Being Moral

By Daniel A. Kaufman

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On several occasions, I have described moral ‘oughts’ directed towards others as an invitation to self-governance. Moral Realism is a bust, so these oughts don’t derive from some transcendent moral order, and regardless, whether or not morals can be construed as objective or “Real” turns out not to matter. [1] When we tell someone that they ought to X, in the moral sense of ‘ought’, what we are essentially saying is “Self regulate with regard to X, or we will do it for you.”

These sorts of imperatives only have force, then, when the person uttering them either (a) enjoys significant consensus as to the significance of X or (b) when the person uttering them enjoys sufficient standing or power on his or her own. Lacking either (a) or (b) means the imperative, as directed towards others, is a bluff and consequently, empty. Or at best, the expression of a wish.

But what about ‘oughts’ directed towards oneself? I find useful what Mill says in Utilitarianism regarding the “ultimate sanction” of morality, at the beginning of Chapter 3.

Of … external sanctions it is not necessary to speak at any length. They are, the hope of favour and the fear of displeasure from our fellow creatures or from the Ruler of the Universe…

The internal sanction of duty, whatever our standard of duty may be, is one and the same—a feeling in our own mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty…

Also useful is something that Christine Korsgaard says in her masterpiece, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996): “A view of what you ought to do is a view of who you are.” (p. 117)

If morals directed towards us from others are an invitation to self-governance, in conformity with a significant consensus among them as to the kind of person one should be, then morals directed towards ourselves are a matter of what kind of person we think we should be. What is the force of this ‘should’? It is the force that comes from what we can and cannot stomach in ourselves; that which makes a glance in the mirror a pleasurable experience as opposed to a nauseating one.

What determines which characteristics and actions will cause a person to loathe or love him or herself? Undoubtedly, our feelings as to whether we are lovable or loathsome will have to do somewhat with the “morals” of others, by which I mean whatever consensus obtains among our intimates and peers and even the broader society as to the kinds of people they think we should be. (And it is worth noting that this is all that moral codes – as one finds in the Bible and other such places – are: reflections of some consensus among some people as to how people should be.) Equally undoubtedly, it also will have to do somewhat with our “nature,” by which I mean our biological and genetic make-up. And finally – and also equally undoubtedly – it will have to do with our individual development and experience; the distinctive path our respective lives have taken from birth.

What this means is that what determines what one will find admirable or loathsome in oneself is only partly – barely, really – subject to generalization and thus, to philosophical treatment. The biological “human nature” component is somewhat generalizable, but its role is indirect and indeterminate and always will be, given that reductive materialism is a no-go.  The social dimension is also somewhat generalizable, but will vary significantly, depending on one’s circle of intimates and broader community. Regardless, so many of the remaining elements are particular and specific that the intersection of these broader, generalizable components with the particular, individual ones will yield a particular, individual result.

In what is likely the best of the Star Trek series – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which ran from 1996 -1999) – there is a remarkable episode, “In the Pale Moonlight,” in which the main lead, Captain Benjamin Sisko (played by Avery Brooks), is in charge of the galactic Federation’s losing war effort against an overwhelming and tyrannical enemy called “The Dominion.” The episode tells the story of how Sisko works with an alien spy to trick a major power into entering the war on the side of the Federation. In doing so, he must lie, steal, bribe, and even have a low-level criminal killed. Brooks summarizes this in a monologue at the end of the episode, in which he says, “I think I can live with it, and if I had to do it again, I would.”

And that’s what being moral ultimately comes down to. What can each of us live with? The mistake we make is in thinking that “morality” somehow determines this, when in fact, it is what determines morality.

Notes

[1] I make the case for this in “Value and Objectivity.”

https://theelectricagora.com/2020/03/25/value-and-objectivity/

65 comments

  1. This all seems sensible.

    I would just express it in a contrastingly starkly abstract algorithmic way: morality is about multi-agent systems, and the patterns by which they can align to form overall beneficial structures. And the characteristic mode for intelligent agents to pursue this is by making models of others (and themselves) so as to predict and steer toward that coherence.

    Hume offers such a basis of an account for why to be moral in his derivation of respect for property and promises. We follow the rules because we can see, though perhaps not fully consciously, that doing so yields a general benefit. And this is practicable because individual acts of adherence then confirm the expectation of the practice among all.

    In this, morality shifts emphasis from imperative to predictive: to the problem of finding and explaining rules that we expect others to agree on, in our expectation that following those rules would yield a collective benefit.

    One upshot is to realise that cooperative moral imperatives cannot be absolutely overriding (and intrusive as you have sometimes complained of). This is evident in noting first that all models are necessarily incomplete, and that that incompleteness here is set largely by limits in information transfer: there will always be a scope closely around each agent within which they are best placed to decide for themselves. (So the mechanisms of morality set limits to itself.).

    1. Harrison Ainsworth said:
      ‘This is evident in noting first that all models are necessarily incomplete, and that that incompleteness here is set largely by limits in information transfer: there will always be a scope closely around each agent within which they are best placed to decide for themselves. (So the mechanisms of morality set limits to itself.).’

      If this is correct then what determines the scope that surrounds an agent such that within that scope they are best placed to decide for themselves? Does the agent who decides the moral thing to do is to remain unvaccinated from covid19 have some scope that justifies that choice? The agent likely feels righteous with the choice, they likely also exist in subculture that agrees with and influences the choice.

      I think Dan is right that what we each see as moral ultimately comes down to living within a self assessed moral code, but that feels a bit tautological to me. I think we have fractured communities right now that influence very different moral codes, and most have a pretty poor grasp of nuance or of the real consequences of their alliances on moral issues — covid vaccination is a good example.

  2. This seems to be a (very interesting) attempt to ground morality without a foundational moral concept, such as the good. I am skeptical as to whether this can be done.

    You speak of the impetus to morality as a kind of compulsion, external (“Self regulate with regard to X, or we will do it for you”) and internal (“what we can and cannot stomach in ourselves”). But if this is really the way it is, then our behavior in response isn’t exactly moral, is it? Any more than following God’s rules only in order to get into Heaven and avoid Hell is moral behavior. The question is, why should we care about this compulsion? And it seems to me that, without a moral reason, our behavior in response is merely practical, not different in kind from any other practical consideration. And this behavior could include, legitimately, following the rules only when we are being observed, looking for opportunities to cheat with impunity, and seeking whatever mode of therapy might most effectively help us get over our (irrational) bad consciences. On the other hand, if our reason to care is moral, then the compulsion is not actually the driver of our behavior.

    So, I doubt that “a pain, more or less intense, attendant upon violation of duty” would be morally motivating unless we already accept the legitimacy of that duty. And I doubt that a view of what you ought to do can be based merely on a view of who you are. There is a tacit appeal to standards when we think this way, isn’t there? The thought that, “I do X because I am a mother, a citizen, a professor, …,” depends on X being how a good mother/citizen/professor/whatever behaves. Unless you want to do a good job of fulfilling your identity, the appeal to it won’t motivate you.

    It seems to me that what is fundamental to moral behavior is the thought that it is important to be a good person (or maybe, the desire to be a good person). I don’t know whether “moral realism is a bust” (although I fear that, in some important ways, it is). And I also don’t know, if it is a bust, what alternative there might be. But I don’t think that the thought that it is important to be a good person can withstand the lack of a prior, legitimate concept of the good.

      1. It is because you can find no ground that you reach indefensible conclusions.

    1. Why should we care about caring? Strange question. Caring is what it is. I tried to give some idea of what determines what we care about, but as I indicated, it’s hardly anything that could be usefully generalized.

      1. Caring is not entirely basic. It responds to what we think. If you believe you have no duties, then it will not pain you to violate them. If you believe that society’s rules are BS, it won’t bother you to violate them. If you cannot justify to yourself any moral rules, you won’t have any.

        Now, maybe you’ll say, “that’s just my point.” But it’s also my point! Without some basic moral concept, such as the good, which you regard as independently legitimate (however delusionally), there will be no morality.

          1. Disagree entirely.

            But I think he makes a perfectly good argument.

        1. “If you believe that society’s rules are BS, it won’t bother you to violate them. If you cannot justify to yourself any moral rules, you won’t have any.” Surely one of the problems with any argument that is or leans towards moral realism, is the suspicion that one lacking a moral principle, “some basic moral concept,” must be a sociopath. But this clearly does not follow! Elseways, there would be no discussions of this sort, and moral-anti-realists (or those who simply feel no need for a basic moral concept) would simply be relegated to psychotherapy, since their behavior would be observably a dangerous anti-social abnormality. But in fact millions of people function quite successfully with and within their communities without a basic moral principle. And no moral realist argument seems capable of even explaining their existence as accepted members of various human communities, let alone their quite evident ethical behavior.

          This is just another version of the hell-in-a-handbasket threat of moral realist arguments of which I complained in another comment thread. And it doesn’t really address, at all, why those with strong moral-realist principles, such as religious fanatics, can effectively act as sociopaths in communities in which they are unhappy or feel disenfranchised (a point I also raised in a previous comment thread)

          1. I don’t believe there really are millions of people who think there are no moral principles. I think very few people really believe that. Certainly no one on Twitter! It is true that in philosophy classes, people often make relativistic and even nihilistic statements. But let a real issue that actually matters to them arise—inequality, a rape case, socialism, capitalism, racism, Cecil the lion—and all that is defenestrated. You will not find many people in the United States right now who would say that slavery is of course an “evil,” but after all “evil” doesn’t really exist, it’s only a matter of our contemporary mores or feelings or something; it could change after a while, and then slavery would no longer be “evil.”

            It so happens that I have known quite a few people who claim that there are no objective, distinctively moral principles. A lot of these have thought that enlightened self-interest is sufficient to account for all behavior that is usually thought to be decent and conventionally “moral.” In my view, these people are deceiving themselves. Someone in this discussion has already mentioned the key argument for this: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. An excellent discussion of the reasons this argument can’t be dismissed occurs in economist Robert Frank’s Passions within Reason. Others who say they live without “real” moral principles nevertheless help themselves to moral language, and talk about what is good and right and so forth, supposing that they bracket these terms and don’t take them literally. The truth, they suppose, is that ultimately these are just their preferences or how they choose to live. But I think there are strict limits to this.

            Suppose you could take a pill that would make you think there is intelligent life on Alpha Centauri, although there is no evidence for it. You take the pill, and so you believe there is intelligent life on Alpha Centauri. Could your belief be sustained if you acknowledged to yourself that you only believe it because of the pill? It could not. Acknowledgement that your belief wasn’t based on evidence or in any way on the truth would undercut and destroy that belief.

            What I am saying is that, similarly, an acknowledgement that one’s principles are mere preferences or desires must undercut their seriousness and any claim to their being moral. Even if a principle is strongly held, even if you say “I can do no other” or “This is who I am,” calling such a principle moral is incompatible with acknowledging that it is no different in kind from, say, an obsessive compulsion to own an Apple Watch. If it is just a feeling that grips you, then you might just as well choose to get over it. But this isn’t the way we think about morals.

          2. It just seems really weird that my values, which are obviously the product of my genes, my upbringing, my education, my social milieu, biographical accidents (who I met by chance, who my college room-mates turned out to be, the woman I met in a bar whom I married, etc.), should be closer to “true” moral values than those of some guy who
            was born in Iran or in ancient Greece (where slavery was accepted) or raised in a conservative family (mine was relatively progressive) or in a fundamentalist religious family (mine was Reform Jewish), etc.

            Out of all the hundreds of moral codes in the world why should mine be the true one? Did God specially shine his or her light on me? I doubt that because I’m an atheist.

        2. One other point: I have grown very tired of the implicit suggestion that everybody really must have moral principles, basic moral concepts, even if they deny theses or are unaware of them. (Everybody is a moral realist; everybody does observe Western moral principles, even if they say they don’t.’ The sheer arrogance (and in some cases ethnocentrism) of this assumption/ implied assertion, is staggeringly unreasonable and, in some cases, down-right insulting. Certainly it can be deployed to trivialize, not only those with no need for a basic moral concept, but even insults those who have a moral-realist code not of Western origin (as I have previously noted concerning Muslims).

          Kant and Bentham wrote at the time when Christian morality, as hegemonic governance of social ebahvior, was in collapse; they feared that this would lead to – what, chaos? bewilderment? loss of legal justifications? Anyway, they were wrong.

          I won’t get too far into it, but I suspect the principle glue holding modern society together, even as traditions wither away (however unfortunately), is probably simply economics. And capitalism has no necessary ethics. Anyway, modern society has developed law as its principle ethical stricture (with definite force behind it). “Morality” really amounts to suggestion. God is dead, and nothing prohibited by the IRS is allowed.

      2. Why should we care about caring? Strange question.

        That is not at all strange. It follows from what we have discovered what is the best in our nature. Ignoring this is what is strange.

  3. What you say in your essay above makes a lot of sense to me, Dan. Thanks.

      1. It’s what you’ve said previous, if I’m not mistaken, that we generally learn more from life experience about ethics (in the sense of “what we can live with”) than we do from textbooks, theories or doctrines.

          1. For what it’s worth, any ethical wisdom (in the sense of how to live a sane life) I’ve learned, I’ve learned, not from books (and I’ve read a lot of books), but from observing others around me and incorporating somehow what I’ve learned into my psyche, into my way of functioning in the world and of being with others. I’m not talking about learning from what others say to me or from their good advice, but from what I observe about their behavior and general way of functioning in the world.

            When I was in therapy about 25 years ago, my therapist expressed wonder at my ability to select the “right” others to learn from beginning in childhood. Maybe she was on to something.

  4. How does morality work? Saying it comes from God’s Commandments worked for two thousand years. But now we realize, that answer doesn’t explain anything. For one thing, which interpretation of God is authoritative? We have just shifted the problem and not dealt with it.
    According to Kant and Korsgaard, morality works by Reason with a capital R. The will wills itself, Each individual has self-autonomy, which according to Kant, works as a kind of self-organizing principle. His various statements of the Categorical Imperative are basically attempts to sum up morality in a single sentence based on this idea. The problem with reducing morality to Reason is that we can always construct Concentration Camps through valid reasoning, if we assume that the real problem is “the Jews” or the Uygurs of Xinjiang.
    The attempt to reduce morality to psychology started with Hume and the Moral Sentiments school and continues to dominate moral philosophy today. The problem with this and other psychological approaches is there doesn’t seem to be enough oomph in the “ought”. This is reflected also in all attempts to derive morality from self-interest. They all fail to explain why we are willing to sacrifice our comforts or even our lives for moral principles. They cannot explain why we continue to follow moral rules at a cost to ourselves, even when no one is looking.
    To paraphrase your argument – morality is determined by “what each of us can live with”, which I think borders on moral relativism. But I’m not going to argue with that. Ultimately, morality doesn’t work if people don’t believe in any moral principles. But the moral principles don’t create the moral force on their own. Hobbes was the first and one of the few philosophers to realize that moral principles need actual physical force behind them, or they are useless – “mere words” – as he said in “Leviathan”.
    I think we can get a clue as to the force of normativity from Institutional Economics rather than Evolutionary Psychology, from the work of Elinor Ostrom on Common Pool Resources. Think of human forms of cooperation as a collective resource that can be depleted if people are allowed to get away with breaking moral rules. When anybody can bully and harm others with no consequences, cooperation breaks down as people form into hostile gangs in order to defend what little they have. Cooperation that forms the basis for all the benefits of human civilization, is subject to depletion, if rules aren’t enforced. But the rules aren’t enforced by themselves. Nor are they enforced, as Hobbes thought, by some ultimate human authority. Morality can be seen as a way of managing a common pool resource, these work on a small human scale of at most hundreds of people to conserve water in small scale irrigation systems, common fields for grazing animals, and small scale fisheries. Ostrom has shown how these small scale common resource systems are best managed collectively rather than in a top-down manner. They, in fact, work better if no one is in charge, because, contra Hobbes, a single enforcer has too much incentive to hive off too much of the resource for himself, depleting it for the rest of the community. The answer,as Ostrom saw, was for enforcement to be collective. When each farmer or fisherman watches and reports overuse and is supported collectively the resource can be sustainably managed. Morality is just such a management system, but unlike other Common Pool Resources, it can be scaled up to the level of the modern nation state. As we get to these larger human scales the problem of collective enforcement is relegated to specialized institutions: courts, and law systems, government legislation, but ultimately it won’t work if individuals don’t do the work of witnessing and reporting transgressions and judging and condemning moral transgressions in solidarity with others.

      1. If people are not judged and condemned for “getting away with murder” or other moral transgressions than they will continue to do so and human society collapses. Moral principles have no force by themselves. They are summaries of our moral beliefs.

          1. If people are not judged and condemned for “getting away with murder” or other moral transgressions than they will continue to do so and human society collapses.

            – —

            This in reply to my saying I’m not interested in morally judging others.

          2. People who are moral realists tend to be more “self-righteous” than those who are not. In fact, people who are not moral realists very rarely are self-righteous. For the record, not all moral realists are self-righteous, but many are.

            I

          3. Theoretically, I suppose that a moral realist could affirm that they are sure that morality is real and objective, but they have no idea what moral code is the true one. For example, if I were a moral realistic, I could still be unsure whether the Muslim code, the Christian code, the conservative code, the progressive code, or the social darwinist code were the true one. Are there people like that? I’m not one because I’m not a moral realist.

  5. “And that’s what being moral ultimately comes down to. What can each of us live with? The mistake we make is in thinking that “morality” somehow determines this, when in fact, it is what determines morality.”

    What we can “live with” can change over time, and a straightforward explanation of this is we were “mistaken” about our prior value judgments. Jimmy and his friends think it’s OK to make fun of the kid on the corner with Cerebral Palsy. Later Jimmy feels ashamed of what he did and how he acted. Both Jimmy’s shame and his change seems to me to require moral realism.

      1. When Jimmy talks about how he was “mistaken” about his earlier value judgment, is he misguided to use such a term, since it implies that people can be right or wrong about their value judgements?

    1. All your example shows is that most of us become more empathetic as we mature (a fact noted by psychologists) and that social mores change. When I was growing up in the 1950’s, mocking disabled people was common and practiced not only by kids, but also by gym teachers and camp counsellors. Now it is no longer socially accepted and I doubt that even Army drill instructors do it.

      1. Such a response strikes me anemic. Micheal Vick thought it was OK to get dogs to attack and kill each other for his amusement. You and I think he was mistaken. Realism provides a straightforward explanation of this. He thought a certain action was morally permissible and he was wrong. If “social mores” change about dog fighting, it’s because people come to accept the right values

          1. I can’t think of anything more anemic than the force of your “Realism.”
            And I can think of nothing more mistaken than the force of your reply.

            I think we should not be so ready to resort to outright contradiction and dismissal. It is simply not useful and silences what could become a productive discussion.

            You have already said
            Moral Realism is a bust, so these oughts don’t derive from some transcendent moral order

            but a surprisingly strong case can be made for moral realism, despite your quick dismissal.

          2. Peter,

            It wasn’t Dan who first used the word “anemic” to disqualify someone. It was Mr. Frege above who used “anemic” to disqualify my comment.

        1. “If “social mores” change about dog fighting, it’s because people come to accept the right values” – or is it entirely the reverse, that social mores have changed and that our shared values now exclude dog fights. This reversibility is (paradoxically) the only quality of your argument that keeps it from complete incoherence. And I (and many others) are perfectly content with the pressures of historical changes in social mores. If we have come this far, let’s see how farther we can go; or: this is just too far, let’s stop here; or: let’s back-track a bit. All of these ethical choices are open to us, once we accept that social mores may be all we have to such issues.

          There is no direct interdict against dog fighting in the Qu’ran (which generally takes a dim view of dogs as “unclean). Muslims in the west are now debating such issues along the lines of similar debates among Christians concerning the climate crisis, whether humans are intended by the Divine to take care of, or simply enjoy, the material world, which in itself has now inherent spiritual value. So are you saying Islam is an inferior moral realism to your own. You really need to own that, if so, as I’ve suggested elsewhere. I personally have no interest in defending Islam; I am a non-theist, suspicious of any theistic religion or moral realism. But as I’ve said elsewhere, it is part of my personal ethics that I wish Muslims be respected as Muslims, Christians as Christians, Jews as Jews, Hindus as Hindus – etc. I even feel impelled, not by any moral reality, but by my own choices, to respect Buddhists with whom I disagree, and prefer to express my disagreement as feeling insulted by regressive tribalism when the disagreement concerns behavior I view as “killing Buddhism,” as the Zen Masters would say.

          My point here, then, is that one problem with any moral realism – religious or otherwise – is an unsettling underlying arrogance. Once one has established a certain moral realism, one has to hold all other moral realisms as somehow deficient. This makes no sense, and thus the inevitable incoherence of any moral realism.

          And the fundamental difference between philosophical moral realism – say, Kant or Betham – and religious moral realism. Religious moral realism is not dependent on reason, but on faith – on faith alone, as Martin Luther proclaimed. Can philosophical moral realism make the same claim? It doesn’t – but I don’t see how it can avoid doing so. But once that move is made, the “reasonable” arguments go out the window.

          I understand the desire for a moral reality, but desire doesn’t make reality. No matter what the offered ground of a moral realism, it has to demonstrate that the world could not keep spinning without it – or at least not the social world. But truthfully, after the catastrophe of the Pequod’s sinking, “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

  6. A and B agree to cooperate about X. A does her agreed share of X-ing. A tells B that it is now his turn to do his share of X-ing. B asks for a reason why he should do his share. What should A say?

    1. Some transcendent force will cause you to regret not doing your share.

    2. If you don’t do your share you will become a type of person you will regret becoming.

    3. If you don’t do your share I and/or others will inflict penalties on you, and you will regret that consequence.

    4. You are free riding on my contribution, by taking the benefits but not accepting the burdens of X-ing. This is unreasonable and unjust, and any reasonable person can see that this is so.

    I think that (4) is the best of these responses. It gives B a good reason to act. It assumes that B is not a sociopath or unreasonable. It leaves B room to reply, so long as the reply is in terms of cooperation and justice.

    Alan

  7. I won’t even try to analyse the curious reasoning that Dan uses to arrive at his conclusions. Instead I will examine those conclusions and test them for rationality. I consider this under three headings:

    A. What are his conclusions?
    B. Are they rational?
    C. Is there any better viewpoint?

    A. What are his conclusions?

    In an earlier post I asked him if he was espousing a policy of moral expediency. And to my surprise, he replied, “yes, it is what it is”. At the time I thought it was tongue in cheek reply. This essay seems to be a continuation of the same line of thinking, so I am no longer so sure. His moral thinking seems to be summed up as follows(his words):

    It is the force that comes from what we can and cannot stomach in ourselves; that which makes a glance in the mirror a pleasurable experience as opposed to a nauseating one.

    and he quotes this line approvingly:

    In doing so, he must lie, steal, bribe, and even have a low-level criminal killed. Brooks summarizes this in a monologue at the end of the episode, in which he says, “I think I can live with it, and if I had to do it again, I would.”

    and finally he concludes

    And that’s what being moral ultimately comes down to. What can each of us live with?

    This boils down to:
    1) the desired goal is a pleasurable experience, or view of oneself.
    2) the test is what each person can live with.
    3) there is no thought for the victims of these actions.

    B. Are they rational?

    There are embedded in his conclusions, unstated assumptions, or premises on which his thought rests entirely. If these premises are false everything that follows is false.

    1) He assumes “that which makes a glance in the mirror a pleasurable experience as opposed to a nauseating one.” results in moral behaviour. But does it? How many criminals find their activities to be pleasurable? This assumption must fail.

    2) He assumes moral wisdom in the moral agent(himself). The test is what each person can live with. But how many moral agents are wise? As it turns out, every moral agent trusts his own judgement but do you trust the judgement of every other moral agent? Do you trust the judgement of what other people can live with? You would be foolish if you did. There are hundreds of thousands of rape victims and hundreds of thousands of murder victims. In nearly every case the perpetrator did what he could live with(and what was pleasurable). This assumption also fails.

    3) The victims of the (a)moral acts are not worthy of consideration. This follows from the sentence he quoted approvingly “…lie, steal, bribe, and even have a low-level criminal killed“. However lying, stealing and killing inevitably creates victims. What of their interests and rights? He failed to consider this at all, as if it was of no account. But morality is essentially about your interaction with other people and their good. If it is only about your own interests it is not morality but naked expediency.

    Thus the heart of Dan’s moral philosophy, a pleasurable experience, or view of oneself, the test of what he can live with and his failure to consider the interests of the victims is incoherent and unsustainable. Society does not and cannot work like this. That these things manifest to some extent in society is evidence of the freeloader or free-rider mentality that bedevils society. But how many freeloaders can society tolerate?

    In two earlier essays(quite some time ago), one by himself and one by another, he maintained that repugnant thoughts were defensible, on a variety of grounds. This essay continues that line of thinking even further because he also espouses moral thinking that can have repugnant results.

    C. Is there any better viewpoint?

    A better viewpoint must be centred on the other and must essentially be desirous of their good. To illustrate this I quote below the beautiful lines of the Prayer for Peace(note how it is about the ‘other’).

    Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
    where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    where there is sadness, joy.

    O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
    to be consoled as to console,
    to be understood as to understand,
    to be loved as to love.
    For it is in giving that we receive,
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

    In his last sentence Dan says
    What can each of us live with? The mistake we make is in thinking that “morality” somehow determines this, when in fact, it is what determines morality.

    No, what determines morality is being desirous of the good of others.

  8. Just under 50 years ago a young Irish nun, Sister Ethel Normoyle, came to South Africa. She went to one of our poorest townships, here in Port Elizabeth, and set up a table under a struggling tree in the dusty township. From there she tended to their hunger, their poverty and their illnesses. Slowly she built up what is now the flourishing Missionvale Care Society. She has won acclaim nationally and internationally. She has been a beacon of hope to the suffering and a shining inspiration to the rest of us. She has been a living example of Christian philosophy in action, of being desirous of the good of others.

    Now we are grieving because she has returned to Ireland, terminally ill with lung cancer. But she has left with us a gift, the example of a noble life, lived in the service of others, a life that desired only the good of others. It is this desire that exposes the essential nobility that we are capable of.

    See https://www.heraldlive.co.za/news/2021-07-10-missionvale-care-centres-sister-ethel-diagnosed-with-lung-cancer/

    1. Yes, this is European tragedy imported into America and become nihilism with a happy ending. (Allan Bloom roughly) You set the exam yourself, sit it and grade it. What a scenic self-serving route to self satisfaction and unwarranted complacency. Everyone passes and the past is called the past because you passed.

      There’s a half truth there; morality is based upon the self but in Egoism it is founded on a restricted view of the self that does not challenge the inbuilt tendency to evil. William Blake puts it best:

      The Divine Image

      To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
      All pray in their distress;
      And to these virtues of delight
      Return their thankfulness.

      For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
      Is God, our father dear,
      And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
      Is Man, his child and care.

      For Mercy has a human heart,
      Pity a human face,
      And Love, the human form divine,
      And Peace, the human dress.

      Then every man, of every clime,
      That prays in his distress,
      Prays to the human form divine,
      Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

      And all must love the human form,
      In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
      Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
      There God is dwelling too.

      1. Thanks for that beautiful poem. To that I would add we need to see the world anew, with awe and reverence:

        To see a World in a Grain of Sand
        And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
        Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
        And Eternity in an hour

      2. America
        By Walt Whitman
        Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
        All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
        Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
        Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
        A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
        Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

  9. Let me just say a few things, not really by way of response, but more as a kind of framing.

    Much of what I write at EA is not to persuade people of anything. I do this because I enjoy the art of writing and expression — because I am a *writer* — and because I use writing to work things out for myself. It is therapeutic for me.

    My moral musings of the last several years have born largely out of my own experience dealing with extraordinarily difficult matters having to do with my family, in which the full burden of responsibility has fallen upon me, even as I have had little to no authority or control over the situation. I have found myself repeatedly having either to cooperate with or watch things unfold that directly violate my own conscience and what I think is the right thing to do. I have received no support throughout, whether from medical authorities and institutions, county authorities responsible for social welfare, or the law. Indeed, they have actively made all of it worse.

    I also have had to confront the reality of the complicity of those for whom the decisions need to be made and whose care is at issue, which is the hardest part of all. The people for whom one is responsible, who are hanging on a thread, are themselves the greatest obstacles to doing what not only is right but what must be done. I have had to watch people whom I not only love, but for whom I feel an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility, create their own catastrophe, with no ability on my part to stop it, short of doing things that would destroy me and as a result, my wife and daughter.

    I have been explicit about this and quite candid in sharing with readers a slice of my own real life, as opposed to the abstract, easy hypotheticals that most philosophers serve up in talking about these matters. These are realities that most people have to confront in their lives — and often even worse — and I think it is important to engage with them as they are, unabstracted, if one is to even have a chance of dealing with them productively and realistically and coming out intact oneself. And I will tell you, there have been times when I have wondered whether I will come out intact.

    I actually burst out laughing at Alan’s 1-4, wondering what world he’s living in. Reasonable; unreasonable; or sociopath? If this is supposed to pass for some sort of serious engagement with the real, morally dire situations people find themselves in with all their complexity and “nothing but bad as far as the eye can see” quality, all that I can say is that’s not been my experience.

    As a philosopher, I have looked to moral philosophy in these times and found it to be almost entirely inadequate. I am groping towards what I think about the base human condition. Not only does the idea that I can only, ultimately, be governed by what *I* can live with, mark the furthest I can go down the rabbit hole of obligation, it also is the only attitude with which it is possible for me to come through the terrible times I have had to face whole.

    For those who are expecting rounds and rounds of arguments from me about this, I am sorry. That’s not why I write, for the most part. But you all are more than free to carry on. I’m neither insulted by nor upset about it.

    1. Dan,
      I do this because I enjoy the art of writing and expression — because I am a *writer* — and because I use writing to work things out for myself. It is therapeutic for me.

      These are excellent reasons. Reframing it this way helps me to view your arguments in a different light.

    2. Dan,
      As a philosopher, I have looked to moral philosophy in these times and found it to be almost entirely inadequate.

      I agree with you and think that is because it must be a lived experience. Moral philosophy deals with the abstract and not with the painful, difficult, human, messy problems of living in an ethical way in a community with varied needs. It is a process that needs community, support and guidance. I have found this in my own way. You in turn must find your way. Moral philosophy in the abstract is just one small part of a longer and deeper journey.

    3. Dan,
      These are realities that most people have to confront in their lives — and often even worse — and I think it is important to engage with them as they are, unabstracted, if one is to even have a chance of dealing with them productively and realistically and coming out intact oneself.

      I agree completely.

    4. Dan: My simplistic propositions were taken from the debate you had set up. I took you to be defending (2) against (1) and (3). The “sociopathic” reference was taken from EJWinner’s comment that preceded mine.

      However, given what you say about your situation, I agree that my little contribution may well seem laughable. Best wishes.

    5. I am also going through very difficult times with my aging parents (both in their 90s). I enjoy your essays and thanks for taking the time and making the effort to keep this site going

  10. alandtapper1950,
    If it can be demonstrated that the agreement was contractual, then (3) is clearly the best response.

    As for (4), as a matter of rhetoric I see no problem with it; as a matter of logic, I see no point to it. Most of us use this language, every day, including myself. Why not? such talk is part of the common language that holds communities together. That doesn’t necessitate that such discourse derives from any standard beyond community norms. Nor can it have any force to compel unless established in law.

    And depending on the person involved, (2) may actually be the better approach rhetorically. Knowing one’s audience is important in any choice of address.

    (1) is of course a non-starter, unless both parties share the same faith. And that opens the door to a problem you have. Kant and Bentham knew that the day of Divine fiat was over by the 18th century; but can moral realism really avoid slipping back into faith , even when argued as ‘rational’? This comment thread has already suffered through a prolonged sermon on divinely inspired ‘rationality’ in such matters.

    But in a secular state committed to personal choices and liberty of conscience, rhetorical address and law are the best we can manage. And only such commitment allows discussions of this sort in the public sphere.

    So the question – here – is not what we say, since we all know what we say; the question is whether we can find, in what we say, a grounding moral reality beyond what we say. I don’t see it, nor can your argument reveal it.

    Gottlob Frege,
    “is he misguided to use such a term, since it implies that people can be right or wrong about their value judgements?” – you’re making a similar error in holding that what we say has a logical force strong enough to derive a moral realism from it. Interpretation of what would constitute “right or wrong” in this context is wholly indeterminate. Jimmy could be “mistaken” in a number of ways, psychologically, sociologically, even economically (in certain circumstances possibly legally); obviously none of these possibilities suggests, let alone confirms, a moral realism, or even Jimmy’s possible faith in a moral realism.

    1. EJWinner: Morality-as-cooperation, which is the viewpoint I hold, does have a “grounding”, but it is not what you might take it to be. The grounding is the necessity of cooperation, which in turn derives from the Prisoners Dilemma. But that is a discussion for another time perhaps.

      1. Yes indeed. There has been profound misunderstanding about what ‘grounding‘ means.

  11. One more thing. The idea that my feelings and thoughts with regard to these heart-rending questions are somehow “indefensible” might seem like a very strong point to you, but it doesn’t mean anything whatsoever to me. Indeed, that’s part of the essay’s core point and seems to have been missed.

  12. Dan,
    If this is supposed to pass for some sort of serious engagement with the real, morally dire situations people find themselves in with all their complexity and “nothing but bad as far as the eye can see” quality, all that I can say is that’s not been my experience.“.

    In this, and in several other places I have heard the voice of pain.

    I am reminded of Hamlet asking:

    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them?

    It seems to me we are talking about the wrong thing. We are talking about moral systems when we should really be talking about the existential problem of dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Moral systems in the abstract simply do not deal with this matter. Deontology, virtue ethics, care ethics, consequential ethics, etc do not address how we should deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They do not provide a shield, breastplate or helmet. This entire debate, it now seems to me, has been a non sequitur.

    Stoicism does deal with the matter, but in a particular way that does not suit all. So, in principle, how can one deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? We have these possibilities:

    1) Deny or ignore.
    Not my problem. Can result in neglect or callous insensitivity. But the future always catches up with us.

    2) Anaesthesia.
    Deaden our sensibilities with things such as hedonistic, narcissistic behaviour, going so far as alcoholism, drugs and other self destructive forms of behaviour. This has fueled the epidemic of drug overdose deaths. This is almost never a good idea.

    3) Flight.
    Remove oneself from the problem so that it does not touch one. The coward’s option. This is seldom a good idea.

    4) Fight.
    Confront the problem and endeavor to overcome it. This is only possible if you have the resources and if circumstances permit it. But a fighting spirit is a good thing to cultivate.

    5) Endure.
    This is classic Stoicism. Religious traditions also teach endurance in the face of hostile fate. Endurance is a necessary part of life since suffering will always find us..

    6) Redirect and repurpose.
    Find a strong, all consuming purpose that sustains one through the tribulations. Ikigai is such a path.

    7) Hope.
    Find sources of hope that can sustain one through the trials and tribulations. Religious traditions teach this. Hope lights up the inner being.

    I would summarize this as:

    Fight to overcome, where possible, endure where one must, redirect and repurpose one’s life to find new meaning, if at all possible, sustaining it with hope, wherever you can find it.

    In my experience community is vital to this. Few of us are suited to being solitary Stoics. And in any case, the wisdom, support and love that others bestow on us can make all the difference.

    But these answers won’t be found by analyzing moral systems. They are found in the collective wisdom of many traditions and reinforced by the collective power of community.

    1. “But these answers won’t be found by analyzing moral systems. They are found in the collective wisdom of many traditions and reinforced by the collective power of community.”

      Fine; I actually agree with this statement. But that reveals your real problem here – you haven’t really been arguing that a ‘moral reality exists,’ you have been proselytizing for a particular “moral reality” based in your own religious beliefs.

      Atheists don’t agree to that; Muslims don’t agree to it; Hindus don’t agree to it; Taoists don’t agree to it. You have attempted to universalize your own faith. Although a non-theist, I have no problem with your personal faith. I utterly reject your attempt to universalize it as imposition on the faith and practices of others.

      1. you have been proselytizing for a particular “moral reality” based in your own religious beliefs.

        Please just quote my actual words instead of making nebulous accusations.

        I utterly reject your attempt to universalize it as imposition on the faith and practices of others.

        Once again, please quote my actual words rather than making accusations.

    2. I said,
      They are found in the collective wisdom of many traditions and reinforced by the collective power of community.

      A really nice example of this is Massimo Pigliucci’s involvement with Stoicism. I have been following the development of his thoughts from afar, with a great deal of admiration. Reading between the lines of his many postings it slowly became apparent that he experienced challenges and pain in his life(we all do, suffering will always find us). He coped with this by turning to a moral philosophy that was also a cohesive way of life, and not just something dry and abstract.

      And this is working for him. He has found a moral framework that provides a way of living its principles, leading to personal growth and enabling him to deal with the challenges that life throws at us. One cannot stress too much how important this is. He has found an active community that reinforces and provides support. This has developed to such an extent that he is a leading figure in developing this community.

      From a psychological perspective it is sound. This is readily recognised as a form of principles based cognitive behavioural treatment(CBT) with support groups.

      I am not unbiased in this matter since Catholicism has a strong affinity for Stoicism. We bring awe, reverence, sacrality and a deep concern for the other to Stoicism, which, we think, gives it a heart of warmth, depth and love. Massimo and I remain divided over this issue. Given his strong atheism this does not surprise me but I remain a great admirer of Massimo and his work.

      A moral framework, to have any sense at all, must be a lived framework and Massimo’s involvement with Stoicism is a nice demonstration of this.

    3. To my list above, I should have added
      8) A glowing spirit.
      The glowing spirit embraces ordeals, exertion, trials, contest, endurance and adversity. The glowing spirit defines a person’s essential worth.

      Carlin Barton writes about this when she describes the ethos of the Romans in the time of the Republic. I can do no better than quote her verbatim.

      Virtus and the honores won in the contest were shining and volatile; competition produced a heightened sense of vividness, a brilliant, gleaming, resplendent existence. The man of honor was speciosus, illustris, clarus, nobilis, splendidus; the woman of honor was, in addition, casta, pura, candida. At the same time, to produce this exalted state, the good competition obeyed restrictions;

      it needed to be:
      a) circumscribed in time and space;
      b) governed by rules known and accepted by the rival parties;
      c) strenuous (requiring an equal or greater­ than­ equal opponent);
      d) witnessed.

      To have a glowing spirit one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous series of ordeals.

      Labor, industria and disciplina were, for the Romans, the strenuous exertions that one made in undergoing the trial and in shouldering the heavy burden. In labores and pericula one demonstrated effective energy, virtus. There was no virtus, in the republic, without the demonstration of will. The absence of energy (inertia, desidia, ignavia, socordia) was non­being. In inactivity the spirit froze.

      The more extreme the ordeal, the greater its annealing, its defining power.

      “The greater the torment the greater the glory,” asserts Seneca (De providentia 3.9).
      “He has won without glory who has won without peril” (3.4).

      Fortune, he believed, sought out the great soul to be challenged. “Mucius was tested by fire, Fabricius by poverty, Rutilius by exile, Regulus by torture, Socrates by poison, Cato by death. One cannot find a great exemplum except in misfortune” (3.4).

      The 2nd ­century Christian, Minucius Felix admonished the Romans: “Your men of power, whom you commend as moral examples, flourished through their tribulations” (Octavius 36.8). As for us, he asserts, “God tries and examines each one through adversity; he weighs the spirits of individuals through perils, exploring the will of a man up to the extreme moment of death” (36.9).

      “Without an adversary,” Seneca asserts, “virtus shrivels. We see how great and how viable virtus is when, by endurance, it shows what it is capable of” (De providentia 2.4).

      A glowing spirit ignites the soul to be more than it is, to be greater than its circumstances.

  13. If;

    “The internal sanction of duty, whatever our standard of duty may be, is one and the same—a feeling in our own mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty…” – Mill

    and,

    “If morals directed towards us from others are an invitation to self-governance, …” based on “the force” of “… our feelings as to whether we are lovable or loathsome.” – Kaufman

    and further,

    “We theorize and talk about value in order to develop and direct our affections and actions” – Kaufman (Value and Objectivity)

    Then one must conclude that morality is based in large part on human emotion rather than intellect. This would make the rational effort at objectivity in regards to morality a morally dementing endeavor. To know of the moral one must be subjective, circumstantial, and passionate; be deeply and passionately engaged in the story of one’s life in the immediate moment through the feel of existence rather than the thought of it.

    Thus, to frame morality exclusively in terms of thinking is nihilistic and ultimately incoherent. It is inherently limiting to believe “morals directed towards ourselves are a matter of what kind of person we think we should be” or that in society they are based on “the kinds of people they think we should be.” Thinking alone is impotent at knowing the moral.

    Rather we have to feel. What’s missing in western philosophy is a well developed understanding of what human feelings, sensitivity, and emotion are; the type of belief and knowing they bring. The perpetual rational suppression of feelings, sensitivity, and emotion down through the centuries has bequeathed us in modernity a pervasive moral turpitude.

    As a beginning in such an endeavor, morality is not about “What can each of us live with?” but about “What we can all live with.” It’s about going beyond the needs of self to the needs of the broader group and engaging not solely in our thinking and emotions about ourselves (primary emotions) but in our thinking and emotions about others such as empathy and compassion (secondary emotions). Such secondary emotions are in indication of mental/moral sophistication. Such moral emotions about others require a narrative competence regarding the story and circumstance of others. Thus the reason that most moral codes down through the centuries have been passed on in the form of narrative, and why to effectively engage morality one has to tell a story.

    Just witness our newest most modern moral narrative – Star Wars. Is it any wonder that it centers around a lost intuitive “force” that one must access not by thinking and being in control but by “stretching out with your feelings” and “letting go.”

    May the force be with you.

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