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Enquiry VIII

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  • © Catherine Wilson, CC BY

    The Enquirer returns to a consideration of the language of the Destroyers of Illusion to try to determine whether moral claims are nothing more than claims about the likings and dislikings of the person who asserts them, or nothing more than expressions of attitudes, and the issuing of invitations and commands, without any epistemic significance. She comes to the conclusion that the Destroyers lack a coherent position, and she goes on to consider how to think about moral norms and demands and the possible motives and reasons for being moral.

    What should I now think about the position of the Destroyers, who maintain that all judgements of right and wrong, all evaluative language, reflect only personal likings and dislikings? In Enquiry II, I found some reasons to be dissatisfied with this position, but it remains somewhat plausible in my mind and I think it is time to subject it to detailed scrutiny According to the Destroyers, I’ll suppose that the following sentence is meaningless and has no definite interpretation, unless some individual person in some particular cultural setting utters or writes it:

    1. ‘Vegetarianism is obligatory for good.’

      To understand the sentence and to see how it functions, I need to imagine that:

    2. S says (or thinks) that ‘Vegetarianism is morally good.’

      Does this mean that according to the Destroyers, if S were to express herself in a more literal and precise manner, she would say something like:

    3. ‘I really like vegetarianism and I really dislike carnivorism.’

      Or perhaps:

    4. ‘I really like vegetarianism and I would really like it if others really liked it too … and I really dislike carnivorism and the liking of some people for carnivorism.’

    On this analysis, ‘Vegetarianism is morally obligatory’ when uttered by S is true just in case S has the likings and dislikings cited. ‘Vegetarianism is morally neutral’ when said by T is true just in case T has the corresponding likings and disliking. It does not follow that vegetarianism is both morally good and morally neutral because there is no interpretation of the sentence ‘Vegetarianism is morally… .’ It has to be interpreted in the context of some particular person’s thinking or saying it.

    Is this an acceptable way to understand moral clams I wonder? The following objection occurs to me. A person who asserts ‘I like vegetarianism and I like other people’s liking it’ has made a statement about their own frame of mind. I would come to suspect that what they said was false—that they were lying or self-deceived about their own preferences—if I noticed that they ate meat with obvious enjoyment and encouraged others to order meat dishes in restaurants. I would come to believe that what they said was true if they avoided meat and reacted with some discomfort around those with hearty carnivorous appetites.

    By contrast when a person asserts ‘Vegetarianism is morally obligatory,’ I don’t think that the truth or falsity of this claim can be established by looking at their dietary habits. I don’t think they are talking about themselves, what’s going on in their heads, but about the world. If the claim is true, it must be so because of facts about animal suffering and human nutrition. Accordingly, I can’t accept the Destroyers’ interpretation of what a person means when they assert a moral claim.

    The Destroyers might concede that their paraphrase does not work and that it, along with their earlier attempt to purify ordinary language, was a mistake. But they may suggest another way of understanding moral claims, not as true-or-false assertions of likings and dislikings, but as expressions of attitudes. On this view, moral claims are not true or false. Nor are they equivalent to or paraphrasable by any other form of statement.

    Earlier19 I supposed that so-called moral ‘beliefs’ might be like placards carried around by people committed to what was written on them. This view left me somewhat uneasy, but I had no good argument against it, and the Destroyers might now insist that the view can be developed into a viable theory that precludes the possibility of moral knowledge.

    Suppose that rather than carrying visible placards stating ‘War is Wrong’ or ‘End Factory Farming’ around on posts, I carry as it were invisible placards around in my head and sometimes utter, write, hear, or read the words corresponding to them? The Destroyers may suggest that these invisible thoughts, in addition to audible and visible utterances and writings, express my feelings and attitudes about various people and goings-on, without communicating any information about the world or conveying any knowledge about it. The words I utter or write invite or even command my audience to share these feelings and attitudes. S might as well have shouted at me ‘Never eat meat!’ and T might as well have whispered to me ‘Go ahead and have some meat from time to time.’

    If S and T are expressing their attitudes towards meat-eating, however, and commanding or inviting me to behave in certain ways, I need to consider whether to obey the command or take up the invitation. After all, I don’t need to take up every invitation or do everything someone else orders me to do. I have choices.

    I could, it seems, just do whatever I felt like doing on the presentation of a moral claim expressing someone’s attitude, including ignoring it. But I could also make an effort to try to determine whether I ought to agree with S or T and ought to comply with the command or accept the invitation. If someone’s expression of an attitude can prompt this kind of critical reflection and further investigation of the issue which results in my changing my beliefs and practices, or maintaining them, but not just because they commanded or invited me, then moral utterances and inscriptions seem to lead us into the realm of truth and knowledge, contrary to what the Destroyers maintain.

    I have plenty of reasons to distrust some of my natural inclinations and immediate reactions to presented moral claims. At times, my feelings incline me to protect the weak, to sacrifice my advantages, and, as Person 1, to improve the prospects of Person 2 when I am in a position to do so. At other times, my feelings incline me to ignore the needs of Person 2 or to act against their interests, or even to use them for my own purposes. I do not know how to decide what would be the right thing to do—when I should follow my feelings and when I should reject their guidance.

    I know that self-interest and civility often require me to act against my immediate inclinations, and that conforming to their norms can be difficult or taxing. It can however be satisfying to make a prudent decision and to act on it, thereby advancing my self-interest, and it can also be satisfying to play my role as Host or Guest well. So perhaps I shall discover that morality is similar; its demands can be difficult but satisfying to fulfil. But while I now have a good idea how to determine what is prudent and imprudent and civil and uncivil, I am still somewhat in the dark about how to determine what is moral and immoral.

    All cultures, I’ve observed, have certain prohibitions on theft, on certain kinds of sex, on hurting and killing, ignoring children, deceiving people and interfering with their autonomy and liberty. While the particular norms vary from culture to culture, in all these cases, Person 1 is prohibited from doing something to Person 2 that is considered to harm them physically or psychologically or to harm their interests for the benefit of Person 1. These common prohibitions and statements about moral propriety and impropriety I’ll refer to, for the time being, as the Norms of Morality. They are expressed in claims such as the following, which hold in my culture and in many others as well:

    1. If Person 1 is aware that Person 2’s property is desirable and unattended, it is morally improper for Person 1 to take it without permission.
    2. If Person 1 is asked a question by Person 2, it is morally proper to answer truthfully and sincerely.
    3. If Person 2 irritates Person 1, it is morally improper for Person 1 to cause bodily harm or death to Person 2.

    I can’t remember exactly how I learned that these were some of the Norms of Morality in my culture, but I am sure that I learned them in more or less the way I learned the Norms of Civility, through instruction, social experience, and feedback. In reflecting on the various motives and reasons I might have for extending my concerns from the Present Self to the Future Self; from the Narrow Self to the Extended Self; and from the Extended Self to Strangers, I discovered that motives such as my instinct for self-preservation, my natural concern for kith and kin, sympathy for strangers, and also fear, worry, and the sense of honour might motivate me to be moral. In case I am very receptive to abstract considerations, I may be moved as well by the observation that I am actually no more important except to myself than anyone else on earth is, and that they are all more important to themselves than I am to them.

    But can I decide to take the risk of being immoral or amoral? Can I opt out from morality on occasion in the same way that I can throw prudence to the winds and follow my impulses, or opt out from polite behaviour—sometimes even to make a moral point, if for example, my host makes a racist joke? This question strikes me as seriously difficult. For example, what if I decided to be a burglar, honest in my dealings with my friends, scrupulous in my sexual morality, gentle with my captives, but no respecter of private property? I can’t see that this would necessarily lead to a fearful and bad life if I were an exceptionally skilled burglar who managed never to get caught and who enjoyed the risk. In this case, I’d have stepped partly, but not entirely, outside of conventional morality.

    My decision to flaunt the norms of ownership would sit oddly with my preference for others not to thieve from me. I would be a beneficiary of other people’s respect for the property norm but also a beneficiary of my willingness to ignore the norm.

    There would be no practical impossibility in my situation, but I would be unable to give a simple, truthful Yes-or-No answer to the question, ‘Do you think it is acceptable for Person 1 to steal from Person 2?’ I would have to give the more complicated answer that it is acceptable for me as Person 1 to steal from Person 2 but not for me as Person 2 to be stolen from by Person 1.

    But what if I do not care about being able to give a simple answer? There is nothing incoherent that I can see in the complicated answer.

    This problem brings me back to the fundamental question. Why make any sacrifices of personal interest at all in the name of morality if there is no danger to me in not doing so, or only a small risk of punishment or retaliation? Reminding me of the fact that I belong to a moralistic species does not persuade me that I should not opt out when I feel safe in doing so, just as I may partially opt out of the norms of prudence and civility if there is quite a bit to be gained. Moreover, the stakes are higher. Observing the Norms of Civility usually does not require major sacrifices, and behaving prudently is by definition in my self-interest. But to be consistently moral, it is necessary to sacrifice quite a lot of personal advantage.

    On reflection, I can only respond to this puzzle as follows: morality essentially involves a sacrifice of one’s own interest and advantage in favour of another’s. Accordingly, it is futile to look in particular cases for the direct advantage to me of remaining ‘within’ morality and observing the norms of truthfulness, nonaggression, respect for property, avoidance of sexual predation and so on. I cannot expect to discover a selfish motive for being unselfish that will consistently move me.

    To be sure, I have various self-interested motives for generally respecting the Norms of Morality cited above. A thoroughgoing failure to respect and operate with the norms of non-interference with people and their property, truth telling, and nonaggression, will sooner or later, in nearly every case, isolate me from the benefits I receive from others and subject me, if I am not a psychopath, to the pangs of conscience. Few people—no matter how grand and arrogant—are so powerful that they can disrespect all moral norms with impunity over the long term and Arrogant Great Men must live in constant fear of displacement and punishment. A few extremely clever people might manage to live as liars, thieves, aggressors, and sexual predators, but most people will be more successful in achieving their aims and living well if they abide by at least some Norms of Morality. If I am not motivated by concern for my reputation and comfort, I ought to be, and in this regard, I have reason to conform. I don’t find in myself any reason to disregard all moral norms, and I don’t feel motivated to do so.

    Yet I can certainly disregard some standard moral norms on particular occasions without fear of retaliation and without my conscience troubling me, and I am often motivated to disregard them. Indeed, I think it is sometimes reasonable to suspend the norm of truthfulness, or the norm of nonaggression or of respect for ownership in particular cases. There are occasions when I ought not to tell the truth when someone asks me a question, and occasions when I could reasonably resort to violence in self-defence. If a burglar asks me the combination to my safe, the ‘answer truthfully’ rule should be suspended. If a would-be rapist is troubling me, I ought to try to inflict bodily harm on them, and it is better to filch a pie from a windowsill than to starve. Sometimes pursuing my own advantage is so important to me, even if it causes harm to others, that I am tempted to say that others must simply fend for themselves. Therefore, I do not always have reason to act in accord with the Norms of Morality as they are stated above. Morality demands sacrifices, but in certain contexts, the sacrifice involved in heeding a generic norm is too great to count as reasonable or the benefit would go to a person who does not deserve it.

    Nevertheless, there can be some good reasons for me to observe a particular Norms of Morality on some occasion even if I put myself at a disadvantage by doing so, and even if social punishment is unlikely to follow in case I do refuse to observe it. One good reason is that by conforming to the norm, I can avoid injuring another person (or, at least, in the case of certain moral dilemmas, minimise injury to others). Another good reason for conforming is that I thereby avoid giving anyone else a good reason to resent or punish me (whether or not they do resent or can punish me). People who are motivated by reasons, as we all ought to be, may well find that they are motivated by these reasons. Indeed, some people’s concept of what’s in their self-interest is such that they have a strong preference for avoiding harming others and avoiding being the objects of resentment. Their sense of well-being is enhanced by the conviction that they have minimised injuries to others and that as few people as possible have just cause to be angry with them. These people have, we might say, self-centred, though not exactly selfish, reasons for being unselfish.

    I conclude that there are numerous reasons, many of which are likely to be motivating, for generally being moral, just as there are numerous reasons for being generally prudent and civil. Yet the Norms of Morality seem to be significantly different from the Norms of Civility. If I memorise the rules of etiquette I will rarely be stumped as to how to behave, but even if I memorise a set of rules like those above, I will often be stumped. Morality seems to concern a whole range of human interactions, often involving unique situations, whereas civility concerns stereotyped encounters between persons in fixed roles. It is all very well to say that my decisions about what to think and how to act should be based on knowing what I ought to and caring about what I ought to to the extent that I should, but how can I possibly put such abstract instruction into practice? To try to answer this question I will return to consider my earlier moral judgements, which I am still inclined to regard as correct, and their relationship to the theories of right conduct proposed by philosophers of the past.

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