Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Myth of Morality

I've recently been reading some of the papers from the conference in Chicago on Wittgenstein and ethics, which are all interesting in different ways (I sometimes feel as though the best papers are the ones that say the least, but there's something odd about that thought/feeling), and today I started reading Richard Joyce's The Myth of Morality, so the two are coming together in my mind, even if there is little connection in reality. I think there is a connection, though, which I'll try to explore in a post or three.

To start with, here are some things that Joyce says in chapter 2 (I read the preface and chapter 1 long enough ago that I'll have to review before saying anything about them) that strike me as being questionable or else just wrong. I'm not talking about these as an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel (if you think Joyce is obviously very wrong) or big game hunting (if you think he's much closer to the truth than that), but as a first attempt to case the joint or sniff out potential weak points in an argumentative structure with some promising foundations (e.g. the influence of Philippa Foot, who was influenced in turn by Anscombe).

On p. 31 Joyce announces that the task of chapter 2 is to clarify the inadequate response "Because you mustn't" to the question "Why musn't I do what's wrong?" The problem, it seems to me, begins when the child we are asked to imagine is told not to pinch another child "because it's wrong." (Of course it might really begin when the child wants to know why he can't pinch another child, or when he gets the urge to pinch, or when human nature became sadistic in this way, but I'll leave that aside for now.) That just isn't a reason, it seems to me. Nor is it a likely bit of dialogue. "Because it hurts" is both more likely to be said (if parents I know are typical) and more like a genuine reason not to pinch others. On p. 77 Joyce says that the theory of reasons he defends "understands reasons only as means to an agent's ends," but this seems misguided to me, given that the fact that an action's hurting others is a reason not to engage in that action. There is something wrong with you if you don't see this. (And if you don't see it then in a sense it is not part of your world, in which case your world is smaller than that of someone who does see it, which is an idea that has a Tractarian flavor to it.)

I think the following passage might be telling:
Of course, concerning Nazis we might not say "You ought not to have done that," for this sounds altogether too weak to capture the outrage -- rather, we appeal to the language of "evil" and "bestiality." But the "ought" statement is implied by the stronger language -- evil is, at the very least, something we ought not be.
This suggests a scale or ladder (am I overdoing the Tractatus references yet?) with lesser evils at the bottom and greater ones near the top, or else a kind of onion of badness with mild evil in the center and greater evils on the outside, containing the lesser degrees within them. Language that does not really apply to great evils is then taken to be of the right kind but (merely) the wrong degree. I think this misses some of the richness, the diversity, of what can be recognized in our language. Joyce moves not only from milder language to stronger but also from the second person to the third. If you were talking to a Nazi would you tell them that what they had done was evil or bestial? You might, especially if you were struggling to find suitable words, but wouldn't these really be just as weak as saying "You ought not to have done that"? If you were to scold them I think you might have to resort to swearing or spitting, but scolding Nazis itself seems wrongheaded. I'm not sure there is anything to say. I think I would have nothing to say, anyway. The Nazis are such a paradigm of evil that attempting to express the evil of his ways to a Nazi would seem to be like attempting to express the redness of red or the obviousness of the most obvious truth one can think of.

This might not be true of an actual Nazi. Think of someone who joined the party but never took part in any of its crimes. He might feel that he really didn't do anything much wrong. There would be things you could say to someone like this, and things he might say in response. A real conversation could be had. Philosophers' Nazis are not like this. They are chosen because they are platonically evil. But then what does a sentence like "The Nazis were evil" mean? Not much, I think, unless it is being said to a child who is only just learning about the Nazis. The evil of the Nazis is like the immemorial age of the Earth, something that goes without saying. Except that it so goes without saying that it makes no sense to say it. By which I mean: it isn't clear what saying it would (could) be. What could be communicated by uttering the words "The Nazis were evil"? Well, anything you like. But what would be communicated thereby? It would, obviously, depend on the details of the situation, but it's hard to imagine circumstances in which these words told an adult something about the morality of the behavior we associate with the Nazis.

On p. 48 Joyce writes that "whatever kind of existence moral obligations have, it is a type which we are familiar with from other frameworks already accepted." So asking whether they exist is not like asking whether numbers exist, he thinks. And this is because moral obligations only exist if reasons for performing moral acts exist, and we know what reasons are. If x morally ought to phi, then x has a reason to phi, Joyce says. But this reason would typically be thought of as itself moral, wouldn't it? Hence not the same as regular reasons. So his attempt to avoid a possible Carnapian objection (roughly: within mathematics it is obvious that numbers exist; outside mathematics the question can only mean is mathematics worth bothering with; and the same goes for talk of moral obligations inside and outside morality) doesn't look as successful to me as it does to him.

I was going to talk about chapter 3 as well, but I think this is enough for today.


  1. Sorry, I'm a bit lost on what Joyce is doing in this chapter (in part because I haven't read it!). When you say "clarify the inadequate response...", do you mean he intends to clarify why it's inadequate or that he means to clarify the point of the response so that it can be seen to actually be adequate?

    This stuff makes my head hurt a bit. If the question is just "Why mustn't I do what's wrong?" (rather than, "Why mustn't I do x?"), then isn't the answer just something like, "If X is wrong, then it mustn't be done"? (I.e. that's just what it means for something to be wrong...) It's true then that adding, "Because it's wrong," can't be any kind of reason in response to the question, "Why mustn't I do what's wrong?" But it could be a reason (though perhaps one that immediately needs a further explanation, such as that "it hurts") in response to the question, "Why mustn't I do x?"

    I'm sure I'm missing something here...(if I recall correctly, Joyce defends error-theory? And so perhaps this is headed in the Mackiean direction of suggestion that this mustn't-be-doneness is not a real property of anything???)

  2. Yes, I should have explained what he's talking about and started at the beginning too, probably. What he says is that he aims to clarify the inadequate response, but what he means, I think, is to clarify why it's inadequate. He wants to show that ordinary moral thinking involves categorical imperatives, that these imply that there is some reason to do or not do the thing in question, and that no such reason can in fact be found. Hence error theory. Or something like that, anyway.

    I think it makes everyone's head hurt, which is one reason why it's interesting. "If x is wrong then it mustn't be done" seems more like an explanation of what "x is wrong" is supposed to mean, to me, than a reason-giving explanation of why wrong things must not be done. But maybe the distinction between explanations of meaning and giving reasons is not hard and fast. ("It's analytic" does not seem to explain much to me, so much as it tells someone not to ask for a further explanation. But maybe that's just me.)

    And, yes, this is heading exactly where you think it is.

  3. I was at first tempted to say "it's analytic," but realized that wouldn't be helpful.

    "If x is wrong then it mustn't be done" seems more like an explanation of what "x is wrong" is supposed to mean, to me, than a reason-giving explanation of why wrong things must not be done.

    Right. I think we agree. But then it seems to make no sense that "Because it's wrong," could be a reason in response to the (amoralist's?) question, "Why mustn't I do what is wrong?" That kind of question communicates something like: I'm not playing the game. I'm tempted to say that it's like asking, "Why must I follow the rules when we play chess?" "You mustn't do what's wrong," is a rule, or a stipulation, or axiom or something like that. But it's not a substantive rule, is it? (That is, the substantive rules would be those that specify which sorts of things are wrong.) I guess the question is what exactly is the "game" we're playing when we're "playing" at morality (rather than chess, say). And that's tough, since there are various views about the scope of morality (e.g., Diamond & Crary vs. contractualists or something like that).

    I wonder about the project of showing "that ordinary moral thinking involves categorical imperatives." If this just means that ordinary moral thinking involves thinking that some things are universally wrong, then ok. But the ordinary students in my classes are fairly varied on a lot of things. They aren't, for example, absolutists about lying. (White lies are ok. Lies to save Anne Frank are ok. Etc.) But I suppose there could still be the thought that in a given context there is a categorically binding answer (for anyone in that situation, etc.), so ok. (Some of my students don't even seem to believe that, for good reason or not, who knows. Presumably not because they've read Peter Winch!)

    So, in the terms above, he wants to show that ordinary moral thought assumes there are substantive categorically binding rules, and then that there are no such things. Thus, roughly, there are no moral absolutes. Maybe (though of course the "philosopher's Nazi" cases cut against this). Have to think more about it later, head hurting again.

  4. I think Joyce is more concerned with categorical imperatives in the sense of things that absolutely must (or must not) be done, regardless of one's interests, rather than in terms of universality (although perhaps 'regardless of individual interests' amounts to the same thing). He does seem to think of morality as something like chess, except that no one thinks we have to play chess whereas, he thinks, we ordinarily do think that the game of morality is somehow obligatory. But it isn't, because no sense can be made of the idea that it is. So ordinary moral thinking involves a mistake.

    His prime examples involve the Nazis, and he likes them to be unambiguous morally, hence extreme. So imagine a concentration camp guard shoving children into a gas chamber, or whatever else you find most appalling. This is supposedly an act that ought not to be done. But if you were to tell the guard that he ought not to do his job then he might disagree. He's been ordered to do it, so he ought to do it. Plus (maybe) the pay's good. And how else are we going to purify the Reich? Etc. In the end, I think Joyce imagines, you would end up spluttering "But it's just wrong!," which doesn't really mean anything. That is, it gives the guard no intelligible reason not to act as he is doing. Hence the idea that some things are morally wrong is wrong. It's roughly Anscombe's critique of the moral 'ought' plus the idea that the incoherent moral 'ought' is central to our notion of morality.

    More later, I hope. And I hope I'll be able to explain it all more fully and clearly.