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« Logic and Moral Discourse (revised) | Main | Four Naturalistic Strategies in Accounting for Ethical Claims »

Searle's "Solution" to the Ethics Quandary

As noted previously, I've begun reading Searle's Rationalism in Action, the last of Searle's books that I have after the flood in 2012. As it happens this is also the one book of his in my possession that I hadn't yet read so its survival was fortuitous. However, the book, itself, has proved a disappointment. I know that I've gone on record in the past as thinking highly of Searle's work despite my strong disagreement with his Chinese Room Argument (which I initially found quite compelling but gradually came to see as deeply flawed). In the case of the present book and its extended argument, however, I am surprised at what I take to be some serious errors and an overall failure of the book's thesis. I want to qualify this, though, since I'm only about two thirds through it and it could, conceivably, get much better from here.

In this book Searle undertakes to explain how rationality as reasoning is thoroughly embedded in human life and how it underwrites our obligation claims as well as talk about rights and duties and, of course, moral judgments. In this he seems to be worrying the same bone that Brandom was on in his book Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, which I just finished last weekend. But, despite the complexity and abstruseness of Brandom's exposition, I think it's fair to say that Brandom did it better. Searle mostly involves himself with elaborating a complex vocabulary for how we think and speak about things and what that entails. Unfortunately, his effort seems to largely consist of elaborating a complex jargon to rename features about language and human relations to the world we already know under other, more familiar terms. He seems to think one can improve on ordinary language by invoking an extraordinary vocabulary.

His biggest mistake, however, is, I think, when he addresses the question of intentions and selves. He explicitly asserts that selves, and the intentionality that characterizes them are irreducible to anything more basic. This is precisely the position that informs his Chinese Room Argument with such great cost to its logical implications. Only here, in this book, he explicitly asserts irreducibility in a way he did not in the earlier argument. His fundamental thesis in the present book is that we act not only from desires but for reasons and that having reasons can produce desires (the traditional motivators of actions) which express themselves in two types of "intentions," what he calls "prior intentions" (the thought or decision to do something) and "intentions in actions" (the intentions that are expressed by any action and which must be sustained so long as the action is going on). So far so good (although his treatment of intentions as entity-like, without sufficient elaboration of what intentions or intentionality are, is troubling, as is his claim that selves must be posited -- I agree -- and that this undercuts Hume's account of the self as non-existent -- I don't agree and think the conclusion he draws from the notion of positing a self misleads him in some important ways).

Searle goes on to show that any time we use language, whether assertorically or normatively, we incur obligations on ourselves (the obligation to speak truthfully for assertions, the obligations to do what our words commit us to for normative statements). This, in itself, is not controversial on my view. In fact, like Brandom, Searle is arguing that language is, at bottom, normative because even assertions imply obligations (namely that we believe what we honestly assert and so would act in accord with our beliefs). I think both Searle and Brandom have that largely right.

From here Searle makes the move to a claim that our obligations to act in various ways (which we often associate with ethical behaviors) are implicit in the words we use. Language, he points out, consists of speech-acts and our words, qua acts, can both cause things to happen and/or constitute their happening. These happenings qua outcomes, he asserts, are "internal" to linguistic practices. That is the very linguistic usages we employ derive their meaning from these implications. That's why language is, at bottom, "normative," he tells us. So what about ethical questions?

In one example, he tells a story about a man who goes into a bar to order a beer. The man drinks the beer and then must pay for it. But why should he do that? Well, Searle reminds us, by ordering and drinking it, given the convention of beer drinking in bars, he committed himself to pay for the beer. The very words he spoke did that at the outset and he completed that commitment by drinking it. So, Searle says, he doesn't now require a further reason to motivate him to pay for it. He already has the obligation to pay, whether he feels like paying or not and therefore that obligation, if recognized, creates in him a derivative desire to pay, i.e., to discharge the obligation. This obligation, Searle asserts, is internal to the words he spoke in that speech act.

Searle goes on to suggest that moral claims are like this. We don't need moral principles like ("always keep your word" or "always pay your bills") to recognize when we have an obligation and to fulfill it. It comes with the linguistic territory. Nor do prudential considerations matter, he adds, such as avoiding censure (or arrest should the unpaid barkeep call the cops), since the obligation, even if it is ignored by the miscreant beer guzzler or renounced by him after the fact, is still present -- or else, asks Searle, what is he renouncing? He must recognize he has an obligation if he is to choose not to discharge it. For some reason Searle seems to think this is a compelling argument!

But what about the situation where our guy does, in fact, simply choose to renounce his obligation and is not deterred by threat of arrest or altercation with the bar's bouncer or even the disapproval of his fellow patrons (if we can even call this nonpaying miscreant a "patron" in his own right)? What if he's twice the size of anyone else in the bar or has a gun and can simply refuse to pay, steal the beer, as it were, and walk out?

Well, says Searle, he has an obligation which he is now, presumably, obliged to fulfill or be in violation of. Well, most of us would think that's true enough. Some of us, though, might admire his bravado or his flaunting of society's "rules" -- or the law. Maybe the bar is a bad place and we feel it's about time someone gave this barkeep his comeuppance. But assuming it's just a normal bar, we'd likely disapprove of this theft of a beer and of the service involved in pouring it and handing it to him. What if it were done to us instead of that poor bartender, now out the few bucks the beer cost? What if everyone did what our miscreant beer drinker did? Why should this big guy get away with it and we have to pay?

Of course, the issue is whether or not we'd be right to disapprove, all other things being equal, and why we'd be right (if we are right) to? And the question is why should any of that matter to the guy who won't pay? What about our disapproval should influence him and why? Isn't there an added moral dimension here which Searle is too blithely dismissing?

Searle considers and rejects the claim that there is more than one sense of "obligation" as a response to his insistence that the obligation to pay is already embedded in the speech act exercised by the words "hey barkeep, gimme a beer." He discounts out of hand that his claim of the creation of an "obligation," merely by uttering the words "gimme a beer" in a bar, only applies to "obligation" in one sense of that word. But, oddly enough, he gives no reason for his rejection!

He just says it ain't so, that there's only one sense of "obligation." Period. But this seems obviously false. The guy who drank the beer could readily acknowledge that he had an obligation under the law to pay for the beer, or that there was a social obligation incurred on his part by his words to the bartender and still not think he has a reason to pay up! If he can get away without paying, or thinks he has a score to settle, or simply believes might makes right and that the ordinary rules don't apply to him, then why should he honor the implicit obligation of his words when he spoke them? Where is the force of that "obligation" as it applies to him?

And isn't that really the relevant question here, i.e., what reason does he have to keep his word or pay his debt or treat others as they have reason to expect to be treated, all other things being equal?

Searle seems to think that moral questions are readily subsumed within linguistic use questions and that an account of language as speech-acts, with behavioral implications consisting of commitments and obligations and such, is enough to settle the moral uncertainties of life. If we say it, and mean it when we say it (or just intended others to take us as meaning what we said) and we obtained the result that would accrue to us if we were taken as meaning what we said, as is the case in the bar example, then, Searle seems to want to say, we are bound to do whatever our words implied we would do. That is all the force we need to establish and respond to moral claims. Yet, it is precisely here, when the miscreant beer drinker must decide whether to discharge the social and legal obligations his words incurred upon him, that the moral rubber hits the road, isn't it?

Why shouldn't the beer drinker just walk away if he can? Why shouldn't he welsh on his bill and stiff the barkeep and the proprietors of that establishment? Isn't it here that the moral dimension (which Searle seems to want to discount) in our decision making kicks in? And isn't it precisely here that an answer like Searle's, that our obligations are embedded in our speech-acts because without recognizing and abiding by them language (and related human institutions) can't work, fails?

Sometimes the issue is not the integrity of the particular institution or our linguistic usage per se. Sometimes it's about what persons ought to do when the only constraints upon them are their own inclinations. Sometimes fulfilling the implications of what we have said is not a given merely because we've said it.

Well, I'll read the last third of the book now. Maybe it gets better!

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