The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part I (Valuing)
December 8, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Belief, Moral Philosophy, Moral Realism, Stuart Mirsky, Valuing

IF VALUING is just the activity we must be capable of in order to reason about, and so interact with, things in the world (i.e., the capacity to arrange our options in some preferential order by sorting them in ways that allow for selectional differentiation), then moral valuing will involve applying this kind of activity to phenomena of the type we count as morally relevant, namely, to actions. To the extent moral judgments are about actions then (i.e., about distinguishing them along some preferential grid – just as we distinguish other referents in other valuing cases), what will be needed, in moral terms, is a way of determining the relevant markers that constitute a sorting standard suitable for actions.

Of course, not all evaluations of actions are about moral claims since every action we take in the course of deliberation expresses some underlying valuation and actions may be valued and evaluated in terms of those, too. That is, we often value actions for their role in these other types of valuation by considering them in terms of how, and to what extent, they serve as a means for securing other valued ends. Actions may thus be viewed either from a non-moral or a moral perspective.

Valuing as Giving Reasons

When we concern ourselves with the value of things which are objects of our behavior, our behavior expresses that value and is itself valued to the degree its performance is likely to realize the objective(s) in question. But what’s meant by valuing things in this sense?

I may call a scoop of ice cream, or a book, “good” and by this only mean that the ice cream is suitable for eating because it has a taste I consider desirable (and think you will, too), or that the book is one you should have on your shelf, read on your summer vacation or just shell out some cash for at your local book store. If pressed, I may offer still other reasons to back up these. The ice cream is good for you or will introduce you to a new flavor or the book is well written, will give you pleasure, you have something to learn from it, etc. If, when pressed, I can’t say why I think the ice cream is worth eating or the book worth reading my judgment of goodness in such cases must be suspect, for my use of “good” serves in such cases as a proxy for these other, more detailed statements I can make. By using a blanket term like “good” I am informing others that I can provide reasons for recommending the items in question and my ascription of goodness serves to inform you that I have reasons to offer. But if I have no reasons, then my speaking of a thing as “good” seems to make no sense, for what could I have meant if I can’t say, when asked, why I have called something good? The term, “good,” acts as a kind of shorthand for the reasons I may have for recommending the item in question. It stands in for those reasons and serves to alert you that I have them and that I can be expected to provide them on demand.

Thus “good,” when used this way (and not merely as an expletive or a praise term which are other ways we may use the word), is best understood as a generalization we make about the status of the object we have characterized in this way. If more is demanded, we will flesh out our use with a litany of further explanations but how many reasons I have to offer, or which ones I select, are not fixed for “good” does not stand in for any one thing, for any single reason, but for all those statements I can make and have in mind (either explicitly or implicitly) when characterizing something as “good.” It implies an indeterminate set of claims that stand behind each such use.

An ascription of goodness is thus a statement about the role the item so described plays for us in terms of actions we have the potential to take with regard to that item. Calling something “good” announces to others (and sometimes to ourselves) that the thing we’re calling that presents us with reasons for choosing it, under the right circumstances, reasons that arise from the thing’s possession of certain features which can motivate us to act if and when other appropriate facts obtain. If I think something is good, what I mean by saying so is just that I have reasons, or I think you have, to seek to acquire it, take it up, choose it, pursue it, practice it, etc.

But the reasons I can give will vary according to the type of thing valued. It would make no sense, for instance, to speak of a book’s goodness as being determined by how it tastes, or the ice cream’s by its capacity to serve as a doorstop, decorate a coffee table or provide a thrilling read. The goodness is not an added feature the thing has but the status of the thing in question, a status it has because of what we think about some of those features it possesses. An assertion of goodness is therefore best understood as a general claim about a thing, a claim which boils down, on examination, to various further relevant claims we can make and which serve as the reasons someone (ourselves or others) may have for acting to secure the thing designated as “good.” Our actions express those reasons.

Reasons and Prompts

The reasons we may invoke in any particular case are not affixed to the things we call “good” in some immutable fashion – either as physical phenomena (observable “features,” “qualities” or “properties” of the thing) or definitionally (by being built into its conceptual meaning). The reasons which make a thing “good,” or otherwise, don’t boil down to some property peculiar to that thing but to the way in which we believe the thing’s properties affect us. Our reasons are only reasons because they describe or denote the motivating effect some element or phenomenon in the world has upon us. That is, our reasons express our belief in the tendency of some particular feature(s) of a thing to justify a decision to act because those features are sought by us in some fashion. The possession of such features is a fact about the thing but the affinity we possess for it is a fact about us.

In the ordinary way “property” is used, goodness is not a property at all. It is, rather, a state or condition in which a thing stands, as part of a relation to some valuer, a relation that’s determined by the effect produced on the valuer via the valuer’s belief in the item in question’s capacity to satisfy some need, want, expectation or objective which the valuer has. The supposition that “good” designates some special property of some things in the way certain predicative terms (“red,” “big,” “soft, “fast,” “round,” “open,” "smooth," "shiny," etc., etc.) are thought to designate particular recognizable physical features of phenomena is mistaken – unless we’re prepared to think of the condition of a thing, i.e., its standing in some relation to us (such that the thing is deemed selectable by us), as a kind of “property,” itself. But this is misleading because it suggests we look to the thing to find the goodness we ascribe to it rather than to the condition or status in which the thing stands, a condition or status that’s relational at bottom because it’s dependent on the presence of a subject with an inclination for the thing because of some of its relevant feature(s). The observable features or properties which the “good” thing has, and which make it good by dint of their effect on some valuing agent, will be whatever tangible aspects it possesses that provide the valuer reason to choose it.

In the same way that words like “here” or “there” designate no particular place but only some place a subject picks out in relation to him or herself at a given instant by use of the terms in question, or “now” and “then” pick out times relative to the moment in which they are invoked, so “good” specifies the state or condition of something as determined by its relation to a valuing subject. Unlike “here” and “there” or “now” and “then,” however, the relation specified is not spatial nor temporal but conceptual because the relation is determined by a series of reasons which derive their explanatory and justificatory potency from their role in expressing our underlying needs, wants, preferences, etc. What makes a thing “good” depends on what we, as valuers, want and, of course, on the features which the designated thing possesses (to the extent those features match what’s wanted). Knowledge of what’s good in any given case is thus both a matter of knowing what features are present in the world and how those features affect us as valuing agents. This means that to know what’s good we must not only have empirical knowledge about the world but also about the wants, needs, etc., of valuers – including our own. A designation of “good” serves to inform others (or ourselves, when we are introspectively deliberating) that there’s something before us which presents us with a reason (or reasons) to act. But it says nothing more about them than that they produce in us the requisite motivational urges we report as our reasons for acting.

As Wittgenstein noted in On Certainty, having knowledge of anything (i.e., having information about something we may feel justified in thinking true) need not conform to a single paradigm. It varies with the terrain. Not all things of which we may feel certain warrant our feeling thus in the same way or for the same sort of reasons. Similarly, knowing what’s good need not follow the same rules as knowing what’s red or green or large or small – or here or there. The fact that being good does not reside in facts about the physical phenomena of the observable world does not undermine its status as information we may possess.

Having information about what’s good is knowledge no less than having information about the chemical formula of a substance, the location of a city, the product of particular mathematical calculation or where the sun rises and sets each day. Knowledge of what’s good (or not) is that to the extent we have information about how various features of the item in question affect us in relation to other things we may come in contact with. So we need not feel disappointed or moved to doubt by a failure to discover a logical proof of something’s goodness or a physical trait it possesses which we take to be equivalent to its presumed goodness. What defines the notion of “good” is the work it does, in this case by enabling us to differentiate between different things we have the power to achieve or secure for ourselves through our actions. The fact that there’s no single reason to be uncovered behind every use of “good” is no more problematic for assertions of goodness than is the realization that there is no single reason (or reason type) for every circumstance in which we may feel certain.

The Moral Case

This applies to the moral use of “good,” too. If I want to make a claim about what’s morally good (what’s the right thing to do) I must have reasons behind my claim just as I need reasons when I want to tell you about a good book or an ice cream flavor I think you’ll enjoy. Of course, the reasons I give for calling an action “good” will differ from those that make books, ice cream cones, or a whole host of other things, from orchestral performances, to career choices, to the schools we attend and the candidates we vote for, good (i.e., the right ones to choose). Actions, being different kinds of things than the objects they are aimed at, can be expected to have their own peculiar features which must be taken into account when considering their value.

Of course, we may treat an action as a phenomenon in the world no less than scoops of ice cream, books and so forth for sometimes it’s only the effects of the action on the world that interest us. In such cases, when it’s the physical aspects of the action insofar as these have the potential to produce further physical results in the world around us, actions look much like other physically observable phenomena. But an action, insofar as it represents agential deliberation and decision, is more than just the physical events which instantiate it and which cause other physical effects in the world. While we can value actions in this sense, as physical phenomena (i.e., instrumentally, in terms of what they can do for us), and this is comparable to how we think about ice cream and books and such, and we do value actions in this way a great deal of the time (i.e., when we consider a prospective action for its capacity to get us something else we want), there is another way we can think about, and so evaluate, actions. We cannot consider actions in their fullest sense without also taking their deliberational element into account and to do that, we must also take account of the reason(s) that stand behind them, i.e., the motivations which prompt the acting agent to decide to act and then, of course, to do so. Of course, not every action is, properly speaking, agential, for some are reflexes and others involuntary in other ways (physically coerced) and some merely the physical interplay of phenomena. We speak of the action of the wind on the trees or of a boulder on a mountain top when it has slid out of place and caused a rock slide, for instance, or the action of the weather over time in producing the phenomenon of erosion. Nor is a robot’s movement, despite what might be its human-like appearance, qualitatively different from these. Like a stone rolling down a hill, its components are mechanically actuated by certain physical changes arising from instructions the robot has been built to implement (just as our own bodies are mechanically actuated by physical changes in our parts). The robot’s behavior, no matter how lifelike in appearance, has no moral import precisely because the robot lacks agential capacity.

Of course, the instructions which make it go are a different story – but in that case it’s not the robot’s activity we think of as being accountable for what occurs but the issuer of the instructions (and the actions the issuer undertook to accomplish the machine’s programming). We don’t ascribe moral value to ice cream cones, books or mechanical devices like robots. Of course, even merely physical phenomena may be seen to have a moral dimension if we think of such events as the outcome of the agential decisions which produce them or if we’re thinking in terms of the implications of the phenomenon on agents who may be affected by it. Heroin, because it tends to diminish a user’s capacity to act, or to derive happiness from a life lived in dependence on it, may be considered a morally questionable substance in certain situations and in a certain sense just because such effects are harmful to agents (in particular to their capacity to act). But the moral ascription re: heroin is derivative. Heroin, absent the use which agents may put it to or its effects on agents, has neither goodness nor badness in either a moral or non-moral sense.

When judging an action in a moral way, what we’re interested in is not the physical phenomena which constitute the thing but those phenomena as they relate to the choices agents make. That is, the peculiarly moral dimension in the evaluation of actions occurs insofar as our assessment considers the action in question as an expression of agential deliberation, i.e., insofar as the action expresses (or in the derivative sense that heroin or other harmful substances may be said to have affects) intent.

In this sense, moral valuing occupies a special niche in the overall valuing game for its role is to assess the reasons we act rather than the physical events instantiated in the action or which occur as effects of the act. In this, moral valuation is relevant to every action we may perform in a deliberative manner just because reasons (either explicit or implicit) are involved in deliberation. Whether we’re engaged in deciding to obtain and eat some ice cream, select a book for the evening, attend a musical concert, take a job, steal a car, tell a lie, etc., etc., there are reasons we give, or can give, for what we do or mean to do and it’s in the assessment of these reasons that moral valuing occurs. Moreover, to the extent all agential behavior reflects decisions we make, moral valuing, as the mode of valuing we apply to decisions, will be seen to have a special characteristic insofar as its role is directed at evaluating the intentional aspect of the act. Thus moral valuation has the characteristic of being applicable to all other instances of valuing we engage in. Whatever we do, however much our actions may express value judgments about other kinds of things (eating, sleeping, working, our recreational pursuits), our actions, because they express such choices, will also be subject to evaluation along the moral vector just because moral valuation concerns itself with the quality of the reasons that underlie all our deliberative behaviors. It’s this comprehensiveness which gives moral valuing its special sense of authority. Judgments about the reasons we act govern and overrule all other valuational judgments which our actions express and so provide a basis for deciding among the other things we may potentially do. Moral valuing serves as the vector along which all other value judgments may themselves be sorted valuationally.

Of course, not every decision we make, or entertain, will have moral import but, because every other type of evaluative judgment is subject to further evaluation in terms of the quality of the decision taken (i.e., the intent it expresses), moral judgment will provide a standard when we’re weighing competing possibilities as they present themselves to us. Reasons to buy a book or obtain and eat some ice cream, though morally neutral in themselves, may yet be subject to moral assessment under some circumstances to the extent the intentions they express accord with, or fail to accord with, whatever standard exists for judging intentions.

The point, of course, in understanding moral valuation is then to determine whether such a standard is possible and, if it is, what would count?

Assessing Moral Reasons

As with every other instance of valuation, the reasons we give for anything we do (or mean to do) arise from the ways in which the things we seek to obtain, by doing what we do, or intend to do, affect us. The decision to act on such effects then rests on a judgment that those effects present us with greater selectional priority than do the effects of other possible features of a thing. When valuing actions in their entirety, then, the quality of the reason(s) behind the actions will be our paramount consideration and so it is to the selectional priority we assign the intentions in question that we must look when engaged in valuing moral claims. In other words, intent is the real subject matter of moral judgment. Judgments as to the quality, or lack thereof, of the reasons advanced for any given act will then hinge on how those reasons affect us, just as value judgments in all other cases hinge on their effects on us. It is to what we mean to do, to our intentions in undertaking any act that we turn when we want to understand how actions can be valued or disvalued in a comprehensive way. And it’s in terms of their effects on us, as agents, that we judge them.

Actions expressing intentions which we can ascertain as being better for us than others will thus be the ones we place higher on the selectional scale that is applicable for assessing intentions. But how can we decide between competing actions when the issue is not the outcome of the actions on the world in which we live, i.e., how the various physical events which constitute the act’s occurrence produce physical outcomes which serve to satisfy our particular needs, desires, etc., but, rather, the quality of the reasons themselves as they express those intentions for which our actions are undertaken?


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