Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Obvious injustice

This paper by N. Coleman on "Philosophy and the 'obvious' wrongness of slavery" has been getting some attention. It's been tweeted and retweeted. Here's the conclusion:
So, 'Why is it "obvious" to us that the institution of slavery is an inexcusable evil?' (2003:166). This is the question once posed by another British philosopher, Stephen R. L. Clark. Given that it is neither obvious that nor obvious why slavery is wrong, I think the answer to Clark's question lies in the pronoun Clark uses: 'to us'. It is reasonable to interpret a false, yet frequently uttered, slogan in light of the social status of the persons uttering the falsehood—in this case, in light of Clark's 'us'. This is reasonable, because at least one function of frequently uttering a falsehood is the maintenance of an existing relation of social power. Who, then, is Clark's 'us'? Given the disproportionate predominance, in the academic discipline of Philosophy, of persons-classed-racialised-and-gendered-as-wealthy-white-men, Clark's 'us' is classed, racialised, and gendered in this very way. What, then, is the social relation of power maintained by the frequent utterance of the falsehood that it is obvious that slavery is wrong? Since the most recent incarnation of legal slavery unjustly put social power in the hands of persons-classed-racialised-and-gendered-as-wealthy-white-men, Parfit's Practice [i.e. treating the injustice of slavery as obvious] permits those persons who are predominant among professional philosophers (a) to place themselves on the right side of contemporary morality, while (b) putting paid to any discussion that might implicate them in the wrongness of slavery. This posturing and policing of philosophical enquiry constitutes racial injustice and oppresses persons who are racialised as black.

I'm not a racist, but I disagree with this. That is, I think it is obvious that slavery is wrong. But it is worth thinking about how we could show that it is.

Here are three approaches we might try:

1. We could analyse what slavery is, taking either the practice itself or the concept of it as the thing to be analyzed. Assuming we managed the task we would then have a set of components or ingredients that make up slavery, and we could, as it were, measure them for wrongness. If an essential feature of slavery violates the rights that belong to a rational being then we might hope to show in this way that slavery is unjust. But is it only rational beings that have rights? And what are rights? What grounds them? These are vexed questions. If, instead of rights, we talk about human dignity or value or sanctity then we face the same kind of questions. As long as we are talking about ethics we will inevitably (if we take this route) hit some kind of bedrock that is inexplicable: God, rights, etc. This need not be regarded as a problem, but it will always be open to our opponents to deny the existence of God, rights, etc., and some of this denial might be sincere.

2. We could try instead to be as concrete as possible, to avoid intellectually unsatisfying and all too easily dismissed references to God or rights or the kingdom of ends or higher forms of happiness or what-have-you, and focus instead on pleasure defined in terms of neurobiology. It might be, and might be demonstrable, that slavery is not conducive to pleasure understood in this way (not only for enslaved people for the population taken as a whole) and perhaps also that it increases pain (also understood biologically). There are reasons why we might not want to turn ethics into a matter of psychology in this way (or abandon ethics and replace it with psychology, if that's a better way of putting it), but it might be possible. It would be interesting to see what came out of it.

3. We could look at, or think about, the way that slavery fits, or fails to fit, with the rest of our lives. Instead of scrutinizing slavery itself we would look at the (human) world as something like a jigsaw puzzle or machine, and at slavery as a piece that might or might not fit into this puzzle. We might think about the various other ways we deal with human beings and about the various other ways we use the methods of slavery: beating, confinement, and so on. Is slavery a good fit with the rest of our lives? Does it cohere? Or is life with slavery incoherent in some significant way?

It is this third approach that seems most promising to me. But it will involve, so to speak, seeing that slavery does not belong in our world. There will be no explanation, because you can always make a piece fit. Doing so will involve violence, of course, but violence to a machine part or jigsaw piece is here just a metaphor for significant disruption of the flow of life, of the way we do things. And that is neither always nor necessarily a bad thing. That a given change is violent, a violation or spoiling of the previous order, rather than a radical improvement, is an aesthetic judgment. Not a simple "ooh" or "aah" response. It is a judgment. But it is an aesthetic, subjective judgment all the same. What is clearly wrong to a connoisseur might not seem wrong at all to someone else, although they could (at least in principle) be brought to see that it is wrong.  

(This relates, I think, to Sean Wilson's idea of connoisseur judgement, and to Wittgenstein's saying that a musical theme is not just a mix of notes.)         


  1. I don't think you can leave it up to connoisseurship for, if you do, who is to decide who fits that bill and why should anyone care if they don't? For moral valuing to work it must somehow compel us, either rationally or some other way. But no one is compelled to adopt or adhere to anyone else's notion of the best reading of a circumstance or type of behavior.

    Moreover Coleman seems to be thinking not so much of slavery as of some particular form of it, namely the chattel slavery which Europeans in the West (Europe and the Americas) imposed on Africans and some indigneous Indians. But not all forms of slavery are or were like that. The Muslim world has a long history of slavery (and still does, see Boko Haram, ISIS et al) yet slaves in Islamic countries often rose to high positions and great wealth, sometimes still retaining the legal status of slave. The subjects of the Turkish sultans were routinely considered his slaves and the adherents of Islam are deemed the slaves of Allah. In Egypt, the Mamluk rulers remained nominally slaves even after coming to power in that land during the Middle Ages. In the Americas the Seminole Indians of Florida practiced a fairly informal form of slavery that was more like feudal dependency though their Creek kinsmen and the Cherokee in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas adopted the white man's form of that institution though without the same degree of racial animus.

    Arguably the case should be made against what enslavement does to people rather than against the concept itself, unless one wants to equate slavery with the chattel slavery of the Americas into the 19th century. And if it's to be about what it does more than what it is, then you need an argument NOT to treat anyone in that way. Here I'd say we need a moral or spiritual argument to adopt certain kinds of attitudes toward others and to reject those attitudes which lead to the kinds of treatment slavery led to. But in that case, slavery isn't the issue per se but how we treat others, whatever institutions apply.

    Of course, it may be the case that some institutions, like slavery, just foster or produce the wrong sort of attitudes towards others and then the argument can be extended to cover not just the particular treatment but the institution which makes it possible, encourages it and so forth. But this is a far remove from the idea of grounding moral judgment in some principle or practice of connoisseurship.

  2. I don't want to ground anything on connoisseurship, because I think of that as Sean's concept not mine, and because I don't remember the details well enough to want to make use of it here. I do think, though, that deciding what is or is not just involves deciding how to apply the word 'just' (and 'unjust'), which is (in some sense) determined by the grammar of 'just' even though that grammar is (in some sense) indeterminate. Applying a rule is like drawing a line--not a line of division, like a line in the sand, but a line such as Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock might draw (or paint). We can and do make judgments about which lines are better, even about which lines are done right or wrong, even though we have no formula to apply for continuing a line correctly.

    The question "Who is to decide?" has to be rejected, because the only acceptable answers are everyone and/or no one. In one sense we all get to decide for ourselves whether we think slavery (or abortion or same-sex marriage or whatever) is right or wrong. But these decisions don't determine anything. No one gets to make these things right or wrong merely by fiat. This is part of the grammar of 'right' and 'wrong', I take it.

    It's similar with the arts. Who gets to decide that Rembrandt drew well? Everyone and no one. And probably really no one, although everyone is entitled to an opinion and to try to see for themselves what is so good about his drawing. I think the evidence actually is compelling. Whether it's rationally compelling depends what you mean by 'rationally', of course, but I think a case could be made that it is.

  3. There is much less at stake re: a judgment concerning a Rembrandt vs. a Picasso or vs. a drawing by anyone else for that matter, than there is in the case of whether right, wrong or indifferent to make someone a slave or to behave in certain ways towards them. Part of saying there's more at stake though, would I suppose, depend on an underlying attitude one has or lacks so your case for an aesthetic kind of function might be strengthened in that way: whether we have that attitude or not is a matter of personal inclination, training, familiarity with certain forms of life and so forth. But it seems to me that there's still something missing because we can always choose to change our attitudes or to act in ways conducive to such changes. And whether or not we do that is, itself, a moral issue.

    As Sean knows, I'm very uncomfortable with taking this back to connoisseurship. It just doesn't seem right to me but I agree that there is something of that in this picture. Maybe it's where one puts it in the mix.

    1. Yes, training, forms of life, etc. are certainly important here. Rembrandt's goodness is not going to be evident to everyone, especially those from a very different culture. But given a certain kind of upbringing in a certain kind of culture it is evident. Not that there is literally nothing that someone could possibly say to help people see it, but in the end it is something that needs to be seen if it is to be appreciated at all. We might say something similar about Euclid's proofs. A lot of background might be necessary, but once it's in place some things are easily visible. They can be pointed out to those who still don't see, but no proof is possible that they are there other than their own self-evident presence.

      And I think the injustice of slavery is like that. Coleman says that it is neither obvious that nor obvious why slavery is wrong, and suggests that when Clark says it is obvious to us that it is wrong the 'us' in question is wealthy white men. But I think that if it ever was not obvious to anyone that or why slavery is unjust then it is to wealthy white men (or those in the equivalent position if we want to consider other examples of slavery than the one Coleman focuses on) that it was not obvious. I'm sure that the injustice was obvious to the slaves, and is obvious today to African-Americans, for instance. It was evident also to slave-owners like Thomas Jefferson. So I'm not convinced that it was ever not obvious that slavery was wrong, and if it was not then I'm also not convinced that its wrongness is primarily obvious to wealthy white men. But it is true that who we are, what place we occupy in society, what culture we come from, and so on, will affect how we see such matters.

    2. "A lot of background might be necessary, but once it's in place some things are easily visible. They can be pointed out to those who still don't see, but no proof is possible that they are there other than their own self-evident presence."

      I think that's right but needn't preclude having a basis for asserting that one ought to treat others in some ways, not others, even when one's interlocutor stands outside one's culture. It's a matter of seeing it but if we can make a case for why one should see it, that's enough. We argue all the time about things and come to shared conclusions even when our arguments aren't demonstrable in a syllogistic way. At some level the disputants always have to "see it." After all, even deductive reasoning isn't always "seen" right off. You sometimes have to work to show an interlocutor the logical relations. So I'd look to expand the notion of moral reasoning, like Blackburn does, though I think he has some of it wrong.

      ". . . the injustice of slavery is like that. Coleman says that it is neither obvious that nor obvious why slavery is wrong, and suggests that when Clark says it is obvious to us that it is wrong the 'us' in question is wealthy white men."

      Well, cultural viewpoints do change and that matters, even among "wealthy white men." If one thinks only of the bondage imposed on Africans by Europeans, where people were routinely treated like animals rather than fellow human beings, then we find that kind of thing indefensible today in our culture because of our predecessors' changed sensibilities.

      What makes slavery and some other things wrong, must lie in the notion of how we ought to treat our fellow human beings (I'd expand that to "our fellow creatures," to the extent they have certain cognitive capacities). That is something one has to "see" as you say.

      How do we get someone to "see" it? What arguments can be marshaled in favor? How can they convince? I think these the real questions for moral philosophy, i.e., explicating how moral claims get their potency.

      "I'm not convinced that it was ever not obvious that slavery was wrong, and if it was not then I'm also not convinced that its wrongness is primarily obvious to wealthy white men."

      We should separate slavery as an institution from its incarnations (the practices that went along with them). Jefferson, and others, can be understood as coming to a growing realization that 1) their slaves were human beings like themselves and 2) their own principles could not be logically sustained if they did not also encompass the humanity of their slaves. It was a complex and gradual change in viewpoint, affecting some sooner than others, but gradually spreading in the wider culture.

      Were those who saw no wrong in slavery in our past always morally wrong only they didn't know it? Here I'd say that what makes them morally wrong, in a timeless way, goes beyond slavery per se, for what's wrong about slavery is only what happens within it as an institution. That, I think, can be shown to be universally wrong in all times and for all cultures. But to the extent such "wrong" things don't happen within a system like slavery, it isn't necessarily wrong.

      Stepping outside our culture can be a shock given groups like ISIS or Boko Haram. If the point of moral valuation is to find and make use of some trans-cultural judgments that can be applied beyond any particular cultural milieu, we need something which human beings have access to just because of their natures. To the extent we have that, we can have a sufficiently universal ethos to make moral discourse workable across cultures and so live up to its billing.

    3. Thanks, Stuart. I think I agree with just about all of this (especially this: "At some level the disputants always have to "see it.""), although I don't understand the second to last paragraph. I'm probably being dense.

    4. I was just trying to separate the idea of a "universal" standard (being independent of the era one finds oneself in and of any particular culture) from the more cultural-specific elements we can expect to find in any given institution. Slavery, of course, isn't any institution. Much, if not everything, about it seems reprehensible to us today. But that is as viewed from our perspective in our culture, i.e., the one bequeathed to us by the Jeffersons and Lincolns of our past. In their day and culture, slavery was not generally thought wrong, even if some, like these two, thought it was.

      You had suggested that it really was wrong even if people of an earlier era hadn't thought so, even if they just didn't get it. This implies that moral progress has been made by us now, i.e., that there is a real moral truth to be had and it at least includes the fact that slavery is wrong. But for something to be wrong in any broad way, consistent with your suggestion, there would have to be a culturally independent reason for thinking it so.

      So I was trying to get at this from a different angle, one that says it's not slavery (an institution that can take many forms, after all) but some things that slavery does, or fosters, that are wrong. That is, we might be able to make a moral case against those things even if slavery, the institution, is culture-specific, as it seems to be, and so only relatively wrong (from culture to culture).

      Of course, there really isn't anything that is this thing we're calling "slavery" except that amalgam of practices we happen to call that in any given situation or culture so perhaps there is no such thing as slavery in the abstract at all. It isn't something we can really sink our teeth into. So it kind of has to come down to the practices in any case and I was suggesting, no doubt in a clumsy way (as I'm probably still doing), that I think we can find a basis for making a sort of universal claim (albeit not one based on logic, a la Kant, or that applies for all time in all places and for all conscious entities). The kind of universalist notion I have in mind is only universal in the sense of being trans-cultural (not culturally limited) because it's based on the kind of creatures we are (which would presumably be the same in every culture).

      If we can offer a basis for treating our fellows in one way instead of another based on what we are (and on realizing that) then a kind of argument is to hand, i.e., an argument for realization, for seeing the relation of certain behaviors to the kinds of creatures we are. It's not a syllogistic argument, of course, but it's an argument and it does offer a reason to do some things instead of other things.

    5. Thanks. Yes, I agree with this: The kind of universalist notion I have in mind is only universal in the sense of being trans-cultural (not culturally limited) because it's based on the kind of creatures we are (which would presumably be the same in every culture).

    6. " it's based on the kind of creatures we are (which would presumably be the same in every culture)" leaving aside the aporias of oughts from is what could this mean and if it were true as a kind of evolutionary fact (I assume maybe wrongly we are not talking "natural" theology) why do we have different cultures?

    7. Yes, it's an evolutionary fact but not one that entails, in a logical way, that we must act one way instead of another. The reasoning isn't grounded in a syllogistic model but in seeing a point, i.e., taking note of what makes us tick (at our level of cognitive capacity) and then deciding to incorporate that into our way(s) of behaving in relation to others.

      It's not the evolutionary "fact" that implies our moral choice(s) but a decision to embrace the possibility inherent in being what we are (of having a certain kind of cognitive capacity). What we normally think of as moral values (claims about what's the right thing to do) can be understood as being undergirded by a somewhat different sort of valuing which addresses the person or self, i.e., the subjective agent, rather than individual actions in isolation from the agent. This is, itself, a valuational step, one about choosing how to be in the world. Hume's is/ought distinction isn't violated nor are we obliged to find some kind of natural or non-natural property called "goodness" (or some cognate) belonging to some things which somehow resides somewhere in our experience of the world but which is somehow missing in action when we try to locate it.

      Nor are we forced to simply assume no content for our moral claims at all (that they are just expressions of feelings or motives or what not) as non-cognitivists must. Instead we get one line of valuing shifting, when you get far enough along, into another line of valuing, i.e., one that involves considering what we can be because of what we are. What's the advantage to seeing that, since we can certainly proceed without such a realization and just having the capacity to see ourselves in the other is no guarantee that we will when the time comes? Certainly there's no extra reward to be claimed by the agent making a choice to be one way instead of another, other than a certain satisfaction (an intellectual one perhaps?) that one may attain by seeing what's already there.

      In the end the decision to care about others, to the extent we don't already do (and most of us do at some level) is not just a moral question but a kind of spiritual one, albeit without any particular religious trappings (though it doesn't exclude them either). So one could say that moral valuing (the things we think it right or wrong to do in a society of creatures like ourselves) rests on a spiritual valuing (choosing one way to be over another). Valuing still stands apart from representing in what we do and say, just as Hume and some others noticed a while back.

    8. Ah, sorry, I neglected in all that to say why we have different cultures. I think it should be obvious from what I wrote but to be more explicit, we have them because we are not bound, logically or empirically, to act with concern for others. It's only something built into the kind of creatures we are. If it were just built in in the sense of some of us having a sympathetic gene and others lacking it, then this wouldn't be a good explanation, of course. My point is a little different, i.e., that it's built into the kind of cognitive capacity we have because, being subjects at a certain level, we recognize other subjects as subjects. But recognizing is not merely a mental occurrence. What we think is tied to what we say and do and so thinking something is X, but treating it as if it weren't, is to fail to actually think of it as X even if our statements belie that. Thinking, saying and doing are all on the same continuum we could say. But that doesn't mean that we will always do everything we can with regard to others or that our particular practices, from culture to culture, will be a match. Both within particular cultures and across cultures, great variation is possible and so are the choices we can make.

  4. Hi Duncan. Thanks for mentioning me. I agree with you that #3 sounds more promising, and that it is an artisan judgment.

    Not sure if you agree, but my take on this is that it leaves open the unfortunate possibility that oppressive labor relations might not actually be "oppressive" in other societal arrangements or forms of life. Connoisseurship, by definition, opens up the possibility that backwards culture would have backwards ethics, because it "fits."

    1. There is a danger of something like this, or at least it's worth thinking about whether this might be a danger, I agree. Things that look inappropriate to us might actually be (and not just seem) appropriate to others. And by 'appropriate' I mean fitting and perhaps even just.

      At one level this seems both true and unproblematic. For instance, a suitable way of behaving in the presence of one head of state will not be suitable for another, especially if the two heads of state in question are very distant in time and space. Just as suitable funeral arrangements vary from culture to culture. This certainly seems true and yet is not very troubling.

      What about slavery? Could it really be OK in some cultures? I think the answer's No. Partly because I'm committed not to apply words like 'OK' to institutions like slavery. But partly also because I don't believe that slavery could ever be an efficient way for human beings to get what they want. (Where slavery has been accepted I believe it has generally been regarded as a necessary evil, and since it isn't actually necessary I think it is simply evil. That's roughly how I would want to argue anyway.) It would take some work, though, to show that the second part of my answer is true and that the first part is not just cheating.

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    3. Duncan, here is the way that I would see connoisseurship applying to slavery (or anything).

      If those who oppress others do so for reasons of their own dysfunction -- their own shortcomings -- then, presumably, if they could see these connections, they themselves would stop it. One wants to say: what is required is social teaching. And so, Germans (or Americans) of one generation might not see the social practice in the same light, in the way that adults often feel shame for things done as a child. Note that this "awakening" could occur even within the same (or similar) cultural practices. One doesn't need an industrial revolution, for example, to get rid of chattel slavery in America (in theory). One would simply need to change the way the matter is pictured by those who would venture to support it.

      If, of course, people are too stupid to see this picture -- if greed or politics does not allow it (let's say) -- then this does not concern us. For, we can still say from an aesthetical vantagepoint that "slavery is wrong," much the way we say that certain art is better than others, when faced with what what knowing people say of it versus the ignorant.

      The difficulty arises, however, when an oppressor is not deficient in seeing connections. In this situation, he knows what the connoisseur knows -- the aspect is beheld -- yet he rejects the conclusion. He maintains that the oppression is simply an alternative aesthetic. Much in the way that, in current times, one might disagree about whether football should have a draft, or whether college athletes should get paid (are exploited). Or whether dogs should be spanked.

      I don't, of course, equate slavery of any sort with these comparisons. Rather, I only use them to invoke a psychology to combat what historicans call "presentism." And so, the psychology is one where a person lives, shall we say, in a social or cultural time from which certain orientations and behaviors sprang up as weeds come in a garden. And that, if a connoisseur should come to defend these practices as being their own sort of thing -- as the Devil might defend a certain congruence in his "society" -- then the only thing left for a connoisseur to do is attempt to say that one art is superior to the other, on ARTISANSHIP grounds. And I don't think that is actually possible.

      So what is the solution? It is simply to make the matter not "fit" any longer. For surely the Devil's ways would only work in a evil cultural program. And where that program begins to like and enjoy other music -- well, then, the matter starts to look like a wart.

      And so, my ultimate conclusion is that slavery can only be understood on aesthetical grounds as being: (a) moronic (the oppressor is an idiot); or (b) an alternative behavior that fits an otherwise despicable cultural program. The former requires teaching (and capacity in the learner). The latter requires that new behaviors emerge that surround the thing.

      Just my 2 cents. Sorry for the long post.

    4. Thanks (no need to apologize!). If we're understanding 'moronic' in the same way then I agree. And whether a despicable cultural program could really be coherent I think is doubtful, I think, but a) I can't prove that, and b) I probably need to think more about exactly what I mean by 'coherent.' Horrible regimes have lasted a long time, after all.

    5. Replying to Philip here:

      "The obvious question is: what is the criterion of an expert judge? And the obvious answer is: one who agrees with me. And if that's too cynical for you, let's change it to: one who can persuade me"

      The person of judgment would be neither. It matters nothing that you agree or can be persuaded. What matters is if you can see his connections (share his insight). The premise is that appreciation as an intellectual behavior has levels. There is what is ordinarily appreciated, and what is culturally taught or oriented. You can't see what the connoisseur sees until you receive an orientation.

      Once a person does receive it, IF he can see the connections (big if), he can then proceed knowingly on the subject, either pro or con. Even if pro (the same position), one assumes he'll be different toward it some way compared to before.

      For most moral issues, the real question is not whether there are so called experts, but rather what the field is. It is either cultural studies if the question is one cultural program versus another; or neurology or psychology if the issue is how to deal with an individual who is deviant (cannot neurologically process empathy well, e.g.). In both cases, therapy is the solution, just different kinds.

  5. I want to support the point that Coleman appears not to be thinking of slavery in general but rather of the particular form of it that was practised in the US. In addition to ignoring the forms of slavery that Stuart Mirsky mentioned, Coleman doesn't count slave labor as used by Germany during the years after 1939. About 12 million non-Germans were forcibly imported into Germany in five years, comparable to the numbers of Africans transported to the Americas over 5 centuries. The kind of slave system in Germany had more analogies with Roman slavery than with American chattel slavery. The Germans were explicit in rejecting anti-slavery ideas.See Drescher's book, Abolition, for details.

    1. without going to far down the Nazi rabbit-hole I was thinking as I read Duncan's post of recent philosophical/literary discussions of meat (as murder or not, as fueling climate change, etc) and that at minimum this should raise some issues/concerns for many of us who are not vegetarian about what sorts of ethical compromises we all may or may not be making without too much thought or internal struggle, seems if nothing else to put serious strain on the idea(l) of some kind of harmony/cohesion of a life's practices.

    2. Yes, I have no idea how harmoniously or cohesively it's possible to live. It seems like an ideal worth having though. Or perhaps I should just say that reducing disharmony seems worthwhile.

      Thanks for the Cavell link.

  6. I finally had a chance to look at the full paper by Coleman this morning. Referring to the practice in modern Western philosophy of assuming that slavery is self-evidently wrong, he concludes his paper with: "This posturing and policing of philosophical enquiry constitutes racial injustice and oppresses people who are racialized as black."

    I must admit that I don't see why he considers it racist to suppose that slavery is self-evidently wrong in a moral sense, though I agree with him that such an assumption is unwarranted, that there must be reasons for holding it to be so. Earlier in the paper (page 2) he alludes to an argument against slavery presented by the English abolitionist William Wilburforce:

    "[t]o purchase human beings in one part of the world, to carry them by violence to another part, remote from every object of their human attachments, and there sell them into perpetual slavery, is a practice self-evidently repugnant to the first principles of moral obligation. No investigation could be necessary to prove, that such a trade as this is ought, on moral grounds, to be renounced."

    That statement does conclude with an invocation of self-evident truth vis a vis the wrongness of slavery, yet, it's clear that Wilburforce does give reasons for his conclusion, namely by an appeal to the heart, when he enumerates the bad things done to those enslaved. Without asserting their badness in any explicit way he obviously supposes his interlocutor will feel the same repugnance at their descriptions as he feels. In other words he is suggesting that it's wrong to treat people in the way the slavery he has in mind treats them.

    Implied by his reliance on this appeal to the emotions, is the possibility that, if slavery did not, in fact, consist of such treatment, it would not be self-evidently wrong. Otherwise why would he have bothered to itemize the treatments he thought objectionable as he did and which he expected his interlocutor to share?

    Wilburforce does make the appeal to self-evidence that Coleman refers to but not in the same way Coleman seems to think people like Parfit are doing. Wilburforce's appeal is to the self-evidently "repugnant" nature of the treatments, not the institution. A more benign sort of slavery might conceivably pass muster for Wilburforce, at least on the narrow evidence of this argument quoted by Coleman.

    Coleman, in the paper, seems to be addressing the fact that some philosophers (the "rich white males" and, presumably, those sharing their culture) may be conflating the self-evident wrongness of the treatment Wilburforce alludes to with the moral quality of the institution of slavery itself. I think that's a fair point and one I find myself in agreement with, but I miss the leap he wants us to make from the fact of that conflation to the assertion that making it is evidence of racism (even if unacknowledged or unrecognized) on the part of those who do so. Something, it seems to me, is missing from the argument here.

  7. Forgive me, because I'm now going to give a lengthy response and I've moaned at Stuart recently about this. My excuse is... I have no excuse. Here we go.

    First of all, I want to say that, roughly, I agree with Duncan's option (3). I'd put it like this: given various basic underlying facts about our culture and how we live it is obvious that slavery is wrong. Of course, those “basic underlying facts” haven't always been in place and might not always be in place. It is in that sense (so far as I can see) that it's not obviously true that slavery is wrong.

    That leads on to my objections to Stuart's and Sean's positions, both of which I think are based on the idea that “slavery is wrong” is akin to a metaphysical truth.

    Stuart's argument seems to be grounded on the idea of truths that are universal, given what it is to be human. I think that's almost right (it has something right about it) but it falls short in a crucial manner. Anyway there are three senses in which truths might be said to be “universal”.

    i. Everyone agrees to them (contingently true).

    ii, They're universal truths (or laws) of nature (unavoidable truths of this world).

    iii, They're metaphysical truths (true of any possible world).

    Stuart's position aims at (iii). In any possible world in which human-like creatures exist they must see that slavery is wrong or else they're making a mistake. I think that's unsustainable. A mistake according to whom? The answer is: according to people who believe that slavery is wrong. So people who believe that slavery is wrong believe that slavery is wrong. That's hardly news. It relies on the assumption that we all accept the same “basic underlying facts” mentioned earlier. But what if we don't? Is it impossible that we don't? It seems to me that both history and current affairs give a rather bleak answer. At most it might be true that in certain circumstances people will naturally turn against slavery (and I think that is true).

  8. Stuart is uncomfortable with Sean's position, but I don't see why, since it follows on logically. Given that accepting slavery is a factual mistake and some people accept slavery, what else can we say except that those people aren't sophisticated (or intelligent) enough to see the truth of the matter? So questions about what's morally right and wrong must be left to expert judges. I consider that to be a morally toxic point of view.

    The obvious question is: what is the criterion of an expert judge? And the obvious answer is: one who agrees with me. And if that's too cynical for you, let's change it to: one who can persuade me. But does a power of persuasion equate to moral right? If someone could persuade the world that slavery was fine would that mean that it was fine?

    Suppose both you and I consider ourselves moral connoisseurs yet we disagree (I favour slavery, you don't). Then how do we decide? You might say we decide on the outcome, but that doesn't work. If the outcome is slavery then you'll say that shows I was wrong and I'll say that shows I was right. Now what?

    Here we get to the nub of the problem. We're hypnotized by a picture which says that a moral standpoint is either:

    i. How I feel about something (eg, I prefer chocolate milkshakes to banana milkshakes); or

    ii. A truth about a state of affairs (eg, the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth).

  9. Let's take Wittgenstein's advice and look and see. In what way is a moral view akin to either? I'd say there were elements of both but it wasn't the same as either. My moral view is clearly a personal judgement I make. “Slavery is wrong” is my belief and you might disagree, just as you might prefer banana milkshakes to chocolate ones. In that respect it is akin a preference. But – by definition – a moral view is expressed as a rule. “Slavery is wrong” is a rule, and “chocolate milkshakes are nicer than banana milkshakes” is not.

    But here's the real kicker: the Wittgensteinian account is the same regarding both moral rules and rules regarding matters of fact. That we all agree as to what counts as “the Earth being 93 miles from the Sun” ultimately depends on agreement in judgements. That's one outcome of the “+2” discussion. As part of this (in §240) Wittgenstein points out that we don't usually fight over whether a mathematical rule has been followed – and that's because (for the most part) our judgements are suitably aligned.

    Now, in which area of our lives do fights often break out? In our moral disputes, of course. And that's because our agreement in judgements is not sufficiently aligned in that area. You think Jones is being selfish, but I don't. You think capital punishment is dehumanizing, but I don't. And so on. As competent adults we agree that 2004 + 2 = 2006, but possibly not that slavery is wrong. And even if we do agree that slavery is wrong, we might disagree over what counts as “slavery”. That is, when it comes to morals, we can disagree both over which rules should be adopted and also over what counts as following the rule we've adopted.

    How can there be this disparity between rules regarding (eg) mathematics and those regarding morals? The answer is: the consequences. If our judgements didn't agree regarding “2+2=4” then we couldn't build bridges, or measure temperatures, or use money. In other words, the world only supports such things when they're done in a certain way. When we take two apples and add another two it never creates a fifth apple to go with them. Hence the rule “2+2=4” can be used in the way it is. Our judgements grasp a regularity which the world supports.

    But it's not the same regarding moral differences. There we don't get into conflict with regularities in the world, but with regularities in other people. And people, unlike apples, can be persuaded to change. Or forced to change. Or killed.

    1. Nicely put, Philip. Indeed, human preferences, inclinations and the like lack the regularity of what we count as the physical world, even as we humans stand in that world. Moral concerns address subjects, subjective agency to be precise, functioning at a certain level (having a certain cognitive capacity).

      I'd say the way moral judgments are like our preferences for banana milkshakes is that, insofar as they consist of behavioral rules we have preferences for some rules but not others. The moral question then is why. To say I prefer a banana milkshake to a strawberry one is answered in a couple of ways. One might identify something in the banana one's body needs and suppose one"s craving for the taste of banana is a function of that. Alternatively, it can be enough to say, well I just like it, that's all. That's often all you need with taste questions but it doesn't work with rules of human behavior.

      You can't say well I just prefer slavery in my society! No one will accept that as a reason. But my view is not akin to claiming this is settled by assertion of some fact in the world. What I've suggested is that there is a realization about ourselves, the sort of creatures we are, to be had -- and that this can be argued for, albeit in a non-deductive fashion. And such arguments can prompt others, and even ourselves, to change how we see things and so how we behave. An argument that shows how empathy in our actions suits creatures like we are can underpin the kinds of judgments in question, such as when and if "slavery is wrong".

    2. Usually, liking chocolate rather than banana doesn't amount to a rule. It doesn't need justification. It just is what it is. Rules might be built on top of such preferences and still more rules on top of those ones. If they're challenged we justify them in terms of the underlying rules. And if the underlying rules are challenged we reach "I just prefer chocolate to banana". And that's it. We've reached bedrock. This is how I act.

      And we must reach bedrock at some point, or else there's no such thing as justification. A justification which never ends is not a justification at all. That's as true of "slavery is wrong" as it is of any other rule.

      Certainly we can be asked to justify a moral rule like "slavery is wrong" because it rests on more basic rules concerning our more basic views about human beings. And those might well rest on even more basic rules. But that can't go on forever. Sooner or later you reach a stance which has no justification.

      This stance, however, will still not be the same as a preference for chocolate over banana. Banana disgusts me, but I'm not disgusted when other people eat it. At most, I find it a bit puzzling. Moral rules are built upon cases where I'm disgusted or offended when others do things (and also myself). If I'm challenged I say something like "It's unfair". If you ask why, I describe the facts, putting emphasis on certain aspects. I might also compare it with other cases where we agree and say "It's the same". And either you see the unfairness or you don't. Either your judgement is aligned with mine or it isn't.

  10. "I just do what I like" or "I can do as I like" are also state!ents of rules. I might say "well that's my policy" in answer to some challenge about my ice cream preference perhaps in response to something like "but it's not good for you, will make you sick, shorten your life, etc , so you shouldn't eat it."

    Yes at some point we reach bedrock but it's not fixed where. Sometimes we arrive at some bedrock of agreement. We both find tgat we accept an underlying premise critical to the conclusion in duspute. Sometimes one or both disputants lose interest because they see no point in continuing and sometimes it's because we shift from one kind of connection to another, which is how I think it goes in this case, i. e., we move from whether something matches some moral rule we adhere to, to whether the moral rule is worthy of our adherence. At this point, what makes it worthy is a new question though still evaluative in nature. Only now the evaluation doesn't stand on another moral rule behind the one in dispute but on an understanding of what it means to be the sort of thing we are (and the implications for that in how we behave). As I suggested elsewhere, there is an affinity here with the kind of thing we find in religious goings on, even if nothing is implied for any particular religion-i nspired metaphysical picture.

    I don't think the moral case, the process of moral reasoning, can ever come to rest on something like "either your judgment is aligned with mine or it isn't." That's just another way of asserting moral relativism which fatally undermines the moral game. We solve this by recognizing how moral reasoning, as a species of valuing, can switch tracks at a certain point, thus moving us to something else that can underpin certain rules about behavior (which we call our "values") with another kind of valuation.

    This works because even our statements about things, including about the kinds of behavior we value (our " values"), are subject to evaluation, too, i.e., we can always ask if they represent or describe behaviors we have reason to implement. At thus point the question becomes what that reason might be.

  11. I'm not sure what you mean by relativism in this case, but I don't see how the need for calibrated judgements fatally undermines morality. And without it you're left looking for a reason which is, so to speak, its own justification. That's no more possible in morality than it is in any other area of language.

    And since we can't produce such a god-like reason, we can't know if any of our moral judgements are justified. That seems somewhat worse than relativism.

    I think Jones acted selfishly, you don't. We argue about it, but neither side budges. I speak to others and they mostly agree with me. So we act together and punish Jones - tell him off, make him apologise, etc. For us, justice has been done. For you, Jones has been treated unfairly. Life goes on.

    How does that amount to relativism or fatally undermine morality? To me it just looks like a hum-drum example of the way things tend to happen.

  12. The issue isn't whether we may differ in our moral judgments. Of course we can and do. It's whether we can find some basis for our moral opinions which we can cite as a reason for holding them. And we do cite reasons when asked. The question then is how far back can we take that, where do we strike bedrock? You say, look at what Jones did and what effect it had and what he had to know about the effect when he acted. You say THAT'S what we mean by "selfish" after all. We can, of course, dispute any of that and differences of opinion on each of the cited items may be a basis for further argument. But we might actually agree on all the facts, even whether to describe the act as an instance of selfishness yet still be in disagreement for the question isn't whether Jones acted selfishly but whether acting so, in the case at hand, was wrong.

    Sometimes, of course, being selfish may not be. But, you might say, "it's always wrong to act selfishly" or to do so in such cases as Jones faced. Wrong how? Well, you might cite a definition: "selfishness" carries wrongness in it's meaning. Here I'd say, "not necessarily" and invoke Moore's open question argument. After all sometimes we seem to have a moral obligation to act for ourselves or at least it's not counted as wrong to do so. Total selflessness, self-abnegation, may be as bad as being totally selfish, though perhaps for different reasons.

    Assuming we get past all that, still arguing about the case of course, where else to go? The question at this stage is whether selfishness is right in the case at hand, morally right or not. Even assuming we agree that selfishness is at least sometimes wrong, there's still the question of this case. Why, that is, must we think selfishness is wrong, given the present case? But if it's not, what can make it not wrong such that an adverse judgment of Jones is mistaken? That is, what is it about this act that warrants your judgment rather than mine?

    Suppose we share enough values, perhaps because we stand in the same culture but even if we don't, we may yet find agreement and you may convince me. Here again our argument comes to an end. But suppose I'm a Randian (embracing values dictated by Ayn Rand's Objectivism) or a Nietzschean, or a nihilist who acknowledges no values you recognize as such at all. Is there nothing left to say? On your view I believe we have struck bottom. On mine we have not yet done so because my reply is look to the effect on the other and consider it as a reason to act otherwise. It's not selfishness per se that's wrong but the application in this case. You might want to offer a deontological basis for the wrongness, or a definitional one (whether for some conceptual or "natural" reason) or a utilitarian one (acting selfishly always or generally produces more pain or unhappiness in the group or the world than otherwise).

    My response to all those possibilities is that none of them matter. The only thing is the effect on the other party. If the effect causes the other harm (either in terms of pain or anguish, whether substantial or not) which is neither warranted nor unavoidable by my acting otherwise, then THAT act is wrong and shouldn't be done. My behavioral rule stands not on a fixed principle embedded in a definition or rules formula, whether socially enculturated or authoritatively established, but in a sense of the other driven by a kind of recognition of the other's experience as an other.

    It's valuational, too, but moral judgments are just one type of valuing we do. Is there another behind the moral? I think there is, and that it's to do with how we conceive of ourselves.

  13. Here's the last part of my response above, which I was obliged to cut short because of the rules of the road here:

    This doesn't deliver a syllogistic argument for there's no logical reason that we MUST understand ourselves in one way rather than another. We're free to act the cad if we want to. But it's not consistent with our experience of what we are. We feel, and we feel with others when we're attentive to that in them (though we may not always be). It's part of us because it comes with our particular cognitive make up. So underlying a judgment that selfishness in the case at hand is wrong (the moral claim) is another valuational judgment, about the best way for creatures like ourselves to be. I think this has affinities with the spiritual aspect of our lives, the part where religions and the kind if thing we think of as religiosity happens. Does that make it somehow illegitimate? Why would it? Isn't religion a ubiquitous part of what humans do, too?

    1. You say:

      If the effect causes the other harm (either in terms of pain or anguish, whether substantial or not) which is neither warranted nor unavoidable by my acting otherwise, then THAT act is wrong and shouldn't be done.

      And this is to justify the rule "selfishness is wrong". But by including the word "warranted" in there you go round in a circle. Of course an unwarranted act shouldn't be done. That's tautologous. The whole question is: was Jones's act warranted or not?

      Nor does it help to point out that the other was upset by Jones's actions. Again, it just comes back to the question of whether the upset was sufficient - or, indeed, justified. Someone defending Jones might say "the upset person was totally over-reacting" or, more bluntly, "He should just get over himself".

      And here we fall back on the notion of "the reasonable person". But of course we can (and do) disagree as to what counts as acting as a reasonable person in any given situation.

      All this can happen without either side rejecting the idea that selfishness is wrong. The question is: was this a case of selfishness? That's a pretty typical case.

      Genuine moral nihilists - ie, those who would sincerely say that so-called "selfishness" is not wrong at all - are very rare. But I don't think you offer anything to refute them. I agree that the discussion will usually hinge on a basic conception of humanity, but obviously there can be disagreement about that. Pointing out that people are naturally empathetic doesn't help. We're naturally angry, jealous and self-serving too. You claim these latter natural dispositions should be curbed and our sense of empathy encouraged. The moral nihilist sees things the other way: empathy is a weakness which should be fought against.

      Where now?

  14. Warrants always matter in moral questions. A killing isn't murder if it's warranted. Unless you want to say that the moral good or bad is absolute (and then what kind of basis can you offer for such a claim?) we must take context into account and context introduces warrants, i.e., extenuating circumstances.

    Nor does it matter that nihilism isn't refuted because the issue is rejection, not refutation. That's what the moral game is about, choosing a course of action for some reason. But the reason need not be one of logical contradiction. All that's needed is a reason to do one thing instead of another and reasons come in many flavors. A decision, to adopt one kind of attitude rather than another, needn't be logicallyl compelled.

    Nor is it a matter of whether all or most of us have a natural inclination for empathy. As you note, we have many natural inclinations. The question is why we should nurture some and suppress others. If a moral nihilist sees empathy as weakness, it's the job of the non-nihilist to convince him or her otherwise, if possible. We do that by examples, by exhortations, by reminders. We urge and cajole and make our case. We tell stories, recount parables. In the end, of course, our interlocutor must see the point though. We don't always. But there's something about what we are which supports being empathetic and it can be pointed out and even explained. I don't think our moral claims need more than that. Do you?

    1. I agree with pretty much all of the above, and I think it supports my point (so maybe we're not as far apart as it appears).

      First, warrants. To say that someone's behaviour is selfish is, by definition, to say that it's bad. And to say that someone's behaviour is bad is, by definition, to say that it's not warranted. So "not warranted" doesn't count as a reason for rejecting selfishness, since the two are internally related. "Selfishness is unwarranted" is, at most, a grammatical sentence, like "one plays patience by oneself".

      I agree that with the nihilist it's a matter of rejection, not refutation. In fact, I think it's the same regarding the non-nihilist too. If someone else either stubbornly refuses to agree that x was a case of selfishness, or asserts that selfishness itself is an invalid concept then we quickly run out of ways to refute them. But, like you say, that's not the end of the matter. We don't just "agree to disagree". Both sides reject the other's position. That is, they reject the other's way of seeing things.

      Now, my basic way of seeing things includes the reasons I give for saying that x was a case of selfishness (and for saying that selfishness is a valid concept). It's simply a fundamental part of who I am as an individual human being. It's the point at which we say things like "It just is wrong, godammit!" or "This is how I act". It marks the end of reasons.

      It need not, however, mark the end of the struggle. How I see things is fundamental, but not unchangeable. We can, and do, change how we see things. But this is not a matter of argument (in the sense of ratiocination), but of persuasion. Like you say, we cajole, browbeat, inspire, etc. We give examples and implore the other person to view them as connected in a particular way. We say "Can't you see?!" But "can't you see?" is not a reason.

    2. Yes, I've thought for a while that it may be our linguistic characterizations dividing us more than substance. But there are still some differences (which is normal in any case). For instance, I don't entirely agree that to say something or someone is "selfish" implies moral wrongness. I agree that in our culture, bred on a notion of service to others, that's often what's connoted. But it's still an open question, in Moore's sense. The existence of Nietzscheans, Randians and just some who reject particular claims about the preferability of this or that instance of selflessness in favor of selfishness seems enough, to me, to demonstrate that.

      Warrants are an obvious moral issue, as you remind us, but warrants are just reasons we give others or ourselves and there are many kinds. The quality of a reason may be determined along a logical or ethical vector (and sometimes even an aesthetic one) and reasons for actions should be logically sound, of course, but also consistent with whatever we think is ethically sound (including, at times, our self-interest). Sometimes we have reason to be selfish. Nietzsche and Rand certainly thought so, nor were they alone though perhaps they are the foremost among thinkers who tried to systematize moral thought around a principle of selfishness.

      I agree with your point that both nihilist and non-nihilist are, in effect, rejecting, not refuting. I'd say rejecting (or embracing/accepting) is the primary mechanism for taking any moral position, that we never do it by devotion to logic, contra Kant, which only enables us to sort through propositions which describe the situation and our possibilities within it. Logic doesn't offer a way to decide what we ought to do about any of it.

      I think our main difference is where we each think the line is drawn. I think you're supposing we draw it in the moral debate itself. You say 'don't do that, it's selfish'. I say 'it's not or I have every right to be selfish.' You say no you don't because selfishness is bad by definition. I say it isn't and invoke Nietszche or Rand or make some other case. At this point we seem to have hit bottom. But my point is that it's not yet the bottom.

      There's still another argument we can have, one that tells us why selfishness is wrong or why some particular example of it, in a given case, is. It's still a debate we can't settle by logic or even just by citing feelings because we feel the way we do. If that's the ground for our judgment, there's no place left to go. But there is a place left. We can shape our feelings to some extent by developing attitudes (behavioral dispositions). And we can give reasons to do that. I'd say this moves the valuing discourse from the merely moral sphere to one I'd liken to a "spiritual" one (in an attenuated sense of that word) because it's about how we see ourselves, what potential we recognize we have as subjective agents, and what we can make of that.

    3. I think you're being misled by the grammar of "selfish" here. We do say things like "Yes, that was selfish - and quite right too!" but actually that's just an idiomatic way of saying it wasn't selfish in the formal sense of the word.

      A selfish act, as you yourself aver, is not merely any act done to please oneself. A selfish act is one done to please oneself but which is not warranted. We don't say "Not only was it selfish, it was also unwarranted". We say it was selfish because it was unwarranted. But this "because" is misleading, since it sounds like we're giving a reason. But actually its reiterating a definition. We say the king was checkmated because it was threatened and had no unthreatened square to move to. We don't say "Not only was the king checkmated, but it was also threatened and had no unthreatened square to move to". The reason the king was checkmated was (eg) that the player organised his defence badly. It wasn't that "the king was threatened, [etc]" since that is what "checkmate" means.

      So when someone says "He was right to be selfish" what they mean is that it was a case of a warranted self-pleasing act (ie, not a selfish one). And if they don't, then they don't mean by "selfish" what we do.

      It's similar with the nihilist. When Gordon Gekko says "Greed is good" he's actually objecting to certain acts being classified in an inherently pejorative way. Those acts (which we call "greedy") shouldn't be seen as bad at all. And that amounts to saying that they're not greedy - and possibly that there's no such thing as greed (he's rejecting the whole concept).

    4. No, I don't hold that "a selfish act is one done to please oneself but which is not warranted." The warrant is separate from the notion it's applied to. Wrongness is NOT built into the very concept of being selfish. Wrongness is certainly a common connotation of the term in our culture but it's not part of the term's denotation.

      We can say things like "not only was that act selfish, it was not warranted," the clear implication being that in a different case the warrant might, in fact, be there. I would be warranted in selfishly pursuing my own professional goals rather than dismissing them to spend my life in a soup kitchen serving meals to the homeless. We might laud some individuals who make that choice (Mother Teresa?) but nothing in our ordinary view of a healthy moral system in our culture demands that of all of us.

      Even without going as far as a Randian or a nihilist, selfishness can be seen as warranted. And where it is, it's morally sound.

      As I said, whatever agreements we have (and we do seem to have them), this is not one of them. Being wrong is not built into the definition of selfishness. It's not like the concept of checkmate in chess at all.

    5. So when you say in an actual case "That's selfish" do you feel that so far you've said nothing about the moral status of the act? How many times have you said "That was selfish" and meant it as a compliment? Do you suppose that the person you are speaking to will think "he probably means it was wrong, but I can't be sure - it might be one of those good selfish acts"? To be honest, I have trouble believing that.

      It is not generally held to be selfish to pursue your career rather than giving every waking moment over to charity work. We might, however, expect people to give some time over to helping others. We consider that they ought to do so. And if they don't then they're being selfish because they're not doing what they ought.

      But even if you're right about your use of the "selfish" it doesn't actually change anything important. If "selfish" = "any act done to please oneself" then, yes, you'll need to differentiate between warranted and unwarranted selfish acts. But all you've done is tinkered with a definition and moved the problem down one stage. (To make things less confusing, you might consider having different words for the two - eg, "selfish" and "not selfish".) Now, instead of an argument about whether an act was selfish, we get one about which type of selfish act it was. The concept you're discussing hasn't changed, merely the labels on the doors.

    6. Sometimes, when I say "that's selfish" I mean it in a moral way just like every other English speaker of course, but sometimes I mean it in a descriptive way (as in, 'I see you're looking to your own concerns here' or something like it). I don't deny the morally negative connotation the word carries in ordinary usage within our culture. I just deny that that connotation is inseparable from the rest of what the word designates. We can use "selfish" in a morally neutral way at times and sometimes do -- even in our culture. Peter Singer might suppose I'm being selfish (and mean it in a moral sense) to spend my money on something I want that will make my life temporarily happier instead of sending it to some overseas charity or just handing it over to someone on the street who has less than I do. (Of course then he or she will have more and I will have less!) But that, I think, is the same sort of mistake, i.e., it supposes that selfishness is always wrong in a moral way. I think the consequences of following such a rule wouldn't be all that satisfying, even on a broader social level, if it were implemented.

      But yes, we can simply adjust our terms and have, say, selfish1 (meaning the description of serving one's own interests instead of another's) and selfish2 (meaning the description plus an ascription of wrongness) and even if we think the second is the more common usage, as it probably is in our culture, the fact that we can use the term in both ways shows the absence of an intrinsic linkage between the descriptive and ascriptive elements in the meaning.

      A while back Duncan and I discussed the idea of murder here. He took a view similar to yours on "seflish", arguing that murder is, by definition, wrong and therefore intrinsically bad in a moral sense. I agreed that most uses of "murder" suggest this interpretation but that, in that case, it was because murder is, by definition, an unsanctioned (non-legally justified) intentional killing of someone who is innocent of any reason that would warrant his or her being killed. Murder is clearly unlawful killing and we generally think we have a moral obligation to obey the law, therefore there is a strong moral element in the term's meaning. Here "moral" and "law" overlap. However there can be instances -- at least I think there can -- where murder is actually morally right, even if remaining legally wrong, thus showing that moral and legal aren't co-extensive either. The basis for the ascription of moral wrongness cannot, therefore, lie in the legal status of the act -- yet it's that legal status that's built into the definition (why murder is, descriptively, not just killing). The moral ascription remains separable even from it because sometimes breaking a law can be morally right. Duncan's solution was to suggest two moral rights (or wrongs), one being judged stronger than the other in the case at hand. But I think that misses the point of there being no intrinsic connection between what "murder" names (instances of unlawful killing) and what is ascribable to it (whether it's the right thing to do or the wrong thing in any given case.

      I think the same dynamic is at work in the case of "selfish" only less strongly so since there's no law component in the term's usage that can introduce something that seems ascriptive ("being unlawful" works rather like "being immoral").

    7. So now we have one word (selfish) divided into two different meanings (selfish1 and selfish2) with two different definitions for each. There isn't a necessary moral component to "selfish" itself, but there is to "selfish2". There the ought is built into the word.

      So if I say "That's selfish2!" and someone asks why, it gets us no further to say "Because it's unwarranted" since that's built into the definition - and in that respect it's like my chess example.

      Now, in an actual case we don't do that because the context makes it pretty clear which sense of the word "selfish" is being applied. If I say (in an imploring voice) "You should be more selfish" I obviously mean something like "You should look out for yourself more". But if I bang the table and shout "That's selfish!" in an angry tone then I'm clearly using it in the sense of "selfish2".

      So when I say "That's selfish!" in an angry tone, if someone asks why it adds nothing to say "Because it's unwarranted selfish behaviour". That's not in doubt, and in this context the unwarranted part is built into the definition of the term as I was using it.

      If I just say "That's selfish" in a flat, neutral tone then doubt becomes a bit more plausible. But here someone wouldn't ask why, they'd say "In what sense of the term?" They're not looking for a reason but a clarification of meaning.

      So if I say "That's selfish!" and someone asks why it cannot be correct to say "because it's unwarranted". That answers "what?" not "why?"

    8. You suggested two words, I merely suggested a way of using the same word! Of course, the tones and physical gestures and postures we adopt in speaking are a part of our language, too, even if we don't find that part in dictionaries.

      Anyway, the issue, as I see it, is only whether the ascriptive evaluative component of "being wrong" attaches in all cases of ordinary use to the word as you seem to suggest or doesn't, as I've suggested. Whether we call one idea "selfish" and the other "chopped liver," instead of adding 1's and 2's, it amounts to the same thing.

      Without denying that "selfish" has a morally pejorative connotation in our culture's usual use of the term, I think there's enough evidence to show that that connotation does not always accompany the denotative meaning, therefore one can argue, as I have, that the moral wrongness is not built into the word's meaning in every case.

      The real issue between us has been to try to say what underlies our moral claims, as in what can we say, when challenged, to justify a moral assertion. You've argued, in a Beardsmorian way I think, that the moral part of the use is already part of the word's meaning and is learned that way from our earliest lessons, and so cannot be pulled apart from the rest of the use we make of the word. To call someone or some thing "selfish" just implies a degree of moral opprobrium.

      As already noted, I agree that that is how the word is often used in our culture but deny that that is what gives it its moral dimension. We may learn any number of moral standards via the enculturation process as we mature in a given society but we can always question any of them as we learn new things, and the fact that we can do that is what shows that just having learned and internalized a moral standard is not enough to justify it.

      Moreover, accepting such a picture leaves us unable to argue moral issues with people from other cultures or sub-cultures or who just reject what they had once accepted. I think you are okay with that possibility because you think the inevitable bedrock has thus been reached and after that all we can do is cajole, implore, tell stories, even propagandize.

      As I've tried to show before, I think that fatally undermines the moral game. A moral view that doesn't presume a right and a wrong between folks isn't doing its job any longer. It implies moral relativism (the inability to measure the behaviors of people except within their own standards, the ones they subscribe to).

      To get round that problem, I've suggested that the bedrock is deeper down, that we treat moral arguing as one level of valuation and suppose that what underlies it is yet another level (still valuation, of course), this level having to do with our capacities as human beings and how and what we think about those.

      I've proposed that this is akin to the kind of thing we see in religious activities though not equivalent to any particular religious doctrine (that I know of, anyway) and that this enables our distinctively moral claims (the moral valuations we make) to be argued for at a deeper level. This also permits us to transcend particular cultures and their practices and so does away with the problem of moral relativism and the nihilism that follows it.

      But even at this level I think, as I believe you do, that there is bedrock to be hit. But I think that bedrock is something we still have some control over because it's characterized by how we conceptualize something (ourselves) and that can be argued for only not in a syllogistic way because conceptualizing is a choice we make. We are not forced to one conception or another by some external set of norms we have been provided with nor by any facts of the matter. It just lies in a decision we make to embrace a particular picture of ourselves.

    9. I must say that I find your account of the use of "selfish" pretty unrealistic.

      I see a child grab all the sweets for himself and refuse to share them with his friends. I shout "That's selfish!" Are you honestly suggesting that those words merely describe his act without any moral component, but that the word has a "connotation" of immorality which, fortunately in this case, matches the situation?

      No. The word has different meanings in different situations. When used in some it doesn't mean doing something morally wrong, but when used in others it does. In the above case, when I say "That's selfish" I mean that the boy's doing something morally wrong. The moral aspect is built into the word as I mean it.

      If the boy asked "Do you mean I'm doing something morally wrong?" I'd say "Yes. That's exactly what I mean." I would not say "No; the word 'selfish' merely describes self-interested acts - though it does, as it happens, have a negative connotation which I feel is apt in this case". That's just silly.

      So (again) when I use "selfish" in that sense, if I am asked why (ie, asked for a reason) I cannot answer "Because your act was morally wrong" since that answers the question "what did you mean by what you said?" not "why did you say that?"

      This doesn't undermine the moral game at all, because if x doesn't see his act as selfish (ie, morally wrong) then he bloody-well should do, and if his culture (or sub-culture) doesn't see it as morally wrong, then it bloody-well should do. And that too is part of the definition of "morally wrong", in contrast to, say, "against local customs".

      That's the problem with relativism. It supposes that because many of our moral rules are learnt as part of our upbringing then "morally wrong" merely means "against cultural norms". But that's simply not the case.

    10. "Are you honestly suggesting that those words merely describe his act without any moral component, but that the word has a 'connotation' of immorality which, fortunately in this case, matches the situation?"

      Of course not. We were using "selfish" here in a philosophical discussion, exploring its many uses. Just because there are some uses like the one you describe doesn't mean that's it. I call my dog and say "good boy" when he responds. Do I mean the animal has made a good decision, one of which I approve? In fact I am just using "good" as a praise word, to reinforce his behavior in that instance. Similarly, telling the child "that's selfish" is a way of correcting the child. That's part of how we learn "selfish," of course, and why someone like Beardsmore argued that we learn our moral standards when we learn our language, that we enroll in our moral values from a very young age.

      As you say, "selfish" has different meanings in different situations. But nothing I've said here denies that or that some of those uses involve a negative moral ascription.

      Nor would I expect you to respond to a question about what you meant by "selfish" with an answer like "I meant it's morally wrong." Presumably I would get that from the context, your tone, your gestures, facial configuraton, etc. When I say that "selfish" sometimes means morally wrong and sometimes it doesn't, all I've said is that the question of moral rightness or wrongness (not whether it's a moral question at all, by the way) is still open. It's not resolved just by any old use of the word though in context, used to chastise a child for grabbing another's toy, the word, suitably accompanied by certain gestures, tone, etc., conveys precisely that intention on the part of the speaker.

      What undermines the moral game is supposing that moral standards are simply a function of what any of us (or any group of us) happens to believe (to accept as our moral standard) and that nothing else has any bearing on whether something is morally right or wrong, good or bad. An account like Beardsmore's, which says that our standards are just part of our form of life, already built into our language and our cultural practices, offers no way of determining if our standards are really right or anymore right than anyone else's. That's the moral relativism.

      Above you seem to want to solve this by saying "if x doesn't see his act as selfish (ie, morally wrong) then he bloody-well should do, and if his culture (or sub-culture) doesn't see it as morally wrong, then it bloody-well should do." But that just asserts your standards, what you have taken from your culture to be right or wrong. But X may hail from another culture entirely or may just be from a different part of your larger culture. At best you can tell X he has screwed up if you and he stand in the same culture. But that's not much of an argument since our cultures can go astray, too. Sometimes, and here we go back to the slavery example which led us into this discussion, a culture just gets it wrong as we now believe our western cultures did about slavery a couple of centuries ago. Certainly you won't want to say that slavery is wrong now but three hundred years ago it was okay because it was the norm back then!

    11. When you say "sometimes a culture just gets it wrong" this sounds like you're claiming they made a factual error - it's on a par with them thinking that the sun was a massive lump of burning coal, only with slavery the mistake was in the moral realm, not the scientific one. This, I suppose, fits with another thing you seem to be claiming: that there are absolute moral truths.

      On this version, I think, the acceptance of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries amounts to a kind of moral theory, and it is in this sense that they held moral beliefs. They believed slavery was OK in the same sense that they believed blood-letting cured various illnesses. And in both cases we now know they were wrong.

      I think this mis-characterises the nature of morality. My moral beliefs are just that - beliefs. But they don't amount to a theory and nor do I suppose that one day they might be proved true or false.

      I believe slavery is wrong and I certainly believe it would've been better if slavery hadn't been used in Britain and North America in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Given the broader culture of the time, I think it's a case of greed blinding people to their moral duty (and many thought so at the time, too).

      That is to say, my judgement takes into account the culture of the day, and, in particular, the various pressures it faced in order to survive. We do this with individuals, too. Eating people is wrong, but when the plane crashes in the Andes and the survivors are left with some pretty stark choices, it's at least no longer clear that they're acting immorally if they eat the dead.

      What about slavery in, say, ancient Egypt? They were pretty brutal times and some pretty brutal moral codes emerged from them. We might lament that it ever happened and hope that it never happens again (although similar things are happening right now in various parts of the world). But are we to say that the ancient Egyptians made a mistake? There seems something a bit facile about that.

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    13. Thanks for the response, Philip. Your comments continue to be interesting but sometimes I think I'm just not being clear enough based on some of what you've said. I think the idea of "moral facts" is misleading. There are moral facts but only in the sense that 1) there are true statements we can make about what any of us holds as moral values and 2) there are true statements we can make about whether any of the things we value in a moral way are the case.

      A fact, on my view, is what we call true statements (though sometimes people do mean by "facts" those things in the world true statements are true about). Beyond this, I see no point in looking for facts of moral rightness though. The only facts to be found are facts about moral opinions and actions. Mixing fact and value strikes me as mixing distinctly different categories since valuing is about ranking facts, not reporting them. Moral valuing, a particular sub-species, is about ranking the things we can or might do.

      If slavery is wrong, then it's wrong one wants to say and that's a fact. But it's only a fact insofar as we have laid it down as a marker. What we are actually saying is we declare it wrong.

      But that makes it a matter of judgment and if being wrong is a matter of judgment, then it depends on whether we credit the judgment or not. The slavery practiced by our predecessors in earlier centuries meets with our moral disapproval today and if we, in our modern form, stepped back in time, we would still disapprove it. But if we took on their culture, thought like they did, if we became part of their "form of life," then presumably we would not continue to disapprove it. Yes, some did in those earlier eras as you correctly note and so was it wrong for them to do so. But if everything hinges on disapproving then it wasn't wrong for those others at that time who approved (or at least offered no disapproval). But that doesn't seem right because when we declare something wrong we mean it's wrong and not just for us. Isn't it wrong to cut off one's captives heads or immolate them. If it's wrong for us must it not also be wrong for the ISIS terrorists who do it?

      Moral valuation seems to demand some kind of objective criterion but that doesn't imply some absolute. It only requires some basis for common agreement among the parties, some reason for those with different opinions about a moral issue to reach some sort of common ground. The case I've tried to make offers that, but not by invoking some absolute moral truth nor by reliance on factual claims. It supposes that moral valuation rests on a deeper sort of valuation and that we can share the conclusion that can be reached at the deeper level. But it doesn't assume that we must or will share it. That requires work.

      I agree, by the way, with your point about how we always tailor our responses to the circumstances. That's a fact of our world, too. Cannibalism is wrong for us but maybe not if we're survivors in a crashed plane in the Andes. It might not be wrong for others in other kinds of circumstances either.
      What I want to say about the moral question is that some things, such as causing harm to others, can be shown to be wrong for everyone having the sort of subjectness we have to the extent they recognize why causing harm is inconsistent with our kind of subjectness. Then the moral argument shifts to one about what we are.

      Agreement isn't guaranteed here anymore than anywhere else but there is at least a basis for finding agreement if we're prepared to look for it. And finding it implies behaviors (moral standards) which reject things like slavery, beheadings, immolations and so forth.

    14. Moral valuation seems to demand some kind of objective criterion but that doesn't imply some absolute. It only requires some basis for common agreement among the parties, some reason for those with different opinions about a moral issue to reach some sort of common ground.

      I don't think moral valuation requires an objective criterion. On the contrary, it simply requires an individual to judge that something was morally right or wrong. That's pretty much a definition of what moral valuation is.

      Moral agreement, on the other hand, is a different thing. That requires at least some level of agreement in judgements. Indeed, I'm not sure how it could be otherwise.

      That is, we cannot agree that such-and-such is a reason for the morality (or immorality) of doing x unless our judgements about what counts as a reason are in sync. Otherwise, one side says "x was morally acceptable because blah, blah, blah" and the other side says "No, it was unacceptable because yadda yadda yadda". And that's what sometimes happens.

      Compare that with a case where someone says "the table will fit through the doorway" and someone else says "no it won't". They argue about it. Each points from table to doorway saying "don't you see?" How does such a situation get resolved? What's the pertinent difference between that and a moral dispute?

    15. It either fits through the door or it doesn't when you try. In the moral case the two parties either see it the same way or they don't. But your picture suggests that there's nothing at bottom to be shared in the moral case, nothing to point to which can be seen in the same way.

      I'm suggesting, on the contrary, that there is, namely there's a way of understanding our own natures, the kinds of entities we are. And we get there by talking about and thinking about and by explaining what we are to ourselves and to our fellows.

      There are no observed facts to collect or point at, as you rightly note, only a recognition that comes with a kind of introspective analysis of ourselves.

      That probably doesn't satisfy you though and I understand why it might not. But I would suggest that your dissatisfaction arises from an expectation of a kind of definitive justification which, when we find there isn't any, seems to have left something out.

      But agreement isn't only achieved by measuring the breadth of a piece of furniture and the doorway through which it's to be taken or even by trying and succeeding (or failing) to get it through. We can agree on many other kinds of things and one of these, I would suggest, consists of the attributes, the qualities, the potentials that come with being subjective agents with a certain kind of cognitive capability, the kinds of creatures we are.

      Anyway, it looks to me like we have reached one of those points where spades get turned, no? We are now mostly repeating ourselves so I will acknowledge that I could be wrong, that my approach may not really provide the kind of account of our moral valuing activities that I think it does. I am very much aware that suggesting we can resolve moral disputes at a deep level in order to get over the relativistic problem is not a slam dunk. It still looks strange to people who are expecting that such bottom line resolutions should end in some kind of indisputable agreement. And my suggestion certainly doesn't offer that. All it provides is an explanation for how such disputes (like those between beheaders and their critics) might be resolved if one side can convince the other that what they are doing is inconsistent with the kinds of beings they are.

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  17. Well, this is what happens when I go away for the weekend! Sorry I can't comment on everything here, but here are a few thoughts.

    Thought 1:

    " it's based on the kind of creatures we are (which would presumably be the same in every culture)" leaving aside the aporias of oughts from is what could this mean and if it were true as a kind of evolutionary fact (I assume maybe wrongly we are not talking "natural" theology) why do we have different cultures?

    We have different cultures, I suppose, because culture is not determined by biology alone. There's environment, luck, etc. as well, surely. But the idea that the kind of creatures we are might ground our ethics is found in Heidegger (maybe he's not a great person to appeal to), Peter Winch, and Philippa Foot. I'm not sure what I think of it, but (roughly) I don't think it's as obviously hopeless as I have at times in the past. There might be room for considerable variation in this kind of ethics: funeral rites would vary from place to place, some cultures would have the death penalty and others would not, and so on, but everywhere murder would be rejected and funeral rites of some sort would be practiced. Given the kind of beings we are and the kind of things we care about, this seems reasonable. I mean, it seems reasonable to think that we might be able to ground some sort of universal ethics in this way. Of course further investigation might show that it won't work.

    Thought 2:

    I don't think that murder is by definition illegal (although I think Anscombe says it is "unlawful" and I'm sympathetic). It makes sense to talk about "legalized murder," for instance. Surely 'murder' means something like unjust killing.

    Thought 3:

    I mostly agree with Philip Cartwright above, and Stuart W. Mirsky so far as he agrees with him. I almost paused to wonder whether I really agreed with one point, but didn't feel that I had time to stop and think. So perhaps on reflection I might not agree 100%, but we may never know whether I would or not (essays to mark are piling up as I type).

    Thought 4:

    Gordon Graham's book looks interesting. From what little I've read of it I think I might agree with him.

  18. It was a terrible fate to be thrown into slavery but in the ancient world it was a hazard of going to war so there was a kind of rough justice to it. It was the MAD of the day and might even be expanded to genocide for repeat offenders, Amalekite types. These days we have wars ‘on drugs’, and on crime and the miscreants and vile caitiffs who are our enemies are put in durance vile and forced to work. Very few people think that this is morally wrong. They must be punished and besides it will be good for them. The shrug off - ‘what else can we do’ is just the moral failure or blindness which will be as evidently wrong in the future as traditional chattel slavery is to us today.

    Or maybe not.

    1. Very few people think that this is morally wrong.

      This is true, but, as you go on to suggest, perhaps the most common reaction is none at all, or some combination of blindness and shrugging. It's not that most people think it is morally right. Or at least that is not necessarily what most people think. It's hard to tell.

      There's some subterranean racism that pictures criminals as black and black people as escaped slaves. But there's also a lot of just not thinking about things at all. Perhaps this is the norm for human beings. Perhaps it's because there is so much to think about now, and lots of it is very complicated. But it's surely also to do with the feeling that it doesn't matter what you or I think about this or that. The powers that be do not answer to us. We are in a kind of comfortable despair.

      On the other hand, it's hard not to think that you are probably right about the future. That we somehow will eventually recognize our current moral failures, at least the worst of them, and make changes. We might be mostly asleep but every now and then we wake up a bit, and the general trend seems to be in the right direction.

    2. But what if the future's judgement of today's morals is one we would find abhorrent if we knew about it now? (And if the past could answer us back when we judge it, what if it said, "you find our ways immoral, but we think you are disgusting savages"?)

      We sit here at the end of a thousand years of stability and gradually accumulated wealth and power and nod approvingly at how we've grown steadily wiser and more human over that period. We hardly dare to look at the rest of the world, and when we do it's only to bemoan that they've somehow failed to keep pace with our spectacular growth in moral wisdom.

      Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit on that one.

    3. I don't know that we're any more human or even any wiser than people used to be. But we have less slavery than we used to, less monarchy, less aristocracy, less sexism, less racism, and, arguably, less violence. We have more gay rights. And we have less open support for those bad things and more lip service, if nothing else, for the good ones.

      There is still too much evil and not enough good, of course, but, as I said, the general trend seems to be in the right direction.

      Are you saying that it's not, or that I would say that, wouldn't I? If the latter then I might agree.

    4. Which is not to say, of course, that progress is inevitable or happening on all fronts. Some things are getting worse, and there could be a horrible black swan around the corner.