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Entries in Moral Philosophy (36)


The Moral Way

What is it that we want to find in intentions, manifested by agents through their actions, to warrant ascriptions of moral value?

Although we may consider a great many issues – from how we comport ourselves in public or private, to what we have for dinner and whom we choose to marry – to be moral questions, there’s such a broad range of these that it’s not a simple matter to sort them all out – or to distinguish between them. Sometimes what we deem “moral” is just what fits with certain codes of conduct we acknowledge although, at other times, we may think it right to dispute the codes themselves. If the moral dimension involves assessment of intent, can the intent to abide by a given code be enough to establish a judgment of moral goodness?

If the code itself can be questioned, on what basis can a presumably right intent prevail where even particular moral codes are subject to moral consideration? A code that urges vengeance in blood, for instance, might seem morally unappealing to many in the modern world even as it may remain compellingly attractive to members of cultures in which it represents the norm. Just being the norm cannot be enough to render something morally good then.

What then do we look to? And how do we reconcile conflicting moral claims and codes?

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Intentions and Selves (3rd Re-Write)

If moral valuing treats of intentions, and intentions are part of every action, what is it about them that excites our moral judgment?

Why is an action such as the purchase of an ice cream cone, to satisfy our own need or desire for it, subject only to evaluation based on the value we place on the ice cream – or on the capacity of the selected actions to acquire it – but, if we consider the intention behind the act, insofar as it relates to other persons, we see it in an entirely different way? Here is where the question of our feelings toward our fellows (and those we take to be equivalent) kicks in.

Intentions are a different sort of thing than the physical phenomena which the action, the items, or the states of affairs desired, are. There’s no actual thing we can point to as the “intention” and yet we cannot explain agential behavior without it. Agential behavior supposes motives, aims – that the actions are performed for a reason. And it takes an intentional agent to have reasons.

Daniel Dennett proposes that we recognize intentions in another by taking what he calls the “intentional stance,” one of three possible “stances” available to us in relation to things in the world . . .

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Act and Intent

Considering the features of any action which may warrant moral claims

All valuing assumes both choice (the possibility of selecting different courses of behavior) and action (the physical events which constitute the behaviors selected). Seen in this way, value can be assigned to any action along three vectors:

1) Intent (the purpose for which the action is undertaken)

2) Events (the physical phenomena associated with the act); and

3) Outcomes (the physical phenomena or states of affairs which the act is undertaken to secure)

That is, the sort of valuing we are now considering (this excludes uses of “value” which share the name but involve different practices such as truth values or fixing a symbol with some content) is always about picking an action to perform – either ourselves or to recommend or prescribe for another. To do this sort of thing we must look at the actions themselves to find features in them that commend the actions to us or should, in our estimate, commend them to others.

But if every action can be looked at along these three vectors, we have to determine how they relate both to one another and in light of the kinds of reasons we may give to justify a claim of having found value in them.

Consider a simple act like purchasing an ice cream cone. . .

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Finding reasons to do good

Empathy, the recognition of the experience of others, as if we ourselves were experiencing it, begins with similarities of behaviors . . ., similarities sufficient to convince us that we are in the presence of another mind, behaviors which we seem to be “programmed” to recognize and react to. It’s a species tool, one may say, for enabling a certain level of interaction with others of our kind – and, sometimes, beyond our kind . . .

To the extent empathy is just one of a variety of characteristics and behavioral traits that we happen to inherit from our progenitors, it’s not a given that we all have it, or that we all have it to the same degree. Genes have been known to misfire or even drop out of individual members of a species and so the expressions of them are lost. To the extent empathy, which enables us to identify with others – to put ourselves in their shoes and so feel their pains and joys as if they were our own – is just an inherited trait, it cannot be praised nor, its absence, condemned.

Yet much of what we think of as moral behavior hangs on empathy, on not doing to another what we would not have done to us or, put another and slightly more parochial way, of treating our neighbors as ourselves . . .

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The Value of Persons

The distinguishing characteristics of attributions of moral value and why adherence to a traditional interpretation of Wittgenstein on the private/public language distinction may not be enough.

An inquiry into the nature of moral judgments is not about whether this or that individual (or action) is moral but about whether there is anything at all that warrants being called moral and, if so, what is it and why? Particular moral codes or standards may or may not be moral at all in fact, and actual moral codes may be in conflict with one another, at least as regards particular and often critical issues so the point of a philosophical inquiry into moral questions cannot be to discover who or what is morally good but to discover what, if anything, moral goodness is. If moral judgments are an exercise in assessing a certain kind of value, suitable for a certain sort of thing, then they will be seen to be a sub-class of a more general category of value judgment. What distinguishes the sub-class we call moral is what we want to make clear.

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The Curiosity of Moral Claims

Are there reasons to be good?

. . . Moral valuing is about nothing less than valuing or disvaluing particular behaviors, either in isolation or as part of a continuum of activity we may undertake. And moral questions look like questions concerning what we should or should not do under certain circumstances . . . questions which go beyond the issue of what pleases us at this, or some future, moment. If it were just a matter of doing what pleases us, then, indeed, no action we can imagine could qualify as moral under the usual interpretation of that word. If we do what we do for our own benefit, for our advancement, for our pleasure, etc., then however moral a particular action may look to an outsider, lacking access to our motives, we would not as observers, if given sufficient information about the true motives behind it to recognize it as self-interested, agree that it was morally done.

Setting aside for the moment the notion that even actions unmotivated by a moral decision may have a good effect and may thus be deemed praiseworthy at some level, the realization that one chose the action in question for a non-moral, perhaps even an immoral, reason would fatally undermine its apparent praiseworthiness to any moral observer . . .

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Value and Moral Choice

Begins to consider the basis and justifications for making moral claims and relates this to the role of valuing and the nature of lawmaking itself.

Valuing is that added step we take concerning our needs, desires, preferences and so forth, when we arrange the possible things we can acquire or do along a hierarchy of choice. It’s an aspect of the reasoning process. Without the ability to differentiate and prioritize in this way, we could not act based on reasons but could, at best, be reactive, impetuous creatures only, choosing this or that in accord with the moment’s stimuli. And so it is with most of our animal brethren. But as you go up the evolutionary hierarchy, as you get to the point where an entity can think about its world and imagine a future, while remembering a past in relation to its present, the capacity to engage in this kind of thinking, to set values and act on them, becomes possible.

Can a dog value its food? Or its owner? Or the time allotted to it in the local park to run free in the open air? It seems difficult to imagine a creature with no more than a dog's capabilities valuing anything at all. It can certainly want those things and behave accordingly. But, to the extent it cannot think of them conceptually, cannot hold an idea of them in the abstract in its head, it seems odd to say that it it is valuing them.

And yet there is no great difference between a dog’s desire or need for its food, or for open air play, and our own . . .

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