Friday, May 6, 2011

More on Korsgaard

Korsgaard likens moral obligation to the obligation to think logically. But she says what seem to be two different things about the latter. On p. 67 she discusses the case of George, who does not reason according to modus ponens (this pattern of reasoning: If A then B, A, Therefore B):
What obligates George to believe B in these circumstances is not merely his belief that "if A then B" and also that "A," but rather modus ponens itself. And it is not his belief in modus ponens that obligates him to believe B, for that [...] is irrelevant. What obligates him to believe B is that, if he does not reason in accordance with modus ponens, he will not have a mind at all.
It seems to me that the first and third sentences quoted here make different claims, one consequentialist in form and one absolutist.

The consequentialist claim is that if you don't reason in accordance with modus ponens then you will not be reasoning at all, so you had better reason that way or lose your mind. Illogical thought is not thought at all. But someone might not care about this, so the "obligation" looks problematic.

The absolutist claim is that modus ponens itself obligates George to believe B. That is, it tells him to do so. (It doesn't make him do so.)

This all reminds me of Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics, in which he contrasts someone who plays tennis badly but does not care to play better with someone who behaves morally badly and does not care to behave better. The former is understandable, but the latter is not. His attitude is unacceptable, that is to say. So Wittgenstein's view seems to be that moral obligation obligates in roughly the same way that modus ponens obligates, i.e. it tells you what to do. It does not force you to do it, though, and it does not threaten you with any dire consequence if you disobey. If it did, then your obedience would be self-interested, not moral. That is, if the force of moral obligation consisted in the fact that dire consequences awaited the disobedient, then there would be no moral obligation at all, only questions of self-interest. But telling someone what to do (without any threat attached) is not obligating them in any clear sense. Hence Kant's odd idea that we command ourselves, and Wittgenstein's suggestion that talk of moral obligation is nonsense.

What would the moral parallel be to the consequentialist claim about modus ponens? You must not behave immorally or else you will not be moral? That isn't much of a threat, or reason to change your ways. Korsgaard might want to argue that you risk losing yourself in some way, but a) do you really?, b) must you care about this?, and c) is this the reason why immorality is bad?       


  1. I think what Sartre says about "double-dealing" in "Existentialism is a Humanism" might be the parallel. (And why should I care about hypocrisy?)

  2. Yes, how or why bad faith is bad is a bit of a problem for him. Or at least an issue. And his moral philosophy is not the best in the world.

    Korsgaard has a more complicated theory, but I'm not sure how well it holds up in the end.

  3. Sure. I've been thinking about Sartre lately, and I think the radical individualism is way overblown, but there are some things I like about what he does, at least as rhetoric.

    I should probably read K's book (I was supposed to have gotten a copy as part of a book proposal reviewing deal awhile back, but it never came), at least the parts about integrity.

    I haven't thought much lately about the problem of responding to the immoralist, but it strikes me that some of the considerations above are something like an attempt to deal with that question (why should I care? etc.) Analogies between ethics and math/logic (the "laws of thought") are definitely compelling, if the analogy can be worked out.

    Thoreau says that his only obligation is to do at any time what he thinks is right, but I take it that even here, it's not the belief as such which obligates, but the content of the belief. And I could think certain things right even if I act inconsistently with that. I suppose this conflicts with K in that she wants to work out the thought that a person could have obligations without knowing it (or without caring to know). But yeah, I guess I want to know what the analogue to modus ponens is. (And maybe without some kind of concrete proposal on the table, it is going to be very hard to think about the nature of moral obligation... "Why should I care about morality?" may be ill-formed. Contrast: "why should I care about other people?" or "Why should I respect others?" Maybe morality as such isn't really an appropriate object of care...)

  4. That's a good point. Caring about morality as such might be moralistic, after all. Caring about others is probably better, although there is still the question of duties to self (not that I like talk of duties that much). I think the immoralist is impossible to respond to in a fully satisfactory way, but if you add together the best considerations from the big guns then there isn't much left for the immoralist to think. That is, if you look at things Kant's way, for instance, then you might be able to respond "Yes, but...", but the "Yes" part of that rules out certain kinds of view. And you can do the same with Mill, Hume, Plato, etc. (Or a selection of your choice.) None of them, in my opinion, leaves the immoralist with no breathing room, but all of them together make immoralism pretty implausible, if it wasn't to begin with.

    I can't say much more about K's book, since I haven't finished it and would also need to go back and re-read some of it carefully to reach a thoughtful verdict. But I think the bit I quoted is quite a key passage. Unfortunately, the whole thing is about integrity, so there isn't just one bit to read if that's your interest. Fortunately, it's very nicely written, relatively short, and is full of nice ideas (about teleology, e.g.) even if you don't buy the central argument.