The Curiosity of Moral Claims
November 18, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, Value

Sometimes all we mean when we call something “good” is that we like or approve it, meaning we would take it or do it if presented with the option to do so, all other things being equal. On this view, to be good is just to be pleasing to us in some way. A candy bar may taste good if we have a sweet tooth and enjoy the flavors it presents. A sour pickle may please other palettes and so prompt an assertion of its goodness, too. But they have nothing of taste in common other than the fact that both please their tasters. A hard work-out that exhausts the athlete and leaves him or her drained, and craving nothing more than a chance to lie down for a bit, may similarly please that individual, just as the moment of reclining may please him or her when it’s time comes. All are good in their time but, if one craves a work-out and is offered only a reclining chair, then accepting it and using it may be no good at all.

The word “good” does wide and diverse duty but it does not, contra the proposal of G. E. Moore in his seminal work on ethics, the Principia Ethica, name a property, not even a non-natural one as Moore put it (as opposed to what he called natural properties, e.g., colors like yellow). Yet the word “good” seems to be a naming word and so seems to do so.

It has the look of the kind of word we use to name different sorts sort of things, the sorts of things which are features other things may have. And so we look around and try to find the feature “good” names, making that mistake which Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy,” an error which amounts to supposing that the things we call “good” are, themselves, when incorporated into some core formulation (to cover all possible uses) definitional of the word.

But “good,” upon further examination, seems to play a different role for us than that. It serves to pick out whatever happens to fall into a certain kind of relation with ourselves, a relation characterized by a contemporary or projected desire we have to possess or do the thing it is ascribed to.

As such it has a shifting meaning at best, grounded not in the thing at the far end of such a relationship but in the various and distinct attitudes of the subject at the projecting end of the relationship, attitudes which serve to establish that relation with the particular thing(s) we want, desire, need, enjoy, approve of, etc., etc.

So on this view “good” denotes neither a property of the thing itself nor the state of the subject who wants, needs, likes the thing, etc. Its role, at the most basic level, appears to be little more than one of expressing appreciation, in some form, of the object so designated. In this sense, to say of anything that it’s good is to remind or inform our listeners that we like the thing, would have it if given the opportunity, etc. But the conditional state, characterized by the phrase “if given the opportunity,” introduces another dimension to the word and how we use it. It’s not only candy bars and physical experiences and their like that we may favor or disfavor. There are also more complex phenomena, such as states of affairs and conditions, which may be more or less good. And there are our actions themselves, as in how we conduct ourselves in this or that circumstance.

Moral valuing is about nothing less than valuing or disvaluing particular behaviors, either in isolation or as part of a continuum of activity we may undertake. And moral questions look like questions concerning what we should or should not do under certain circumstances . . . questions which go beyond the issue of what pleases us at this, or some future, moment. If it were just a matter of doing what pleases us, then, indeed, no action we can imagine could qualify as moral under the usual interpretation of that word. If we do what we do for our own benefit, for our advancement, for our pleasure, etc., then however moral a particular action may look to an outsider, lacking access to our motives, we would not as observers, if given sufficient information about the true motives behind it to recognize it as self-interested, agree that it was morally done.

Setting aside for the moment the notion that even actions unmotivated by a moral decision may have a good effect and may thus be deemed praiseworthy at some level, the realization that one chose the action in question for a non-moral, perhaps even an immoral, reason would fatally undermine its apparent praiseworthiness to any moral observer. Now this is somewhat controversial because the question of what constitutes moral ideals and moral codes is not, itself, open and shut. There are arguments that morality is finally to be found as much in the outcomes of things as in our motivations to do them. But I would argue that if you look at it that way you can’t help but make moral decision making a matter of appearance only, in which case the only reason to choose morally becomes one of winning approval for one’s choices.

Remove the observer and there’s no longer a reason to act morally. Yet most of us would agree, I believe, that the idea of moral goodness would not survive that scenario – we would not grant that a person who acted morally in public, but not in private, can be considered a moral person. So motivations must be integral to the ascription of moral goodness to any action. What kind of motivations then will work?

What is it the moral person must want by his or her action, based on which he or she performs it, for that action to be deemed moral?

Can the person want to avoid censure? In that case, if he or she could count on avoiding it, what would prevent him from acting in a way that we deem contrary to what’s morally good? Can it be to gain approval? The same outcome must be seen to apply. How about for the pleasure one gets in acting in that way under the given circumstances? Setting aside for the moment the issue of how we can definitively recognize and determine circumstances (since every circumstance is somewhat unique), doing it for our own pleasure, however rarified and sophisticated (a spiritual uplifting perhaps instead of the orgasmic variety!), the same problem remains. We are acting not for the sake of doing the act itself but for something it gets us. And every time we do that, we lose the underlying moral coloration of the act, however it looks to those watching from outside. So it looks like a moral act can be moral only to the extent that it is not dependent on the self-interest of the agent. But what acts do we do that are not, finally, self-interested? As animals we are all self-interested and ascriptions of goodness, in all other cases, always depend on the things we want from undertaking the act, do they not? Can it be different in this case? If it’s not, then the very idea of morality as anything other than a social façade we adopt to convince others must collapse.

For an action to be deemed morally good it must be deemed so not for the object it obtains or brings about but for itself. What then can make an action good or not, independent of its objective, that which it is mobilized to bring about?

Here then is what it seems like we can say of moral goodness: that the goodness (or the absence of it) which we ascribe to actions – as opposed to the goodness we ascribe to the things our actions aim to achieve or obtain – must be that entirely independent of the outcome(s) actually obtained. Our motivation(s) must be disinterested in what they effect insofar as what is effected accrues to the agent. This does not mean, of course, that the action’s effects aren’t relevant. Those effects are part of the world, just as we are, and no action which does not involve the bringing about of some effect can be an action at all. But the effect brought about must not, if it is to claim the moral mantle, be an effect that benefits the action’s agent. So on final consideration it seems that, at a bare minimum, we can say of the idea of moral goodness that it is that – and only ascribable to any action as that – insofar as the action has, as its object, the production of some good not strictly in the interest of the being who acts.

What remains then is to figure out if there’s any reason to actually choose such actions when other choices are available which prompt us to act in our own interests without compelling reason not to? How, that is, do moral claims, themselves, compel us?

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