Book Club: The Edge of Reason 7, rational morality

Let’s continue our discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, a book that attempts to rethink, and broaden, what counts as “reason.” Chapter 7 is about morality and its relationship with reason, broadly construed.

Julian’s discussion in this chapter is a bit of a simplification of a long and complex philosophical debate. But there is something to be said for cutting to the chase, as they say. He sets it up as a dichotomy between rationalists and sentimentalists: in one corner, Kant, who attempted to derive moral oughts from reason alone; in the other corner, Hume, who thought that at bottom morality was about emotions.

Baggini is immediately careful to disabuse people of the common, but mistaken, notion that sentimentalism is the same thing as emotivism: “Sentimentalism should not be equated with emotivism, the crudest version of the theory, which says that moral judgements are no more than expressions of approval or disgust.” He elaborates on this later in the chapter, but for now please keep it in mind, or you will completely misunderstand what follows.

Julian comes down on the side of Hume, and while I have some qualms with this, I think he got it pretty much right, especially his criticism of the Kantian position.

He begins there, using “Kantian” in the broadest possible terms, to indicate anyone who thinks that reason alone is sufficient to generate moral oughts. And he takes one of my favorite modern philosophers, John Searle, to task for his defense of a form of Kantianism.

Searle distinguishes “strong” from “weak” altruism. The latter encompasses situations in which people are naturally inclined to help others; the former is the result of rational analysis. Needless to say, the “weak” form, which is the Humean variety, is the one that will be left standing after Baggini gets through with this.

Julian gives us a preview of the sentimentalist position while he is gearing up for a discussion of Searle’s: “A sentimentalist might believe that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering. The ultimate basis of this judgement is not that to do so would be irrational, but simply a recognition, rooted in empathy, that suffering is a bad thing, to be avoided if possible. Having adopted this principle, the sentimentalist might on a given occasion see reasons not to act in a certain way, despite being inclined to do so, such as when confronted with a juicy steak from a factory-farmed animal.” This is contrasted with the rationalist, who ought not to eat the juicy steak, if he recognizes that doing so contributes to the suffering of animals, which he has judged to be contrary to reason in the first place.

Searle’s position is that a combination of empathetic moral sentiment and factual knowledge is insufficient as a reason to act, and that the latter can only be provided by disinterested reason moved solely by facts and logic (sans sentiments). As Baggini says, the Kantian position, then, gets off the ground by assuming a narrow conception of reason, one that excludes a priori any possibility of considering the sentimentalist position to be “reasonable.”

Julian reconstructs Searle’s argument for rationalism as dependent on three steps:

(i) The generality requirement: “to assert that something is the case is to assert that everyone in a similar situation should also assert that it is the case.”

(ii) My pain creates a need: “I am in pain so I need help. Accepting the generality requirement means that I therefore have to accept that if anyone else is in pain, their pain too creates a need. I cannot make a special case of myself.”

(iii) My need for help generates reasons for others to help me: “the generality requirement comes into play and so I have to accept that, to be rational, if my pain creates a reason for other people to help me, then the pain of others creates a reason for me to help them.”

Baggini has no problem with steps (i) and (ii), but thinks (iii) does not follow. Here is part (and I stress, part) of his argument:

“Let us accept that having a need for help is enough to establish that the need is a reason for others to help me. The problem with this is that at any given time innumerable such needs exist. Just in my neighborhood there are people who need help to cope with their grieving, do their shopping, get over their addictions, escape their loneliness, get money for medical treatment. Extend the circle wider and there are billions in need of clean water, good food, basic healthcare, education. On Searle’s view, I ought to accept that these are reasons for me to help them. That is reasonable enough. But that can’t mean those reasons are sufficient to place a moral obligation on me to help them. If it did, we would have the absurdity that at any one time, we would all be morally obliged to help other people meet any need they had.”

This, in a nutshell, is the same argument I have recently used against Effective Altruism over at my other blog, How to Be a Stoic. It is also the same reason I think we should not accept the infamous “repugnant conclusion,” which stems from utilitarianism for reasons very similar to those criticized by Baggini when it comes to rationalism (even though utilitarianism is obviously not Kantianism, the two approaches do share the rationalist assumption).

This, then, is Julian’s strong conclusion from his analysis of rationalism, one with whom I feel compelled (by reason…) to agree: “the fact that there are rationally binding desire-independent reasons for altruistic action does not in any way place an obligation on me to act on those reasons. What Searle calls ‘strong altruism’ does not, it turns out, place any obligation on me, of any strength. Whichever way you look at it, the fact that there exists a reason to help someone is not sufficient to establish that someone ought to act on that reason. … Unless reason obliges us to behave morally, the Kantian project fails.”

Baggini then moves to an exploration and defense of the sentimentalist position, beginning, of course, with a discussion of the famous is/ought (facts/values) distinction, made explicit by Hume himself:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, book 3, part 1, section 1)

Julian’s reasoning is clear-headed here, so I will simply transcribe a few key lines:

“[Hume warns that] if the premises of an argument contain only statements of fact, then the conclusion must also contain only statements of fact, and must not smuggle in assertions of value, such as ‘oughts.’ In ordinary discourse, we do this all the time. We say, people are starving, they will die unless we send them food, therefore we ought to send them food. The conclusion does not follow logically. In practice, this is usually because premises are not so much absent as unstated. … Philippa Foot argued that it is a kind of fact about the natural world that living things have needs and desires and that therefore it is a matter of fact that certain things are of value to them. Take the proposition: ‘children are born helpless and have to be taught to learn language and so on.’ That, she explains, ‘means already that children have to be looked after.’ Crucially, these reasons are ‘objective and have nothing to do with preferences: some people love children and some people hate them. That doesn’t make any difference.’ On the one hand, this is a pure statement of fact. But it would also appear to contain implicit within it a statement of value: it is better that a child is looked after than not. We could call such statements ‘normative facts,’ meaning they are facts that contain elements of value. … It sounds paradoxical to say that we have interest-neutral reasons to accept the objectivity of interests, but the seeming paradox quickly dissolves when you see that the interest-neutrality of reason only concerns the requirement that we do not allow our interests to cloud our judgement of what is the case. It does not prohibit the recognition of real interests in the world. Given that these interests can be emotional as well as biological, this means that emotions can sometimes number among the reasons of rational argument.”

Time to take a break and go back to why sentimentalism as proposed by Hume-Baggini is not at all the same thing as emotivism, the “crude,” as Julian puts it, proposition that morality boils down to (essentially arbitrary) gut feelings.

First, notice that Baggini is — once again — broadening our conception of reason, to include our natural emotional dispositions (which, of course, ultimately derive from our evolution as social primates). So, contra Hume, it’s not that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (A Treatise of Human Nature, book 2, part 3, section 2), but rather that the passions are part of our reasoning arsenal.

Second, not all emotional responses are created equal: if you don’t care at all about the welfare of others, you are a socio-psychopath, and we shall not take your “reasoning” into account, and possibly provide you with the necessary mental care, since you are not a functional human being. Some degree of pro-sociality is characteristic of normal, healthy members of the species Homo sapiens.

Third, both contra and per Hume (I know, I know), the passions can actually be trained by reason, i.e., the two interact developmentally, both within an individual and even in terms of shaping different human cultures. (If you are puzzled by this, read my essay on Hume’s biological-cultural developmental theory of human nature.)

Fourth, the above should also make clear why morality cannot be read off straight from factual knowledge (and hence, there cannot be “scientific” answers to moral questions, pace Sam Harris and Michael Shermer). The facts — both straightforwardly empirical ones and those that Baggini, following Foot, terms “normative” ones — underdetermine moral action, meaning that the same set of facts of both kind do not pinpoint one and only one possible moral option. Which means one needs philosophy, i.e., the ability to reason about those facts from within a given general framework or another, in order to arrive at specific conclusions.

(Incidentally, if anyone is curious about how all of the above fits with my practice of Stoicism, the answer is very well indeed, thank you. The Stoics were the first to propose a developmental theory of morality, according to which we begin as small children with selfish desires about our own well being; we then naturally expand our concerns to our care takers and others who immediately surround us; and finally we begin to be able to use reason to further enlarge our circles of concern, shaping our moral character by way of reason and practice.)

Back to Baggini. In the fourth section of this chapter, he elaborates on the idea that the sentimentalist position does not mean that reason has nothing to contribute to morality. On the contrary, it is indispensable to it, once properly understood and broadly reformulated. He summarizes his version of sentimentalism in this fashion:

“If a creature has interests — being able to pursue projects and live a life which it finds meaningful, and/or can feel pain and pleasure, physical and psychic — then we have reasons to take those interests into account and not frustrate them without good reason, nor refrain from assisting them when it is easily in our power to do so.”

And here is a wonderful example of the above mentioned principle of underdetermination: “three people might agree with this and accept that we therefore have a duty to take a farm animal’s interests into account. But one might conclude we ought then not to eat it, another that we simply ought to rear it well, while the other might say as long as we don’t torture it, we’ve done nothing wrong.” The differences among the three people may not get settled, period. However, each of them may be able to present arguments — informed by both empirical and normative facts — for why his position is better than the other two. Sometimes that argument will succeed, at other times it won’t.

Julian is clear that one could very reasonably disagree with his definition of sentimentalism and with what follows from it. As he puts it, such “a dissenter would be heartless, not brainless.”

He adds that someone may feel the moral force of an argument, and yet not feel compelled to act (as in my case with vegetarianism: I recognize its moral force, but I tend to behave like a reducetarian, or at best a pescatarian). “But why should we expect or demand that the only good moral reasons are ones which are beyond all conceivable rational dispute? This is simply too high a demand.” After all, he points out, even the compulsion to accept that 2+2=4 (yes, yes, given certain axioms, you pedantic bastard!) is not absolute: “We can certainly imagine some people who just don’t feel the force of the argument at all. In the mathematical argument, this blindness might suggest a rare cognitive impairment that simply doesn’t allow them to follow logical steps. In the moral argument, the equivalent would be a cognitive impairment such as psychopathy, which makes people indifferent to the interests of others.”

Let me end, then, with an apt quote by American philosopher Thomas Scanlon (cited by Baggini): “To see something as good reason for acting in a certain way and being disposed to do it is not a matter of logic, but it is a matter of rationality.”

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Categories: Book Club, Ethics

103 replies

  1. Hi ej

    Of course one could have a different ethical framework and still care for others and wish the best for them, and not like suffering. But I don’t see anywhere where Baggini is claiming otherwise.

    The part I have been disagreeing with from the start, “A dissenter would be heartless, not brainless.”

    Also the part where he says that anyone who does not feel the force of his reasons must be suffering from some sort of “cognitive impairment” which makes them “indifferent to the interests of others”.

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  2. Socratic: “Per this whole discussion, I am again minded to note that what distinguishes humans from “lower” animals is not only the depth and breadth of reasoning and analytical skills, but also the depth and breadth of emotional expression. And, that combination is why humans make value judgments and take moral stances.”

    To look at this from another angle, the “lower” animals have, in some way, evolved in such a way that they are all successful in being what they are. If we could somehow reverse-engineer a gopher and follow it through all the activities of its life, we would presumably find (unless it blundered into a human gopher-trap) the secrets of its success as a life-form. If we tried to do this with humans, we would run into a situation of incredible complexity, given the almost infinite number of options available to us, with our perception of past and future possibilities, combined with an absence of instinctive guidance. But it seems like the task is the same, to discover the secrets of success as a life-form.

    For some reason, I stopped receiving this blog in my Email. I have very much enjoyed the opportunity of participating in it, and hope that this was not the result of inappropriate commentary on my part.

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  3. The dictionary definition of “objective” includes the requirement that what is objective must be perceivable by all. It is therefore mind independent (in the sense that it is not reliant on an individual’s private experience) but not perception independent, and thus open for discussion among others. Indeed, it may take conversation, even debate, to agree to what we all then admit to be objective, ethically speaking.

    The clearest embodiment of this is in the laws of a community. Law is in part (in large part, some would argue) the community’s expression of the shared ethical expectations or allowances of behavior. Thus law is the objectification of such expectations and allowances.

    If you are ever brought into court, by all means have your counsel argue to the judge that the laws are purely subjective, and see how that goes.

    Dostoyevski had Raskolnikov act on subjectivist ethics. That doesn’t turn out so well for him, if I remember. (Crime and Punishment – wonderful book.)

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  4. I still think there is no getting around the fact that good and bad are not some ineffable cosmic conflict, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. As such, they are inseparable. That is why the pendulum invariably swings from one to the other. What might be detrimental on one level, will be the source of strength and structure at a higher level. What might be pleasurable in moderate amounts, will be corrosive in excess.
    As much as our culture might think itself atheistic, it still functions in the shadow of that supreme being.
    No matter how strong the box you build, leave a few windows open, or everything in it dies.

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  5. Wtc,

    I have not made any changes to the settings, you are definitely welcome to comment here. Perhaps the emails have accidentally started going to your spam folder?

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  6. Hi DM,

    I am not nearly as amazed as Massimo that you and Robin are having a hard time interpreting Baggini as I can easily see how you might interpret it as you do. This is also how I am most naturally inclined to interpret him,…

    In the context of several pages of that chapter, I think it’s the only plausible interpretation of what he’s trying to say. He’s not just reporting his own attitudes, he’s attempting to establish objective reasons why such attitudes are normative. He says:

    “The final step we need to take is to show that these objective interests [ie, recognising that others have interests] add up to a compelling reason to take the interests of an agent into account”. He also then says that he’s looking for “rational” compulsion not “psychological” compulsion.

    In other words, he’s wanting to make the magic “is/ought” leap from “other people have interests”, to “we ought to take their interests into account”. So he sort of just declares it by fiat with an “it seems to me” that “recognising that others have interests is a compelling reason to believe we ought to take them into account”.

    This whole sentence is very weird. Note, for example, that it’s not a “compelling reason that we ought to take them into account”, but only a “compelling reason to believe that we ought to take them into account”.

    Noting that no Baggini defenders have explained the argument in this sentence in any way that makes the argument clear, I’m sticking to my opinion that it is hopelessly muddled and a non-sequitur. It’s an is/ought leap camouflaged with verbiage.

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  7. Coel,

    You usually stick with your views regardless of how many times people explain to you why there is a problem. After a while people stop bothering. We do have other things to do in life, fortunately.

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  8. ej,

    If you are ever brought into court, by all means have your counsel argue to the judge that the laws are purely subjective, and see how that goes.

    “Subjective” does not mean “non-existent”, nor “unimportant” nor “invalid” nor “inapplicable”! A “subjective” moral system is merely one that derives from human advocacy, from our feelings and values. (Whereas an objective one is imposed on humans from outside or from something supra-human, such as pure reason.) That is how our laws are. That makes them no less important, and it doesn’t stop other people imposing them.

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  9. Hi Massimo,

    You usually stick with your views regardless of how many times people explain to you why there is a problem. After a while people stop bothering. We do have other things to do in life, fortunately.

    Sure, no problem, it is of course entirely up to people whether they want to reply to me. But the reason I stick to my views is that people merely asserting that there is problem with them, or that I’m confused or don’t understand (while not supplying an argument) has no effect on me — I just continue to think they are wrong.

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  10. Hi Robin,

    I have been discussing and disagreeing with the normativity component of Baggini’s framework right from the very start and in every single thing I wrote here.

    You’ve been discussing normativity in terms of asking why it is that you ought to take the interests of animals into account or why it is you have a duty to do so etc.

    I must have missed where you tackled his argument that to care was healthy and normative and not to care was pathological.

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  11. Hi Robin,

    The part I have been disagreeing with from the start, “A dissenter would be heartless, not brainless.”

    To clarify, I think here’ he’s referring only to someone who rejected the view that we ought to take others’ interests into account on the grounds that this person doesn’t care about others. I don’t think he would call heartless someone who (like you and I) cares for the interests of others but resists his claims that caring is normative and healthy and not caring is pathological. He might be inclined to call such a person brainless, not heartless!

    Also the part where he says that anyone who does not feel the force of his reasons must be suffering from some sort of “cognitive impairment” which makes them “indifferent to the interests of others”.

    This is the same thing. He’s saying someone who doesn’t feel inclined to care for the interests of others on the basis of his argument must be afflicted with something such as psychopathy. He would not call you or I a psychopath, because we do feel inclined to care for the interests of others even if we don’t buy that not caring for others is necessarily pathological.

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  12. Hi Coel,

    Not sure there’s much point continuing, but comments will close soon anyway so what the hell.

    First, let me restate my position. I more or less agree with you in rejecting Baggini’s pretensions to objectivity and in the pathologising of immorality/amorality. But I differ from you in that I think his position is tenable, reasonable and non-trivial, even though utlimately I don’t entirely agree with it.

    He’s not just reporting his own attitudes, he’s attempting to establish objective reasons why such attitudes are normative.

    Well, yeah. They’re normative because they are normal and adaptive and because humans throughout history have generally looked favourably on traits such as compassion and generosity, all things being equal. That’s more or less what normative means.

    If you can accept that it is healthy for axons to be wrapped in a myelin sheath, and unhealthy for the axon to become demyelinated (as in multiple sclerosis), then it seems reasonable enough to say that it is normative for axons to have a myelin sheath — that this is objectively the way a healthy axon ought to be. Similarly, in mental health, it seems on the face of it reasonable to say that someone with crippling depression is unhealthy, that this condition is not characteristic of a healthy mind. It is nornative for the mind not to have depression. If it is reasonable to make these kinds of statements about myelin and depression, then it’s not such a leap to make a similar statement about psychopathy.

    Now, I can see you may take issue with this kind of reasoning, and I do so myself, but my point is only that this is not crazy, irrational or nonsense. It’s an arguable, sensible position, and I think you ought to be able to see the logic behind it even if you have reason to disagree.

    He also then says that he’s looking for “rational” compulsion not “psychological” compulsion.

    I think that seeking a rational compulsion in this case just means he is trying to build a rational argument to support the notion that we (moral-)ought to take the interests of others into account, not a rational argument that would necessarily persuade any rational person to do so. For instance, he thinks that Hannibal Lecter (rational-)ought to agree with him (if Lecter is rational and reasonable apart from the fact that he enjoys killing and eating people) that Lecter’s behaviour is not normative. Lecter (rational-)ought also agree with him that Lecter’s behaviour is immoral, and that morality demands that Lecter refrain from killing and eating people. However Lecter will feel no psychological compulsion to comply with the demands of morality, so Lecter will continue to pursue his hobby, while agreeing that he (moral-)ought not.

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  13. Hi DM,

    They’re normative because they are normal and adaptive …

    Having children is normal and adaptive. Does that place on us an obligation to have children? I don’t see how that follows.

    … and because humans throughout history have generally looked favourably on traits such as compassion and generosity, …

    That’s a descriptive statement, and again does not lead to a moral obligation. E.g. a few hundred years ago one could have said “because humans throughout history have generally looked favourably on slavery and on the subjegation of women”.

    That’s more or less what normative means.

    In a discussion of morality, “normative” means we are under some sort of obligation to comply. Whence the obligation? If it is merely the advocacy of humans, deriving from their desires and values, then we’re agreed.

    … then it seems reasonable enough to say that it is normative for axons to have a myelin sheath — that this is objectively the way a healthy axon ought to be.

    So now you’re placing an obligation on axons to be a particular way?! If all you’re saying is that we prefer axons to be that way (or that we use the label “healthy” when they are that way), then ok.

    … he is trying to build a rational argument to support the notion that we (moral-)ought to take the interests of others into account,

    Yes, that’s what Baggini is trying to do. But my problem in following both Baggini and your comment is that I — still — have no idea what “we (moral-)ought to take the interests of others into account” is supposed to mean. Sorry to keep harking back to this, but I don’t!

    How can one evaluate the rational argument that is supposed to lead to “the notion that we (moral-)ought to take the interests of others into account” when we’re not told what that even means?

    See, to me, the only sort of “oughts” are instrumental ones, and the aim that produces that ought is not specified.

    Lecter (rational-)ought also agree with him that Lecter’s behaviour is immoral, and that morality demands that Lecter refrain from killing and eating people.

    Can you re-phrase that without using the words “ought” or “moral” so that I can be clear what you mean? The whole problem here is that people just intuitively use the language of moral realism, even when they’re not moral realists (or claim not to be), but without telling us what they mean by it.

    Are you merely saying that most people would deplore Lecter’s acts and attitudes and want him to stop? (If so, agreed, but then why can’t we just say that?)

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