There’s been a lot of politics on this blog lately. Though I am in some sense a historian of political philosophy, I don’t much like politics, but I do like philosophy. So I thought I’d try to make a more purely philosophical contribution. It’s not that politics is unimportant. It’s just that it’s, so, well…frustrating. Then again, so is much contemporary philosophy. So perhaps I’ll just be trading one source of frustration for another. Let’s see.
What follows is a first attempt to get straight on some issues that have been simmering in the back of my mind for a while. I have no doubt that my formulations of these issues will be somewhat crude and in need of considerable qualification, if not revision. But that’s what I need you for.
Contemporary philosophers often appeal to a distinction between rationality and morality. The distinction comes in different forms, and in some sense it is innocuous enough. In the broadest, vaguest sense, rationality is a matter of what we have reason to do. Morality, in a similarly broad, vague sense, is a matter of how we ought to treat one another. There is probably no way to characterize this distinction that is neutral between all the various conceptions of rationality and morality, but that is hardly a surprise. What interests me is the thought that it is an open question whether morality is rational. For this question to make sense, we must be able to give some determinate content to the concepts of rationality and morality independently of one another. But I’m not sure we can. Rather, I’m not sure we can if we take the concept of morality to be truth apt. Otherwise put, if we think moral claims can be true, then I doubt whether it can be an open question whether we have reasons to be moral.
Philosophers who otherwise deeply disagree with one another nonetheless often agree that we can appeal to a “moral point of view” that yields some substantive, if not not entirely determinate, claims about what we ought to do or how we ought to treat one another. They disagree, of course, about how things look from that point of view and even about what the distinguishing characteristics of that point of view are. Some claim, for example, that from a moral point of view it can never be right to treat one person as a mere means to some other person’s ends. Others claim that from a moral point of view every person’s interests or welfare matters equally. Proponents of the first sort of claim tend to insist that morality requires us to respect other people as ends in themselves, and hence forbids treating people in ways that they do not endorse. Proponents of the second sort of claim tend to insist that morality requires us to look to what is best overall, and hence to do whatever produces the best consequences for everyone. The former sort of view, standardly described as “deontological,” sees morality as centrally concerned with restraints on our conduct, restraints generated by the status of other persons as autonomous beings with intrinsic moral worth. The second sort of view, standardly described as “consequentialist,” sees morality as centrally concerned with producing what is best from an impersonal point of view, a point of view from which each person counts for one and only one and the most important thing is bringing about the states of affairs in which there is the most overall happiness or well-being possible.
Now, the wiser members of the philosophical profession — whatever their views — have recognized for at least as long as I have been alive that the deontological/consequentialist distinction is crude and inadequate. Furthermore, anyone who has paid attention to Anglo-American academic philosophy in the past thirty years knows that there is supposed to be a third alternative to consequentialism and deontology, namely “virtue ethics.” Moreover, virtue ethics in at least some of its forms is supposed to issue a challenge to the notion of morality as something fundamentally distinct from considerations about what kind of human life is good for the person who lives it. Yet despite the widespread acknowledgment of the excessive simplicity of the old deontological/consequentialist dichotomy, appeals to a distinctive and at least roughly determinate “moral point of view” persist. Consider, first, this claim from a recent book by a leading virtue ethicist:
One major problem facing any theory that seeks to show that well-being requires virtue (or the related thesis that rational self-interest requires morality) is that we are a small group species, but morality requires us to transcend our group-ism and treat all human beings morally. Another major problem is that our own selves — our points of view, our values, our desires — often seem far more real to us than other people’s points of view, values, or desires, even when those other people are members of our own small group. Yet morality requires that we recognize the equal reality of other people. (Neera Badwhar, Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life, 15).
Consider, second, the following claim from one of the foremost living defenders of moral realism:
I shall argue that there is no successful moral objection to utilitarianism from the personal point of view. There are various ways in which utilitarianism can accommodate the moral significance of the personal point of view. It must be conceded, however, that these strategies do not eliminate all conflict between utilitarianism’s impartiality and the personal point of view. But this residual conflict does not constitute a moral objection to utilitarianism, for, in this conflict, the personal point of view represents worries about the rationality or supremacy of utilitarian demands. These worries are properly understood as worries about rather than within morality and so do not threaten and, indeed, support a utilitarian analysis of morality. (David Brink, ‘Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View,’ 419).
Brink explicitly appeals to a notion of morality that contrasts with rationality. There is utilitarian morality, with its fundamental impartiality, and then there is rationality, which is associated with the personal point of view. There may be legitimate doubts about the rationality of utilitarian morality, but these cannot be doubts about the morality of utilitarianism. The rationality of utilitarian morality may depend on the personal point of view, but the impersonal moral point of view tells in favor of utilitarianism as a theory of morality independently of what we should say about its rationality. Badhwar, too, appeals to a notion of morality that yields determinate content independently of any claim it may have to be rational: morality requires us to treat all human beings morally (whatever exactly that means) and that we recognize the equal reality of other people (whatever exactly that means). Both seem to think that we can know what morality requires in advance of knowing whether morality is rational, that is, whether individual agents would be rational in respecting the demands of morality or irrational in violating those demands.
Badhwar and Brink are also both moral realists. That is, they both think not only that claims about morality can be true or false, but that there are some true claims about it. Thus they not only oppose various forms of non-cognitivism, on which moral claims or judgments are really ultimately just expressions of feelings or desires or commitments or some other sort of non-cognitive attitude; they also both oppose any form of conventionalism or relativism on which what makes a moral judgment true is fundamentally a matter of the conventions adopted in some particular society or group. In other words, both think that claims like “morality requires that we recognize the equal reality of other people” or “morality requires that we take an impartial point of view” are not only true judgments with genuine cognitive content, but that their truth does not depend on any particular set of social conventions or practices. As they see it, morality requires whatever it requires — recognizing the equal reality of other people, taking an impartial point of view — for all human beings everywhere.
This is a familiar enough sort of claim. After all, when Jefferson wrote “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” he was not purporting merely to describe a conception of morality endorsed by some people somewhere and sometime. He knew full well that his claims would not have secured agreement among all people at all times, but he believed that they were true nonetheless. That is the kind of truth that Badhwar and Brink claim for their conceptions of what morality requires. They would not regard someone who disagreed as simply operating with a different conception of morality or as opting not to take up the moral point of view. Rather, they would regard someone who disagreed as making a mistake, as failing to grasp a truth in much the same way as people who believe that the elegant adaptedness of many organisms to their environment could only be explained as the product of intelligent design fail to grasp a truth about evolution via natural selection. Not all who have failed to grasp that truth were guilty of epistemic vice — certain people in certain times and certain places have been reasonable in thinking that only an intelligent designer could have brought about such adaptedness. But however justified anyone who believes otherwise might be, moral realists like Badhwar and Brink maintain that their claims about what morality demands are true, and anyone who believes otherwise is in fact mistaken.
So Badhwar and Brink both embrace moral realism and a conception of morality as only contingently related to rationality. It is just this combination of claims that strikes me as false, and perhaps even incoherent.
What exactly would it be for a moral judgment to be true? Morality purports to tell us what we ought to do or how we should treat one another. So far as I can see, then, the truth of a moral judgment would have to be the truth of a claim about what we have reason to do. But if the truth of moral judgments just is the truth of judgments about what we have reason to do, then the relationship between morality and rationality cannot be contingent even in principle.
To appreciate this point, contrast morality as realists conceive it with the rules of etiquette (some readers will recognize here that I am borrowing this contrast from Philippa Foot’s ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’). It seems clear that we can make true or false claims about what etiquette requires without even suggesting that we have any reason at all to do what etiquette requires. We might even make true claims about what etiquette requires while staunchly maintaining that we have good reason not to do what etiquette requires. According to Herodotus, visitors to the Persian King would customarily greet him with an act of proskynesis — literally something like “dogging toward,” prostrating oneself on the ground like a dog as an expression of submission and respect for the king’s great authority. Greeks, as the freedom-loving people they were, would haughtily reject the notion that they should lie down on the ground like dogs when approaching the Persian King on some diplomatic business. But those same Greeks would acknowledge that Persian etiquette requires visitors to prostrate themselves before the king. This requirement is simply a fact, and to articulate it is simply to describe a fact about Persian etiquette, not to express an emotion or a desire or a commitment, and certainly not to claim that one has a good reason for action.
Morality, however, cannot be understood on the model of etiquette, at least not without abandoning moral realism. Admittedly, if we were to conceive of morality on the model of etiquette, we could make true descriptive claims about what morality requires. But we would simply be making true descriptive claims about a conventional social practice, and that is precisely not what moral realists take themselves to be doing when they talk about the requirements of morality. When Jefferson wrote the opening of the Declaration, he did not mean to say simply that there is a conventional social practice according to which one should respect all other human beings’ lives. He was talking about a requirement that is binding on us regardless of whether we adopt some convention, regardless even of whether we recognize it at all. If we were to conceive of morality on the model of etiquette, we would need to recognize a plurality of conflicting moralities, just as we recognize a plurality of conflicting systems of etiquette. But moral realists, however much variation they recognize in the demands of morality, do not recognize a plurality of conflicting moralities. Moral conventionalists, relativists, fictionalists, and other sorts of anti-realists could conceive of morality in this way. Realists cannot.
If that’s right, though, then moral realists cannot in fact specify the content of morality and rationality independently of one another. Hence Brink could not successfully defuse objections to utilitarianism from the personal point of view on the grounds that they are not objections about the morality of utilitarianism, but about its rationality. To show that utilitarian morality is true would require showing that we have reasons to act in accordance with it, and that is precisely what objections from the personal point of view deny. Similarly, objections of the sort that Badhwar sketches — that well-being cannot require virtue because virtue (“moral” virtue, in any case) demands attitudes and actions that are not necessary for our well-being and are often even contrary to it — could only get off the ground if what we have reason to do is not grounded in what promotes our well-being. Otherwise the claim that morality requires such-and-such attitudes and actions could not be true in any way except the way in which the claim that Persian etiquette requires proskynesis is true.
At this point an important qualification is in order. Moral realists need not maintain that all human beings always have decisive or over-riding reason to do what morality requires. One might think that other reasons can sometimes, perhaps even often, defeat whatever reasons we have to do what morality requires. In that sense, the relation between morality and rationality will be contingent rather than necessary. But what we should then say is that the relationship between morality and decisive reasons for action is contingent. We cannot say that morality requires something that most people most of the time have no reason at all to do. Or, rather, we cannot truly say that without abandoning moral realism.
Many consequentialists and deontologists would likely agree with me so far. They would concede that the truth of their moral judgments is the truth of claims about what we have reason to do. They would insist, however, that we have sui generis moral reasons, reasons that differ in kind from prudential reasons. Hence, they might say, it remains an open question whether morality is prudentially rational, but not whether it is morally rational. Views of this sort can make sense of the idea that there is an open question about the rationality of morality while retaining moral realism. So, problem solved?
Not quite. Defenders of this sort of view face two challenges. The first is that they owe us some account of what these sui generis moral reasons are and why they are genuine reasons — that is, why they are considerations that really do tell in favor of our acting in one way rather than others. The second is that they owe us some account of how these moral reasons fit together with prudential reasons into a unified conception of rationality. As I see it, standard accounts of sui generis moral reasons are implausible at best and there is no obvious solution to the problems posed by the notion of two fundamentally different kinds of reasons that cannot be assessed in terms of some more general notion of rationality.
I obviously can’t survey all the theories of moral reasons that philosophers have offered, let alone provide a decisive refutation of them. So let’s just consider two broad approaches, again one associated with consequentialist theories and the other with deontological theories.
The consequentialist wants to say that the overall goodness of states of affairs in the world yields fundamentally agent-neutral reasons for action. These reasons are agent-neutral because they are not reasons for any agents in particular but for all agents everywhere. They are fundamentally agent-neutral because they do not arise out of any agent-relative reasons, that is, reasons that are at bottom reasons for you to do something and not necessarily for anyone else to do that thing. The precise formulation of the distinction between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons is a topic of dispute, and one that involves more technical logical notation than I care to indulge in. Fred Miller gives us a nice working definition when he writes that “a value or reason is agent-relative if its description includes essential references to agent who has that value or reason, and agent-neutral if its description does not include an essential reference to a person who has that value or reason.” (Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics, p. 131). But for all the ingenuity and sophistication that has been put in to defending the claim that there are basic agent-neutral reasons, they seem rather mysterious. When we remember that a reason for action is ultimately just a consideration that tells in favor of acting a certain way, it should seem odd to suppose that there are considerations that are not essentially considerations for any particular agents, but simply considerations, considerations that happen to be considerations for you because they are just considerations, period.
Agent-neutral reasons may seem indispensable, however, if we conflate agent-neutrality with objectivity, universality, or non-instrumental altruism. If we think that agent-relative reasons cannot be objective, that they cannot be such that all particular agents have reasons of precisely the same kind, or that they can only take the interests of others into account in a purely instrumental way, then we — well, many of us, anyway — will be inclined to believe that there must be agent-neutral reasons.
In fact, universality and objectivity are sometimes invoked to show that rationality as such is agent-neutral. This approach is perhaps more common among those who favor a deontological approach. Kant famously argued this way in the Groundwork: reason as such is universal and objective, and it therefore cannot find any fundamental significance in the fact that my interests are mine or that my humanity is mine; the universality and objectivity of reason should lead us to respect humanity wherever it is instantiated, not simply in ourselves. But it is not only Kantians who reason in this way. Here is John Finnis, a Thomistic Aristotelian, though one who is often described as a deontologist rather than a virtue ethicist (the awkwardness of the classification seems like more evidence that the classifications are problematic):
Next, the basic goods are human goods, and can in principle be pursued, realized, and participated in by any human being. Another person’s survival, his coming to know, his creativity, his all-round flourishing, may not interest me, may not concern me, may in any event be beyond my power to affect. But have I any reason to deny that they are really good, or that they are fit matters of interest, concern, and favour by that man and by all those who have to do with him? The questions of friendship, collaboration, mutual assistance, and justice are the subject of the next chapters. Here we need not ask just who is responsible for whose well-being…But we can add, to the second requirement of fundamental impartiality of recognition of each of the basic forms of good, a third requirement: of fundamental impartiality among those human subjects who are or may be partakers of those goods.” (Natural Law and Natural Rights, 106-7)
Finnis here infers that it is a basic requirement of practical reason that we be fundamentally impartial among people. But he infers fundamental impartiality simply from the objectivity and universality of reason. Reason recognizes that the same basic goods are good for you and me and every other human being, and that they really are good insofar as they are aspects of human well-being, regardless of whether someone believes that they are good or desires them. And so, Finnis thinks, I could only reject the requirement of fundamental impartiality by denying that these goods are really goods for other people. But it is, to put it mildly, hard to see how I would be committed to denying the objective goodness of other people’s well-being or the universality of certain goods as aspects of human well-being simply by rejecting the principle of fundamental impartiality.
A similar non-sequitur seems to plague theories like Kant’s. We could agree that reason as such identifies universal and objective features of humanity, and that if you have an objective reason to act in a particular way in a particular set of circumstances, then anyone else who finds herself in precisely those circumstances will have an objective reason to act in precisely the same way. Nothing about those claims would commit us to the notion that reasons for action are not essentially reasons for the particular agents who have them, reasons for them rather than for any other agents. Perhaps objective reasons must be universalizable; it does not follow that they are in fact universal. Even if every particular agent has reason to do precisely the same thing, it need not follow that the reason is agent-neutral. There is nothing incoherent in the notion that you and I and every other individual has an agent-relative reason never to lie or commit suicide. Kant is probably wrong to claim that we always have decisive reason not to do those things, but the truth or falsity of those claims does not depend on whether there are any agent-neutral reasons.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of accounts that defend agent-neutral reasons, and I wouldn’t expect anyone who believes in them to be moved by what I’ve said so far. But even if we grant that there are agent-neutral reasons, if we also grant that there are agent-relative reasons, then we seem to be stuck with two fundamentally different kinds of reasons that cannot be assessed in terms of some other, broader sort of reason. Of course, if I have an agent-neutral reason to sell all my belongings and donate the money to Oxfam, then I can appeal to that reason against my agent-relative reason to keep building up my library. But I can also appeal to my agent-relative reason to keep building up my library against my agent-neutral reason to sell it and donate the proceeds to Oxfam. If we have agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons, each equally basic, then there will be no rational way to resolve conflicts between them. We end up with what Sidgwick called the “dualism of practical reason”: two equally compelling sources of reasons that conflict, neither with priority over the other or with the rational resources to defeat the other from any neutral point of view.
I suppose there might not be anything absurd about the dualism of practical reason, so that we can’t just reject it out of hand. But the notion that there is no rational way to assess the relative merits of conflicting considerations that genuinely tell in favor of acting in incompatible ways seems to threaten the coherence of rationality altogether. It is not simply that values and reasons are incommensurable and cannot be compared on a single quantitative scale or neatly placed in an ordinal ranking; one can recognize that kind of incommensurability without giving up on rationality in decision-making. Nor is it simply that some of our choices will be rationally arbitrary because reason does not require any one of a set of incompatible courses of action. Rather, if we have to accept the dualism of practical reason, that kind of arbitrariness will be pervasive and affect every choice we make. What sense could we then make of the idea that these two different sources of reasons were really making demands on us in the first place?
Perhaps the clearest indication of the difficulties posed by the dualism of practical reason is that most defenders of agent-neutral reasons do not allow that we also have agent-relative reasons. Thinkers as radically opposed as Christine Korsgaard (perhaps Kant’s leading contemporary heir, at least in Anglophone philosophy) and Peter Singer (perhaps the leading contemporary heir of Bentham) agree that only agent-neutral reasons are genuine reasons (Korsgaard’s most recent work seems to take a view that complicates the distinction, but I confess I haven’t studied it closely). But basic agent-neutral reasons seem problematic enough; the idea that they are the only basic reasons we have seems even less plausible (on this point, and for much of the rest of what I have to say about these things, I am indebted to Mark Lebar’s ‘Korsgaard, Wittgenstein, and the Mafioso’ as well as Mark Murphy’s Natural Law and Practical Rationality).
But if we recognize only agent-relative reasons, where does that leave morality? Can we get a satisfactory theory of justice out of such bare beginnings? That depends, of course, on what satisfies you, but plenty of people have thought not. I like to think that we can, that Aristotle had such a theory, and that his basic framework can sustain a theory of justice that would satisfy most of the intuitions that lead people to think that agent-relative theories like what we find in the opening of Republic II or in Leviathan are unsatisfactory. But alas, that’s a topic for a whole other book. I hope to write that book someday, but for now I’ve already written too much.