Searle's "Solution" to the Ethics Quandary
June 7, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Language, Moral Philosophy, Rationality, Robert Brandom, Speech Acts, Stuart Mirsky, jJohn Searle

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!

Update on June 8, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Something just occurred to me that's worth adding here.

Re: the question of whether or not there are distinctly different senses of "obligation" -- which Searle explicitly denies in responding to a hypothetical objection to his position vis a vis the miscreant beer drinker that, in fact, there are -- he actually acknowledges that there are elsewhere in the same book!

In describing how reasons lead to motivating desires in us to act, he mentions that he may have accepted an invitation to a party but only later realized that he had a conflict with something more important. Perhaps he forgot about a deadline he had to meet in getting a manuscript off, say, or a meeting he had to attend either of which preclude him from keeping his promise to the party's host that he would show up. In that case, he says, he still has an obligation to go to the party but he could simply not meet that obligation without abrogating it or its special force because it's only a "social obligation" and so less compelling than the other that had suddenly come up!

Well, if that promise to go to the party is only a "social obligation" then there is a clear sense in which the two obligations are not the same, i.e., showing up at the party is not as compelling an obligation as the one that apparently conflicts with it. That both are obligations of a sort (which he wants to maintain and which seems fairly uncontroversial) hardly matters when weighed against the fact that he, himself, recognizes that obligations come in different flavors!

If they do, then the mere fact of being an obligation, the mere fact that by ordering and drinking the beer our deadbeat barfly has incurred an obligation to pay for it, whether he likes that outcome or not, whether he feels like doing so or not, isn't the issue! We can readily grant that the man at the bar has a legal or social obligation to pay without also granting that those kinds of obligations alone represent sufficient argument to compel him to actually do so. And then the moral problem is preserved, even if obligations of a sort are implicit in our language as Searle maintains.

If Searle can skip the party (for which he has created in himself an obligation to attend by his prior words of acceptance) because it's only a "social obligation," then why can't the deadbeat barfly choose not to pay his tab at the bar on the grounds that it, too, is only a social obligation and he'd rather keep the funds in his own pocket or, perhaps, spend them on something more important?

Isn't this precisely where the moral dimension kicks in and where Searle's assertion of implicit obligations in our language simply does not help? Whether or not promise-keeping or honoring one's debts are socially desirable behaviors is not the point for that alone may not be sufficient to establish those behaviors as morally implied or required as well, i.e., that our barfly has a moral obligation to honor this particular social obligation. And Searle even seems to see this in one part of his book while denying it in another!

Update on June 16, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

As I approach the end of Searle's Rationality in Action (am now on the final chapter) what Searle is after here has become a little clearer. He is making the claim that rationality in us consists of the relations between ourselves and the world within which he defines two "directions of fit." Descriptive or assertoric claims about the world have what he calls the downward direction of fit in that our statements, consisting of claims about things in the world, must match the way the world seems to us to be. Statements about our desires and such have an upward "direction of fit," he claims, whereby, they serve to address our making changes in the world to fit our desires, needs, expectations, etc. He argues that rationality, in the form of the logical relations we recognize and apply, depends on which "direction of fit" is in play.

He argues against what he calls the "classical model" of practical reason which holds, he says, that all our actions must be internally motivated, that we act only on our subjectively felt desires and needs and that, absent these, we have no motivation to act at all. Against this view he argues that within the "directions of fit" paradigm, there is room for recognizing that motivations that are internal are not the only sources of reasons to act and that, indeed, they cannot be because of what he calls the "gap" which he asserts implies free will in us because, he insists, no psychological element in our mental lives can ever be causally sufficient for the actions we take. Thus, there is a "self" in there, in each of us, that is not causally determined by antecedent psychological events, let alone antecedent physical events, but is always free to choose differently and unpredictably.

In this way, he asserts, we can create reasons to act that are external to our psychological lives and we do this by assertion of will, by choosing to engage in particular acts and not others which, by engaging in them, creates reasons for us to do other things. Thus, he argues, that as human beings, social creatures with rationality, we create facts through our activities and speech acts via the exercise of rationality (the relations between speech and facts in the world according to the "direction of fit") and these created facts ("factitives" is what he actually calls them) differ from the brute facts of physical reality in that they are real to the extent groups of subjects agree to make them so. That is, money is money because a group of us treat certain artifacts as media of exchange in commercial transactions and marriage is marriage because the individuals involved and the society in which they operate make it so. In this way, Searle says, promises are promises because, in choosing to make them, we freely enter into relationships which bind us to future actions whether or not we have a psychological inclination to undertaking those future actions (keeping the promises we make) when the time comes to do so. Searle says that it is not the institution (of promise keeping or marriage or money, for instance) that creates the "facts" of an obligation, or a marriage, or cash, but our decision to take certain actions within the context of those institutions. It's our willing the action within the context of the relevant institution (created by a community of subjects) that binds us, that creates in us a reason to act whether or not we have a particular desire to do so.

Thus, for Searle, the obligation to keep a promise is not, for instance, a moral question per se for, he insists, we need no moral rule or principle or authority to know that we have an obligation when we make a promise. The making of a promise, given recognition on our part of the rational structure in which it occurs (and recognize it we must if we are to call ourselves "rational"), alone establishes the obligation. But, as I hope I've shown above, Searle's account seems to miss a very important point, i.e., that obligations come in different flavors and that there seems to be a moral flavor that stands apart from the rational obligation we allegedly incur by making promises or doing any number of other things in a community of fellow subjects. Thus, just as a ballplayer is obliged to play by the rules of the game he is playing or get off the field (unless he's trying to do Melville's Bartleby), that is unless he is to be ruled out of the game, so the beer drinker who orders a beer with the implicit promise to pay for it and then fails to do so and attempts thereby to steal that beer by reneging on his implicit promise, still has another question he must answer. Does he want to play the beer buying game or does he, if he can, in fact, walk out of that bar with impunity?

Unlike playing a ballgame by different rules, the social penalties are more profound with the beer drinker -- but the same principle is at work, i.e., to play or not to play. And that, it seems to me, is where the moral question kicks in, at least relative to the beer drinker (though one could argue that if a ballplayer who is under contract to play the game, and assuming he has been paid for doing so, does not play according to the rules, then he is subject to the same kind of issue as the deadbeat barfly). So Searle's solution to the question of moral valuation and the obligations that accompany it, based on an account of rationality that purports to ground our choices in the "speech-acts" and other behaviors we make within a rational context, seems to falter here. At the end of the day, there is still a question of whether and why someone should keep his word, promises, etc., to others, that is why should he or she care?

Searle's effort to show that rationality implies that we recognize what we do when we operate rationally and that rational recognition fully accounts for the kinds of obligations and beliefs about our obligations that we have, seems mistaken here. The moral question, which, at bottom, is about how we should treat our fellows, is not fully addressed by our recognizing that a promise is a promise or that a "speech-act" is a "speech-act." Something else is required if we're to suppose that we have an answer about a certain kind of moral question, namely why we should play by the rules with others when doing so may not be in our interest?

The last chapter of Searle's book, which I have now begun, is about consciousness and the brain and I'm interested to see how he handles the issue in light of his past Chinese Room Argument as well as the account he has given so far in the present book which insists that selves are real entities because the nature of our being in the world implies that and that intentions are mental entities, too, though he never gives an adequate account of what he means by "intentions" -- the mental features, he avers, which precede and co-exist with all our actions and which are causal of them but not, themselves, caused by the phenomena of our mental lives such as our feelings, beliefs, emotions, desires, etc. As I have tried to show elsewhere in these posts, I am not in disagreement with the idea that "selves" have a certain kind of assertoric traction or that "intentions" are the key to understanding moral claims. But my view differs sharply from his in that I think it's a mistake to treat intentions as stand-alone mental phenomena and selves as a kind of entity in the psychological domain of our lives. Even recognizing that we speak of "selves" and do so quite usefully and cannot really dispense with the notion, there is still no reason, I would argue, to imagine that the self has the status of a kind of entity.

That is, to arrive at a satisfactory moral account, I think we not only have to recognize the place in our discourse for "self" and "intention" but also that these have a fictive, not (as Searle proposes) a "factitive" nature although this recognition does not undermine the value of using these terms in ordinary discourse or in moral discussion.

Update on June 23, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Okay, finished the final chapter of the book. Big disappointment. It kind of dribbles to a close with a rehash of Searle's view on consciousness. He argues for treating consciousness as a unified phenomenon rather than supposing it to be a system consisting of multiple modules all working together to form a larger system. He does note that consciousness is on his view a system level phenomenon so on that I find myself in firm agreement with him. But for the rest, I think he is still barking up the wrong tree.

He maintains that the fact that there is a "gap" in the causal account from neurological phenomena to intentions and from intentions to actions (meaning one cannot discern a hard causative link between these elements) implies that we must posit an irreducible self of the mind, rather like Kant's "transcendental unity of apperception" or his notion of the transcendent "I". Because of this, Searle argues that the mind or consciousness can only be understood in terms of its unity which, he argues, excludes the possibility of building up a modular picture of the mind.

This is a spurious argument because we can have a modular system which appears to the system itself, once it reaches the level of subjective awareness, as unified (even if it is really an agglomeration of parts) and this can be all the unification we actually need or need to posit! The fact that we look, to ourselves, as if we are unified, an irreducible whole, is not an argument that we are.

In the end, Searle wraps up the book with an acknowledgment that he really has no answer to how brains do minds, despite his acknowledgement that they do, but continues to maintain that minds are obviously irreducible wholes. Searle continues to disappoint.

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