Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Moral (anti-)foundationalism

One of the more annoying questions that comes up in philosophy of religion and debates between evangelical new atheists and salesman-slick theists is "What is morality based on?" It seems obvious to me that it isn't based on anything. But I don't think a connection between this and foundationalism in epistemology had occurred to me until a day or two ago. Foundationalists typically want to base knowledge (or knowledge claims) on either sense-data-type givens ("I seem to see a red patch," etc.) or else a priori truths such as "A = A."

Perhaps this is blindingly obvious (and perhaps I've even read or written about it before and simply forgotten), but I think the thought is new to me that the former is like the utilitarian idea that ethics should be (or is) based on pain's feeling bad (and pleasure's feeling good, although this seems like a different kind of claim, a less seemingly intelligible one), while the latter is like the Kantian idea that ethics can be given a rational foundation. Which suggests there could be a moral version of Wittgenstein's anti-foundationalism.

How would that go? It would reject utilitarianism and Kantianism so far as they claim to be justifications of what we already believe. It would not reject them as recommendations about what we ought to do or believe. And it would reject them as justifications by showing that they fail to do what they set out to do, perhaps because nothing ever could intelligibly provide a justificatory foundation for what they purport to justify.

And there would be a misleading, pseudo-Wittgensteinian alternative that tried to base ethics on some language-game or form of life (or the planet we live on). It might be a bit tedious but probably wouldn't be too hard to work out how all this would go. The key idea, I (like to) think, is that recognizing that the space of reasons is curved does not mean (and means not) thinking of this space as round. That is, it is not that the foundation (or edge of space) is of a different kind than we had imagined. It is, rather (or at least more), that there is no foundation (or edge). If your spade is turned, the important thing is that it turns, not that it hits something rock hard.

But it would be reasonable to ask what I mean by all these metaphors and whether what I mean is actually true.


  1. "the space of reasons is curved"

    I think you have the wrong space. Or else I don't see how this metaphor works.

    Also, some of the rationalists Hume responded to tried to get moral truths out of things like "A=A" (their more common example is "triangles have three sides"). People like Cudworth and Clark. It's not at all clear how these "arguments" are supposed to work. The idea, I think, is that somehow what gets us logical truths also gets us results like "Act in the public interest." (Ayn Rand does something similar, but gets contrary "results".) So there's a more direct parallel than Kantianism. I'm currently taking a course on the British Rationalists & Sentimentalists, is why this comes to mind.

  2. An example and some off-the-cuff speculation:

    In a classroom discussion, a prof rejected moral foundationalism, using the odd friendship he and I have as a counter-example. He and I are both disabled, and as a resistance to patronizing political correctness (e.g. "I'm not handicapped; I'm handicapable!"), we've made a contest of who can devise the more horrid insult at the other's expense. From the outside, this game makes us look like the worst human beings. From the inside, it's a form of camaraderie that keeps us both from despairing and, dare I say, even enjoying what we have been handed. In short, what looks like a violation of the Imperative from the outside (not that I'm trying to defend it) may seem an adaptation thereof from the inside, i.e. by the players.

  3. Daniel, thanks. I'm not sure that the metaphor does work, but I'll try to make more sense of it. I think of a foundation as being flat or, so to speak, square. So a foundationalist looks for some solid, flat ground. An anti-foundationalist denies that there is such a ground. But not in the sense that the solid ground is round rather than flat. The point is rather that there really is no solid ground providing a foundation. I think of this (perhaps wrongly) as being like the way there is no wall at the edge of the universe. Space's being curved does not mean that the wall is curved or round rather than flat. It means there is no wall.

    Giving reasons (in ethics or anything else) comes to an end, but not at The Boundary of Reason. That would imply that there were something we couldn't do, some place we could not go. But the point at which we stop is the point at which we either succeed in being understood or else the point at which we choose to give up. It's not as if there is literally nothing more one could say (is it?). It's always possible to keep trying with an analogy or an attempt to teach someone a new language-game or convert them to one's own way of seeing things or thinking or behaving. So you can keep going, but not in the same direction. Or perhaps it is the same direction (since the goal is the same), but it isn't a matter of traveling in a straight line.

    Does that make sense? Have I got the physics all wrong? Does it fit the reality of what reasoning about ethics is like?

    There are in some ways better examples than Kant--and Kant is a complicated case--but he has been more influential than people like Cudworth, which is why I wanted to talk about him. I think there are rationalist tendencies in some things he says (or is often taken to have said) about the categorical imperative. Universalizability as a requirement of reason, for instance.

  4. Scheidell, thanks to you, too. I'm replying in a separate comment for fear that my replies will get too long to be accepted and will get lost somewhere.

    I wasn't sure we were talking about "moral foundationalism" in the same sense, so I googled the term and it turns out it is well established and has a literature on it that I have completely ignored in writing this post. So be warned: what I mean might not be what everyone else means by this term. But my meaning is at least related, as far as I can tell from a quick scan.

    Second point, I take it you have Kant in mind specifically here, and your point is that what is acceptable behavior for one person might well not be for others, and likewise for what is unacceptable. That is a good point.

    A Kantian might respond that much depends on the maxim in question. It won't be simply "Don't insult handicapped people," because a maxim has to include the reason for the course of action proposed. In your example the reason is friendly, which I would think could make a big difference when we test it for rationality (Can it be universalized?, Would it be consistent with reason to will its universality?). But I don't think either Kant or reason tells us how to word the maxim, how to identify the relevant maxim. And this is a problem if we're looking for a moral algorithm or decision-making procedure.