2005/10/30

Notes

A few very rough musings for you today, from some notes jotted down last year.
After two and a half millennia, we are still without an answer to Thrasymachus, or at least so it seems. The ability to ask the question "Why should I be moral?" still exercises us to formulate an answeer. For it seems that any moral theory, to be adequate to ground the normativity of its judgments, must be such that it can give a motivating reason to everyone for acting in ways prescribed by the theory, on the grounds given by the theory. We could call this the motivation test (MT). The test merely sets a minimum level of justification for action that a moral theory must provide. The theory gives grounds of some sort justifying moral behavior. If someone understands these grounds, and if that person takes them to be reasons for action that do justify moral behavior, but do not take them as (at least some of) their own reasons for action, the theory fails the MT.
That, at least, is the sort of story one might tell; a Kantian moral theorist will surely like this idea, since the categorical imperative's own justification seems to contain a claim similar to the MT. A rational creature, as such, if it does understand the justification of the categorical imperative, cannot help but take some sort of universalizing principle as a reason to act in one way rather than another. The creature, understanding, thinks to itself I am a rational creature and This principle applies to the actions of rational creatures as such and then This principle applies to my (thinking about my) actions and I am doing something wrong if I fail to act in accordance with the principle. The rational creature may not thereby actually act in accordance with the moral imperative, but the creature, in understanding the theory, on a view like this, must thereby take it as justifying at least some reasons for action.
Some modern theorists working in a deontological vein have suggested that a Humean moral theory cannot meet such a test. One way to crudely characterize such criticism is to say that it takes the idea that moral utterances are expressive of attitudes toward (proposed) moral behaviors and shows that if such is the case no justification for any particular reasons will come about from a general moral theory since attitudes are merely subjective and without any necessary persuasive force. In his argument in the Treatise for why we necessarily need moral rules, Hume imagines a world full of human beings but in which there are no moral rules. He concludes that one could not have a coherent self-identity, since there could be no "relations" motivating prudential behavior, because the future self–like other people in such a world–must be connected to by the very relations that Hume says are necessary and necessarily for moral behavior in order to be cared about (in order for the future self to be me in a more than purely intellectual understanding), and the world without moral rules cannot have such relations in it. So, the claim goes, Hume's moral theory justifies acting in some ways rather than others, even after the theory has been explained, for those who understand the theory, because they must relate in ways that entail moral rules being taken to exist for themselves on pain of not being able to have a coherent self-identity. So they will say These are rules that apply to me and are reasons for me to act morally even if they do not actually end up acting on those reasons.

What these accounts suppose is that the MT can only be met on grounds that convince a "rational" being that the justification given by the moral theory actually gives that being reason to act in so far as it actually is a "rational" being. But what then of the immoralist, the egoist who holds no allegiance to moral rules as such? The egoist will claim that their actions and reasons are "rational," in some sense, and so if they do not take moral reasons to be any of their own reasons, they are going to provide thereby a counterexample to any such theory's meeting the MT. I want to agree that the presupposition that a theory's passing the test on pain of the being's "irrational" reasons leads to a failure to actually pass the MT, but I do not want to do so in such a way that allows the egoist off the hook for immoral behavior.

What I propose is that the test, as conceived, requires to narrow a view of what counts as having a reason to act, such that those to whom the question of whether or not to act morally applies can deny of themselves that they necessarily actually have reason to act morally even while understanding the theory justifying said reason. This means, basically, that the MT fails as a test of minimal adequacy for a proposed moral theory, because it gets wrong how moral reasons apply to agents. A first indication how moral reasons do apply is this: observe first the difference between saying "Barbara acted morally" and saying "That lion acted morally." It is not clear what we could mean by the second statement. Now suppose we have an intelligent Martian of whom, having flown to earth and taken up residence, we say "That Martian acted morally." I propose that this third statement is as difficult to understand as the second, because moral rules do no attach to us qua rational being, but rather qua human being.
One point to note is that the problem Callicles and Thrasymachus present is not the same problem (though related) as the problem presented by Prichard, and again different from that posed by Nietzsche. Yet, it would appear, those problems are lumped to gether in some of the thoughts presented here. They are, I suppose, most useful as a spur to further consideration rather than solid proposal (in effect, my standard caveat for philosophical musings posted to this space).

But, a question for private consideration: do you require justification to be moral or, to change the terminology to be more suitable for humanities students, to do what is right or, on the contrary, do you do what is right because it is right (and based on a particular reason salient to an example situation), or some third option? Intuition check, in other words, before you begin to argue.

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