The Purpose of Moral Philosophy?
June 15, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, moral valuing, schopenhauer

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

By compassion she means a feeling in oneself that amounts to our feeling in sync with another person's felt need which that person is experiencing as in need of fulfillment or relief. If the individual is to be spared, or relieved of, the pain, discomfort or anguish associated with not having the need satisfied, then compassion is that feeling we have which amounts to wanting to satisfy the other's need. But it's not enough to feel compassionate towards another, says, Martin, for we can feel compassionate toward play actors on a stage, too, though it is not real compassion for it incorporates no motivation to act (aside from applause and similar responses appropriate in a theater). As Martin puts it with regard to the other, the feeling in question must involve:

experiencing that person's feeling "as real". 'This is different from propositionally affirming that a person's feeling is real.

That is, it's not enough to say one feels compassion or to feel it "as if" it's real the way we do with stage actors or when watching a movie or reading a well written novel. We must experience the feeling in question in a direct, immediate fashion, i.e., as affecting ourselves in the way it affects the other.

It's this type of experience, she argues, that motivates us to act in a moral way and there are at least two kinds of arguments we can make (to ourselves and others) on the basis of having compassion which lead to the moral judgments of what's best to do in relevant cases. Martin thinks we can make a "conditional argument" for being compassionate, of course, i.e., that we should act with compassion towards others in order to increase our chances that others will be compassionate towards us. But such an argument isn't enough in some cases since some people may lack a desire for compassion from others, or at least think they do, and so would not be moved by an argument to be compassionate so others will treat us in the same way. Thus, we also need a Kantian type argument, she thinks, one that tells us that we must act in a morally right way because a rational consideration of our own natural desire to be treated compassionately shows us that we have no more justification to want compassion shown towards ourselves than others, who are in the same boat as we are (who want compassion shown towards themselves), have to expect it for themselves.

Just as Kant argued that we ought to treat others as ends and not means, because our own recognition of ourselves as ends, not means, has no firmer grounding than it has for others and, therefore there is no logical basis for treating others differently than we treat ourselves, so, Martin maintains, the same applies in the matter of compassion. Here the desire to be compassionately handled is, in essence, that state of being a kingdom unto oneself (in Kantian terms), a presumptively autonomous entity in the world, an entity that is the center of its own world while yet standing in a world of others who are themselves centers of their worlds, too. The Kantian argument that rationality alone dictates that we must therefore treat others as ourselves is thus invoked to support the claim of compassion as the basis of all morality.

In an off-line discussion with Professor Martin, she acknowledged that, if one does not feel compassion, or if one thinks one can get away with treating others without compassion while still not jeopardizing being so treated oneself (through deception of others or because one just doesn't care if anyone is compassionate towards oneself -- perhaps because one thinks oneself too strong to be affected by others in any relevant sense), then her argument would not convince. An ISIS terrorist for instance, intent on beheading infidels or apostates, or immolating them, or selling women into slavery, who feels no compassion for his victims, would not be moved by such an argument. A culture espousing such values (which do diminish the interests of the terrorist's victims in this way) because they are infidels, apostates and so forth would simply be beyond the pale of the hypothetical argument. But what about the rationalist Kantian sort?

To be moved by resort to a Kantian claim of reason as the basis for moral behavior (i.e., as providing us with a "categorical imperative" to consider others' feelings/needs on the grounds of rationality alone) still demands that the terrorist be reasonable in the way Kant envisioned, i.e., as a purely rational agent, capable of and necessarily seeing the importance of logical consistency in his behaviors. That is, to be convinced by the Kantian move, one would have to grasp the implications of reason as the Kantian argument presents it. Reliance on the alternative, on the "hypothetical imperative" (if you want X then you must do Y) will have no force with the person who doesn't have a self-interested reason (a reason that amounts to wanting X or believing that acting in accord with X would work to his or her advantage in securing X for him or herself). So recognition of the force of the Kantian glorification of reason, as such, is required. But that concept of reason is hardly assured in others, and certainly not in those hailing from cultures which do not recognize reason in this way.

However, Professor Martin maintains that this problem is, in fact, irrelevant to her concerns since her aim in the paper is not to persuade the skeptic but to demonstrate how some who do recognize compassion as something they are entitled, as rational beings to want for themselves, implies the entitlement of other rational beings to the same sort of treatment. As she explained it to me off-line: "I don't take the sole task of moral philosophy to be persuading the skeptic. The primary target of my argument is the person who values her own subjective nature and is capable of recognizing that 1) others value their own subjective natures and, 2) she doesn't have any better reason to value her subjective nature than any other person has to value theirs."

So Martin's point is not to find a way to argue to those who may be capable of making moral choices, even when they don't make such choices, to do so. She only wants to say how such choices can be grounded in a certain kind of feeling we humans have because of the rational requirement of not contradicting ourselves through our actions. If I think I am entitled to X because of the kind of entity I am (a rational subject) then I can have no grounds to deny others who are the same sort of entity as I am the same entitlement. This got me to thinking, though, about the purpose of moral philosophy itself.

Without arguing that, just as a matter of fact, there is an obvious value to the self-interested person in being treated by others in a way that he or she wants to be treated, and that sometimes how one can expect to be treated can be affected by how one treats others (the hypothetical imperative), or with the Kantian notion that there is a deeper "categorical imperative," underwritten by reasoning itself (the logical demand that we not act in ways inconsistent with what we, ourselves, believe and want) which underpins our moral claims and obligations, what is then left for the moral philosopher to address?

It seems to me that, finally, unless the point of philosophical inquiry into moral thinking and behavior can show us how and why moral reasons may sometimes rightly compel us, moral philosophy is pointless. That is, the question for any understanding of moral judgments must be more than just what they are, how we get to them. It must also answer the question of why they should (or seem to) compel us. Moral claims that do not compel in a rational way, are not moral claims at all. They are just expressions of our feelings of the instant or of the opinions we have been taught. To have moral authority, a claim that purports to show us a moral way to behave must also include or reflect something amounting to an obligation imposed on us (whatever the nature of the obligation in question).

Kant's argument has been subject to many criticisms, of course, some averring that it leads to excessive rigidity in the moral choices one makes in the real world and others pointing out that one has to embrace a certain understanding of how reason actually works (that it compels us in an apparently transcendental way, enunciating inarguable truths which overwrite the world of experience) but Professor Martin's approach is not to deal with these. She seems to feel that it's sufficient to provide an explanation of why anyone would be moral (act with compassion towards others), if they are already among those who desire compassion for themselves, or at least recognize its desirability (think it's a good thing to be compassionate).

I'm not attempting here to offer a full explication of her paper, of course, but only to raise a question in regard to her response that moral philosophy may be able to do enough to the extent that it shows those of us already inclined towards what she takes to be morality's underlying theme how this translates into reasoning which allows them to articulate moral standards (reasons to act in certain ways in the world).

Yet, it must be asked whether or not this is what moral philosophy is about at bottom. Is it just to offer us ways to explain our actual moral motivations to ourselves -- or to offer justification of those actions reflecting those motivations to others who already share our assumptions or don't diverge too radically from them? What about the problem of moral relativism (the claim that any moral standard is finally as good as any other and that radically different behaviors in other cultures, however obnoxious to one's own, can be no more morally right or wrong than ours) or nihilism, which tells us to reject any pretense to moral judgment at all, i.e., that anything goes?

Professor Martin's approach to moral philosophy, at least in this paper, doesn't help us here. Nor does it help us when, even within a common society, disagreements arise between members, disagreements which may run so deep as to challenge, or have the potential to alter, existing moral standards in the given society. After all moral standards do change over time, even within societies and the changes often occur when some members begin acting and valuing courses of action that differ from what had, to that point, been acknowledged as right within the given society.

Unless moral philosophy offers a way of understanding moral judgment as a rational function, which we can offer and evaluate reasons for, and so draw action-relevant conclusions based on those reasons, of what use can it finally be? Professor Martin may be right about compassion as providing the basis for our moral claims (or for a significant class of them), even as Schopenhauer may have been, but unless we can find a basis for recommending and arguing for compassion, as opposed to any other human mode of relating to others, we are stuck where Schopenhauer left us, without any basis for our moral judgments other than having certain kinds of experiences, the kind that may well be available to very, very few of us and, perhaps, questionable as a reliable guide precisely because of the rarity of its occurrence.

If we can find no reason to be compassionate when we aren't, or a means to cause ourselves to feel compassionate when we don't already feel that way (because we are not naturally compassionate, have not been trained to it, or just have not had the kind of "saintly" experience of the world as an ultimate unity which Schopenhauer alludes to -- or perhaps because we may come to conclude that even such an experience is, itself, illusory), then equating moral behavior, and the standards which lead to it, with compassion seems to offer no relief to the perplexing question of why we should sometimes behave with others' interests in mind rather than our own.

If all the invocation of compassion can do is tell us that morality is this rather than that, without offering a way to develop reasons to be compassionate or choose to try to be, then what's the point of exploring the way in which we make and implement our moral valuations in a philosophical way?

Article originally appeared on Ludwig (
See website for complete article licensing information.