Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"Hitting Moral Bedrock"

Jeremy Johnson draws on the work of Avrum Stroll, among others, to argue for an ethical version of Wittgensteinian foundationalism. He says early on in the paper that, "it is clear that Wittgenstein believed our language-games rest on [a bedrock that holds fast] by the time he wrote On Certainty" (p. 197). I think this is far from clear, in fact, but I'll leave this aside for now. Johnson says he is less interested in exegesis than he is in saying "something useful about morality and moral foundations" (p. 198). So whether he does this is the question to focus on.

To be honest, I'm not sure that I understand the paper well enough to be able to answer this question, but I'll try. When Johnson moves from foundationalism more generally to moral foundations in particular, he says that, "Moral bedrock certainties make it possible for moral bipolar [i.e., true or false] assertions to have sense" (p. 210). He uses a mathematical analogy to help explain the idea:
In order for us to say, meaningfully and correctly on some occasion, "there are four cows in the barn", we need such certainties as 1 + 3 = 4 and 4 > 2. These are not claims that might turn out to be wrong. They are the background against which and the foundations upon which meaningful claims can be made which might turn out to be wrong. (p. 211)
I think the idea here is this. Using math depends on the existence of math, and mathematics forms a system, with its own rules and logic. We implicitly rely on this system when we say, e.g., that there are four cows in the barn. Similarly, we rely on the, or a, system of moral thinking when we make an ethical statement. For instance:
In order for us to say, meaningfully and correctly on some occasion, "you ought not to return the sword you borrowed", we need such certainties as "there are things one ought not to do" and "one ought to prevent harm to others whenever feasible". (pp. 210-211)
But "there are things one ought not to do" is obscure in a way that I don't think 1 + 3 = 4 is. Does it mean " matter what"? Does it mean that there are things that are intrinsically not to be done? 1 + 3 = 4 sounds like a familiar rule that one uses when adding. It's the kind of thing one says under one's breath while adding the tip to work out how much to pay at a restaurant. "There are things one ought not to do" sounds like a line from the trailer for a horror movie. It just doesn't have the kind of use that "1 + 3 = 4" has in daily life. Perhaps I'm just being pedantic, but I think this matters.

Can I try to say what Johnson means in other words? Possibly. One thing he might mean is that "You ought not to return the sword you borrowed" does not make sense unless the word "ought" has a meaning. That is true. Another thing he might mean is that it is not enough for the individual words of a sentence to have meanings. The sentence itself must have a use in a language game or form of life, even if this particular sentence has never been used before. That seems true as well. I just wouldn't call any of this foundationalism.

Well, never mind what I would or wouldn't call anything. What is Johnson trying to do? He wants, he says, to resist a certain kind of scepticism. The "sceptic is resisted," he says (p. 216), if I reach what for me is moral bedrock, something for which I am not able to give grounds and for which I do not feel that grounds are needed or even possible. The example he gives is "cheating is always wrong."

This doesn't seem very persuasive though. Imagine a new tax is being collected to pay for some immoral enterprise, such as an unjust war. Imagine also that an illegal but undetectable way to get away with not paying this tax has been discovered and is being circulated on social media by people who oppose the war and want as many people as possible not to pay the tax. In response to such people I might say, "This would be cheating on my taxes, and cheating is always wrong." In what sense have I resisted the sceptic? I have refused to engage with their arguments, but that is all. Is that OK? Well, it's true that explanations have to come to an end somewhere. But surely it's possible to have reasonable doubts in this case. Johnson's final paragraph is this:
Taken together, these points show the way to resist sceptical regress arguments. They do not constitute a proof that we are right to hold to our moral certainties--no such proof is possible--but they serve to reassure us that there is also no proof that holding to such certainties is irrational or unjustified in an objectionable sense. (p. 217) 
Holding to some moral certainties seems absolutely fine. Refusing to commit murder, for instance, seems reasonable to me, and I am not bothered by the apparent impossibility of giving a philosophical justification for taking and standing by this position. Other allegedly moral certainties, though, are not like this. "Miscegenation is always wrong," for instance, surely is irrational and unjustified in an objectionable sense. Appealing to a foundationalist theory (or description of how our language actually works) doesn't seem to help at all here. It doesn't distinguish, as far as I can see, between the good kind of foundation and the bad kind. And so it offers no assurance that what seems good to me really is so. The sceptic is thus not so much resisted as ignored. And I think we can do that without foundationalism.

Johnson's emphasis on the groundlessness of a certain kind of belief gets at something important, though, I think, and he suggests a number of thoughtful qualifications to the foundationalist theory he starts with. So his paper is worth reading and thinking about, even though I don't buy the main argument in the end. 


  1. "Holding to some moral certainties seems absolutely fine. Refusing to commit murder, for instance, seems reasonable to me, and I am not bothered by the apparent impossibility of giving a philosophical justification for taking and standing by this position."

    Most of us are not bothered by a lack of justification for the moral positions we take. We don't take them based on reasoning but we do think we have reasons to take such positions. But what do those reasons rest on? Why do I choose to refrain from murdering and see it as beyond any reasonable question? But even if I see it that way, is it really?

    Wouldn't we be bothered under some conditions? What if the murder victim in question was Adolf Hitler, say at the moment he was about to decide to invade Poland or when he issued the order for the Final Solution? Or when he seized power after the burning of the Reichstag?

    If we knew in advance what kind of person Hitler would become wouldn't we be morally justified in murdering him, even as a child or a newborn? Or perhaps in murdering his parents to prevent his conception?

    Where would we draw the line? Doesn't this show that there's always room to ask for a reason, even if we feel most strongly about some moral judgments, inclinations or precepts we take as binding on us than others?

    Perhaps the idea that some moral judgments are beyond all questioning is largely a psychological issue, not a rational one. Such judgments seem less a matter of reaching some bedrock than about our willingness to stop asking for more reasons at some point. But that point will vary with the facts we take to be true or false about the case, no?

    1. It might. But the view I'm calling reasonable is the one that says never commit murder. Someone who really holds that view will not murder Hitler or Hitler's parents. Perhaps they might be tempted to act against their principle in some cases, perhaps they won't be.

      Whether they should, of course, is a different question.

  2. Thanks for the response.

    Isn't whether they should the moral question though, in which case doesn't it gainsay the idea that we don't need reasons in the end when making moral choices? Or that reasons only take us so far -- until we get to the point where our moral beliefs simply cease to need any reasons at all!

    I want to argue, if not here then in general (and certainly elsewhere), that choice in the human sense is always about finding reasons which actions express. (This excludes but does not dismiss other kinds of actions we can take which are shared with the rest of the animal world) and that moral judgment is just one aspect of the human capacity to make choices based on deliberation.

    Anyway, thanks for these summaries along with your thoughts. Very helpful!

    1. Reasons seem to come to an end somewhere though. You can keep asking 'why?' but eventually there will be no answer that can be given, and the question itself might not even appear to make sense. At this point we have reached some sort of end of the line, and one metaphor people use to express this is that of bedrock. Saying this isn't exactly doing ethics, but if we're talking about what happens when people do ethics then we're doing meta-ethics. And that falls under the general heading of 'ethics' too, even if it isn't (meant to be) normative.

      I'm glad you find these posts helpful. I ran out of steam a bit towards the end, but it's helpful to me to think through each paper in the way required to write a blog post. There are some that I want to return to more fully.

    2. Yes, I find the same.

      It seems to me that the answer to the "reasons come to an end" scenario you sketch out is to examine what reasoning, itself, is about, i.e., how it works, why it works, instead of just taking it for granted as we generally do.

      As far as I can see valuing just is about giving reasons (it demarcates the place where wanting, desiring, favoring, etc., give way to valuation as such). But this doesn't have to be taken as assuming an end point to the reasoning chain when asserting a value of any sort, a reason which we think beyond all dispute.

      Not that there isn't an end point, of course, but it seems to me it's a moving target rather than a fixed one.

      We move about with our reasons, depending on what we are valuingand a statement that we take as a reason in one case may not serve as a reason in another. Reasoning needn't be thought of as just being about trying to hit bedrock (where questioning must cease) whether in normative terms or psychological. Perhaps it's just about moving around a complex network of claims, inferentially linked (as Brandom would likely put it).

      What counts for us as "bedrock" in one case is just topsoil in another. Here moral valuing is like every other kind of valuing, dependent on context and the referent it targets.

      What makes a reason that is the role it plays in the particular case at hand, which can involve providing us a basis for drawing a conclusion that X has this or that sort of thing about it. In the case of valuation the things we have in mind are features that meet our desires, needs, etc. If we say of X that it has value what we're saying is that it has features that we desire, need, etc.

      If there is no such feature or it doesn't have that, then its possession by X is not a reason to go after it (to value it). A statement that would be a reason for us in asserting value in something in one case may be utterly irrelevant in another. This goes to your earlier point about how "anything" can be moral, i.e., of moral concern. Anything can be, on this view, but only if framed with the right reasons. So we could say the reasons we take as reasons determine the valuational status of whatever we are considering, including its moral status.

      To get clear on ethics as such, we have to look at what it means to make a moral claim (metaethics) vs. what it means to make any kind of value claim at all, and we can do this by exploring the part reasons play in how we construct our world.

      We will have different reasons for different kinds of valuations and nobody thinks this is problematic except when we come to the moral (the ethical). Then we often feel like we've hit a dead end. How is moral goodness different from instrumental goodness, aesthetic goodness, assertoric goodness (i.e., accuracy, truthfulness, clarity)?

      I think we must answer this more complex question first if we're to take up the problem of explicating/clarifying moral valuation as such. Otherwise it feels like we're just wandering in a dark forest without any landmarks and always ending up back where we started.