Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A Question about Moral Disagreements

Often, when reading discussions of moral disagreements and what we should think about them, I come across a claim like the following: Even if it turns out that quite a few moral disagreements result from disagreements about the non-moral facts, it's clear that some moral disagreements would remain even if people agreed about the non-moral facts.

Now, I assume that, though this is usually how the point is put, something more is being claimed here. It's not just that people would continue to disagree about moral issues while agreeing about all non-moral ones, but that they would continue disagree in these situations even in cases where the parties aren't making an errors in their reasoning. For these moral disagreements wouldn't be so troubling if they resulted from failing to fully understand the facts one know, to grasp their logical implications, etc. So we're also supposed to be imagining cases in which people make no errors in reasoning and fully appreciate the facts they know and so forth. And I suppose we should also rule out things like bias and the like here.

Furthermore, it also seems that the continued existence of such disagreement would be an interesting fact only if we assume that people also have some (or all?) of the information that would be relevant in coming to conclusions about the moral issues they disagree about. Even if two people have all the same beliefs about the non-moral facts, it wouldn't be too surprising that they reached different moral conclusions if their beliefs weren't the ones that were relevant to discovering the moral facts they disagreed about. So maybe we need to make the claim one about the continued disagreement between people who have all the non-moral facts or at least all the relevant non-moral facts. Let's restrict it to people who have all the relevant non-moral facts, as this is somewhat easier to conceive--and maybe we also have real cases of this. (I'm not sure we have any idea whether people would continue to disagree if they had absolutely all non-moral facts--and I'm pretty sure that no one has all those facts.)

I'm probably forgetting some additional qualifications here, but let's get to the point.

All right, so we're supposed to imagine people who agree about all the relevant non-moral facts, who don't make any errors in reasoning, who fully appreciate the relevant facts, and who aren't biased. Will such people still disagree about moral issues? It's supposed to be obvious that, at least in some cases, they will; but I've never found this all that obvious. I'm not sure that it's false--indeed, it has some prima facie plausibility--but it's far from obvious to me.

And I'm wondering what other people think about this. Is it obvious to you? And if so, why?

I can think of a couple arguments for the conclusion that such people would still disagree. I'm not sure what to think of either of them.

The first argument is pretty simple. It claims that we have some actual cases where people have all the relevant non-moral evidence and yet disagree. So this isn't something we have to imagine; it actually exists. Surely, that would be a good argument. But are there such cases? A case people often appeal to is one having to do with abortion. The idea is supposed to be that there are cases in which people with different views about the permissibility of a particular abortion know all there is to know about the development of the fetus and so forth. I don't know what to think about this sort of argument. But it's not obviously compelling. There are a couple of problems here. First, it's not really clear that cases like this are cases in which we have agreement about all the relevant facts. For disputes about abortion often turn on disputes about metaphysical and religious issues, and so it's not clear that there are all that many disagreements in which people agree about all the relevant facts. Now, of course, not all the moral disagreement about abortion reduces to this. There are, for instance, cases of atheists who disagree about abortion, and perhaps there are even such cases where the people agree about all the other relevant facts. Maybe. It's very hard to tell since it's hard to tell just what all the relevant facts are, and this brings us to the second problem here. How are we really supposed to determine whether we've got people who agree about all the relevant facts? This would seem to require appealing to some contentious issues in normative ethics, and so it's not altogether clear that we've actually got the sort of cases we're looking for. OK, enough of that.

The second argument is going to have to be more complex. Rather than pointing to cases in which people have all the relevant non-moral evidence, it appeals to more everyday cases of moral disagreement. The idea here is to argue that ordinary moral argument doesn't proceed in a way that suggests that agreement about all the non-moral facts will lead to agreement about the moral facts. So the main premise here is that moral positions are not responsive to additional non-moral facts in the way we would expect them to be if full non-moral information would lead to convergence of moral opinions. Is this true? I leave it up to the reader to decide.

I'm sure there are other arguments that some moral disagreement will persist even if people possess all the relevant non-moral information. But I'm not sure what they are. Can anybody give me some, or tell me how I've underestimated the plausibility of these other arguments?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Amazon List

I finished up that amazon list I was talking about a while back. If anyone is interested in looking at it--and you know you've been waiting with bated breath--here's the link.

Thanks to Joe for a couple good suggestions for the list. I have, of course, included both the works he suggested.

If anyone notices any glaring omissions or mind-numbingly idiotic mistakes in my brief comments about the books (and those are always a possibility), please let me know.

Oh, and I'm thinking of writing up a list of anthologies with important papers in meta-ethics. I've come up with around twenty so far, and I could use some help. Naturally, then, I'd appreciate any suggestions anyone could give me.

Slow Posting

Posting, I'm afraid, is probably going to be pretty slow here over the next couple of weeks. I can't keep up the herculean (for me) pace that I set for myself over those first four or five weeks. So I hereby apologize to (both of) my dedicated readers for not churning out third-rate philosophy at a pace of a couple thousand words a day over the next couple of weeks.

Why the slackening of my pace? Well, I'm trying to write up my dissertation prospectus. It looks like it's going to be on Mackie, if anyone out there was wondering. And if, for whatever reason, you're interested in looking at it, let me know and I'll send it your way here. (I expect to have something worth looking at in a week or so. I don't really expect anyone else to be interested, however.)

So this probably means that there's going to be a lot of discussion of Mackie on this blog. It's likely that whatever posts end up appearing on this blog in the near future will either be cribbed directly from my prospectus or will be questions that occur to me when writing it and that can be answered by someone smarter than me who happens to come across this blog.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Queerness and Reasons for Action

In my previous post I tried to offer up a version of Mackie's argument from queerness that didn't depend on a lot of metaphysical assumptions. That argument depended on his argument that the existence of objective values would insure the truth of a form of motivational internalism. I'll now offer a second, different argument. This one focuses on what Mackie thinks would be the case with respect to moral reasons if there were objective moral values. It's more or less the same argument.

As I said above, the putative problem with objective moral values to which the argument from queerness appeals is closely connected to their prescriptivity. And it's clear from the argument of the first chapter of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong that Mackie thinks that prescriptivity involves moral facts providing people with categorical reasons for action. The argument I'm going to outline here is one that suggests there simply can't be categorical reasons for action, and so there can't be objective moral values. So this argument doesn't change the source of the putative queerness of objective moral values; it still resides in some aspect of their normativity. Furthermore, this is a problem for objective moral values that we can understand without relying on some form of metaphysical naturalism. Thus we might be able to understand the putative queerness of objective moral values without appealing to broad metaphysical theses.

The Argument

The argument here is quite simple. It's basic outline is this:
(1) If there were objective moral values, people would have categorical reasons for action.
(2) People do not have categorical reasons for action.
(3) There are no objective moral values. (from 1 and 2)

What are the details here? The truth of the premise (1) is something that Mackie thinks follows from the correct conceptual analysis of ordinary moral language and thought. Part of the normativity of objective moral values is supposed to be summed up in the thesis that if there were objective moral values, they would provide people with categorical reasons for action. The objective moral values would be necessarily reasons-providing, and the reasons they provide would be independent of people's desires.

The defense of premise (2) is where we have to supplement Mackie's explicit statements with some assumptions about his views. The assumption we need is that he thinks the only naturalistically respectable theory of reasons is an instrumentalist one. So he thinks that all of a person's reasons depend on her desires. Ignoring various complications, let's just assume that he thinks a person has a reason to do x just in case doing x would lead to the satisfaction of one of her desires. If this is true, there can't be any categorical reasons for actions.

So, in short, the argument is that the only plausible account of the nature of reasons for action rules out the possibility of people having the sorts of reasons for action that they would have if there were objective moral values. Hence we have good reason to think that there aren't objective moral values.

I don't have much else to say about this. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

A Possible Strand in Mackie's Argument from Queerness

All this recent discussion of Mackie has brought me back to the main question I have about his work: What, exactly, is going on in the argument from queerness? It's pretty clear that it has something to do with the fact that objective moral values wouldn't fit very well into a naturalistic worldview, and it's also pretty clear that Mackie thinks this results from the fact that objective moral values, if they existed, would possess what he calls 'intrinsic and categorical prescriptivity.' But it's exceptionally difficult to determine just why Mackie thinks the intrinsic and categorical prescriptivity of objective moral values is supposed to be problematic.*

I've recently been reading Jean Hampton's paper "Naturalism and Moral Reasons",** and she makes this exceptionally clear there. She argues that Mackie must be assuming some form of substantive naturalism in his argument, and he points out that he never makes it clear just what his conception of the natural is. His argument seems to be: objective moral values, if they existed, wouldn't be natural; only natural things are ontologically respectable; objective moral values aren't ontologically respectable. Why wouldn't these things be natural? Because they would have to possess intrinsic and categorical prescriptivity. What Hampton does well is point out that, so far as one can tell by reading Mackie, this rests on some dubious intuitions about naturalness. For Mackie never spells out what criteria a putative entity must meet to be natural, and so it's not clear why things with intrinsic and categorical prescriptivity couldn't be natural. In other words, until we have a plausible account of what makes something natural, we can't really evaluate the plausibility of Mackie's argument.

I don't want to go into the details of this criticism of Mackie. I think there's something to it, and it gets at something that has long troubled me about the argument of that chapter. But rather than go into the details about the nature and plausibility of substantive naturalism, I want to consider whether we can find an interpretation of parts of the argument from queerness that don't appear to assume any broad metaphysical theses of this sort. I think that maybe we can. In an attempt to show how we might do this, I'm going to appeal to the stuff about Mackie's internalism that I was discussing in a previous post to draw out what might be one strand in the argument from queerness.

An Argument against Objective Moral Values

As I said above, the supposed problem with objective moral values is closely connected to their prescriptivity. And it seems clear that Mackie thinks that prescriptivity of objective moral values has something to do with the truth of a form of internalism. So, if we understand the problem as having to do with some form of internalism (as I'll be suggesting we can do), we won't be changing the source of the putative queerness of objective moral values. Now, we might be able to find a problem with internalism without relying on some form of substantive naturalism. Thus we might be able to understand the putative queerness of objective moral values without appealing to broad metaphysical theses.

So that's the strategy. What are the details here?

Here's the basic argument. Following my usage in the previous post, call the following thesis HI2:
Necessarily, if you correctly judge that is objectively wrong for you to x and your judgment is based on detecting or apprehending the facts that make it wrong for you to x, then you are motivated not to x.

The first premise is that HI2 would be true if there were objective moral values. So, if there were objective moral values, correct moral judgments based on detection or apprehension of the moral facts would be necessarily connected to motivation. For objective moral values are supposed to be such that detection or apprehension of them would be necessarily tied to motivation. The second premise is that we find any necessary connection between our actual moral judgments and motivation to act in certain ways. So far as we know, no moral judgment is necessarily tied to motivation in this way.

That's the basic argument. It's really quite simple. Basically, the two premises are that a form of motivational internalism would be true if there were objective moral values, and that the relevant form of motivational internalism is false. The first premise--namely that the existence of objective moral values would make HI2 true--is supposed to be based on Mackie's analysis of ordinary moral language and thought. That analysis is supposed to reveal that the truth of HI2 is part of the prescriptivity of objective moral values. The second premise, I suppose, should be based on empirical facts that suggest that it is never necessarily the case that a person who makes a moral judgment is motivated to act in a certain way.

Now, clearly, this argument doesn't lead directly to the conclusion that there are no objective moral values. If you accept the two premises, two different conclusions seem possible. One conclusion, of course, is that objective moral values don't exist. So the reason that we don't find any necessary tie between moral judgment and motivation is that there aren't any objective moral values to know about. This is Mackie's route.

The other conclusion is that we never make correct judgments about moral values on the basis of accurately detecting or apprehending them. So we can accept that moral values exist, but deny that we have any way to discover what they're like. Or we could claim that they exist we have a way to detect them, but that we never manage to come to correct moral judgments on the basis of detecting them. I don't know what to make of this latter response, and I'm not sure what Mackie would say about it. It's clear that it's something he needs to deal with, though. (And a similar response is possible when we're talking about the epistemological argument from queerness, as the mere fact that we'd need a faculty we lack to know about objective moral values doesn't show that they don't exist. Perhaps they exist, and we simply can't know anything about them.)

But, whichever of these two conclusions we draw, it seems to result in a pretty significant problem for the defender of objective moral values. We should conclude either that they don't exist or that they may exist but we can't know anything about them.

The Plausibility of This Argument

What can we say about the premises of this argument? The first premise is that if there were objective moral values, there would be a necessary connection between correct moral judgments and motivation; the second premise is that there is no such connection. Are these plausible? I'm not going to say anything about the first premise here, but I want to mention three reasons why Mackie might accept the second.***

So we want reasons for thinking that there is no necessary connection between correct moral judgments and motivation. The first way to argue for this would be to argue that we have empirical evidence of actual counterexamples. Perhaps the empirical evidence of the ties between moral judgments and actions doesn't suggest any such necessary tie between making correct moral judgments and being motivated to act in certain ways. We just don't see the close ties between moral judgments and actions that we would expect to find if (HI2) were true. When we look at the judgments we take to be most obviously correct, we don't find any close connection to action--or, at least, we don't find any connection close enough to suggest (HI2) is true.

Now, a second way to argue for this is to appeal to possible, though perhaps non-actual, counterexamples. Given whatever sense of possibility if supposed to be relevant to (HI), we can always describe possible counterexamples; we can always describe amoralists, people who make correct judgments but aren't motivated in this way.

The third way to argue that there is no necessary connection between correct moral judgments and motivation is to appeal to the Humean theory of motivation. Mackie is a cognitivist, and so he thinks moral judgments express beliefs (about objective moral values). If he accepts the Humean theory of motivation, then he thinks that beliefs alone are always motivationally inert. You need a conative state in addition to a belief in order to account for motivation, and beliefs and conative states are 'distinct existences'. So, given any particular belief, it's always possible to simply not care about the content of the belief and so not be motivated in virtue of having that belief. Hence, in general, there is no necessary connection between any belief and motivation to act in a certain way. Hence there is no necessary connection between (correct) moral beliefs and motivation to act in a certain way.



*. Now, some of Mackie's worries here are pretty clear. For instance, he thinks we'd need some special faculty of intuition to detect or apprehend objective moral values, and yet we don't seem to have any such faculty. That's clear enough--though it's not altogether clear why he thinks we'd need such a faculty to detect them.
**. This paper appeared in a supplementary volume #21 of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy.
***. In what follows, I'm going to ignore the complication that HI2 explicitly talks about correct moral judgments based on detection or apprehension of objective moral values. Instead, I'll talk about the connection between motivation and correct moral judgments in general. If it turns out that we can't find a necessary connection between motivation and any of our moral judgments, then it's clear that we have enough to establish the second premise.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Lee on the Demandingness of Consequentialism, Part II

A couple posts ago I tried to sketch how someone might formulate the objection that consequentialism is too demanding and how they might do so in a way that gives the objection some prima facie plausibility. Now I'll say a bit about some ways in which a consequentialist might respond to this objection. The responses here are pretty schematic, but I'm really just trying to lay out the options. (You should also check out Christian Lee's detailed comments on the first post on this issue, as he discusses some of the same issues there.)

And away we go, with some possible consequentialist responses to this supposed problem. I'll talk about responses of two types. I'll begin with responses that go after this sort of reflective equilibrium argument, and then I'll briefly discuss a couple more arguments.

Against the Reflective Equilibrium Argument

The first move here is to admit that a reflective equilibrium argument will show that morality isn't as demanding as consequentialism implies, but to deny it's a problem. As I said, it's not likely that a reflective equilibrium argument of this sort is going to persuade someone who didn't think much of the consequentialism-is-too-demanding objection in the first place. The underlying reason seems to be that a person who doesn't buy this argument is likely to hold views about the issue of how revisionary a plausible moral theory can be that conflict with taking reflective equilibrium arguments very seriously. Now, the (and I hereby coin this word) revisionariness of a normative moral theory is a matter of how many of our considered judgments and mid-level principles we're required to give up in accepting the moral theory. Relying on reflective equilibrium seems to be based on a sort of methodological conservatism: we take our considered judgments quite seriously, and we don't abandon them lightly. So relying on arguments like this seems to be based on a conviction that a moral theory shouldn't be radically revisionary. If, on the other hand, you don't want to take these considered judgments or mid-level principles seriously--if you're happy with a revisionary moral theory--this sort of argument isn't likely to appeal to you. And that seems to be the source of the underlying debate here. So this is one way the defender of consequentialism can avoid the demandingness objection: she can refuse to accept the method of argumentation on which it appears to rely.

The second move is one I won't discuss in detail. It is to accept reflective equilibrium argumentation, at least for the sake of argument, but to deny the reflective equilibrium arguments shows that consequentialism is too demanding. Perhaps, if we adequately understand our considered judgments and mid-level principles, we'll find that it's not so clear that they conflict with a radically demanding moral theory. It may be that, once we fully understand them, we'll see that they do in fact imply that morality is very demanding; or it maybe that, once we fully understand them, we'll see that there are elements that suggest that morality is demanding and elements that suggest it isn't. I won't say much about the plausibility of this response, as doing so would take me too far afield. But I'll just point out that the arguments that morality is very demanding of which I'm aware--and I don't know much about this literature--involve some argument of this sort. In his "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" Peter Singer points to some fairly plausible mid-level principles, and he argues that they imply that we have very demanding moral duties. In Living High and Letting Die Peter Unger focuses more on our considered judgments about certain imaginary cases, and he argues that our considered judgments about such cases provide evidence for the view that we have very demanding moral duties in actual cases.

Against the Demandingness of Consequentialism

Both the sorts of arguments discussed above involve admitting that consequentialism, as defined above, does lead to the conclusion that our moral obligations are very demanding. Of course, one could also go the other way and deny that consequentialism leads to this conclusion. I'll now consider that possibility. One argument focuses in on (1) in the definition of consequentialism in the previous post; the other goes after (2b). I'll begin with the latter.

The way to go here is focus in on the relevant notion of goodness. What the consequentialist has to do is come up with a conception of goodness that gets around these worries about demandingness. I'm not going to claim that I know how to do this, since I don't. But I'll just sketch an example to show how it might work in a particular case that might seem to pose the demandingness problem.

Say you've got $1000, and you're trying to decide whether you should put in your child's college fund or send it to Oxfam. And suppose you take a fairly crude hedonistic conception of the good: what is good is the feeling of pleasure. With this conception of the good, it's pretty easy to figure out what you should do. You just need to ask yourself which course of action will lead to the greatest amount of happiness in the long run. Well, if this is the relevant issue, it seems clear that you could do more good by giving our money to Oxfam. For, though contributing a nice chunk of cash to your child's college fund might make her much happier (and it might make you happier as well), sending the same amount of money to Oxfam would make either a single person much happier (it might save her life and provide her with resources to live on for quite some time) or it would make a group of people happier. So more total pleasure is produced by giving to Oxfam. And it should be clear how this sort of argument can quickly lead to a very demanding conception of morality. For similar arguments are going to work for pretty much any amount of money you're planning on spending on yourself or the people close to you. Quickly, then, we seem to be led to the conclusion that you're obligated to give pretty much all your money away to Oxfam.

Can we avoid this? Sure, we only need to come up with a conception of the good that doesn't allow for this. So we need a conception of the good that tell us it's better to spend $1000 on your child than it is to send the money to Oxfam. Suppose we say that the fact that the state of affairs of your putting the money in the college fund is one involving a special relationship between people, and that this gives it more intrinsic value than the state of affairs in which you give the money to Oxfam. And if we can do something similar in other cases, we may not have to worry about demandingness.

A couple things about this sort of response. First, I don't even know that it can be done. I don't know that we can come up with a conception of the good that will avoid all problems of this sort. Maybe it can be done, and maybe not. Second, there's the obvious problem that the conception of the good suggested above can seem pretty counterintuitive. The money sent to Oxfam could lead to a state of affairs that saves the life of a young child, or that feeds a hungry child for several weeks or months. Yet, according to this conception of the good, it's really better from an impersonal point of view to send your child to college than it would be to send the money to save the life or feed a child you don't know. I'm not sure how plausible a conception of impersonal good this is, and it seems to undermine what's supposed to make consequentialism plausible in the first place. What seems to make consequentialism a plausible moral theory is that it allows us to understand the nature and purpose of morality by appealing to some intuitively plausible conception of the good. If, for instance, we're considering utilitarianism, we're able to understand the nature of happiness, why it's a good thing, and how morality can be understood as a system for promoting happiness. However, if we're going to develop the sort of conception of the good that is needed to avoid this objection, it's not clear that we're going to be able to appreciate its goodness. (Furthermore, you might wonder whether a conception of the good that is tailored to allow consequentialism to be consistent with our ordinary moral thought is really doesn't turn into a moral conception of the good.)

Another possible way to argue that consequentialism doesn't require too much of us could be based on a focusing in on (1) and what a person can do. The move is pretty simple: we try to argue that (many of) these extremely demanding obligations get thrown out as things we can't do. So, for example, we have to argue that giving your money to Oxfam rather than putting it in your child's college fund is something you can't do.

But, of course, there is a sense of 'can' in which you can do this. What sense is that? Well, it would seem to be that, given your actual psychology, it is in your power to act this way. It may be difficult to do so--it may require that you give up things you value most--but it is still an option for you. And this is why it seems that your obligations are demanding--they are can require to give up those things you find most valuable in order to do the right thing.

Now, the way to avoid this objection would be to understand the sense of 'can' in (1) in such a way that it doesn't turn out that you can often ignore those things that you find most valuable. If we could do this, then it couldn't turn out that consequentialism tells us that doing what we ought to do requires a sort of heroic detachment from what we actually care about. Is there any such sense of 'can'? Maybe. It does seem true that there's an ordinary sense of 'can' in which it's true to say that most normal people in normal situations can't give up their most central projects and ignore obligations resulting from their closest relationships in order to do create more good for others. Given their motivational set and how much they care about the things, they can't do this (at least not in the relevant sense of 'can'). And if they come to think their moral obligations require this of then, then you're just going to think, "so much the worse for my being moral" and they're going to act accordingly. It's not just that people would find these obligations too demanding when compared to what they usually think of their moral obligations, but that, in some way, such obligations would be too demanding for them to be able to do it.

Can this be plausibly argued? Maybe, but I'm not sure how to do it. The first and most obvious problem is that there is empirical evidence that some people can do this sort of thing. Now, that in itself isn't a problem for the defending of this sort of response. They could always admit this but argue that most ordinary people can't do this sort of thing, and so the response still works in most cases. But they've got to assume that there's some substantial psychological difference between the people who do give up these things in order to meet such perceived obligations and ordinary people who they're going to claim couldn't do this. Is there such a difference? I don't know. Call in the psychologists.

But, even if we had empirical evidence that there were such psychological differences, there could still be problems with this response. The first, of course, is that it's not clear how much help such a response would be. It might only rule out extremely demanding things--say, giving up your entire life and going off to help the indigent--and not giving the money to Oxfam rather than putting it in your child's college fund. Second, it might seem that taking this route is going to lead to serious problems making sense of moral obligations that we think people actually have. For, even though we think that consequentialism can be too demanding, we still think that morality can be pretty demanding, that it can sometimes require people to give up things they really want and value. But if we're employing some notion of what people can do that closely ties people's abilities to their actual desires, values, aims, etc., we might have trouble making sense of this. Furthermore, a consequentialist who offers this response might have trouble making room for the fact that people with very strange desires, values, aims, etc. can have ordinary moral obligations. We certainly don't want to say that the serial killer isn't under any moral obligation not to kill people just because he really wants to kill them (and so can't, in this sense, not kill them). But if we tie what a person's alternatives are to what they actually want in the way that this response seems to require, it's not clear we can avoid this sort of problem.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

(Nearly) Shameless Self-Promotion

I haven't yet mentioned this here, and so I'll do so now: I've written some reviews and compiled some lists for Amazon. Honestly, most of this stuff isn't very good. But I thought it was worth mentioning, and I think I'll put a link to my stuff on my sidebar.

If you're interested in checking out what I've done, you can look here.

Why am I posting about this? Well, first and most obviously, I'd like to have some people go and look at what I've written. And if you feel that some of my reviews are helpful, then you can give me votes. (I suppose you can also vote if you don't find them very helpful.)

Second, it might be nice to get some constructive criticism about this stuff, and especially about the reviews. My aim in writing the reviews is to get some practice in developing the sorts of skills that I'll need to write academic book reviews in the future. Writing a review also forces me to get straight on the content of the book and to find a clear and brief way to express some of its main ideas. Furthermore, preparing to write a review often provides some impetus to get through the whole of a book. (I can use some help sometimes!)

Now, the format there isn't exactly the format of an academic review. For instance, they only give you approximately 1,000 words to work with; and that usually requires me to do quite a bit of cutting. Consequently, I tend to avoid trying to do much philosophical criticism in the reviews--there's just not enough space for detailed and fair criticism--and instead I focus on letting the reader know what the book is about and giving some of my general impressions about its strengths and weaknesses. So, in some ways, these are quite different from good academic book reviews. But I do find that writing them has been helpful to me, and I think it would be nice to know what people who have some knowledge of these matters think of them. And, of course, it would also be nice to know if I've made some glaring and egregious errors in my descriptions of the views of other philosophers.

Third, you, dear reader, might be able to help me. I'm thinking about compiling another list about contemporary books in meta-ethics that I think people ought to read, and I wouldn't mind getting some suggestions from people. I've already got two lists (this one and this one), and I'm willing to listen to suggestions for the third. Plus, you might suggest something I don't yet know about. (I don't claim to have anything approaching an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature here.) So, if you know of some great but unduly obscure treatises in contemporary meta-ethics, let me know.

Thanks.

Lee on the Demandingness of Consequentialism, Part I

I'd like to say something about the objection to consequentialism that Christian Lee discusses in this post. I'm going to break up my discussion into two post. The first sets out the problem as I see it; the second briefly discusses some possible consequentialist responses.

The basic objection is that maximizing consequentialism is false since it leads to an account of the nature and extent of our moral obligations on which those obligations are clearly too demanding.

Here's Lee's account of the objection:
Consequentialism: An act A is obligatory for S iff (1) A is an act from amongst S's alternatives that S can perform and (2) If S performed A, then the world would better off than it would have been had S not performed A. In case of ties between alternatives for best act, some act from the tied acts is obligatory.

A consequence of this view of obligations entails that it is possible that someone is obligated to perform a momentous act, e.g. moving to Tanzania to help Aids victims.

But...so the objection goes, that is too demanding! Any moral theory which could require us to put our lives in an upheavel and give up what we want to do with our lives, sacrificing our autonomy to choose our own careers, is false. Dead stop.

I find this objection wanting. To put it crudely, who ever said that morality and its requirements was easy. I would think it is quite the opposite. Morality is very, very hard. This objection presupposes something that just seems wrong to me, that obligations are easy to meet and I can't see why someone should think this.

I'm pretty sympathetic to what he says here. But I have a few things to say about this.

First, a quibble. I think that Lee's being somewhat unsympathetic to this sort of objection when he says that is must rest on an assumption that it's easy to fulfill our obligations. I don't think a defender of this objection needs to say that. She might still be able to say that some obligations can be hard to fulfill. What it seems she needs to say is not that all obligations are easily fulfilled, but that some obligation the consequentialist says we have is too hard to fulfill. In other words, she needs to argue that our actual moral obligations aren't that demanding, though they may well be quite demanding.

Second, a little on Lee's definition of consequentialism. Here it is:

"An act A is obligatory for S iff (1) A is an act from amongst S's alternatives that S can perform and (2) If S performed A, then the world would better off than it would have been had S not performed A."

When I read this, all (2) seems to be saying that A is obligatory if doing A makes the world better than not doing A. But the problem is that there are lots of different ways of not doing A. And A may be such that for some alternatives, doing A would make the world better; for others, doing A wouldn't. So it's not clear how to apply (2) in all cases.

Let me explain what I'm getting at by considering an example. Suppose I have $1000 in disposable income, and I'm trying to decide what to do with it. Well, it seems that one thing I could do is give $50, and only $50, of it to Oxfam. What does consequentialism, defined as it is above, tell me about whether or not I'm obligated to give $50, and only $50, of it to Oxfam? Does this action meet condition (1)? Sure, giving $50, and only $50, is one of the actions that's available to me. Does it meet condition (2)? It seems it's going to depend. If I don't send the $50 to Oxfam, I might just put it in the bank. If that's what I do instead of donating the money, it seems it would have made the world a better place to give it to Oxfam. But if I donated $100 to Oxfam instead of donating $50, then it seems not donating $50, and only $50, would make the world a better place.

So it doesn't look like (1) and (2) together tell us whether it is obligatory for me to donate $50, and only $50, to Oxfam. It depends on what would have happened had I not done so.

To me, then, it seems (2) needs to be something like this:

(2b) If S performed A, then the world would been better than it would have been had S done anything else from the alternatives she could perform.

This, I think, makes clear that we're supposed to compare the results of doing A with the results of all other possible actions open to S. Maybe Lee's original formulation implied this, as it seems clear that he was assuming something of this sort. If it did imply this, though, I must be misreading it.

OK, enough of this preliminary stuff. Is there any way to make this objection to consequentialism seem more plausible?

I suppose the first way to back up the argument that this sort of consequentialism is too demanding is to give a sort of reflective equilibrium argument. We have lots of considered judgments about our particular obligations (e.g. it was wrong of Oswald to kill Kennedy) and lots of mid-level principles (e.g. murder is wrong), and these are evidence for and against moral theories. Some of these considered judgments and mid-level principles may be rejected in the course of developing a moral theory, but we have good reason to be suspicious of any moral theory that requires us to give up lots and lots of them. And, the argument goes, this sort of consequentialism does require us to give up lots and lots of them. It requires us to give up considered judgments and mid-level principles about the stringency of moral obligations: that normal people in normal circumstances don't have moral obligations that require them to give up their most central projects, that normal people in normal circumstances don't have moral obligations that require them to make themselves miserable in order to help others, etc. It also seems to require that we give up considered judgments and mid-level principles about the existence of other obligations: that normal people in normal circumstances have stringent obligations to devote themselves to helping people with whom they have special relationships, that normal people in normal circumstances have stringent obligations not to steal from people or break promises or the like in order to help others, etc. And so on.

Now, admittedly, this is really just a more complicated version of the original objection that our moral obligations simply aren't this demanding. So people who didn't find the original version of the argument very persuasive may be unlikely to find this more elaborate version more persuasive--but at least it gives the defending of the objection more ammunition than a mere assertion that our obligations aren't as stringent as consequentialism says. And this could be very helpful, especially if the defender of this objection can point to some specific considered judgments and mid-level principles that we find very plausible and that seem to conflict with this form of consequentialism. That, certainly, would give her a more to work with than a mere sense that our obligations aren't as demanding as consequentialism tells us they are.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Mackie Question

I have a question about Mackie's analysis of ordinary moral language and thought in the first chapter of his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. It seems clear that Mackie thinks that, if there were objective moral values, then some version of motivational internalism would be true. But what I'm not sure of is whether he thinks that some version of motivational internalism is in fact true, even though there are no objective moral values.

So far as I can tell, what Mackie explicitly claims about moral motivation is that objective moral values are such that if a person apprehended or detected them, then she would be motivated to act in a certain way. Let's simplify this by focusing on objective wrongness. Mackie, it seems, is committed to the following thesis about moral motivation:
(MM) Necessarily, if you apprehend or detect that it is objectively wrong to x, then you are motivated not to x.

If we suppose that apprehending or detecting that something is objectively wrong involves judging that it is objectively wrong, then (MM) appears to imply what David Brink calls 'hybrid internalism' in the third chapter of his Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. Take hybrid internalism to imply the following thesis about judgments of moral wrongness:
(HI) Necessarily, if you correctly judge that is objectively wrong for you to x, then you are motivated not to x.

And it is important that this thesis is about correct judgments about objective moral wrongness.* This doesn't tell us whether there will or won't be motivation if a person makes these judgments when there are no correct judgments about objective wrongness. So, if this is the sort of motivational judgment internalism that Mackie accepts, he needn't say that people are in fact motivated when they make judgments about objective rightness and wrongness. Accepting (HI) would, of course, commit him to saying that people are sometimes motivated when they make moral judgments if he thought there were cases in which people made true judgments of this sort. But, since he thinks there are no objective moral values to make correct judgments about, accepting (HI) doesn't require him to say that people are ever motivated when they make moral judgments.

So, if (HI) is all Mackie's analysis of ordinary moral language and thought commits him to, he isn't committed to any thesis about actual moral motivation. But is (HI) all he's committed to? This is what I'm not sure of.

Consider the thesis of motivational internalism: that is, the thesis that there is some necessary connection between moral judgments and moral motivation. However we formulate motivational internalism, it seems it's going to imply the following these about judgments of moral wrongness:
(MI) Necessarily, if you judge that it is objectively wrong for you to x, then you are motivated not to x.

Notice that this thesis doesn't say anything about whether the relevant judgment is correct or incorrect. So (MI) tells us that there is a connection between moral judgment and motivation, whether or not there are objective moral facts for people to make judgments about. And since Mackie's analysis of ordinary moral language and thought implies that people do actually make judgments of objective rightness and wrongness, then he is committed to making claims about the actual connection between (at least some) moral judgments and motivation if he accepts (MI). Thus, if Mackie accepts (MI), he is committed to the view that people are actually motivated to act in certain ways when they make judgments about objective moral wrongness. Even those their judgments about these things are never correct, their judgments are still motivationally efficacious.

So does Mackie accept (MI) or only something like (HI)? Does he only make a claim about what moral motivation would be like if there were objective values, or is he claiming something about the connection between motivation and moral judgments in worlds where there are no objective values?



*. I realize I'm ignoring a possible difficulty here. (MM) only talks about judgments one makes based on apprehension or detection, whereas (HI) talks about correct judgments. And it seems this might be a problem. For one can imagine a person arriving at a correct moral judgment in some way other than through apprehending or detecting objective moral values, and perhaps Mackie wouldn't way to say that correct moral judgments arrived at in (all) these other ways would be accompanied by moral motivation. So maybe the version of (HI) that make would accept would have to be somewhat more complex. Perhaps he'd only accept something like this:
(HI2) Necessarily, if you correctly judge that is objectively wrong for you to x and your judgment is based on detecting or apprehending the objective moral facts that make it wrong for you to x, then you are motivated not to x.

I'll ignore this complication here.

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