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2:31PM

Why Moral Judgments Aren't True or False and Why They Don't Have to Be

One big debate in metaethics today is whether or not we can argue for the truth or falsity of value claims. Is it true that kicking babies is bad? Or eradicating ethnic groups (genocide)? Is it true that keeping promises is good? That being kind to animals is? That being one's brother's keeper is? That we should treat others as we would wish to be treated? So-called moral realists argue for the necessity of being able to claim that such statements, and a great many others, are either true or false for, if it turns out we can't, then it looks as if we have lost the possibility of believing in the rightness or wrongness of these and similar behaviors. And this seems to undermine the moral project (the possibility of selectively differentiating between a certain class of actions). Without the ability to grant validity to our moral claims, we seem to be at a loss to tell others to do or not do a whole class of actions which seem to demand just such differentiating capability from us if we are to get on, in a satisfying way, with our lives. Societies and communities stand on the capacity to make such differentiations and to defend them when we do so, i.e., to believe in the truth of our differentiations.

No one doubts that one can judge the prudential value or its lack in certain behaviors, of course. We can know if it's true that we should keep our promise to another if we come to believe that doing so will prompt some good result for ourselves, e.g., that they will keep promises in turn to us (something we wish or need them to do) or if keeping promises will yield other rewards for us. But if personal rewards are the name of the game, then it's not keeping promises that's good (the right thing to do) per se, but getting the reward. And doing something to get a reward for doing it seems to vitiate the claim of moral goodness because it allows us, when the desired reward may not be available, to disregard practices like promise keeping, indeed to pursue a policy of deliberately performing their opposites.

Moral realists want to say that moral value claims carry their own criteria for being true or false, criteria which are not the same as the benefits an agent may gain, or hope to gain, by acting in a prudentially good way. Prudential benefits are external to the presumed morally good trait or action while what makes them morally good (or not) must be intrinsic to them, part of their very nature. Making and acting on moral claims must be independent of personal benefit, the value-granting feature (the presumed property of moral goodness the action is thought to possess) existing somewhere and somehow within the act itself -- or in our description of it. It's the presence or absence of such an extra feature, a feature we discern by observation and inquiry and which we assert to be there in statements which are subject to true or false judgments, that makes any claim of moral goodness reliable (or not) and so fit to be acted on (or rejected).

Intuitionists suppose such extra features are recognized by us because we have a kind of sense of them when they are there, picking up whatever the goodness feature is in a fundamentally unanalyzable way. Just as we see colors and hear sounds and taste flavors, so, for intuitionists, we have a kind of parallel capacity to apprehend moral goodness. That was G. E. Moore's notion and the notion of others, like Henry Sidgwick, who followed him down the intuitionist path. But intuitionism lacks a certain respectability in the modern intellectual world. If we can't explain the intuitive mechanism, as we can explain how and why we see colors, etc., in some physically demonstrable way (as a function of our sensing faculties and as phenomena sensed and thus relayed to the brain), then the idea of intuitions of goodness just looks spurious . . .

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10:15AM

Death and Dying

A correspondent of mine from India sent me a message this morning. A young man drawn to western philosophy for a while, he has now turned to a local guru in his home country who has been guiding him on his path of discovery. What he failed to find in western philosophy he now hopes to uncover in his native tradition. His message to me was about how we're all dying every moment we're alive and how realizing that enables us to transcend the dread of death through a turn to an all embracing feeling of love. Love for everything, he wrote, love as the means of connecting with this moment, with the world we are living and dying in. It prompted me to offer my own meditation in response, one that is perhaps more pessimistic than his but which hinges on this question of how love, whatever that is, can be enough to transcend. Is transcendence of the sort envisioned even possible?

Death is part of life though I'm not sure that's entirely satisfying to one who is dying (in the sense of experiencing impending dissolution when one is suffering a fatal illness and watching one's body fall apart and realizing that, with this, comes the end of one's being as a distinct, self-aware entity). Of course it pays to realize that all of us are in such a state of decline at every moment, even if it is happening so incrementally that we barely notice. Yet, as we age, we can't help but notice because we experience the loss of faculties and physical capacities. My mother is 91 and acutely aware of her failing capacities. She has arthritis that severely restricts her movements and hearing loss and some vision loss and she is very much aware of her bodily discomforts. She needs a cane to help her keep her balance when she walks. She remembers how it used to be though and is sad at the obvious differences she sees in herself, between then and now . . . .

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6:06PM

Blackburn's Expressivism -- Extending the Humean Tradition

Writing in Ruling Passions, Simon Blackburn picks up and continues the sentimentalist tradition in ethics made famous by David Hume and which has, since Hume's account, posed a serious challenge to all those seeking to find truth in moral claims, to treat moral beliefs as assertions of knowledge, that is, of fact. The idea that moral judgments are objectively grounded seems to stick with us when we make such judgments but the sentimentalist account, which makes our moral claims about expressing our feelings about things rather than about asserting facts we know about them, runs counter to what seems to be part of the actual practice of moral valuing. Blackburn's book aims to restore a sense of objectivity to moral judgments within the context of an expressivist (or, as he sometimes calls it, projectivist) account.

In a nutshell, he proposes that all moral claims of value can be understood as part of the psychological dimension of our lives in terms of how we interact with others and how we feel in the process of such interactions. For Blackburn, moral judgment is a matter of expressing our desires, preferences and so forth and valuing, he suggests, is just another activity-related mental state like these others. But such states are not discreet things nor are they reducible to any particular behavior or complex of behaviors of the actor. Rather, he suggests, they are elements in a "kind of web or field or force in which no single element has its own self-standing connection with action. Different beliefs and desires (and perhaps other states, such as emotions, attitudes, wishes, fantasies, fears and, of course, values) come together to issue in an action." (p. 52) On his view, then, valuing is just another mental feature like its fellows and not anything apart from them.

Thus, moral judgments are instances of having a particular mindset like our other mindsets associated with the mental state(s) in which we happen to be. As such, he supposes that asserting moral value is about navigating our way between our various mental states with claims about the goodness or badness of some action or thing, or about its rightness or wrongness, being equivalent to claims which express our feelings of the moment concerning current and longer term matters. Yet he wants to preserve the possibility of objectivity here . . .

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9:26AM

The Science and Philosophy of Brains

. . .Where science gives us a way to understand how the mental mechanisms we rely on in our daily and professional lives are made possible by brain functionalities, philosophy offers a way to understand how our intellect, our grasp of things, works in us. That is, an account of those features or elements in our mental lives (what goes on in us when we think about and understand things) which make up our grasp of the world around us (our subjective placement in the objective world we recognize as our milieu) requires a conceptual inquiry more suited to philosophy than science. Of course, the two cannot be divorced because science surely requires conceptual clarity in the formulation of its hypotheses and theories while philosophy depends on agreement with the best available empirical knowledge (scientific information) if it's to provide viable conceptual accounts.

If science can tell us what brains have to do to generate the elements we experience in our mental lives, and how our brains got that way, philosophy is needed to understand what the mental features caused by our brains' being "that way" actually consists of. That is, we need to know what's going on with us when we conceptualize the world around us in terms of spatial and temporal pictures and plan our actions, within that layered context, and evaluate the possibilities accordingly. Only with that sort of account can we know just what it is the brain's structure and functional behaviors make possible.

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8:42AM

The Mechanism of Moral Belief (Part III Making Moral Arguments)

[CONTINUED FROM PART II AGENCY AND COGNITION]

An Argument for Moral Goodness

Empathy, the recognition of ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves, is no less a stance we take toward others than Dennett’s “intentional stance.” In fact, empathy can be understood as an aspect of this latter orientation. As such, we may look to the intentional or subjective state of the acting agent, when he or she acts, in order to consider whether the action in question has the quality we deem morally pertinent. That quality, the expression of empathy, will be manifested in and through behaviors that look out for the concerns and needs of other subjects because empathy just is the expression of our recognition of subjectness in others. Those acts which deny or disregard the mental life of the other (its wants, needs, hopes, etc., i.e., it’s interests as a subjective entity), will fail to meet this standard while those which demonstrate acknowledgment of the other’s subjectness, manifested in both word and deed, will succeed. Behaviors which look out for others are the ones that represent the subject-to-subject reciprocity which being a subject implies. Acceptance of this reciprocity is then the basis for those decisions which put one’s own interests aside when there is reason to do so when we are presented with others like ourselves.

Because every action expresses valuation, every other form of value we express will be susceptible to this kind of judgment, too, i.e., to the evaluation of the quality of the intention(s) that underlie it in terms of the degree of empathy it reflects and expresses. Does that, which we intend to do, take account of the subjectness of others who will be affected by our intended action? If our action or our proposed action expresses recognition of that other’s subjectness by considering its needs as a subject, then the standard implied by empathy may be said to have been met. If not then the act in question will be seen to fall short. This standard will prevail in any complete evaluation of any action – for to be what we are in the fullest possible sense, we must trim our intentional behaviors to accommodate other subjects.

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10:48AM

The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part II (Agency and Cognition)

[CONTINUED FROM PART I (VALUING)]

Morally Relevant Features

To understand actions and how we can value them in terms of the intentions which underlie them (and which are thus expressed by them), we first have to arrive at an understanding of just what intentions are. And here we have to consider what we mean by the term itself. The word “intention,” when we think about it, doesn’t seem to name anything in particular that we can point at. When we look closely, in fact, there seems to be nothing there. Yet we cannot simply abandon the notion of intention without also abandoning the idea of agential action for if we don’t act for reasons, if we don’t have intentions when acting, which we can report to ourselves or others, if we only behave mechanically (in the fashion of machines), then there can be nothing to hold others or ourselves accountable for. Yet, it’s to this very possibility of accountability that we look when we wish to explain the difference between human and mechanical behavior.

We live in a world in which talk of reasons underpins talk of behavior in creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it cannot even make sense to speak of valuing without a notion of intention – for it takes a thinking subject, with the capacity to think about what it’s doing, before and while doing it, to engage in the very activity we call “valuing.” This activity is first and foremost a rational activity. It’s the process of finding and giving reasons for the different choices we decide to implement through our actions. But what are these strange things, these “intentions” which our reasons express and whose existence we must grant if we’re to make intelligible claims about the kind of behavior we find in ourselves and which those reasons we offer (to others and ourselves) give voice to?

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4:44PM

The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part I (Valuing)

IF VALUING is just the activity we must be capable of in order to reason about, and so interact with, things in the world (i.e., the capacity to arrange our options in some preferential order by sorting them in ways that allow for selectional differentiation), then moral valuing will involve applying this kind of activity to phenomena of the type we count as morally relevant, namely, to actions. To the extent moral judgments are about actions then (i.e., about distinguishing them along some preferential grid – just as we distinguish other referents in other valuing cases), what will be needed, in moral terms, is a way of determining the relevant markers that constitute a sorting standard suitable for actions.

Of course, not all evaluations of actions are about moral claims since every action we take in the course of deliberation expresses some underlying valuation and actions may be valued and evaluated in terms of those, too. That is, we often value actions for their role in these other types of valuation by considering them in terms of how, and to what extent, they serve as a means for securing other valued ends. Actions may thus be viewed either from a non-moral or a moral perspective.

Valuing as Giving Reasons

When we concern ourselves with the value of things which are objects of our behavior, our behavior expresses that value and is itself valued to the degree its performance is likely to realize the objective(s) in question. But what’s meant by valuing things in this sense?

I may call a scoop of ice cream, or a book, “good” and by this only mean that the ice cream is suitable for eating because it has a taste I consider desirable (and think you will, too), or that the book is one you should have on your shelf, read on your summer vacation or just shell out some cash for at your local book store. If pressed, I may offer still other reasons to back up these. The ice cream is good for you or will introduce you to a new flavor or the book is well written, will give you pleasure, you have something to learn from it, etc. If, when pressed, I can’t say why I think the ice cream is worth eating or the book worth reading my judgment of goodness in such cases must be suspect, for my use of “good” serves in such cases as a proxy for these other, more detailed statements I can make . . .

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