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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Moral by definition? (Some slightly technical philosophy.)

Introduction

The recent TED talk by Sam Harris brings important metaethical issues into the popular arena. Is there a way to establish the objectivity of morality, and in particular the objective bindingness of utilitarian morality?

I'm afraid not. A good place to start with this is Peter Singer's concluding chapter of Practical Ethics, immediately prior to an appendix about his unfortunate experiences of being silenced in Germany. Here, Singer presents a searching inquiry into the question of why we should act "morally" in a sense that he defines (which amounts to acting like a preference utilitarian). This chapter, which is actually entitled, "Why Act Morally?", evidences how difficult - nay, impossible - it is to establish that anyone has a reason to be moral, or act morally in the stipulated sense.

Morality by tautology

Singer makes clear that he is not using the word "morally" and its cognates, such as "moral", to refer to action in accordance with whatever principles we happen to find overridingly important. This must be stressed, because it means that he cannot use the argument: acting morally is acting is acting in accordance with the principles that are overidingily important; we ought to act in accordance with the principles that are overridingly important; therefore we ought to act morally. That is all just tautological, and gets us nowhere.

Nor, evidently, do these words ("morality", etc.) refer to actions that we might have best reason for, all things considered, in which case a similarly tautological argument could show that we ought to act morally. Again, that gets us nowhere.

Such definitions do not tell us what actions are those we have best reason for, all things considered, or what actions are in accordance with principles that are overridingly important. There seems no room for doubt that we should act morally in these senses of the word - it's pretty much true by definition - but that tells us nothing at all about the ways in which we actually should act.

Morality as impartiality

Rather, Singer defines "morality" as action that is impartial with respect to the interests of all affected sentient beings. To act morally in this sense, then, I must first accept that my own interests do not count more than the interests of any other being that actually has interests. I then respond by acting in a way that maximises - or, perhaps, is objectively likely to maximise - the summed interests of all. I can then be said, according to Singer's stipulated usage, to be acting in accordance with "the ethical point of view".

To illustrate Singer's conception of moral action, if I wish to act in accordance with the so-called ethical point of view, and if I see that Φ-ing (say, selling my house and donating the proceeds to Community Aid Abroad) is the unique way for me to do so in my current circumstances, then it can be said that Φ-ing is what I ought to do.

Notice, however, that I expressed this as a hypothetical imperative. It is what I have reason to do if I already wish to act from the ethical point of view. At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, "ought") has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view. It's no good saying that my interests are not objectively more important than anyone else's. So what? They are still my interests, and I may desire to further them. How have I made any error if I set out to do so? My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires ... and they motivate me.

Thus, Singer's question is actually a question about what reasons (of a non-moral, or pre-moral, kind) there are to adopt the ethical point of view or to act morally, as he defines these expressions.

Universalisation

Singer insists that his definition of morality is more than an arbitrary stipulation. The supporting claim is that morality, even as understood before we get to his theoretical account, takes a universal point of view. This claim, in turn, is supported first by an argument that when we justify our acts in a way that we recognise as "moral" or "ethical", and not just any justification will do. For example, it is not a moral justification if I seek to explain my commission of a murder in terms of its expediency for pursuing, like Macbeth, my "vaulting ambition".

Note, though, that this immediately creates a problem that Singer appears to pass over: surely I can adequately explain my decision to study philosophy simply by stating that (1) I am interested in the subject (which is not, by itself, a justification) and adding (2) studying philosophy breaches no moral constraint that applies to me. Singer's example of Macbeth does not rule out a conception of morality, such as favoured by Kantians, that allows for a wide range of permissible - but not obligatory - actions within certain deontic constraints.

Singer then looks to the historical teachings of a range philosophers and moralists, who have all agreed "that ethics is in some sense universal." However, it is not obvious that all these teachers have considered morality to be universal in the same sense. While Jesus of Nazareth is reported as teaching that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, which may mean giving their interests equal weight, other interpretations of morality's universal component might be much weaker, such as the idea that the same moral constraints, if any, apply to everyone, given relevantly similar circumstances.

J.L. Mackie has suggested that a system of norms need not reach such an advanced level of universalisation as that described by Singer to conform to the concept of a moral system, while Neil Levy also refers to a more basic level when he describes the social need for rules that ensure we are responsive to each other's actions in predictable ways. Elsewhere, Steven Pinker notes that no one could argue with pragmatic success that moral restrictions in a society should apply to everyone but not herself, so the price of having any sort of moral code, with its benefits, is that it also apply to oneself. Similarly, Sober and Wilson emphasise that moral principles are, like other principles, general in application. They specify "general criteria or relevant considerations for deciding what one ought to do." In short, the idea is widely acknowledged in the literature.

Pace Singer, all these considerations, moral principles, rules, or maxims may take many different forms: for example they may prescribe that we act in certain ways to people within the group, or to all humans, or to all sentient beings. They need be universalisable only in the sense of saying that "anyone with such-and-such feature is to be treated thusly." I.e., they involve rules, principles, criteria, and so on, that are of general application.

From his claim that morality has a universal aspect "in some sense", Singer moves to the position that acting morally involves taking into account everyone's interests and give equal weight to them. Hence, it involves giving no more weight to our own interests than those of anyone else.

However, this is a non sequitur. Nothing forces us to adopt such a specific, and arguably extreme, sense of "universal" and related words as Singer actually uses. There are forms of universality that do not require giving equal weight to all interests in all circumstances, but merely that the rules be of general application.

Most obviously, a system such as that favoured by Kant can allow for a wide range of merely permissible actions that might be chosen on some other basis than the one recommended by Singer, perhaps prudential or perhaps eroscentric (favouring those one loves). No such system may be correct, but that is not the issue; the point is, it may well be recognisable as a moral system in our ordinary understanding of what a moral system is like.

Singer himself is aware that the universal aspect of morality can be described in a thin, formal way involving general applicability of norms of conduct, and that this would embrace many theories of correct action. Conversely, as he mentions, there is a danger of giving the universal aspect so much substance as to smuggle in "our own ethical beliefs into our definition of the ethical". Unfortunately, he appears to err in the latter way. As a result, we should be aware that his definition of what it is to "act morally" is not the only one available. But all this, and other considerations adduced in the last few paragraphs, can establish is that we are not compelled to adopt Singer's terminology.

We are not compelled - on danger of being illogical or making a mistake about the world - to define morality in terms of impartially maximising preference-atisfaction while also thinking of acting morally as acting in the way that we ought to act in all the circumstances (or acting in accordance with principles of overriding importance).

Conclusion

We can define "moral", "morality", and related words such as "ethical" and "ethically" and so on, however we choose - but choose we must! If we define these words in terms of how we ought to act in all the circumstances (or something similar), then, sure enough, the definition entails that we ought to act morally, but it cannot tell us what this amounts to in practical detail. The latter is still an open question.

Conversely, if we define the words in Singer's way, we know what is involved, but it becomes an open question whether we ought, all things considered, to act morally (rather than, say, egocentrically, or eroscentrically, or in accordance with some compromise approach).

Utilitarians can't have it both ways. If they define morality in terms of acting in the way that we ought to act in all the circumstances, then they still need to demonstrate that this involves acting like a utilitarian. They cannot succeed in convincing us of this if our most basic (or highest order) desires are to the contrary (e.g. if they contain egocentric or eroscentric elements).

Conversely, if they define acting morally in terms of acting like a utilitarian, then they still need to demonstrate that this is the way that we always ought to act in all the circumstances. Again, they cannot succeed in convincing us of this if our most basic (or highest order) desires are to the contrary (e.g if they contain egocentric or eroscentric elements).

Thus, even if we defined such words as "morality" or "ethics" in accordance with Singer's usage, this could not be relied upon to derive an acceptable system of action-guiding norms, as R.M. Hare arguably attempts to do in such works as Freedom and Reason. As Simon Blackburn has pointed out, if a word such as "ethically" refers to reasoning of this kind, "we may still prefer and campaign for other ways of reasoning." I.e., if we think of the word "ethically" in this way, we may quite rationally decide not to act ethically! We are not making a mistake if we so decide.

There is no prospect of defining words such as "moral" and "morality" in such a way as to compel us to act as a utilitarian would wish, on pain of making a mistake about the world or being irrational (at least in a sense of "irrational" that we need care about, since this word can also be defined in more than one way). As Singer himself ultimately concedes in Practical Ethics, it is not possible to compel someone to accept utilitarianism, or "the ethical point of view", by anything like a brute exercise in logic. His own eventual approach is to try to sell us the attractions (the sense of meaning it can give us, and so on) of living a "moral" life.

This entails that we do not necessarily have reasons to be moral. Morality can be objective if we define it in a way that refers to something naturalistic and does not include its power to give reasons (as with "what you ought to do in all the circumstances"). But it is then not necessarily mistaken to act immorally, or even to reject morality. You can't retain both of these aspects (the strict objectivity of morality and the rational requirement to act morally) at once.

A better approach to morality is to point out that almost all of us wish, all things being equal, that other lives go well and that suffering be ameliorated. Accordingly, from within our own value systems we (almost) all have reasons to act in ways that have these effects. At the same time, there is always the possibility of a clash with other values, such as our own survival and the happiness of loved ones. At least for beings like us, who are not omnipotent and cannot deal benevolently with all interests at once, morality is not about perfect altruism. It is about constraining ourselves and living within the constraints, particularly in such respects as accepting the strong prima facie requirement to act honestly and non-violently.

This is the kind of thing that actual moral systems tend to demand, and it is the kind of demand that others around us can reasonably expect us to accept. People who want us to support a particular system are stuck with appealing to the structures of desires that we actually have, though they can, of course, ask us to subject those desires to rational reflection (they can ask us to consider which of our desires are really most important to us). They cannot, however, compel us to accept and abide by a system of morality by the clever use of definitions.

In this field, definitions always have their price.

16 comments:

Daniel said...

Russell,

In my completely amateur opinion I think you equivocate too much and I find this to be a rare point of disagreement with you. I think I grasp the reasons why we need to hedge our statements on morality, but need we go so far? You suggest that a better approach to morality is to acknowledge that there appears to be a consensus that harm should be minimised etc, and that this therefore provides a guide as to a course of action / decision making etc.

However, do we not have a mandate to bring the power of reason and science to bear on moral questions? I do not see the flaw in Harris's equation or physical and mental health; if science can illuminate one in a way thats universally acceptable, why not the other?

You write on this blog, and you make reasoned arguments in support of your position, and you put forth a view of morality and ethics that you believe to be worth dedicating a lifetime towards. You understand the value of reasoned argument, and therefore you implicitly recognise that reason at least in some part presides over the domain of morality.

If we can agree that reason is at the very least a tool in the moral debate, is there a consensus to be reached, even if asymptotically?

Do you think that a maturing neuroscience can illuminate moral questions? Do you think there are parallels between physical and mental health which can illuminate moral questions?

Forgive my semi-formed drunken ramblings.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, The answer Singer finally comes to is that acting morally creates a fulling sense that life is meaningful. He says the same thing in his book How Are We to Live?. Modern malaise gets relieved by adopting the universal point of view and doing what maximizes good for all. He admits this is not a reason to be moral that will "work" for everyone, but he says those reflective enough to wonder why we should be moral are "most likely to appreciate" this sort of reason.

NewEnglandBob said...

After reading this post, my head hurts now (because of my limited brain function, not Russell's writing). What I took away, if I read it correctly, I like what Daniel said above, and I think he is tossing it back to Sam Harris and a consensus building via reason.

Daniel, if that is "semi-formed drunken ramblings", then I want to hear more of it, so don't sober up and keep on writing.

Brian said...

Russell, on the universalism of morality. I think it was Levy who got that best. We feel morality is universal because we evolved to feel it universal (just so story?). Moral systems are analogous (probably a terrible analogy, certainly a worn out one) to software running on the moral hardware. I think we come with a basic hardwired morality that we evolved for good reasons being a social animal: no cheating (well little), associated checking to ensure we don't cheat, feeling that cheating of others is bad or wrong, etc. After that, extending this feeling from a tribe of a few to a tribe of many is just retasking the same hardware (i.e. be nice to family, footy team, fellow humans, sentient beings...)

Similarly to extending the feeling that it is wrong to steal mate, food or attacking member of tribe to and enlarged grouping of what's wrong (abortion if you're catholic, killing animals if you're against that). In this sense some of what we hold to be right and wrong can be changed by reason or rhetoric (in a limited sense, I doubt murder within one's tribe would become acceptable, but one just needs to convince onself that one has a very small or unique tribe such as saying all blonds are evil or all jews are against Germany), but the ability to hold things right or wrong and as universally applicable not so.

I've never quite understood later philosophers need to try to justify universalism. True, if we're all the same, we all could be treated the same. That just seems like a post-hoc rationalisation of how we see the world or our tribe in any case.

yashwata said...

"he cannot use the argument: acting morally is acting in accordance with the principles that are overidingily important; we ought to act in accordance with the principles that are overridingly important; therefore we ought to act morally. That is all just tautological, and gets us nowhere."

As Wittgenstein pointed out, a tautology is not meaningless if it is being used as a definition. Yes, acting morally is acting in accordance with the principles that are overidingily important: that's what 'morally' means. Yes, we ought to act in accordance with the principles that are overridingly important: that's what 'ought' means.

"There seems no room for doubt that we should act morally in these senses of the word - it's pretty much true by definition - "

So, we agree.

" - but that tells us nothing at all about the ways in which we actually should act."

Well, that's a different question. We started with "Why act morally?"; the perfectly legitimate answer to that question is, "Because that's what 'morally' means." Now you are asking "What should I do next?" – that's a different question.

"At this stage, no good reason (some kind of non-moral, or pre-moral, 'ought') has been given as to why I should, or might, wish to act in accordance with the ethical point of view."

Wait, I thought we agreed on the "true by definition" thing.

"My desire to further my own interests is not the sort of thing that can entail any truth-claims that might be in error. I simply have desires ... and they motivate me."

Yes, it's that simple – if you ignore the question of morality. That's how animals operate. You see something edible; you catch it and eat it. Simple. But with us humans, there is (or can be) an extra layer – a slot between "I desire" and "I act", into which can be inserted the consideration, "ought I?" This is morality. . . by definition.

NewEnglandBob said...

I understand the Restaurant Trudeau in Canton-de-Granby is near the Restaurant La Terrasse du Parc.

Michael said...

It seems to me that morals and ethics are themselves an easy to understand evolutionary pressure. I haven't thought this through much yet, but I'll try to quickly unpack the thought here.

Why we "ought" to act in a certain way, even when that way appears counter-intuitive to our own self-interest is this:

1. We recognize that if others make accommodations toward us, then it makes us happier, even if it makes those giving accommodation somewhat less happy; and,
2. We recognize that we will ourselves be less happy by accommodating others, but that we will not be afforded the accommodation of others if we are perceived to not be accommodating to others, but even more;
4. We are then evolutionarily programmed to feel a kind of happiness toward making accommodations that mitigates the unhappiness we feel by the loss of whatever is to our own interest we are giving up; and,
5. There are then competing happiness pressures, and the more we submit to the accommodation pressure, the more moral we are, but not necessarily more happy.

We then are making choices to maximize our happiness and it results in a balance between doing what is good for others and what is good for you. Then, your individual survival is at least partially derivative of the degree to which you choose to do good for others.

Happy and happiness may be squiffy terms to use here. Substitute your own better word. If I had to quickly say how "happiness" should be defined, I would say it is our own perception of the ease of our own future survival.

I think it is easy to see how cooperation could have given rise to the notion of morality. Mutual cooperation resulted in easier survival. Therefore, mutual cooperation became an evolutionary pressure as the selective cost against cooperation is higher. That pressure, though not wholly rational in every sense when it is felt, is then ascribed as morality by us, and just like all evolutionary pressures is often misinterpreted. And we then use morality as a way to apply pressure to others.

If we are to ask ourselves why all members of an ant colony do their jobs so completely, I think it is easy to see that their survival efficiency is such because of this pressure to do good on behalf of the entire colony. We would likely call this job dedication "moral" if we were in their shoes. It is simple to understand. If the entire colony survives, then you survive easier than if you would alone.

This would serve to make the basis of morality objective. Again, just a rant in the moment and not very thought through.

Neil said...

I think the morality/health analogy is a very good one.

Health doesn't need a definition before we can do anything about it. Health doesn't need to be justified from an abstract philosophical perspective. Health doesn't need the establishment of a single universal measure or principle.

As long as we remain caught up in a desire for the old fashioned, absolutist, logical style of morality coming down from on high we will never get anywhere. That's the pre-scientific view. In science, morality is not to be justified, it is to be understood.

Morality is biological. It's evolved, messy, inconsistent, thrown together, in competition with other considerations, environmentally affected and riddled with gaps. This is what we have to work with.

What we need to find out objectively, is what affects morality, what morality affects, and how, what morality is sustainable, and what are the costs. Then we can improve our society and our lives.

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, I agree with you that that's what Singer says. I thought that was what I said he says, but maybe I was too cryptic. :)

Russell Blackford said...

And please, folks, avoid responding to our resident troll. I'm currently deleting his comments, rather than using comment moderation to block them. I could do the latter, but it inconveniences everyone else (it means your comments will all have to be approved individually, as Blogger doesn't have a lot of options). But if necessary, that's what I'll do.

Meanwhile, there's no use responding to him because any comments he makes will disappear from the record.

G Felis said...

Russel said (among many things): A better approach to morality is to point out that almost all of us wish, all things being equal, that other lives go well and that suffering be ameliorated. Accordingly, from within our own value systems we (almost) all have reasons to act in ways that have these effects. At the same time, there is always the possibility of a clash with other values, such as our own survival and the happiness of loved ones.

It seems to me as if something has been elided here: This assumes without evidence that value is always a verb - that is, that what makes something valuable is simply that some individual subjectively identifies it as valuable. But aren't ethical theories generally grounded in identifying something - happiness, human flourishing, or rational autonomy for a few famous examples - that is, objectively speaking, valuable to human beings simply because we are the kind of creatures we are? I suspect some question-begging might be hiding in the tall reeds of the way value is discussed throughout your analysis here: Either that, or all the vocabulary-switching - talking about morality here, value systems there - generates unnecessary confusion that fuels my (perhaps unwarranted) suspicion.

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe, George, but to me a value is simply something (real or merely imagined) that is valued. The thing (for want of a better word) may or may not actually exist at the relevant time and place, but it is something that (at least in some sense) could exist.

E.g., my values include freedom, peace, literature, the happiness of my friends, the amelioration of suffering, and so on. Other people may include among their values spiritual purity or rightness with God or escape from samsara.

None of these are the sorts of things that can be facts. As concepts, they can be instantiated or not, at least in a sense, but they can't be true or false. E.g., if someone simply says "Freedom," or simply says "Rightness with God," I can't respond by saying, "Yes, that's true," or, "Yes, that's a fact."

So it just seems very strange to me to say that a value is a fact about the well-being of conscious creatures. If he'd said, as some naturalist ethicists do (I think Brink says something like this), "A moral claim is a claim about the well-being of conscious creatures," it would make more sense to me. It would then raise interesting questions about moral internalism and externalism (on such an approach I think you have to give up internalism), so we wouldn't be out of the metaethical woods. But it seems like something that could plausibly be stipulated.

Perhaps this was really what he was aiming to say, but it's not the same thing, and the way he put it really threw me - and seemingly a lot of other people.

If he said that moral facts are always (or, better, "typically") closely connected to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures; that we have a pretty good working inter-cultural consensus about what well-being consists in, if we look below the surface; and that morality is not arbitrary ... well, I think that would be a better way of putting the point. I'd probably accept it as true, especially if I could keep the word "typically" just in case there are some marginal counter-examples. Maybe it wouldn't be so effective rhetorically to put it that way, but it might be less likely to cause confusion on the part of people like me, Sean Carroll, etc., who've thought about this stuff but are coming from a different direction. And Sam is such a good rhetorician that he probably could find a way to use this sort of language and get just as much rhetorical mileage from it.

Of course, he may be kind of committed to his preferred language for various reasons ...

It might be best to shift further discussion of this to the newest thread, although there will doubtless be yet further threads on it.

יאיר רזק said...

Very good post. I agree completely with the bottom line, but two comments if I may:

1) What is the use of definitions of morality that do not give us a "rational requirement to act morally"? They're irrelevant to human action, a mere abstract field of research of incidental and idiosyncratic interest (like, say, the mathematical properties of Lie groups). The requirements of "universalism" and so on seem to me to be empty formal metaphysical structures, left from the days of dogmatic pre-Kantian metaphysics, that should have long since been discarded.

2) Philosophers should give up the idea that they can tell others what to do. They can clarify concepts, like explaining what morality is; but what to do is too tied up with empirical questions. Ethics is a science (albeit a woefully under-developed one), once the philosopher has established metaethics; it is no longer the domain of philosophy.

Yair Rezek

RichardW said...

Russell wrote: >>We can define "moral", "morality", and related words such as "ethical" and "ethically" and so on, however we choose - but choose we must!<<

I would resist the notion that we can define words however we like. If we define a word in a way that is inconsistent with existing usage, then we haven't so much defined the given word as created a homonym--another word that happens to have the same sound and spelling. If we define "moral" to mean "funny" then we are no longer discussing the same subject when we make "moral" claims. A redefinition may be more subtle than this, overlapping the existing meaning while not exactly coinciding with it. But we should still be aware that the subject of discourse has been slightly altered.

It sometimes makes sense to create a new usage for a specific purpose. But attempts to define a moral term generally purport to be capturing the existing meaning of the word, not creating a new one. Those doing the defining do not acknowledge that they are changing the subject of discourse. That means they cannot define the term however they like. The definition is only valid in so far as it captures the existing meaning.

I suggest that Singer's definition fails to meet this standard. Whatever it's a definition of, that thing is not morality as normally understood. Alternatively, I would say it's not a genuine definition. It's more like a moral claim masquerading as a definition.

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