The Mechanism of Moral Belief (Part III Making Moral Arguments)
December 10, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Action, Ethics, Moral Knowledge, Moral Philosophy, Practical Reason, Rationality, Reasons, Stuart Mirsky


An Argument for Moral Goodness

Empathy, the recognition of ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves, is no less a stance we take toward others than Dennett’s “intentional stance.” In fact, empathy can be understood as an aspect of this latter orientation. As such, we may look to the intentional or subjective state of the acting agent, when he or she acts, in order to consider whether the action in question has the quality we deem morally pertinent. That quality, the expression of empathy, will be manifested in and through behaviors that look out for the concerns and needs of other subjects because empathy just is the expression of our recognition of subjectness in others. Those acts which deny or disregard the mental life of the other (its wants, needs, hopes, etc., i.e., it’s interests as a subjective entity), will fail to meet this standard while those which demonstrate acknowledgment of the other’s subjectness, manifested in both word and deed, will succeed. Behaviors which look out for others are the ones that represent the subject-to-subject reciprocity which being a subject implies. Acceptance of this reciprocity is then the basis for those decisions which put one’s own interests aside when there is reason to do so when we are presented with others like ourselves.

Because every action expresses valuation, every other form of value we express will be susceptible to this kind of judgment, too, i.e., to the evaluation of the quality of the intention(s) that underlie it in terms of the degree of empathy it reflects and expresses. Does that, which we intend to do, take account of the subjectness of others who will be affected by our intended action? If our action or our proposed action expresses recognition of that other’s subjectness by considering its needs as a subject, then the standard implied by empathy may be said to have been met. If not then the act in question will be seen to fall short. This standard will prevail in any complete evaluation of any action – for to be what we are in the fullest possible sense, we must trim our intentional behaviors to accommodate other subjects.

And yet a problem remains for there is no law or logical rule that says a subject must behave with recognition of the other’s subjectness and, if we’re free to treat others in ways that minimize or even deny the mental life of the other, then why should we ever think we have a reason not to do so? For moral valuation to work as advertised it must give us a reason to behave towards others in ways that consider, and in many cases serve, the other’s needs, desires, and so forth without deferring to, or overweighting, our own. And yet we don’t risk losing anything, including our own claim to being intentional, by not acting in this fashion. How then can we derive a compelling reason for favoring so-called moral behaviors over other kinds which don’t fit this bill from an account like this?

We can, of course, argue that a subject, an intentional creature such as ourselves, can only fulfill his or her potential as a subject by fully embracing what being that kind of entity involves for if we are subjects and subjects do recognize equivalent subjectness in others (when it’s present), then failing to act thus, failing to behave with that recognition, when it’s warranted, is to fail to live up to the standard of what it means to be a subject. But why should we live up to it – or want to?

If we want to say that a person, a subjective entity like ourselves, has some sort of obligation to act towards others in a certain way, there is yet no “punishment,” in terms of lost subjectivity for instance, if he or she doesn’t. Moreover, there is no affirmative reason, in terms of what we can gain for ourselves, if we do. So where is the impetus to be moral in a way that matters, to recognize others’ needs in word and deed? And if there is no reason, then what can possibly impel us to act with empathy if we’re not already inclined to do so?

If intentionality means seeing intentionality when it is present in others – and seeing it means acting toward it in a way that acknowledges its presence – then to be a subject must also mean to act thus. Even if there’s no external penalty, aside from the adverse judgment of others for ignoring the subjectness of others (if and when they are so inclined to judge, of course), if there’s nothing to oblige us, against our own wishes, to treat the other as a subject equivalent with ourselves, there may yet be a kind of internal penalty. For a failure to act the part of a subject is a failure to use one’s capacities to the fullest and, while one may willingly embrace that failure, the argument not to do so reminds us that we lose some important element of what makes us what we are if we don’t.

This kind of argument does not have the formal implications of a logical syllogism (if X is Y and Y is Z, then X is Z), of course, for it doesn’t lead us inexorably to a logical conclusion that we cannot rationally reject. But it calls us to a certain kind of recognition, a realization of what it means to be the sort of creatures we are. It serves to remind us that we are this and not that, subjects not objects, people not stones. The point of making such an argument is not to command or force a conclusion but to lay certain facts before others (or ourselves) and so make some things plain, or plainer than they were. In so doing it amounts to changing the way we have been looking at the matter.

Once we remind another of his or her shared nature with other intentional creatures, and what intentionality involves (the reciprocity of mutual recognition), then it only remains for the other to embrace or deny that shared capacity. Denying it remains a logical option of course, but it is also self-denying, and, while self-denial is not logically forbidden, it is self-impairing for it involves truncating a part of what we are.

Giving Reasons

We should recall, at this point, that not all disputes that hinge on articulating competing reasons rest on a logical model involving a sequence of shared premises leading to logically irrefutable conclusions. We typically argue in many different ways about different sorts of things in the course of our lives and sometimes it’s just to call this or that thing to another’s attention. Sometimes our arguments are about getting others to look at something in a different way, to see something which may have been missed before. This is often argument enough. Even Kant’s approach (which famously purports to ground moral judgments in rationality itself, by making moral claims dependent on commitment to the rules of reason) only maintains that, being rational entities, we cannot rationally choose to be otherwise. We may do so nonetheless, however, if we are not giving full regard to our own rationality at the moment of choosing – for a Kantian approach doesn't force us to choose to be morally good anymore than it forces us to choose rationally. That depends on a separate decision to embrace our presumably rational natures, i.e., a decision which then presses a further decision upon us to act in what Kant proposed was the moral way. Thus, even Kant’s reason-based approach rests on something that is not, itself, rationally grounded but on a realization about what we are. To choose the rational, and so the “moral,” even the Kantians among us must first grasp the force of this kind of compulsion. That is, we must see why it compels, we must see that the force it exerts arises because it defines what we are.

There’s no real difference between this kind of view and the supposition that we must first come to recognize that being a subject implies recognition of ourselves in others if we are to understand how that recognition impels us to act in a certain way toward other subjects. The argumentative force that calls us to be empathetic, and thus to behave in ways we suppose morally good, is no less rational, at bottom, than the Kantian presumption that to be moral is to acknowledge one’s rationality by acting on the requirements rationality implies. And it is no more rational. Both Kant’s argument and the one for empathy hinge on a realization about what we are. In fact, arguments for realization, whether for the acceptance of reason as the driving moral force or the claim of empathy, are in some ways more basic than logical argument which rests on grasping the import of the rational relations represented. Before we can grasp the implications of a well constructed syllogism we have to understand why the implications matter.

How would an argument for realization of the implications of subjectness proceed then? Of course, none of us has to be empathetic any more than a rational creature has to act rationally in the Kantian picture, for we are no less intentional, no less subjective entities, for refusing to do all the things subjects are capable of doing. But then we are less complete in what we are. The argument to be empathetic in our actions must therefore show why we should not refuse to be so, why we have reason to act in a way that fully activates and utilizes our built-in potential to be empathetic. It must provide us with reason to fully realize what we are. It must tell us why we should open ourselves to what empathy provides for, why we should see ourselves in the other.

This would not be a moral claim in the ordinary sense of such claims, however. It would not be a claim that derives from some underlying moral premise or standard but rather one that serves to underpin such standards, i.e., it provides a standard for moral claims. Just as claims about the reliability of our empirical judgments do not, themselves, stand on other empirical judgments (as Wittgenstein noted in On Certainty) so the claim that one should be empathetic, if it is to be a ground for our moral assertions, cannot, itself, be a claim based on still other moral beliefs. The argument for empathy must stand on a different level; it must reflect a valuation of a sort which has a different status than that which we ascribe to our moral claims. For a call to empathy to be taken as supporting our moral claims, there must be another and different sort of reason we can invoke in the case of empathy. And it would be of the type that has affinity with the sort of claims we often associate with religious thinking – for both the call to religious commitment and the call to being empathetic are about what it means to be the sort of thing we are, and the place being that sort of thing implies for us in the world in which we find ourselves.

If being empathetic can be understood to imply certain kinds of valuing claims we make, namely those we typically think of as moral claims (behaviors which consider and give primacy to the interests of others) then the argument to be empathetic must have a distinctly different character from any argument for particular actions based on a moral standard of behavior. The latter will, if being empathetic can be successfully argued for separately, consist of saying that one should act in certain ways because doing so is in accord with being empathetic, i.e., that behavior expressing or conducive to empathy meets the moral standard. But whether or not we should choose to be empathetic, to adopt empathy as our moral ground, will be a very different question.

Just as the rational person (in the Kantian sense) who comes to see in his or her rationality a reason to act in certain ways and not others (but, failing that, will never acknowledge the implications of the Kantian case), so the individual who considers what it is to be a subject will, on seeing how his or her subjective capacities imply a mutual recognition of others, acknowledge that condition by taking it up. For, indeed, there is no other way to acknowledge the behavioral reciprocity we call “empathy” but by taking it up – by acting thus. Failing to do so must leave the individual incomplete in an important sense. We don’t have to be fully realized subjective creatures, of course, since being so is a matter of the choices we make. But making such choices has its own kind of value for us because it rejects self-denial by affirming our capacities in their fullest sense.

An argument premised on the claim that empathy is the state in which we most fully express the intentionality we already have, and so most fully realize the sort of creatures we are, stands on something deeper then than the claim that one should do this or that because it is in accord with empathy. To the extent moral argument is about prompting others (or exhorting ourselves) to adopt behaviors which acknowledge the intentionality of others who are like us in relevant ways, it's about bringing others (and ourselves) to see the world, and especially our fellow creatures within it, in a certain way. It's about pushing the behavioral choices we make toward certain types of actions and away from others rather than about performing certain prescribed acts or looking to moral rule books for guidance. It’s about developing (in others and ourselves) a certain way of looking at things. Arguments for this can be thought of as showing the way rather than proving a case, about pointing something out to those on the other side of the debate. Just as spiritual questions address the place of creatures like ourselves in the world in which we stand, the argument to be empathetic will be about personal realization rather than deductively or inductively supported belief systems. Such arguments involve coming to see the self in the world in a certain way, rather than deducing conclusions from some array of shared claims of fact and logic. And we can and do argue for seeing things in other ways all the time. We do it every time we ask another to consider things from a new standpoint or just to adjust the picture he or she has formed of some matter or event. The argument for certain kinds of actions, those we want to call morally good, is thus ultimately based on a call to empathy. But the argument to accept that call runs deeper still. It’s an argument for a certain kind of realization about ourselves which involves the willing adoption of an empathetic stance towards others.

In this it goes further, and stands on deeper ground, than any possible claim about choosing this or that particular action in a given situation. An argument for empathy, as the basis for our particular moral judgments, urges us to see ourselves in a certain way – and so to act in that way. It reminds us of what we are and so precedes and undergirds the particular moral claims we may make. It may not succeed in every case, of course, for success depends on the capacity and willingness of others to see the point. But there’s a basis, at least, for making it precisely because there’s something in the picture it presents, about who and what we are, to remind ourselves about.

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