Recapitulating the Moral Account
August 11, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Philosphy, Stuart Mirsky

One of the criteria of a good argument or account of something, I have generally believed, is that we should be able to briefly and cogently state the case for it. If it's a good account it shouldn't get bound up in complexity, ambiguities and unclarity. We shouldn't need reams and reams of paper to say what we are talking about. Still, if the subject being accounted for were easily explained, there wouldn't be a need to say more, would there? So I'm torn between preferring simplicity and brevity, on the one hand, and acknowledging the need for complexity, occasioned by the difficulty of a longstanding issue, on the other. The possibility of giving a moral account strikes me as raising just this sort of problem.

The other day, following a link on Duncan Richter's blog, I ended up on a site discussing a moral issue. I weighed in with comments reflecting my own ongoing effort to say what moral valuing is and what reasons underlie it. One of the posters suggested I spell out my own view, since I was challenging his, and I decided to give it a go, even knowing how difficult it would be to say succinctly what I have come to think about the issue of how moral valuing works. (The full exchange can be found here:

In the meantime, here is a composite version of what I wrote there, representing still another iteration of the view I have been developing on this site concerning moral questions:

"Moral" claims come in a number of flavors, some being a matter of cultural practice and tradition, some being genetically built into creatures like ourselves. We justify arguments about moral claims in a variety of ways but if you dig deeply enough, you come to one or another basis for a large number of such claims like this, i.e., boiling down either to cultural nurture or inherited nature. However, neither basis provides a reason for arguing for or against certain kinds of questions and it's these kinds of questions, within the moral game, where this lack matters.

If we look at moral practices across cultures we find some similarities within the different traditions which can be restated as finding a reason or reasons to be concerned for others' interests when these find no commonality with the actor's own (either because of affinity with others for biological reasons or because of some cultural affinity (e.g., a shared cultural placement or heritage). Most valuing that we do concerns the valuer's interests and this sort of thing amply covers situations where we feel for another's needs, wants, etc., because of biological affinity or cultural affiliation. But an important segment of moral valuation claims that we make rests on suppressing the valuer's interests, even where it reflects cultural or biological links, in favor of that of the interests of another.

But what can get anyone to that point? Why should we ever feel motivated to act in another's interest if and when such an act conflicts with our own immediate, or larger shared, interestss? What's in it for the agent in such cases? I think you can get there by considering what valuing in the moral case amounts to. To cut to the chase (necessarily leaving out some details here, I'm afraid) I think the form of moral valuing which fits the bill I've described involves the case in which we look at an action in its entirety, i.e., from intention to implementation to outcome. Indeed, the outcome is already contained in the intent (which is just what we think we are bringing about when we act). Valuing actions in this way means valuing intent, i.e., the intentions that underwrite the act.

But intentions aren't real things. You can't find them in the world. They have no delineated borders, no mass, extension and so forth. In an important sense intentions are just conceptual constructs, convenient talking points for us when describing actions. So what are we talking about when we speak of intentions? My view is that we're speaking about the state of the agent him or herself. The broader state, his or her character, of which any particular intention is just an aspect, a momentary expression. To give a satisfactory account of moral valuing I think we must have a robust account of the mental. On this view, valuing any act in this particular moral way, is to put a value on the agent's mental state. His or her intentions just being a continuation of that state, consisting of the things he or she believes, expects, wants, etc., from the action in question.

But what sort of mental state might be better, what kind worse? And on what basis can we argue for, and conclude that, this or that particular intention is best in any given case? I propose that the mental state to be achieved is one of empathy.

Empathy is the state or condition of standing in the other's shoes, because we canimagine ourselves as the other. And it is this state or condition that underlies the claims we make which favor others' interests, e.g., things like not doing harm to another, treating others fairly, and, of course, more specific things like seeing that one oughtn't to treat women as if they are less than men (and vice versa). A whole slew of these sorts of claims, I would suggest, can be boiled down to having empathy.

One problem with this is the supposition that you can't really give yourself, or another, empathy, that we either have it or we don't, in which case there's no point in arguing for it, or supposing it can serve as a basis for urging certain kinds of behaviors on others (or ourselves). If empathy is something you have or don't, then it's outside the reasoning game and, to the extent the moral game stands on reasoning, it can provide no basis for certain kinds of moral claims. We can probably produce it in others by training but that possibility isn't conducive to a claim that we can, or should, arrive at an empathetic state by reasoning.

Still, I think it's pretty clear that we can, and often do, adopt certain behavioral dispositions for reasons and that the dispositions we undertake foster in us (or in others) the feelings we commonly associate with motivation to action. That is, we are not merely the victims of our feelings but can and do shape them by the behavioral choices we make.

If so, then empathy, too, can be adopted by choice and we are not just the passive victims of our passions but their guides. But why should we take empathy to be a good condition in which to be or think we should adopt it if we don't already feel it?

I'd argue that empathy is part of what it means to be a subject in the world (which is what we manifestly are). Subjects are distinguished by having a mental life, an array of experiences, thoughts, beliefs, memories and so forth that constitute intentionality and intentionality, in the sense of being about things, is the foundation of having intentions in our behavior (acting to do something). Intentionality implies a mental life in the entity.

The kind of subject we are, because there are others within the hierarchy of living things of course, has, as a part of its mental life, the capacity to recognize other subjects, i.e., we recognize intentionality in other entities when they behave in certain ways. Thus, we choose to be empathetic towards others, or not, when we see certain kinds of behaviors from them.

Of course we don't have to be empathetic. We can choose to be shitty towards others, too. That's where the moral issue comes in, I would say. Why should we choose empathy over disregard, or worse, towards others? I would suggest that it comes down to recognizing what we are.

As subjects we recognize subjectness in other subjects when the right behaviors are present, and choosing to disregard that aspect of the other, when its behaviors warrant such recognition, leaves our own intentionality unrealized because we have then failed to fully exercise our own subjective condition. We have acted in a way that does not fully express subjectness. Acting with disregard of other subjects' intentionality impairs our own intentionality because subjectness implies reciprocal recognition.

If we recognize subjectness in the other, part of that recognition is the realization that the other recognizes subjectness in us, too, that it has a mental life as we do (which includes the same recognition of the other that we have). But just paying lip service to this fact of reciprocal recognition doesn't amount to recognizing it ourselves.

To do that we have to treat the other subject as a subject, as having a mental life, as being like we are. We must behave towards it in ways that acknowledge its mental life. That implies being empathetic.

So I would say that the basis of moral claims involving concern for others' interests (and I've already granted that those aren't the only kinds of moral claims we can make) can be derived from the nature of the valuer itself. It takes a subject, with a certain sort of mental life, to value anything and being that kind of subject means exercising the reciprocal recognition that amounts to empathy.

But there is a problem with this. Why should anyone care if they are fully exercising their subjectness? Why shouldn't any of us simply treat the other without regard to his, her or its own subjectness? Why shouldn't we ignore the suffering that may attend the other's mental life if treated in a way that does not acknowledge it?

I don't think there's an argument of the categorical imperative sort at the bottom of this but only one of realization, i.e., it's as if we open our eyes suddenly and realize something about ourselves, that we are like them just as they are like us. If one gets to that point (and moral argument, is often about trying to bring the other to that point), then it makes sense to choose the behaviors in the relevant situations that empathy implies. But we don't necessarily start at that point and not all of us really seem to get there much of the time.

That's why I think the idea of moral valuing has for so long been closely intertwined with notions of religiosity and spiritual search. Realizing something about ourselves is akin to the self-realization that such searches imply. It doesn't follow, of course, that any particular religious teaching offers the best account but only that the same sort of thing seems to be going on in certain kinds of religious claims and the kinds of moral claims under discussion here (concern for others).

In both cases we are being asked to stop for a moment and consider what we actually are and how we fit into the world in which we find ourselves. Once someone is brought to the point of recognizing that he or she (or it) is a subject (i.e., once they come to think about what it means to be that in the world), and see that being a subject implies recognition of other subjects (as seen through their behaviors) and that "recognition" is more than just what we say about them but what we do with and for them, then I think an argument can be made which crosses cultural boundaries for certain kinds of behaviors (i.e., those expressing concern for others' interests) which seem to be unmotivated in any other way.

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