Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start

Richard Joyce's The Myth of Morality consists roughly of three parts, each of roughly three chapters. In the first part he argues that morality involves an error, namely the belief that there are things one must not do, regardless of one's desires or interests. In the second part he explores the relation between morality and rationality, as well as the evolution of morality (and how we probably came to have the false beliefs we know as moral). In the third (which I haven't read yet) he argues for fictionalism, the belief that moral beliefs are useful, and therefore should be kept, even though they are false. It's all a bit like Kant on religion, a bit like Anscombe on the moral 'ought', and a bit like early analytic philosophy (in relating ethics to literature), which makes it interesting to me, but it also seems badly wrong. So I want to investigate. Yesterday I posted more or less random thoughts on chapter 2, which turned out not to be the best way to begin. Today's post will probably still be a bit random, but at least it will have the organizational virtue of beginning at the beginning. To the preface.

Moral discourse, Joyce says in the second sentence of the preface, is "fundamentally flawed." It is, he thinks, like talk about phlogiston or witches. He goes on, on the next page, to say that:
The whole point of a moral discourse is to evaluate actions and persons with a particular force, and it is exactly this notion of force which turns out to be so deeply troublesome.
Maybe it's this notion of moral discourse that leads to all the problems, but I'll try not to jump to too many conclusions. Alice Crary might have something to say about this conception of morality, though.

Fictionalism, he continues, involves using the discourse in question (in this case, moral discourse) but neither asserting nor believing its propositions. (I sense the need for Frege-style judgment-strokes and content-strokes.) The fictionalist uses moral language in something like the way that a story-teller uses sentences that she knows to be untrue (see Frege on Odysseus). It is also, he says, like the use that the Dorze of Ethiopia make of the idea that leopards are Christian animals and observe the fast days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (information that Joyce got from Dan Sperber's work, apparently). That is, they say they believe this, but they still protect their animals just as much on fast days as on any other day when leopards might threaten them. So they don't believe it in a naive way.

Since this is just the preface I'm talking about I'll offer impressions rather than conclusions. But my impression is: so close and yet so far. Fascinating though. 


  1. "That is, they say they believe this, but they still protect their animals just as much on feast days as on any other day when leopards might threaten them."

    Well of course they do. What do leopards feast on?

  2. "The whole point..." I imagine enough people would accept this claim of his that what he's doing isn't setting up (or knocking down) a straw man. (At the same time I agree that it seems like an ill-advised claim to make.)

  3. Daniel--oops! I meant fast days. At the risk of making your comment seem inapt I think I'd better correct this typo.

    Matt--I agree that it's not a straw man. But if that conception of morality turns out to involve a mistake, we shouldn't necessarily conclude that morality itself is erroneous. Rather that this right-sounding characterization of it might in fact be a mis-characterization. (As I expect you might agree.)

  4. What I'm still thinking about is whether more issue should be taken with the idea that the "whole point of moral discourse is to evaluate actions and persons" or with what follows: "with a particular force." And perhaps it's the latter which is the source of trouble. So in that sense, Joyce would be right to look at that.

    So we could ask, leaving that latter point aside, is there anything suspect in saying that "the whole point of moral discourse is to evaluate actions and persons"? It could be that he's leaving out other things, relevant to moral discourse, that are also evaluated, such as certain (alleged) goods, and perhaps qualities (say, of character, though that could be subsumed under evaluating persons, or types of persons).

    And presumably (here, I'm thinking of Crary) it's important what one means by "evaluate." We could talk, like Gaita, of engaging in moral discourse in order to understand the meaning of our actions, but I assume one could reasonably point out that that kind of attempt to understand involves evaluation--especially if the point is to try to understand how we might best describe our actions (etc.), and to bring the act under a certain description involves an implicit (moral) evaluation. Not necessarily just right or wrong, good or bad, but also to bring the act (etc.) under the description of various "thick" concepts (courageous, spineless, etc.). But perhaps this points to ways in which evaluation (of the good or bad sort) is less relevant in some cases than other conceptual confusions...maybe something like whether we think we should describe an act as humble on the one hand or honest on the other. (Or where we're thinking about what the relationship is between these two thickish concepts.) Or we could be discussing what it means to be courageous, etc. Is that moral discourse? If so, is the whole point of it to evaluate actions and persons? I suppose that's part of the point, or a point we might want to get to, but if we find some concept like this sufficiently complex, then it seems like an investigation into its (say) grammar is not just to evaluate actions and persons, but rather to evaluate (broadly speaking) the concept itself, and to understand how it is related to (opposed to, influenced by, etc.) other concepts.

    I suppose if all of this is done with an ultimate aim of answering questions about how one ought to live, then it all ultimately gets back to evaluation "with a particular force."

    So, then, I guess the problem is that there is no way to give a categorical reason (according to Joyce) to someone who rejects that concept (or, say, rejects such-and-such as a virtue), and at best we're left with hypothetical imperatives. ("If you want x [to flourish, etc.], then you should care about/cultivate/etc. y.") As you pointed out in the first post on Joyce, this may leave us with little to say to the idealized Nazi who shares nothing of our own perspective or (relevant) concepts, but Williamson (quoted in a paper I read by Tom Kelly) points out that there's a difference between a good reason and a potentially persuasive one (which, I take it, depends on features of the person being offered the reason). So here's a dilemma, if you want: either (a) we are making an error in categorically rejecting the Nazi's racism or (b) the Nazi is blind to something. It seems like Joyce would have to rule out that there could be any sort of case where (b) is true.

  5. I'll have to think about this some more, but yes, I think that Joyce would rule out b.

    He discusses reasons at some length and, as I remember, thinks that it makes no sense to talk of reasons (in the sense that is relevant to this whole issue at least) unless they are potentially persuasive to the agent in question. So while "because if you do that then they will die" is a good reason for some people not to do something, for a Nazi it might be a good reason to do it (depending on who "they" refers to, etc.). This doesn't seem right to me, but I don't think I'm ready to give much of an account of how we should (and should not) talk about reasons.

  6. Ok, then I guess the next question is: if a reason is not really a reason unless it is potentially persuasive to the agent in question, what is the relevant conception of being an agent here?

    (It's no good perhaps to claim that all real Nazis were sociopaths or psychopaths, but I wonder whether this is an intrinsic (if question-begging) feature of the idealized Nazi...on the other hand, if real-world Nazis were not thoroughly sociopathic/psychopathic, then how do we show that various relevant reasons are not potentially persuasive?)

    (I hope I'm not too much forcing you to take up for Joyce or whatnot, but my head is hurting less and working through all of this seems worthwhile.)

  7. I think the relevant sense of an agent is someone with beliefs and desires, who acts according to those beliefs and desires. So "it's bacon" will be a reason for a dog to eat something (assuming dogs count as agents) but not for a vegetarian to do so. It seems to me that a vegetarian is a potential non-vegetarian, and a Nazi is a potential non-Nazi, but I think Joyce would consider it cheating to bring in that kind of point. You have to deal with the desires a person already has.

    (I agree that working through it seems worthwhile. I hope my version of what Joyce says or would say is helpful. I've been reading it, but I'm not sure I've been thinking about it as well as you have.)

  8. Hmmm...I should look at Joyce, but it would seem strange to me to call it "cheating" to suggest that a good reason might not be, in some actual circumstance, convincing to some other person. Here, I would appeal to intrapersonal insight, changes of mind, etc.--over time, I might see x as a better reason for y, or see that x is a reason when I used to think that it isn't. Perhaps Joyce can tell a fictionalist story about this.

  9. Well, 'cheating' was my word, so it would be unfair to criticize Joyce for thinking in this way. I do think that he wants to deal only with actual beliefs and desires rather than those an agent might develop (or be got to develop), and I think this is a problem. But he discusses this kind of issue at some length (he has a chapter or two on it, as I recall), and I should look at that part of the book again before saying more about it here.

  10. A very quick glance at some of the relevant material suggests that he agrees with Bernard Williams that only a reason that has the potential to motivate an agent can reasonably be called a reason for that agent to do something. This seems to allow a fairly wide range of things that might be called reasons for someone to do something. But then he also wants to focus on the agent's actual beliefs and desires, which I think narrows the range. But I'll look more thoroughly some time next week (I hope).

  11. Ok. (Incidentally, I've finally broken down and ordered Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy so that I have a good reason to read it cover to cover rather than piecemeal.) You keep emphasizing his emphasis on focusing on the agent's actual desires and beliefs, and I certainly agree that only reasons that speak to that will be potentially persuasive. Also, how one delimits actual desires and beliefs seems to matter. (E.g. limiting it to something like clearly held, or occurent, beliefs and desires, would seem too narrow, since we might find that we desire (perhaps at a second-order level) and believe things, though these facts had never come to our attention--we had never reflected on the relevant matters.)

  12. Yes, it's not that clear what should count as a person's actual desires and beliefs. I suspect there is a problem for Joyce here. That is, I suspect he has an overly simple view of it. But I could be wrong. And the whole issue of reasons, and their relation to desires and actions, is thorny. I also suspect, though, that it doesn't matter all that much to his overall theory and what I might ultimately want to say about it. I sort of hope that's true anyway.