Obligation and Goodness
February 10, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Duncan Richter, Ethics, G. E. M. Anscombe, Immanuel Kant, Kant, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky

As Duncan Richter has pointed out, Anscombe and some others reject the idea of duty-based ethics, of morality as obligation. Setting aside, for the moment, Anscombe's additional rejection of the term "moral," as it is ordinarily used, and her apparent preference for "ethical" in lieu of "moral," and taking both terms, for argument's sake, to be roughly the same in ordinary use, what we're left with is the question of whether the idea of obligation underlies moral judgments or vice versa. That is, do we have certain obligations because we recognize them as morally good or do we find the morally good by recognizing certain obligations which we cannot shirk? Richter writes that Anscombe rejected the idea that moral claims were founded on duties of this sort and, in doing so, apparently rejected the very notion of a duty-based ethics.

This idea of a duty-based morality in Western philosophy goes back, at least, to Kant (though it reaches farther back, to be sure, in Christian philosophy). Kant argued for basing claims about the morally right things to do in the obligations we have as rational beings. Such obligations, he believed, could be found in reason itself. His argument (and it's certainly rather arcane and so subject to much dispute among his interpreters) seems to have been that we have certain duties to act which arise from the kinds of creatures we are. Being rational creatures who choose our actions based on rational considerations, we must obey what reason dictates.

Reason, he suggested, implies that our consciously chosen acts be those which can be universalized. That is, what he called the categorical imperative (reflecting the category of being rational) implies the notion that one's acts must be such that all beings like ourselves might act in that way, too. If we choose to do anything we must do so, on this view, if and only if we can agree that it would be right for everyone to act that way. If we steal or lie or cheat or commit murder, would we wish for that behavior to be generalized across all other beings like ourselves? If we cannot, then we also cannot act that way.

Note that this has nothing to do with whether or not we might actually be the victims of such behavior. Even if we could insulate ourselves from such behavior, if the rest of humanity acted thus it would be wrong for humanity in general and, even being insulated in fact, we remain in principle part of the general class of all human beings. So, if such behavior would be wrong for any human as a human, it must be wrong for us as well. Kant's categorical imperative was not about avoiding behaviors merely so that we would not at some point also be their recipient but about an idealized notion of what it means to be human. Reason, on this view, compels the ideal of which we cannot help being a part. Choosing to disregard reason's dictate here, then, is not something that is outside of our capabilities (we have free will to do so if we make that choice) but something which must put us into conflict with our fundamental nature as rational beings. Whether this is enough to underwrite moral claims is disputable, but it is certainly one way in which we can make an argument for moral behavior.

Morality based on obligation is, of course, a much older notion than Kant who, in developing his argument, essentially aimed to buttress the traditional view of morality as divinely established. Religions, at least in a great many cases, have long taught that we have certain moral rules which we are obligated to obey, obligated because gods or god have ordained it. What is morally right or good then does not derive its potency, it's authority, from itself but from its source, its authorizer.

On this view, as the Austrian moral philosopher Kurt Baier has written (The Moral Point of View), we are faced with the strange seeming possibility that, if tomorrow god changed his mind about the moral rules he has promulgated for mankind, if tomorrow he decreed that murder and lying and stealing were now the right thing to do, then we should be obliged to behave in that way henceforth. Yet there is something deeply anti-intuitive about this notion. Kant, at least, sought a way to ground moral obligation in something more than divine decree which would avoid this peculiar conclusion. In Kant's case it was to ground morality in the nature of what we are or, as Kant might have seen it, of what god has made us.

As Duncan Richter notes in his Anscombe's Moral Philosophy, Anscombe, a deeply religious woman, also sought a way to establish morality in a way that liberates it from the strange notion that it is merely a function of divine inclination (which, since god is unknowable and all powerful by definition, could, at least theoretically, change). For Anscombe, we are as god made us and the moral good (or, in her case, what is ethically right to do) is a function of the nature we have, of what god has made us. But, unlike Kant, she sets out to establish the basis for moral goodness not in a particular faculty we have, pure reason itself, but in the nature of human beings qua human beings i.e., the sorts of things which, having them, best suits our human form of life.

What is good for any of us to do is that which is most in keeping with what is good for humans as the creatures they are. Of course, what's good for humans is often highly debatable and yet there is some general agreement among humans, some shared beliefs about what's good among members of our species -- and these shared beliefs reflect commonalities in our natures, in the kinds of creatures we are. It is in these shared interests, preferences, needs, etc., that we have, as a species, that we can find the various things we think good and which we wish to attain or maximize, all other things being equal, at least in this Anscombian view (as I currently understand it).

In an important sense this harks back to Aristotle's notion of goodness as whatever consists of human flourishing, as Richter suggests, though, again, there seems to be plenty of room here, too, for differences of opinion. Might not some cultures think that human flourishing is most fully attained by a warrior ethos which glorifies killing and disregard of the individual human life or one that favors theft or deception, or pacifism and passivity? In none of these cases would we, in our own time and place, be necessarily moved to agree, nor is it at all clear that our own ethos is optimal for human flourishing either. For we live in a consumption-oriented society, often derided by many of our best minds, a society that seems to glorify self-absorption and self-aggrandizement and, too often, a kind of cultural debasement. And yet our modern world is perhaps the most conducive to longevity and human comfort in all of mankind's history. Why shouldn't our form of "flourishing" be the right sort of human flourishing and not some other?

In rejecting moral valuing on the basis of obligation, Anscombe rejects a duty-based ethos, but her alternative, to see whatever is good for humans in the particulars of our nature, doesn't seem to be quite enough either. Besides, there is another question with regard to the notion of obligation that Kant's work suggests which Anscombe, in rejecting a duty-based morality, seems to overlook. Being obligated can certainly be seen as having a duty (a responsibility to act in such and such a way regardless of our needs, wants, or inclinations as Anscombe seems to intend the term).

But can't it also be seen as just recognizing and choosing what's best out of different options? Something's being judged to be good implies, in an important sense, that, all else being equal, we will choose that which is most good. Isn't that to be obligated in an important sense, too? And doesn't Kant's effort to ground the moral good in our duty to be rational seem to be getting at something like that?

Such a sense of obligation is not as if we can have no other choice of course, for surely we can choose something that we think less good. That is the whole point of having free will as Kant put it. But does having the freedom to choose something different mean we are not also obligated to choose the best thing for ourselves under the circumstances in an important sense of being obligated?

If we choose something we would speak of as less good than something else, aren't we actually taking the "lesser" good, in some important sense, as the greater? And if so, then isn't choosing among competing goods like choosing between competing obligations (i.e., what reason tells us is our best choice)? This must depend, to some degree, on our understanding of how we use "good" though. I've suggested elsewhere that, when we speak of anything as being "good," all we mean to say is that we believe there is some fact or feature about that thing which is also a reason to choose it.

This formulation suggests that "good" asserts a certain kind of relation between a subject and its object (whatever sort of object it may happen to be) and that the fact or feature(s) which are present in the object as "good-making" will differ, depending on circumstances (including the nature of the object being called "good"). There can be different reasons to choose something, of course, but the point is that, all other things being equal, when there is such a reason, in a situation in which that reason is THE reason, then there is no other choice to be made if we are to act rationally. It's as if we are obligated, though not in the sense that there is an enforcer or enforcing mechanism which compels us to choose something. There need be no authority, either internal or external to us to which we must answer, for us to recognize a reason that compels.

Of course something's being THE reason for us will depend on our understanding of the situation (hence the possibility of discussion and debate -- both internal and with others). But, once something is seen as THE reason, then there can only be that one choice for us. Otherwise our actions, if they differ from our statements, would express and demonstrate that we don't actually hold what we have called good to be good, not THE good in the situation in question at any rate. And, while we can certainly dissemble or change our minds, our actions and our words will generally be in accord, if we are behaving rationally and honestly.

So in this sense, at least, there is a kind of obligation, though it is not the obligation of doing one's duty regardless of beliefs, feelings, inclinations, wants, etc. It is, rather, the obligation of reasoning.

I guess I'd want to say that there's a very tight link between the idea of "good" and the idea of "obligation" in this sense and that the sense in which we speak of duties and duty ethics, in the way Anscombe rejects, is a derivative sense, a sense that is finally dependent on goodness assertions. A rejection of duty-based ethics, like Anscombe's, could be seen to reflect this fact.

Obligation, then, seems to be a term that has more than one significant use. Being compelled to act because of some overriding rule we must obey, on pain of some negative outcome, is different than being compelled to act because of the nature of the assessment we make about the act in question (whether we think it good or not). If Anscombe rejects obligation in the first sense, does it follow then that she has also rejected it in the second?

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