ad astra per alia porci

solving the moral problem

Moral philosophy is probably the most esoteric and incomprehensible subject I have taken so far. Fortunately, it also ranks as one of the most interesting, meaningful and fulfilling subjects I have ever taken, simply because the subject is of fundamental importance and interest to anyone who has ever tried to live a moral life and even gave a moment’s thought to what it means to be moral. It helps also that my class was small, and the professor was engaging and willing to listen to views.

The first thing I learnt about moral philosophy is that it is not about how to be moral. To quote Jonanthan Dancy in his interview with Craig Ferguson, “moral philosophers are singularly ill-equipped” to give advice on what is the right and good thing to do. What moral philosophy, or metaethics (to use the more fancy term), does is to analyse morality at the second-order, rather than the first-order. First-order analysis of morality is properly termed “normative ethics”; it seeks to find out the answers to questions such as “what is the correct thing to do?”. Metaethics on the other hand seeks to understand what morality is, fundamentally. What constitutes moral judgments? Are moral judgments objective, or mere expressions of desire? Are there objective moral facts? How does one know such facts?

So metaethics is even more fundamental in its concerns than normative ethics. It asks questions about what we are talking about when we talk about morality. I wonder if it is simply an academic fantasy to think that perhaps in the future there will be third order, even fourth order discourse on morality, similar to the way physics expanded from being three-dimensional to multi-dimensional.

The central problem of metaethics is stated by Smith in The Moral Problem:

  1. Cognitivism vs. Non-cognitivism
  2. Internalism (about moral judgments) v. Externalism (about moral judgments)
  3. The Humean Theory of Motivation, where desire and belief are distinct existences and desire is necessarily for motivation.

Cognitivism states that moral judgments are expressions of truth-apt belief states, which means that they may be true or false. Non-cognitivism on the other hand views moral judgments as expressions of mere emotion meant to influence others, and are not truth-apt (neither true nor false). A non-cognitivist views the expression “Murder is wrong!” as “Boo to murder!” Internalism (this term has been used in philosophy to mean too many things already) in the moral judgment strain suggests that a person who holds a moral judgment will necessarily be motivated to act on it. Externalism states the contrary. The Humean Theory of Motivation postulates that only desire motivates, and beliefs are motivationally inert so long as it is not supported by desires in a means-end manner.

The problem is as follows. If cognitivism is true, than moral judgments are beliefs. If internalism is true, than moral judgments necessarily motivates a person to do whatever he judges something to be morally correct. Yet if the Humean Theory of Motivation is true, than only desires motivate. A person cannot accept all these propositions since it means that a person cannot make moral judgments. One of the three propositions must be answered in the alternative.

The crucial question is how. Which view is correct? Generally, non-cognitivism has been largely discredited and does not  have much adherents, and right so in my view, simply because it does not properly characterise moral discourse. Non-cognitivism suggests that when we argue about moral matters, we are essentially talk past each other and are not actually in disagreement. Non-cognitivists like Stevenson deflates moral discourse to emotional mud-slinging and does not take the whole enterprise of arguing about moral matters seriously enough. They also face the Frege-Geach problem of embedding, such that logical moral argument cannot be sustained since premises in arguments cannot be true or false.

That leaves most of the controversy to reside in the debate between internalists and externalists. I might be wrong about this, but proposition 2 and 3 are essentially about the same issue. The Humean Theory of Motivation stands as an alternative, conflicting theory in opposition to the internalist view, for it states that desires motivate, instead of beliefs such as moral beliefs expressed in moral judgments as the internalist would hold.

I am only acquainted with Michael Smith’s version of internalism, so I will direct my criticisms to his particular version. Smith advocates what he calls “the practical requirement on moral judgment”:

  • If an agent judges it is right for her to do X in Y circumstances, than either he is motivated to do X in Y or he is practically irrational.

Smith’s view is a diluted form of the more extreme version of internalism espoused by Nagel, McDowell and Platts, which states that an agent who judges it is right to do X in Y circumstances will necessarily be motivated to do X in Y. Under this more extreme version, there is no room for weakness of will where a person judges it right to do something yet is not correspondingly motivated to do that act. And I think Smith right rejects this view, because it is explanatorily insufficient in cases where people do make moral judgments and are yet not motivated to act on them, which happen more often than we like it to be.

However I am not particularly convinced by what Smith’s support of the practical requirement, largely because the same weaknesses that plagues the extreme version also unfortunately plagues Smith’s version: the inability to properly account for the “deviant” cases where people make moral judgments and are yet not correspondingly motivated.

Smith implausibly responds to Brink’s counterexample of the amoralist, who make moral judgments and are yet not correspondingly motivated by arguing that the amoralist might not make moral judgments.

An amoralist is someone who is indifferent to the emotional pulls of particular moral theories. Think of characters like Dickens’ James Harthouse. He can understand the reasoning of prevailing societal mores and in fact apply them well to produce results in certain situations, which advices him to do certain things. Yet he lacks that extra impetus to do what is right. And such phenomenon is widespread. There are many instances where people are in obvious need, but walking passer-bys ignore them. We see footages of starving African kids, yet are not motivated to donate our money.

A good theory must be able to explain this phenomenon adequately and economically. Smith’s practical requirement clearly produces a negative result in such situations. We have to say that all these people are practically irrational. Smith’s view fails to predict the proper result of such situations. Clearly, under his theory such amoralists should be properly motivated.

Yet they are not. Should we than embrace externalism? I think the answer is yes.

Smith’s argument against the externalist view that amoralists do not make moral judgments but instead refer to the Good in inverted commas (“good”) is highly implausible and unnecessarily and uncharitably demeans the capacity of normal humans to make actual moral judgments. Smith argues that the blind person who uses colour terms does not have a proper grasp of moral terms and hence uses them in the inverted comma sense. By analogy, the amoralist does the same. However this is unrealistic. I think most people have a grasp of moral terms. Unlike colour terms which (and this is itself highly contentious) are learnt and understood a posteriori, moral terms seem to be a priori. We have an innate capacity to reason in moral terms, amoralists included. Hence Smith’s argument here is untenable.

On the other hand, we have a competing externalist theory that more plausibly explains and predicts behaviour. The Humean Theory of Motivation simply explains amoralists as prime examples of how judgments and belief-states are motivationally inert. The amoralist judges, but has no desire to act upon his judgments, and hence his lack of motivation is fully explained since only desires can motivate. The phenomenon of people who fail to help strangers in need is entirely predictable. The externalist position provides a clean explanation that also predicts.

Secondly, Smith argues that the phenomenon of how a change in moral judgment is accompanied by a change in motivation is best explained in internalist terms. Smith argues that internalism explains such pheonomenon in terms of moral judgments leading to a change in motivation simpliciter, where this is read de re and not de dicto. On this account the agent straightforwardly perceives something as good and hence is motivated to do it.

On the other hand Smith charges the externalist with necessarily having to provide an awkward explanation. He argues that the externalist has to read moral judgment de dicto and not de re. Under this reading, a person has a concept of “the good” in his mind and deliberates over whether something is good before acting upon it.

Is the internalist position plausible? Smith says that a rational good agent would act in the de re manner. However this seems incorrect. The practicality requirement gives us a model of human behaviour that is better described as moral rashness, instead of truly moral behaviour. Morally conscientious people do not simply act upon their immediate judgments, but rather go through a process of deliberation over what good actually amounts to, before placing their concept of good upon the uneven and messy terrain of facts.

The externalist instead provides a more feasible concept of human moral judgment. The good agent is a rational, conscientious and deliberative person. Also, it is unclear why the advocate of the Humean Theory of Motivation would be required to read moral judgment in the de dicto way, for he can simply explain the phenomenon of a change in moral judgment apparently leading to a change in motivation in terms of desires. A person who changes his moral views already has an unfounded desire to do whatever his new moral views require him to. A person may upon watching TV and reading literature about poverty in Africa change his moral judgment, but this does not per se lead to motivation. And this is more realistic. University students encounter new ways of moral thinking in the course of their studies, but it is clear that there will be many who may have adopted changed moral views but are not motivated and act upon their new found moral views. To put it simply, we do not see many students running off to do aid work in Africa or engage in political campaigning, despite the liberalising tendencies of university education.

Ultimately, Smith’s charge that the externalist is guilty of moral “fetishism” is unfounded; indeed the internalist should be instead charged with the same offence. The de re view elevates moral rashness to a virtue, while the externalist provides a more realistic and feasible account of human moral judgment.

Hence the externalist view as represented by the Humean Theory of Motivation is better than the internalist view.

However, let us assume that Smith was right about internalism. Smith than has a unique answer to the moral problem, in which he also accepts the Humean Theory of Motivation, such that he can properly accept all propositions (cognitivism, internalism and the Humean Theory) without also concluding that moral judgments cannot be made.

The key to Smith’s solution lies in his view of practical rationality. Let this be called Smith’s Theory of Normative Reasons (SATNR). Under the practical rationality requirement, moral judgment motivates. Under the Humean Theory of Motivation, desire and not belief motivates. Smith bridges the explicit inconsistency with his view of practical rationality where reason is seen to have the ability to change desires. Smith encapsulates this in his C2 proposition:

C2:      If an agent believes that she has a normative reason to φ, then she rationally should desire to φ.

Smith makes a distinction between motivating and normative reasons. Motivating reasons explain our actions telelogically. The Humean Theory of Motivation serves this function, by providing a mechanical explanation of why we do what we do.

On the other hand, normative reasons justify certain actions. Normative reasons are considerations that rationally justify certain actions on an agent’s behalf. Smith believes it is a platitude to say that what it is desirable for us to do is what we would desire that we do if we were fully rational. Smith suggests normative reasons are constituted by facts about the desires that a fully rational agent would have. The desires that an agent should have are those desires the agent would have if he was fully rational.

Building on Williams’ view of internal reasons, Smith stated that a rational agent must 1) not suffer from the effects of any physical or emotional disturbances, 2) have no false beliefs, 3) have all relevant true beliefs and 4) have a systematically justifiable set of desires. Let this be the Requirements of Rationality (RR), with the particular requirements termed RR1, RR2, RR3 and RR4, in that order. According to Smith, a set of desires is “systemically justifiable” if it is maximally coherent and justified, which requires general desires that “justifies and explains the more specific desires we in fact have” to be added to the set of desires.

Does Smith’s view of normative reasons make sense? I do not think that Smith’s view of rationality is truly rational. One crucial counterexample is the example of Huckleberry Finn’s dilemma. Smith’s view fails to deal with it in a plausible fashion.

The counterexample is a well-known episode from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is an uneducated boy from antebellum Missouri who unquestioningly accepts many values common to that place, which includes a belief that ownership of slaves is right and slaves are property. Huck befriends Jim, a slave, and helps him escape, despite his strong belief that he ought to turn Jim in, since, as a slave, Jim is someone’s lawful property, and he has a duty to return Jim to Miss Watson, Jim’s owner. Huck later faced several opportunities to return Jim, but he finds that he cannot, despite his belief that it would be right to do so. Huck feels intense regret and berates himself for aiding in what he considers as “theft”.

Let this be Huck’s Dilemma (HD). HD has been described as a paradigm case of inverse akrasia, where one believes φ is correct and not- φ to be wrong, and yet one acts contrary to one’s beliefs and performs not-φ. Huck has a conflict between his reason and desires and believes the former is correct and the latter wrong. Inverse akratics follow their desires, even though they believe their desires are wrong. However, they seem to have performed the correct act.

Applying C2, it would be rational for Huck desire to turn Jim in if a rational agent would do so.

Normative reasons are determined by what a rational agent would do; a rational agent satisfies RR. Huck clearly satisfies RR1 for he is not subject to any distorting physical or emotional disturbances, unlike the depressives and heroin addicts in Smith’s deviant cases. RR2 is satisfied, unless Huck does something analogous to William’s example of the petrol-drinking man who mistakenly believed the bottle to contain gin, like mistaking Jim for a slave when he is actually not. RR3 is satisfied for we can assume that Huck is cognisant of all the relevant true facts of his situation.

RR4 is more problematic. Systemic justifiability requires general desires that justifies and explains more specific desires to be added to existing sets of desires. In HD, the desire in question is the desire to turn Jim in. Will adding such a desire to Huck’s set of desires make the set more systematically justified? I have not read the book, but it is plausible to assume that since Huck is influenced by existing mores, Huck has specific desires that would be rendered more coherent if he also desired to turn Jim in; for example Huck might have specific desires not to give money to African-American beggars and to tip his hat only to white ladies. Hence RR4 is satisfied.

Huck satisfies RR. Hence C2 concludes that Huck is irrational for not desiring to turn Jim in, for Huck should rationally desire to do so since he believes in normative reasons that suggests he should. Huck rationally should embrace a new desire to turn Jim in and remove his desire to do otherwise.

This conclusion is intuitively unappealing. Surely it seems more appropriate to conclude that Huck was rational in acting on his desires and irrational to act on his bad normative reasons. This casts doubts on the soundness of C2.

Smith views coherence of desires as the crux of rationality. Smith’s view of rationality in RR4 is implausible.

Firstly, coherence does not per se signify rationality for one can be coherently wrong in one’s moral theory, as HD shows. HD shows that it is insufficient to claim, as C2 does, that a person is rational if he satisfies RR and acts on his systemically justifiable desires, regardless of the content of the agent’s held moral theories, i.e. whether such theories are good or plainly bad. Huck clearly embraced normative reasons that are morally repugnant, i.e. slavery. C2 fails to consider that sometimes an agent is more rational for acting against her best judgment than she would be if she acted in accordance with her best judgment, and that rationality should include consideration of content of normative reasons held by the agent.

Secondly, RR4’s exact method of rational deliberation is not truly rational. As much as Smith advocates coherence as rationality through RR4, systemic justifiability does not seem to add rational coherence to a set of desires, because coherence is only achieved bottom-up, through specific desires generating general desires. Suppose an agent likes to eat, and hence has specific desires for, certain species of fish. Does it mean that he would be more rational if he also desires to eat seafood generally? RR4 suggests that he would be more rational if he expands his desire set accordingly. When then, does such expansion end? Should this agent than proceed to adopt a desire for all food? Under RR4, technically, a rational agent’s set of desires could and should expand infinitely!

One is perhaps more rational and coherent by acting contrary to RR4: adopting specific desires in light of general desires. If I have a general desire to annihilate Jews, I rationally should desire to buy guns. This is more psychologically realistic and limits the expansion of desire sets. However we are left with an account of rationality similar to Humean instrumentalism, where it is rational to adopt instrumental desires that help achieve non-derivative desires, which still does not consider the content of desires, as shown by my example of desiring to annihilate Jews.

Thirdly, RR4 offers an unrealistic view of human psychology. It seems improbable that rational deliberation can cause desires to be modified. Desires are largely uncontrollable dispositional states that just happen in humans. It is psychologically unrealistic for an average person, like Huck who is just a simple uneducated boy, to deliberately and consciously engage in such abstract intellectual operations as required by RR4, to consciously deliberate whether his desires are systematically justifiable and willingly change desires. RR4 requires people to possess an unrealistic mental duality.

Smith may possibly defend SATNR by arguing that HD is merely a very rare aberration. People normally do not experience inverse akrasia. However the contrary is probably true: people get into dilemmas like HD all the time. We all have moments where our accepted morality tells us to φ but we desire to, and in fact perform, not-φ, and most bystanders would agree that we are rational to not-φ, particularly where the accepted morality is just wrong.

Another way to salvage SATNR is to find competing theories that do worse than SATNR in explaining HD, hence showing that SATNR is the best available, albeit imperfect, option. The Humean theory of practical rationality (HPR) is a candidate. Under HPR, Huck is rational to follow his desire to help Jim, for a rational agent maximises desire satisfaction. However HPR does not consider the content of desires as important to rationality. Hence while HPR might yield a desirable answer to HD, it is a mere coincidence since pursuing desire just happens to be correct. Suppose Huck desired to turn Jim in yet believed in normative reasons that required Huck to help Jim. HPR will conclude that Huck is rational in turning Jim in, which is intuitively unsatisfactory since it is more intuitively appealing to see Huck as rational in following his normative reasons. Ultimately, SATNR and HPR both fail to explain HD satisfactorily, because both fail to posit a view of rationality that considers the content of normative reasons.

In my view, normative reasons where interpreted as external reasons best explains HD and accounts for the normativity of reasons. Parfit suggests that external reasons justifies the worth of desires and provides reasons for valuing certain aims. External reasons apply independent of agents’ subjective motivational sets. Huck is then simply rational to help Jim, regardless of his desires and subscribed moral theory. External reasons best explains the phenomenon of the apparent assumed objectivity of moral judgments. And this view is not alien to our established means of understanding the world. Think of science and math. We hold scientific judgments and mathematical equations up to objective reasoning, and we can agree that science and math holds reasons that are external to the agent. Why can’t we do the same for morality?

Smith’s theory of internal reasons is ultimately unsatisfactory, and Smith perhaps should have accepted external reasons. However doing so collapses his solution to the moral problem. To be fair to Smith, it is important to note that Smith mentioned that rationality is “a summary notion” (emphasis Smith’s), such that the idea of full rationality captures “a whole host of more specific platitudes about practical rationality”. RR might extend beyond RR1 to RR4, to include RR5, RR6 and so on. However, Smith is yet to explicate what such further platitudes are. As the situation stands, the existing RR is, as shown in this paper, unable to satisfactorily explain HD. This gives us more reason to reject C2 and SATNR and conclude that Smith has not solved the moral problem.

I think the best way to solve the moral problem, as can be deduced from my critique of Smith’s approach, is to accept cognitivism and the Humean Theory of Motivation, but deny judgment internalism. This way, we can hold that we do actually make moral judgments, for moral judgments do express beliefs but are motivationally inert in so far as it is not butressed by some desire, which are the only things that can motivate a person to do something. This, I believe, is the most sustainable and plausible position to adopt in the big meta-ethical debate.


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