Truth, Belief and Moral Reasons
May 7, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Meta-Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, Value Theory, logic

The point of making moral claims is to tell others and ourselves what we should or should not attempt to do. To accomplish this we produce statements about the shoulds and should nots which amount to reasons, i.e., they provide our interlocutors (or ourselves) with information whose possession amounts to a source of motivation (a desire and a decision, when that becomes possible) to act. There are many sorts of reasons for acting, of course, including belief in the efficacy of the act for bringing about something we want (or which we believe we should want) or belief in the desirability (for whatever reason) of the act or object of the act, itself. Reasons as expressions of belief stand at the heart of moral claims. They also imply a demand for justification because no reason stands alone but is always part of a string of justifications: do this because of that, and that because of something else, etc. But reasons come to an end. If they didn’t, we would always be arguing (with others or ourselves)—never acting. At some point we must agree that something is reason enough, or else the process is never ending and cannot result in action.

Sometimes we just stop the process of justifying arbitrarily, of course. We grow tired, either explicitly or implicitly, and finally act, or desist from acting, without demand for further reasons. And many actions we take are done with no prior consideration of explicit reasons at all. We just act—and perhaps compile and report our reasons, in many cases, after the fact. Actions are not dependent on reasoning to be actions although deliberating about what we should do and then doing it (or not) represents a large class of those actions humans undertake. Those actions which we deliberate about, seeking for, and adducing and evaluating, reasons before acting, are the ones that are generally relevant to moral considerations. Actions performed instinctively, reflexively or mechanically (or perhaps by habit or conditioning) fall outside the realm of moral consideration (except to the extent that we can address and alter our habits, conditioning and so forth). Morally relevant actions are those which we have the capacity to think about in order to weigh our alternatives before and during the acts themselves, i.e., those we have the choice in performing or not performing.

But to think about our actions in this way implies something else, namely that there is a potential for our beliefs about them to be correct or incorrect, true or false, and so worthy of our attention and action—or not. That is, moral claims imply beliefs which can be justified, too. And beliefs are justified by being true. Yet, as Hume showed hundreds of years ago, and as many have realized since, no value claim can be deduced from our beliefs about what’s true or false alone. Our descriptive language, directed at the world in which we find ourselves, presents things to us which we take either to be the case or not. But acting with regard to such beliefs requires something else, namely a desire to do so.

Our desires come in many flavors. We may be passionate about some things, merely interested in others, feel needs (whether strong or weak) for other things, reflecting some lack we want to fill and whose filling promises a sense of satisfaction. We may want some things that are relatively simple, such as particular sensations (feeling warm when it’s cold, pleasure or the cessation of some pain, etc.), or more complex things such as others' respect or goodwill, or a sense of doing what we take to be right or, in some cases, living a life that satisfies. Some things offend us or make us recoil while others draw us to them or make us want to draw them to us. But none of these factors are derivable in a logical way from how the world is. The fact that there are rocks and trees is no more a reason for us to gather rocks or fell trees (or nurture them so they may grow more robustly and abundantly) than is the fact that there are human beings like ourselves in the world with us or that some are in pain, etc., is a reason to treat humans in some way rather than another. That we do treat our fellow humans in certain ways is a fact but that we should treat them in any particular way remains an open question.

Our value judgments, of which moral claims are only one type (we also value things aesthetically and in terms of their truth or falsity, e.g., truth values), stand outside our descriptive judgments about what there is in the world. And it is descriptive judgments that we consider true or false, not statements expressing how we happen to feel. A true statement is one we can believe because we take it to be true. Asserting our belief in it amounts to asserting its truth. What counts as being true may be explained in more than one way, however, and maybe more than one way is applicable to our general use of "truth" in any case.

We can speak of a statement as true when it matches what it reports about the world. Or we can suppose it to take its truth from the degree to which it coheres with the other beliefs we hold about the world. In the pragmatic sense expressed by William James, we can suppose any statement true to the extent it fits within a larger system of statements we make about the world which embody a complex set of beliefs where only some of these touch ground in terms of actually testable statements about the world—a system, that is, which takes its authority from the effectiveness which adhering to it has for our interactions with the world.

However we describe the circumstance of being a true statement, the most important thing is to see that truth and belief go hand in hand. We believe what we take to be true and we think true only the things we believe to be the case. Yet moral judgments, as with all our value judgments, seem immune to this sort of characterization. It may be true or false that we feel certain ways and not others but, to the extent moral claims are about giving reasons to do some things and not others, the fact that we feel any particular way about the possibilities before us isn't enough to serve as a warrant for acting thus. Yet moral claims are about warrants, if they’re about anything, i.e., reasons for acting. While facts, the things we take to be true, may form the bedrock of those warrants in terms of knowing what our possibilities are, they cannot determine the possibilities—to the extent we have the capacity to choose them.

Of course, in some cases we have no such capacities. We are creatures of our genetic make-up and, to a very significant extent, our cultural training (upbringing, schooling, indoctrination). We are also creatures of the world in which we stand. We cannot fly if we lack wings or a ticket to ride on some airplane. So our actions are substantially determined by forces outside ourselves. And yet not entirely for we also have the possibility of choosing when and where and whether to fly if we have the option available to us. This is the nature of deliberation and the actions it’s associated with. Some things we do because we choose to. It’s the choosing that demands reasons for which the physical possibilities of our world and ourselves provide the stage on which to act. Here our considerations, our thoughts must include reasons we can give ourselves (or others) for acting. But, to the extent that they are reasons, they must also be accessible to others in a way in which their pressure is felt. Reasons based on our own feelings are one thing, but they don’t suffice where others are concerned. Our reasons compulsive aspect must be felt by others as we feel them and when we do if they’re to be reasons for others to act, too. But reasons that merely explain how we feel or what we feel, while they may be understood by others to the extent they have feelings that seem comparable to the, cannot, in and of themselves, provide others reasons to act because they aren't felt in the same way we feel them. Something else is required to justify another's decision to act, something that amounts to a reason to care.

It's caring, of course, that presents the problem because we care about what we care about and not about what we don't. Arguing that others should care as we do can never rest on the assertion that we do. What's wanted is some reason to believe that they should if and when they don't and some reason for us to care if and when we don’t. A reason, to prompt an action in someone, must move them if they are not already moved. And that means some moral claims must be taken to be true, that they must represent beliefs about things which others can be convinced of. They must have a weight which pressures us to believe and so to act in accordance with them.

Yet, if the is/ought dichotomy, which logically separates descriptive from normative claims, is true, no mere assertion about anyone's valuational inclinations can do that. Here it may help to look more closely at valuing as an activity. Where logic represents the rules of those possible assertoric connections we can make in language about things in the world, as they present themselves to us, valuing seems to be another, if somewhat parallel, system of connections we make. Where logic connects things we observe (broadly speaking, of course, for vision is not the only sensory function relevant here), valuing connects things to us. It represents the array of relationships which things may have to us as observing subjects, organized by significance and degree. Valuing is about more than having feelings for or against some things. It's about sorting and ranking those things (and, as will be seen, sorting and ranking our feelings about them). And sorting and ranking requires a certain level of cognitive function.

The fact that other creatures share subjectivity with us, have a kind of mental life, as we do, which includes feelings of attraction and repulsion, is not enough to enable such creatures to also do what we do in terms of valuing. This is a fundamentally rational activity which, although not driven by logic, is a part of the cognitive capacity which is characterized by logical capabilities. It is, in fact, essential to the efficacy of logic, itself, since logic (and language, which relies on it for its assertoric competence) would be pointless without reasons to do things with those descriptive possibilities logic enables us to assert. Having the cognitive capacity we have means not only being able to conceptualize about things, placing them within a wider picture (not only here and now but there and then), but also being able to include within that picture ourselves.

And we come with feelings, including those attractions and repulsions which are part of our mental lives. Some things in the world draw us while others frighten or drive us away and this fact is embedded in how we exist in the world. These features provide the fuel for valuational activity by manifesting our relationship to the world and they form the stuff from which our conceptualization of the world is built. Feelings are not values per se but values are how we arrange and realize our feelings in relation to the world. And it is these conceptualizations which produce the statements and beliefs they represent which become the reasons we formulate in the course of deliberating our actions. We move from feelings to conceptualization where the possibility of constructing, giving and assessing reasons becomes manifest and, as far as we know at this point, only creatures like ourselves, have this capacity, i.e., to create and use concepts.

Those reasons we formulate and act on will then consist both of statements about what there is in the world and about ourselves, since we are no less in the world than those things we observe and count as being of it. We are fixtures in the world just as those things we encounter in it are. As such there are also facts about ourselves to be ascertained and debated, facts, which may consist of true reports about things which we, or others, are doing and also about what any of us feel in relation to what we're doing. But these kinds of facts are only the start of the game for we must also have facts about what we are to do if we’re to make choices of a deliberative nature.

As already noted, the fact that we happen to feel one way instead of another is still no reason for another to feel as we do and, since it’s the activity of giving reasons to act, to others and ourselves when appropriate, that constitutes the moral game, omething else is clearly wanted if we’re to find a way of recognizing a possibility of truth in moral claims. To the extent that any moral claim is just an expression of a feeling, whether our own or of the group in which we are enrolled (or in which we desire to enroll), it cannot be a reason to do anything at all beyond acting out our immediate feelings and that’s no reason at all. A feeling cannot justify itself let alone the action which expresses it.

Even a decision to act in a certain way, and thereby express one feeling rather than another (when the possibility of not doing so is available to us), shows us that the idea our feelings alone can be used to justify claims about what we should or shouldn't do cannot work for here what’s wanted is an answer to the question of why we should express this feeling now and not some other. Moral claims are those which purport to guide us in what we should or shouldn't do, and this includes guiding us as to when any particular feeling is relevant and should be expressed or suppressed by, the deliberative activity leading up to the action in question.

But if truth claims are about how and what our assertoric statements assert about things in the world, how can expressive statements which represent our particular feelings be true in that sense at all? A true statement reports a fact while a statement of feeling expresses a mental state. Of course we can express falsely, the way an actor on a stage pretends anger, grief or joy, concern or disinterest. But the expression that is the behavior in the actor’s case isn’t a statement about anything, not in the way assertoric statements are about their referents. Rather it's a representation of the mental state.

Representing is not asserting even if sometimes asserting is done to represent (as when the actor asserts something to his fellows on the stage to represent the state of despair he is seeking to effect) or when our assertions consist, in themselves, of representations of different aspects of the world which they are about. Moral discourse, if it's to do the job we expect of it, if it's to provide reasons for us to act, or to refrain from acting, must present us with claims we can agree with or not and that means which we can subscribe to by way of belief. And this means that, at least in some sense, they must be capable of being either true or false. It’s either true that we shouldn’t burn people alive or it’s not. So moral statements must share, in common with assertoric statements which we make about the world, something akin to an assertoric dimension. To work as a basis for adducing and accepting reasons, they must also assert something that is or is not the case. A reason to do X hinges on some fact about X, i.e., some statement about its being true.

To the extent valuing is not simply those feelings we have but what we do with them, how we apply them, there is a way in which such statements can be seen to be either true or false however. Here it pays to look at other areas where we make use of words like "true" and "false" areas where we don’t rely on a strictly empirical paradigm. Mathematics, for instance, consists of truth claims, too, only here the claims are not determined by observation of things in the world. We don't determine that two plus two is four by collecting instances of such additions in real terms. Doing so may help us to see the point but the relation expressed by "two plus two equals four" is embedded in the system of arithmetic, itself, a system that includes operations like counting and doing other things with numbers. Answers to simple addition problems like 2 + 2 = 4 can be discovered observationally but more complex problems, the kind that go beyond any possibility of observation, can only be determined by exploring the rules of mathematics itself. Indeed, that’s what the study of mathematics by exploring its various proofs is all about. Mathematical claims are true or false, then, to the extent that they fit with the rules which constitute mathematics (doing things with numbers) while mathematics, as a whole, can be seen to be true to the extent that it works (enabling us to build bridges, calculate distances, reach the moon, etc.). Logic works like this, too, i.e., we learn its truths by exploring the rules of operation that constitute it as they are found in our language and the thinking embodied in language. Hence, we can make assertions about mathematical and logical questions, assertions which can depict how the rules work and can be tested by observing the rules in action, how they relate to one another, how they combine to form a common system, etc. Being true in an empirical sense (based on what we observe in the world) is only one way we use “true.”

Value claims find their truth in a similar fashion. Valuing, insofar as it is one of the systems that enable us to function in the world, consists of how we conceptualize in order to sort and prioritize competing possibilities, can also generate truth statements only in this case it’s truths about the subject matter of values realized in terms of the valuing system, i.e., what counts as valued by us. What is the subject matter of valuing itself?

While it’s always a question of fact whether anything has certain features, and whether those features prompt certain responses from us, it’s also a question of fact whether, given some array of facts about both our referents and ourselves (and what the one sort does to the other), those facts constitute reasons to act on them. That is, the valuational question involves stating facts about reasons themselves, in order to ascertain which claims are reasons for us to act in which cases. Valuing takes, as its subject matter, the reasons we generate and rely on in our activities as rational agents in the world.

Whenever we use a term like "good" in a valuational way (and not, say, as a praise word designed to elicit a response from a child or pet dog, say), what we're doing, in effect, is announcing that the thing we deem good is that because it stands in a relation to us such that it provides us reason to pursue or acquire it. To make the statement "X is good" is just to say that there is something about X (discoverable in a wholly ordinary and natural way) which is also a reason for us to choose it. In this way, valuing is seen to not only be about having an attraction to something but about having an attraction which also provides reason to go after it. Moral valuing is also about giving reasons only in its case the reasons are about all the other reasons we may think we have, i.e., what counts as an acceptable reason and what doesn't in any instance of deliberative agency. If I'm drawn to a woman who isn’t my wife and contemplate having an affair with her it's not enough that I have the desire for her. What's at issue, as well, is the extent to which that desire is a reason for me to act. In some instances, in different circumstances perhaps it will be seen to be, i.e., when a wife is not in the picture. But when she is, the power of the reason based on desire alone is modified and moral valuing is about how that is done. It may be okay obtain he company of the woman in question in some situations but when a wife and an existing family are involved we may no longer simply accept the desire as reason enough. Acting on it may have potentially adverse implications for one’s marriage if discovered, one’s wife's feelings, one’s children's future, one’s standing in a particular community, etc. Some of the reasons that seem relevant may be prudential, of course, i.e., they may reflect how we would want things to go, or not go, if we acted and what we can reasonably expect in doing so and whether they are outcomes we can accept. But other concerns may extend beyond the merely prudential, introducing elements like what we really care about. In the case of the contemplated adultery, perhaps we might think we could get away with it from a prudential perspective but then shouldn't do it anyway because marriage is a pledge and one ought to keep one’s word. Or perhaps we may just think we won't be able to see ourselves in the same way as before. Here giving one's word or merely committing oneself to another may be enough. And here, once we move away from reliance on the feelings of this or that moment, is where the moral element kicks in.

Prudential considerations don't support moral judgments since they always admit of the possibility that prudentially doing what we otherwise ought not to do might actually work out okay. I may want to kill someone out of a sense of anger or spite and think I can get away with it, but should I do it, even so? Is just wanting to commit a murder reason enough to do so? Here is where we look to whatever basis we have or think we have for making moral judgments. Here is where moral content, in terms of what we believe is relevant to being a reason for our actions, is to be looked for.

Valuing operates at more than one level, of course, reaching from merely prudential concerns to those we think of as being on the moral level. It's also manifest in other forms such as aesthetic and truth judgments. Because valuing is finally about giving and accepting reasons however, it requires our ability to discern and differentiate the reasons we may offer as objects of reference, too—and to sort and rank them, just as we do any for and all other referential objects. We do this in the case of the valuing we call "moral" by distinguishing the reasons available to us by their role in our understanding of how we stand in the world—of how we think about what we, ourselves, are.

The nature or state of the reasons we give for any assertion of value is thus as much a matter of fact as are the statements we make about the world at large. It’s just that we give them the role they have by establishing their relation to the other reasons we can consider and we do it by the choices we make in our lives. The facts at issue in moral discourse, then, concern what that role which we give each of our reasons to act happen to be—and why we take that role to be so. It’s at this level that so-called moral content, those factors that make some reasons more compelling and more relevant than others, is to be found.

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