Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

The role that our moral discourse marks out for obligation obviously has other features besides its relation to guilt. One of them is that obligations constitute reasons for doing that which one is obliged to do, and reasons for refraining from doing that which it would be wrong to do. One problem about the nature of obligation is to understand how it grounds reasons for actions.

As a nonconsequentialist Adams is skeptical that obligations are always happily attuned to the value of expected results. We think we may be obliged to tell the truth and to keep promises even when we do not expect the consequences to be good, and when we have no idea what the consequences will be. What would motivate us to do such a thing?

Adams, in accord with Rawls (and more recently Evans), argues that the idea the conscientious agent has good enough reason for her action simply in the fact that it’s the right thing to do seems too abstract. If we are to see the fact of having an obligation as itself a reason for action, we need a richer, less abstract understanding of the nature of obligation, in which we might find something to motivate us. According to social theories of the nature of obligation, having an obligation to do something consists in being required (in a certain way, under certain circumstances or conditions), by another person or a group of persons, to do it. So one reason or motive for complying with a social requirement is that we fear punishment or retaliation for noncompliance. What other motives does this account open up?

An alternative suggestion Adams wishes to pursue is that valuing one’s social bonds gives one, under certain conditions, a reason to do what is required of one by one’s associates or one’s community (and thus to fulfill obligations, understood as social requirements). The reason Adams has in mind is not one that arises from a desire to obtain or maintain a relationship, but rather that I value the relationship in which I see myself as actually having, and my complying is an expression of my valuing and respecting the relationship. This is a motivational pattern in which I act primarily out of a valuing of the relationship, rather than with the obtaining or maintaining of the relationship as an end.

A morally valid obligation obviously will not be constituted by just any demand sponsored by a system of social relationships that one in fact values. Some such demands have no moral force, and some social systems are downright evil. A moral conception of obligation must have resources for moral criticism of social systems and their demands. But Adams thinks there’s a premoral conception of obligation in which we can see social facts as constituting obligations independently of our moral evaluation of those facts.

It will be particularly important if we believe (as Adams thinks is plausible) that the actions of commanding, demanding, and requiring can’t be understood or identified apart from their tendency to create obligations. This is to avoid circularity. A premoral conception of obligation, on the other hand, identifies a kind of sociological fact, closely connected with such linguistic (and social) events as commanding, which can be used in explaining the nature of moral facts of obligation. So Adams claims.

There are cases of commands and presumed obligations that aren’t genuinely moral cases of obligation. Yet the people in question have the concepts of command and obligation that serve them effectively in describing their social system and living within it, and that we could use as anthropologists to describe the system. To be sure, we who do have a conception and practice of moral critique of our social systems wish to distinguish such cases as institutional or official cases rather than bona fide cases of obligation and duty, but Adams thinks the fact remains that much of our understanding of social and linguistic systems depends on our grasp of premoral conceptions of obligation.

To say a conception of obligation is premoral is of course not to say that it is totally nonnormative. Most of the persons within the social system in question still need to regard the indicated obligations as providing reasons for compliance. A conception of moral obligation, however, will insist on better reasons for complying. It will impose a certain kind of critique of reasons for complying.

Adams will next try to show that a system of human social requirements can go some distance toward meeting this requirement although, in the end, he believes the moral pressure not to make an idol of any human society pushes us toward a transcendent source of the moral demand. Several aspects of the relational situation are important to the quality of our reasons for complying with social requirements, and are relevant to the possibility of such requirements constituting moral obligation.

  1. Morally good reasons will not arise from just any social bond that one in fact values, but only from one that is rightly valued—that is, from one that is really good. How much reason one has to comply with the demands of other people will depend in no small part on the value of one’s relationship with them. If the relationship is with a community, the individual’s attitude toward the community and her participation in it make a difference to the value of the relationship. But the community’s attitude toward the individual is at least as important. Where community prevails, rather than alienation, the sense of belonging is not to be sharply distinguished from the inclination to comply with the reasonable requirements of the community. A “community” is a group of people who live their lives to some extent—possibly a very limited extent—in common. To see myself as “belonging” to a community is to see the institution or other members of the group as “having something to say about” how I live and act—perhaps not about every department of my life, and only to a reasonable extent about any department of it, but it is part of the terms of the relationship that their demands on certain subjects are expected to have some weight with me. And valuing such a relationship implies some willingness to submit to reasonable demands of the community—as an expression of one’s sense that one does belong and one’s endorsement of the relationship.

  2. Our reasons for complying with demands may also be affected by our evaluation of the personal characteristics of those who make them. Normally we have more reason to comply with the requests and demands of the knowledgeable, wise, or saintly.

  3. How much reason one has to comply with a demand depends not only on the excellence of its source and of the relationship or system of relationships in which the demand arises, but also on how good the demand is. Is the demand good and the sanctions implied in the demand appropriate? It also involves evaluation of the relational history of the demand itself. Does the making of the demand affect the relational situation for the better or for the worse? And what’s the wider social significance of the demand? It is particularly important that the demand, and the social system of which it forms a part, should be good in ways that fall under the heading of fairness.

  4. An objection might be that if we have the values of actions and demands, we don’t need the actual social requirements to explain the nature of moral obligation. But Adams thinks this is mistaken, because it matters that the demand is actually made. It is a question here of what good demands other persons do in fact make of me, not just of what good demands they could make. It’s fashionable in ethical theory to treat moral reasons and moral obligations as depending on judgments about what an ideal community or authority would demand under certain counterfactual conditions. But Adams is skeptical. First, he doubts that the relevant counterfactuals are true, partly because they seem to be about free responses that are never actually made. Secondly, he doesn’t think he cares much about whether these counterfactual conditionals are true because they’re motivationally weak. By contrast, actual demands made on us in relationships that we value are undeniably real and motivationally strong. The actual making of the demand is important, not only to the strength, but also to the character, of the motive. Not every good reason for doing something makes it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it. Having even the best reasons to do something doesn’t amount to having an obligation to do it. But the perception that something is demanded of me by other people, in a relationship that I value, does help to make it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it.

Social requirement theory can explain the connection with guilt, which is a main ground of obligation, and the reason-giving force of obligations—big advantages of the theory . Another test it passes pertains to its answers to what in fact is obligatory. It needn’t entirely agree with our pretheoretical opinions; a theory has for one of its purposes the task to challenge some of those opinions. But a theory can be quickly rejected if most of the obligations it assigns to us are to perform actions that have always been regarded by most people as wrong. There is a limit to how far pretheoretical opinion can be revised without changing the subject entirely. This poses no problem for social requirement theory.

Given that the role of moral obligation is partly determined by the obligations we actually believe in, it seems also to be part of the role of moral obligation to be recognized. Rightness should turn out to be a property that not only belongs to the most important types of action that are thought to be right, but also plays a part (perhaps a causal part) in their coming to be recognized as right; similarly for wrongness. This too comports with social requirement theory, for on any plausible moral sociology, actual social requirements play a large role in our coming to hold beliefs about moral obligation, and Adams thinks it plausible to suppose that our belief formation is sensitive to the values of relationships and demands that should play a part in a social requirement theory.

Adams admits such a theory is on weaker ground when it comes to objectivity as a feature of the role of moral obligation. I may wrongly think I have an obligation that I do not have. We’re not inclined to censure Huckleberry Finn for acting contrary to his erring conscience in not turning in a runaway slave. The question that arises at this point for a social theory of the nature of moral obligation is whether it is too subjectivist. Does it make it too easy for a society to get rid of its obligations by changing its demands? On social requirement theory developed so far, a society would be able to eliminate obligations by just not making certain demands, and that seems out of keeping with the role of moral obligation.

This isn’t just a disturbing theory. Moral reformers have taught us that there have been situations in which none of the existing human communities demanded as much as they should have, and things that were morally required were not actually demanded by any community, or perhaps even by any human individual in the situation. In this way actual human social requirements fail to cover the whole territory of moral obligation.

Where demands are made, they sometimes conflict, both as between different social groups and within a single society. Often, both sets of demands and relationships can manifest some degree of goodness, but a flawed goodness.

These are all reasons for thinking, as most moralists have, that actual human social requirements are simply not good enough to constitute the basis of moral obligation. More could be said, but for theists it’s somewhat unnatural to confine ourselves to that apparatus, since a more powerful theistic adaptation of the social requirement theory is available.

 

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

In this section of the chapter, Adams emphasizes that moral obligation can’t be understood apart from its relation to guilt. If I voluntarily fail to do what I am morally obligated to do, I am guilty. I may appropriately be blamed by others for my omission, and ought normally to reproach myself for it, in some degree. Perhaps I may incur some just punishment for it.

The presence of obligation in a moral system divides actions into three classes which can be distinguished precisely in terms of guilt. If an action is morally wrong, one is guilty if one does it. An action that is morally optional can be either done or omitted without guilt. But if an action is morally required, or obligatory, one is guilty if one omits it. Examining the nature of guilt will help us understand how moral obligation depends for its role on a broadly social system of relationships.

The word ‘guilt’ is not properly the name of a feeling, but of an objective moral condition that may rightly be recognized by others even if it is not recognized by the guilty person. Feelings of guilt, though, may reasonably be taken as a source of understanding of the objective fact of guilt to which they point. We do not have the concept of guilt merely to signify in a general way the state of having done something wrong.

It is true that one is not guilty, however unfortunate the outcome, for anything that was not in some way wrong. But there are two other typical features of wrong action that are responsible for much of the human significance of guilt. One is harm that one has caused by one’s (wrong) action. It is wrong to drive carelessly, and no less wrong when one’s lucky enough to avoid an accident, but the burden of guilt one incurs is surely heavier when one’s carelessness causes the death of another person than when no damage is done. (Harm caused to other people is not a feature of all guilt, however. One can be guilty for a violation of other people’s rights that in fact harmed no one.)

A more pervasive feature of guilt is alienation from other people, or (at a minimum) a strain on one’s relations with others. If I am guilty, I am out of harmony with other people. This feature is central to the role of guilt in human life. It is connected with such practices as punishing and apologizing. And it makes intelligible the fact that guilt can be (at least largely) removed by forgiveness. The idea that guilt consists largely in an alienation produced by the wrong is supported by the fact that the ending of the alienation ends the guilt.

This should not surprise us if we reflect on the way in which we acquired the concept, and the sense, of guilt. In our first experience of guilt its principal significance was an action or attitude of ours that ruptured or strained our relationship with a parent. There did not have to be a failure of benevolence or a violation of a rule; perhaps we were even too young to understand rules. It was enough that something we did or expressed offended the parent, and seemed to threaten the relationship. This is the original context in which the obligation family of moral concepts and sentiments arose. We do not begin with a set of moral principles but with a relationship, actual in part and in part desired, which is immensely valued for its own sake. Everything that attacks or opposes that relationship seems to us bad.

This starkly simple mentality is premoral—we need to go on and learn to distinguish between cases when we’re actually guilty and when we’re not. In grasping such a distinction we must learn to make some critical judgments about the moral validity of the demands that people make on us. Nevertheless, Adams believes it isn’t childish, but perceptive and correct, to persist in regarding obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt as consisting largely in alienation from those who have (appropriately) required of us what did not do.

Some moralists hold that in the highest stages of the moral life (perhaps not reached by many adults) the center of moral motivation is transplanted from the messy soil of concrete relationships to the pure realm of moral principles; and a corresponding development is envisaged for the sense of guilt.

It is certainly possible to come to value—even to love—an ethical principle for its own sake, and this provides a motive for conforming to it; but this way of relating to ethical principles has more to do with ideals than with obligations. To love truthfulness is one thing; to feel that one has to tell the truth is something else. Similarly, failing to act on a principle one loves seems, as such, more an occasion of shame than of guilt. Merely violating a principle, without alienating anyone, is likely more a reason to feel ashamed or degraded than a reason to feel guilty. It’s also significant that insofar as my reaction arises from my personally valuing a principle, it may not matter very much whether the principle is moral or aesthetic or intellectual. But aesthetic “guilt” doesn’t make much sense. Guilt is not necessarily worse than degradation, but they are different. And a main point of difference between them is that, in typical cases, guilt involves alienation from someone else who required or expected of us what we were obligated to do and have not done, or who has been harmed by what we have done and might reasonably have required of us not to do it. (This is of course not to deny that shame often accompanies the complex reaction to things of which we judge ourselves to be guilty.)

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Summary of Chapter 4 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

 

This chapter marks the beginning of the second part of the book, dealing with human limits and various attempts in contemporary moral philosophy to make sense of morality given these limits. The first part of the book asked, with Kant, how we can become other men and not merely better men? Kant refused to exaggerate our powers or reduce the moral demand to fit our powers. This chapter (and the next) will deal with the first of these strategies: exaggerating our powers. This chapter will look at some recent utilitarian writing to illustrate this strategy of puffing up the capacity. To eliminate the gap some utilitarians puff our capacities to godlike proportions to live the moral life. Shelly Kagan does this in The Limits of Morality. He makes the claim that if all our beliefs were vivid, including especially our beliefs about the interests of others, we would tend to conform to the impartial standard that utilitarian morality requires.

For a utilitarian, the moral demand is that we are to perform those acts which can reasonably be expected to lead to the best consequences overall, impartially considered. The moral demand, Hare wishes to stress, is far higher than most people are comfortable with. On utilitarianism, a great deal of the expenditure entailed by our current standard of living would be forbidden. The price of a movie ticket, given to famine relief, could do much more good. Some might think that this construal of the moral demand is too great for human nature to bear. This aspect of the utilitarian demand concerns the demand for impartiality between persons, but there are other demanding features of the utilitarian principle, like the need to resist the human tendency to give more weight to the agent’s own interests than the utilitarian principle allows.

Kant put such a point negatively: our initial condition (before the revolution of the will) is one of preferring happiness to duty. In our initial condition, our own interests tend to have more motivational force for us than the utilitarian principle allows. We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than we should, on utilitarianism. Now, if it’s the case that I ought to do something, it must be the case that I can do it. This does not mean merely that I must be able to do it if I want to do it, but that I must be able to want to do it. Kant thinks we’re under the sway of our desires as a whole (before the revolution of the will), so the desire to do my duty will not have the requisite force to overcome my other desires. It’s not clear, then, that I am able to want most of all to do my duty; at least, it is not clear that I am able to do so regularly. If it’s not the case I can, it’s not the case I ought, and Practical Reason, which prescribes a life of duty, will not be practical or prescriptive for me. Impartiality, for the utilitarian, is in the same predicament as Practical Reason is for Kant.

How might a utilitarian reply? One reply is to say that humans do in fact have the resources to empower themselves to live by the moral demand. Hare calls the proponent of this view “the optimist.” The optimist points out that prudence counsels that we not (generally) privilege what we want now over what we’ll want in the future. The optimist claims that I can be moved by the thought of what prudence would prescribe, even if I am not presently moved equally by the future interest. By attending to the future interest, I can make the belief about it more vivid. The optimist then returns from prudence to morality, saying we can say the same thing about morality. We have a bias towards our own interests, but morality is still binding on us. We can be motivated by the thought of what we would be motivated by if our beliefs about the interests of others were as vivid as our beliefs about our own interests. The optimist makes a counterfactual claim: If my beliefs were vivid, I would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.

Hare, though, asks if this counterfactual is true. The optimist claims it is. It’s easier to sacrifice my own interests for others as I acquire more vivid beliefs about their interests. This can be true, for example, when I form a close and long-lasting relationship with someone. And we can be moved towards our duty by imagining in detail the plight of the people we are affecting by our decisions. There’s moral power in vividness.

But Hare doesn’t think the counterfactual true. Vividness might capture the idea of degree of clarity and distinctness attending a belief we hold. Or it might pertain to the degree of wholeheartedness with which we care about the belief, or the degree of importance we attach to it. We can be quite clear about someone’s pleasure, but not care about it much at all. The counterfactual is about cognitive shortcomings. Increased tendency towards impartiality doesn’t necessarily result from greater clarity, and even if it did, it wouldn’t necessarily result in an overall tendency towards impartiality. It’s not just an increase that’s needed, but that the tendency to impartiality becomes greater than half. And this is supposed to apply to everyone, but there are misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Love of power, envy, fear, resentment are often operative even in families where awareness of the needs of others is great. Often, too, there’s a willful blindness; folks choose not to be vividly aware of the need for, say, famine relief. Another strategy is rationalization in terms of some normative principle which takes the appearance of objectivity, but derives its motivational power for him from its convenience as a disguise for self-interest. Induced crisis might be yet another strategy. There may be an underlying bias which has numerous techniques of self-persuasion at its disposal. And if we stop thinking of vividness as a cognitive matter, but a matter of caring, one may simply not care about morality enough, even if one recognizes that morality calls for a certain response.

How would the optimist respond? He might stress that most of us have some motivation to overcome our bias towards our own interests. Most don’t endorse the pull to self-interest. But Hare thinks this inadequate. For there may be an endorsement by the agent to the pull of self-interest after all. We may convince ourselves we’re being altruistic or something like that without actually being so. Second, can we try to do what we know we will never be able to do by our own efforts? Nothing more than marginal improvement may be able to be realistically envisioned; there has to be a point in trying. But impartiality as it is construed by the utilitarian principle requires no bias towards the agent’s own interests. This is like trying to jump to the moon, and recognizing this we see it’s futile to try to do it if more than marginal improvement is the goal.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to achieve it? The Christian tradition counsels perfection after all. But this is possible by God’s gift of grace, not by our striving to achieve it. So utilitarianism has a problem if it’s suggesting an exaggeration of human capacities. Hare adds this at the end: “Utilitarianism could be construed as a theory, like Kant’s theory in the Groundwork, about what our lives would be like after such a revolution [of the will]; but then the theory needs a supplement about how human beings can get to the position in which the demand of the utilitarian principle can be lived.”

Summary of Chapter 3 John Hare's The Moral Gap

Chapter 2 dealt with one sort of moral faith—that virtue is possible—and Chapter 3 now deals with another: that virtue and happiness are deeply consistent. This is another moral gap that needs to be closed. This faith makes it possible for a person to combine her built-in desire for her own happiness with a commitment to morality. It requires that we postulate the existence of a being “who assigns not only the proper outcome to our good conduct, but also to our good dispositions whatever reward seems adequate to His good pleasure.” Hare notes there are two parts to this idea.

First, we believe that this being orders the world in such a way that we are often enough successful in our attempts to do good to make it worthwhile persevering in the attempt. Second, we believe that this being rewards our fundamental orientation to the good with happiness, so that we do not have to do evil in order to be happy.

This introduces the antinomy of practical reason—the apparent contradiction that the highest good is possible and that it isn’t. But what is the highest good? Happiness proportional to virtue; the more virtue, the more happiness, and the less virtue, the less happiness. What is virtue? For Kant, it is “the firmly grounded disposition strictly to fulfill our duty.” What is happiness? For Kant it’s lives as wholes that are happy or unhappy. Happiness for Kant is the maximum satisfaction as a whole of our needs and desires as rational but finite beings, creatures of need and not merely rational or moral agents.

Hare notes two interpretations of the highest good. The first, the less ambitious sense, is a world with a system in place in which virtue results in happiness. The second, the more ambitious sense, is a world in which everyone is virtuous and everyone is happy. Hare will try to argue that living morally requires believing in the possibility of the highest good in the more ambitious sense, and the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense.

Is the highest good even coherent? If the good is to be motivated solely by respect for the moral law, why should happiness come in at all? If our end is not just virtue, but virtue conjoined with happiness, is not the purity of our respect for the moral law corrupted? Here Hare suggests a parallel in the Christian life, where following Christ should be done for its own sake, even though doing so is also recognized as conducing to our deepest joy.

Hare’s supposition is that it’s possible that some things can be pursued both for their own sakes and for their beneficial consequences. Perhaps I need to be able to foresee my own happiness as consistent with everything I desire, but not that I have to desire everything else at least partly as a means to my own happiness.

What is all-important to Kantian morality is whether the incentive provided by the agent’s happiness is subordinate to the incentive provided by the moral law, or vice versa. It’s okay for an incentive for happiness to be there, but it must take a back seat to the primary call of duty. (It may well be unavoidable that an incentive for happiness is there, emotional and finite creatures that we are.)

Hare thinks that the moral life requires believing in the possibility of the highest good. Hare think this follows from a number of assumptions necessary for a fully reflective living of the moral life.

Assumption #1: The moral good aimed at by action is possible.

Assumption #2: The moral good I am aiming at is a possible result of my attempt to produce it.

Assumption #3: It is possible for me know that the moral good I am aiming at is produced, when it is produced, by the means I have planned.

Assumption #4: I myself can will what is morally good.

Assumption #5: (Concerning everyone else) The moral good they aim at is possible. (social analogue of #1)

Assumption #6: The moral good they are aiming at is a possible result of their efforts to produce it. (social analogue of #2)

#7: It is possible for them to know that the moral good they are aiming at has been produced by the means they have planned. (social analogue of #3)

#8: It is possible for them to will what is morally good. (social analogue of #4)

Hare notes three ways to derive the social analogues:

  1. Assume that what makes things reasonable for me makes them reasonable for everyone.

  2. Morality requires equal respect, and equal respect requires the assumption that all other human beings are capable of willing the good.

  3. Because of the social obstacles to virtue, there are social conditions for the attainment and maintenance of virtue. Possibility of individual virtue requires the possibility of virtue-building and virtue-sustaining congregation.

From 1-8 Hare infers Assumption #9: Possibility of what Kant calls “the Idea of self-rewarding morality,” which says morality does its own rewarding. A world filled with people pursuing virtue and concerned with the welfare of others would be a world filled with happiness.

The highest good in the ambitious sense is a possibility, Hare argues: A world in which righteousness and peace kiss and people are not merely happy, but desirous of things consistent with the moral law.

What about the highest good in the less ambitious sense? Here the new assumption is simply that the virtue of a person results in that person’s happiness. Believing in the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense requires me to believe that my virtue will be rewarded whether (roughly) everyone else is virtuous or not.

Hare wants to argue that we do ordinarily think that we will be happiest if we try to be moral; or that we at least think that being moral has a higher chance than any other strategy. Does this require others to be moral? No, Hare says. For the belief that being morally good is consistent with long-term happiness has been held by people who lived in societies in which they were persecuted and exploited.

Whatever else I desire, as a human being I am bound to desire my own happiness, and I will need to be able to foresee this happiness as consistent with my basic choices. As a human moral agent I have to believe that my continued well-being is consistent with my living a moral life as best I can.

If we are to endorse wholeheartedly the long-term shape of our lives, we have to see this shape as consistent with our own happiness. In a world in which there are many rational agents who have willed not to live by the moral law, I can’t rely on the virtue of others to get me from my virtue to my happiness. So I have to believe that there is in operation a system in which my virtue is rewarded without it.

The antithesis says the highest good in both senses is inachievable. Why might we think the highest good in the less ambitious sense is not rationally thought to be true? One reason: consider that experience suggests that the world seems not to reflect in any way the good man’s striving to bring about goodness in it. Another reason: lack of fit between virtue and happiness is not something we could confirm or disconfirm by experience. (So not knowable a priori.)

Because of so many people trying to be virtuous and yet overwhelmed by evil, a case can be made that life is tragic and human life just is vulnerable to evil. What’s Kant’s solution? He brings in the possibility that the relation between virtue and happiness is mediated by an intelligible Author of nature. Our failures to understand what is happening to us do not license the conclusion that the impact of chance is uncontrollable. Kant rejects the inference from our limitations to the denial of a moral order. He’s “limiting knowledge to make room for faith.”

Hare suggests that belief in moral order is needed; whether this requires moral orderer is another question. A moral argument for the existence of God needs to examine whether there are other ways to back up a moral order.

Those who think the problem of evil is intractable often lose moral faith. But Hare notes that many go through painful ordeals without losing faith in either morality or God. Hare: “The structure of the moral argument is that as long as reason in its theoretical employment cannot rule out the legitimacy of moral faith, reason in its practical employment requires it. If moral faith is possible, then it is necessary.”

Hare wraps the chapter up with these two points: (1) Moral faith is consistent with some doubt about whether your continued well-being is consistent with your trying to live a morally good life; and (2) Moral faith does not require believing that all your present preferences for the future will be secured if you try to live a good life.

 

 

 

Watering Down the Categories

By  David Baggett I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York—and someone with whom I recently dialogued at the University at Buffalo—and Frans de Waal, author most recently of  The Bonobo and the Atheist  (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority. What is interesting about this trend is that the resulting picture is entirely consistent with the view of complete moral skeptics, even amoralists.

Take Joel Marks, for example, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven. A former Kantian ethicist, he has decided that the category of morality lacks an objective referent. He’s written a few books about it, but an op-ed in the  New York Times  encapsulated his view in succinct fashion. In brief, although he has retained his aversive feelings toward, say, animal suffering, he has grown altogether skeptical that his feelings point to moral reality. He still fights for a world more to his liking, but he has come to think that morality has precious little to do with it, because there is no such thing. Marks is an amoralist—a very nice fellow, from all accounts, but someone who has given morality up. Resonating with Marks are such naturalists as Sharon Street and Richard Joyce, who have insisted that an evolutionary development of our moral sense, on a naturalistic picture, gives us little reason to think that our moral beliefs and convictions correspond with moral truth. Rather they evolved to produce behaviors that conduced to reproductive advantage.

But then de Waal and Shook come along and insist, largely without argument, that, to the contrary, the success of evolutionary moral psychology to account for our feelings of empathy, altruism, and prosociality is not only consistent with morality, but sufficient to account for it. To project the appearance their argument works, though, they need to engage in some subtle sleight of hand, replacing categories of moral authority with moral instincts, categorical obligations with malleable rules, objective truths with shared beliefs. But in the debate about moral foundations, classical theism can account for the full range of moral truths in need of explanation, without watering them down or subtly replacing them with functional analyses—from intrinsic goodness to categorical oughtness to genuine moral agency. To the extent that our naturalist friends like de Waal and Shook appear to be retaining the thick language of morality to capture ideas thin enough that complete moral skeptics could endorse them, there appears something deeply confused at best or disingenuous at worst about their approach, fortifying my growing conviction that soon enough the real moral debate will feature classical theists on one side and moral anti-realists on the other.

Summary of Hare's The Moral Gap (Part 1)

John Hare’s The Moral Gap provides what we can call a “performative” version of the moral argument for God’s existence. Hare teaches at Yale and is the son of famed philosopher R. M. Hare, whose work John interacts with quite a bit in his own writings. In a series of extended blogs, I intend to go through Hare’s Moral Gap chapter by chapter to give folks who aren’t familiar with it an exposure to the sorts of arguments the book contains. This is not a critical review, just a quick and cursory summary of salient content. The book is about the “gap” between the moral demand on us and our natural capacities to live by it. It identifies what secularists attempt to do in the face of such a gap, and the way theism and Christianity offer powerful and better resources to close the gap. The book is much inspired by the writings of Immanuel Kant, an important influence on Hare.

The first chapter is entitled “Kant and the Moral Demand,” and it argues that Kant was vividly aware of the moral gap, both because he considered the moral demand to be very high and, as one influenced by the Lutheran pietistic tradition, recognized that we are born with a natural propensity not to follow it. Hare begins his analysis by laying out some key features of a Kantian ethical system, starting with the Categorical Imperative (CI). In this chapter Hare discusses the first two versions of the CI: the Formula of Universal Law, and the Formula of the End in Itself. The Formula of Universal Law says act only on maxims you can will as universal law. A maxim is the subjective principle of an action. To say the principle is subjective is to say that it’s the prescription made by the subject from which the action follows.

Kant talks as though each action has exactly one maxim from which it follows. This raises a problem concerning the level of generality of various maxims. A potential problem for Kant’s analysis is that for each action there may be ever so many maxims of varying levels of generality, some of which may be universalizable, some of which may not be. Hare bypasses this concern altogether by pointing out that Kant thought that there are, in the end, only two maxims: the good maxim and the bad maxim. All actions come from one or the other. The Good Maxim subordinates all desires to duty, whereas the Bad Maxim subordinates duty to the desires. For Kant duty trumps; in fact only those actions motivated by respect for the moral law, on his view, contains moral worth. So take suicide, a potential action whose maxim might look something like this: “From self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure.” Such a maxim is bad, and thus suicide, on Kant’s view, is always wrong. Why such a maxim fails the test of universality is something we’ll consider in more detail in a moment. Good maxims are specific enough to give guidance, general enough to be taught to children, and exceptionless.

The CI tests maxims; if a maxim meets the test, the action that follows from it has moral worth; if the maxim doesn’t meet it, the action lacks moral worth. What is the test? Hare thinks the clearest account of the Formula of Universal Law is that it requires willingness to continue subscription to the maxim of an action even if all individual or singular reference is excluded from it. This isn’t how Kant himself put it, but Hare thinks it captures the gist of what Kant was after. In considering the performance of an action, I identify the maxim underlying the action, excluding the specifics such as the fact that I’m the one considering the action for myself, and I ask a question like this: Is this maxim an appropriate prescription for anyone and everyone in relevantly similar circumstances? If not, the action should not be performed. We’ll consider a few ways in which a maxim can fail this test in a moment.

The second formulation of the CI is the Formula of End in Itself. This version of the CI declares you should act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. Other persons serve as a moral limit on our actions. Treating humanity as an end in itself is, for Kant, respecting our capacity for free and rational choice; it’s respecting autonomy. To treat another human being as merely a means is to ignore the other as a center of agency. Some, like Korsgaard, seem to push this Kantian idea in the direction of affirming the intrinsic value of persons; for Kant the focus was more specifically centered on agency, which entails that coercion and deception, for obvious reasons, represent rather paradigmatic violations of the principle. Kant even goes further to suggest that, so far as possible, we are required to share the ends of others, which is reflective of, among other things, a deeply communal aspect of his ethical theory.

Adherence to the CI avoids two sorts of self-contradiction, namely, contradiction in the conception, and contradiction in the will. An example of the former might be this: Consider a scenario in which you need a loan, but to get the loan you have to promise to repay it in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, you know you won’t be able to do so. But you want the loan nonetheless and are tempted to lie about repaying it in order to secure it. Lying would be wrong in such a case, Kant says, because it would be based on a maxim that can’t be universalized because it implicated you in a contradiction in the conception. By lying you’re acting on a maxim that, if everyone in relevantly similar circumstances were to follow, would potentially destroy the very institution of money-lending on which you’re depending to get the loan. So you want the institution to be there, but by following a maxim that if universally followed would destroy the institution, you don’t want it to be there. This is a self-contradiction.

The other form of contradiction is a contradiction of the will, which results from, for example, systematically denying assistance to others. There’s logical space for doing this that there isn’t in the loan example, but there is still a contradiction of sorts at play. For, again, Kant saw that we are deeply communal beings who rely and depend on each other all the time. Invariably there will be times when you need the assistance of others; but if everyone were to refrain from helping others, the help you’ll eventually need won’t be forthcoming. If you want the help to be available, yet affirm a maxim that would prevent it, as in this case, you’re implicated in a contradiction of the will. When a maxim falls prey to either form of contradiction, it’s unable to be consistently willed as a universal law. It implicates one in a contradiction and is thus irrational and immoral.

At this point in the chapter Hare spends time discussing the views of his father, who was much influenced by Kant. R. M. Hare thought that moral judgments, to qualify as such, need to be universalizable, prescriptive, and overriding. He also distinguished between intuitive and critical levels of moral thinking. Our intuitions are liable to mislead us on occasion, as critical reflection shows, but even our critical reflection can mislead us because it optimally requires complete information and complete impartiality—the perspective of the “archangel.” The position of the archangel is also taken to be the position of God—though the elder Hare had lost his faith along the way. Still, it’s only judgments at the critical level of the archangel (or God) that are overriding; thus there’s a gap between the divine and human capacities, for we are afflicted with all manner of deficiencies in our moral reflections, from lack of knowledge or impartiality to lack of sensitivity and sympathy. God, either real or hypothetical, would presumably not be similarly disadvantaged.

In Kant too we find poignant recognition of such a gap, for as we engage in moral deliberation we continually encounter the “dear self,” an inflated sense of our own interests and concerns, resulting in an unbridgeable chasm between ‘ought’ and ‘can’. The result is that morality, in its full critical form, is, first, something I ought to be practicing; second, something for which my natural capacities are inadequate (except by approximation); and third, something that I should treat as the command of some other at least possible being who is practicing it. On this picture, morality has three parts: 1. The moral demand; 2. Our defective natural capacities (lack of sensitivity, sympathy, etc.); and 3. The possible being (the authoritative source of the demand). Hare suggests this structure is a holdover from Christianity: Belief in a perfect and infinite moral being, whom we imperfectly resemble, and who created us to resemble him more than we do.

One result of such a structure is that it produces a constant and inevitable sense of failure of a variety of sorts. We fail by caring more for ourselves than others, we show failures of patience, failures of impartiality, etc. This makes the desire to avoid guilt a primary moral motivator, though love the moral law is the nobler moral motivation than the desire to avoid subjective feelings of guilt. We desire to close the gap between what we do and what we ought to do. Yet we seem to be under a demand too great for us to meet without God’s grace to transform us.

Hare identifies three strategies for addressing the gap from a secular perspective: 1. Produce a naturalistic substitute for God’s assistance; 2. Exaggerate our sense of what we can accomplish, so as to fit the demand; and 3. Reduce the demand so as to fit our capacities. A Christian solution will instead be God’s assistance to enable us to do what we can’t do on our own. Augustine says, “God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him.” So the principle of deontic logic that ‘ought implies can’ may need tweaking; we may well be responsible for meeting a demand we can’t meet on our own resources, if there are additional resources outside of ourselves we can and should use that enable us to meet the demand.

Hare ends the chapter by suggesting that believers should value Kant, rather than seeing his work as opposed to their own convictions. Hare will offer criticisms of Kant, but nonetheless thinks there are resonances with Christian thought. For example, Christians should recognize Kant’s three-fold nature of morality: an original predisposition to do good, an innate propensity to evil, which can be overcome by a revolution of the will which requires divine supplement. Hare suggests that what we have here is quite analogous of the tripartite structure of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Like Kant, too, believers should recognize the need for moral faith, which has two parts: faith in the actuality of virtue and in the consistency of happiness and virtue, both of which require belief in God’s work on our behalf.

 

Photo: "Mind the Gap" by Lisa. CC License.