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)


Rejecting Morality

Continuing my efforts to look at the notion of moral valuing and the different explanations of how it works that it inspires, I recently had occasion to read Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. Actually I read his updated on-line version, Beyond Beyond Morality, which seems to be his effort to improve his earlier published book. Presumably his basic thesis hasn't changed although he has attempted to amplify and strengthen it for his readers. In a nutshell, the book rejects morality as such based on his embrace of the Humean picture of moral judgment being grounded solely in sentiment. But unlike others influenced by the Humean account, such as the non-cognitivists (emotivism, prescriptivism) or the subjectivists (those who ground moral discourse in individual preferences and those who ground it in consensus preference within particular groups), and, of course, unlike intuitionists like Michael Huemer (who argue that moral claims are cognitively respectable because they address rationally knowable facts derived from our concepts, themselves), Garner (like J. L. Mackie before him) rejects the idea that moral claims state any facts at all. There is no moral knowledge, he argues, and that's a good thing . . .

Click to read more ...


Are There Intrinsic Goods?

ONE WAY OF dividing up the different principles by which we acknowledge or ascribe goodness or badness to things (whether objects, actions, goals, states of affairs, etc.) is to suppose that there are some things that are good because they help us achieve other things, some of which must be just good in themselves. The first sort of goodness, the one dependent on the effectiveness of the object of reference (whether physical objects or other type) to perform some function for us or bring something about, is often classified as "extrinsic," as in being outside the object itself. That is, we would not care to obtain or achieve or use such objects if they did not serve our purpose in achieving something else. Some of those things which fit into the class of "something else" are then taken to have so-called "intrinsic" goodness, i.e., to be good no matter what purpose we mean to put them to because we desire their possession just for what they are.

Thus, philosophers have often divided the world of possible goods between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. The notion of extrinsic, or instrumental, goodness is easy enough to understand and largely uncontroversial. We have no reason to doubt the goodness of a thing which serves to get us whatever it is we want, that is to say, we have no reason to doubt its goodness for that purpose. And no one seems disposed to claim that there is no such thing as this kind of goodness (to the extent they are prepared to acknowledge that there is goodness at all). The problem arises when we turn to the moral case, however, for here what we want to call "morally good" produces a special class of things (actions, generally) which, if they are called good just because they are thought to be instrumentally so, do not seem to fit that case.

That is, while there are any number of moral claims we can make, far and away the most important are those which are motivated by concern for another's interest and not strictly for our own. Giving charity, avoidance of doing harm to another, reaching out to support others in moments of pain, respecting their persons, avoiding lying to, stealing from or otherwise injuring them, etc., all typically fall under the moral case. And yet, if we do any of these sorts of things because we wish to obtain some benefit for ourselves, we would not grant that they were motivated in a moral way.

To the extent that we undertake a so-called moral act only to bring about some other good that we want or need for ourselves, that act appears self-interested โ€“ and self-interest abrogates the moral basis since, in any case in which self-interest is the predominant basis for acting, a different action, which lacks moral standing according to ordinary moral usage, may be justified or more justified. And so the fact that a presumptively morally good act may be justified by self-interest undermines that very justification for, if some things were different, the same justification would support our acting in what we take to be an immoral way . . . .

Click to read more ...


A Moral Conversation

Over the summer my wife and I tend to get to spend more time together and today we took a long drive which is often the place where I get to apply some of my thoughts on how things are to real life. On the drive home we passed a building in a serious state of disrepair. It used to be a "gentleman's club" which prominently displayed its wares on it's billboard like front, until some of the more morally minded in the local community took up arms over the somewhat audacious displays. Personally I had no objection to the long limbed figures depicted in spike heels (the place called itself "High Heels" as I recall) or the other sometimes quite frank images of the "hostesses" within. But a colleague of my wife's had objected. A single mother, she is raising her boys alone and she felt it was inappropriate for them to be exposed to such images when, driving by with her, they couldn't help but notice. So she joined a petition drive to shut High Heels down and, in time, they succeeded. The result, now, is a derelict building without occupant or purpose. But no more scantily clad gals displayed to the driving public either.

I made this point to my wife and noted that I kind of missed the images. After all, at least from my perspective they were not entirely unpleasant to look at. More importantly, they were nicer to look at than the now decrepit structure that met our eyes as we drove past this afternoon. My wife snarled at me that it was inappropriate and that I shouldn't have been looking at those images either. After all, would I want my daughters or granddaughters to parade about like that? If I wouldn't, she declared, then why would I want other men's daughters to be doing that?

I said, hold on a minute. Everyone is somebody's son or daughter, aren't they and some people do things like that. Why should their being someone's daughter matter if they wanted to do it? It's a free country, after all, I added, and no one was forcing these young ladies to engage in such activities. That didn't assuage my wife's annoyance though. So I tried another tack. . . .

Click to read more ...


Philosophy and Practicality

Updated on July 29, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Not being a member of the academic community of philosophers, and yet having an abiding interest in that community's subject matter (some elements of it, at any rate), I have often wondered about the meaningfulness of the field. This is partly a reflection of my own decision more than 40 years ago not to pursue a a graduate philosophy degree (I doubted my ability to make a mark in that particular arena and also the value of doing so). I was drawn to Wittgenstein back then, perhaps partly because he seemed to be the epitome of the anti-philosopher but, I think, even more because his strategy and approach to the business philosophers did seemed to clarify so many of my own concerns. I was caught in the web of idealism at the time, after a flirtation with logical positivism and, briefly, American pragmatism. But I was always and primarily drawn to the analytic approach of which Wittgenstein was a part even after leaving that reservation in his later years. The fact that there seemed to be no solutions to the pressing philosophical questions both kept my head spinning and suggested, to me at least, the virtual pointlessness of bothering with such questions. Yet I could not simply divest myself of them, not even after exposure to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

I spent a number of years, after graduating, still troubling the same philosophical bones but finally gave it all up entirely and moved on. Yet, in my later years I've found myself drawn back to these kinds of concerns. Although I have improved my understanding of many of the issues and, I think, of Wittgenstein himself, it has seemed to me that there are still areas worth chewing over for those who are philosophically inclined. Of course, if Wittgenstein was right in his later years, we're all better off moving on to more practical endeavors but perhaps, when one has finished the practical part of one's life, a return to philosophy is just what's called for. And so I've engaged on and off over the years in philosophical discussions on Internet sites like this one. They have not always been satisfying but have often been edifying. . . .

Click to read more ...


Searle's "Solution" to the Ethics Quandary

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

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

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

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. . . .

Click to read more ...


The Moral and the Mental

One of the issues that has come into focus for me while exploring the best way of accounting for (and so of explaining) how moral valuing works is the importance, in all this, of a robust picture of the self. That is, the elements we associate with subjectivity, with being a subject, seem to be critical in any account of moral valuing, not only because valuing itself implies the presence of a subject but because what is of particular interest in the moral game is the value placed on the self, i.e., the acting subject. Thus there is a need to presume the reality of the self in a way that sometimes seems to imply "entity." But, of course, given the insights of many modern philosophers, especially Wittgenstein, we don't want to do that for selves aren't things, aren't existents that parallel the bodies which have them!

The species of valuing which we call "moral" considers the quality of agents' acts and that quality can only be assessed if the acts in question are seen in their entirety and not in piecemeal fashion (which is how acts gain value for us when we are valuing the things they can obtain, achieve or produce for us). To make a moral judgment about an act, we have to go beyond the derivative value accorded the act as means to end. We have to consider the act as a whole. So what's involved in seeing an act in its entirety? Well, to the extent an act consists of certain physical events brought about by an agent, and, in a more extended sense, in certain outcomes those events achieve for the agent, it also consists of what the agent intends, i.e., what the agent undertakes the act in order to accomplish. And intentions, whatever else we may want to say of them, are mental phenomena. They happen in the minds of agents, in the thoughts, beliefs, wishes and inclinations which agents have and which underlie, in a generative sense, the acts performed. . . .

Click to read more ...


Searle on the Is/Ought Dichotomy

In continuing to review what's left of my library post Sandy's flood in our region, I came across a small paperback, Theories of Ethics, edited by Philippa Foot. I did remember reading this one and found, as I paged through it, plenty of handwritten notes on the book's pages. I almost never write in book margins. It just seems wrong to me. But I obviously did so at that point, probably reflecting my effort to develop an ethics theory of my own which back in the seventies I was very keen on attempting. Never quite succeeded at it, of course, and nowadays I am leery of any sort of theory development in a field like this for Wittgensteinian reasons. But back then it's apparent I had fewer inhibitions in the matter. Anyway, the book consists of a series of articles gathered, and commented on in a foreword, by Foot who was then the pre-eminent exponent of naturalism in ethics and regarded as a major thinker in the field. One of the pieces she re-printed, it turns out, was an article by our old friend John Searle, How to Derive Ought from Is. It's followed by a piece by R. M. Hare (another major ethical thinker of the time) attacking Searle's position. Hare, of course, was defending his own view that the function of commending is radically different from describing and that one achieves moral claims by combining commendatory principles, to which one chooses to subscribe, with factual assertions to yield logically sound conclusions which serve as particular moral oughts. Searle had offered a different view. . . .

Click to read more ...