A Matter of Ethics
November 7, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Bentham, Empiricism, Ethical Intuitionism, Ethics, Ethics, G. E. Moore, Hume, John Stuart Mill, Kant, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, Utilitarianism, philosophy
A correspondent of mine recently asked me this question:

"Why does Kant consider immortality of soul as one of moral postulates? Being an empiricist he must have known better [than] to have [included] metaphysics in ethics. It is unbearable when I find metaphysics in ethics."

I offered the following by way of response:

Kant wasn't an empiricist but someone who tried to answer the apparent excesses of unchecked empiricism. Moreover, in his day there was not a clear idea of what philosophy was. It was thought to be roughly on a continuum with science, just science done at a deeper, theoretical level. There are still some who hold that view today, of course. Willard Van Orman Quine was a recent example. He was an empiricist who built an elaborate explanation of how knowledge works and, through that, sought to demonstrate that philosophy, particularly of the metaphysical variety, was just one aspect of the scientific project.

Kant sought a way to salvage ethical beliefs after Hume's radical skepticism which threw all knowledge, including moral beliefs, into doubt. Hume argued that moral claims were merely expressions of sentiment and that there could be no reasoned basis for holding one sentiment instead of another. This was extremely disruptive to any kind of ethical claim. Kant therefore developed an elaborate theory which sought to reduce all ethical claims of significance to a single premise which, itself, could not be doubted. He proposed that it consisted of the claim that we should treat others as ends, like we treated ourselves, and not means and proposed that this could be seen to be inarguably true and that all moral claims were grounded in that. The idea of the special nature of the soul, on his view, was necessary to underpin such an indubitable basic premise (see his view on the transcendental subject which he believed we must posit to lie at the core of all experiences in order to explain their occurrence).

But his rational basis for holding THAT position has not always proved convincing to others and so the issues of the soundness, reliability and truth value of ethical judgments have persisted.

John Stuart Mill, a later English empiricist and his teacher, Jeremy Bentham, sought to provide a basis for ethical claims in utilitarianism, the idea that the right thing to do always boils down to what is consistent with the greatest good for the greatest number. But this falters for a variety of reasons including what happens when the majority's good is a minority's evil? Should the majority always be in the right, even if its preferred actions harm the minority?

G. E. Moore offered one of the most telling criticisms of utilitarianism when he argued that it committed what he called the "naturalistic fallacy", i.e., it confused the meaning of "good" with the things in the "natural" world which we speak of as good. Thus, if you can name any good, say health, or wealth, or happiness, or just contentment, can you still ask whether it's good? Since there are particular situations in which we would say of any of them that they aren't what we should seek to attain (i.e., they aren't good in those situations), then none of them can be what we mean by "good". Moore's suggestion was to suppose that we have an intuition of what he called "the good," arguing that we may not ever be able to describe what good actually means but that, as he put it, we know it when we see it!

Unfortunately this intuitionist account still smacks of Hume's reduction of moral claims to expressions of sentiment, i.e., it makes what we think of as good nothing but a function of individual preferences -- and that's self-defeating in any effort to produce a set of morally good claims that can be argued for. And if we can't argue for them, then what's the point of moral claims at all? We're back just where we started.

I once tried unsuccessfully to argue that moral claims are claims based on the general principle of self-improvement and that self-improvement takes many forms, and how we understand it will determine the nature of the moral claims we make.

Thus, for some, self-improvement involves having more things, or being healthier, or being more popular, or being physically stronger or faster, or smarter, or more knowledgeable, or more accomplished, more attractive, etc., etc. But, I suggested, in the final analysis there is only one really reliable form of self-improvement because all these others are too limited in scope to truly represent real improvement of the self. Indeed, these other options are not a part of the self at all but just accretions to it, because, I thought, the self was rather like Kant's transcendental subject, clothed in our experiences, memories, beliefs, etc.

What is truly the ultimate in self-improvement, I thus concluded, is that which frees us from the constraints that limit us, that which takes us back to the true transcendental nature of the self. The ultimate form of this is, I proposed, self-liberation (a la the Zen Buddhist idea). Thus, on my one-time view, moral claims gain their potency for any of us only insofar as we, as moral evaluators, find resonance in different types of self-improvement and that, once we reach a point where we recognize the only real self-improvement to be liberation from the constraints of the self itself, then we will have the best moral understanding. Then the moral judgments we make will be qualitatively superior to those made by others on a presumably lower plane of understanding because our judgments would be most consistent with the goal of achieving the one end worth achieving, self-liberation. A bit circular, I'm afraid though, since, among other things, this position asserts that "self-improvement" IS the one real good even though that term is so wide open to interpretation as to be without any reliable content and, more, it turns out to be an attempt to define what's good in terms of . . . what's good! (The idea of "improvement" presumes there is something better to be gained, i.e., that which is MORE good than what already exists.)

This approach, aside from being tainted by my immersion in Zen Buddhism at the time, is also ultimately unsatisfactory because it doesn't give us a way to argue for the moral claims that are consistent with the presumed higher understanding when we are addressing those on an allegedly lower plane. Of course, this may actually be all that's actually at work in this arena but, in that case, it still boils down to a question of sensibility and so Hume, in his radical skepticism vis a vis moral questions, turns out to have been right. I had just built up a much more elaborate (and not demonstrably truer) account of that basic insight.

Back, then -- I realized -- to Wittgenstein!

Update on November 7, 2013 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Another thought occurs to me after re-reading this post. In many ways this old approach of mine reminds me of Sean's current view that juridical judgment is artisanal in nature, a function of the level of understanding attained by the judge issuing the judgement (or by people with comparable skills). Thus, on such a view, the measure of the quality of a Supreme Court Justice's decision on some Constitutional issue is not found in the content of his or her reasoning per se but in the higher level functioning of that justice's grasp of the issues. Do we find ourselves in disagreement with it? Well then who are we to judge that judge's judgement unless we have attained a comparable level of functioning in the jurisprudential realm? But then how can we tell if we have or not and can't smart justices make mistakes (as I happen to think John Roberts did in the case involving the Affordable Care Act's Individual Mandate)?

I can't help thinking this is just a mistaken approach and that it's mistaken in precisely the same way my long ago attempt to put rational clothes on our moral sensibilities (to make moral judgements look like something we could rationally derive) had been.

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