus transparent and scrutable”: much of our everyday experience of ethical matters involves legal systems. Just as the 10 commandments and Torah then gives rise to halacha, people decided a long time ago that reasoning from principles is something even wrongdoers can accept – “it’s a fair cop”. As to thick concepts, the variation between societies in mores leads to rational cosmopolitanism – eg if Belgians don’t think killing sick children with their consent is wrongful, then maybe it is not murder after all.

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  3. This is one of your two really significant essays, the other one being on the nature of philosophy(I’m so sorry I missed the chance to join that discussion). Both essays were for me an ‘aha’ moment’.

    You criticise the criterial view of ethics but isn’t it a necessary stance which results from our attempts to make sense of our moral intuitions? We vary greatly among ourselves about the nature of these moral intuitions but functioning as a society requires agreement about our moral intuitions. And so we classify, categorise and name our moral intuitions, elevating them to criteria because only them can we reach consensus about their binding value. If we don’t do this then every form of deviant behaviour will be excused by that person as their moral intuition.

    Interestingly the Catholic Church talks much about ‘Natural Law’ and the ‘Conscience’, which correspond closely with the intuitionist view of ethics. They maintain that we have a natural conception of the right and the good, one that is informed by an inherent ‘conscience’ that we all possess.

    The other interesting thing is that virtue ethics is also grounded in an appeal to universal moral intuitions.

    Finally, if I understand you correctly, you talk of two approaches, the intuitionists like Pritchard and the morally thick approach like that of Cora Diamond. Aren’t these really one and the same thing, just different ways of arriving at the same conclusion?

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  4. Labnut: Thanks for the kind words. I would say that Diamond’s account is more “sociological” than Prichard’s. All the work is being done by these thick concepts, whose moral thickness rests upon widespread public understandings and agreements.

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  5. I think Labnut asks the important question. Let’s say we accept that our moral judgements are rooted in our intuitions. Let’s also agree based on that and on Nannus’s comment that a single consistent ethical theory is an impossibility, and that we therefore must improvise as we go.

    Knowing that the culture that emerges from this improvisational process will feedback onto and gradually influence the base intuitions how best might we conceptual a pragmatic way to guide this improvisational process? Every improvisation needs some structure, and I suppose the discrete nature of moral criteria serve that role. I think we need moral criteria but we need not think of them as absolute or isolated from context. As individual I think it’s also useful to earnestly pay attention (mindfully 🙂 ) to the way we intuitively respond to issues and notice if the reasons we might give in support of or against an issue are really aligned with our intuitive response which is the more likely source of our moral posturing.

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  6. https://www.google.com/search?q=mcdonalds+india&biw=853&bih=589&tbm=isch&imgil=2yJkS6M17wXyWM%253A%253BStecRfJ6TbZoXM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fthereformedbroker.com%25252F2009%25252F05%25252F26%25252Fhow-good-is-mcdonalds-theyre-selling-burgers-in-india%25252F&source=iu&pf=m&fir=2yJkS6M17wXyWM%253A%252CStecRfJ6TbZoXM%252C_&usg=__v1suSiyBd2o1LJBiiPyTSU473H8%3D&dpr=1.5&ved=0ahUKEwiW37bQ5c3NAhXJlR4KHbqMD7MQyjcIWA&ei=xAl0V5btKsmrerqZvpgL#imgrc=2yJkS6M17wXyWM%3A

    Absolutely no beef products served in India. Any anthropologist can testify cultural differences.

    The Bible testifies that God made Adam and Eve clothes out of animal skins or maybe that tells you they were carnivores; then we have Abel killing animals for sacrifice and Cain commits the ultimate taboo (until we get to the NT). Brains are complex organs that can be programmed in many type of ways may be the story you are telling.

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  7. we never ask questions/make-decisions/etc in general but always for some particular present purpose and to the degree that our interests and our environs (the settings, those assembled, etc) may be more similar (and so more routine) than not that there will be an appearance of structure/order but this is just an appearance (a familial-resemblance if one prefers), this all is just another part of our more general manipulations of the world to achieve our various and evolving ends.

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  8. “improvise on a case by case basis”: I like the arguments Tomlinson (Casuistry in medical ethics: Rehabilitated, or repeat offender? easily found on line) uses to criticizes the casuistic approach as exemplified by Jonsen and Toulmin (1988):

    “Despite the frequency with which it is avowed, the application of casuistry to issues in medical ethics has been given virtually no systematic defense in the ethics literature. That may be for good reason, since a close examination reveals that casuistry delivers much less than its advocates suppose, and that it shares some of the same weaknesses as the principle-based methods it would hope to supplant…casuistry’s appeal has [its source in] reactions against principle-based approaches to ethic problems…drawn from the surge of anti-foundationalism…

    “A principle-based approach seems unable to avoid the necessity of relying on intuitive judgments in balancing competing ethical principles; it cannot adequately support the interpretations and judgments that must be made in applying principles to cases; it may be naive about its own historical contingency; and it gives principles an epistemological pride of place over concrete judgments of cases that they don’t deserve.

    “Except…casuistry suffers from the very same, or closely-related difficulties. It is, in addition, its own special problems, most importantly an inherent moral conservatism…”

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  9. Hi Dan, no surprise I liked this one.

    Moral concepts like right & wrong were always problematic to me for the very reason that they are generic to the point of holding no real content… beyond letting me know someone likes/dislikes, or approves/disapproves of something.

    Those bags have to be unpacked.

    The argument here seems to be (if fitted to my metaphor) that whatever criteria are “unpacked” to support the original moral terms, some ambiguity will remain, undercutting criteria based moral systems. This is largely approached from linguistics which is not my background. Yet I feel it arrives at much the same conclusions I did from trying to force others to “unpack” their claims, especially when confronted with potentially conflicting moral conclusions or opposing conclusions taken as “right” from other cultures.

    I guess this is to say I took a socio-psychological approach and wound up in the same vicinity (probably took me longer)… from that angle it sounds like I would appreciate Prichard and Ross’s take on things.

    The concept of moral “thickness” is what I have called being morally “loaded”. So murder is a “loaded” term whereas killing is not. Pets and people work along the same line. Don’t know where I picked that up. Is that term valid to use instead of thickness? Or is thickness common enough I’d just cause confusion?

    I’m not sure if I would agree that ambiguity undercuts all terms to the point of bankruptcy, including all moral terms. For example, I think that moral qualities found in virtue ethics can be useful. Welllll…. “the good life” is as squishy as anything and so clearly falls to the argument here. But what about ethical traits like “honesty”, “courage”, “loyalty”, etc? Not whether they are good or worthy but whether an act involves such and such a trait? Exceptions or borderline cases don’t seem to undercut the trait but generate important discussions about the trait in question.

    And (more to the point here) traits can be applied based on reasons, regardless how one felt about the action (or trait). For example, while one might loathe the actions of an enemy, even finding them criminal, one could admit the acts involved courage and loyalty (maybe to their gang) and intelligence. Or one might love the action of a friend while knowing what they did involved cruelty and dishonesty.

    If something as simple as “lemons” gets knocked off then traits probably do too. Still, wouldn’t this level of criteria requirement create a sort of communications nihilism? Like nothing is ever communicated to anyone, ever?

    Finally, I really like your closing paragraph but it always seemed to me that rationalism, while procedural, only creates an illusion of transparency and comprehensibility. It’s like a clever game of mirrors, with the ultimate answer (if you must persist in asking) right around the edge of the next one. The entire goal being to distract and lead us away from discovering the actual source of ethical judgment: ourselves.

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  10. “The criterial view of ethics is part of a broader rationalism in philosophy, about which I have been quite critical. (8) It renders ethics procedural and thus transparent and scrutable, and this is both comforting and flattering to us. In contrast, the anti-criterial approaches to ethics that I have described treats ethics as a matter of perception, feeling, conception, and naming, which are not procedural and which render morals opaque, ultimately unreasoned, and thus, somewhat inscrutable. This is far less comforting and flattering, but it does have one tremendous advantage over its criterial competitor – it may actually be true.”

    In more primitive societies ethics and morals are passed via culture or there was no codification of ethics and morals via written law and formal authority. Waxing Biblical the chosen people have their laws divinely handed down which lends ultimate credence and authority. You are actually stating the dilemma of modern civilization or how all of this evolved from institutionalized religious belief with all of these questions.

    As an aside, the tallest buildings used to be cathedrals, then government buildings and in today’s world: media, banks and insurance companies.

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  11. Hi Dan

    You make some strong points here and I generally agree with what you are saying.

    You make at least implicit distinctions between morality-defining criteria and criteria of moral justification; and also between ordinary talk and philosophical theorizing.

    If, as you rightly say, criteria-centred talk is embedded in our ordinary moral talk then I think we have no choice but to take it seriously. I think the problems arise only when we try to build ethical theories (and especially when they are based on arbitrary criteria or where certain criteria are seen as absolute).

    Causing harm (to others), for example, is one important criterion we might use to identify actions concerning which *moral* considerations (rather than considerations relating to manners or to the agent’s long-term happiness, for example) might apply. Of course, harm-causing actions are not necessarily immoral and may be justified in various ways, but such discussion would bear on morality (rather than manners, say).

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  12. dbholmes:

    Virtue terms are no more criterial than moral ones. It’s not as if we can give necessary and sufficient conditions for being “courageous,” which means that there isn’t a list of criteria. Indeed, Aristotle only characterizes virtue in the most general of terms — as always representing a mean between extremes. But what *counts* as that on any given occasion is a matter of judgment and for Aristotle, perception as well. He gives a useful analogy with bread baking in the Nicomachean Ethics. From Book II:

    “For the end cannot be a subject of deliberation, but only the means; nor indeed can the particular facts be a subject of it, as whether this is bread or has been baked as it should; for these are matters of perception. If we are to be always deliberating, we shall have to go on to infinity. ”

    I can determine by deliberation that the proper baking of bread, lies in between its being over and undercooked. But as to whether any particular loaf of bread is properly baked, I can only tell that by looking at it. As Wittgenstein would say, “Look and see.”

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  13. Mark: If a person tries to be moral by applying criteria, he is going to get it wrong a lot of the time. More than otherwise. Among other things, the criterial view implies that the application of moral terms requires no judgment or perception, which Aristotle shows cannot be the case.

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  14. Hi Dan, I liked your response and agree with what you said… in (large) part. Where I disagree points to a slight miscommunication about what I meant, though offers an avenue for discussion.

    Let’s take courage as our working example. I think the ethical term courage can be given useful criteria to identify when that is the quality or trait under consideration. For example, “acting in a way that accepts some measure of risk (real or imagined)”.

    I think your reply deals more with how we assess the degree or value of courage that someone has displayed. In this Aristotle’s conception is perfect (and what my ideas are partly derived from). Actions can range from “foolhardy” (needlessly embracing risk at all cost) to “cowardly” (avoiding risk at all cost). The “mean” is acting “courageously”.

    So I am in full agreement when it comes time to assess someone’s courage, like “properly” baked bread it will not be an exact thing. It will depend on our own tastes, as well as relative perspectives (is such and such a risk), and so help (re)define ourselves as much as others during our evaluation.

    But we can agree that courage is what we are assessing, just as we can agree that we are assessing the quality of baked bread…. and not a lemon?

    And often enough cases will be falling above or below a median, so there may be large agreement that an action falls above or below that median. This is what I meant by everyone may acknowledge an act is courageous (as opposed to lacking courage). It is like looking at a pretty hard, blackened hunk of bread. Whether it is “properly” baked is another question than acknowledging it lies between cooked and overcooked, and is certainly not between cooked and uncooked.

    So in short, to me it seems like traits or qualities can be defined (in a practical sense) so we know what we are assessing, as well as the extreme ends of (departures from) that quality. And while debate is largely subjective and inexact during analysis as to the worth or extent of an action, in many cases it can be agreed toward which end of the spectrum an action lies. At the very least it can be agreed that X is not a quality under question, regardless of one’s negative feelings toward the action. Just as one can say one hates this piece if bread but the degree of its baking is not the problem.

    Hope this makes sense?

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  15. When speaking of morals, the overwhelming view among philosophers is that they are criterial. Something – some action or a state of affairs – is right or wrong, obligatory or prohibited, because it satisfies certain criteria; criteria that typically come from a larger moral theory.

    That seems rather circular, in that it might once have seemed like a definition of philosophical, or systematic, or coherent thought — that is, until a serious movement began to confront problems that seem to inevitably arise from that style of thinking.

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  16. The view on morality you seem to be advocating here is “particularism”. In “Point of View of the Universe”, a collaboration between Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek, the view is described as one that holds that “when deciding what we should do in a particular case, general moral principles are useless” (Singer & Lazari Radek 78). On this view, “the fact that a statement is a lie may count against it in one situation, but in a different situation not count against it at all or even count in favor of it”(78). For any particular case, one just has to “see in what direction the moral reasons point”.(79).

    The view is criticized for lacking explanatory power of changes in moral judgment. The authors explain: “But the idea that a reason could in one case count in favor of an action and in another case against an action, without a rule, principle, or theory of value justifying the change, is uncomfortably close to a change in a matter of taste, and morality demands more explanation of this change than the particularist is willing to offer” ( 81).

    If I understand the view correctly, I would go further than the authors and argue that this view in fact does reduce morality to the status of “matters of taste”. You may be accurate in your contention that when wondering if we were right in thinking something is a duty, “we place ourselves back in the situation and see where the sense of obligation rises again”. However, if this “sense” is all there is, then like matters of taste, its hard to see whether this sense could be true or false. If I’m correct, though your view has the advantage of being immune from suffering a “reductio ad absurdum” by contemplating a particular situation and experiencing intuitions that run counter the moral theory , the view suffers from the strong intuition that moral judgments could be true or false. This, I believe, disables the view from having an advantage over rationalist alternatives.

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  17. Hi Dan, this was more productive for me than the previous piece. I like how sections of his project were identified and their separate natures and usefulness examined.

    I think he should ditch the whole purpose angle. Even if I were to agree with the probability argument of our level of consciousness being likely (which is debatable), what we might put that to does not seem clear at all, or open to some probabilistic argument.

    If anything it seems more likely to me that our capacities will result in all sorts of different meanings and purposes being explored and lived, not closure to one single meaning or purpose. Even if we were to grant that some level of accepting others (less tribalism) occurs, what other meaning or purpose do we seem to be closing in on?

    And as you know I am also dubious on the idea moral progress is occurring, or can occur. You guys didn’t get to the global brain thing, but as soon as we hit life in space that sort of thing is gone. Relativity assures that is a practical impossibility, without some seriously odd modifications to how humans live.

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  18. Excellent essay. The point about the unfortunate neglect of Intuitionism I agree with completely. The example using Diamond and thick moral concepts is particularly insightful. Well done, sir!

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  19. I find this very interesting.

    In another piece Dan says that moral intuitions provide the condition of adequacy against which any moral theory is assessed, and, in conversation with Robert Wright, it was asked if they (moral intuitions) are to be trusted and whether they brought us closer to moral truth. But if moral intuitions are to be trusted, then our moral theories would all seem to be superfluous. But if they are not to be trusted, I don’t know where it leaves us. So either way, it seems there is a big problem for moral philosophy.

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  20. Wanted to write a ‘big think’ comment here, but haven’t had much time recently. But I did want to let you know I thought the material well-presented and thought provoking. I suspect that any particular choice or obligation will be found as a complex of acculturated ‘loaded’ responses and criterial judgments. Only the puritanical are systematic in demanding their behaviors meet predetermined criteria. (But a complete lack of criteria carries its own risks….)

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  21. Amidst the oracular misery, tendencies to fly emerge
    Like flutters in the consistency of truth.
    Foreseeing only separation and diffuseness,
    The microcosmic antibodies splurge
    And burgeon.
    Splicing, more and more and more;
    Unstoppable macro-Petri all-of-a-suddenness,
    As propulsion and soul volition take control,
    Gunning down the infidelic universe
    In waves of human love and awe.
    Conspire, console, construe, construct –
    Come now, for we are in great motion,
    Growing, turning, morphing,
    Realising destiny in every reaction…
    Tumult.
    Exalt.
    Sheerness
    Dissolving down the edifices
    Which no longer tower over man,
    Our uprisings
    Pure creation,
    Anew.
    Auspicious humanity unleashed,
    Such that
    We are all catharsis now,
    Through and through.

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