Morality and Distance

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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There are two conceptions of distance that I am interested in with respect to moral questions:

Emotional distance: the distance from sentiments and feelings that results when one adopts a disinterested stance, in response to morally significant situations.

Theoretical distance: the distance from the particularities of circumstances, people, and relationships that is effected when one addresses moral questions from the standpoint of theory.

The orthodox position in philosophy has been that morality requires distance; that the moral actor is one who maintains a disinterested stance with respect to the moral question at hand and acts (or refrains from acting) on the basis of general principles, derived from a moral theory. (Utilitarianism and Kantianism are the most prominent examples of such a view.) This position is reflected in what I will call our “official understanding” of morality, by which I mean that understanding which governs our public consciousness and discourse on the subject. Our private or personal morality is another matter and may have more in common with the contrary position that I will outline next.

The contrary position also has deep roots in intellectual history, though as part of a philosophical counterculture rather than the mainline, orthodox philosophical tradition. According to this view, it is closeness, not distance that morality requires: First, because the moral actor must care in order to act; and second, because he must know how to act, which cannot be determined under the guidance of general principles, but only by practical wisdom and a kind of “moral perception.” Aristotle, Hume, the Intuitionists, and some of the classic feminist, “care” ethicists are the exemplars of this philosophical tradition. [1]

The Claims of Moral Distance

In our “official” understanding of morality our image of the moral actor involves a combination of two images: that of the competent, impartial judge; and that of the executor of the judgments of a competent, impartial judge.

This is because our official conception of morality is one that largely reduces questions of morality to questions of justice, and our conception of justice today is formulated more in terms of fairness than desert. The reasons for this official conception of morality are many, including:

(i.) A tendency to conflate moral with legal questions. For example, a good part of the reason why judges are required to be fair and give equal treatment to litigants has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with practical considerations. People will not voluntarily participate in, cooperate with, or submit to the legal system if they perceive that it engages in unfair or otherwise differential treatment.

(ii.) The individualism and egalitarianism of the Enlightenment, which shunned natural hierarchies and certain kinds of differential treatment;

(iii.) An even more intense egalitarianism that has emerged with the increasing democratization of Western developed nations over the last century, but whose deeper source, I think, is a distinctively bourgeois combination of fear and envy;

and

(iv.) A distrust of and disdain for feelings and emotions on the part of the mainline philosophical tradition, which is a direct consequence of its rationalism. [2]

When taken together, these ingredients yield a number of “axioms” that govern the official treatment of morality and of the moral actor, many of which also are reflected in the moral theories produced by the mainline philosophical tradition:

(a) In order to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing, we must be fair;

(b) Being fair means treating everyone equally;

(c) Emotional investment in a situation makes it less likely that a person will treat everyone equally, because, generally speaking, emotions cloud one’s judgment and more specifically, emotions cause one to be biased in favor of a particular person (s) involved in the situation;

and

(d) Cool, detached, impartial reason must govern the moral actor, not emotions.  This and this alone will ensure moral behavior.

Mainline Ethical Philosophy

In the mainline philosophical tradition’s understanding of morality, the primary task of ethics is the construction of moral theories that are charged with determining the nature of Good, Bad, Right, and Wrong. A general principle of morality is subsequently derived from these theories and serves as a recipe as to how one ought and ought not to act in specific situations. (I.e. the moral actor examines the situation in light of the general moral principle and determines what his course of action ought to be.) A moral actor, then, is one who through his conduct obeys a general moral principle derived from a true moral theory.

Consider, for example, Utilitarianism: One first conducts an investigation as to what is of basic value, the conclusion of which is that it is happiness. One then conceives of obligation as promoting or even “maximizing” that which is basically valuable, which yields a general moral principle that states that we ought to do that which creates the most happiness and refrain from doing that which undermines it. When confronted with specific scenarios, the moral actor examines the situation, ascertains which actions satisfy this general moral principle, and pursues them, while avoiding those actions that violate it.

Notice that one’s relationships with and feelings about the people involved are irrelevant to the question of what the moral thing is to do. Indeed, they are worse than irrelevant — they are actively detrimental to one’s ability to execute the utilitarian calculus, which is inherently disinterested. For example, the question of the rightness of my action is not affected whatsoever by whether the person involved in the situation at hand is, say, my daughter, mother, wife, friend, etc. or a complete stranger on the other side of the globe, but only by how much happiness, in total, is created by it. To take such relationships into account would hinder if not entirely inhibit my ability to implement the utilitarian calculus.

Now, the general characteristics of certain relationships may be the source of certain duties — for example, the relationship of debtor to creditor, of parent to child, etc. — but the duties that attach to these relationships have nothing to do with their emotional dimensions or with the fact of their intimacy, but rather because they are seen to fall under more general moral categories. For example, they may involve promises made, contracts undertaken, etc.

That Utilitarianism views the moral actor as one who acts according to the general moral principle derived from it guarantees that one’s actions will remain consistent, regardless of the particularities of the circumstances or of one’s relationships with the other actors involved. This disinterested and consistent application of the utilitarian calculus on the part of the moral actor guarantees that his judgments will be fair, in that it will guarantee that he treats everyone equally.

Difficulties with Emotional Distance

There is a basic problem with the notion that reason alone can motivate action. Hume has argued (in my view convincingly) that reason is only an instrument working on behalf of the feelings and sentiments that make up our passions. These feelings and sentiments are what determine our particular ends, while reason’s role is to determine the best means to accomplish them.

There is a further problem of mainline philosophy’s neglect of the moral dimension of intimate human relationships, particularly marriage, parenthood and other familial relationships, and friendship, which beyond their entanglement with more emotionally distant matters of contracts and promises, involves a loyalty founded in love. (Classic feminist philosophy is one place where some have tried to address this neglect.) Hume’s claim is that our love for and loyalty to people — and consequently, our feelings of duty towards them — naturally increase with their physical and psychical closeness and decrease with their physical and psychical distance.

A major problem for orthodox moral philosophy has always been that it has had difficulty answering the question “Why be moral?” Of all the mainline moral philosophers, Mill comes closest to acknowledging that there must be some sentiment that involves “wanting to do the right thing,” in order for there to be any moral actors at all, but he characterizes this sentiment as a love or concern for “mankind as a whole” and for a “unity with our fellow creatures,” which renders the sentiment general and abstract and therefore, undergirds the principle of utility.

But Hume denies that there is any natural love for mankind as a whole and points out that we care first and foremost about ourselves and those closest to us and that any capacity to care about strangers is due to our ability to hypothesize; to imagine that it is us or one of those close to us, who is involved.

This hierarchy of sentiments entails that it is first to us and to those closest to us that we feel the strongest sense of duty and to strangers last, which represents an inversion of the official morality and of orthodox moral philosophy. I would argue, however, that while “fairness” and “disinterestedness” may govern our official morality, it is this “non-fair” (not the same as unfair), preferential hierarchy that governs our private morality. Rare is the person who feels that they have more of a duty to a complete stranger than to their own child or to their parents or best friends. Rare, and I would also maintain, perverse.

Difficulties with Theoretical Distance

Our discussion of traditional moral philosophy’s inability to recognize the moral dimension of intimate human relationships brings up a related but more general difficulty and that is the matter of the monochromatic, fixed nature of the value systems and conceptions of obligation one finds in orthodox moral theories. The very idea of a moral theory is that there is some single characteristic or small, finite cluster of characteristics that all things of value and all duties have in common, and this is what makes for the generalizing, abstract character of moral theories.

It would seem, however, that there is more than one thing that is of “basic” value and more than one kind of basic duty. The battle between Utilitarianism and Kantianism is a perfect case in point. Surely, both the production of happiness and the exercise of good will are valuable in such a “basic” sense and yet, neither is reducible to or reinterpretable in light of the other. I would argue that human flourishing, in the Aristotelian sense, constitutes yet a third such basic good and there are many more. W.D. Ross catalogues a number of the more common types in The Right and the Good. [3]

This fact about values and duties is referred to in the literature as “value pluralism” and “value fragmentation,” and the broader that fragmentation, the less useful enterprise moral theory seems to be. For any moral theory to account for the entire range of basic values and duties, it would have to be so disjunctive that its capacity to maintain any kind of determinate theoretical character or shape would be lost.

In addition to basic values and duties being plural in number and/or fragmented, I would maintain further that they are subject to significant fluctuation. That is, what matters and what we ought to do will change from scenario to scenario, case to case, and actor to actor. So, in addition to their being no singularity as to what is of value or what underlies all of our duties, there is no fixity to them either. And if what matters and what one ought to do are tied to the particularities of circumstances and actors, then there can be no moral rules, the existence and character of which require some significant degree of generality.

Finally, there is the question of real instances of moral judgment and decision. In a scenario where there are competing values and obligations at stake and no systematic, fixed ordering or ranking of them, the question as to what one ought to think and do about a morally significant situation has to be decided case by case. Because the particular, as Allan Bloom once remarked, “escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal,” these judgments and decisions will not be the products of deductions or other types of logical reasoning based in theories, but of the sort of accumulated wisdom and keen social awareness and perception born of experience that Aristotle talks about in the Nicomachean Ethics. [3]

Notes

[1] I wrote about Aristotle’s conception of “moral perception” here:

https://theelectricagora.com/2017/08/18/this-weeks-special-on-a-metaphor-in-aristotles-nicomachean-ethics/

[2] I discussed mainline philosophy’s rationalism in some detail, here.

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

[3] W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (1930), p. 21.

Click to access ross.pdf

[4] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 173.

126 comments

  1. All this stuff about preferring the welfare of humanity or of the biosphere over those close to you can get ridiculous.

    The other day I was conversing (by email) with a old friend in the U.S. I complained about the cold here (I’m in the southern hemisphere) and that I get chilblains.

    She gets them too in the winter, she explained and what’s worse, from time to time where she lives (in New York state) there are blackouts in the winter and they have no heat at all. Some of her neighbors, she told me, are buying electric generators, but they’re not going to buy one because they pollute the air a lot.

    Look, I said, it’s great to be concerned about the global warming and the fate of the polar bears, but even if you’re willing to freeze to death, your first concern should be your husband’s health. He’s about 80 and as far as I can guess, is a whole lot less concerned about the environment than you are. I pointed out the case of a mutual friend (in her mid 70’s like us) who got pneumonia, survived, but in a few weeks was transformed from an active older adult into a chronic lung patient.

    She got very angry with me and that’s that, but it’s a question of where your priorities are, with the polar bears or with your husband.

    1. The tragedy of the commons. Everyone takes care of their own interests to the detriment of all. Or as Franklin opined, we hang together or we hang alone.

      1. Hi Azin,
        this is also known as NIMBY – Not In My Own Backyard. It can be a brutal dilemma, such as the serviceman called up for active duty to the detriment of his family. This is a powerful test of wisdom. Part of wisdom is the ability to see the situation independently of your own personal interests.

        1. Responsibility is the linchpin. I believe the tragedy of the commons presupposes actions of many without knowledge of eventual negative outcome whereas NIMBY assumes that everyone suspects what the consequences of their actions may be , but are willing to gamble for the sake of their short term interests. (Why should I get off my ass and go stand on the voting line when everyone else will – and no on shows up.)

  2. This is a good concise treatment of a neglected topic in ethics – the problem of emotional distance. I appreciate that you bring up Feminist moral philosophy, because that is one of the most significant new additions to ethics since the development of utilitarianism. It’s not a coincidence that emotions are a sticking point here, as they also are in the Philosophy of Aesthetics. Philosophy is hung up on emotions because no one understands what they really are. They are posits and not directly observable. “Experience is emotional but there are no separate things called emotions in it.” – John Dewey, Art and Experience. According to Dewey, a lot of erroneous philosophical approaches are due to the notion that “an emotion is complete in itself.” It’s better to just describe what they do: they motivate changes in behaviour, especially our decisions, and they facilitate our ability to empathize with others. We share emotional responses with all the animal kingdom, but especially mammals. The mother – child bond is the root of mammilian behaviour. Mammals put more energy into raising and caring for offspring than most other animals. Humans, almost uniquely among mammals have pair bonding between male and female parents. This helps support longer childhoods, and wider cooperation in child rearing. One could argue that ultimately morality is about ensuring the survival of the next generation and the continuance of the human collective.
    Morality is one of the most significant factors that differentiates humans from other animals. I would argue that it is the most significant factor. Humans cannot survive on their own in isolated families. Hunter-gatherer societies are all made up of multi-family units. This is why morality is universal to humans. In order to live in a multi-family group, everyone has to reach agreements as to how to live together and settle disputes. This is why you need emotional distance, because it’s necessary in order to form impartial procedures and to commit to and enforce agreements over extended periods. The Moral Sentiments Theorists were correct that we need certain emotions in order to act morally and make moral judgements. Morality is participatory. We do good things, we try and prevent and or punish bad behaviour. We wouldn’t bother if we didn’t care. At the same time Kant was right to say that morality depends on our all following the same rules and not making exceptions because we feel like it. If humans lived in isolated families like Gibbons, we would have no need for emotional distance. We need it in order to cooperate with people who are not kin, or who are strangers.

    1. I guess I would like to restate one thing I said. Of course we can directly experience emotions, but that experience is usually only a fleeting part of a changing situation. As soon as we reflect on our emotions we can only do it indirectly, through memory or by listening to a description or narrative. Thus, when we theorize about emotions we don’t have direct access to the emotions the way scientists can observe and measure things in the world. It’s like what Dewey said, “there are no separate things called emotions.”

    2. “Philosophy is hung up on emotions because no one understands what they really are. They are posits and not directly observable. “Experience is emotional but there are no separate things called emotions in it.” – John Dewey, Art and Experience”

      I would agree that we collectively have a poor understanding of emotions, but I’m not sure Dewey has been either incisive or helpful here. One could equally observe,

      Philosophy is hung up on thoughts because no one understands what they really are. They are posits and not directly observable. Experience is thoughtful but there are no separate things called thoughts in it.

      Any future understanding of emotions will have to understand not only emotions themselves but how they interact with thoughts and choices and facilitate actions. Some of your observations start down that road. If …

      – “We share emotional responses with all the animal kingdom” and
      – emotions “facilitate our ability to empathize with others” and
      – “morality is about ensuring the survival of the next generation and the continuance of the human collective” and
      – “Morality is one of the most significant factors that differentiates humans from other animals,”

      Then, given the evident success of our species globally, it follows that we are emotionally advanced creatures. What has facilitated our success is not simply our intellect but our emotions by way of the advanced emotional ability of exercised compassion.

      This also implies that the what is “good” is survival on a collective level. It can be a good thing to give one’s individual life for one’s love, family, friend, country, species, world. That’s the “utility” of being moral. The metacognitive pleasure we feel in being compassionate with another is the “hedonism” that facilitates morality. One has to be emotional in order to be moral. In particular one has to be mentally close, not distanced, from one’s passions by way of a closeness to one’s given advanced and evolved emotional acumen of compassions in order to be human and thus moral.

      1. Yes, you can also say the same about thoughts too. But when you say: “any future understanding of emotions will have to understand not only emotions themselves but how they interact with thoughts and choices and facilitate actions.” you are talking as if emotions are things. every time we think that we understand emotions themselves and how they interact with thoughts and choices we are just making it up as we go along. We can’t really directly observe thoughts and emotions the way you would need to if you were to study them scientifically. We can directly experience them, but as soon as we turn our attention to them they flee from our experience. It’s better to understand what their effect is because that is observable. thoughts lead to stories, explanations, theories, descriptions, and sometimes they mislead. Emotions motivate us to act and make decisions. We can study actions and learn from them, but as to how thoughts and emotions lead to action, it’s never anything more than a guess.

        1. I don’t think there’s a need for a choice here but a need for expansion. I would say you’re right that one can’t observe or study thoughts and emotions the way one would study something scientifically. But that just means that these entities reside in a distinct field of observation, and that because of the considerable limitations of scientific study they can’t be directly studied through science

          Emotions and thoughts reside in the metacognitive sphere of observation in which we observe ourselves and the working of our own mind and reflect on it. This self reflective field of study is by nature not scientific. The scientific method demands that we study things external to the self and thus is incapable of being applied in the metacognitive realm. Science may be able to indirectly study through population analysis of peoples reported metacognitive experiences, but this is not direct observation of these metacognitive entities and gives a limited understanding of it.

          Yet undeniable these metacognitive entities are substantive and observable, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about them. In classic education, the practical arts deal with knowledge in the physical realm external to the self while the liberal arts and fine arts more deal with the metacognitive realm.

          Indeed philosophy itself is considered the highest form of study of thoughts and emotions. Thus morality is is inaccessible to science and needs philosophy to understand it.

          1. I don’t see why emotions and their effect on behavior and thought cannot to some degree be studied scientifically. We all have the ability to write up a list of commonly experienced emotions. We can then observe behavior and self reporting accompanied with blood analysis of hormones and chemicals and brain scans when these emotions are elicited. I believe many psychological researches do this very thing.

  3. I would say this line of reasoning anticipates the next step in the evolution of human philosophy. As we leave the 20th century, so transfixed as it was with Analytic Philosophy, to where are we headed?

    Distance is a good organizing metaphor. If distance has prevented us from morally understanding ourselves, then perhaps what’s is needed is it’s converse, closeness. But to what? Following the sense of the essay, what’s needed is;

    Emotional closeness: a closeness to sentiments and feelings that results when one adopts a interested engagement with emotions in response to morally significant situations.

    Theoretical closeness: a closeness to the particularities of circumstances, people, and relationships that is effected when one regards moral questions from the relational standpoint of affects.

    The whole distance idea itself arises from the mind-boy dualism that has pervaded Western philosophy since antiquity with its intellectual/rational bias in knowing – we distance the mind from the body. If we are to move beyond this ineffective analytic formulation, then what must be accepted is that the body knows – that we can know through a sense, a feel, inkling. To make a distinction between the mind and the body is incoherent. Such affective epistemology is taboo to the currently pervasive Doctrine of Intellectual Hegemony in knowing which holds that our rationality and our reason are equated.

    The converse demands that we regard emotions as signatories in our minds of intuitive evaluations and conclusions that are beliefs that have the possibility of being justified and true and thus have the capacity to knowledge. Rather than mind/body or intellectual/emotional dualism, what is posited is that rational epistemology and affective epistemology together, construct our reason, and our wisdom is dependent on the tense dynamic interaction between the two wholistically regarded.

    I would submit that the beliefs and knowledge that emotions signify are one’s that inherently have value at their core, and that ethics and morality, as considerations of value, are inherently emotional endeavors. Value (right/wrong, good/bad, better/worse) is not a thought but rather a feeling. One must be passionately engaged with one’s immediate circumstance/story in order to be moral. Pure cool, unaffected, rationality nihilistically dements one to the truth of value and makes one, of necessity, amoral.

    This closeness to our bodies and our circumstance by way of our (common) sense, sensuality, and sensibility will require a much more sophisticated understanding and philosophy of human emotions than currently exists in the culture – something to look forward to.

  4. Hi Dan: To my mind this is an excellent analysis of what is wrong with most Moral Theory. But I find your Humean way of defending moral closeness unpersuasive. At least, it seems to me there is an alternative to your way of defending it. Here’s my approach.

    Human beings live in communities, including families. These communities do three basic things: they raise children, they protect the lives of their members, and they make collective decisions. These basic functions are necessary, if there is to be ongoing human life. Relations within these communities involve mutuality and reciprocity, giving and taking, caring and sharing. There are rights and duties that go with roles within these communities. Questions of justice arise within such communities whenever there are disputes about the balance of benefits and burdens and about the allocation of decision-making powers. Close emotional connections go a long way to making these communities run smoothly, but feelings of sympathy don’t make questions of justice and fairness disappear.

    There is a “moral theory” that could be constructed out of this standpoint. We might call it communitarianism. Another possible label is Morality-as-Cooperation. See for example: Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse, “Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies” (Current Anthropology, 2019).

    These authors say: “The present incarnation of the theory incorporates seven well-established types of cooperation—helping family, helping group, exchange, resolving conflicts through hawkish and dovish displays, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession — and uses this framework to explain seven types of morality — obligations to family, group loyalty, reciprocity, bravery, respect, fairness, and property rights.”

    My remarks are very similar to Charles Justice’s comment above. Is your view really in conflict with this Smithian standpoint? Can we persuade you to shift a little from Hume to Smith?

    Alan

    1. Alan,
      There is a “moral theory” that could be constructed out of this standpoint. We might call it communitarianism. Another possible label is Morality-as-Cooperation. See for example: Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse, “Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies” (Current Anthropology, 2019).

      I like your analysis. I would even go so far as to saying it is nearly right 🙂

      1. “Nearly right” is good by me. The main point is to ground morality in sociality. The second point is to unpack the components and complexities of sociality, and to show that they map onto morality. That approach then pushes the problems of consequentialism and deontology out of the picture. The onus is then on the proponents of those dogmas to find a way back into the game.

    2. From the abstract to the article(good find, by the way)

      Abstract
      What is morality? And to what extent does it vary around the world? The theory of ‘morality-as- cooperation’ argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. Morality-as-cooperation draws on the theory of nonzerosum games to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions, and predicts that specific forms of cooperative behaviour – including helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession – will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures. In order to test these predictions, we investigate the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviours in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. We find that the moral valence of these behaviours is uniformly positive, and the majority of these cooperative morals are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world. We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviours are plausible candidates for universal moral rules, and that morality-as- cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.

      I largely agree but would state it differently, with a different emphasis.

      1. I wouldn’t agree with this definition of morality as cooperation at all. It fails to account for all kinds of moral acts and judgements that have nothing to do with cooperation. It also fails to prove itself as universal.

        Paul Bloom had an insightful response to the article:

        “This left me uncertain as to what would falsify their theory. Suppose we found a society where, say, respecting prior possession was not seen as morally good. Would this be a problem for the morality-as-cooperation theory? Would it make a difference if all the members of the society were 2-year-olds? I have utilitarian friends who argue that the bonds of kinship have no special moral weight; and there are communities of anarchists who would reject the ethics of deferring to your superiors. Are these quirky moral views problems for the theory, or can we put them aside?”

        1. Hi Joe,
          I addressed that in my last comment, at the bottom. In short, we developed mechanisms for detecting trustworthiness and demonstrating trustworthiness as the necessary means of enabling cooperation, or specialization, as I called it. This mechanism is called virtue ethics and virtue ethics is the foundational moral system for our species, giving rise to all other moral systems.

        2. Joe: Some replies.

          (1) A community of two-year-olds is a non-starter. They could not even feed themselves. The idea could only arise if we confuse “community’ with something like “collection”.

          (2) A community of anarchists needs to respect a collective decision-procedure, and those who implement those decisions, or else it falls apart whenever it has a practical disagreement.

          (3) Utilitarians who give kinship no moral weight should explain how they propose to raise children.

          (4) Respecting prior possession is desirable because otherwise communities break down with endless disputes about ownership.

          (5) The universality of morality-as-cooperation is strongly supported by cross-cultural evidence. Curry et al report on 60 cultures, which is a pretty good start towards universality.

          (6) You need to give some examples of “moral acts and judgements that have nothing to do with cooperation”. Generally, people who say this have in mind acts of generosity to strangers. But you can only be generous if you have something to give, and that depends on first being part of a productive community which generates a surplus.

          1. Those were comments by Paul Bloom. I don’t necessarily endorse all of them.
            1. Agreed
            2. Your point doesn’t address what Bloom said, which is that anarchists don’t defer to superiors, since anarchists (along with most hunter gatherer societies) feel there are no superiors
            3. Bloom said no “special moral weight”. I take this to mean no special moral weight over and above kin. I don’t see how this would preclude or interfere with raising children.
            4. All communities already have endless disputes over prior ownership. It’s called war, and has been with us since we became human.
            5. Not really, because the morality-as-cooperation hypothesis hasn’t been proven in one society yet. And that’s because the concept of morality is extremely difficult to define in a way that is nomologically coherent. Not every society even has the concept of morality, let alone the same concept. Philosophers like Stephen Stich have concluded that the moral domain is indefinable and does not exist, except as a residual illusion inherited from Christian theology.
            6. Acts and judgements that have nothing to do with cooperation:
            – masturbation
            – homosexuality
            – incest
            – burning the flag
            – vegetarianism
            – drug use
            – trophy hunting

          2. Replying to Joe Smith:

            Thanks for your counter-criticisms!

            (2) We are probably equivocating on the word “superior”. My notion is anyone who has the right to issue commands. Any form of organisation needs authority of that sort, including anarchist organisations. The anarchist claim that no-one is the “natural” superior of any other is a different matter. Certainly, many people are superior to me in, for example, chess.

            (3) There looks to be ambiguity here also. My point is that kin relationships include parent-child relationships, and utilitarians who think this relationship has “no special moral weight” are making a very unobvious claim.

            (4) I disagree. Yes, we do have wars over contested possession claims. But this is the exceptional case, and usually it arises when the competing parties think they have prior possession. (See China and Taiwan.) That is not at odds with the Curry et al contention.

            (5) If your point really is that morality-as-cooperation has not been “proven”, then I don’t disagree. EJWinner and Dan doubt that the enterprise of giving a philosophical account of morality is not worth attempting. Peter Smith and I are on the other side of that divide. Perhaps we can only agree to disagree on that. You mention Stephen Stich, but there are many good philosophers on our side too. I’ll mention as one example Philip Pettit’s “The Birth of Ethics”.

            (6) I can’t reply to each of these, so I’ll fall back on what Curry and co say: “We agree that it remains to be seen whether MAC can explain all moral phenomena. And we agree that sexual morality in particular is at present undertheorized, and hence poorly understood. However, we hypothesize that, on closer inspection,
            many aspects of sexual morality will turn out to be the products (or by-products) of cooperative mechanisms. If morals are solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life, then perhaps sexual morals are solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human sexual life, and we should view sexual morality as cooperation about sex”. The disgust reaction, which Haidt makes part of core morality, is treated by Curry and co as something that “is moralized only when employed to solve a cooperative problem”. I agree with them, but I appreciate that others won’t.

  5. I’m usually a Humean on most things regarding morality, but I would disagree with his views regarding the strength of the sense of duty and its place among the hierarchy of sentiments. Most of the times, yes, we generally tend to care most about ourselves and immediate family. But I would argue this is not due to one set of values being ‘naturally’ imbued with a stronger feeling than others, nor is it a matter of what constitutes our ‘natural’ sentiments.

    For instance, an equally strong moral sense can be observed in people who enlist in the military to fight a war for an abstraction called a ‘nation’ — a geographic configuration filled with strangers one will never meet. Going off to war can often mean leaving behind family and friends. And being killed in a war can devastate one’s own family and other personal intimate relationships. Thus, it would seem many people feel moved by general utilitarian ends more than by personal connections. Some will even deliberately take their own lives for a cause, such as the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest of the Vietnam War.

    Events like war often involve critical moral dilemmas. The “crying baby problem” creates inner conflicts which highlight the tension between official morality and the very personal moral domain Dan focuses on in this essay. Unlike say, the trolley problem, the crying baby problem is derived from, I believe, a real life anecdote from WW II (It’s also depicted in a scene from the final episode of the television show M*A*S*H ). It may have been embellished over time, but the dilemma goes something like this: Soldiers have attacked your home village. They murder, burn, rape, and pillage relentlessly. You, and your infant, and some other villagers are hiding out in a run down shack. Your baby is crying, so you cover its mouth. If you let go, the crying will alert the soldiers who will then kill everyone inside, including your baby. To save yourself and the other villagers, you must smother your baby. The outcomes of two courses of action are usually assumed 1) Smother your own child and everyone survives, except not likely your baby 2) Refuse to smother your baby, and everyone likely dies

    Or similarly, the hunter gatherer mother who makes the emotionally painful decision to commit infanticide during a season of severe food scarcity.

    In other words, circumstances, and not some inner hierarchy of sentiments, will more often shape our moral choices and behavior. I feel that Dan acknowledged this in the final two paragraphs. Our capacity to value others, including strangers, above our own selves and kin, is no less a motivating force within us than are our private morals. It needs only the right situation to bring it out. And from the above examples, I would argue circumstances can also blur the distinction between official and private morality. Most of the time, however, we do indeed dwell within a sphere of personal ties and private values, not because they are necessarily ‘stronger’, but because we are constantly surrounded by and thinking about them.

  6. We have each of us, in ourselves, a moral beacon. It can be likened to a light that shines out from us in the moral darkness with a certain intensity, determined by our own nature.

    This light illuminates those in our moral neighbourhood, revealing themselves as moral objects deserving of moral consideration.

    When objects lie outside the range of our moral beacon we find it difficult to recognise them as moral objects. We are morally blind to them, treating them accordingly.

    What matters then is the intensity of our moral beacon. The greater the intensity of our moral beacon the greater the scope of our moral vision and the greater the likelihood that we treat others with moral consideration.

    What then determines the range and intensity of our moral beacons? The following facters come into play, roughly in order of importance.

    1) Physical distance. We are more likely to recognise people physically close to us as moral objects.
    2) Emotional distance. Close emotional ties result in powerful moral recognition.
    3) Relational distance. Relationships produce bonds that result in moral recognition,
    4) Social distance. People within our social groups are also accorded moral recognition with the strength of that recognition being determined by social distance.
    5) Moral sensitization. This can be thought of as the strength of the moral energy in us, that powers our moral beacon.

    Our moral behaviour is naturally regulated by physical distance, emotional distance, relational distance and social distance. And it is powered by our moral sensitization.

    And just as with a real beacon, the intensity of our moral light falls off rapidly with increasing distance.

    Thus far, my argument is roughly aligned with that of Dan.

    But what is different about us, as humans, is that we have extended our moral beacon to light up extended social groups and that we have extended that light even to remote social groups. What is also different is that we have found means of enhancing our moral sensitization. These are learned behaviours acquired through socialization.

    It is the combination of our natural moral behaviour, regulated by moral distance, with acquired social, moral behaviour that produces the moral human with an extended moral beacon, lighting up those far outside his immediate vicinity. Extending our moral beacon far beyond our immediate vicinity and making it shine more strongly is the miracle that defines our worth.

    Understanding quite why and how that happened is important and I address that in my next comment.

    1. It’s not clear what you mean by moral objects? Do you mean morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Or both? Would moral blindness mean indifference? Or something negative?

      1) Physical distance. We are more likely to recognise people physically close to us as moral objects.

      Again, objects of moral goodness or badness? Or both? It’s not clear. What makes an object a ‘moral’ one? And are these objects always human?

      2) Emotional distance. Close emotional ties result in powerful moral recognition.

      Yes because a large part of moralization is its emotional content.

      3) Relational distance. Relationships produce bonds that result in moral recognition.

      So do non-relationships, as I argued in my longer reply to Dan’s essay.

      4) Social distance. People within our social groups are also accorded moral recognition with the strength of that recognition being determined by social distance.

      Moral recognition can also apply to people outside our social groups (as you yourself say elsewhere). The strength of moral recognition is not determined by social distance, as I argued in my longer reply to Dan’s essay.

      5) Moral sensitization. This can be thought of as the strength of the moral energy in us, that powers our moral beacon.

      Not sure what this means.

      1. Joe,
        It’s not clear what you mean by moral objects?

        Somebody(or animal for that matter) you think deserves moral consideration.

        Let me give you a simple but brutal example. On the farm we would cut the throat of the sheep selected for the next meal and do it without compunction. We would never, for one moment dream of doing it to a human. The person is a moral object and the sheep not.

        Now let me introduce the effect of distance with another simple but brutal example. Imagine for a moment you are an infrantyman called up for active duty on one of your borders which is being infiltrated by ‘terrorists’. Your section is ordered to clear a certain area of the ‘enemy’. As you crawl forward one of the ‘enemy’ breaks cover to dash to another position. You quickly take aim and squeeze off a shot. The remote figure slumps to the ground and moments later you hear that satisfying ‘thwack’ of the bullet striking home. Wow, that was a good shot, you think.

        You advance to take the position as the ‘enemy’ have retreated but now you hear agonized groaning. You find it is coming from the person you shot. You quickly go over and find him bleeding copiously and writhing in agony. Horrified and disgusted by what you have done you staunch the bleeding, treat him for shock and call in the stretcher bearers. They take him away and you never know if he survived but that memory haunts you for a long time afterwards. How could you have done that with so little compunction?

        That is the difference that distance, both physical and emotional. makes. The far off figure was not recognized as a moral object(physical distance). This was accentuated by labelling him as a ‘terrorist’ and the ‘enemy'(emotional distance). Moreover he was of a different race(social distance). But close up he was revealed as a moral object arousing powerful compassion and deep regret for his fate.

      2. Joe,
        5) Moral sensitization. This can be thought of as the strength of the moral energy in us, that powers our moral beacon.

        Not sure what this means.

        This is the first of James Rest’s four component model of ethical behaviour:
        1) Moral sensitivity
        2) Moral judgement
        3) Moral motivation and commitment
        4) Moral character and competence.

        Christian Smith, in his book, Moral Believing Animals, makes this point in his conclusion:

        Human culture, I have suggested, is always moral order, and human cultures are everywhere moral orders. Human persons, I have claimed, are nearly inescapably moral agents, human actions necessarily morally constituted and propelled practices, and human institutions inevitably morally infused configurations of rules and resources.

        Building on this model, in the foregoing pages I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which constitutes, directs, and makes significant human life itself. This book has argued that human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations.

        The relational ties that hold human lives together, the conversations that occupy people’s mental lives, the routines and intentions that shape their actions, the institutions within which they live and work, the emotions they feel every day—I have suggested that all of these and more are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations.

        There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order, no way to be human except through moral order. And until we recognize this and build into our theories the recognition that to enact and sustain moral order is one of the central, fundamental motivations for human action, our understanding of human action and culture will be impoverished.

        He says that all things we do “are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations.

        If you believe this and see this in the world around you then you possess moral sensitivity. The greater your moral sensitivity the further out your moral radius is extended beyond physical, emotional, relational and social boundaries.

        But it remains true, and I think this is Dan’s central point, our greatest moral sensitivity is reserved for those at the centre of our physical, emotional, relational and social boundaries.

        This is not wrong and it is not a defect. But what is wrong is sharply limiting the circle of our moral concerns to our immediate vicinity. Possibly the most extreme example of that was Hitler’s love for Eva Braun and his dog Blondi(oops, Godwin’s Law).

        Then we have the true psychopaths who completely and utterly lack any kind of moral sensitivity. Their moral beacon has been extinguished.

        Here we have to make the distinction between evil and the absence of a moral beacon. They are not the same thing.

  7. Continued.

    Imagine one is a primitive hunter/gatherer on the East African savannas. You need a bow and arrow. So you go to the quarry, select and chip away at a flintstone to make an arrow head. You find a certain bush, strip out and twist it’s fibres to make a bowstring. You find a certain tree and carve the bow and arrow shaft from one of its branches. You assemble them. And voila, you have your bow and arrow. But this took a lot of time and effort and the result was not that good because you are good at making bowstrings and nothing else. Worse still, you had to go hungry because you could not hunt during this time. And time really matters when your prey is so determined not to be eaten.

    The neighbouring band has split up the task between groups who each specialize in making arrow heads, bowstrings, arrow shafts and bows. Suddenly they are making much better bows much more quickly. They have discovered specialization. It is the exponential growth of this specialization that has produced our remarkable modern world.

    But specialization has a fundamental requirement, and that is trust. I know I can make good arrow heads but I must trust you to make good bows, shafts and drawstrings, on time and in the right quantity. As we grew our capacity for specialization we had to develop mechanisms to regulate trustworthy behaviour, to recognize trustworthiness and to demonstrate trustworthiness. This was fundamentally necessary for widespread specialization.

    To do this you had to reliably recognize intent. Will you discharge your promises? Will you deceive me or let me down? Will you turn on me? We developed three fundamental mechanisms for reliably recognising intent.

    1) Mobile faces. In the animal world we alone have hyper-mobile faces. These faces reveal our emotions and are are good guides to intent. We are hyper-skilled at reading faces from the smallest cues(even when masked, as at present).

    2) Expressive voices. Our large vocal range and the accompanying intonation provides important cues to emotions and thus discerning intent.

    3) Virtuous behaviour. The need for trust, as the foundation of specialization gave birth to a system of virtue ethics that is intended, at its root, to demonstrate trust and trustworthiness. When we see virtuous behaviour in others we believe in them and we develop trust in them. Conversely we demonstrate our trustworthiness through our virtuous behaviour.

    And thus was born a system for regulating moral behaviour that extended morality(thereby enabling specialization) far beyond the immediate moral vicinity formed by physical, emotional, relational and social neighbourhoods.

    But a new problem raised its head. Soon the network of specialization grew beyond our range for recognizing virtuous behaviour. We coped with this by codifying desirous behaviour as a set of rules(deontology and the law) and putting in place the mechanisms for enforcing these desired behaviours. This was the birth of our regulatory, legal and justice systems. Looking into a person’s eye and shaking his hand was replaced by contract law. Even so we still feel a powerful need to fly around the world and meet people face to face when we negotiate contracts with them. This makes the airlines wealthy.

    In parallel with these things, extending the circle of moral concern beyond immediate physical, emotional, relational and social neighbourhoods requires moral commitment. And of course society developed mechanisms for securing moral commitment. The major mechanisms developed for this purpose are called religion. And if you don’t believe in God’s existence then God is just a mystical device for enhancing commitment.

    1. I generally agree with the above and your other reply enunciating the expanding concentric circles that extended morality through enlarging the sphere of the “in group” from nuclear family outwards to nation and someday humanity at large worldwide. We should not ask for who the bell tolls.
      As game theory dictates, for every noble stratagem of survival the mirror image will evolve to counter, the expressiveness of face, voice and overt “righteous behavior”. Religion has its gods and its demons. Trust but verify.

      1. Your example of hunter gatherer life as a genealogical explanation for the origins of morality seems to reduce morality to economic calculations.

        First, it takes about 6-8 hours to make a good bow from scratch (I know, because I’ve actually done it). And maybe about 3-4 hours to make an arrow, depending on what kind of resin you use to fasten the arrowhead and the fletching to the shaft. Some resins can take overnight to completely harden. You could always just lash sinew around the arrowhead stem, but this won’t last more than a couple of shots.

        Hunter gathering societies can go for several days or a week without meat, so one day spent on making an arrow is not a big deal. They certainly wouldn’t go hungry, since edible plants make up most of their calories anyway.

        Second, anyone who isn’t satisfied with their bow would not simply give up and trade for one. They would go sit beside an experienced hunter and get advice, so that they could improve their technique. Being self reliant is a core ethos in hunter gathering bands. It’s also a matter of survival. If you find yourself alone, you have to be able to know basic survival skills, like make a fire from scratch in the rain, or make a bow and arrow. Specialization makes one dependent on others — the opposite of self reliance. Some people’s bows and arrows will naturally be better/worse than others, but no one would simply leave that craft to someone else.

        Third. It’s highly unlikely that virtue ethics is the origin or basis for all morality. Trustworthiness can be a double edged trait. I can trust a politician, my boss, or a criminal gang, to negatively affect my life just as easily as I can trust my friends to help me move. The question is: what am I trusting other people to do exactly? ‘Trust’ is too broad a concept to be helpful in understanding morality and its origins. Trust is simply predictability, not a virtue in and of itself.

        1. I think you meant to reply to Peter. But, like you, I don’t place much store in morally economic transactions as anything other than the use of a pre adaptive more fundamental impulse of trust and reciprocity
          (as seen in other species, notably primates) that evolved with the concomitant growth of brain and ever increasing and more complex social interactions of the kin in-group.

          Thinking one is doing the right thing and feeling furtive or shame for not, surely predates the bow and arrow or stone hand ax.

  8. This strikes me as an important essay.

    I especially connected to the final paragraph.

    As a side note, one thing tricky about emotional distance regarding a particular is that it doesn’t always correlate with a practical or experiential understanding of the particular and it’s context. Or, I think it is common to apply an elevated emotional response to a particular based on a superficial understanding of the particular when one has a strong emotional attachment to a concept and applies it to the particular.

    On the flip side being close to particular situation and having developed a good practical understanding of its nuances may, or may not lead to an elevated emotional reaction.

    These are reasons why I think it is important to have a good self-assessment of how strong our practical judgement is in relation to a particular case before making strong moral claims about it.

    1. Well yes, there is always that. Morality, as many subjective things are always in the eye of the beholder. We are left with only the consensus of society to adjudicate our actions. Hitler,, Attila were probably considered moral in their own right.

  9. As I get older – experience more, meet more people, read more – the more obvious it is to me that the search for first principles in morality – whether found in some esoteric logic, in some ‘universal’ basic of human behavior, in some evolutionary drive or historic origin – is simply a waste of time, and has been a waste of effort for now centuries. Ethical behavior is entirely contingent, and dependent on a complex mixture of motivations, never ‘pure.’ If Aristotle still speaks to us, it is because, while he shared some of the political agenda of his teacher, Plato, he also made the wise choice to emphasize observation and description; his ‘first principles’ are thus largely flavored by what he saw and what he shared with others in his community.

    “Ethos” is Greek for character, and ultimately ethical agency is about the person. Intimacy with, or detachment from, other people thus becomes paramount. It is difficult to recognize ‘objectively’ how close this can get to the person involved, and despite grand sounding words and big ideas, how far this can get extended beyond the immediate commitments of the person. It varies person to person, culture to culture, situation to situation. Perhaps observation and description is the best we can do, philosophically.

    1. EJ, I would go farther than this. Sometimes, moral consideration makes it harder to deal appropriately with something. In the situation I find myself now with my father’s near-end-of-life situation, my mind constantly turning to the rights and wrongs of the situation are making it much harder for me to cope. The train-wreck character of things, the terrible burden it is imposing on my elderly and somewhat demented mother, the constant disruption to the lives of my wife and daughter and to me are all the result of a series of really bad and selfish choices made by my father over the course of the last three or four years.

      Most certainly virtually everything about the current situation is his responsibility. But contemplating this does not help me navigate it. In fact it makes it much more difficult, because it causes me to expend emotional energy and psychological “health points” on questions of justice and being wronged which in turn leads to resentment and then guilt about the resentment.

      In truth the morality of the situation is irrelevant. Justice will not be served. Certain things are simply going to happen. And there is no one to deal with them but me. These are the only relevant considerations. The rest is a distraction and a hindrance and make me feel worse and less able to cope than otherwise.

    2. “It varies person to person, culture to culture, situation to situation.”

      Yes, but I think we need to be careful about being too relativistic and/or individualistic as well. There is this thing called “human nature” that was given each of us at our birth that speaks to a commonality to the human moral experience. It is as reasonable to reflect on such commonality as it is to reflect on the specific circumstances of individual experience. There is a tense dynamic between individualism and commonality, and there are errors on being too extreme on either side. Any moral philosophy needs to be balanced in this dynamic and adequately incorporate each.

      I think underlying the point of the essay was that historically philosophy has been unbalanced toward the universal/commonl side of things which is an expression of abstracted hyper-rationality and being too distanced from circumstance. I would also say that being overly individualistic is similarly abstracted from reality through hyper-rationality. The essay also posits our emotionality as correcting such abstraction – be it at either extreme.

      The interesting thing to me is that there is arguably also a commonality to our emotionality that spontaneously arises from our human nature. This sounds like a fertile area for moral reflection.

      1. I was raised a Catholic, and now consider myself a Pragmatist and a Buddhist (however poor a practitioner of either). But my first, most essential ethical education came from the ancient Greeks. No, not Plato or Aristotle, but Homer. The Greeks of the Odyssey and the Iliad shared few illusions concerning any universal moral principles. Until the Socratic era, Greek morality was presumed to be largely a matter of tribal custom. The gods insisted on certain practices, and thus filled the role of ‘law giver,’ but they were also whimsical and arbitrary. The showed no compassion, and chose favorites among mortals only as a kind of game played with other gods. The gods themselves were fundamentally tribal – the Greeks didn’t care that the Persians worshiped, say, Mithra; in fact they probably thought Mithra really existed, he just existed for the Persians. He could bring the sun to the sky for Persians, but only Apollo could bring the sun to the sky for the Greeks. Now, that’s real relativism – but was a wide-spread way of looking at religion, at least along the Mediterranean basin. Yet despite wars, and internal conflicts, occasional cruelty and tribal arrogance, in fact the Greeks lived pretty good lives, and treated each other – according to custom – with recognizable respect and even decency. The notion I remarked, that ” ethical agency is about the person,” is an Homeric notion, a notion that continued among the Greeks well into the Socratic era and beyond, and grounds their great tragedies.

        It is notable that the Greeks did not really buy any notion of a paradise after death – the after-life was basically a banal half-conscious hell where one suffered lack of sensory pleasure. That made life – especially life among others, in community – all the more precious.

        There are other ways of getting there; and, while I respect and agree with much of what you said, I am really only suggesting that there are other ways of getting to where you wish to go as well. And perhaps Homer’s Greeks are not so distant to us over time that we cannot still learn from them.

  10. Herbert Gintis gives a good overview of recent research on cooperation and morality here: https://youtu.be/gideFt9gLLw.

    At the end he adds some personal reflections.

    “When I was young I was a Marxist. I learned that capitalism makes people selfish. I never believed that, by the way, although I wouldn’t mention it to any of my friends. […] When you exchange with others, you have to take their point of view all the time, you have to put yourself into their shoes in order to do well when dealing with them, so you become tolerant and flexible.”

    1. Terrific. This is a really good talk that powerfully makes your point.

    2. Alan,
      further to your comments, see this paper by Martin Seligman and others – Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History (http://www.precisionmi.com/Materials/UniveralVirtuesMat/Shared%20Virtue%20The%20Convergence%20of%20Valued%20Human%20Strengths.pdf)

      They examined the primary literature of the following belief systems: Confucianism,Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, looking for a convergence in shared values. Despite differences in terminology and presentation, they found a strong commonality and concluded that all cultures possess and value the following six fundamental virtues:

      1. Courage
      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).
      2. Justice
      Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork.
      3. Humanity
      Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others (Taylor et al., 2000); examples include love and kindness.
      4. Temperance
      Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self control.
      5. Wisdom
      Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgement, and perspective (providing counsel to others).
      6. Transcendence
      Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

      Virtue ethics is common to all cultures, and they share a remarkable similarity in their professed virtues, with the main differences being in the terminology being used and with different emphases on what they consider as the primary virtues. African societies were not studied by Seligman but my own observations of African societies strongly supports Seligman’s conclusions.

      Using Ginti’s evolution of morality argument from cooperation, or my own, from specialization(which is cooperation in another guise) we can reasonable conclude that morality, in the form of virtue ethics, is an ancient part of us, having co-evolved with us for at least 70,000 years. It is thus not contingent but is instead a basic driving force that animates our behaviour and can be readily understood in terms of the way we evolved.

      1. Peter: Thanks.

        I used to ask students to name the three characteristics they think most valuable in a person. I got the same answers over and over. The top three were respect for others, honesty and kindness or compassion. Curiously, they almost never mentioned courage, temperance, wisdom or transcendence. Justice was probably assumed in their idea of respect for others. This would lead into a discussion of the four classical virtues: justice, courage, wisdom and temperance.

  11. Dan,

    In addition to basic values and duties being plural in number and/or fragmented, I would maintain further that they are subject to significant fluctuation. That is, what matters and what we ought to do will change from scenario to scenario, case to case, and actor to actor. So, in addition to their being no singularity as to what is of value or what underlies all of our duties, there is no fixity to them either. And if what matters and what one ought to do are tied to the particularities of circumstances and actors, then there can be no moral rules, the existence and character of which require some significant degree of generality.

    This is really a most disturbing statement. You seem to be making a public statement that you are motivated only by moral expediency.

    Is this correct?

    If not, please show me how you are not driven by moral expediency. But then how can you, when you maintain “there can be no moral rules, the existence and character of which require some significant degree of generality“?

    In fact you say “what matters and what we ought to do will change from scenario to scenario, case to case, and actor to actor“. In the absence of any kind of rules, which you have rejected, as I have shown in the previous quote, this can only be a statement of moral expediency.

    Now, just for a moment, imagine that all of us, in the world around you, adopt such principles of moral expediency(if you can call that ‘principles’). Will you feel safe in such a world? Will this be an orderly world, world, conducive to flourishing? I really don’t thinks so. The world works only because it has underlying moral guidelines that make possible societal flourishing and thereby individual flourishing. And it works, for the most part, because the majority of us are not scofflaws or freeriders, and we do largely adhere to the moral guidelines that you deride.

    But if we were all to pick and choose, willynilly, which moral guidelines, if any, and in any manner, to follow, we would soon have a dog eat dog world. I am sure that is not what you want so you are advocating something that is inconsistent with your basic needs.

    Now if I have got you wrong then you really need to rephrase that paragraph, which by itself, is most disturbing.

    1. You seem to be making a public statement that you are motivated only by moral expediency.

      That seems far better than immoral expediency.

      1. I am currently in the middle of managing my father’s latest hospitalization and near-death. The choices I have had to make; the impossible scenarios I’ve been put in; the “every option is bad” character of so much of it. There’s nothing left but expediency.

        1. Dan, your situation cannot be imagined or felt by us in the way that you experience it. We can only watch with the deepest sympathy and compassion, with the fond hope that you endure and recover from the pain. Only you know how to navigate these difficult times and we can never presume to judge you or offer advice. We can only offer our heartfelt sympathy.

      2. Neil, that is an amusing variant of the glass half full/half empty trope.

        1. I thought Dan gave a pretty good explanation on why expediency is about all that is available in his present circumstance.

    2. Sometimes utility will be an overriding concern. Sometimes respect for autonomy. Sometimes both will be at issue and one will have to decide which to follow, which will mean violating the other. This is just the reality of things. And there are no moral skyhooks to pull you out of having to make decisions, which, at the end of the day, are not guided by principles, once you get all the way down to the bottom. There is no “super principle” that tells you whether, in a case where both autonomy and utility are at issue and in conflict with one another.

      So, no, I’m not revising anything. I am simply speaking to the reality of things.

          1. Let’s suppose A threatens B with violence in order to get something B has that A desires. Trying to maximise utility in this scenario, the utilitarian suggest that B’s goods be split half and half between A and B. That way they both benefit. A gets half of the goods and is better off than before; B keeps half and avoids a bashing. Utility is maximised.

            Whatever morality might be, it needs to include something that cuts off that sort of reasoning. Call it “autonomy” if you like. I’d prefer to say that A is behaving unjustly and non-cooperatively and therefore his preferences don’t carry any force in the moral accounting. That’s one instance in which morality-as-cooperation offers a basis for choosing.

          2. alandtapper1950,
            I don’t think Dan is using “utility” here in reference of utilitarianism. It’s simply a matter of doing what needs be done as opposed to what someone wants to do.

            ” I’d prefer to say that A is behaving unjustly and non-cooperatively” – sure, and we say such all the time, will continue to do so, and should, as this maintains the common discourse concerning community ethical preferences. But it is unclear if such discourse does or should carry the weight of “theory” or “philosophy” in the manner often charged for it. Why cannot this simply be how we talk and maintain our social standards? I see no need for founding principles for it.

            “His preferences don’t carry any force in the moral accounting” – there is no “force” to moral accounting until we come before legislated behaviors. That’s one primary problem with moral theory. Legal theory has the force of the state behind it; what enforces utilitarianism or deontology? So why go there except as a form of highly elevated and attenuated social discourse?

            By the way, you’ve championed morality-as-cooperation here as a recent development. The great anarchist thinker, Kropotkin, developed that idea more than a hundred years ago (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,1902). I was much taken with it in my youth; but ultimately nothing assures the moral rectitude of individuals, nor balances disagreement between them other than legislation or community approval or opprobrium (essentially ‘peer-pressure’).

      1. It seems always the case that moral-realist – absolutists are warning us the world will go to hell in a hand-basket if we don’t adopt ‘first principles’ of their preferred morality (which of course they always assert as a ‘universal’ morality). Yet the world keeps rolling along without any global constitution founded on such principles. Children are raised, they get married, they get jobs, they develop friendships, they grow to old age, they confront mortality, often without any reliance on such ‘first principles.’ Hundreds of millions.

        And those who resort to ‘first principles’ often do not share the same ‘first principles’ and will fight to the death over the differences. Hindus won’t eat cows and Muslims won’t eat pigs. Yet ’tis said in the Qur’an, “but whoever is driven to necessity, not desiring, nor exceeding the limit, no sin shall be upon him; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” So even a slice of pork can be fed to a starving Muslim. One would think that thus all would learn to live in peace despite differing ‘first principles.’ But Hindus still attack Muslims for eating beef.

        My point in this remark is that ‘first principles’ often vary according to which tradition one follows; that ‘first principles’ always have loopholes for contingencies; that ‘first principles’ of differing traditions sometimes conflict, with practical consequences that do not assure a stable social environment or personal satisfaction. If this sounds very confusing, well, frankly – it is.

        I am not saying that those who do not adopt nor live by ‘first principles’ have it any easier than those who do. I am suggesting that nothing makes it easier, especially in difficult situations such as you are facing with your father, Dan.

        Much of the moral theorizing that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries did so because it was becoming quite clear that large numbers of intelligent and productive people were simply not going to be persuaded to return to their various churches. Much “moral philosophy” may really have been an historic effort to keep people acting as Christians without making any actual commitment to Christian faith. Again, the fear that without such behavior – straight to hell in a hand-basket. (Not real hell, just (a)moral chaos.) However, the Evangelical personality cult of Donald Trump should remind us that not even real Christian faith protects us from (a)moral chaos. ‘First principles’ always come with loopholes.

        I am reminded, somehow, of Kafka’s parable of the man who waited patiently at the gate for entrance to the Law his whole life. At last, dying, he complains, “”Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”‘ (Johnston, trans.)

        It will come down to you, my friend; it always does. You will do what is necessary. There is no onus to it, and you will live with it, and I think learn from it.

  12. There seems to be some pushback against “first principles” which makes it worth examining why we think first principles are important.

    1) It is a productive way of thinking.
    It encourages us to look behind the manifestations, the surface of life and search for both understanding and causes. African societies, where I live, tend to deal with the manifestations whereas Western culture is more concerned with searching for understanding and causes. The differences in results is dramatic. Of course African cultures are adopting our modes of thinking and catching up quickly.

    2) When we look for understanding, we do so in terms of structure. We seek an explanatory structure and we soon find this structure has a network of causes and effects.

    3) We look for causes that are rational, repeatable and predictable because these help to supply an explanatory structure and enable us to modify the world in beneficial ways.

    4) We look for root causes because we have discovered that the world is ordered in an ascending hierarchy of causes. Root causes are not only powerful explanatory tools, but they are also immensely useful. For a while I worked as a failure investigation engineer in a large automotive company. We were constantly searching for root causes so that we could eliminate them and thus make both the process and the product more reliable.

    5) From the ascending hierarchy of root causes we derive the idea of first principles and these can have great explanatory power.

    Thus the idea of first principles is deeply embedded in our way of thinking and we are naturally inclined to seek them. But are they always to be found and do they indeed exist? In subjects like mathematics the answer is clear, yes. In subjects like physics the answer is less clear. We have at the apex of explanations three sets of answers that have not yet been reconciled, namely quantum mechanics, relativity and the Stanford model. Some say the demand for a unified explanation is merely a metaphysical need of us humans that does not accord with reality while others say it must be a feature of the universe.

    I believe the second answer, it must be a foundational feature of the universe. This has four parts:

    1) The universe is capable of explanation. The story of science is the story of continuous growth of understanding where no limits have been discovered. We have no reason to believe that the quest for explanation has a barrier, going all the way back to the birth of the universe. One cannot explain before that because there was no before that.

    2) The universe began at a single moment and a single point from a state of extraordinary uniformity. Sir Roger Penrose calculated this as being less variance than one part in ten to the power of 128. From there it has evolved gradually, continuously and step by step to the extraordinary complexity of our world today. Every state in this process can be explained from the immediately preceding state and the laws of nature that act on them. Therefore there is a hierarchy of causes that go all the way back to the birth of the universe. And these have a unifying explanation because it all began in a single, incredible state of uniformity driven by the laws of nature.

    Of course, when we talk about root causes and first principles we don’t normally mean the birth of the universe. For practical reasons we mean some earlier, intermediate state in our present domain. But in principle, given sufficient computing power, we could trace it back, causally, to any earlier point in time.

    3) Darwinian evolution is the inexorable continuation of this process in recent times on our planet and we are the outcome of that process. Our biology arose from this process and is explainable by this process. Our cognition is also the outcome of this process and was shaped by this process.

    4) Therefore our cognitive patterns of behaviour are in principle explainable by the earlier stages of our development. We can choose any earlier stage and call this first principles or root causes, trivially going all the way back to the birth of the universe. By first principles we usually mean earlier principles that serve as a foundation for present understanding.

    When looking at human behaviour a sensible starting point is the beginning of evolution and a practical starting point is the birth of modern cognition, some 70,000 or so years ago since that marks the beginning of the great divide between us humans and the rest of the animal species. What makes us different, and indeed unique, is the trajectory that we followed since that time. This is where we can find the first principles of the forces that drive our modern behaviour. To deny they exist would in effect be to deny the reality of the entire process I have described and this is plainly nonsensical.

    Following on this, both Alan Tapper and I, have argued that modern understanding of morality has its roots in the earlier stages of our evolution with the beginning of cooperative behaviour and this is where we can find so called ‘first principles’. Though I think the term, in this instance, is ill advised since it carries a large baggage of unintended meanings.

    No one has addressed the substance of our argument to rebut it.

    1. Morality is a mess.

      It’s a weird mixture of some principles that almost everyone pays lip service to and few practice like “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” or “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you” and lots of justifications and rationalizations for what people want to do anyway.

      For example, a group of leftwing demonstrators just looted and trashed a pharmacy and hardware store a few blocks from where I live. The pharmacy especially concerns me because first of all, I often go there and they’re open longer hours than the other pharmacies in my neighborhood and because there’s a senstive young guy who works there with whom I often converse and who once told me how afraid he is of looters.

      However, the looters, I’m sure, justify their looting that pharmacy is part of a large chain that rips the public off and that they are poor and prices in the pharmacy are too high for their families to pay for them. Much of the left will also justify them because it’s an unjust system in which big businesses like this chain of pharmacies make huge profits for
      idle shareholders. Healthcare, including medicines, is a human right and should be free and until it is free, the poor have a right to take what they need, they will say.

      Who is right? Do the poor have a right to loot pharmacies? I have no idea and there really isn’t any answer except that morality is what people believe is right and that varies according to societies and within societies according to one’s interests, values, often social class, etc.

      1. Hi SW,
        The looting to destabilize an unjust and powerful order so that it breaks down and can be replaced with a more just order is a large and difficult subject that I won’t even try to address here. I am Marxist in my sympathies but with acquired Catholic values, so you will understand I am quite conflicted.

        Morality is a mess.

        Yes, but it is we who are the mess, hence the need for morality. It is our capricious, arbitrary, cruel, grasping, greedy, power hungry and unjust nature that creates the mess. The mess is further accentuated by the rationalizations and dishonesty that we use to justify or defend our actions.

        At its heart the problem exists because we have two natures in conflict with each other. I know this will sound Manichean to you, but bear with me.

        1) Our animal nature.
        For seven million years we evolved like any other mammal. We had the same genetic drives that they have. Morality plays no role in the survival of the fittest. What matters is ruthless self interest and nothing else. These seven million years of evolution laid down our essential genetic structure, not only in terms of morphology but also in terms of behaviour.

        Then something truly dramatic happened about 70,000 or so years ago. This was the birth of modern cognition. It was dramatic because, for the first time in evolutionary history, the course of development was no longer shaped only by genetic/environmental interaction. This new animal could see the future and make choices about the future. The behaviour of this animal was partially liberated from the controlling power of his genes which dictated reactive behaviour in response to the environment..

        I say partially because the elimination of the genes that controlled our behaviour, laid down over the course of seven million years, is a slow and gradual process. We are a work in progress and we are only part of the way there.

        2) Our moral nature.
        In light of the above, that we have a moral nature is something remarkable. After all, ruthless self interest in the service of survival of the fittest, was a tried and tested solution that had determined the course of a billion years of evolution. It worked rather well. Why not continue as before? That can be the subject of another comment.

        But for now it is enough to note, that against all the odds, and despite deeply embedded animal origins, we do possess a moral nature. But this moral nature is something new, only acquired gradually over the last 70,000 years, or so, as the genes that control our behaviour began to recede. And as they receded they exposed our capacity for moral behaviour.

        This process is incomplete and so our behaviour is conflicted. It is a tussle between the demands of our ancient animal nature and the demands of our recently discovered moral capacity. That is why, in moral terms we are a mess.

        But there is also a lot to celebrate. Improbably, and despite the ruthless imperatives of evolution, we have discovered transcedence, the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We have discovered in ourselves an innate drive for excellence as we strive to achieve the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We have discovered love. We have discovered that we love excellence, we love the True, we love the Good and we love the Beautiful. They imbue the world with sacrality, awe and reverence. They make us noble.

        There is a lot to celebrate, even as we struggle against the darker demands of our ancient animal nature. And the atrocities of WWII are a stark reminder of how easily we can revert to ancient patterns of behaviour.

        1. Hi Pete,
          Your creative writing skills far outshine your grasp of the finer particulars of evolutionary biology and psychology. But, I get your point.

          I’ve been keeping a casual eye on this thread and I don’t believe the innate trait of a sense of fairness/ justice has been thrown in the mix (though maybe implied) as a crucial component of the moral animal. Seems indispensable to me. Perhaps this element is the animal kingdom equivalent of morals and probably was the antecedent condition leading to human morality. Maybe using the term transactional instead of cooperation would further create a more comprehensive understanding.

          1. Hi Azin,
            Your creative writing skills far outshine your grasp of the finer particulars of evolutionary biology and psychology.

            I am happy to accept correction.

            I don’t believe the innate trait of a sense of fairness/ justice has been thrown in the mix (though maybe implied) as a crucial component of the moral animal. Seems indispensable to me

            Yes, that is true and the need for fairness is a really important part of our makeup.

            Perhaps this element is the animal kingdom equivalent of morals

            One seldom finds fairness in the animal world, except in the same litter. I still think we developed our moral systems as we developed specialization. They were the necessary underpinning that enabled specialization.

            This insight first came to me as I strolled through the vast manufacturing halls of a very large auto maker. I would stop and talk to individual sections to understand what they were doing. I was struck by the fact that they only knew how to do their own immediate job and nothing else. I found the same was true of my colleagues, my subordinates and my bosses. And then it hit me in the face. Nobody knew how to make a motor car. And yet, there we were, doing it reliably and in high volumes. How was that possible when nobody knew how to do it? You need to bear in mind that the complete process of making a motor car is incredibly complex. Far more complex than philosophy, which seems quite simple by comparison.

            So how was it possible? How did it happen? It evidently did, not only in our company but throughout our supply chain, right across the world. So what made it possible?

            The answer of course was delegation, collaboration and specialization. We would delegate specialized tasks to others who had the detailed skills and knowledge. And then we would depend on them to reliably execute these tasks, which for the most part they did. I needed to exercise trust that they could and would do it. They needed to demonstrate trustworthiness. They needed to know in return that the allocation of rewards was fair and proportionate. They needed to know that my delegation of tasks was fair and responsible.

            I believe that these needs seeded the development of virtue ethics as a tool for fairness, for detecting and demonstrating trustworthiness. This was a foundational requirement for the extensive specialization that has transformed the world.

            Today I order widgets from China. They take my money and send the widgets to me which I receive two weeks later. And reliably, on time, I receive the right widgets, as ordered, properly made and functioning well. This process spans continents, postal systems, courier systems, banks, ordering companies and manufacturers. This process involves a phenomenal amount of collaboration and specialization. All of this is based on an innate trust that each person will reliably perform his tiny little task in the greater whole.

          2. You have said in your humble refusal to submit articles absent academic bona fides in the philosophical arts that maybe you will tone it down a little. I take it you might have felt a subliminal tinge of guilt from wallerstein when he mentioned not only the quality of your prose but also the prolific nature. I smile good- naturedly, and tell you that I did not get that impression and you shouldn’t give it any further consideration. In my own humble opinion I think you are a valuable glue and catalyst and no one is being forced to read your wares. Anyway this was a long way around to reemphasize your “tone it down” over to your lurid sapiens evolutionary path of “nature red in tooth and claw.” Metaphorically poetic but hardly the way the nuances and necessities of “fitness” are viewed by biologists. There is much more to consider besides sinking one’s fangs into another who is trying to avoid predation.

            When I say fairness/justice in the animal kingdom I’m of course talking about a sense of one getting ones’ fair share of social attention and physical resources. Female Vampire bats sharing blood with the less successful foragers of the night and not offering to previous welshers. Or primates who greedily keep tabs on who and how things are divvied up. So, we being primates with exceptionally large neocortex, it seemed reasonable to speculate that this primitive drive or impulse might be a precursor to the more abstract concept of morals. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the more rarefied metaphysical behaviors we hold as particularly human would out of biological and social necessity ride on the backs of more basic instincts/emotions. We are after all intelligent apes and there is only so much leeway by which we can separate our biological essence from our higher lofty thoughts.

            Honestly a lot of the esoteric talk about morals is beyond my pay grade. Can’t say I’ve given it much if any prior thought. I can feel rage, sadness, hate but, can I say that I feel moral? Does it make sense to say that he walked around with a heightened sense of morality? Commenters here are all over the board on what are morals and from whence do they spring. It’s an important evolved social tool, it’s an abstraction invented to codify certain expected behaviors for particular ends. Every new comment by the learned fellows here, wins me over with reason and persuasion. On one level it seems so indespensible and basic to our social evolution that it must have at least some analogous or closely allied associations with tribalism, transactional reciprication, mate fidelity and fairness. Or not. Was it discovered, invented, innate or exapted? Or is it just the way it hapted? Ha. If one is called out by others or conscience for acting immoral and faces condemnation, should one feel shame? That’s an honest and powerful emotion hooked onto a possible mental artifact with no biological source. (A concept an idea.) Strange bedfellows indeed if morality is just an accepted way of conducting oneself in certain circumstances and conditions. We all have an inner sense of right and wrong. I guess the big question is, is it all a social construct absent some interior compass and does it even matter unless it’s your ox being gored?

            Lots of rhetorical questions.

          3. For the record, in no way was I complaining about the quantity of Peter Smith’s comments.

            Rather, I was expressing wonder at the fact that someone is capable of writing so many long comments in the course of the day in such clear and well edited prose.

          4. This process involves a phenomenal amount of collaboration and specialization. All of this is based on an innate trust that each person will reliably perform his tiny little task in the greater whole.

            It is really a trust of established social institutions, rather than a trust of individual persons. And I doubt that it is innate. It is likely learned from participation in that society and its social institutions.

    2. Peter

      “[B]oth Alan Tapper and I have argued that modern understanding of morality has its roots in the earlier stages of our evolution with the beginning of cooperative behaviour and this is where we can find so called ‘first principles’. Though I think the term, in this instance, is ill advised since it carries a large baggage of unintended meanings.”

      One of the problems is that there is an ambiguity in the notion of “principles” relating to descriptive versus prescriptive. Another is that the term “moral” and its cognates can be understood in slightly different ways, even within a particular society. Morality is a useful concept and picks out certain aspects of human behaviour — but it is somewhat fuzzy at the edges.

      1. Hi Mark,
        I am looking forward to your next essay!

        One of the problems is that there is an ambiguity in the notion of “principles” relating to descriptive versus prescriptive

        Yes. Perhaps I should have used the term guiding principles. We are like boats in a choppy sea with cross winds. Guiding moral principles give the course on which we endeavour to sail. But we must contend with ocean current, winds and waves that can drive us repeatedly off course. We are(or should be) always consulting our (moral)compass and endeavouring to stay on course. And sometimes storms hit us, as it has Dan, when you become more concerned with keeping the boat afloat than its course. The storm will pass and Dan will resume the course.

        Morality is a useful concept
        I would say it is an essential concept. Morality always has two components, the ‘moral’ agent and the moral victim. Now try asking the victim whether morality is more essential than useful. For sure, you will only get one reply, ESSENTIAL.

        Ask the wife of the adulterous husband. Ask the girl who has been raped. Ask the 80,000 boyscouts who were sexually assaulted in the US. Ask the company that is paying out false or inflated insurance claims. Ask the homeowner who was burgled. Ask the person who was mugged three times while out running(myself). Ask the person who fought off a hijacker(myself). Ask the person whose son was bullied until he comitted suicide.

        but it is somewhat fuzzy at the edges

        Yes, there are edge cases and philosophers love them. But we can’t compromise the whole enterprise because the edge cases are difficult. There are myriads of moral victims out there and I doubt if any of them say that morality is merely useful or worry about the fuzziness at the edges. They see the subject in hard, clear lines, delineated by the pain inflicted on them.

        Phew, got that off my chest. Now I wonder what the subject of your next erudite essay will be?

      2. One of the problems is that there is an ambiguity in the notion of “principles” relating to descriptive versus prescriptive

        To continue with my reply, I am going to build on my nautical analogy since I think it encapsulates the matter so well.

        There are many ways of categorising the virtues(there are some 52 of them) but for the purposes of this comment I will accept Seligman’s categories. They are
        1. Courage
        2. Justice
        3. Humanity
        4. Temperance
        5. Wisdom
        6. Transcendence.
        The intellectual virtues can be listed separately.

        We, in our daily behaviour, are guided by these considerations and in any given context we may accord one of them more weight than the others. A virtue ethicist will tell you that a life lived in a spirit of excellence that optimally balances the demands of these virtues is a flourishing life.

        But how do we balance these different demands? Massimo will tell you that this is a skill imparted by acquired wisdom. I agree. This is where my nautical analogy comes in. Imagine you are piloting a small sailing boat across a large bay in unsettled weather. Your progress is beset by squalls, sudden gusts of wind, the tide, ocean currents, etc. This is the uncertain and troublesome world that we navigate.

        You maintain your course, as best you can by adjusting the tiller, changing the angle of your sails, sheeting them in or out and shifting your position in the boat. There is no calculation involved. You do it intuitively, modifying the settings moment by moment to maintain your course. This is what a good sailor does naturally and hardly thinks about it, except perhaps in retrospect. These settings and adjustments are, in our everyday lives, the virtues.

        The sailor, out there in the bay, with choppy waves, sudden squalls and uncertain ocean currents is happy. He is enjoying himself and he is enjoying his mastery of this environment. He is becoming an excellent sailor. His arms might be tired, he might be wet and cold but he is flourishing. And the virtue ethicist will tell you that this is how we flourish in a challenging, uncertain world. By seeking excellence and mastery in everything we do, guided by the virtues.

        1. Peter Smith,

          As others have probably told you, you write very well in clear, well organized, well edited prose and you produce impressive quanities of that prose in a very short time, as one can see by the number of comments that you make daily.

          I don’t always agree with what you say and we have a very different basic world view, but I would encourage you to ask Dan if you can submit longer essays to the Electric Agora and I would also encourage Dan to consider you as a future essayist.

          1. Hi SW, thanks for the kind words. In the beginning EA specified that contributors were expected to be credentialled academics. The wording has changed since then to make it more inclusive. But I think that was a sensible requirement so that EA could maintain its standing and credibility in the marketplace of academic blogs. It respects the sensibilities of academics who are the primary and most important readers. I agree with this and respect this. I will continue to comment from the sidelines though perhaps I should tone down the volume 🙂

          2. That’s cool.

            If you do decide to write something, there are two topics which come to mind.

            First, your conversion from atheism to Catholicism. Not so much the doctrinal part. More the psychological process. You’re a good psychologist, I note.

            Second, what it was like growing up as a white child under apartheid. Once again the psychological process.

            If my suggesting topics seems weird to you, let me explain that I taught English composition to future English teachers in the University of Santiago (Universidad de Santiago) for several years and I got used to noticing writing skills and/or the lack of them and to assigning topics.

          3. Hi SW, those are fascinating topics, worthy of exploration. But the tenor of my writings is not a fit with the ethos of this blog.

            I taught English composition to future English teachers in the University of Santiago

            That must have been a fascinating experience, to teach English in a Spanish speaking environment. It would be quite challenging, I suppose. I love the poetry of your compatriot, Pablo Neruda, so I will part with this quote from the end of Testamento de otoño(It must sound much better in the original):

            And now I’m going behind
            this page, but not disappearing.
            I’ll dive into clear air
            like a swimmer in the sky,
            and then get back to growing
            till one day I’m so small
            that the wind will take me away
            and I won’t know my own name
            and I won’t be there when I wake.

            Then I will sing in the silence.

          4. If you’re interested in Chilean poetry, you might try Nicanor Parra, who called himself “the anti-poet”. He died recently at age 103.

            His poetry is much drier, more ironic and less romantic than that of Neruda.

            I see that there are several translations of his work in English.

  13. One of the problems here is that discussions of Meta-ethics and discussions of morality itself have become confused.

    Meta-ethics – really a kind of philosophical anthropology – the discussion of what people do and why they do it, the history or historic origins of morality – cannot produce a morality, a set of injunctions for what people ought to do. It is in some sense an “is/ ought” disjunction. That evolution favored certain behaviors in the past doesn’t commit us to similar behaviors in the present. That most cultures favor honesty, at least when dealing with equals, does not in itself establish “Honesty” as a first principle of moral behavior – it could be otherwise, it might not be at all, it is simply what is preferred among those cultures.

    So the demand arises, ‘from whence should Morality be derived?’ As Dan suggests, the Enlightenment thinkers believed it could be discovered through reasoning. Most religions hold it discoverable in the dictates of sacred texts. Some find it in institutional edicts. I tend to set the question aside as simply irrelevant: meta-ethical discussions have led me to the conclusion that what we call morality is really a matter of custom and social discourse, open to changes in cultural history, becoming interesting, intellectually, only when motivating politics to embed it into law; because the law has force behind it, which no morality has just as such. (It is arguably preferable that morality should not be embedded in law, especially where there is serious disagreements between moral interpretations in the community; but that’s a different discussion, and necessarily concerns politics directly.)

    One of the problems with any proffered “Morality,” or moral system, is that it is asserted as a need (the to-hell-in-a-handbasket threat), when in fact any simple glance at the differing cultural customs (not to mention profound differences between individual behaviors and their expressed motivations) reveals that such cannot be the case. It is therefore incumbent for the moral-system advocates to demonstrate that our simple observations are simply wrong. That is the ‘burden of proof,’ so to speak, is on the moral-systems advocate to reveal morality – in general, and their own moral system in particular – as a necessity. If it cannot be demonstrated that a moral system is necessary, then arguments for such, however well-formulated logically or rhetorically, are simply irrelevant. And as far as I can tell, such is the case. People will continue to follow the custom of their culture. If that includes chit-chat about some morality or sacred book, so be it. Perhaps that will change in the future – it has in the past in our own culture. History will witness. I will go about my daily business regardless. I have developed habits – some good, some perhaps unhealthy, but I have grown used to them over the years. I suppose one might call it my ‘morality;’ but it is certainly my ethic.

    1. At the end of the day, the problem with “morality” whether normative or metaethical is that it has no inherent force. The whole notion of the world going to hell in a handbasket if we don’t have “moral principles” is just a lot of nonsense, insofar as the principles themselves have no inherent force to make anyone do anything.

      This is why Anscombe’s paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” is so important and so influential on my own thinking. Anscombe describes the force of moral norms in a purely natural universe as “mesmeric.” And she’s absolutely right. In a natural universe, morality is little more than an invitation to another person to self-govern and self-regulate. Morality itself can do nothing if that person refuses. At that point, either the society will employ coercive force against him or it won’t.

      I wrote about this here:

      https://theelectricagora.com/2016/08/24/prescription-reason-and-force/

      And about Anscombe here:

      https://theelectricagora.com/2017/04/15/course-notes-g-e-m-anscombes-modern-moral-philosophy/

      1. Hi Dan: Thanks for those links. I had not read the 2016 one previously; I guess it was before I started reading this blog. I hope you feel you have done something valuable in leading and provoking such a high-level and long-running discussion about these matters. It seems to me a unique thing.

        I’m not such an admirer of Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” as you are. I was a student of two moral philosophers, Julius Kovesi and R.E. Ewin, both of whom contributed to moral philosophy fairly soon after Anscombe’s essay came out. Bob Ewin was (is) one of the new virtue theorists, first in “Cooperation and Human Values” (1978), a book which is now hard to get. Kovesi’s book, “Moral Notions” (1967), had a significant impact amongst a small number of moral philosophers. Ewin and I reissued it in 2004 (available here for free: https://philpapers.org/rec/ALAJKM).

        It’s true (as you say) that moral principles “have no inherent force to make anyone do anything”. To me that’s so obvious that I don’t know why you would say it. But it hardly follows that “The whole notion of the world going to hell in a handbasket if we don’t have ‘moral principles’ is just a lot of nonsense”.

        However, I’d prefer to talk here of moral concepts rather than moral principles (Kovesi debunked moral principles quite as much as you do).

        The concept of “murder” (discussed by Ewin) seems to me a good candidate for the role of being a concept without which the world would go to hell in a handbasket. But it’s not the concept just by itself that matters. The concept plays a role in the social life of those who employ the concept. The role is that of protecting the lives of members of that community. When a killing occurs the community determines whether that event amounts to a murder. If they decide that it does then penalties apply. This not just a matter of law enforcement. The community will view the killer in a different light from how they would view him or her if the killing were found to be accidental or negligent.

        Communities which cease to draw these distinctions and to act on them won’t last long. They will be handbasket-bound for extinction. Communities are places of mutual restraint and mutual support. Various concepts structure those mutualities. Those concepts have force because we all (or almost all) see the need for them and for their enforcement. This seems to me a perfectly naturalistic account of what is going on in morality. This is me expressing my Kovesi-and-Ewin formation. It is a view not much indebted to Anscombe, formidable and important though she was.

        1. It’s true (as you say) that moral principles “have no inherent force to make anyone do anything”. To me that’s so obvious that I don’t know why you would say it.

          Yes, I agree and I also wondered about that. It did seem like an unnecessary and redundant interjection. I suspect though it was motivated by Dan’s anti-religious sentiment. Just in case(and I don’t know it is the case) I will outline the answer, which should be really, really obvious.

          If(please indulge my as-if reasoning) a creator God exists then one of two things must be true:
          1) God created the laws of nature and these are the tools he intended for organizing the universe.
          or
          2) the laws of nature are the properties of God and the universe is organized according to the nature of God.

          I believe (2) but that does not matter since the consequences of either (1) or (2) are that the world will(if God exists) develop and evolve according to the laws of nature. And that was what God intended.

          Therefore we should expect a naturalistic explanation for our universe, our world and our moral systems. God would not be inconsistent with himself. God created tools for doing the job and we must assume that he would use the tools he created for this purpose.

          I have often maintained that science is religion’s best friend and the Catholic Church believes that as well. Which is why it operates a large Pontifical Academy for the Sciences. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontifical_Academy_of_Sciences

          I once teased Coel by saying, tongue in cheek, that therefore science was a subset of theology 🙂 He was quite taken aback. I still chuckle at the thought. Tickling other people’s sensibilities can be a lot of fun.

        2. But it hardly follows that “The whole notion of the world going to hell in a handbasket if we don’t have ‘moral principles’ is just a lot of nonsense”.

          I agree completely. I could hardly believe that he would make such a claim when there are so many hellish handbaskets around the globe.

        3. I don’t see how this contradicts anything I wrote (or think). At the end of the day, what “morality” comes down to — where there is substantial agreement — is “self regulate or we will coerce you.”

          1. what “morality” comes down to — where there is substantial agreement — is “self regulate or we will coerce you.”

            You are presupposing what is necessary, “where there is substantial agreement” before coercion can work. That is a circular argument. Where do you suppose the “substantial agreement” comes from before coercion can work?

            In any case the main function of ‘coercion’, as you put it, is to deal with the problem of the smaller proportion of people, the free riders, who think that morality is merely an matter of expediency.

            For the greater majority of people to move towards an agreement about moral guidelines requires something else other than coercion. And this is what the debate is really about. What is that mechanism, that something else? A small proportion will always be freeriders who exploit the morality of others and this is where coercion comes into play.

            But what is that mechanism that secures the “substantial agreement“? It is not coercion as you yourself noted that substantial agreement is a necessary precursor.

            Alan Tapper and I have put forward very similar arguments for the origin of morality based on good observations and studies. These arguments have been ignored or dismissed. Science is the way forward to understanding these issues. But what chance does it have in rarified philosophical circles when one commentator can, without blinking an eyelid, claim “serious studies are often blinkered studies” and then in the same breath admit “I have not read the studies to which you refer“?

          2. Just to further empasize the circularity of your argument, we must ask why do the coercer’s coerce? Are the coercer’s being coerced into exercising coercion. This is an infinite regress and to avoid it there must be something else, something foundational, which is not coercion.

            Alan Tapper and I are arguing that this foundational something is what evolved naturally as the result of groups discovering the profound advantages of cooperation, collaboration and specialization. It took the form of what we today call virtue ethics, or more simply, virtuous behaviour. It was a necessary form of behaviour and belief that enabled cooperation, collaboration and specialization. The two grew side by side in a beneficial cycle of positive reinforcement. And Azin, quite rightly, emphasized the centrality of the aspect of fairness.

            But as the horizons of this evolving form of virtuous behavior expanded it encountered the problem of freeriders and the coercive aspect grew out of the need to deal with freeriders. And as its horizons expanded even further it became necessary to codify certain forms of behaviour since it was no longer possible to recognise trustworthiness in face to face encounters. Ultimately, as the boundaries extended deeper into society, this became the rule of law and our justice systems.

            This however exposed three problems
            1) free riders who, for whatever reason, don’t subscribe to societal norms, as mentioned before;
            2) scofflaws who exploit the the opportunities offered by gaps in the codes and poor coercion;
            3) rampant individualism.
            This is arguably the most serious problem of all. Runaway consumerism, fueled by out of control free enterprise is creating an ethos of the ultimate supremacy of the individual, ruled only by his pleasures. Such an ethos dissolves the moral glue of society since the individual’s horizon is bounded only by his pleasures, blinding him to the greater needs of society. Thus the number of freeriders increase. Society can only tolerate a small proportion of freeriders. That is because the example of the freeriders incentivizes others to become freeriders. When that process spreads it can fuel runaway breakdown of society. This is the ultimate danger that we have to confront.

          3. Just to further empasize the circularity of your argument, we must ask why do the coercer’s coerce?

            ———

            There’s no circularity whatsoever. And I’ve written extensively on why people do things, the uses of the moral idiom, whether it really makes any difference whether morality is “objective” or “real” and the like. I’ve written and done dialogues with Massimo on evolutionary accounts in ethics and I’ve written extensively on why I don’t think religion provides any ground for morality, regardless of whether the religion is true or not.

            You may disagree with all of it, but the idea that I haven’t addressed these issues again and again, from multiple angles, over the course of years or unwittingly slid into some circular position is just untrue. You and I disagree profoundly about morals. This is unlikely to change even if we were to argue about it for the next ten years.

            That’s ok! As I have also written about extensively, I think these sorts of subjects suffer from substantial indeterminacy, so such disagreement is what I would expect. Especially between two such very different people.

          4. There’s no circularity whatsoever.

            Then you need to answer my argument.

            I don’t think religion provides any ground for morality

            But I did not make that argument so I am not sure why you bring it up. Earlier on I made a naturalistic argument for the origin of our moral sense so I don’t see the point of your statement.

            the idea that I haven’t addressed these issues again and again, from multiple angles, over the course of years … is just untrue“.

            Again, I never made that claim.

            You and I disagree profoundly about morals.

            Apparently. But my standpoint is quite conventional. My views(and practices) are largely aligned with mainstream virtue ethics. I differ in two matters from the mainstream view:
            1) the primacy of love as the first cardinal virtue. That is the love of excellence, the true, the good and the beautiful.
            2) my view of flourishing. I believe that a flourishing life is a virtuous life that is focussed by the Japanese concept of Ikigai. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikigai

            This is unlikely to change even if we were to argue about it for the next ten years.

            Disagreements are very useful when they stimulate inquiry and re-examination of concepts. That is always productive. I loved the contrarian views that DM (Disagreeable Me) brought to the discussion because they provoked so much thought. I wish he was back here.

          5. I am sure you should remember DM or Disagreeable Me from Massimo’s blog. He was fiercely contrarian and a dogged debater who would never let go, but not as bad as Coel.

          6. Oh yes, I forgot about him. Coel I’ve seen on Twitter. We’ve actually found ourselves on the same side on several academic freedom issues. I think he signed the Kathleen Stock Open Letter that I wrote.

          7. Good for him. When he wasn’t dragging out debates endlessly he was actually a very nice fellow.

    2. EJ: Thanks for the mention of Kropotkin above. Very relevant here. I would be an anarchist too if other people were as nice as anarchists imagine them to be. But history did not turn out well for kindly Russian princes.

      I have a few general disagreements with you and Dan. One is about the relation between law and morality. In my view, law enforcement is effective only when a society has massive amounts of spontaneous cooperation already at work. The law is like a sheep dog rounding up a herd of sheep. The dog brings the stragglers and would-be rebels into line; the sheep are already predisposed to flock together.

      But that metaphor is also misleading. I have no idea how sheep form themselves into flocks, but it is not much like the way we do it. Human moralising plays a key part in how we do it. This moralising works through the use of a bunch of moral concepts that we possess as part of our culture. For example, “murder”, “assault”, “justice”, “rape”, and much more. These concepts are guides to what we prohibit and what we permit. By “we” I mean the majority of a population. The majority normally forces the stragglers and rebels to conform, at the extreme by law and force, but more importantly by other less extreme social mechanisms.

      The cross-cultural work of Curry and others is showing that there is a set of concepts, of which “cooperation” is a central one, that is found pretty much universally. This is my second disagreement. I don’t agree that “any simple glance at the differing cultural customs (not to mention profound differences between individual behaviors and their expressed motivations)” shows much at all. Simple glances? Versus serious studies?

      I’ll reply further to Dan below.

      1. I have a few general disagreements with you and Dan. One is about the relation between law and morality. In my view, law enforcement is effective only when a society has massive amounts of spontaneous cooperation already at work.

        This is exactly right. The rule of law only works because there is a widespread societal consensus about this. If there was not you would need massive amounts of policing.

        Strangely enough, I saw this when I went to work in China. I went there with the expectation that it would be a very orderly society, cowed into submission by the harsh instruments of state coercion.

        I could not have been more wrong. What I found was a chaotic society of sotto voce scofflaws that was at war with itself. And they had really large amounts of heavy handed policing. I was a horrified witness to this. The more I observed this the more convinced I became that the problem was an inherent lack of consensus about how their affairs should be run.

        Things have quietened down since then as increasing consumer wealth helps to ease the pain. But this is only a lull before the storm since it is a society of growing expectations, formed by our example. My great fear is that they will use that favourite tool of demagogues, aggressive nationalism, to redirect the storm at us.

      2. The cross-cultural work of Curry and others is showing that there is a set of concepts, of which “cooperation” is a central one, that is found pretty much universally.

        Indeed, this can’t be emphasized enough.

        I don’t agree that “any simple glance at the differing cultural customs (not to mention profound differences between individual behaviors and their expressed motivations)” shows much at all. Simple glances? Versus serious studies?

        Precisely. There is a large and growing body of research that tends to confirm your claims. It is still in its relative infancy so there is much disagreement over the details. Moreover there are some things that just cannot be found in our fossil record. But consensus will emerge. The point is that when we form opinions or make judgements we should be careful to consider the growing evidence and not use simple glances.

      3. Serious studies are often blinkered studies – that is, they are targeted to seeing what those involved wish to see, and blinker out unsupportive data – some of which is quite simply in ready view.

        Cooperate with whom? ethnophobic Buddhist fanatics in Myanmar kill Muslims – but precisely because the victims are Muslim, this is not considered murder, or instances where Myanmar law holds it murder, exceptions are allowed.

        There were nothing but exceptions allowed in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The ISIS fanatics hold that the killing of a heretic is never murder, and attempted to build a state where the sheep-dog could herd the flock of heretics into a killing zone.

        “Killing” is simply an existential fact. “Murder” is a legal definition, which is not applied to every act of killing in every culture the same.

        ‘But surely,; you might say, ‘ these fanatics are aberrations.’ No; thankfully they’re not the norm, but they are assuredly not aberrations. Even here, we are in such danger of normalizing the fanatical right that I sometimes have difficulty sleeping nights, for fear the rule of law has lost its weight here..

        Look, if you can find some way to persuade fanatics of every sect to cooperate with others, and to adopt legal terms that brook no exceptions, more power to you. I just don’t see it. And while I have not read the studies to which you refer, I suggest they didn’t see it, either; they just didn’t think it important.

        The golden age of modern Japanese philosophy occurred just as WWII was beginning. It was largely concerned with interpreting certain Western philosophies (primarily German) through Japanese (particularly Zen Buddhist) perspectives. A few years ago, I read a number of the main texts of this era, they’re actually quite good; indeed their meta-ethical discussions are even profound. But when these discussions began to turn toward developing a particularly Japanese moral system, everything went wrong. Because of course that meant support for Japanese imperialism.. Victims of this imperialism are estimated at up to 30 million in China alone. After the War, much Japanese thought (especially among Buddhists) concerned the question, “what did we get so wrong?” At least partly: meta-ethics, no matter how insightful or profound, cannot develop a moral system. Secondly, moral systems are frequently cobbled together out of existent cultural biases and common public discourse concerning beliefs and explanations – they just sound elevated when put together by theorists or philosophers. Which means, thirdly, that moral systems enacted as political agendas will necessarily mesh with those existing cultural biases, on the one hand creating laws that are skewered by such biases, and on the other, generating projects for dealing with those outside of the defined community. Motivations here become key. They can, do, and ought to change over time, and may be open to persuasion. Certainly we all hope that people everywhere will eventually abandon their fanaticism. On the other hand, contemporary fanaticism reminds us that such motivations can change for the worse and lead us into dangerous, even deadly regressions.

        I hope it will be clear that my “simple glances” do not reveal simplistic realities. I only mean that the most obvious characteristic of ethics or morality in the public sphere is the complexity of variations. This has to be explained meta-ethically – although I think anthropologists, sociologists, and historians are in a better position to do this than philosophers. At any rate, the attempt to discover ‘what everyone believes’ or ‘what everyone values’ has to account for what everyone actually does before being cobbled together in a moral theory.

      4. Alan,
        Well, you certainly have a problem unraveling for you here.
        If your simple claim is that the historical origins of ethical values, and their manifestations across cultures, assures us that a moral rectitude can be warranted and trusted and then somehow codified, I don’t agree, but I do not strongly disagree.

        But the real problem comes when this develops into a project to establish such a codification as a moral system that thus effectively operates as a moral reality for all.

        Remarks by another commenter have revealed the fundamental incoherence of such a project.

        ‘A) all humans share certain values, which values have the evolution of the species into socialization as their origin. B) these values can be codified into a moral system; C) this moral system then authorizes a political agenda, because D) not everyone shares the inherent values of this moral system, but they ought to, and are morally deficient if they do not.’

        Well, something has certainly gone wrong, if the premised faith in shared values must be enforced politically because the morally deficient types don’t share those values.

        I used fanaticism as example of cultural difference in a previous response because the results of such are apparent, wide spread, and infamous. But also because any fanatic has a moral system, which they intend to impose on others by force. I support liberal democracy as the optimal political system exactly because it devises a rule of law that does not depend on any moral system, but allows maximal opportunities for differing communities within the state to establish and follow their own moral or ethical choices, as long as they do not interfere with the choices of others nor with the functioning of the state.

        Some conservative Christians would say that the fetus is necessarily human, and would thus impose their morality politically to enact laws prohibiting abortion. Ethically, I support the constitutional right-of-privacy that allows women self-determination in this matter, and defer to many scientists who have said that the status of a fetus as human or not remains indeterminate as far as any comment they can contribute to the law; the matter thus seems to me to be a matter of individual conscience. The conservative Christian will hold that I am a rampant “individualist” and morally deficient. How would your own moral system bring us together in cooperation (your guiding principle)?

        It is a problem like this that really demands ethical thought and discussion, and which cannot be resolved otherwise than through politics and law, not through generalizations concerning evolution or academic synthesis of cultural studies.

        If I was unduly dismissive of the studies you refer to, – and I most likely was, the studies are probably worthy of reading, and, for the sake of argument, I even allow that they may be most likely true – let me explain that I was “serious studies’ to tears years ago, when tackling such academically approved pseudo-sciences as “Evolutionary Psychology” and “Bio-Criminology.” I got tired of remarking the self-evident cultural biases of such “studies.” Hopefully, yours are different.

        On the other hand the cultural bias of a political agenda based in certain Western values is, again, quite self-evident. Fortunately, dealing with that here is not my problem. But it may be yours.

        1. “Ethically, I support the constitutional right-of-privacy that allows women self-determination in this matter, and defer to many scientists who have said that the status of a fetus as human or not remains indeterminate as far as any comment they can contribute to the law; the matter thus seems to me to be a matter of individual conscience.”

          If possible, I’m more confused than everyone else. I would like to think that some of my confusion is based on the problem of definition, especially so with certain closely allied words as — morals, conscience, ethics, and interests. In your reply to Alan you managed to incorporate all four terms in your response. I appreciate that all four terms do not represent identical denotations though they tend to run into each other quite a bit and seem almost indispensable in the understanding and application of each other especially the relationship between morals and conscience which I think is making consensus here impossible.

          From a Quora submission: “Conscience: is the logical derivation from both Morals and Ethics that ultimately governs our thought process and action. It’s not a feeling and emotion, but it’s more like an intellectual choice which reflects our value system. It generally impels us to follow our moral guidance, and if we don’t, it punishes us by feeling of guilt.”

          At least here, we have the interplay of logical analysis with the emotion of guilt. You not being a fan of EP I wonder what your thoughts are, if any, on how exactly we should frame morals and it’s relationship to the external and internal enforcement of such in society. It does seem to be intimately involved with law and order and a sensible emotional cohesion of society, when there is consensus.

          {One might be in favor of free choice and still find the death or “murder” of a fetus as unpleasant. Again it’s definition – a human fetus by biological definition is human. to claim otherwise is obfuscation. It only gets complicated from there.}

  14. Dan, loved it, another pleasure to read. I’m also in agreement with your comments and EJ’s.

  15. Peter,

    > There is a large and growing body of research that tends to confirm your claims. It is still in its relative infancy so there is much disagreement over the details. Moreover there are some things that just cannot be found in our fossil record. But consensus will emerge. The point is that when we form opinions or make judgements we should be careful to consider the growing evidence and not use simple glances.

    I get the impression those studies are mostly useful to counteract beliefs like humans are basically selfish, competitive or violent.

    I like EJs example of abortion because I think it shows there is a lot of disagreement on what can be deduced from human behavior even, for example, if there is agreement on how pervasive cooperation is.

    By the way, I’ve always been repulsed to various degrees with terminology like ‘morals’ or ‘morality’. The definitions still don’t make much sense to me. Virtue ethics also seems to me to assume too much, still trying to follow what some people see in it. But I’m very comfortable with concepts like, as Alan mentioned, honesty, kindness and compassion.

  16. Hi Marc,
    But I’m very comfortable with concepts like, as Alan mentioned, honesty, kindness and compassion.

    You have just mentioned some of the virtues. Without knowing it, you are subscribing, in an informal way, to virtue ethics. You could add more, like love, tolerance, empathy, forgiveness, loyalty, faithfulness, courage, justice, etc, etc. And there are many more. Virtue ethics is the form of moral behaviour that comes most naturally to us.

    I’ve always been repulsed to various degrees with terminology like ‘morals’ or ‘morality’. The definitions still don’t make much sense to me. Virtue ethics also seems to me to assume too much,

    Yes, that is increasingly common today. A large part of the reason is that the terms moral and virtuous have been conflated with sexual behaviour and nobody wants restrictions on their sexual behaviour, so they reject the terms. But moral and virtuous are overwhelmingly not about sexual behaviour.

    Another reason is that in an increasingly individualistic world we want as few restrictions on our behaviour as possible and moral behaviour always involves restrictions. So we reject restrictions and consequently we tend to reject morality, as a concept.

    But this fails to take into account that moral failures always have a victim. Now put yourself in the shoes of the victim and ask if they are “repulsed to various degrees with terminology like ‘morals’ or ‘morality’“. As my examples below show, the victims always expect and demand moral behaviour from their transgressors. It would be very surprising if they did not.

    I have been mugged three times while endurance running and on one of those occasions was hospitalized with serious injuries. My attackers tried to stone me to death! Those were severe moral failures on the part of my attackers. And I could on and on about the people that I know who have been raped, people that I know who have committed suicide because of intolerable bullying, a friend who was murdered(by burning to death!!), homes that were burgled, autos that were hijacked etc, etc.

    When you become a victim and know people who are victims of moral failures the term acquires a clear, definite meaning, delineated by pain, betrayal, loss, disappointment, etc, and you are left with no doubt in your mind that moral, virtuous behaviour is desirable and is vital to society.

    As you might have noticed in the comments above, some talk endlessly in a confused way about the subject. But let him become a victim and it will instantly clarify his mind.

    We advanced mammals possess theory of mind(I suspect my dogs do too). That allows us to see, imagine and feel the emotions of others by putting ourselves in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes and understanding how our behaviour impacts them and indeed hurts them. That is the beginning of morality.

    1. To employ ordinary language terms that describe positive human characteristics most certainly does *not* commit a person to virtue ethics of any sort.

      1. That is a matter of definition and I emphatically disagree with you. These positive human characteristics are commonly known as the virtues. Practicing them and displaying them is virtuous behaviour. This is an informal kind of virtue ethics. You are thinking in formal, Aristotelian terms but that is unnecessarily restrictive.

    2. I’ve been mugged myself and actually, the result is that I ask myself how I could have been so stupid as to put myself in such a situation. Whenever someone “wrongs” me, short changes me, rips me off, lies to me, I don’t see it in moral terms at all, rather I see myself as stupid for not having anticipated, for example, that that guy at the open air produce market would try to trick me when he weighs the tomatoes, etc.

      As I’ve said to you before, I believe, in life one size doesn’t fit all. There are people who view life in moral terms and there are those of us who rarely employ such concepts.

        1. Of course we should examine our own behaviour and ask how we could prevent or avoid it. That is just prudent. For example, I changed my running route to avoid that dangerous locality. But my incautious behaviour does not for one moment change the fact that the other person committed a wrong. And we have a label for such wrongs.

          1. Impressive. You are practicing forgiveness. Now you may not have meditated on it but I am sure you still recognise their behaviour as wrong.

          2. But you have “never once meditated” so I think your conversion is incomplete.

          3. Nah. Not everything belongs in some cosmic framework. They mugged me, it was unpleasant and I went about my business. Didn’t even call the cops. Either time.

          4. Not everything belongs in some cosmic framework
            you would make a natural eliminative materialist.

            Didn’t even call the cops

            Yes, neither did I but they turned up at my hospital bed anyway and insisted on taking a statement from a very drugged person. But I can see the point of doing so.

          5. Big difference, there. I was unscathed. They may have pointed guns at me, but when I gave them my wallet they left. Nothing like what happened to you, which was far worse.

      1. SW,
        There are people who view life in moral terms and there are those of us who rarely employ such concepts.

        Do you endeavour to be honest, reliable or responsible? If yes then you are employing such concepts.

        1. I have my own ethical code which I follow, but it’s part of my personality, of my way of being, of my routine. I try to be considerate with others like I take a walk every morning. I’m a very habitual person and being considerate is one of my habits. My own ethical code has lots of peculiar features which I’ve never revealed to anyone else and no one else is much interested in them.

          I don’t expect others to follow my code at all. I hope that they obey the law. That’s all.

          For example, about a month ago I bought a product in internet (we were in lockdown then), which they said they would deliver in 3 days. After two weeks, the product had not arrived and I called them and they promised to deliver it in a few days, which did not occur. I asked for help from my partner who is good at consumer complaints and she began to threaten them by email with complaining to the government consumer protection service. They sent the product. I never saw them as doing anything “immoral”, but I know that consumer fraud is illegal in Chile.

      2. I also have been mugged, and my response has been similar to yours (although, being a fan of detective fiction, I occasionally day-dreamed violent responses or sleuthing out the villain). But after all, I had a life to live, and saw no reason gnawing an old bone. In fact I’ve been “victimized” by a number of people at different times, occasionally very hurtfully, but I’ve never ascribed this to “moral failure” – either theirs or mine; I’m not even sure what that means. Anger, grief, even laughter – people. respond to unpleasant incidents in a myriad ways.No event assures a single response from those possible. “Because the particular, as Allan Bloom once remarked, ‘escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal'” (- probably one of the most insightful books of its era. along with his book on friendship).

        1. I occasionally day-dreamed violent responses or sleuthing out the villain)

          I actually did that and(with some help) threatened my attackers. It was such a good feeling to see their fear, but the fact that I should react this way worries me. However it was also a kind of closure which put the event behind me. For the first time I understood, in a kind of visceral way, society’s need for retribution.

          1. When Christians from Britain came to Ghandi’s Ashram, asking if they should convert to Hinduism, Ghandi told them that he would wish they would become better Christians.

            Buddhism is more a proselytizing religion, dependent on conversion, than Hinduism (where birth-right matters). Nonetheless, if, in our many disagreements, I help you to become a better Catholic, I will think that I have contributed some good to the world.

            Almost all my friends have been raised either Jewish or Catholic. Although I proabaly learned the most, spriitually (if I can use that word without believing it signifies anythin other than metaphorically) from one raised a Calvinist who assured me that I was certainly damned. He didn’t believe in God, but he believed in damnation. Not heaven, just damnation. (If you want to know what that looks like in practical terms, read Moby Dick.)

            What do you care if your attackers were morally deficient? What do you care whether women have abortions or not? What do you care if Orthodox Jews pray into an old wall or Muslims eat halal? What do you care if people snort cocaine or sleep with people of either sex anytime they choose and the other is willing? What does that do for you, man? The world has been going to hell in a handbasket for thousands of years – it’s all there in the records, no religion has ever changed that, no political promise has mitigated it. Oliver Cromwell, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, the Supreme Leaders of Iran, the Popes of the Crusades, the proselytizers of the Reformation – all utopians of one kind or other – all garbage – and what did they achieve besides death.

            I used the Buddhist nationalists of Myanmar, and the Buddhist philosophers of wartime Japan as examples in a previous commenty, because I wished to emphasize that this is not a matter of one moral theory being superior to another. The Buddhist nationalists of Myanmar practice not any Buddhism I can agree to, and their behavior is not any I could condone.

            There are no ‘first principles’ here, jack. If you have a moral code to wish you adhere to, to wish you can adhere and practice, do so! What do you want from others? Approval, agreement. submission? how does any of that make your moral system more agreeable to you?

            No, we’re not going to do that. Convert those you can, but don’t demand of the rest of us conformity.

            You’ve recurrently demanded that your ‘arguments be answered.’ Bad news – No one has to answer your arguments, they are for many of us simply irrelevant. So good luck – practioce what you preach – be happy. Take your arguments with you, for I have no interest in them.

            I actually have no problem with anybody observing a religious or otherwise encoded moral realism. My problem is with any attempt to argue this as a necessity of human existence, which it clearly is not, and with efforts to impose any moral system on others.

            Forgiveness is not the only way to deal with those who harm us – Retribution is certainly officially sanctioned in various secular laws. Nonetheless, forgiveness is central to your religion, as I understand it (having been raised in that tradition). Turn your mind to it. Whatever I say, or whatever the seeming injustice, or whatever the slight, remember this, and turn your mind to it.

            I am to your religion a lost cause; and I’m happy with that. But you needn’t be.

  17. Dan,
    zay mir moykhl, dos nokhmitog. (Probably poorly phrased, but you get the idea.)

    My friend Thom, whom you almost met, and whose mother just turned 92 for no good reason whatsoever (but bless the aged for living so long), says that family can sometimes be the unpleasant stranger one is handcuffed to for life.

    Make some time for yourself. We’ll all wait. Reply as you can. I mean really, as you can, and when you can.

    Vos vet zein, vet zein!

  18. Dan is no eliminative materialist; and the day he converts to Buddhism is the day I’m born a Jew. (Oh, wait, I don’t think that’s possible anymore….:)

    1. (Oh. BTW -)
      (To say of Muslims that they practice ‘virtue ethics’ is an isult to them and their religion. What they practice is Islam – submission to the will of Allah as determined by interpretation of the Qu’ran by their clerics. Assigning them some ‘virtue ethic’ simply to maintain the universality of one’s own (Christian) morality is simply false and dishonest.)

      (I am not defending Islam; but I will have Muslims respected for what they truly believe and practice, and not what some Christians tried to impose upon them.)

    2. the day I’m born a Jew. (Oh, wait, I don’t think that’s possible anymore….:)

      Did you know that when you stop believing in reincarnation it won’t happen? Yup, karma is a bitch.

      OK, that’s my last attempt at humour and my last comment on this long running thread. There were lots of good, thoughtful comments conducted in a spirit of goodwill. I really enjoyed this.

      1. For all those who believe that moral thinking is somehow common to all of us.

        In my home my parents never said anyone was “evil”, “wicked” or “immoral”. They didn’t use such words. My father’s favorite condenations were “sanctimonious” and “holier than thou”, that is, directed at those who moralized too much.

        We had a lot rules in our house, but there were no “moral” rules. “Don’t hit your sister” was a rule exactly like “make your bed everyday” or “brush your teeth after every meal”. I’d be punished for breaking any of those rules without
        any indication that one was moral and the other was not. My parents never told me that I was “bad” or “immoral” for breaking a rule by the way.

        My parents were not “bad” people in conventional terms and they basically followed conventional social norms. They were in no way sociopaths, but they did not moralize at all. As a result, I grew up not moralizing myself.

        As Peter says above, this has been a good conversation and like him, I am now leaving it.

  19. One last thing, and then I’m out of here.

    Virtue ethics, as I understand it, is a demand of the individual’s conscience on the individual’s behavior. The notion that this can then be universalized into a moral realism, based on God’s will or some perverse interpretation of the social sciences, is thus insulting to the history of the wiser virtue ethicists that have written across the centuries.

    That does not account as a defense of virtue ethics; but it needs to be considered on its own terms, and not as a surreptitious lead in to any moral realism.

    You are responsible for your own ethical choices – that is the foundation of virtue ethics. You are not responsible to any moral code beyond what your own choices demand of you.

    (Really, the confusions here have been exasperating, when not simply amusing.)

  20. Wow, that’s a lot of discussion, all good by me. Thanks to Peter for his contributions.

    I mainly wanted to articulate a “minimal morality”, meaning the basics that are required for any continuing social life. It seems to me that we can now speak fairly confidently about that. But there is much more to say even at that level. The key issue is whether enlightened self-interest is sufficient to establish a morality of any sort. My view is that the Prisoner’s Dilemma proves (yes, proves) that it cannot.

    I agree with Peter that free-riding is a basic and necessary concept in understanding how minimal morality works. Taking the benefits of cooperation without accepting the burdens is what we mean by moral wrongness or injustice.

    Is minimal morality “subjective” or “objective”? That meta-ethical issue dogs most discussions of these matters, but this current discussion seems to me happily free of that approach. However, EJ comments that “Meta-ethics – really a kind of philosophical anthropology – the discussion of what people do and why they do it, the history or historic origins of morality – cannot produce a morality, a set of injunctions for what people ought to do.” My reply to this is to half agree. It may be everywhere customary to treat left-handed people as inferior to right-handers. That doesn’t prove that they are inferior. If there is such a prejudice, it can be shown to be a prejudice by reference to the criterion of cooperation. Plato did this convincingly on the question of whether women can be guardians, I think.

    EJ: I don’t doubt that you are well-read on the anthropological diversity of morals. But we would need to go into the specifics of any actual cases. I agree with what you say about Japanese Buddhism in the War. On Hindus and Muslims, I don’t think different dietary requirements are operating at the level of “first principles”. But that claim would need empirical support.

    On abortion: there are hundreds of similar problems cases which can’t be settled by the simple application of a theory of cooperation, because each move by one side can be reasonably countered by the opposing side. The existence of fundamentals doesn’t resolve complex issues. However, the fundamentals do help us to structure the arguments.

    On being mugged: if a wrong is done to me I may choose to suffer the consequences. But so what? The question at issue is about whether I or someone else would be acting wrongly if I or they chose to retaliate or to appeal to the appropriate authorities to defend me or them and restore whatever was taken from me or them. Being wronged, as I see it, gives the victim some right to call on their community for corrective action.

    On virtues: Marc makes the interesting comment that “But I’m very comfortable with concepts like, as Alan mentioned, honesty, kindness and compassion.” My reply is that these are the nice virtues. Virtues ethics also includes the tougher virtues, courage and justice. I think that “virtue” requires both sorts of virtues.

    On love: I don’t entirely agree with Peter here. Peter speaks of “the primacy of love as the first cardinal virtue. That is the love of excellence, the true, the good and the beautiful”. But love is a mixed bag, in my view. Only if you have the four classical virtues in place does love count as a perfectly good thing.

  21. Hi Peter,

    > Without knowing it, you are subscribing, in an informal way, to virtue ethics. You could add more, like love, tolerance, empathy, forgiveness, loyalty, faithfulness, courage, justice, etc, etc. And there are many more. Virtue ethics is the form of moral behaviour that comes most naturally to us.

    I tend to not see things that way. For example, some of the actions or behaviors justice and courage are use to describe are far from things I’d call virtuous.

    > Yes, that is increasingly common today. A large part of the reason is that the terms moral and virtuous have been conflated with sexual behaviour and nobody … Another reason is that in an increasingly individualistic world we want as few restrictions on our behaviour …

    By repulsion I was referring to possible negative aspects, like the ways in which morals or morality, from the subtle to the blunt, can and are sometimes used to justify mental coercion or physical violence. And by assuming too much, I was thinking about how the four virtues are ideas understood very differently by different people.

    > put yourself in the shoes of the victim and ask if they are “*repulsed to various degrees with terminology like ‘morals’ or ‘morality’*“. As my examples below show, the victims always expect and demand moral behaviour from their transgressors. It would be very surprising if they did not.

    In a lot of conflict situations I’ve seen, community work and personal situations, ideas about morals and morality are often part of both what drives conflict escalation and impairs recovery.

    Compared to that, I don’t see anywhere near the same kind of issues with honesty, kindness, and compassion. And even though sometimes they’re easy or the obvious thing to do, in other situations, including with ourselves, they can be very hard to put in practice.

  22. I don’t know why some comments have their reply buttons removed and some don’t. I also don’t know why I never get notified by WordPress about any replies and comments on any essay threads, even though I always tick the boxes about requesting email notifications.

    Anyway, if alandtapper1950 is still reading, here is my rejoinder:

    2. Being good at chess doesn’t entail the right to issue commands though, so I’m still a bit confused by what you mean. I would also contest the notion that any form of organization needs a superior in the sense of command. I can think of all kinds of organizations that don’t need a commander. Many hunter gatherers also organize themselves in all kinds of ways without a command structure.

    3. Okay, I see what you mean, but my point was that “no special moral weight” would apply to people who do actually feel this way (like utilitarians) about kin, not as some objective fact about the nature of morality itself.

    4. Taking the grand sweep of human history as a whole into account (and not just the last 100 years), war over prior possession is definitely not the exception. Currey et al, are making a universal empirical claim which do not fit the facts. Too many exceptions.

    5. Yes, I guess we’ll just have to disagree. I find Stich’s, Kelly’s, Machery’s, and many others’ accounts more compelling..

    6. I highly doubt any or all of the examples I listed could ever be accounted for by MAC. I could add a dozen more examples as well.

    1. I don’t know why you are having trouble with WordPress. I will look into it, when I return from New York, where I will be this week.

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