Goods, Attitudes and Some Alleged Duties (to Animals and Other Things)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

My friend and colleague Elizabeth Foreman has introduced a new version of an agent-centered moral philosophy, according to which the relevant locus of moral assessment is our attitudes, which can be either morally “appropriate” or “inappropriate,” depending on certain “normative facts” about their objects.  Her main interest in developing this account is to deploy it in the area of animal ethics, though it is intended to apply generally, to any potential arena of conduct. (Foreman, 2015; 2014a; 2014b)

The theory in question is quite simple and easily stated, as in the following:

On the view that will be advanced, what lies at the bottom of judgments of wrongness is a bad attitude; when someone does something that is wrong, she does something that expresses a bad, or inappropriate, attitude. This sort of view is agent-centered, locating wrongness in the attitudes of agents and not in actions defined independently from facts about what the agent thinks. However, the normative grounding of the evaluation of these attitudes is not facts about the agent, as some virtue theoretical accounts would hold…; the normative grounding of the evaluation of these attitudes is facts about the objects of the attitudes in question. That is, facts about the objects of one’s attitude ground judgments of the appropriateness of that attitude… (Foreman, 2014a: 941)

Foreman says that she is following Kant’s lead, but the association can be overstated.  For one thing, Kant’s view is not fundamentally attitudinal in nature.  What’s wrong for Kant is not merely to have an improper attitude about something – which simply means to think wrongly about it – but to wrongly will things of it.  Like Kant, when Foreman focuses on actions, she looks to our thoughts in judging them, but her view also entails that the thoughts themselves are subject to moral scrutiny and judgment, in a way that they would seem not to be for Kant. For him, the relevant question regarding principles (maxims)  is whether or not one wills them and whether one could will them, under conditions of rational universalizability, whereas for Foreman, simply thinking about something in the wrong way is morally condemnable, whether or not one ever wills or acts on it.

[I]t is atrocious to think that the pain of another living thing is unimportant in the face of one’s own desires. But what is atrocious is not just the behavior that that thinking engenders, nor is it the fact that such thinking engenders an attitude likely to bring about bad behavior. The attitude itself is already morally wrong, whether bad behavior follows it or not… (Foreman, 2014b: 69)

Attitudes are not wrong because they lead us to do the wrong thing; actions are wrong because they reveal a way of seeing others (or even ourselves) that is inappropriate. (Foreman, 2014a: 949)

Foreman’s is certainly a very extreme conception of morality, one that demands of us a level of moral control that seems utopian (or dystopian, depending on your point of view) and which strikes me as being closer to Christianity than to any secular morality.  (I am thinking of the passage in The Gospel According to Matthew, in which it is suggested that one who has merely thought about sleeping with another person’s wife has already committed the sin of adultery.)  But beyond how we might feel about the notion that there are thought crimes, the more substantial problem lies with Foreman’s claim that there are objective facts about things that in themselves can determine what our attitudes towards those things should be.  Kant famously thought that there were facts about rational personhood that require of us that we should act in ways that demonstrate moral respect for one another, but Foreman’s ambition is to extend the moral circle far beyond this narrow band of extraordinary beings.  Not only does she want to include animals within the range of the things that demand our moral respect – and not just mammals, but fish, crustaceans, mollusks and the like – but nature, more generally – mountains, lakes, rivers, etc. – and perhaps even more.

Consider the case of Edward and his prairie.  Edward inherits a beautiful tract of natural Iowa prairie land, but cares nothing for the beauty of the prairie, nor for the hundreds of rare grasses and flowers that are growing on it.  In fact, he simply hates the prairie, and is resolved to destroy it.  It is his prairie, he can do with it what he likes, and so he burns it, and turns the whole thing into a giant mud pit…

[One] way to understand the badness of this attitude is that it is simply inappropriate to view the natural environment this way.  It is bad to view a prairie as worthless in the face of your desires… To view all other things as disposable at your whim is to fail to appreciate their worth, as well as to exaggerate your own…

A person cares about how her life goes and makes plans for that life, a prairie is beautiful and alive, a non-human animal has preferences and acts in order to satisfy them – these are all facts about people, and prairies, and non-human animals that make it the case that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to view them.  To view a person’s plans and cares as unimportant, or to want to destroy a living thing simply because it is alive, is to view that person or living thing in a way inconsistent with the right appreciation of what it is.  That is to say, it is to view it in a way that ignores salient normative facts about it. (Foreman, 2014a: 948-950)

There are times when it seems that this is as far as Foreman thinks she needs to go.  Different things will have different “salient normative facts” about them that determine whether various attitudes of ours are morally appropriate or inappropriate.  At other times, however, Foreman suggests that there is a common, underlying quality – some more fundamental fact about all of these things – that grounds the demand for moral respect, and that is that they are subjects of experiences and of lives.

[M]ost non-human animals are the sorts of things that are subjects of the morally relevant kind.  They lead their own lives from a privileged perspective (they alone know what it’s like to be them), and this means that we must view them as the self-guided creatures that they are. To see them otherwise, to see them as merely resources for one’s use, is to willfully ignore a morally salient feature of their experience. Non-human animals are … subjects of lives, and ignoring this subjectivity, or thinking that it is unimportant in the face of one’s own subjectivity, is to have an inappropriate attitude towards what is a fundamentally morally important experience. (Foreman, 2014b: 68)

This is not a new insight — Colin McGinn offered it in “Animal Minds, Animal Morality” — but it is rather thin stuff.   (McGinn, 1995)  The idea, as McGinn conceives it, comes from Frege’s rejection of idealism in “The Thought” that one can’t speak of experience without an experiencer, but beyond this purely grammatical (and thus, morally uninteresting) sense of ‘subject’, it’s not at all clear that most of the animals we eat are “subjects of experience” or “subjects of lives” and with regard to many of them – clams, shrimps, oysters, crabs, sea urchins, etc. – to suggest that they “know what it is like to be them” or know anything, for that matter, is patently absurd.  Of course, this line of thinking won’t help us with the rest of nature either – with prairies, mountains, rivers, and the like, which aren’t “subjects,” in any sense of the word – and this sends Foreman in search of an even more general quality that will yield the results she wants, which she calls the “ultimate normative fact.”

My suggestion is that the ultimate normative fact is the fact of otherness, where this means that the object with which one is engaged is something that is, or has, a good independent from one’s own.  Other people, other living things, other creatures in general – these all have a normatively salient existence separate from one’s own, and inappropriate attitudes are largely a matter of seeing the lives, concerns, and good of others as secondary (or even only relative to) one’s own. (Foreman, 2014b: 68)

The idea, then, is that merely by existing separately from us, things have their own independent good, which demands our moral respect.  Foreman thereby extends the moral circle to include not just animals of every sort, but prairies, plants, bodies of water, mountains, and even inanimate objects.  Indeed, at one point, in an apparent effort to demonstrate that the opportunities to moralize are potentially limitless, she tells the tale of a person who wrongs a copy machine:

[I]f Fran takes an axe to the Xerox machine in a fit of rage, that may well be wrong, and not simply because she has rendered the machine useless to others. Thinking that it is perfectly fine to wantonly destroy an object that upsets you displays a warped view of the object, and of what one has a right to demand of situations that involve it. (Foreman, 2014a: 950)

Significantly, this “ultimate normative fact of otherness” renders virtually any instrumentalist attitude on our part morally contemptible.  After all, if one can wrong a copy machine, by violating its “otherness,” then what do we do when we cut down trees to make baseball bats or cabinets or bookshelves or dam rivers to generate hydroelectric power or desalinate ocean water to create potable water? Foreman’s excessive, overreaching conception of moral duty is like Kant’s humanity formula on steroids, as it is applied to everything in the world, down to the last pebble, twig, and drop of water, and the result is that the pervasiveness and scope of our immorality, in the modern, industrial era, is vast and overwhelming, for if she is right, most of us – the overwhelming majority of us, in fact – think and behave in ways that are morally “atrocious” on a daily and even an hourly basis.

Fortunately, for those of us who take a sunnier, somewhat more easy-going view of life, Foreman is quite wrong about both value and duty.  Indeed, she is wrong in a surprisingly obvious way.

____

In the modern framework, what it means to say that something is valuable is that it matters to someone.  When we speak, generally, of something as being a “good” – as John Stuart Mill does of happiness – we mean that there is a widespread consensus that it matters.  And in the absence of anything mattering to anyone – as the situation presumably was, say,  a billion years ago – there literally is no value.  To think otherwise – to think that things just are valuable, period – is to embrace what J.L. Mackie called a “queer metaphysics,” at least if one accepts a modern, scientific view of nature that is, at its heart, non-teleological.  (Mackie, 1977: 38)  Aristotle could say of things that they had a good, independently of anyone’s valuations, because he believed that essences and purposes were objective features of reality.  One could read a thing’s purpose and hence, its good, off of its form, and all three could be considered objective facts about it.  But unless Foreman is hiding a teleological cosmology or some other essentialist metaphysics that I’m unaware of, such a move is not available to her – this indeed, was precisely the point made by both Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre in their respective critiques of modern moral philosophy (Anscombe, 1958; MacIntyre, 2007) – and she is left having to make the case that the things she wants to hold sacrosanct matter to us, as Mill does, in Utilitarianism, when he makes the case for happiness being the intrinsic good:

Questions about ends are … questions about what things are desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable as an end, and is the only thing that is so; anything else that is desirable is only desirable as a means to that end. What should be required regarding this doctrine—what conditions must it fulfil—to justify its claim to be believed? The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and similarly with the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it.  If the end that the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself, were not acknowledged in theory and in practice to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was an end. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except the fact that each person desires his own happiness, so far as he thinks it is attainable. But this is a fact; so we have not only all the proof there could be for such a proposition, and all the proof that could possibly be demanded, that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and therefore that general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons. (Mill, 1979 : 34 (emphasis added))

Now, certainly, (most) people care about their own lives, plans, and the like.  Perhaps some animals do too, and  I emphasize “some.”  (Prairies and copy machines obviously do not.)  But it’s not enough just to show this.  What Foreman has to do is demonstrate that the lives of people and clams and shrimps and chickens, not to mention mountains and prairies and streams, matter to the rest of us; indeed, that they matter so much as to render any number of instrumentalist attitudes towards them – not to mention actual uses of them – morally unacceptable.  And we do commonly think this way, at least when it comes to other people, though even here, there are any number of circumstances in which we do not, as is the case when we are at war or when we are dealing with convicted criminals.  But, it also would seem evident that the overwhelming majority of people don’t feel the same way about the rest of the things on Foreman’s list.  We do not value the life of a clam more than we do our Linguine con Vongole.  We don’t think a chicken’s liberty is more important than our Coq au Vin.  We believe that the cabinets and baseball bats and bookshelves that we make are more important than the trees out of which we make them. And at least a lot of the time, we don’t care more about a prairie’s aesthetic or living qualities than we do about building places in which to live, work, and engage in the rest of our daily business.  (We care just enough to protect a few of them in the form of national and state parks.)  Clearly, Foreman doesn’t like this fact about the overwhelming majority of people, and that is her prerogative.  But if she wants to engage in the blanket moral condemnation of billions of people for the most common, ordinary attitudes and behaviors, it’s not enough for her not to like it.  She has to show that our valuations are somehow incorrect.

Hence Foreman’s effort to identify “salient normative facts” about clams and chickens and prairies, in an effort to demonstrate that these things have some sort of objective value.  But are these really the sorts of facts from which anything objective about the value of the things in question follows? Let’s look again, at Foreman’s characterizations.  She describes people as “caring about how their lives go on and making plans,” prairies as “beautiful and alive,” and animals as “having preferences and acting in order to satisfy them.”  Clearly, these are not neutral characterizations or descriptions, nor are they the only ones that one could give of these things.  The truth is, Foreman’s “salient normative facts” are nothing more than descriptions loaded with her own valuations, any of which a person could contest and none of which anyone need share.

Of course, if one characterizes people as “caring about how their lives go on and making plans,” it would seem to follow that they must be granted the greatest possible respect, but if one characterizes them as “enemy combatants belonging to an invading army,” it would not.  Similarly, if one describes an oyster as nobly pursuing its personal prerogatives out in the seas, it might seem outrageous to think of molesting it in any way, but if one characterizes it as the crucial ingredient for a magnificent plate of Oysters Rockefeller, then the best thing to do would be to pull it off the reef, immediately.  And if one describes a prairie as “beautiful and alive,” it may appear to follow that it should be left undeveloped and untouched, but if one characterizes it as “an ideal location for a subdivision” this needn’t follow at all.  My wife, a diehard New Yorker, loathes rural environments and thinks the more city, the better.  Is her valuation wrong in some objective sense, whereas Foreman’s is right?  If there’s an argument to that effect – and I don’t see how there could be – Foreman doesn’t provide it.

The point just is that how you characterize a thing and whether or not you think it is valuable are intertwined with one another.  If something matters to you, this will be reflected in your characterizations of it, and consequently, such characterizations of things are expressions of your valuations, not grounds for them.  If I really wanted to be objective, in the modern sense of the term, I could give entirely scientific descriptions of the things in question – say, molecular-chemical descriptions of people and clams and prairies – but notice something about these kinds of descriptions, something that tells the whole story about objectivity and values, in the modern framework: they suggest no particular valuations whatsoever.

There are times when Foreman seems to understand this relationship between our valuations and characterizations, and at one point, she even favorably invokes Cora Diamond’s idea that our sense of moral obligation arises not from things satisfying certain generalizable criteria, but from their coming to bear certain “morally thick” characterizations, in which the relevant obligations are already contained.  (Diamond, 1978)  But Foreman ultimately misuses Diamond insofar as she rejects the crucial, Wittgensteinian heart of her analysis, which is that such characterizations attach to things in a haphazard, unprincipled manner that defies any effort at rational systematization.  “Appealing to the sorts of categories we construct, and then reading morality off of these constructed categories, leaves the business of morality far too arbitrary,” Foreman says, but without any sort of argument (and none is offered), this claim is little more than an exercise in wish-fulfillment.  (Foreman, 2014b: 62) For if Diamond is correct, in the modern – i.e. non-teleological – world, this arbitrariness is a feature of morally thick characterization, not a bug.  Foreman may have come to see clams and shrimps and chickens as “fellow creatures” or “friends” or however she likes to think of them, but I and billions of other people have not.  Rather, we see them as the chief ingredients for our favorite recipes.  And there are no “objective facts” about them that make it the case that one must think about them Foreman’s way, rather than ours.

It is true that I would not eat my pet Bichon Frise, because, as Diamond indicates, pets are not things to eat, but if I was in South Korea, I might very well eat Boshingtang (dog stew), in a restaurant that serves dog.  And if you asked me how something gets the status of being a pet and is thereby taken off the proverbial table, I couldn’t give you any kind of general answer.  If my Bichon Frise “has a good independent from my own,” then so does the dog that wound up in my Boshingtang, and yet that dog was not my pet, while this one is.  At best, I could tell you a particular story about how this particular dog came into our household, but nothing about that story would tell us anything about dogs, generally, that someone could then come along and define universally “appropriate” and “inappropriate” attitudes on the basis of.  And the same point, of course, applies to people and prairies and copy machines.

Foreman thinks that we ought to characterize and value people and clams and prairies in the way that she does, and while I’m sure that would be very nice – we all would like people to share our valuations – what could the argument for it possibly be?  As already discussed, in the absence of some sort of metaphysical essentialism and corresponding teleology, it’s just her characterization and valuation of clamhood and prairiehood against mine, my wife’s, and those of several billion or so other meat-and-fish eaters and enthusiasts for industrial forms of life.  It may be the case that clams and shrimps and chickens “pursue their own ends” and that prairies are “beautiful and alive,” but nothing about this entails that those ends and lives are going to matter to us more than the world cuisine or the industrial development to which they contribute.

What Foreman either seems not to appreciate or just flat out ignores is something that we’ve known since at least Hume, namely, that in a modern, non-teleological framework, reason cannot determine our ends or indeed, any other fundamental value or good.  (As Wittgenstein put it in the Tractatus, the value of things can be “shown” but not “said.” (Wittgenstein, 1922: 6.41-7))  Mill understood this, which is why, in the excerpt I quoted, he says, “If the end that the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself, were not acknowledged in theory and in practice to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was an end.”  MacIntyre understood this, which is why he wrote, “anti-Aristotelian science sets strict boundaries to the powers of reason.  Reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more.  In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means.  About ends it must be silent.” (MacIntyre, 2007: 54)  For Foreman’s attitudinal moralizing to work, one already has to agree that people and clams and prairies have fundamental value, but where there is no such agreement – indeed, where there is massive, overwhelming disagreement – the moralizing not only does not work, it is impotent to change those fundamental valuations.  No one who doesn’t already think prairies are sacrosanct is going to be persuaded by moral exhortations not to build subdivisions on or make “mud pits” out of them, and no argument, moral or otherwise, is going to get anyone to think that prairies enjoy that special status.

_____

It is worth meditating on this last point, as it provides some insight not just into why Foreman’s moralizing is so unpersuasive, but why so much of our moralizing, more generally, so often seems so ineffective.  All the heavy lifting in her account is done by the assumption that certain things are fundamentally valuable, something that she does not in any way demonstrate and which, in any case, could not be demonstrated.   The moralizing that follows, then, is fruitless and ultimately irrelevant: those who already agree that clams and shrimps and chickens and prairies matter, in some fundamental sense, hardly need to be moralized to with regard to how they should be treated, and those who do not will fail to be persuaded by such moralizing, no matter how many times their attitudes are deemed “inappropriate” or “atrocious” by Elizabeth Foreman or anyone else, and if they are, it will be because they care about the disapproval of their fellows, not because it has been proven to them how they should or should not act.  

Foreman is hardly alone in this.  Many seem to suffer the illusion that moral idioms carry within them some inherent force, while others, knowing that they do not, employ them, in the hope that their audience thinks they do.  It’s unclear on which side of this divide Foreman falls, though one does get the impression, at times, that she realizes how unlikely it is that her most cherished valuations will ever be shared by a significant number of people – between 0.5 and 1.5% of Americans are vegan, as of a 2016 Harris Poll, and apparently, over 80% of them chuck it in at some point in their lives (Vegan Resource Group, 2016; Herzog, 2014) – and that her somewhat overheated moral rhetoric and posture is designed to lend her valuations an aura of necessity that they don’t really have.

Foreman, like many professional ethicists, has simply ignored the critique made by Anscombe “Modern Moral Philosophy,” where she observed that all the force that one finds in the distinctively moral “ought” comes from the wedding of a Greek virtue ethic with the idea that the virtues are required (and the vices are forbidden), which one finds in divine law traditions, like those belonging to Halakhic Judaism and pre-Protestant Christianity. (Anscombe, 1958)  If one lacks the virtue theoretical component, one cannot appeal to an axiologically thick and yet, simultaneously objective reality – hence the quixotic quality of Foreman’s quest for “normative facts” about things like clams and prairies – and if one has eschewed the tradition of divine law and failed to find some viable alternative (and no one has), one’s ‘oughts’ have no compelling force, once they are, so to speak, “unmasked.”  As Philippa Foot observed, “People talk … about the ‘binding force’ of morality, but it is not clear what this means if not that we feel ourselves unable to escape.”(Foot, 1972: 310) Such a feeling may come from a coercive or otherwise efficacious agency – as it does in a theistic framework – or it may come from something mattering to us; that is, from our caring about it.  Christine Korsgaard characterized the force of moral obligation as stemming from the feeling that to violate it would be to “lose your integrity and so your identity… [T]o no longer be able to think of yourself under the description under which you value yourself and find your life to be worth living…” (Korsgaard, 1996: 102)  But in the absence of any such source of efficacy, moral imperatives and moralizing have nothing but, as Anscombe so memorably put it, “mesmeric force,” which, the moment one realizes it, renders them normatively impotent.  (Anscombe, 1958: 8)

Some have tried to suggest that one can have a conception of right and thus, of moral obligation, without any prior conception of what is valuable or good.  Of course, this is not the place to engage that issue in any kind of detail (I’ve always found it dubious), but regardless, the point I am trying to make here is not one about the possibility of articulating a moral imperative, but about the force of such imperatives.  Perhaps, Kant can express the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, without any prior appeal to what’s valuable or good, but what force would it have?  The statement “Act only in such a way that you can rationally will that the maxim of your action should be a universal law” might describe the conditions of rational personhood, but unless one cared about being a rational person – viewed rational personhood as a good – of what use is it?  Certainly the Humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative would have little force, if one did not already think human beings were valuable in some fundamental sense, and Kant’s effort to show that this is the case – his characterization of the good will, his account of the “Kingdom of Ends” – shows that he understood this, though, of course, he was mistaken in thinking that its value could be established by way of rational demonstration.

The point, then, is that ethical discourse, as it stands today, draws what force it has from the fact that people care about things – that things matter to us – without which no moral imperative has any potency whatsoever and with which no moral imperative is really needed.  For those with concrete ethical concerns – the way we treat animals or the environment, for example – peoples’ values, what they care about, must be at the center of attention.  But, in a modern framework, how does one get another person to value something, to think that it matters and especially, to think that it matters more than something else that he or she also cares about, given that caring and valuing are not the sorts of thing that one can be argued into or otherwise rationally convinced of?  In all the manners of persuasion rejected by philosophy: rhetoric; sentimental appeals; propaganda. Anything to get the other person to identify or otherwise emotionally connect with the thing in question.

In a sense, then, Foreman is on the right track, when she engages in sentimental descriptions of animals and nature, as she does in her work.  Where she goes wrong is in thinking that they provide some sort of objective grounds or rationally scrutable reasons for thinking that clams and chickens and prairies matter.  As we’ve seen, they do nothing of the sort.  What they might do, however, is get people to see animals and the rest of nature in the way that Foreman does and thus, care about these things enough so as to override certain other things they care about.  Of course, this is advocacy and activism, rather than philosophy, but so what?  If ethics is fundamentally practical in nature, as I and many other philosophers think it is, then what matters is that it works, and if this means admitting that it can only do so on the basis of what are ultimately non-rational appeals, so be it.

References

Anscombe, Elizabeth (1958).  “Modern Moral Philosophy.”  Philosophy 33: 1-19.

Diamond, Cora (1978).  “Eating Meat and Eating People.”  Philosophy 53: 465-479.

Foot, Philippa (1972). “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” The Philosophical Review 81: 305-316.

Foreman, Elizabeth (2015) “The Objects of Respect.” Environmental Ethics 37: 57-73.

Foreman, Elizabeth (2014a) “An Agent-Centered Account of Rightness: The Importance of a Good Attitude.”  Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17: 941-954.

Foreman, Elizabeth (2014b) “Good Eats.” Between the Species 17: 53-72.

Herzog, Hall (2014)  “84% of Vegetarians and Vegans Return to Meat. Why?” Psychology Todayhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us/201412/84-vegetarians-and-vegans-return-meat-why

Korsgaard, Christine (1996).  The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge University Press, New York.

MacIntyre, Alasdair (2007).   After Virtue, 3rd Edition.  University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

Mackie, J.L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

McGinn, Colin. (1995)  “Animal Minds, Animal Morality.”  Social Research 62: 731-747.

Mill, John Stuart.  (1979)  Utilitarianism.  Hackett, Indianapolis.

Vegetarian Resource Group (2016)  “How Many Adults In The US Are Vegetarian and Vegan?  How Many Adults Eat Vegetarian and Vegan Meals When They Eat Out?”  The Vegetarian Research Group.  http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/Polls/2016_adults_veg.htm.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1922) Tracatus Logico-Philosophicus. Keegan Paul, London.

57 Comments »

  1. I don’t have the philosophical training to do a thorough criticism of your post, but in general, I agree with you.

    I especially agree with the two following points in your post.

    1. I don’t believe in thought crimes. Ethics, as I see it, has to do with our behavior, not with our attitudes or thoughts. There are no sinful thoughts or inclinations.

    2. We, either individually or collectively, decide what matters to us. There is nothing that necessarily has to matter to us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “In the modern framework, what it means to say that something is valuable is that it matters to someone… And in the absence of anything mattering to anyone – as the situation presumably was, say, a billion years ago – there literally is no value. To think otherwise – to think that things just are valuable, period – is to embrace what J.L. Mackie called a “queer metaphysics,” at least if one accepts a modern, scientific view of nature that is, at its heart, non-teleological…  Aristotle could say of things that they had a good, independently of anyone’s valuations, because he believed that essences and purposes were objective features of reality. One could read a thing’s purpose and hence, its good, off of its form, and all three could be considered objective facts about it. But unless Foreman is hiding a teleological cosmology or some other essentialist metaphysics that I’m unaware of, such a move is not available to her …”

    Yes, this goes to the heart of the matter.

    Something very like religious conviction certainly does seem to drive/underlie a large part of contemporary ethical discourse. And I am inclined to think that it is often more productive to shift the conversation away from the sorts of detailed and subtle argumentation which are typically the focus of philosophical ethics and on to these basic convictions and assumptions, something which philosophers – for obvious reasons – are usually very disinclined to do. (I would be interested in hearing Elizabeth Foreman’s description of her own religious or general metaphysical convictions, for example.)

    “But, in a modern framework, how does one get another person to value something, to think that it matters and especially, to think that it matters more than something else that he or she also cares about, given that caring and valuing are not the sorts of thing that one can be argued into or otherwise rationally convinced of? In all the manners of persuasion rejected by philosophy: rhetoric; sentimental appeals; propaganda. Anything to get the other person to identify or otherwise emotionally connect with the thing in question… In a sense, then, Foreman is on the right track, when she engages in sentimental descriptions of animals and nature, as she does in her work. Where she goes wrong is in thinking that they provide some sort of objective grounds or rationally scrutable reasons for thinking that clams and chickens and prairies matter. As we’ve seen, they do nothing of the sort… Of course, this is advocacy and activism, rather than philosophy, but so what? If ethics is fundamentally practical in nature, as I and many other philosophers think it is, then what matters is that it works, and if this means admitting that it can only do so on the basis of what are ultimately non-rational appeals, so be it.”

    The problem, as I see it, is that public funding for activism is not appropriate. There is a lot at stake here, and I think people realize this.

    Like

  3. Professor Kaufman,

    I doubt there’s any *general* way to distinguish, in practice, between what a philosopher thinks a great philosopher said and what a philosopher thinks a great philosopher *should* have said. Sometimes, charity leads the philosopher to claim that what the great philosopher *should* have said is actually what the great philosopher said; sometimes a lack of charity leads the philosopher to claim that what the great philosopher actually said is not what the great philosopher *should* have said. I happen to welcome this difficulty: the greats are great, to my mind, partly because what they wrote was so rich, so fruitfully ambiguous.

    I thought I should express this particular prejudice of mine because I’m about to suggest a particular interpretation of Kant. And I honestly don’t know if it’s what he said or what he should have said. But I think it’s worth airing, and is so even though it has to do with only a subordinate point in your article.

    I think Kant carefully distinguishes between the articulation of a reason and the articulation of how that reason is possibly a reason. The formulations of the Categorical Imperative are the latter kind of articulations. The reasons we articulate for ourselves are meant to have force. The Categorical Imperative is not. It’s meant merely to distinguish, among candidates, the reasons from the non-reasons, the considerations that have force (or ought to) and the considerations that don’t. To say that the Categorical Imperative is, or is potentially, a reason to think, feel, or do something — is potentially something that has force — is to make something of a category mistake.

    Another way to express my interpretation here is to draw an (of course imperfect) analogy between the Categorical Imperative and inference rules. As Lewis Carroll shows in “What Achilles Said to the Tortoise,” there’s something importantly different between what premises mean to us and what inference rules mean to us. The idea — Kant’s idea, I think — is that the Categorical Imperative is more like an inference rule than a premise. (Not sure if this analogy sparks anything in you, but I thought I’d give it a shot.)

    So for the Categorical Imperative to lack force is not for it to fall short of anything, because it’s not meant to have force. It’s not that we have to care about it; it’s that it articulates or formulates cares we already have. The formulations of the Categorical Imperative, that is, might be like Wittgensteinian “hinge propositions” or “framework propositions”: they articulate part of what it is to participate in a particular form of life, articulate what must be in place in order for questions about good and bad reasons to have a life — at least, the sorts of questions that arise in the particular form of life Kant was concerned with.

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    • Animal Symbolicum: Interesting comment. As you indicated, I certainly don’t think this is what Kant meant. There is also the further point that care must never enter into moral activity for Kant, at any level. To do something because one cares about it in some way is to act in accordance with, rather than from duty.

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  4. But beyond how we might feel about the notion that there are thought crimes

    We all know that repugnant/unethical thoughts are not crimes. The word ‘crime’ is reserved for unethical behaviour of such magnitude that it deserves concrete social sanction. It is a well understood and clearly defined category.

    No one is arguing for the criminalisation of thought, least of all Foreman, so why create the implication by unnecessarily dragging in the term?

    Dragging in the term ‘thought crime’ is just a distraction that serves no useful purpose other than smear those who argue that repugnant thoughts are wrong by equating them with the obviously wrong concept of thought crimes.

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    • Labnut: of course she is. She is quite explicit that merely thinking the wrong way can be “morally atrocious.” As for “thought crime” I’m not wedded to it, but used it because it is very recognizable.

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  5. In this case I am very clear and explicit about it. You wrongly created a false implication by dragging in the term ‘thought crime’. It was not necessary and in fact false implications are harmful to the conduct of thoughtful debate.

    You should not have created this false implication and you should retract it.

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    • It’s an academic paper and I’m not retracting it. It’s a perfectly legitimate use of the term. Foreman has read the piece and she and I have had extensive conversations about it, and she had no objection to the term. (Her office is right next to mine.)

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      • I have no philosophical education at all but I understood what Dan K. meant by “thought crime”, especially because he gave the example of the gospel prohibition against committing adultery by just thinking about it.

        Any psychotherapist will tell you that it’s normal to have all kinds of aggressive or sexual fantasies about things that are wrong to do and that it’s psychologically healthy to recognize that you have those fantasies, without of course acting on them.

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  6. Dan-K,
    She is quite explicit that merely thinking the wrong way can be “morally atrocious.”

    Yes, and I agree that, for example, thinking repugnant thoughts can be morally atrocious, which Jesus Christ articulated clearly in the Gospel of Matthew.

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  7. Dan-K,
    It’s an academic paper and I’m not retracting it.

    and I will continue to maintain that you are making a serious error.

    For me it is so clear and obvious that I cannot see why I have to make the point – believing that morally repugnant thoughts are wrong is not to argue that it is a thought crime. False equivalency is a well known rhetorical move but it is bad one that should not be used in serious discussion.

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  8. Dan-K,
    But it’s a perfectly legitimate point to make.

    Yes, you have many times argued that acts can be wrong but thoughts cannot be wrong. This is a well known point of disagreement between you and I. This deserves to be carefully debated. But what should not be done is equating my position with ‘thought crime’. That is so obviously wrong that I am left speechless.

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  9. Animal Symbolicum: Also, the C.I. *is* an imperative and as such, must have force of some kind. I guess you could argue that it only has the surface grammar of an imperative and give some sort of analysis of divergent logical form, but then you are getting even farther away from anything that Kant is interested in.

    My remarks on Kant are intended to invoke a very common — and I think apt — criticism, namely that Kant has a serious difficulty handling the “Why be moral?” problem.

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  10. Maybe this has been said in previous posts, but if we are going to go around prohibiting “sinful” thoughts, we are going to miss out on a lot of great art.

    If Dostoyevsky had not been able to think the thoughts of an axe murderer, he would never have been able to write Crime and Punishment.

    If Shakespeare had not been able to think the thoughts of an ambitious general without scruples or a murderously jealous husband, he would not have been able to write Macbeth or Othello.

    If neither Tolstoy nor Flaubert had been able to think the thoughts of unfaithful wives, neither Anna Karenina nor
    Madame Bovary would have been written.

    I recently read an interview with Nobel prize winning author, Mario Vargas Llosa, where he says that in order to write a novel, he puts himself entirely in the shoes of his characters, which include the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, not only a mass murderer and torturer, but also an sexual abuser and rapist of underage girls.

    I for one prefer a world with sinful thoughts and great books to a world without sinful thoughts and without great books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • S. Wallerstein: That’s right. Most moral virtues will go too, as they involve overcoming or somehow sublimating bad thoughts.

      What’s impressive is a person who successfully manages his negative impulses, not someone who never has any.

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  11. Professor Kaufman,

    Thanks so much for your response.

    “The C.I. *is* an imperative and as such, must have force of some kind.” Fair point. Perhaps I need to think more about what kind of force it is, and how it might differ from the force of the considerations the C.I. counts as reasons.

    “Care must never enter into moral activity for Kant, at any level.” Perhaps. I used the word ‘care’ because you did, and I wanted my point to resonate with your way of putting things. What you made me realize, though, is that I was presupposing either an eccentric or a too-general meaning — perhaps I was using ‘care’ to mean something more like respect. My thought, then, would be that the formulations of the C.I. articulate something about common respect.

    “Kant has a serious difficulty handling the ‘Why be moral?’ problem.” The way of thinking about the C.I. I’ve summarized is one (but of course not the only one) that takes seriously Kant’s claim in the Groundwork that he’s giving voice to, and exploring in the abstract, something we (whoever *that* is) all in some sense already understand about how to treat one another. If there’s someone who’s never experienced obligation or disrespect, that person, even supposing he’s *subject* to the C.I., would likely be deaf to anything we would have to say about *why.* (Analogously, to someone who hasn’t been initiated into our practices of reasoning, citing inference rules would be useless, as Carroll’s little fable shows; inference rules are informative only for those who already understand and accept the inferences those rules synoptically represent.) To the idea that Kant can’t tell us why we should be moral, then, one line of response — which I can barely even gesture toward — is that Kant would say, “So what?” The question is unmotivated, from the perspective of those who’ve experienced obligation or respect — those whose understanding Kant thinks he’s making explicit. And to those who’ve never experienced obligation or disrespect, nothing informative can be said: anything we say will presuppose an understanding they don’t have, and so will appear circular, and no set of propositions will *give* them the understanding they lack.

    This is all very unsubtle, I know. But that’s the constraint of the medium! Thanks, again.

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  12. According to Parfit,
    “Kant…claims that, to fulfil some duties of virtue, we must not only act rightly, but also act with the right motive…to fulfil a duty of gratitude, we must feel grateful…Kant claims, however, we also have many duties of justice, which we can fulfil by doing
    what is morally required, whatever our motive. One example is our duty to pay our debts.”

    Parfit also discusses the idea that when one kills an animal to eat it, one is using it as a means – obviously Kant thought that animals were not due that respect. However, Kant’s comments about women – unable to attain enlightenment, not able to be their own master ie fully rational creatures – are usually seen as contrary to the spirit of his arguments elsewhere. In the same spirit, it is not impossible to then extend this maxim to at least some other animals.

    More generally, arguments for universal benevolence *are* arguments, but rely on imaginative powers as much as, say, sequent calculus eg the idea that one is equally close to contemporary distant spatially humans as to one’s future self 40 years hence, or to other peoples great-grandchildren as much as one’s own great-grandchildren.

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    • And of course to eat an animal is to use it as a means. So are all instrumental uses of nature. That was half the point of my essay. That to do what Foreman has done is to render virtually every instrumental use of nature immoral. And in my view that’s absurd — an informal reductio.

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  13. This is too long a piece to comment upon accurately or comprehensively; I’d almost need to train myself to write an academic paper. It is an extremely interesting topic though, enough so to make me want to read the original subject matter at some point. I want to make a comment about just a segment, a point which occurred to me after covering only about the first 30% of it or so. It has to do with the turn which happened when the phrase ‘thought crime’ was offered.

    Everyone wants to accord others freedom within their thinking, if they are sane contemporary people, I think. The phrase ‘thought crime’ is incendiary precisely because it suggests countermanding this basic seeming right. But I think the use of the phrase is both needless and inaccurate in this case.

    First, according to the quotes provided at least, Elizabeth Foreman considers that the kinds of thoughts under discussion (more generally we can say the kind of thinking) are morally reprehensible and wrong in her view. This means she considers them unethical. She does not say anything about their legality or whether criminality should be attributed to one thinking such thoughts. A pretty basic difference, the ignoring odf which seems to draw too tight a connectivity societal norms concerning justice and inner states of being which may or may not be intercepted, reconsidered, or deepened before, if ever, such thinking gets translated into the social sphere. We want both individual freedom protected and social responsibility to be applied towards social activity.

    The second point touches on another one mentioned, that of Christianity with the reference to Matthew’s gospel, but I think also upon my way of seeing virtue ethics. Ethics is not just about social activity. We have a responsibility towards ourselves which is moral in nature, and which some are perhaps more sensitive towards than others. Consequentialism, as I understand it, will completely ignore this idea. Virtue ethics are about deepening one’s moral perceptivity over the course of time; it offers some dimensions of practice within which to unfold a greater seeing of the morality inherent in situations, including strictly interior situations (i.e. psychological ones). A reading of Christianity does the same thing (especially one focused on developing an intuitive grasp of the gospels and away from received religious morays). This is why the similarity was noted between Foreman’s emphasis on the importance of ‘attitude’ and Christian morality or ethics.

    I do not know how completely I agree with Foreman yet; it would require a lot of research work. But I know why her turn towards interiority (thinking, attitude) sounds right and strikes a chord. Because it chimes with the project of continuous inner development which many people feel drawn to and see as ultimately pragmatic. As does virtue ethics and esoteric (at least) Christianity. Real freedom does not have very much to do with the will. It has more to do with gaining control of one’s thinking.

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  14. What my tongue dares not, that my heart shall say
    The groom in Richard II, Act V

    We can entertain repugnant thoughts precisely because they are hidden. But first we must be clear that there are two kinds of thoughts here. The first are objective thoughts about the subject, such as provoked by a news report, or perhaps to write the news report. The second are the subjective, first person thoughts that places you in the position of the person performing the act. It has an element of desire to perform the act. This is what I call repugnant thoughts. Repugnant thoughts are dangerous things because once they are attached to desire they have consequences. They are the first step on the slippery slope towards realisation and they modify our character in ways that make us less fit for our role in society.

    A. The slippery slope.

    The consideration of repugnant thoughts is a slippery slope whose progression can go through the following stages:
    1. Awareness.
    We become aware of the idea, possibly stimulated by something external.
    2. Desire.
    We experience the beginnings of desire to realise the repugnant thought.
    3. Examination
    We turn the idea over in our minds, examining its contours.
    4. Entertain.
    We actively imagine the realisation of the thought. This is the beginning of intent.
    5. Intent.
    We form a clear intent to realise the thought.
    6. Realisation.
    We perform the repugnant act.

    B. Repugnant thoughts change our character

    There are six stages during which our character is altered.
    1. Opening.
    By admitting repugnant thoughts to our consciousness we open ourselves to their possibility.
    2. Habituation.
    If we repeat the thoughts we become habituated to them.
    3. Desensitisation.
    As we become habituated we lose moral sensitivity. Wrong no longer seems so wrong.
    4. Normalisation.
    Once we are desensitised to their moral content they begin to seem normal.
    5. Dissimulation.
    We cannot admit our repugnant thoughts so we must necessarily dissimulate.
    6. Alteration
    The process of desensitisation, normalisation and dissimulation changes our character.

    This raises two questions:

    1. At what stage should we stop this slippery slope progression?
    Clearly we cannot control (1), awareness, nor should we ever reach (6), realisation. I suggest the answer is to discard the thought at stage (1) because once launched on the slippery slope it becomes increasingly hard to stop the progression and, as in (B), above, harmful changes to our character inevitably follow.

    2. At what stage do we become blameworthy?
    Here we must introduce the concept of guilt vs shame. Guilt is an interior state of moral blameworthiness while shame is a reaction to public moral blame. Guilt is an internal knowledge of wrong while shame is the emotion we experience when others become aware of our wrong. Guilt is the first barrier to wrongdoing and and shame is the second barrier to wrongdoing. Of the two, guilt is the more reliable because we cannot escape our interior knowledge. Shame on the other hand, can be avoided by practising deceit. Once we admit a repugnant thought into an internal process of active consideration we leap over the barrier of guilt and dodge shame by practising deceit.

    But even if, by the exercise of strong will, you can halt the slippery slope progression, your character inevitably is changed by the process. The third party test reveals this clearly.

    By imagining a third party reaction to our repugnant thoughts we appeal to our great sensitivity to shame and this is the defining way to reveal the blameworthy nature of repugnant thoughts.

    C. The Third Party Test

    Imagine three people
    1. a person you love, who loves you and who’s opinion of you is very important (your daughter?);
    2. a person you respect and has power over you (your boss?);
    3. the target of your repugnant thought.

    Now imagine you are fantasising about sodomising your boss’s ten year old son(I am deliberately using an extreme and obviously repugnant thought to drive home my point)

    1) Would you be prepared to share these thoughts with your daughter?
    What would she think of you?
    2) Would you be prepared to share these thoughts with your boss?
    What would she think of you?
    3) Would you be prepared to share these thoughts with the target?
    What would he think of you?

    Honest answers to these questions will immediately clarify what is permissible.

    If you are not prepared to share your repugnant thoughts with your daughter, your boss and his son, then why are you prepared to hold the thoughts in your mind? Why do you conceal them? Obviously because you understand that they will severely condemn your character. Consequently you must preserve two contradictory mental states, a private one which represents who you are, and a public one, in complete contradiction to your private persona, that you present to the world. Your character is fractured between your private character and your public character as you try to maintain two contradictory persona. Consequently you are living a dishonest life, one of insincerity, meaning you are lacking in integrity. If anyone knew this, would they trust you?

    Is this who you want to be, insincere, dishonest and lacking in integrity, someone who the world could not trust? Because if you are prepared to entertain repugnant thoughts this is what you become.

    In summary, I am arguing that the willingness to entertain repugnant thoughts

    1) is the first step on the slippery slope that leads to realisation;
    2) changes your character to be more accepting of repugnant behaviour;
    3) fractures your character in a way that renders you untrustworthy.

    Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
    May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
    Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
    Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
    But be the serpent under ’t.

    Lady Macbeth’s cynical advice to Macbeth on hearing the news that Duncan will soon arrive at their castle.

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    • Labnut,

      I don’t fantasize about sodomizing any 10 year old and if I did, I certainly would not declare it in an open in internet.

      However, in the course of a day I generally have diverse erotic and aggressive fantasies that I would not share in internet or with my hypothetical daughter. There’s a line or two from an old Bob Dylan song, “It’s alright ma”

      “If my thought dreams could be seen
      they’d probably put my head in a guillotine”.

      That’s true with me and I imagine that it’s true for most people.

      Certain religions (not all, thank Zeus) try to make us feel guilty about our erotic and aggressive fantasies, but that’s just one more way they try to control us and to get us to submit to their power.

      As long as people don’t act on all their erotic and aggressive fantasies, there is nothing wrong with them. Your character is how you behave, not how you think or dream. In fact, as Dan K. points out, an important part of character (and a praiseworthy one) is being able to discriminate between positive and wrongful fantasies and not to act on the latter.

      So even if I did fantasize about sodomizing my boss’s child, I would never act on that and I would not feel guilty about the fantasy.

      There’s a lot of hypocritical moralizing in society and most of us don’t want to run the risk of being the object of it. For example, almost everyone masturbates, but very few of us are likely to tell others about that and yet there is nothing wrong with masturbation. So too many older males have erotic fantasies about high school girls, but obviously, given the amount of social disapproval about even mentioning such fantasies, we are not going to tell anyone about them.

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  15. Kant (The Metaphysics of Morals) on gratitude and other emotions:

    “But while it is not in itself a duty to share the sufferings (as well the joys) of others, it is a duty to sympathize actively in their fate; and to this end it is therefore an indirect duty to cultivate the compassionate natural (aesthetic) feelings in us, and to make use of them as so many means to sympathy based on moral principles and the feeling appropriate to them.”

    As to duties of justice, Korsgaard thinks Parfit might have the wrong end of the stick. These arise from the setting up of a society that maximizes individual freedom, so that following such rules are a duty as well as enforceable by the State. Such duties apparently include providing a minimum income for everyone so that their freedom is not curtailed.

    Foreman [2008]:
    “Section 5: Why Kantian Accounts of Duties Regarding Animals are Unsatisfactory

    …It is because there are specific facts about non-human animals that our desires [to treat them humanely] are what they are — and the reason these are morally salient facts is that these facts (the ability to feel pain, etc.) are facts that we see as morally salient in our own case. And so it seems reasonable to think that our insistence on humane treatment for animals is not simply an outgrowth of our desires, but is an outgrowth of facts about the non-human animals themselves, facts to which our desires are responsive. So the claim that it is reasonable to think that our obligations to animals are not as deep as our obligations to human beings, simply because it seems that they can only be grounded on our desires concerning them, fails to capture the strength and character of our intuitions regarding non-human animals.”

    Of course we are back to the questions of heterogeneity and genetics of moral intuitions.

    I think this is where disinterestedness and “the point of view of the universe” are most useful. “If no humans were here, how would I like things to go for this animal or this environment?”, “if I were to die today, what things would I will for the world tomorrow?”. The mental state must be slightly more engaged than “I am completely indifferent”, though I am sufficiently pragmatic to argue that the vote of those with no interest in the future of others than themselves are irrelevant. In the case of those who wish harm to future others where that harm can have no benefit to self or say loved ones, I would like to think that a majority of thinkers can agree that this state of mind is _objectively_ evil. I think this is the only point at which I might take up a judgemental approach to attitude.

    So, my supposition is that these “weak tea” emotions will tend to be slightly benevolent rather than malevolent, and if all other more immediate goals could be met, then what would be left would be for the good rather than neutral. Moral difficulties then reduce to weights for different goals, and the Arrow Impossibility Theorem tells me why ethics is so hard 😉

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  16. This strikes me as the most important line in the essay.

    “If something matters to you, this will be reflected in your characterizations of it, and consequently, such characterizations of things are expressions of your valuations, not grounds for them.”

    It seems to me that a healthy majority of moral philosophers make this mistake. They think that their characterizations and theorizing (and even appeals to divine motives) provide the grounds for moral valuations, when in fact, they are expressions of them.

    This was the crucial point in Williams’ “The Human Prejudice” which I did an essay on recently.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Dan-K,
    If something matters to you, this will be reflected in your characterizations of it, and consequently, such characterizations of things are expressions of your valuations, not grounds for them.

    So, when I claim that trust is foundational to the workings of society and that consequently we developed virtue ethics as the means of displaying trustworthiness and detecting trustworthiness, you are saying that I am putting on display my valuation of things.

    Yes, I am prepared to grant that, but can’t it also be true that I am describing an insight that depicts social reality? In other words my valuation is based on the grounds for the values.

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  18. Dan-K,
    Foreman, like many professional ethicists, has simply ignored the critique made by Anscombe “Modern Moral Philosophy,” where she observed that all the force that one finds in the distinctively moral “ought” comes from the wedding of a Greek virtue ethic with the idea that the virtues are required (and the vices are forbidden), which one finds in divine law traditions, like those belonging to Halakhic Judaism and pre-Protestant Christianity. (Anscombe, 1958) If one lacks the virtue theoretical component, one cannot appeal to an axiologically thick and yet, simultaneously objective reality

    This is very good.

    I want to go one step further:
    1) virtue ethics is the natural outgrowth of a society founded on trust. By being virtuous people we display our trustworthiness and in the same way we detect the trustworthiness of other people. Our deepest and strongest moral intuitions are connected to trust and failures in trust, as any cuckolded husband or wife would tell you.

    2) all moral thought is a further development of or outgrowth from virtue ethics, which is in turn based on the compelling need for trust.

    3) trust does not extend to the animal or inanimate world. Trust is a uniquely human thing, confined to human societies. Consequently the extension of moral consideration to animals or the inanimate world is incoherent.

    4) where we do extend moral consideration to animals, we do it for our own sake and not for the sake of the animals. It is our suffering at the thought of animal pain that we are attempting to alleviate. If you are honest and admit this point you can make a reasonable argument for mitigating animal pain.

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  19. “This strikes me as the most important line in the essay: ‘If something matters to you, this will be reflected in your characterizations of it, and consequently, such characterizations of things are expressions of your valuations, not grounds for them.’ It seems to me that a healthy majority of moral philosophers make this mistake.”

    Everything here is exactly and importantly right. I think the confusion between adducing grounds for a view and expressing that view plagues not just moral philosophy but all kinds of philosophy. It scares me that so many philosophers don’t actually know what they’re doing.

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  20. This a nice example of why I find this website so useful. I found little to disagree with in Dan’s essay when considering it directly, and yet the recent comments by stolzy and Labnut have given me a frame for re-consideration.

    My current thinking is that it is more useful to characterize a thought process or habit in moral terms as opposed to thinking of thoughts themselves as objects with moral/virtuous content. I think Labnut is right that certain modes of thinking lend themselves to self-deception giving ourselves permission to eventually ignore or rationalize our own behavior. His suggested process however feels overly guilt and shame focused setting up an internal battle with some self fragment serving as lawgiver ( banishing some thoughts ) and needing to be obeyed. I don’t think we can outlaw certain thoughts and allow others. I do think can have some awareness of our process, some awareness of our motivations, and in that awareness some consideration of the guilt or shame, but also considerations of virtuous feelings that emerge within our values framework to guide the way our thoughts sort themselves out. I think that is the best we can do.

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  21. References from the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, regarding Kant’s view that moral actions must never be a function of any sentiment:

    “The basis of obligation must not be sought in the nature of man, or in the circumstances in the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in the conceptions of pure reason.”

    “To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others… But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.”

    There are more but these two are among the clearest and most obvious.

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  22. This is a most interesting essay. It reminds me of Thomas Nagel’s Concealment and Exposure wherein he states that there is a “inner tropical luxuriance” that ought to be respected by necessary conventions of privacy and that “everybody is entitled to commit murder in the mind from time to time.” It appears as if this vision of a gap between interiority and outward action is being contested today.

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  23. If one’s daughter, boss and his son were the kind of people who would be OK with that fantasy then it wouldn’t make it any less vile.

    On the other hand, if one were fantasising about a loving, consensual sexual relationship with the boss’s adult daughter you probably would not want to share it with your child, your boss or his daughter. But would anybody think there is anything bad about such a fantasy?

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    • I don’t really see how this advances the conversation.

      The point is whether merely thinking something is morally blameworthy or if willing something are doing something are. Foreman takes the first view. Kant takes the second, and I take the third.

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  24. I would agree with labnut about the term “thought crime”.

    In any case, the term does not, in its original coinage or popular usage refer to thoughts about immoral acts, it can refer to thoughts about highly moral acts, such as overthrowing a repressive regime. A crime is not necessarily an immoral acts and an immoral act is not necessarily a crime.

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  25. I think that it is important to make it clear that if some of us don’t rule out that it may be immoral or unethical to think certain things or to entertain certain attitudes that we reject completely that we support the notion of thought crime.

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    • It’s pretty obvious from the context that I wasn’t speaking of literal crimes, so whatever it is you are talking about, it isn’t the essay I wrote.

      And again, as I already said, it’s one sentence in a 5000 word essay. I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it is to go to all the trouble of producing an essayike this, only to have half the conversation or more focus on some tiny point. So frustrating in fact that Dan T. and I have discussed going to a no-comment format for the magazine.

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  26. Dan:

    The logic of your key sentence bothers me.

    “If something matters to you, this will be reflected in your characterizations of it, and consequently, such characterizations of things are expressions of your valuations, not grounds for them.”

    I don’t see how my valuations and characterisations settle the question of grounds.

    My valuations may lead me to characterise an act as an act of murder, but I may also be able to give grounds for that characterisation. Or I may have mischaracterised the act, and I may come to see this when others point out to me that (for example) it was an act of self-defence.

    So, as I see it, while my valuations will lead to my characterisations and my characterisations will express my valuations, this does not exclude there being good grounds independent of these valuations and characterisations.

    Alan

    PS. The thought that you would close down the comments section of this website is one of those morally reprehensible thoughts that labnut is warning us against.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. So frustrating in fact that Dan T. and I have discussed going to a no-comment format for the magazine.

    That would be a pity though I can understand your unhappiness.. I imagine that running a site as such this is a considerable investment of time and effort and then we reward that with our ill-considered remarks. I can see that it must be greatly frustrating. The essay is the centrepiece which brings us here. It is the pièce de résistance from which we derive so much benefit. But I also enjoy reading the comments and always learn something from them. I am continually surprised, in a rewarding way, by the unexpected insights they reveal. Even the recent unhappy interchanges tell me something useful.

    You have for a long time maintained that the act, and not the thought, has moral valence. That forced me to clarify my own thinking and so I benefited. I deliberately used non-theistic arguments so I have only used half the arguments available to me. The other half, the theistic arguments, are fascinating when examined in depth. I still would like to see a sustained argument from you supporting your belief in moral separation between thought and act. For me the clinching argument, which I failed to use in my recent comment, is that we are whole persons, and the distinction between thought and act is an arbitrary one of convenience. I hope you can make an opportunity to expand on why you think as you do.

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    • Labnut,

      Sure, we’re whole persons, but ethics, in my opinion, is about treating others better, with more respect, with more justice, with more empathy, with more concern.

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    • Labnut: There are a number of reasons why I want to reserve moral obligation and duty for actions and not extend them to thoughts:

      –Many thoughts, feelings, etc., are involuntary, and I am not a fan of the sort of emotion discipline/suppression that many traditions advocate.

      –Our inner life remains one of the few areas in which we still enjoy privacy and retain prerogative. So, going after people for their thoughts/feelings/etc. strikes me as invasive.

      –Many of the most important virtues are only possible, if “bad” thoughts not only occur but are entertained, as these virtues involve choosing not to act on them, by way of sublimation or other “productive” means.

      These are just some of the main ones. I’m sure I could think of others as well.

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      • Here’s an example which just occurred which confirms your (Dan K.) comments above.

        I get into a small elevator together with a beautiful young woman “dressed to kill”.

        My first completely involuntary and natural reaction is sexual excitement (at least as much as occurs at age 71).

        However, I don’t do a Trump and grope her.

        Rather, I refrain from staring at her and give her as much space as the elevator permits. I am concerned that I may make her feel uncomfortable and during the short elevator that concern completely triumphs over my sexual reaction.
        I realize that she has not “dressed to kill” to please me.

        This is how ethics works. We strive to control our egoistic drives in order to make others feel more comfortable or better, to further their flourishing in general.

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  28. I wanted to add one more point concerning the question of moral evaluation of human action adn/or human thought. I think what is behind the desire to locate the problem in interiority is a crisis in socialization. That is, the internet age is the culmination of the post 1960s “if it feels good do it” ethic wherein people have lost a sense of self control over what they are willing to express or do and it seems to me this change in norms is what is at issue. Instead of calling into question the excesses of the age we find ourselves in we resort to analyzing individual consciousness itself which appears to me a misstep and mistake.

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  29. Dan-K, thanks, I understand your reasoning. Comment fatigue has set in so I will leave the matter as it stands since we understand each other’s points of view.

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  30. “[Show] certain things are fundamentally valuable, something that she does not in any way demonstrate and which, in any case, could not be demonstrated. The moralizing that follows, then, is fruitless and ultimately irrelevant: those who already agree that clams and shrimps and chickens and prairies matter, in some fundamental sense, hardly need to be moralized to with regard to how they should be treated, and those who do not will fail to be persuaded by such moralizing,
    “…[No] objective grounds or rationally scrutable reasons for thinking that clams and chickens and prairies matter.”

    Hi Dan.

    So you are for an analytic ethics? or do you think a “Continental” style is more appropriate for the topic? Do you think the liberal secular consensus about a minimum ethics is well founded, or just the minimum that all the different religions could assent to in that era? I don’t think moral advance over the last few centuries has not greatly relied on “rational” argument, but on relatively straightforward appeals to simple intuitions eg fairness, equality, dignity, consent – goods that have been recognised as such for a long time, but now are cheap enough to extend to more people.

    If you are skeptical about the genealogy of moral intuitions, including your own, I presume you accept that veganism could continue to increase in prevalence and become “intuitively obvious” in a century or so in say Western Europe? You don’t think Indian vegetarians are somehow _morally_ dissatisfied with their diet, I presume.

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  31. Thanks for that.

    “Attitudes are not wrong because they lead us to do the wrong thing; actions are wrong because they reveal a way of seeing others (or even ourselves) that is inappropriate…” (Foreman, 2014a: 949)

    “…what lies at the bottom of judgments of wrongness is a bad attitude… (Foreman, 2014a: 941)

    I think she means that if I judge that eating meat is wrong and I want others to eat less or stop, then the best thing to do is to explain that eating meat is wrong because it reveals that the person eating the meat has the bad attitude that eating meat is right.

    I could be wrong but that’s all I can see. And even supposing that I thought eating meat was wrong (and I don’t), I think that focusing in on the thoughts or attitudes of the agent is problematic, because like for the agent, I think thoughts and attitudes are ultimately embedded in community.

    And yeah, after thinking about it, I can see how an expression like ‘thought crime’ can be a fair one to use here,

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