Modern Moral Philosophy (Part I, Being a Longwinded Inquiry into Whether There Are Any Such Things As Moral Facts, Preliminary to Our Investigation of the Libertarian Non-Aggression Principle (NAP))

Introduction: this post was inspired by a thread on Facebook in which I participated. It raised issues that couldn’t be handled without more depth than is possible in one or two already-lengthy comments. The main topic was the viability and defensibility of the libertarian non-aggression principle (NAP) also accepted by anarcho-capitalists, as well as the broader question of whether morality is a matter of knowledge, opinion, or something else. The former seems to me to presuppose that morality is a matter of knowledge, but others might disagree. To a philosopher (lost generation or otherwise) the question of whether morality is revealed, discovered, or invented is one of the largest in the history of Western philosophy. Professional philosophers will criticize the longwindedness and say this discussion breaks no new ground. For them it might not. I am unaware of new treatments of the subject since the turn of the millennium, which might be a product of my status as an outsider. Be that as it may, I hold no guns to anyone’s heads as I offer what I hope is a reasonably lucid discussion of the main topics. Because of how this material grew in size I finally had to divide it into two parts to make it manageable. Part One provides the conceptual and theoretical background. Part Two looks at the NAP and related applications.

“Can virtue be taught?” asked Meno of Socrates in the Platonist dialogue bearing his name. Plato thought virtue was recollected from the soul’s pre-mortal existence. But whether recollected or gained by some other means, this assumes there is something definitive to recollect or gain — something standing above “mere opinion” and cultural consensus. Today, many people including scholars of undeniable intelligence and insight hold that morality is a matter of mere opinion — or, at most, a cultural artifact. The most sophisticated versions of this idea appear to hold that morality’s purpose is to increase a culture’s chances for survival, a product of evolution with no higher significance. In this post we will explore some of the consequences of the idea that there are no moral truths akin to scientific truths, aside from the higher-order claim of morality equating to cultural artifact. Academic opinion is divided, but were we to seek a semblance of consensus, I am reasonably sure it would be on the side of morality as cultural artifact. Since most academic philosophers are agnostics or atheists, they aren’t going to see it as revealed; and the idea of its being discovered issues in a sense of permanence still lends too much comfort to anti-progressive views seeking radical changes. What are the progressives afraid of? They look back at the past and see moral authority as puritanism emanating from the Church: a source of repression and moral authoritarianism rather than enlightenment. Moral absolutism, in that case, is to be viewed with suspicion as a cover for authoritarians who rule through fear and naturally want to maintain their dominance.

Let us work out the background. Modern Moral Philosophy (from which this post derives its title) was the name of a slim but significant text by W.D. Hudson (1970), written back in the day when textbooks were readable and relatively inexpensive. It began with a distinction that is useful despite somewhat unfortunate terminology: moralism, according to Hudson, tried to tell us what to do, i.e., ethics in the traditional sense. Traditional ethical theories include Christian ethics, Aristotelian virtue theory, Kant’s deontology, Mill’s utilitarianism, and so on. Fans of Ayn Rand will want to add her brand of ethical egoism. Moral philosophy, also called meta-ethics in this context, is the province of analytic philosophers: its purpose was to describe what we are doing when we talk about what we ought to do. Philosophers, in other words, are not moralists despite their past; they should confine themselves to (what else?) moral philosophy. Their questions are not, What should we do? but rather, What do key moral terms such as good refer to (if anything); are the propositions of ethics true or false; can ethical conclusions be rationally justified on the basis of evidence? I will refer to Hudson’s moralism as first-order ethical discourse and his moral philosophy as second-order ethical discourse. I happen to believe both are important. For well over 2,000 years, philosophers have been interested in what we ought to do, whether the source of what we ought to do is a supernatural agency such as the Christian God or whether it has some other source, including the idea that living virtuously is an end in itself. Hence the potential for lively first-order ethical discourse. Traditional systematic philosophers also wanted rational justification for their conclusions; hence the importance of second-order questions, especially if we believe our ethical pronouncements can be rationally justified. Both Plato and Aristotle would have agreed, by the way. When teaching about ethics, I used to distinguish ethics, the discipline, from morality, its subject matter. Ethics, in this case, is the branch of axiological philosophy concerned with the theory of morality (conceived as covering both first- and second-order discourse).

Meta-ethics, emphasizing language and reasoning about morality, tends to divide into cognitivism and noncognitivism. Cognitivists conclude that the propositions of ethics do refer, and can be true or false: that doing ethics is a matter of reasoning, and that moral conclusions are therefore more than matters of opinion. Cognitivism therefore stands at the foundation, so to speak, of most first-order ethical discourse. Noncognitivism rejects this. Beginning with “Hume’s fork” (the division of language into is-statements and ought-statements, the latter not logically derivable from the former), noncognitivists conclude that morality does not consist of matters of fact that can be debated rationally. It is more a matter of passion or sentiment (Hume used both terms), or emotion, or persuasion. Hume was far from believing moral discourse was not useful in society; its primary purpose was social utility. But as philosophers were writing two centuries later, this meant that where first-order ethical discourse is concerned, philosophical analysis has to give way to psychology and sociology, because there are no such things as moral facts about which we can reason, period. Moral fact is, indeed, a contradiction in terms, a failure to grasp the meaning of “Hume’s fork.”

Logical positivists, relying on Kant’s analytic-synthetic dichotomy, regarded all cognitively meaningful propositions as either factual (synthetic), or formal and definitional (analytic). The former are true or false by empirical fact, shown as such by natural science. (To keep this discussion somewhat manageable I am bypassing theories of truth.) The latter are true because of the meanings of the signs they contain, and are not factually informative. Ethical propositions, they noticed, didn’t seem to fall into either category. Statements of the form, X is good, or, I ought to do A, could not be verified, tested, confirmed, falsified, etc., by any natural science. Nor were they true by definition. Logical positivists concluded that they had emotive instead of cognitive meaning: ethical emotivism, according to A.J. Ayer who defended the position forcefully in his Language, Truth and Logic (1936). The idea seemed to make little sense of our actual moral lives and so didn’t last long (even Ayer soon abandoned it). So for noncognitivists, what do ethical propositions do? Hume had the basic idea right. They do involve passions, but accomplish something in society, and this is all we need to clarify. This was easier said than done, however. Another possibility held that the utterance of an ethical proposition is an attempt to prescribe for others (and, presumably, oneself): prescriptivism. A variation on this theme held that such propositions are efforts to propagandize and control, establishing moral authority by psychological means. A final variation, a “self-prescriptivism,” might hold that the adoption of a set of ethical propositions by oneself constitutes an attempt to legislate for oneself without making the assumption that one can presume to legislate for others: a kind of ethical subjectivism.

In the last analysis, though, noncognitivists cannot really “do” ethics. They do not see ethical propositions as true or false. They see them is primarily about influencing behavior. They do not believe there is any such thing as a single morality that applies to all persons. The most they can say, to be consistent, is, “This is where I stand.” The most they can assert or imply (as, e.g., prescriptivists) is, “You ought to stand here, too.” They will say that these are the consequences of rejecting absolutism, the old-fangled view that “morality” is something “out there” somewhere, whatever this is supposed to mean.

Such results are closely tied to cultural relativity, and to ethical relativism. Cultural relativity, which was popular among cultural anthropologists for a time, observes — correctly — that different cultures have different moral belief systems. Ethical relativism infers from this that morality is a cultural artifact. (Ethical absolutism, in this case, is the thesis that morality is not a cultural artifact but is independent of culture, whether revealed or discovered.) Ethical relativism does not maintain that morality is a matter of personal opinion. This is a common misunderstanding. Ethical relativism is compatible with the idea that a common morality is necessary to hold a culture together, and so resurrects the idea of moral authority. The moral authorities are said to “know” something of “morality,” or have special “insight” not available to the unwashed masses. But what is this special “knowledge” or “insight”? The moral authorities will rarely if ever stand exclusively on their own feet. They will appeal to God or the gods, or — in modern times — to Progress (perhaps — the grip of that one may be slipping). One suspects that they have, indeed, gained command over a vocabulary and skillfully given it emotive force. This will generally lead to social sanction against disapproved-of ethical opinions, e.g., those today deemed politically incorrect. Appeal to the majority, however, has never satisfied logical minds; so when such ploys fail, all that truly distinguishes moral authorities is that they can employ majoritarian numbers or sometimes even police power to enforce their opinions. A relativist society is very likely not a free society. Moreover, those asking for the rational grounding of the opinions of the moral authorities are likely to be regarded as dangerous troublemakers who need to be suppressed — as was Socrates.

Hence the chief danger of noncognitivism: it doesn’t just renders ethics a matter of opinion, or even shared opinion for those who happen to agree to “stand” in the same place; it sets the stage for a moral totalitarianism — the very thing the progressives see as abominable in Christian ethics and other forms of absolutism. It should be clear, though, that one cannot really debate morality if it reduces to personal opinion, or even consensus. If my opinion is that abortion is immoral because it takes a human life and your opinion is that it is acceptable because it is a woman’s choice, then if noncognitivism is true there is no further ground we can appeal to: it is opinion “all the way down.” All we can do is go to court over it, let the judge decide, the result being a cultural decision where one side wins and the other loses. We are back to moral totalitarianism.

But consider rape. Surely everyone in civilized society believes rape is wrong, and that the wrong is not merely a legal wrong! There is no debate: no one that I know of will argue that rape is acceptable. Is it merely the law that impels us to reject it as abhorrent, though? How could we even conceive of its being acceptable if we were in a society whose law said nothing, or perhaps allowed members of the elite to rape with impunity (as is the case in a few actual cultures)? So is our rejection of rape still merely a cultural decision and opinion? This implies the possibility that in those other cultures with contrary opinions, rape is sometimes acceptable, and that again in the last analysis, the idea that all we have is opinion “all the way down.” If we deny that such a culture could possibly be moral in its practices, we are granting the idea that there is grounding for morality outside judicial opinion, cultural consensus, or other human authority.

Hence the usefulness of revisiting the likelihood that cognitivism is the more defensible of the two, just based on what we use moral language to do and how we argue our cases. If cognitivism is true, then ethics is not mere opinion, decision, or consensus; moral truths are discovered; or revealed and disclosed; they are not merely invented, decided, or propagandized. Nor did they merely evolve, as here, too, there would need to be reasons why certain kinds of moral codes evolved while their contraries did not. For example, in no culture I know of is wanton lying to one’s fellows a moral imperative (it may be a different matter for strangers and possible enemies, of course). Obviously no culture could survive with that sort of imperative; but this implies a connection between morality and physical reality, the world around us, and conditions for our general survival that would require that morality be more than opinion or decision or consensus. Cognitivism makes sense of our actual moral lives, how morality functions, and how it works in the sometimes-nasty issues that emerge when cultures come into contact or when we speak of progress being made over past stages of our own culture (e.g., the U.S.’s repudiation of slavery). It even makes sense of the deep disagreements over, e.g., abortion, by noting the logical presumption of a moral fact of the matter over which the disputants are disagreeing.

Cognitivism, understood metaphysically, equates to moral realism, the idea that there is a world of moral facts, or truths, not physical themselves but perhaps predicated on physical states of affairs or metaphysical truths which ethics seeks to elucidate. Noncognitivism denies all this. To sum up the predicament of the noncognitivist or moral antirealist: even what we would take to be the most heinous offenses against persons (e.g., rape, or enslavement) come down to matters of opinion, whether personal or cultural, or imposed using police power by a moral authority, as there are no facts of the matter, just strong feelings or predispositions. While the collective opinion and sanction of society or even moral totalitarianism may be enough for the legal positivist mind, it should never be enough for the philosopher who quietly points out that the moral seriousness of our condemnation of rape, or slavery, or genocide, is severely undermined if it reduces to ungrounded consensus or authority — if, indeed, we are in earnest with philosophical inquiry. Those who see philosophy as a debaters’ game played by academics will, of course, disagree. But are we morally serious or not?

So to sum up, when we say that certain actions, other things being equal, have varying degrees of morally rightness (like telling the truth, keeping one’s promises and agreements, securing the needs of elderly relatives who have become infirm, etc.), or that others have varying degrees of moral heinousness (like rape, slavery, telling lies, breaking contracts, etc.), we do not intend to be expressing subjective opinions. Nor are we simply appealing to the authority of societal consensus. The debate over abortion is not a trading of opinions but a debate over whose opinion is better, i.e., grounded in moral fact, or moral reality. We mean to say that as a matter of fact, certain actions are right and should be done while others are wrong and should not be done. Cognitivism rejects “Hume’s fork,” in other words, at least in the sense of their being an absolute fact-value dichotomy with cognitively meaningful and true propositions only being possible for the former. It asserts that there are moral facts, about which we can utter true sentences. That is, when one of us asserts, “Rape is a morally heinous act,” she means to say just that, as a matter of fact (not opinion) that rape is morally heinous, incompatible with a moral view of the universe in which there are definite rights and wrongs.

In this case, is the libertarian non-aggression principle a moral fact? This will depend, as with all basic moral propositions, on what the NAP asserts, what it implies and does not imply, and how it holds up in our moral lives.

(Part Two will appear next week.)

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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One Response to Modern Moral Philosophy (Part I, Being a Longwinded Inquiry into Whether There Are Any Such Things As Moral Facts, Preliminary to Our Investigation of the Libertarian Non-Aggression Principle (NAP))

  1. Pingback: Inductive Reasoning (PPs) | Critical Thinking: Learning in Depth. Class Blog

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