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Entries in Moral Philosophy (36)


MORAL REASONING: A "Wittgensteinian" Approach

Over the weekend I've done a bit of searching through what's left of my books since Hurricane Sandy swept through our community and destroyed a decades old library I had built up which my wife had insisted I keep in our basement. I found a volume published in 1969 that I had once picked up in a second hand bookstore back in the late seventies/early eighties but never had time to read (or perhaps I just lost track of it). It's called Moral Reasoning by a British philosopher I hadn't heard of before named R. W. Beardsmore. I'd obviously picked it up because of my interest, even then, in moral philosophy. Perhaps I started to read it and laid it aside but I have no recollection of doing so. Must have meant to get to it but lost track of it. Anyway, I read it today and was pleasantly surprised. Beardsmore makes an attempt to give an account of moral valuing from a Wittgensteinian perspective. And it's a good try, too.

He begins by taking on the two prominent British moral philosophers of his era, R. M. Hare and Philippa Foot, maintaining that both have the matter quite wrong. . . .

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Realizational Ethics

I have long felt that a philosophy of "isms" was a mistake. That is, I actively argued against the practice of philosophy as metaphysical speculation, the kind of thing where philosophers develop systems to explain everything (or at least everything about the world they can think of) and name their particular approach with a term ending in an "ism" (idealism, dualism, realism and the like). But I think I was wrong about the "ism" part for that isn't the issue at all. There is, after all, something to be said for naming a view, not least because, if done well, it can provide a convenient handle for naming the claim or account under discussion. And ending such a name with "ism," doesn't, in itself, imply a metaphysical thesis or claim. This has been brought home to me most recently in my ongoing attempt to tease out a coherent account of the thing we do called "moral valuing" (as in making, arguing about, justifying and recognizing our moral claims).

Since Sean began this site, I have spent a good deal of time trying to develop a coherent account of my own concerning moral claims and many of my entries here have been directed at that objective. Of course, I don't know how well I've actually done thus far. Many of the posts I've put on this site could certainly stand re-writing although, at this stage, I'm unlikely to attempt that -- not here anyway. Nevertheless, going through the exercise of composing these posts has been helpful to me, at least, and at this point I think I have reached a fairly coherent account of what I want to say (though perhaps it will not meet with wide agreement on this list -- whatever really does?). . . .

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An Evolutionary Biological Theory of Morality  

Have recently finished reading James Q. Wilson's book, The Moral Sense, which presents an anthropological/sociological account of (and case for) the role of moral judgments in human experience. He argues that morality, or moral valuing, is grounded in four basic capacities we humans have because of our natures, reflecting the kind of creatures we have evolved into over the eons. We are, he reminds us, fundamentally social creatures and this requires certain capacities which we have developed as a species. He lists these as sympathy (caring about others in some cases), fairness (preferring equitable outcomes to inequitable ones), self-control (the capacity to restrain our desires and needs in order to attain our goals) and duty (the capacity to recognize situations in which we must subordinate our needs to requirements defined by others). He argues that these four competences, which most humans share because of genetic inheritance, provide the bedrock on which our social structures are built. He then proposes that the moral claims, beliefs and judgments we make arise as a function of the various culture-specific schemas that human beings develop in the many different societal groups that humans form.

These social forms of life may all be quite different across the planet because there's lots of room for variation, both because of environmental demands and the stickiness of practices which manifest as social conventions, but, he suggests, there are also certain core similarities among most humans which form the ground on which all social phenomena and institutions stand, i.e., the four capacities/competences he identifies as the basis for social groupings. . . .

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The Case for a "Sentimentalist" Account of Moral Claims

I've rethought the Prinz article on the argument for "sentimentalism" as an explanation of moral valuing and now think that this does deserve a post of its own. Jesse Prinze presents his case for explaining moral valuation as emotional reactions based on some scientific studies of actual moral judgment-making among subjects in relation to their detected, hypothezised or reported emotional states in that article. He does this in light of the powerful critique offered by David Hume centuries ago which asserted that moral claims are just expressions of sentiment, reflecting our human inclinations to approve or disapprove of things around us and the training and education we have received which develops certain sentiments in us and, perhaps, suppresses others.

Since Hume this has been an important challenge to those wishing to make something more of moral valuation than just the idea that it merely expresses some feelings we happen to have because feelings, as Hume suggested, cannot really be argued for while moral claims seem to involve argumentation (we think we can give reasons for the claims of this sort that we can make, reasons which others will find convincing if understood aright). . . .

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How to Derive "Ought" from "Is"

Back when I was in college and taking up philosophy, the received opinion concerning ethics claims, the standard doctrine espoused by all my teachers, was that, since Hume at least, we can all agree that one can't derive "ought" statements from "is" statements, that is claims about what we ought to do in any given case do not follow based on the descriptions of the facts of the case alone. Of course, this is moderated somewhat by the realization that some "is" statements present us with reasons to make "ought" claims to the extent that we are so inclined and that we believe others share the same inclinations that we do. Confronted with a fact that prompts us to choose X, for instance, we will naturally expect that someone else with values like ours will be susceptible to the same prompt and recognize the same reason to act as we do. To the extent moral assertions are built on that, it is possible to move in a seemingly logical way from what there is to what we ought to do about it. But the problem, particularly in the moral case, boils down to situations where the prompts themselves are in question.

If seeing someone in danger or in pain serves to prompt me to try to alleviate the conditions causing the other person pain or putting them in danger, it doesn't follow that that prompt will have the same effect on someone else. Nor does it follow that it should have that effect on me if it so happens that it doesn't. This is the problem of deriving oughts from is's. And it lies at the very heart of the moral case.

Since Hume this has been standard stuff in moral philosophy . . .

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Obligation and Goodness

As Duncan Richter has pointed out, Anscombe and some others reject the idea of duty-based ethics, of morality as obligation. Setting aside, for the moment, Anscombe's additional rejection of the term "moral," as it is ordinarily used, and her apparent preference for "ethical" in lieu of "moral," and taking both terms, for argument's sake, to be roughly the same in ordinary use, what we're left with is the question of whether the idea of obligation underlies moral judgments or vice versa. That is, do we have certain obligations because we recognize them as morally good or do we find the morally good by recognizing certain obligations which we cannot shirk? Richter writes that Anscombe rejected the idea that moral claims were founded on duties of this sort and, in doing so, apparently rejected the very notion of a duty-based ethics . . .

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Empathy and Reasons

This is a very preliminary draft which I expect will require a lot of revision. It's also longer than my usual offerings here which aren't especially short in general anyway. I also diverge here from the typical Wittgensteinian path I usually follow and verge, dangerously, on a kind of existentialist incoherence. I hope to fix that in a later iteration. But for now I've decided to put this up on the list anyway . . . in case anyone here shares my interest in trying to understand and explain how moral valuing works.

Wittgenstein pointed out that the search for justifications, for reasons, ultimately comes to an end. We can only dig so deeply and then, as he put it, our spade is turned. We can go no further. But valuing is a reason-giving game since in making any ascription of value we do so with reasons in mind. Not to have reasons leaves us without a basis for valuing the thing at all – in which case, even if our spade is turned at some point, it cannot be turned here, within the valuing game itself, or that game must collapse. Without the reasons we give others and ourselves – which reflect comparisons of different things, of different options, of different possibilities – value cannot be ascribed. Reasons are the explanations we give ourselves and others when called upon to justify what we do. . . .

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