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Entries in moral valuing (9)


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

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The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part II (Agency and Cognition)


Morally Relevant Features

To understand actions and how we can value them in terms of the intentions which underlie them (and which are thus expressed by them), we first have to arrive at an understanding of just what intentions are. And here we have to consider what we mean by the term itself. The word “intention,” when we think about it, doesn’t seem to name anything in particular that we can point at. When we look closely, in fact, there seems to be nothing there. Yet we cannot simply abandon the notion of intention without also abandoning the idea of agential action for if we don’t act for reasons, if we don’t have intentions when acting, which we can report to ourselves or others, if we only behave mechanically (in the fashion of machines), then there can be nothing to hold others or ourselves accountable for. Yet, it’s to this very possibility of accountability that we look when we wish to explain the difference between human and mechanical behavior.

We live in a world in which talk of reasons underpins talk of behavior in creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it cannot even make sense to speak of valuing without a notion of intention – for it takes a thinking subject, with the capacity to think about what it’s doing, before and while doing it, to engage in the very activity we call “valuing.” This activity is first and foremost a rational activity. It’s the process of finding and giving reasons for the different choices we decide to implement through our actions. But what are these strange things, these “intentions” which our reasons express and whose existence we must grant if we’re to make intelligible claims about the kind of behavior we find in ourselves and which those reasons we offer (to others and ourselves) give voice to?

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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 Inventory of Value Approaches re: Moral Questions

Have been thinking a lot recently about the range of "theories" that have been current at one time or another in the history of philosophical inquiry into moral claims and of human claims about behavioral goodness in general. While it's hard to capture everything, I have compiled what seems to me a fairly exhaustive list of different moral "theories" which include some twenty possibilities. Of course I'm sure this isn't exhaustive and there are probably many nuances I have not adequately captured. Moreover, there are some strong similarities among some of the categories which suggests room for disagreement about which qualifies as which. I've tried in what follows to sort them as cleanly as I can and to identify a few of the main thinkers associated with each (where there are such associations to be made)

In the final analysis, I think it can be helpful to look at the range of possibilities and see what fits where and who and what may have been left out:

The Scope of Moral Accounts

Naturalistic Accounts (What we call "good" is some feature or phenomenon of the natural world.)


The Greeks broke ground by offering a variety of explanations which sought to go beyond the priestly and social admonitions of their particular culture, including that which we mean by our uses of the word “good.” The good, they proposed, was variously:

1) Whatever counts as the fullest exercise of man’s unique capabilities . . .

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Acts, Intentions and Agents

Writing at page 174 of his book, Our Knowledge of Fact and Value, Hall makes the point that

Our moral and aesthetic judgments are not about our emotions; they are renditions of our emotions, having the same object as our emotions have, saying (in part) exactly what our emotions say. They are expressions of emotions.

Here, it seems to me, is the crux of Hall's claims about value and our knowledge of it. He seems to want to say that valuing is just the expression of our emotions and that emotion language is like descriptive language (contra Hume) in that both are directed at objects, both refer and thus both types of language say something that is determinable from the facts. But there are certain differences in the logic he notes, for descriptive statements are true or false based on the adequacy with which they depict the facts which our perceptions capture for us while:

Evaluative sentences in conventional language receive whatever probability they have from their truthfulness to emotions.

He adds

I need not remark that the 'truthfulness' to which I refer is not correctness of depiction but faithfulness of translation.

In this way, Hall sets out to explode the Humean account which severs fact from value. . .

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Quine on Ethics

Quine's basic position on ethics, as expressed in this clip


seems to be that judgments of moral valuation have "no analog" with questions of scientific facts (assignment of truth values to statements about the world). Thus, in the end, moral judgment can be nothing but a reflection of what we have been taught to believe or what is inherent in us based on natural selection. Quine is paraphrased here, by one of his interlocutors, as saying the best that you can get in moral valuation are claims reflecting a kind of coherence theory, while in science you can get statements according to a kind of correspondence theory. Hence he appears to agree with the old Humean notion that one cannot derive an ought from an is.

In science and ordinary talk about the world, Quine holds that what we can say is determined by our inputs from the world around us but, in terms of moral judgments, what we can say is entirely determined by what we intuit, by how we feel about things. He allows that we can argue the facts of moral cases, of course, and so come to different conclusions even where we seem to share similar feelings or predispositions about the elements of the case, but his bottom line seems to be consistent with Hume's suggestion that moral judgment is entirely determined by our sensibilities -- which can be subject to change, of course, although not consciously by ourselves, for on this view we just are whatever our inclinations and feelings are . . .

Click to read more ...