What Is This?
Stuart W. Mirsky
Kirby Urner
Join Us!

Stuart W. Mirsky (Stuart W. Mirsky is the principal author of this blog).
Last 10 Entries:

Sean Wilson's Blog:

Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Search Archives:
Every Entry

Duncan Richter's Blog:

Entries in Moral Philosophy (36)


Anscombe's "Intention"

I recently picked up Elizabeth Anscombe's monograph, Intention, for a second time after an abortive first attempt to get through it. As before, I found the first half dry and abstract and overly focused on what I take to be the minutia of usage re: some key words and, especially, "intention." But this time I saw the first half through and went on to finish the book. It was better, because of the second half, than I initially thought.

Anscombe contended that one could not properly engage in ethics (the doing of moral philosophy) if one had not already developed a suitable analysis of the concept of intentions, the personal element in every morally relevant human action. Intentions underlie, and so underwrite, human activity in its deliberative mode even if there is a wide range of human actions for which the idea of what is intended is irrelevant. It is the intention of the human agent, she thinks, that gives the act to moral evaluation. We don't judge involuntary or reflex or coerced actions in terms of their rightness or wrongness, of course, but keep such forms of judging for those acts which we think about and choose to do for reasons. Yet, the concept of intention is an odd one as Anscombe demonstrates in the first half of this ninety four page monograph. . . .

Click to read more ...


Right and wrong in the light of modern approaches to morality; has the Christian perspective anything to offer?

In the first part of the essay I consider whether reason is all we need to work out our moral standards. Many feel that Christianity has inhibited moral development rather than enhanced it; criticisms of the church and how scriptures are used to frighten people into moral compliance abound in the media. There is a feeling that the church does not recognise the moral sensibilities that all societies exhibit and we have reached a point where we no longer need any kind of religion to guide us.

The second part takes a closer look at morality in a world where there is no perceived proof of a God, where we have a naturalistic explanation of the origin of our species, and where philosophers have begun to deconstruct some old ideas which remain in our thinking but are now out-dated. The modern idea that morality and meaning is only a function of human relationships is explored.

There is no assertion that Christians have any kind of moral superiority over others so as to coerce or intimidate people into behaving in preferred ways. Such methods are diametrically opposite to Christ’s view of how to influence others. Rather the idea is that we should consider Christ’s teaching about morality in a reflective, rational and humble fashion. In that context, the purpose of this essay is for Christians to realise that there is no cause for their beliefs to be consigned to intellectual antiquity. . . .

Click to read more ...


Dewey Does Ethics

Updated on July 8, 2015 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

As noted earlier, I've recently become interested in American Pragmatism as a serious school of philosophy. After having given it exceedingly short shrift in my college days and ignored it for some 40 years I was recently awakened to its possibilities after reading Robert Brandom's account of its role in his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas and listening to him connect pragmatism to the English analytical tradition in Anglo-American philosophy in a presentation he made at Cambridge a while back which is available in full on YouTube. Most recently an old professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper he'd written on John Dewey to read and offer some feedback on. Until then I hadn't thought much of Dewey though I'd only read a little of him as an undergrad. But the Marantz paper offered a picture of the man which struck a chord in my own thinking.

Heretofore, I had largely equated pragmatism with William James and, indeed, I'd recently completed reading James' Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (available in a single volume with an introduction by A.J. Ayer asserting that James' pragmatism was very much in line with the English empiricists and, indeed, the logical positivists and other analytic schools). Surprisingly, James in those books repeatedly alludes to Dewey and the importance of his work, indeed suggesting that John Dewey was a better expositor of Pragmatism than he was. James, of course, is considered the most influential and best articulator of pragmatism among the three founding fathers of that school (C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey). So I was naturally further intrigued by his allusions and deference to Dewey. I ended up getting hold of what I found billed as one of Dewey's most definitive works of philosophy, the one that best summarized his views on philosophy and its various concerns: Reconstruction in Philosophy. The book consists of a series of lectures by Dewey, some of which are quite good (especially the first, I thought) and some only middling because they are somewhat repetitive and sometimes fuzzy in their explication. Still, it's a worthwhile book, even if it's only a bit more than 120 pages. If one can bear with Dewey's penchant for repetition and sometimes difficult constructions, it's a valuable work indeed.

I won't attempt to explicate the overall picture of philosophy Dewey is at pains, in that material, to present. But his take on ethics does offer a useful antidote to some of the metaphysical excesses and conceptual confusions that bedevil so much of traditional ethical theory. Dewey starts by rejecting the idea that anything can be intrinsically good or bad, i.e., good or bad in itself. The classic distinction which divides ends from means and suggests that all value claims must involve some ultimate valuation, some end towards which everything else of value is only a means, is mistaken he thinks. He rejects entirely the idea that goodness (or badness) is fixed in this sense and suggests, instead, that what's good or bad is, as with most everything else, only that for someone and so is dependent on that individual's, that valuer's, interests for its valuational status, interests which may be variegated and without discernible limit from individual to individual. (He does not, by this, mean to suggest that human beings are not finite creatures with limited capacities and needs which such finitude suggests, of course.)

For Dewey, that which is good is so only to the extent it is good for someone and being good for someone depends on its meeting specific needs that individual has. Such needs may vary from individual to individual (there are no fixed goods in the universe in Dewey's view that exist independent of those who count them as good, no bottom line principles of action to which we must adhere). All our valuational choices, including our moral ones, will depend on who and what we are and what that entails for us in terms of actions. Goodness and badness is realized in action not contemplation or speculative theorizing, just as, for Dewey, is the case for all of knowledge. Action comes first, not thought -- for thought, on his view, occurs only within the context of acting agents. . . .

Click to read more ...


The Purpose of Moral Philosophy?

I recently had a discussion with Professor Adrienne Martin of Claremont McKenna College who had argued in a recent paper (An Argument for Compassion) that the key to understanding moral argument (the basis for our moral claims) lies in recognizing that 1) it stems from having the experience of compassion (i.e., feeling and acting compassionately towards others) and that 2) the rational element (the argument for it) lies in showing others that they want compassion shown toward themselves by others and that, in wanting that, they must rationally commit to being compassionate towards others, too -- this, on the grounds, that no one can rationally expect compassion towards themselves if they don't offer it to others.

This resonates, to some extent, with Schopenhauer's argument that moral acts are grounded in our feelings with regard to others and these are of three general types:

1) self-interestedness;

2) malice towards others; or

3) compassion for others.

Schopenhauer maintained in his essay On the Basis of Morals that, because human feeling of these three sorts underpin all human action, Kant was wrong to suppose one could derive moral rules from the rules of rationality itself (the logic of reasoning) since one cannot reason oneself into particular feelings but our reason reflects the feelings we have (the motivations we want to satisfy). Instead of supposing that reason can lead us to feeling one way instead of another, Schopenhauer claimed that we are simply going to feel like acting in the right way or not and, if we have the right feelings, we will act rightly. But, for Schopenhauer (as it had been for Hume), reasoning is irrelevant except at the margins. No amount of reasoning can get us to what we typically take to be moral behavior (i.e., instances of caring about others, as evidenced through our acts, without regard to our own interests).

To get to that point one has to see the world in a certain way, to recognize its fundamental unity of all existence beneath the observable surface of things. In so doing, Schopenhauer concluded, we realize that we are all part of a common existence, not distinct entities alone but part of a single shared tapestry of being underwritten by a deeper metaphysical being which all the individual things of our experience are expressions of, a common underlying being that manifests itself in the world as multiplicity. Having come to this realization, Schopenhauer held that one's petty concerns, reflecting the multiplicity, dissolve away. Thus, one ceases to see oneself as separate, one's interests as one's own, and, instead shares in the sense of oneness with all other beings. Out of this, Schopenhauer argued, compassion naturally arises but no amount of argument, he insisted, may get us there because seeing the world in this fashion is very difficult, open only to a few, and requires far more than what is normally taken to be justified by particular arguments for or against different behaviors.

For Schopenhauer, moral argument is a charade, mostly about manipulating our fellows towards preferred behaviors. Kant, he argued, had been badly mistaken in supposing one could develop and reach sound moral conclusions (justify one's moral claims, i.e., the values we suppose to underlie moral choice in a rational way) by resort to reason alone. Only a few saintly souls in the world ever attain to the experience of compassion towards others, which Schopenhauer equated with being moral (acting fairly and justly towards others). In keeping with this Schopenhaurean insight about the place of compassion in our moral constellation of values, Adrienne M. Martin argues in her paper for what she calls

. . . the intrinsic moral value of compassion . . . without compassion, we fail to respond to the intrinsic nature and value of personhood or humanity

Click to read more ...


Response to Strawson on the Impossibility of Moral Responsibility

In a 2008 paper published in Real Materialism and Other Essays by Galen Strawson (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 2008) and uploaded onto academia.edu by the author, Galen Strawson argues for the impossibility of what he terms ultimate moral responsibility. He does so based on the argument that nothing can be the cause of itself (it’s a logical impossibility for there to be uncaused phenomena, events, entities, etc.) and presents his argument in several iterations including a formal argument and a more informal one. Here is one version of his informal statement of his case:

(1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise)

(2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience.

(3)For both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And

(4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience.

(5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is.

He continues:

The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions . . .

By adding the qualifier of “ultimately” to “responsible” he allows moral discourse to incorporate various lesser claims of responsibility. The possibilities may include feelings of responsibility even if we have no objective responsibility as well as distinctly non-moral versions of responsibility (e.g., being obliged to follow some given set of societal prescriptions for prudential reasons). But, in essence, he wants to offer an argument which denies peculiarly moral responsibility and, thus, the validity of supposing we ever really make moral choices in the way we think we do. On this view morality is illusion . . . .

Click to read more ...


Truth, Belief and Moral Reasons

The point of making moral claims is to tell others and ourselves what we should or should not attempt to do. To accomplish this we produce statements about the shoulds and should nots which amount to reasons, i.e., providing our interlocutors (or ourselves) with information whose possession amounts to a source of motivation (a desire and a decision, when that becomes possible) to act. There are many sorts of reasons for acting, of course, including belief in the efficacy of the act for bringing about something we want (or which we believe we should want) or belief in the desirability (for whatever reason) of the act or object of the act, itself. Reasons stand at the heart of moral claims. And they imply a demand for justification because no reason stands alone. It's always part of a string of justifications: do this because of that, because of something else, etc. But reasons come to an end. If they did not, we would always be arguing (with others or ourselves) and never acting. At some point we must agree that something is reason enough or else the process is never ending and cannot result in action.

Sometimes we just stop the process of justifying arbitrarily. We grow tired, either explicitly or implicitly, and finally act, or desist from acting, without demand for further reasons. And many actions we take are done with no prior consideration of explicit reasons at all. We just act -- and perhaps compile and report our reasons after the fact. Actions are not dependent on reasoning to be actions although deliberating about what we should do and then doing it (or not) represents a large class of our actions as human beings. Those actions which we deliberate about, seeking for, and adducing and evaluating reasons, before acting, are the ones that are generally relevant to moral considerations. Actions performed instinctively, reflexively or mechanically (perhaps by habit or conditioning) fall outside the realm of moral consideration (except to the extent that we can address and alter our habits, conditioning and so forth). Morally relevant actions are those which we have the capacity to think about and weigh our alternatives before and during the acts themselves.

But to think about our actions in this way implies something else, namely that there is a potential for our beliefs about them to be correct or incorrect, true or false, thus worthy of our attention and action or not. . . .

Click to read more ...


Logic, Value and Our Moral Claims

When we think about language, logic seems to be an intrinsic part of what we have in mind. It’s logic, after all, i.e., the rules of relations between expressions of thought as realized in language, that make any language intelligible. This seems so because, without such rules built into it, language could not do its job.

To the extent that language is about referring, either by describing or naming (i.e., using words to point out or point at things), logic (the rules by which we put our referring terms together to accomplish the foregoing in complex ways which succeed as communication) is indispensible. And so logic seems an indispensible element of any language that we recognize as a language.

Of course, language consists of more than just the complex process of asserting things about other things. It includes doing things like signaling and expressing our emotional states for the benefit of others (so they will see and react to those expressions) and it’s this aspect in our languages that we find, in various forms, in the broader animal kingdom of which we are a part. Language also includes other types of things we can do with our words such as voicing imperatives (do this, don’t do that) which seem to depend, at least in part on, our assertoric capabilities (the capacity to describe and name things). Language is plainly multi-faceted and at least one more thing we do with words, in the context of speaking a language, is to evaluate the things we make assertions about. Indeed, even the assertions themselves, when these are taken as referents (depictable elements in the world) in their own right, are subject to valuation by us.

Unlike logic, however, which we seem to take on faith, seeing little reason to trouble ourselves about justifying it as part of language, valuing appears to occupy a different niche in our thoughts about language and what we do with it . . . .

Click to read more ...