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Summary

  • Page ID
    25182
  • The Enquirer summarises the results of their investigation

    Perturbed by the amount of moral uncertainty and disagreement in the world, the variety of practices that people accept or reject as morally proper, and puzzled by my own indecision on important moral questions, I decided to doubt what common sense had up to now appeared to tell me: that there were such things as good actions and evil intentions, virtue and vice, moral obligations and permissions, and that actions, situations, events, and persons could have moral qualities. I decided to make a clean break from the view that morality was anything real.

    First, I tried out the hypothesis that nothing is really right or wrong, better or worse than anything else, and that I was under the illusion that actions, events situations and persons possessed such properties as being ‘evil,’ or ‘morally heroic,’ or ‘morally forbidden’ or ‘morally permissible.’ To enable me to entertain this supposition, I supposed that all evaluative properties are illusory. I supposed that menu items are not really ‘delicious’ and crocodiles are not really ‘dangerous,’ and that I only experience them as such because of my cerebral wiring and the beliefs and preferences impressed on me through my culture. I reminded myself that the deepest theories of the world that we possess—physics and chemistry—do not contain value judgements or terms that connote values.

    However, I came to realise that I do not live amongst and experience the particles and forces of physics and chemistry, and that the world I live in unavoidably presents itself to me as value-laden. I realised that although I could at times adopt an entirely detached perspective in which neither tragedies nor happy surprises mattered, I could not do so over the longer term or as a way of life. The possibility of purging my language, not only of value terms like ‘good,’ ‘right,’ and ‘obligatory,’ but also terms with connotations of value like ‘film-star’ and ‘criminal’ seemed remote. Most of my ordinary vocabulary would have had to go.

    I then imagined a population of Destroyers of Illusion who had purified their discourse by interpreting all value-laden terms as reflecting the speaker’s likings and dislikings, rather than as reflecting the properties of evaluated things. The Destroyers appeared to have satisfactory paraphrases for all the sorts of evaluative statements I am in the habit of making. When I said something was right or good, they translated this to mean that I said that I liked it, and when I said something was wrong or evil, they translated this to mean that I said that I disliked it.

    Next, I determined that, even if the paraphrases of the Destroyers might be good translations of what I really mean in making evaluative judgements, this did not impact on my claim to know certain evaluative facts. I could after all know something about what is good and bad. The Destroyers could not convince me that I did not know that my existence was better than my nonexistence. Indeed, they could not convince me that I did not know certain things about what was in my self-interest and what was in the self-interest of other people. I determined, however, that knowledge about what it was in my own self-interest to do or to refrain from doing, and what it was in other people’s self-interest to do or refrain from doing, was often hard to come by. Making good decisions about self-interest often depends on acquiring as much relevant factual information as possible about the self involved and its particular situation, and about what usually happens. It seemed that the best thing for me to do in my own self-interest on various occasions was what I would be motivated to do if I knew what I ought to know and cared about what I ought to care about, and that the same was true in the case of other people. For me to know how to advance my self-interest on a given occasion, I have to know as much as I need to in order to make a decision and I have to care sufficiently about the right things. But of course the claim that I know and care enough on any given occasion is itself a value judgement. It is hard to see how I could know that claim to be true. Nevertheless, the observation that the truth of a knowledge-claim about values implies the truth of these other claims gives me an incentive to seek information and to reflect critically.

    I then went on to consider several ways in which people can interact with one another. I noted that I have firm expectations about the ‘right way’ and ‘the wrong way’ to behave in certain social situations according to the conventions of good manners, ordinary friendliness and decent behaviour. To some extent, then, I and others seem to know ‘how to behave.’ I then speculated on the possible motives for conforming or refusing to conform to the conventions of ‘good manners.’ I decided that a person might often be motivated to deviate from conventions they knew about and that they might sometimes even have a good reason for deviating from these conventions. I decided that there were nevertheless good reasons to observe these conventions most of the time; it was usually in my own self-interest to do so. Hermits, by contrast—whether happy or unhappy—might have neither reasons nor motives to observe what I called the Norms of Civility.

    I went on to try to determine how morality was both similar to and different from manners. Both manners and morals, I could see, involve relationships between two people or between one person or group and others. In ‘civil encounters,’ people confront one another in such roles as Host and Guest, or Strangers on a plane, or as tourist and native. In ‘moral encounters,’ people confront one other in such roles as spouses, friends, officials and constituents, parents and children, employers and employees. I determined that morality is nevertheless somewhat different from manners in several ways. First, morality seems at least sometimes to call for greater sacrifices than mannerly behaviour and to involve greater asymmetry between the moral agent and the person or people whose well-being they affect. Second, morality presents me with dilemmas that manners ordinarily do not. Third, morality does not seem to be a matter of local conventions; if people in a faraway culture want to eat with their fingers or slurp their soup noisily, I think it’s ‘up to them’ in a way it’s not ‘up to them’ if they want to marry off ten-year-old girls.

    I then considered some explanation of how we human beings might have naturally evolved a disposition to sacrifice for the good of others. It was not difficult to explain these dispositions by considering the natural history of the species and its ancestors. Apes and monkeys engage in altruistic behaviour and seem concerned with fairness and reciprocity as do some other animals. I concluded that there is a biological platform for morality that is a requisite of the social life of the species and its perpetuation.

    It occurred to me at that point that I had never settled the question whether the paraphrases of the Destroyers were adequate, so I returned to a direct consideration of that question. I realised that even if the Destroyers were right to suppose that the qualities of goodness and badness could not inhere in any target of moral appraisal, and even if their paraphrases in terms of ‘likings’ and ‘dislikings’ captured something of the meaning of moral claims when they were asserted, this still left me with the task of determining what actions, events, situations, and persons I ought to like and dislike. Should I like vegetarianism? Should I dislike torture under any conditions?

    Answering these questions for myself to the extent that I could, did not involve consulting my inner experience or learning about anyone else’s inner experience. I was never in any doubt that many of the things other people ‘like’ to do—persecute people of particular racial or ethnic groups, beat up homosexuals, marry off very young girls—were disliked by me, and that I disliked the fact that others liked them. This discrepancy in our feelings seemed to indicate that I or they ought perhaps to have different feelings. To determine whether I ought to be indifferent to or dislike other people’s likings and dislikings seemed to require an investigation of the institutions themselves and the reasons for liking or disliking them. I would have to do some actual investigation of the practices and implications of vegetarianism and torture.

    Returning to the question of the sacrifices that seem to be essentially involved in morality, I tried to determine why people might be motivated to make them or have reason to make them. It occurred to me that even acting in one’s own self-interest, acting prudently, can involve sacrifices, namely the sacrifice of present enjoyments and comforts for one’s Future Self. I decided that we have some natural incentive to be concerned with the welfare of our Future Selves, and also some natural incentive to be concerned with our kith and kin—our Extended Selves. I acknowledged nevertheless that some people do not care about anything except their own well-being at the present moment. It might be possible to motivate them by giving them incentives—by pointing out to them that they can avoid regret or punishment by sacrificing their short-term advantages in favour of another person. Or they might be motivated by being assured of reciprocity by others, or their esteem, or even by the prospect of achieving moral nobility or ‘honour.’ But I could find no contradiction in supposing that a person might be unmoved to care about their Future Self or their Extended Self by all arguments and considerations. Only this would be an unusual sort of person, and he or she would likely find themselves in somewhat poor condition and socially isolated.

    A more difficult question was why I might be motivated to make sacrifices involving my present well-being on behalf of strangers. I noted that many human institutions, such as hospitals, police forces, and benefits bureaus exist in large societies of strangers. As individuals, we do have some instinctive concern for Strangers and are not only mannerly towards them but sometimes make large sacrifices on their behalf, as I noted at the start of my Enquiry. By and large, however, my concern for Strangers is weaker than the concern for my Future and Extended Selves. The incentives that might move a person to be less concerned with the present, or less selfish with regard to family and friends, such as avoidance of regret and avoidance of punishment, or the expectation of reciprocity, seemed to be minimal or lacking altogether.

    I recognised that I might nevertheless be moved by the consideration that it is noble or honourable to be concerned with the well-being of Strangers, and by the reason that my enjoyments and my well-being are no more important in the grand scheme of things than theirs.

    Then the question arose: how much ought I to sacrifice for the good of people I do not personally know? I had realised earlier that there is sometimes a good answer, but often no unique ‘right answer,’ to the question, ‘What is it now in my self-interest to do?’ I understood that the answers to questions about prudential ‘oughts’ are better the more they reflect my knowing what I ought to know and caring about what I ought to care about. I have reason to expect that the same is true of questions about what I ought to do in morally problematic situations regarding other people. My decisions will be better if I know what I ought to know and care about what I ought to. But—alas!—I can never be certain that I am in either condition. My claims to know what it is right to do are conjectural. Indeed there may be no fact of the matter as to how much I should sacrifice for my Future Self, or my kith and kin, or a Stranger, or how much I ought to require them to sacrifice for me. However, I determined that I could increase my chances of avoiding moral error by increasing my understanding of the world and people and by becoming aware of my own biases and irrationalities.

    This led me to consider briefly the role of the traditional moral theories Utilitarianism, Kantianism and Virtue Theory. I could see the point of each of these theories: Utilitarianism directed my attention to the painful or pleasurable, welfare-reducing or -enhancing effects of actions on policies on everyone affected by them; Kantianism reminded me not to try to make exceptions for myself that I wouldn’t grant to others; and Virtue Theory provided an easy-to-remember list of Person 1 traits that helped to assure good interactions with Person 2. I decided that employing these theories was helpful in reducing the chances of moral error, though no theory could be depended on always to give the right answer to the question of what should be done. I concluded finally that there has been moral progress as moral errors have been revealed and corrected since the time when the study of morality originated.

    Discovering how I am linked to the world as a competent, self-interested being, a being who is at the same time a member of a sociable species, has given me insight into the origins of my moral feelings and opinions. I realise that I am descended from a long line of ancestors who survived and reproduced themselves because their beliefs and desires enabled them more successfully to find what they needed and to escape dangers. They must have evolved motivations, perceptions, and responses to frequently-encountered situations that preserved their lives and attracted the trust, co-operation, and assistance of others. So along with selfish tendencies in myself, it is no surprise that I find benevolent ones. My ‘knowledge’ that kindness and sincerity are virtues, and my motivation to be kind and sincere in certain situations, are, in this regard, rather like my knowledge that certain fruits are edible and my motivation to eat those fruits. The virtues might be said to lie within us, as our dietary tastes do. But mine cannot fully develop unless I grow up in a culture that points out to me the edible and the poisonous fruits and that punishes cruelty and lying and encourages the virtues of kindness and truthfulness.

    Social learning accordingly plays a role in my identifying new edible fruits and in refining my motivations, so that I avoid the dangerous ones and develop a taste for the more salutary ones. Fortunately, along with tastes and inclinations, I have inherited certain evolved mechanisms for learning, for translating the raw data of experience into knowledge of an external world and its properties. Perhaps these learning-mechanisms fail at times, but they must at least have been good enough to enable my ancestors in competition with slightly differently endowed members of their species to produce me.

    When I began my sceptical enquiry, I regarded my Neurological Constitution and Cultural Transmission as obstacles to obtaining moral knowledge, but my perspective has shifted. I can now appreciate how the norms I think of as general and fundamental—such as the norms of truthfulness and nonaggression—may correspond to inherited predispositions with a neurological basis, such that normally, I am inclined to speak the truth to others, and that normally, I am not as irritable as chimpanzees are and do not attack my fellow humans with the same vehemence I have observed in other primates. And where I first tended to think of Cultural Transmission as imposing arbitrary and often irrational and unnatural norms of behaviour on the members of various cultures, it now occurs to me that Cultural Transmission can also preserve and disseminate knowledge as it is won by me and by others over time.

    I conclude that my initial pessimism in the face of the multiplicity of moral beliefs and cultural practices in the world was unjustified. I am no longer inclined to suppose that there is nothing at all to choose between various cultural practices and that all moral convictions are merely personal beliefs, with no one’s Normative Kit better or worse than anyone else’s.

    Where manners are concerned, I think my motto ought to be ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans.’ I ought to master the Guest-Host conventions of whatever milieu I inhabit, recognizing the differences as well as the similarities between China and Rome and between Rome and New York. I ought to behave as a Host or Guest as others in my culture behave and in accordance with the norms just enunciated unless there is reason to do otherwise. I cannot translate this recommendation into morals, however. It seems to imply that if I had lived in ancient Rome, I ought to have acquired slaves, flogged them when they disobeyed, and cheered at gladiatorial shows—these being the norms of my culture. It seems to imply that the attitudes, emotions, and practices of Greek slaveholders and Roman circus-goers were those I ought to have had in that context. It seems to imply that I should learn and accept the morality of my culture. Now that I appreciate that moral norms may reflect ignorance of the facts or unreasonable biases, I see no need to regard all practices as equally good and defensible, though how much I ought to interfere with established practices is itself a moral question.

    Finally I considered the possibility that there are moral experts who possess more moral knowledge than most people do, thanks to their extensive knowledge of human life and their appropriate levels of concern. Insofar as expert advice is available on many topics—how to cook well, how to travel safely and inexpensively—expert advice on how to treat other people in morally significant situations is probably available as well. But as it is difficult to identify the experts and as they often disagree with one another, I concluded that I was right to conduct my own reasonings, taking into account those who had long meditated on particular moral problems, and to try to reach expert status on the particular questions that I faced by myself.

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