Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another God

In my dissertation I defended Anscombe's view that we would be better off if we we did ethics without reference to such things as permissibility, obligation, right, and wrong. So I am somewhat in sympathy with Joel Marks when he talks about "excluding all moral concepts and language from my thinking, feeling and actions." But what does he use instead?
It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade.
Noooooo!!! Or rather: OK, but why? What good can it do to say that: "whatever motivates us has been the moving force of humanity"? This obviously isn't false, but someone who says it is surely making a mistake (or a joke).

He goes on:
I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop.
OK. But now think of the case from Even the Rain (even though you haven't seen it yet) in which (spoiler alert) Costa is asked to take Daniel's daughter to the hospital. It will be difficult for him to do so, and dangerous. He does not want to take her, he wants to leave and finish shooting his film. But, he says repeatedly, he can't leave her. He knows that she might die if she doesn't get to a hospital soon and that he is probably the only person who can get her there.

Now, what it means to say that he can't leave her, I think, is hard to say. He is physically capable of leaving her, after all. To say that he may not leave her doesn't tell us much, because it raises questions about who or what might have made the rules that tell him what he may or may not do. He doesn't seem to be religious, for instance, so it isn't (seemingly) God. Saying that he has an obligation not to leave her sheds no light either, it seems to me. It's more that leaving her is unthinkable to him, even if it isn't actually unimaginable. It's outside the realm of what he can live with. Leaving her would not be him, is not something that is possible in his world. Does he desire not to leave her to die? In Marks' sense, yes, of course (how could he not?), but not, as Marks clearly recognizes, in the normal sense of the word. The only reason he experiences the situation as a dilemma is because what he desires to do conflicts with what he must do. He saves her because of integrity, not desire, not in the sense that he wants to have, or maintain his, integrity, nor in the sense that thoughts of integrity enter his head. But the forces that hold him together as a person, that make his life and his self coherent, force him to save her. Or, at least, force him not to leave her. And then what else can he do but try to get her to hospital?

Marks says that he is an atheist who came to see that morality (as he had understood it) was another God:
I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
This is pretty much Anscombe in a nutshell, or an important part of her view anyway. But to go from this insight to thinking that we should just say that we desire whatever we would previously have called the right thing to do seems to me to be a big mistake. Life is more complicated than that. I like his idea that judgmentalism is not the way to go in moral dialogue and that giving people information, including information about alternative courses of action, in a respectful way is better. But then he says this:
I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.
I wonder what 'must' means here. And in what sense we must accept the existence of unacceptable preferences. He says that he "could think of no greater atrocity than the confinement and slaughter of untold billions of innocent creatures for sustenance that can be provided through other, more humane diets." (Are the words 'atrocity,' 'slaughter,' 'innocent,' and 'humane' part of moral language or not? What about this: "It is wrong to toss male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry"? Is only the word 'wrong' there moral? Doesn't the rest of the sentence bristle? In fact, isn't it more powerful without the word 'wrong'?) Meat-eating and factory-farming might well be the kinds of thing one has to accept, like it or not. I might be persuaded otherwise, but at least for now I'll agree with him on this.

But what about this? Before going all Alasdair MacIntyre (who himself was channeling Anscombe), Marks writes this:
It is wrong to toss male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry. It is wrong to scorn homosexuals and deny them civil rights. It is wrong to massacre people in death camps. All of these things have met with general approval in one society or another. And yet I knew in my soul, with all of my conviction, with a passion, that they were wrong, wrong, wrong. I knew this with more certainty than I knew that the earth is round.
But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window.
So what are we to say about massacring people in death camps? "It's wrong" is no good, I think, because it's like complaining that it violates their rights. It fails to express what it tries to get at. But at least it tries to get at something real, whereas "I would prefer it not to happen" or "I strongly desire that it not happen" sound like sentences uttered while stifling a yawn. Meta-ethical considerations, thoughts about which words one has a right to use, seem to be trumping actual concern for human beings. Maybe the word 'massacre' is all we need. But if we're going to eschew any words here, I would think 'desire' is one of them. Others would be: "I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences."


  1. Bartleby.

    "I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences." Yeah, this isn't very helpful beyond freshman year, if "accept" just means "believe/accept the facts." Diversity of views and preferences is a fact. Now what?

    The error in all of this seems to be the implicit suggestion that I must accept the facts AND that I must not accept (or believe) anything besides facts. Or say things that do not express facts. How sad.

  2. Yes, it's very odd. Could be another case of someone oversimplifying for the audience of The Stone. He has a sort of blog, but it's just collected essays, not something he seems to update. Maybe I'll investigate some more.

  3. He had (maybe still has) a column in Philosophy Now. I've only skimmed it here and there. My impression is that the post above represents a larger recent turn in his thought. The lines you quote above sound a bit like Williams' line that reflection can destroy knowledge. (I've never quite been happy with that idea, as it seems that Williams only gets his point by using knowledge in a particular way. But it's been awhile since I've looked at him carefully.)

  4. It's been a while since I looked at Williams too. Thanks for the reminder.

    It seems to me that meta-ethics can be a dangerous thing. But I suppose that was obvious already.

  5. If I were nasty I'd say that this is what Anscombe's moral philosophy inadvertently leads to. But I'm not, so I'll just say that this is a perfect case of what Wittgenstein warned against when he spoke of turning the absence of idols itself into yet another idol.

  6. "Noooooo!!! Or rather: OK, but why?" My favorite blog line in awhile. And a fine post.

  7. Sorry: a while, not awhile. Drat grammar.

  8. Tommi, I don't think the whole of Anscombe's moral philosophy leads to this, but if you take only parts of it then it might. And Marks clearly is trying to get rid of all idols, with what seem to be disastrous results. So, yes, this might be just the kind of thing that Wittgenstein had in mind.

    Bosphorus, thanks!

  9. Well, isn't he just a plain old emotivist or am I missing something? (And surely Anscombe wasn't an emotivist...)

  10. Right, Anscombe was no emotivist. But I don't think Marks is either. If "massacring people is wrong" meant "I don't like massacres" or "Massacres? Ugh!" or something like that, then he'd be happy saying "Massacring people is wrong." But he's not happy to say that. He wants to say "I don't like massacres" instead.

    But he also wants "don't like" to mean something like "have a negative attitude toward," which is so vague that it doesn't distinguish Mother Theresa's "not liking" injustice from the Marquis de Sade's "not liking" a day without torture. He wants to beat swords and plowshares into tools of indeterminate use.

    This does bear a certain resemblance to emotivism (neither allows for much discrimination), but it isn't the same thing.