Course Notes – H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

We have finished with our survey of traditional ethical theories, in my Theories of Ethics course, and the students have been given a whopper of an exam on Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill.  I don’t envy them.  (Though neither do I envy myself, as I will be spending a good portion of my Spring Break grading those exams.)

What this means, however, is that we are on to the “contemporary” portion of the course, in which we cover material from the 20th century.  (It is a testament to just how old a discipline philosophy is that we refer to material a century old as “contemporary.”)  I won’t deny being excited about it.   Having taught philosophy at one university or college or another since 1993, it is a challenge to keep the traditional ethical theories fresh.  20th century ethics, however, is another matter entirely.  Not only is there an incredible abundance of it – and  a lot of it very good – so one can teach the period again and again with very little repetition, but it is not the sort of material that one really can teach in introductory level or general education courses, which means that one has taught it much less often, at least, if one is not a rock star at a top, R1 institution … which, of course, is the overwhelming majority of us professional philosophers.

There are many threads one could trace through the ethical theorizing of the last century, and one way, certainly, would be to follow the development of Consequentialism and Deontology in the work of contemporary Utilitarians and Kantians.  I chose not to do this, in part for selfish reasons – I would find it terribly boring, not to mention the fact that I think both traditions get morality mostly wrong – but also because what strikes me as the most significant thread in 20th century ethics is the one that involves questioning the entire modern moral philosophical paradigm and asks whether ethics largely took a wrong turn during the Enlightenment.  And as there are a number of very interesting and notably, very different reasons why one might think this, it means that even though one is following a single thread, the work that one will encounter is highly diverse in nature.  So, I’ve chosen the following 20th century works to make up the second half of my course:

H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912)

W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good. (1930)

A.J. Ayer, “Critique of Ethics and Theology,” from Language, Truth, and Logic. (1936)

G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” (1958)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. (1981)

We finished Prichard’s essay, just before we left for Spring Break.  The class was pretty quiet throughout, though I don’t know whether this was because the piece is quite difficult (more because of its subtlety than because it is technical or complex) or because they found it underwhelming.  It might not have been the best idea to preface the lectures with the statement that Prichard’s is one of the most devastating critiques of traditional moral philosophy I have ever read, but it is, so I said it.

Prichard argues that the aims of traditional, modern moral philosophy are very similar to those of modern epistemology, in that they are an attempt to overcome skeptical doubts.   Modern epistemology, which begins with Descartes, is a response to the fact that we can doubt many of the things that we think we know to be true, and the theorizing that follows is an effort to find a procedure by which we can demonstrate that we really do know what we think we know.  And Prichard thinks that similarly, modern moral philosophy’s primary aim is to find a way by which to demonstrate that what we think is our duty, really is obligatory.

Just as the recognition that the doing of our duty often vitally interferes with the satisfaction of our inclinations leads us to wonder whether we really ought to do what we usually call our duty, so the recognition that we and others are liable to mistakes in knowledge generally leads us, as it did Descartes, to wonder whether hitherto we may not have been always mistaken. And just as we try to find a proof, based on the general consideration of action and of human life, that we ought to act in the ways usually called moral, so we, like Descartes, propose by a process of reflection on our thinking to find a test of knowledge, i.e. a principle by applying which we can show that a certain condition of mind was really knowledge, a condition which ex hypothesi existed independently of the process of reflection. (1)

The question, then, is whether or not modern moral philosophy has succeeded in identifying such a procedure.  Prichard says that there have been two broad strategies that correspond roughly to the consequentialist and the deontological approaches to morality (though the latter can be articulated in non-deontological ways as well): (a) to demonstrate that something is a duty from the fact that it produces some good; (b) to demonstrate that something is a duty, because it is the product of motives that are good.  Both strategies, in his view, fail, but the consequentialist’s failure is the easiest to see, so let’s examine it first.

Does the fact that some state of affairs is good demonstrate that I am obligated to bring it about?  It would seem obviously not, for the following is not a valid inference:

  1. x is G (good)
  2. Therefore, x is O (obligatory)

In order for 1. to justify 2., one would have to presuppose that what is good is obligatory.   With that added as a premise, the inference is valid, after all.

  1. What is G is O
  2. x is G
  3. Therefore, x is O

The trouble, of course, is that I’ve grounded an obligation in what is good, only by invoking another obligation, for which I have no ground, which means that the consequentialist effort to ground obligation ultimately fails. (2)

The deontological strategy is just as problematic, though its faults are more difficult to articulate, in part because the circle is tighter and in part because for Kant it is really willing that falls under the concept of obligation, rather than acts.  (Kant maintains that one can do what duty requires, but if one does it for the wrong kind of reason, the action does not “count,” morally speaking.)

What makes an action moral for Kant is that it is willed because it obligatory – this is just his idea of acting from duty.  And the idea is supposed to be that willing for this reason is inherently good and that this is what explains the obligatoriness of certain acts of will.   But one should see that this is just as circular as the consequentialist’s account.  One appeals to the goodness of a certain kind of motivation in order to explain why certain acts of will are obligatory, but what makes those motives good is that they are motives from obligation.  Once again, then, rather than explaining what is obligatory in terms of what is good, all that one has done is explain what is obligatory in terms of  … what is obligatory. (3)

Prichard maintains that our feelings of obligation are basic and immediate – prima facie, to borrow an expression from fellow “Intuitionist” W.D. Ross – and for anyone who has ever felt morally obligated, this seems pretty hard to deny.  But it is important to understand what he is not saying.  Prichard is not suggesting that nothing can get us to feel an obligation – for example, seeing something or hearing something or learning about something.  What he is denying is that any description of such facts, no matter how complete, entails or otherwise implies any particular obligation.  In this sense, our feelings of obligation are like our experience of aesthetic properties.  It may be that getting you to attend to the pale colors, curved contours, and long, thin neck of a vase may help you to see that it is delicate, but it does not follow from the fact that something is pale colored, has curved contours, and is possessed of a long, thin neck that it is delicate. (4)

What is even more interesting, however, is what Prichard says this all means with regard to our uncertainties.  How do we know whether we really are obligated?  How do we render those pre-theoretical, intuitive moral reactions reflectively and thus, rationally, respectable? The short answer is that we don’t and we can’t, but the details are fascinating and spread well beyond our feelings of moral obligation and into the realm of belief and of epistemology, proper.

Prichard observes that there has always been something quite odd about the modern epistemological enterprise, and it is something that Descartes arguably saw himself: namely, that it is folly to search for procedures that will guarantee or even substantially increase certainty.  Suppose that I am taking a math test, and I believe that the answer to ‘3+5’ is ‘8’.  Surely, I can doubt this, because I have made arithmetic errors in the past and more fundamentally, because I know that I can reason incorrectly.

But wouldn’t it be awfully strange to reach for a proof procedure, by which to insure that my arithmetic is correct on any given occasion; say, something like the procedure offered in Russell and Whiteheads’ Principia Mathematica?  For if recognizing that I can and sometimes do reason incorrectly is what led me to doubt whether 3+5=8, wouldn’t it also cause me to doubt whatever result I came to, from working through R & W’s proof?  More so, in fact, given how much more complex the proof is than the initial sum?  And isn’t it obvious that this will be true of any proof or procedure I might come up with to “check” any belief, whether it’s that 3+5=8 or that I am currently sitting here typing this essay?

So, what do we actually do, if we doubt whether we have added a series of numbers correctly?  We do the sum again.  And what do we do, if we are not sure whether we really saw something?  We look again.  And what do we do, Prichard asks, if we doubt whether we really are obligated to do something?  We put ourselves back in the situation – either really, or mentally – and see if we feel the obligation again.  That’s all that we can do.  And the level of confidence that arises as a result is all that we legitimately ever will have. (5)


  1. Prichard, p. 2.
  2. Ibid., p. 4.
  3. Ibid., p. 6.
  4. This is the central point of Frank Sibley’s famous essay, “Aesthetic Concepts” (1959). I offered my thoughts on it here:

5.  Ibid., pp. 15=17.





63 responses to “Course Notes – H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?””

  1. 1970scholar

    This is exciting stuff. I was wondering where and how you would place Bernard Williams in terms of the philosophy of ethics/morality.

  2. labnut

    Every now and then you write something really important and this is one of those times. You have touched the very heart of the modern moral dilemma.

    Prichard maintains that our feelings of obligation are basic and immediate – prima facie, to borrow an expression from fellow “Intuitionist” W.D. Ross

    I agree, but this illuminates the problem. Obligations, more often than not, conflict with desires and so we are always looking for an escape clause(we are all subject to temptation). The modern intellectual climate of scientism has handed us an escape clause on a plate. Scientism has inculcated a general attitude that everything is, in principle, observable, measurable, demonstrable and provable. When we bring this attitude to bear on ethics we quickly find that obligations are not provable and so conclude that obligations are relative, situational and adaptable. Obligations then become eroded by desires and we erect a convenient, self-serving justification which we call consequentialism.

    As you say, ‘our feelings of obligation are basic and immediate – prima facie‘. But these basic moral intuitions are fragile seedlings. Properly tended they grow into the strong posts that support and guide our moral life. Without tending they wither and remain scraggly bushes that are easily avoided as we pursue our desires.

  3. davidlduffy

    Elides over the question of how do I decide someone else is obligated and then convince them of the fact, I reckon.

    As to uncertainty about whether I was actually knowledgeable yesterday, you might like the experimental literature on metacognition eg

  4. 1970 Scholar:

    I would describe Williams as one of the top two or three ethicists working since the Second World War. “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” is in my top 10 philosophical works of the last century.

  5. davidldfuffy: I don’t see that Prichard is seeking to answer that question in this essay.

  6. labnut: Prichard certainly does *not* think duties are relative or situational in the sense that you mean. That they arise from specific circumstances, however, seems obviously true, and that the circumstances determine which duty is overriding also seems obviously true. If I pass a car wreck on the way to meeting you for lunch, clearly the duty to try and help save the person in the burning car overrides the duty to keep my promise to you.

    What Prichard denies is that there is any way to further confirm an obligation beyond its being felt. Interestingly, he has a similar view about knowledge itself, which brings us to your other point. One can acquire all sorts of beliefs by way of observation and experiment, but there is no to demonstrate that the things we think are true in those cases *really* are, other than simply to perform the observation/experiment again.

    The essay is really an objection to a very common philosophical conception of epistemology, applied across a number of areas, including morals, not morality per se.

  7. labnut: And welcome back. I missed you!

  8. Morality is the intent to achieve good, for others as well as for ourselves. Rule systems like mores, customs, ethics, laws, and so forth, serve moral intent. But running a farm or bakery to assure the community has food to eat, and giving food to the homeless, is also a moral act, even if there is no rule compelling us to do so.

    A moral person may behave differently than an ethical person. The moral person would lie to the Nazi at the door asking whether there are any Jews in the house. The ethical person might insist upon telling them the truth.

    Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. This is the basis of moral judgment. Moral judgment compares two rules or actions and estimates the benefits and harms for everyone that may result from rule 1 (e.g., you must always return your neighbor’s runaway slave) versus the result of rule 2 (e.g., slavery is outlawed and all slaves are set free).

    We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. (See, for example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

    To the degree that we can objectively measure the benefits and harms of a rule or action, moral judgment is objective.

    However, our estimates of the benefits and harms is often unknown or subjective. So (rather than repeating 3 + 5 over again), we enlist the judgment of a group of representatives, who may arrive at their estimates by different means. And we settle our disagreements by democratically selecting a working rule that we implement for now, and can come back to later for re-evaluation. From what we learned, we may delete or change the rule, or try another solution.

  9. Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. This is the basis of moral judgment.

    = = =

    This is essentially Utilitarianism, in my view the least plausible of all the moral philosophies.

    It’s very easy to preach slogans. It’s much harder to actually give convincing arguments. And “moral judgment is objective” is not an argument, unless you are Sam Harris.

  10. Sorry, didn’t mean to make it sound more simple than it is. The statement is correct, however. All of the arguments will arise regarding how we determine what is good for us and what is harmful. Some will argue that it is impossible to define “good”. But there it is.

    Everything is measured according to how well it serves its purpose. And that would include ethical systems. But first we need to agree on what that purpose is.

    The only purpose that can be universally agreed to is this: “to achieve the best good and the least harm for everyone”. Not “the greatest good for the greatest number”, but for everyone.

    Purpose is what “utility” is about. So everything that has a purpose presumably has some utility, including morality and ethics.

    That’s why your response was that I was advocating “Utilitarianism”. But that’s not correct. The Utilitarians, as I understand it, seek to achieve pleasure and to avoid pain.

    They are incorrect, because pleasure and pain often lead us astray from what is actually good or harmful to us. Childbirth, a real need for the good of a species, is painful. So is a vaccine that protects against illness. And medicine has been proving that many of the things which give us pleasure are medically bad for us, like fatty foods, smoking, and addictive drugs.

    The other problem with any morality based on feelings is that feelings are malleable. And that’s a good thing. For example, the prejudices that many were raised with led to many evils, including slavery and racial discrimination. People took offense at having to sit next to a black person, or having their children attend school with them. But desegregation has slowly eroded many of those prejudices, as they had to confront the reality of the person smiling back at them.

    So, feelings are not a reliable guide to what is good or bad for us.

    The correct order is always 1) find out what is objectively good for us and then 2) choose to feel good about it.

    And that brings us back to the problem of “how do we determine what is objectively good for us?”

    By definition, something is good for us if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

    Everyone can probably agree with the physical needs at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And from there we can say things like, “It is objectively good to give a man in the desert a glass of water”, and, “it is objectively bad to give that same glass of water to the man drowning in a swimming pool.”

    As we move up the hierarchy, things start to get fuzzier and less black and white.

    However, the fact that this works with our basic needs suggests the potential for agreements as we move up to the next level.

    And please don’t call me Shirley.

  11. labnut

    Elides over the question of how do I decide someone else is obligated and then convince them of the fact,

    Appeal to their intuitions, appeal to self interest, or coerce them.

    Self interest does not reliably, or even mostly, motivate the good, coercion motivates evasion(plus a host of unintended consequences), which leaves us with appealing to their moral intuitions.

    But you better be sure you are right about the other person’s moral obligations. Which really is the subject of this essay. How can you be sure of that?

  12. labnut

    So, feelings are not a reliable guide to what is good or bad for us.

    Feelings(or emotions) are not the same thing as moral intuitions. Moral intuitions are concerned with the other while emotions are concerned with the self. It is the self-directed nature of emotions which make them an unreliable guide while the other-directed nature of moral intuitions makes for greater reliability.

  13. Hi Dan, I never learned about Prichard, but this seems somewhat an extension of Hume’s ideas regarding passions. It’s agreeable to me though I might differ in thinking we might also learn by (in addition) trying other scenario that are related in some way.

  14. Hi Marvin, I’m with you on the free will discussions, but completely disagree with you on this one. I am not sure if you operate the way you suggest, but I know I don’t. I think Dan’s reply was correct. Much of what you say seems asserted rather than argued.

    “objectively good”

    What on earth is that?…

    “By definition, something is good for us if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.”

    Those are, quite often, entirely contradictory things, depend on timescale considered, and not that easy to determine.

    “As we move up the hierarchy, things start to get fuzzier and less black and white.”

    This is the problem I find with most “objective good” theories, they start with low-hanging fruit examples that most people might agree on because they rely on some common sentiment (not reasoning), and then hand wave at the rest which is what most of ethics needs to deal with.

    Sorry for being a bit tough, but I’ve been through this before with the hack Dan cited and so it tends to get me edgy.

  15. Hi Labnut, nice to see you again…

    “Moral intuitions are concerned with the other… ”

    Would you say that is always true? I’m thinking there are moral intuitions about the self (particularly in religious moral theories). Basically they constitute an obligation to the self that exist regardless of others and thought to be above emotions. Education and purity (treat the body like a temple) might be two examples

  16. Marvin, Dan, I should probably have said “the hack Dan mentioned in his reply” instead of “the hack Dan cited”. The latter makes it sound like Dan agreed with him (and might refer to the essay), when that is clearly not the case

  17. Lab, I think a moral intuition would be a feeling that something is right or wrong, or that something is better or worse, without the ability to “show me your work”. Most of these would be culturally acquired, but there are studies of toddlers making moral judgments. To what degree any of these are hardwired instincts versus an infant’s earliest experiences with the mother I don’t know.

    In David Eagleman’s PBS series, “The Brain”, he made a point of the involvement of emotional centers in making ordinary judgments. There was an example he gave of a woman who had an injury to that area of the brain and found it extremely difficult to shop for groceries. She could mentally evaluate the nutrition of two different canned products from their labels, but could not feel better about one than the other. So wherever moral evaluations come from, they seem to involve the emotional centers of the brain for memory storage.

    Cultural prejudices and taboos can result in intuitive moral judgments about people and behaviors.

    I don’t agree that moral judgments apply only in regards to how we treat others. They can also apply to how we treat ourselves.

  18. Hi DB,

    I’m using “objectively good” as in scientific objectivity. Apparently there is a whole other “objectivity” out there, ironically based upon people’s subjective religious beliefs. But that’s not an “objectivity” that I understand.

    Scientific objectivity concerns facts which can be verified by multiple means and by multiple independent observers.

    Medicine, for example, tells us that certain things like smoking are objectively bad for us, and other things, like moderate exercise, are objectively good for us.

    And, yes, that is low-hanging fruit. A more difficult question might be whether studying philosophy is objectively good for us. (Oh, Hi Dan, I didn’t notice you there). 🙂

    You also make a good point about conflicts between what is good for individual (preserving life), what is good for a society (winning a war), and what is good for a species (avoiding overpopulation and global warming).

    If the species is at stake, then that would take precedence over everything else. But, as in many moral conundrums, the survival of the species rarely is decided by a single moral choice. (Which actually brings up the broader question of excusing ourselves by saying, “my sin is too small to make any difference”.)

    The more complex moral issues may involve varieties of types of benefits and harms that are subjectively estimated, of different qualities that make their weights hard to compare, and some may argue that certain benefits are actually harms and vice versa.

    So, you’re right that as the issue becomes more complex, the challenge of the evaluation becomes more difficult. And, I’ve never read Prichard, but the point of our vulnerability to human failings in making such calculations is also valid.

    Nevertheless: The “best good and least harm for everyone” is where we all naturally will go in the end to reach a conclusion that we all can agree to. Thus, that is the universal underlying meta-ethic.

  19. Dan,
    still reading Pritchard. Excellent post.

    “And what do we do, Prichard asks, if we doubt whether we really are obligated to do something? We put ourselves back in the situation – either really, or mentally – and see if we feel the obligation again. ” – Which of course the fictive arts, storytelling and drama especially, of major importance to cultural re-4enforcement of community ethics while at the same providing opportunities for reconsidering past judgments.

    “Medicine, for example, tells us that certain things like smoking are objectively bad for us, and other things, like moderate exercise, are objectively good for us. ”

    No, that’s not true, or at least a poor conception of the matter. Physiological and medicinal research tells us that certain behaviors with have certain effects on our physiologic system. Whether they are “good” or “bad” are value judgments. These can be widely held so as to become the shared belief of the community (the value judgment, not the physiologic fact), but of course there is room for deviance of judgment on such matters.

  20. Hi EJ,

    Yeah, it’s subjective from the standpoint that a smoker may feel the benefits he gets outweigh the risks, even though he will agree that it may turn out to be medically bad for him, he is still willing to take the risk.

    And we will all likely agree that the freedom to make these informed choices for ourselves is of great value to everyone. And thus we avoid making rules that limit this freedom, except where a person’s choices put others at risk of harm.

    So the formula, “the best possible good and least possible harm for everyone”, is still in play.

  21. davidlduffy

    “For, as I have urged before, we can only feel an obligation to act; we cannot feel an obligation to act from a certain desire” – surely imitatio Christi, “what would MacGyver do”, and other such techniques are precisely aimed at getting into the correct frame of mind (a second order desire) so the act will be both truly virtuous (a la Kant) as well as being more likely to be practically successful viz Prichard’s example of traversing a steep cliff to get a doctor for a family member.

    The only trouble with our “unreflectiveness consciousness” cum moral intuition is precisely what do we do when we disagree. Most of Prichard’s examples of obligation are pretty straightforwardly contractual (ie reciprocal) in nature: repaying bills, giving a present to someone who did you a favour. Our “intuition” is simply early socialisation in these cases. We could be Legalists and have formal contracts for everything, but it is much less work to just keep a rough mental ledger of who has already bought a round of drinks.

    “What is G is O; x is G; Therefore, x is O”: just reading Gibbard on the normativity of meaning and how this relates to metaethics. He differentiates between objective ought (A), so that meaning supervenes on natural facts, and the subjective ought (B):
    A) X ought to accept “snow is white” iff snow is white. B) X ought to accept “snow is white” iff X ought to accept snow is white.
    I think a certain number of utilitarians are moral realists, so maybe this is a way out?

  22. Hi Marvin, EJ already made the major point I’d want to make.

    “Nevertheless: The “best good and least harm for everyone” is where we all naturally will go in the end to reach a conclusion that we all can agree to.”

    If true it is only because that phrase is a blank page on which anyone can project what they want. There is absolutely no content there at all, and so everyone nods their head because it sounds good, but when it comes to action find they all mean very very different things.

    I can’t even begin to conceive how that would be determined, much less believe that is what lies behind people’s actions. I mean sure a lot of people will want to fall back on that excuse. But the road to hell and all…

    “Thus, that is the universal underlying meta-ethic.”

    I know I don’t use it, so it can’t be universal. There are other approaches out there. I think Virtue Ethics gets closer to the mark of how people can deal with issues in a more realistic fashion… though even then I would not call it universal.

  23. And you chose Virtue Ethics based on … ?

  24. labnut

    The “best good and least harm for everyone” is where we all naturally will go in the end to reach a conclusion that we all can agree to.”

    But we don’t and never have.

    DB put it well when he said it was a blank page where we project our desires. There is no way of computing the best good and least harm that we can agree on.

    Here is an hypothetical example. Tell me what I should have done.

    I was presenting a paper at a seminar in another, distant country. I was really quite nervous about presenting this paper before a large audience at an important seminar. At cocktail hour, the previous evening, I met a fellow speaker. She was vivacious, very attractive and very desirable. We shared interests and outlook. She invited me up to her room for a last drink. Our attraction for each other overwhelmed us and we slept together that night. The next day we both presented our papers. Buoyed by that lovely experience we gained in confidence and each presented our papers with confidence, verve and aplomb. It was a success. Later that day we said goodbye as we departed to our different countries and resolved not to have further contact since neither of us wanted to hurt our spouses.

    I went home to my loving, caring spouse who suspected nothing and had no way of ever discovering what happened. Our marriage carried on as before, unharmed.

    Should I have done what I did? According to your measure the answer is yes. It was the best good for the two of us at that time and there was no harm, to ourselves or to our family. Does that make what we did right?

  25. As soon as you added “at the time” to best good you restricted the effects of your actions to that moment (reminds me of the musical “Into The Woods” where the prince is seducing the baker’s wife).

    Question: Would you be comfortable if your wife followed that same rule? Both Jesus and Kant (and probably everyone else) pointed out that one of the “rules for making rules” is whether you’d still be happy with it if everyone followed it (“universal rule” and “do unto others as”).

    Back in the 60’s and 70’s everyone was experimenting with “sexual freedom”, “open relationships”, “wife swapping”, etc. Then AIDS came along and everyone (regardless of orientation) rediscovered one of the benefits of monogamy: avoiding STDs.

    Bishop Eugene Robinson was open with his fiancé about his homosexual attractions before they married. They had two daughters. But later they divorced so he could feel better about himself. The Episcopal church embraced him and allowed him to keep his ordination. And when he found the right man, they got married.

    So in the mix of things which are good for us and things which harm us, honesty is generally good for us. And so is commitment to one’s marriage vows.

    My point is that the harms may not be immediately apparent to you or your mistress. And that’s one of the reasons we create rules in the first place, to save us time and energy figuring out what is right and wrong in each separate case.

    I suspect that consequentialists must write the rules, then deontologists disseminate them.

  26. labnut

    My point is that the harms may not be immediately apparent to you or your mistress.

    And with that statement you have made my point for me. It is exactly because harms are often not immediately apparent that we cannot trust consequentialism as our guide to morality.

    Therefore how can we believe that(your words)

    The “best good and least harm for everyone” is where we all naturally will go in the end to reach a conclusion that we all can agree to.”

    if we cannot always know what the harm will be? And especially if in the moment of lust and desire we lose the ability to discern the future harm?

  27. labnut

    And you chose Virtue Ethics based on … ?

    Because the virtues represent our most basic and intuitive understanding of morality. Martin Seligman has shown that there is near universal agreement on virtues. See

    He said

    Our literature review revealed a surprising amount of similarity across cultures and strongly indicates a historical and cross-cultural convergence of six core virtues: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence

    Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition,
    external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty)

    Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and
    citizenship or teamwork

    Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others (Taylor et al., 2000);
    examples include love and kindness

    Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-

    Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity,
    curiosity, judgement, and perspective (providing counsel to others)

    Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples
    include gratitude, hope, and spirituality

  28. There are short-term and long-term consequences. So it is still consequentialism.

    It is possible for two good and honest persons to disagree as to their estimated consequences of the action or rule in question. That’s why we use representative democracies. Congress can hold hearings to elicit expert testimony, discuss the information, discuss options for dealing with the problem, and take a vote. A solution is put in place. After a little time and some experience, our knowledge of outcomes will be clearer, and we can improve the decision.

  29. Keep in mind what Kant said about virtues. Every virtue can be used for evil as well as for good purposes. For example, it also takes courage to rob a bank, justice to distribute the stolen goods evenly, loyalty so that no one snitches, temperance to avoid spilling the beans while drunk, wisdom to concoct the perfect scheme, etc.

    The only virtue that is good in itself he said was a good will. And what would such a will be? To achieve the best good and least harm for everyone. (Humanist translation of Matthew 22:35-40: “Love good, and love it for others as you love it for yourself. All other rules serve and are judged by these two.”)

  30. labnut

    that is such a strained and artificial interpretation of the virtues that they can hardly be called virtues. In any case, my point still stands, that we lack the capacity to discern the least harm, which is fatal to consequentialism. Your reply to my earlier comment admitted as much.

  31. Nothing is “fatal to consequentialism”. Everything that matters is literally consequential. Nothing else is of any consequence. For example, consequence is the only reason that any virtues matter.

  32. Hi Marvin,

    “And you chose Virtue Ethics based on … ?”

    As Labnut explained, it is a more intuitive system which seems to reflect the categories people actually use.

    But I want to go further, the system is interactive and situational rather than definitive and static. I personally would have some issues with the system Labnut gave an example of (the specific categories) but they are for discussion, with a goal toward betterment and lacking an illusion of perfection.

    Of course, I did not say I thought Virtue Ethics is correct, just one of the better approaches. I have my issues with it, though I would say I come from that side of things. People would likely label me that.

    “…it also takes courage to rob a bank, justice to distribute the stolen goods evenly, loyalty so that no one snitches, temperance to avoid spilling the beans while drunk, wisdom to concoct the perfect scheme, etc.”

    I have no idea about good or evil, but I agree with what you just said. And I’m not seeing where the problem is. Yes, that is how thieves might look at things. And if you were to appeal to them to stop, it might be to point to the injustice or cruelty of the robbery, the cowardice of attacking people who are defenceless, among many practical appeals (possibility of jail, etc).

    Telling them they are evil? About achieving the best good of everyone? Eh.

  33. And all I’m saying is that ultimately, everyone is using exactly the same criteria for making statements like, “just one of the better approaches”. I’m explaining what you meant by “better” (best good and least harm for everyone).

    Did you have a better explanation of “better”?

    Also, when you said, “the system is interactive and situational rather than definitive and static”, why should we prefer “interactive and situational” above “definitive and static”, if not in order to achieve the best good and least harm for everyone.

    I’m merely asserting the underlying meta-ethic by which all ethics, rules, and actions are ultimately judged.

  34. Hi Marvin, I just noticed this…

    “Then AIDS came along and everyone (regardless of orientation) rediscovered one of the benefits of monogamy: avoiding STDs.”

    HIV most likely originated from the butchering/eating of infected animals, was spread quickly through global interactions/travel (and not just by sexual contact), was allowed to build to a pandemic by prudes that delayed investigations into testing and treatment because they didn’t like the groups in which it was initially discovered, and continues due basically to the same (it is not treated like any other contagious illness).

    Plenty of things we could have learned from HIV, but what is the take away?…monogamy!

    Even though…

    Monogamy doesn’t stop you from getting HIV, a lot of people got it thinking that way.

    Non-monogamous sex does not cause HIV, or necessarily increase the chance you’ll get it. There are plenty of people who have lived free, casual sex lives and haven’t gotten any STDs, much less HIV. The point is knowing your status, the status of partners, and engaging in no to low risk activity.

    Monogamy is a social convention. If you like it, great. I’m not down on people liking it. But it provides no greater benefits to health, than simply being careful.

    This may seem a bit off topic, but I thought this was a great demonstration of how people really do not engage in “best good, least harm for everyone.” The HIV pandemic is a study in bigotry, ignorance, and loyalty/faith (those two commonly considered virtues) exacting a terrible price on all of humanity.

  35. labnut

    consequence is the only reason that any virtues matter.

    This is a circular argument. What is the right consequence? When you keep pushing that question back to its origin you arrive at our moral intuitions, which is exactly the point of Dan-K’s essay.

    Our moral intuitions exist. They define good, bad, right and wrong. Without our moral intuitions we would not have these concepts. This definition is what makes consequentialism possible. Our moral intuitions are the necessary grounding without which we could not conceive of consequentialism. But consequentialism extends our moral intuitions into dangerous ground. One example of this is our inability to reliably perceive the harmful consequences of our actions, if we rely on consequences alone. You admitted this when you replied to my example. Having admitted this I cannot see how you can continue to defend consequentialism, since it cripples consequentialism.

    The virtues are the coded representation of our best understanding of our moral intuitions. To argue they are right or wrong is quite simply beside the point because they are, whatever their faults, the grounding that defines our understanding of right and wrong. You might in reply argue that the virtues allow for differing interpretations, but so be it.Our moral intuitions are an imperfect system in an imperfect species. But we have to live with it and make the best of it because it is the foundation of all else.

  36. I agree with you that the reaction to AIDS was shameful. But a lot of this strikes me as special pleading. Of course promiscuity is a major risk factor, with respect to *any* STD. If you stipulate that all you’ll ever do is give each other handjobs, then sure, but, well … please.

  37. Monogamy became a social convention for several reasons. First would be to insure that children were cared for. Second would be to secure one’s spouse. Third would be to prevent the spread of common sexual diseases, like gonorrhea and syphilis. Other less common reasons exist, like to form alliances between families.

    I don’t know where you got your sex-ed from, but I can tell you that “There are plenty of people who have lived free, casual sex lives and haven’t gotten any STDs” did not work for me.

    And, when you say, “I thought this was a great demonstration of how people really do not engage in “best good, least harm for everyone.” “, you clearly overlooked the fact that this is the basis of your own argument.

    Every moral argument is ultimately consequentialist. You suggest that there is less harm by your estimation in having casual sex than my estimation.

    And you argue that “bigotry, ignorance” produce harm, as when it prevented the early investigation of the HIV pandemic.

    All moral arguments are consequentialist. All boil down to the “best good and least harm for everyone”.

  38. Moral intuitions are acquired, mostly through indoctrination of a culture’s values. Behind every moral intuition is someone’s calculation as to what rules produce the best good and least harm for everyone.

    The question I’m addressing is not whether moral intuitions exist, but rather where do they come from. They all originate with a consideration of the consequences of our actions. But once the calculation is made, and the rule is disseminated, we forget the “why?” behind the rule.

    For example, why is stealing wrong?

  39. labnut

    The question I’m addressing is not whether moral intuitions exist, but rather where do they come from.

    Then you are talking at cross purposes to the essay. Moral intuitions exist and that is the subject of discussion. Discussion of their origin is speculative and ultimately unknowable since the archaeological record of early home sapiens does not contain their thoughts and emotions.

    …why is stealing wrong?

    Your statement is founded on the intuition that there is such a thing as wrongness. Your consequentialism is only possible because your moral intuitions have supplied you with the concepts of good and right, with their negations. You are using your moral intuitions to make evaluative judgements of consequences.

    Take away the evaluative judgements we derive from our moral intuitions and you are left with statements devoid of judgement, like “theft is the taking of another person’s property without their agreement”, or “robbery is the taking of another person’s property by the use of force”. Even the concept of ownership is a moral intuition.

    And this illustrates the inherent danger of consequentialism. It breaks or attenuates the link between our behaviour and our moral intuitions. Once freed from our moral intuitions we are free to tailor our behaviour according to our desires.

    My hook-up example illustrated how, by consideration of consequences only, I could defy my moral intuitions. Consequentialism give me the intellectual justification for defying my moral intuitions. And, as my hook-up example illustrated, it licenses deeply undesirable behaviour. My example was no trolley artifice but a plausible and indeed common occurrence.

    My dogs have no moral intuitions. Consequently they take, bully, dominate and savage at will. Theirs is a world of consequentialism dominated by fear and force with no concept of good and right. To accuse my one dog of stealing from another would be just a silly anthropomorphism as would be accusing one dog of being unfaithful to another.

    That is consequentialism. It is the balancing of self interest through a compelling regulatory mechanism such as force, fear, deprival, shaming or ostracism. To call something for the greater good or the least harm is the superficial gloss we put on it to mollify our residual moral intuitions. It is lipstick on the pig.

    Your reply to my hook-up example was that I made the wrong choice because I could not discern the harm of my behaviour. But that admits the fatal flaw of consequentialism. We often cannot, or will not discern the harm of our behaviour and thus consequentialism is a deeply flawed guide to behaviour. Consequentialism enabled me to decouple my moral intuitions from the results of my behaviour and this gave me license to do wrong.

  40. labnut

    I think it is worth quoting a comment I made to an earlier essay:
    since it illustrates an integrated approach to moral decision making that draws on all the main moral systems:

    “We don’t need to say that one specific value system is right if we apply Edward de Bono’s powerful insights contained in his six thinking hats. He maintained that our thinking is sterile because it is monochromatic. To remedy that he advocated that we put on six thinking hats in turn when considering a problem, each one of a different colour. These were

    1) white hat – get the data, a factual, neutral point of view
    2) red hat – gut reaction, a feeling and intuitive point of view
    3) yellow hat – adopt an optimistic, explorative and speculative point of view
    4) green hat – innovative, creative and freewheeling point of view
    5) black hat – logical, careful and critical point of view
    6) blue hat – evaluative, assessing, all things considered point of view.

    He discovered that following this process invariably produced better decision making and that most of us are imprisoned by one of these perspectives. By consciously putting on other hats we broaden our perspective to cover the full problem domain and thus improve the quality of our problem solving.

    The same thinking applies to moral problem solving and this leads us to abandon the idea that one specific value system is correct. Instead I propose we don the six moral thinking hats in turn:

    1) white hat – acts: moral rules and duties, deontological thinking;
    2) red hat – motives: virtues, agent based thinking, attitudes, dispositions;
    3) black hat – outcomes: examining the consequences;
    4) green hat – principles: focusing on the context, autonomy, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence;
    5) yellow hat – care: focus on relationships and power structures;
    6) blue hat – evaluative, assessing, all things considered point of view.
    We clarify this by taking a third person view and asking what would a wise, principled, all seeing role model do? For example what would Jesus, Pope Francis, Solomon, Buddha, Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Dawkins, etc, do? (choose according to your own faith system). If you find that difficult, ask what your daughter would expect you to do.

    In this way we examine the full moral problem domain allowing us to arrive at a considered decision that properly balances the tensions between:
    – desire and virtue,
    – feeling and thinking,
    – self and other;

    These thoughts roughly parallel the advice given by a Jesuit philosopher when he gave a series of lectures on moral philosophy to our parish church.

  41. Hi Dan,

    “But a lot of this strikes me as special pleading.”

    What? I was responding to a claim about monogamy being something that could save one from HIV, as opposed to “sexual freedom”, “open relationships”, and “wife-swapping**.”

    I gave the history of how the HIV pandemic developed, where was the pleading in that and what for? Then I stated that monogamy does not save one from HIV, a fact, again special pleading for what? Then stated that non-monogamous sex is not the cause, or necessarily lead to increased rates of infection: it depends on the (knowledge about self and) partners, and the nature of the activity, which is a fact and special pleading for what, exactly?

    “Of course promiscuity is a major risk factor, with respect to *any* STD.”

    First, the claim I was challenging was *monogamy*, it is not that or *promiscuity*, which is why I did not use that term in my response. It is not like cultures (religious or secular) that allowed multiple partner relationships were heavily hit. Secular polygamy, mirroring that in the 60s, is on the rise and that has nothing to do with promiscuity.

    Second, really? A bunch of people with no STDs that have sex with each other will be at risk of STDs? How is that exactly?

    Oh wait, let’s ignore what I actually said and pretend I meant going out without any idea of one’s status, the status of others one is having sex with, or taking any preventative measures (including no to low risk activity)… you know the stereotype bogeyman of “promiscuity”.

    “If you stipulate that all you’ll ever do is give each other handjobs, then sure, but, well … please.”

    Some people only engage in that, and that is *non-monogamy* and dare I say it *promiscuous*? Heck there is a whole event at a local venue here for it, which is quite popular (people have to pay to get in). So, well… please.

    Man, I didn’t argue against monogamy, or that everyone should be polygamous, or have casual sex. Or that somehow casual sex was a preventative or cure for STDs. So there was no special pleading, for anything.

    Yes, if you carelessly do anything, the risk of something unfortunate happening increases. Probably a good idea to avoid that, or at least know the risks you are taking (like say with other enjoyable things, such as drinking, smoking, eating, driving, etc.).

    Oh yeah, and my *main point* was to show via the history, that people do not act based on “better good, less harm for everyone.” Was I somehow special pleading for that?

    **- I love the condemnation of “wife-swapping”. So let’s see, as long as one is monogamous with one’s spouse, no STDs. But two couples that were monogamous, and so no STDs, that decide to exchange partners = STDs? Brilliant.

    There is only one form of special pleading going on, and it is contained in the argument I responded to, as well as your own response. Monogamy, or handjobs? Please.

  42. Hi Marvin, oh dear…

    “Monogamy became a social convention for several reasons…”

    You do know you can get the same results through polygamy, right? Monogamy was mainly about property ownership, better securing of heirs… oh yeah and cultural identity.

    “I don’t know where you got your sex-ed from, but I can tell you that “There are plenty of people who have lived free, casual sex lives and haven’t gotten any STDs” did not work for me.”

    From sex-education, including at health centers.

    I’m very sorry to hear that you suffered something (and hope it is not HIV), but are you claiming that you knew (or had reason to be confident) about the status of your partner, and or/engaged in no to low risk activity? That would seem unbelievable, and extremely unlucky if true. If not, then you missed what I was talking about.

    Before anyone says anything, I have not and am not claiming you can’t catch anything from sex with others. The wider the net is cast in a risky fashion, the likely you are to catch something you don’t want. Admittedly, I put myself at greater risk from time to time and would *not* advocate my lifestyle for anyone wanting to be 100% risk free. But I could reach that level and not get anywhere close to “monogamy.”

    Free, and casual does not mean “careless”, and I clearly set out the conditions to help stay healthy. Check with a health center and I’m sure they will agree.

    If I were to run with the logic presented by you and Dan, the only healthy behavior would be abstinence.

    ““best good, least harm for everyone.” “, you clearly overlooked the fact that this is the basis of your own argument.”

    How was that? I showed that is not how people think, act.

    “You suggest that there is less harm by your estimation in having casual sex than my estimation. And you argue that “bigotry, ignorance” produce harm, as when it prevented the early investigation of the HIV pandemic.”

    Describing how things work, the history of something, and running an analysis that does not use consequentialism as its basis, does not in any way argue for consequentialism just because it happened to point to something tragic.

    My “moral argument” would not in any sense involve or reduce to “best good, least harm for everyone.” Even if it did, in this particular instance (which it doesn’t), that would be very very low hanging fruit… as mentioned before… getting us nowhere when we move away from pandemics. This goes back to Labnut’s point earlier, at the time (when “pandemic” was not known) how were people acting, how were they making decisions?

    And I really have to point out that just because someone, even a Virtue Ethicist, might point to a consequence as undesirable, to be avoided, does not mean their entire thought process is consequentialist, especially grand scale consequential.

    Yes, people care about consequences… too.

  43. Dwayne: It seems to me that the only really interesting conversation on this front is that which addresses what large populations of people do, not the behavior of fringe populations, whose behavior the implications of which is marginal overall. So, I am leaving out the handjobs-only population. And I am leaving out the population that consists of those groups of 4 people who were thoroughly vetted for STDs and then stick with each other forever.

    It seems to me quite obvious that given these constraints, people who as they grow older settle down with a person and share their lives as a couple for life are at close to zero risk for STDs, unless they marry Jenna Jameson and have no STD tests done, when they are dating. Those that continue to flit from sex partner to sex partner over the course of their lives, either in serial monogamous relationships or in multiple “dating” style relationships, are at greater risk. And being careful, while certainly making it safer, does not make it as safe, just as walking into a room full of people some of whom have the flu wearing a mask may make it safer, but does not make it safe.

    This is not, by the way, a moral point of any kind, so my remarks were not intended as any sort of support for Marvin’s attempts to engage in consequentialist moralizing on the subject.

    There was a pretty angry discussion over at PF not long ago on marriage in which I was the object of quite a bit of abuse for advancing a relatively traditional view. It has made me think that I will likely do something on the subject here at EA, the substance of which I am sure you will loathe. Rather than just hate it in the comments, though, you should write a counter-essay, since you are a smart and articulate believer in non-traditional arrangements. I find myself, the older I get, less and less so, though it will never get to the point where it is either a moral or legal matter for me. Just a matter of what I observe in myself, the people I know, and the society at large.

    **If you are interested in doing dueling essays on something like that, shoot me an email.

  44. labnut

    …advancing a relatively traditional view. …I will likely do something on the subject here at EA

    I hope you do. I look forward to it.

    …should write a counter-essay…doing dueling essays

    Excellent idea. I love the format.

    We, in the Church, attach great value to a stable, long lived family, seeing it as the cornerstone of society. Nearly every Sunday there is an announcement that so-and-so have reached their 30th, 40th, 50th or 60th wedding anniversary. We see it as a cause for great celebration.

  45. Perhaps there is a school of ethical philosophy called “Consequentialism” out there which asserts values that I would disagree with, perhaps some other consequence they sought other than “best good and least harm for all”. I found that problem with “Utilitarianism”. Rules certainly have utility, but Utilitarians seem to think their utility is to make us happy.

    The utility of ethical rules follows from their consequences. The specific consequence that morality seeks is “the best good and least harm for everyone”. And I will not have schools of ethics abscond with meaningful words and turn them into something else.

    We need those words to mean what they actually mean.

    DB, All of your arguments are based upon consequences. You argue that being free and casual is okay, if you’re careful. By “okay” you mean that there is a benefit you can obtain (sex with multiple partners) with minimal harm. But if you’re careless, the risk of harm may outweigh the benefit.

    You suggest that abstinence is the only risk-free behavior, and you make the claim that I am insisting upon rules that remove all risk of harm, even though they also remove all benefit. Obviously I’ve not made such a claim. But the point is that you are still arguing from consequence (loss of benefit).

    You said, “Yes, people care about consequences… too.” The fact that we care about anything means it is not inconsequential.

  46. Lab: “Moral intuitions exist and that is the subject of discussion. Discussion of their origin is speculative and ultimately unknowable since the archaeological record of early home sapiens does not contain their thoughts and emotions.”

    ME: Okay. Then should we follow our moral intuitions regarding gay marriage?

    Lab: “Your consequentialism is only possible because your moral intuitions have supplied you with the concepts of good and right, with their negations.”

    ME: Well, those would be biological drives. An infant comes out of the womb hollering for the food and warmth that were just taken from him, because he needs those things to survive. The mother responds by holding and feeding the infant. Both the infant’s response and the mother’s response are hardwired into the biology, because those without this wiring went extinct.

    Beyond our biological drives for the basic needs of our survival, I suspect that all other moral intuitions are acquired by experience. For example, at some point in their relationship, hollering no longer produces the desired result. The consequences, and the lessons taught and learned, would account for all our “moral intuitions” that are not biologically programmed.

    Lab: “We often cannot, or will not discern the harm of our behaviour and thus consequentialism is a deeply flawed guide to behaviour.”

    ME: So, we’re sitting at breakfast eating our biscuits. You finish yours and reach for mine. I take it back from you. You reach for it again and I stick a fork in your hand. Voila! A new moral intuition is created.

    To avoid violent consequences, we reach an agreement to respect and protect a right to property for each other. This provides a mutual benefit in that we can feel more secure in our property if we don’t have to worry that the other guy is going to steal what is mine. If I see someone stealing your car, I’ll call the police for you, and I’ll expect you to do the same for me. All practical rights arise from agreements.

    Once a right is established, we pass it on to our children so that they can live successfully in our society. This becomes the child’s moral intuition.

  47. labnut

    ME: So, we’re sitting at breakfast eating our biscuits. You finish yours and reach for mine. I take it back from you. You reach for it again and I stick a fork in your hand. Voila! A new moral intuition is created.

    No, you have just confirmed my opinion that you are a violent and paranoid person whose connection with reality is so tenuous that he thinks the world is trying to take everything from him. I have a very nice tinfoil hat for sale that you might want to use!

  48. My point is simply that moral intuitions are acquired from our culture.

    At some point someone calculated that a rule against stealing would be mutually beneficial. The consequence of building a chair just to have it stolen was to stop building chairs. But the consequence of building chairs in exchange for food and silverware was that the farmer, the silversmith and the carpenter were all able to sit down to eat at a table filled with food and with knives and forks.

    Stealing is wrong because respecting and protecting a right to property for each other has better consequences than a rule that allows stealing.

    This is where all ethics comes from: a search for a world with more good and less harm for everyone. Kant called that intention “a good will”.

  49. Marvin,
    I’m not jumping in to defend labnut, with whom I have some disagreements in this matter (although I am also pleased to welcome him back to EA, always a challenging commentator). But you’re starting to drop everything into the same stew and hope it comes out consequentialism. If I understand labnut’s virtue ethics, there’s an intuition prior to enculturation (and, in a different way, from a different tradition of thought, this is true of Pritchard as well). I actually agree that intuitions are enculturated, but there are another ways to conceive them. Further any intuitionism essentially conflicts with consequentialism, since the intuition motivates prior to a consideration of consequences.

    Also, when Kant writes of a “good will,” he is referring to the adherence to duty, regardless of the consequences.

    It’s all right to adopt a position and hold it rigorously, but I’d be careful of suggesting to others ‘when you say X you really mean Y, which is what I’ve been saying all along.’ Chances are they actually mean X, and then you need an argument that attacks X or supports Y.

    The attractiveness of any consequentialism lies in the fact that we all use consideration of consequences when we make practical judgments in our actions, undeniably. But consequences may not be the final determination of those judgments, hence the wide variety of actions actually taken in ethical decisions. Further, when we start making claims about ‘greatest benefit to the greatest number,’ we are elevating consequationalism to a moral realism, in that this suggests that the greatest benefit should be clear and distinguishable by all, if we all reason through matters correctly. Given the many variant ethical positions to take, all derived through some precise reasoning based on assumed premises, this seems to be a problematic hope at best.

    At any rate, we’re not going to get to the premises those ethical positions begin with, by blending them all together and hoping they come out all looking like one’s own.

  50. Right. It’s not really my intent to dispute moral intuitions or any other useful tools (like Lab’s Hat exercises) or Kant or Utilitarianism. Whatever works best for you, and helps you be a better person, and do good in the world, such as a belief in a creator God, or a personal Savior, then this is a good thing (“By their works ye shall know them.”)

    It all works to the extent that certain ethical problems are already effectively solved, like thou shalt not steal, murder, commit adultery, etc. Once the ethic has proved itself, then the main job is dissemination of the principles and education of the young, so that everyone knows the rules we’re all playing by.

    And for known rules, deontology may reason out reasonable extensions, exceptions, and so on.

    But every now and then we run into something new, something where the rule in play turns out to be very wrong. Slavery taught us the evils of prejudice, and discrimination. The moral intuitions of the children growing up in the Southern slave states was that the black man was something less than human, something you wouldn’t want to sit down to eat with, or go to school with, or use the same rest room, or drink from the same water fountain.

    Separation was celebrated as virtuous and deontologically correct (as if they were a different species). The same moral intuition that said you should not marry your cow said that you should not marry a negro.

    So there comes certain times when we need to check our moral intuitions at the door and go back to the drawing board, back to the basics, back to considering the consequences of our current rules.

    And now, too, we have recently done the same with LGBT rights. I would suspect that back in the Old Testament times someone observed two men engaged in homosexual activity and intuitively said to themselves, “now that isn’t right”.

    That’s why it is important to keep in mind the fact of where these intuitions originate and how they are passed down socially, especially when it comes time to go back to the drawing board.

  51. labnut

    Hi EJ,

    If I understand labnut’s virtue ethics, there’s an intuition prior to enculturation

    Yes, but it is not a specific moral intuition. The ground moral intuition is the sense that there is a good and right(with their negations). This, I believe, precedes enculturation. Enculturation develops this basic moral intuition in two ways. It strengthens the moral intuition(or not, depending on circumstances) and it develops them into the specific set of values we call the six core virtues(courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence).

    So my position is that there are core moral intuitions that precede enculturation and these are enlarged, expanded upon by enculturation into what we call the virtues. The papers by Seligman provide strong evidence that this process is universal, across history and culture, and remarkably, producing similar outcomes.

    …since the intuition motivates prior to a consideration of consequences.

    Exactly. The key word here is ‘motivates‘. Moral decisions are often difficult decisions because they conflict with our desires or the pressures of the moment. We need the motivating force of a strong intuition to overcome these.

    Let me illustrate with another example, this time a true story 🙂

    I was a young infantryman doing guard duty by patrolling the far perimeter of a very large ammunition dump, at 2.00 am. Our opponents were actively infiltrating our positions and trying to cause as much mayhem as possible by blowing up large ammunition dumps. This had already happened, and believe me, it causes quite stupendous damage. My orders were clear and specific, stop unauthorised people and kill them if they cannot be stopped, regardless. At intervals a duty officer does the rounds, checking on the guards. He identifies himself by giving the correct response to a challenge/response password.

    And so, at about 2.00 am, what looks like a duty officer appears on the path, out of the dark. From his uniform I can see he is a parabat captain. We detest them for their violent arrogance. I assume the ready position, safety off and finger on the trigger, plus a bayonet on the end of my rifle. I issue the challenge but he does not know the response. He tries to bluster his way past me. I stand my ground. He gets angry and tries to force his way past me.

    In that cold, dark night I was suddenly confronted with an existential dilemma. Should I kill him, as my orders demanded? In any case we detested parabats. Good riddance my friends would have said. Was he really a parabat or was he a cleverly diguised infiltrator? I looked into his face, and saw a young man like myself, lean, hardened, bronzed, fit and determined. Who was he? Was he really a parabat officer from a sister unit? Why did he not know the response? Why did he want to force his way past me?

    In that terrifying moment of an irresolvable dilemma you must act immediately or die. There is no time to calculate consequences. I could have pulled the trigger and he would have died instantly from a hail of bullets. The resulting inquiry would have exonerated me. Instead I lunged at him with my bayonet, hitting him in the stomach, but I pulled my lunge sufficiently that he was only injured but not killed.

    I was given an award for my conduct(he really was a parabat officer from a sister unit). So what happened here? My moral intuitions were screaming at me – do not kill in cold blood. My encultured intuition(military discipline) demanded that I kill him, in accordance with my orders. My compassion recognised a fellow young man, probably with family, like myself. There was no time to calculate consequences so instead I acted immediately according to my developed moral intuitions, the virtues and I acted correctly. Looking back, I think I was intuitively motivated to seek a wise decision that balanced justice, discipline and courage together with compassion. But that is not to praise myself, since I merely acted intuitively at the time. Understanding came later when I analysed my conduct.

    And this is the point. Well developed moral intuitions(the virtues) act as guiding principles that tend to produce the right result under most circumstances, without careful analysis, even under trying circumstances requiring a quick decision.

    However consequentialism, since it is not based on principles, merely an end goal, requires that each situation be analysed according to the facts of the moment, accounting style, producing a balance sheet of good and harm, so that finally a choice can be made. In my example a consequentialist would have dithered, lost the plot under intense emotional duress and probably made the wrong choice. Crucially, consequentialism demands a full set of facts, time to consider and an intelligent decision maker, conditions which are not usually present.

  52. Or, to put it another way, you had two rules (moral intuition telling you not to kill and military intuition telling you protect the ammunition and prevent mayhem by killing the threat), neither of which produced an ideal consequence. You instinctively calculated a response that balanced both goals, doing the minimal harm necessary to accomplish the best result for everyone.

    That calculation could also have been a third intuition. You were aware of the possibility of a gray area, where someone could have innocently forgotten the password, well in advance. So it was possible that the solution had already been calculated and sitting there in unconscious memory waiting to be called to action.

  53. Hi Dan, sorry about the delayed response. I’ll send an email on the essay idea.

    On generic risk, I might put things in different terms than you, but would generally agree with what you said in the context you gave. But that wasn’t the context of my reply to Marvin, which targeted his mention of a massive health crisis. With AIDS, he could not have picked a worse example for himself, or a better example for me.

    You don’t have to reply to the rest. It is more an explanation to show where I was coming from…

    Remember, Marvin said AIDS helped remind people from the 60s who believed in sexual freedom why monogamy was important: prevention of STDs. He was using a medical crisis to prop a singular moral belief. Of course, STDs predated AIDS and the 60s so the sexual revolution went on in the face of well known STD risks, not a lack of them, so already his claim was dubious. What was different about AIDS (better referred to as HIV) is that it hit a population (used to STDs), in a way that was unexpected and deadly.

    Drawing moral lessons from natural disasters is common (and irritating). Monogamy was not the only one people tried to prop with the HIV crisis. Many of these moral intuitions could be argued to protect people from “greater risk” as you just did for monogamy, and they would be right along the gross, generic line you argued (and fail on the specific lines I was arguing). My guess is if Marvin had argued for any of those others, you would have seen my counterargument for what it was meant to be, against a style of argument using specifics, rather than simply an argument for non-monogamy.

    Here is a list of other moral intuitions actually cited in the same way Marvin did, and it can be asked were these proven as well, with the social groups who defied them (most from 60s culture btw) given their rightful comeuppance?:

    Anti-homosexuality : the first used and still around (m2m sex is generally “greater risk”)

    Anti-drug : even among gays, some blamed hard drug use or use of poppers (the former is a “greater risk”, the latter not).

    Anti-race-mixing : again, even among gays some blamed having sex with racial minorities (demographically this is true –“greater risk” for some minorities–and it could be pointed out HIV would likely not have spread out of Africa, or black communities, otherwise)

    Anti-medicine : beyond just crackpot conspiracy theories, some religious types pointed to the fact people got HIV through blood products as showing the truth of religious proscriptions against “eating blood.” (yep, greater risk, and holds for many other diseases)

    Heck, even vegetarians could try to claim superiority in that without Bush Meat we might not have had the virus cross into humans. The fact is people appeal to disasters when it has some trivial, generic connection to their moral belief, yet fail to notice the specifics where they don’t hold up, or where such events run counter to their belief. So using natural disasters as props for moral intuitions, is dicey at best. In this case, it brought out the worst. None of the above (just like monogamy) turned out to be “true” about HIV, such beliefs did not grant any real protection, and basing policy (or rather non-policy) on them led to a medical disaster.

    One thing not addressed, by you or Marvin, is what this means for monogamous couples where one partner already had or gained an STD, including HIV. That assuredly increases one’s risk beyond anything a normal non-monogamous person would face. That is the riskiest situation. Unless, one is going to argue that a person should never get into a relationship, or stay in a relationship, with someone who has an STD, monogamy must be about something other than inherent STD risk reduction. Even if the reduction did not exist, even if it is worse (as it is for many couples), it would be a worthwhile thing.

  54. Hi Marvin, you are engaged in the behavior EJ described.

    Pointing to something and saying it is a tragedy or that it could have been avoided is not to make a moral claim. That you would consider it a moral claim in your theory does not mean it is so for anyone else.

    The HIV pandemic is a medical problem, a catastrophe. It is not morally “bad”, or the people morally “wrong”.

    Let me flip this on you, with a hypothetical. Let’s say at the start of the HIV crisis (very early on) we learned how to identify who was infected, but there was no foreseeable cure, or way to stop the infection. Someone could have argued that the best good/least harm would be to round up and enact euthanasia (or secluded palliative care) on all infected. By your standards that would have been a moral “good”. Certainly at the species and societal levels it would seem that way. We would not have the pandemic we are faced with.

    My position would not be that it was morally “good” or “bad”, rather I’d discuss what its effects were (did it work, did I like it, how did others feel about it) and (ethically speaking) what such decisions involved, and perhaps promoted at the individual and societal levels. My guess is many would have been revolted by the idea, rejecting it (even if proven to be “the best”), on different grounds, largely due to loyalty (family), justice, compassion, etc. That would be about process, not ends.

    I inhabit a very different theoretical framework than you.

  55. Hi Labnut, you have great anecdotes. I wish they weren’t so painful.

  56. davidlduffy

    The original virtues or arete are big on military practical effectiveness. I think I have previously cited the paper on military ethical decision making in Gulf War I, where the inferior Iraqi units would either be completely destroyed or allowed to surrender depending on the commander of the US unit – both outcomes were equally acceptable in terms of US casualties etc.

  57. DB, Prior to antibiotics gonorrhea and syphilis were permanent. After antibiotics, they were easily cured and promiscuity could increase. Then came Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Monogamy (polygamy if you could afford it) is ancient. Probably as ancient as the discovery that gonorrhea and syphilis were transmitted sexually.

  58. DB, Unnecessary death or illness is considered a harm to us (or any other living species for that matter). Thus it is a “good” thing to avoid such unnecessary harms. Thus we teach our children that they “ought” to cough into their elbows rather than into a crowded classroom. That becomes “right” behavior and coughing into the crowd becomes “wrong” behavior. And in sex-ed class we teach them to wear a condom on their banana. (Or something like that. They didn’t have sex-ed when I was a kid.)

    DB: “I inhabit a very different theoretical framework than you.”

    It matters not which framework you use, so long as you remember to teach your kid to cough into his or her elbow. ALL ethical frameworks are ultimately judged by their consequences, in terms of the “best good and least harms for everyone”.

  59. Hi Marvin,

    On STDs re monogamy, you do understand that “sexual freedom” and those kinds of activities you talked about existed prior to the 60s right? Prior to antibiotics? What happened in the 60s was a phenomena in the US, where a specific cohort broke away from some temporal norms at a time where the openness of speaking about sex was changing, and there was a mass media to broadcast the changes. Some were deliberately emulating sexual practices of the (ancient) past, though they could have referenced the early 1900s, or the 1700s (libertines?), or etc.. Interest in “sexual freedom” is cyclical and has gone on in all sorts of cultures going way back to ancient times.

    Monogamy existed in cultures without major STDs, and if we are talking about prior to ancient times before the concept of bacteria and viruses, and some had strict monogamy (with regard to marriage) yet allowed for sexual activity beyond one’s primary partner.

    You are engaging in social myth about the 60s, similar to those that claim the Pill caused the 60s. Antibiotics and the Pill may have made things a bit easier (note not less risky for STDs, just less permanent), but they did not cause some social behavior that never existed before.

    And in any case, what you just said about antibiotics re STDs and the appearance of HIV (why you keep insisting on calling it AIDS I don’t know, people have HIV without AIDS and that is just as big a concern) does not challenge what I wrote. Yes, a new disease with a new set of vectors which was extremely lethal hit a population prepared for existing and very different illnesses/effects. If you do not understand we could/would still have had the HIV pandemic even if everyone were monogamous, you are not understanding what it is. In fact, it might have been worse, as we might not have seen the signs or understood what was happening (and so found a way to detect it) until much of the blood supply had been contaminated, and so… ah those people with the moral intuition against “eating blood” were right!

    I note that you did not comment on the other moral intuitions “proven right” that those 60s people forgot.


    On health re morals, you are equivocating on the term “good”. That I would prefer something, or that it might have some healthy effect, does not make it a *moral* “good”. I would not in any sense tell a child that covering their mouth when sneezing was a moral “good”, and if not they were morally “wrong”. If you are going on about social conventions having some ulterior motive, what was with the idea people should wear hats in public (used to be a thing), but not inside (still a thing)? Women should not wear pants (still a thing)? Men should not wear high heels or makeup (still a thing)? Etc.

    I’m sure a story could be constructed for each, but “best good/least harm for all”? Nah.

    “ALL ethical frameworks are ultimately judged by their consequences”

    Hahahaha. You must be jerking my chain, right? Not only is this inconsistent with history, it is logically unsound. You are simply asserting your position as some uber meta-ethical ethical theory, the judger of all judgements.

    I’m down with the idea that there are a lot of rules, ethical concepts, which may have been derived by social convention where people “negotiated” on behaviors with an eye toward a preferred consequence. That is not what I am challenging. It is the idea that that is true for all ethical/moral concepts/rules, that such concepts/rules are *true* or the *best* moral theory, and most certainly that this negotiation involved any worry about reasoning the “best good/least harm for all”. Oh yeah, and that outside of social conventions people picked up, so somewhat habitual, that this is how people act (reasoning toward such ends in the moment), or makes sense to talk about how people act.

  60. Okay, so let’s take any one of those. How about these two alternative rules, “Men should be allowed to wear makeup and high heels” versus “Men should not be allowed to wear makeup and high heels”. How would you compose an argument favoring either of those rules?

  61. Hi Marvin, sorry for the late reply. The challenge was for you, not me. For me, I suppose it would depend on the situation really. But since most dress codes are simply norms related to cultural identity, the argument would roughly be appeals to (for the former) courage, individuality, freedom; and (for the latter) loyalty, and tradition.

  62. Addition to my last reply: If it wasn’t obvious from the setup, neither set of appeals (former or latter) were more “right” or “good” than the other. There was no sense that one set should be preferred, though any individual (and portions of society) may have preferences of one set over the other. One can learn about the character of people from what they choose, as well as finding ways of convincing them toward ways you might like them to act. For full-fledged Virtue Ethicists, they might point to/argue for which traits would be most conducive to a functioning civil society, or betterment of the individual, but that does not guarantee any specific act/judgment would be “best”, especially for “all.”

    This is what prevents building some “best good/least harm for everyone” narrative.

    You can have the last word.

  63. Then what is the “best good and least harm for all” would be that there should be no rule requiring or prohibiting men wearing high heels and lipstick.