(Finally) Responding to Roman

In the comments to my post Some Moral Truths are Analytic I got some very useful and detailed comments. Sadly, I was caught-up in the zombie wars and did not have enough attention to focus on both. But now that we have entered the Zombie Cold War (don’t even get me started on this elitist bullshit!! If I hear ‘epistemic peer’ one more time I might…well, I don’t know what I might do… 😉 ) I can actually turn to thinking about something interesting. To that end I will begin by responding to Roman’s comment (RM, you’re next!)

One of Roman’s concerns is whether or not we should call a justified telling of an untruth-with-intent-to-decieve a lie. As he says

there are cases where it might be morally justified to tell a lie; that doesn’t make the action less of a lie, but it does make it less blameworthy, and maybe even meritorious.

I argue, along with  Kant in the Lectures on Ethicsthat it is wrong to call such an action a lie. This is because a lie, properly conceived, is an unjustified telling of an untruth-with-intent-to-decieve. But it is hard for me to see, at this point, how this is anything except a verbal dispute. We bith agree that the action in question is justified. Are there any reasons to think that Roman’s way is better than mine (or vice versa)? I argued that there are a couple reasons to prefer my way.

One of them is on analogy to other moral words. So we draw a distinction between killing and murder (an unjustified killing) and between reposesing and stealing (unjustified property transfer). Roman agrees with this. He says,

I wouldn’t say that the repo man steals the car, since (if he is a legit repo man) presumably the car does not rightly belong to the present owner.

But this is to agree with my point. The repo man does not steal the car. He is justified in taking the car. But Roman goes on to say,

And I just don’t think that “stealing is wrong” is an analytic truth–it is a moral heuristic that we use, and that generally serves us well, but that isn’t always right. Here’s an example (sorry, I’ve been watching Doctor Who): Aliens are planning to destroy the Earth. For that purpose, they have brought a special talisman that will activate their planet-eating machine. The Doctor, being the nice guy that he is, sneaks into their layer and takes off with the talisman, thereby saving the Earth. Now it is pretty clear that he’s done a good thing, and looking for a word other than “stealing” to account for his action is both misleading and unnecessary, since there are lots of other ways to describe his action (at least on a coarse grained account), such as “Saving the Earth.”

I agree that there are lots of ways to describe the Doctor’s action, but I do not think that stealing is one of them. Sure, we might colloquially say that he stole the tailsman, but if pressed I think we would back off of this claim. If we look up ‘steal’ we will find that it means ‘taking property wrongly’, and it is clear that the Doctor is not in the wrong here (at least with respect to some theories of justification; perhaps all…but that is another debate). To call something stealing is to express our moral disapproval of it, and it is hard to see how the Doctor has done anything that deserves moral disapproval. I admit that this distinction has not taken hold with respect to ‘lie’ but I claim that it should.

Roman goes on to dispute my claim with rtespect to torture. I say that an action,

“count as torture when they [i.e. the causing of harm] lack justification, and something else when they don’t. What it adds to the debate is that it clarifies what the debate is about. Everyone agrees that torture is wrong (even Bush thinks that!). What is at issue is whether or not our tactics count as torture or not”

See, this is where I disagree. I think asking whether a particular activity counts as torture doesn’t clarify the debate; it confuses it, by appealing to our simplified moral heuristics and thus nullifying moral debate before it starts. And Bush is a perfect example of this. He doesn’t think torture is wrong (from what I can tell); he just says that torture is wrong, because saying otherwise would sound really really bad for him. His goal is not to make a moral argument; his goal is to influence public opinion. Which is why he will say that “torture is wrong” but “waterboarding is not torture.” That is: he relies on the strategy you seem to be proposing in order to evade moral debate, not to clarify it. And this is why the people we should listen to on the issue are not the politicians, but the CIA generals who will get up in front of Congress and say something like this: “Yes, waterboarding is torture. That is precisely why we need to be allowed to do it in extreme cases. Something that doesn’t constitute torture–like telling terrorists that their mothers hate them–isn’t going to get the job done sometimes.” And this is where real moral debate, rather than just pointing to the strongest intuition, starts.

I agree with Roman that Bush wants to influence the debate, but I guess I have a higher opinion of Bush than Roman does; I think that he really means it when he says that torture is wrong and that he really thinks that water-boarding is not torture because he thinks it is a justified action. Now, I do not agree with Bush, I think that water-boarding is totally unjustified and so counts as torture, but that is where the moral debate has to begin. NObody really thinks that we should torture. What they think (wrongly) is that some extreme measures are justified.

The second argument for my way of doing things relies on an appeal to motivation. I say,

“it is hard to see what kind of a theory of motivation you can give on a view like the one that you suggest. On my view a person should do what ius right because they see that ‘what is right should be done’ as a tautology. Everyone knows that a morally wrong action should not be done. That’s just what it means to say that it is morally wrong.”

Roman responds,

I don’t really see why your approach would fare any better or worse than mine on the issue of motivation, to which this discussion seems largely irrelevant. “X is wrong, therefore I shouldn’t do it” may be an analytic claim, but “X is wrong, therefore I am motivated not to do it” certainly isn’t. (”X is wrong, therefore I should be motivated not to do it,” on the other hand, might be.) Having a motivational state is not just a case of accepting the truth of a proposition.

But this was not the point. The point was that on Roman’s way of doing things it is not clear why a person ought not to lie; it in fact seems to lead to a contradiction…namely that some wrong actions are right. My way of doing things avoids this problem. No wrong actions are right. A moral agent is committed to doing the right actions and forbidden to do the wrong ones.

OK, there is more to say, obviously, but I have got to go to work!

7 thoughts on “(Finally) Responding to Roman

  1. I saw the prior post, and this post, and you write to the effect in the prior post that when we say, ‘Murder is immoral,’ what we mean is equivalent (identical?) to ‘Unjustifiable killing is unjustifiable.’ So what does the word ‘moral’ designate? Is it a certain class of facts that are irreducibly normative, but normative in a particular way? Or what?

  2. Actually what I argued was that the SENTENCE ‘murder is immoral’ is equivelent to ‘unjustified killing is unjustified’. I think that word tyoes in a language have the meanings that the dictionary assigns them (exactly what the dictionary is tracking is, of course, another matter). I know this is a rather naive, flat-footed, view. But it seems to me that if two English speakers disagree over the meaning of some word the dispute is settled by the dictionary. Given that, the word ‘moral’ means

    of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical [moral judgments] b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior [a moral poem] c: conforming to a standard of right behavior d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment [a moral obligation] e: capable of right and wrong action [a moral agent]

    (from Merriem-Websters). I take the real lesson of the open question argument to be that we cannot DEFINE the moral WORDS in terms that are not themselves explicitly moral. This does not tell us what the nature of right actions aor good persons are; that is the job of a normative theory. I mean it is crazy to think that a semantic theory has to tell us what the nature of right actions are!!

  3. Bille, I enjoyed your posting. It would appear that we have somewhat similar concerns; for you ask how morality is supposed to be connected to facts — or at least to some kind of truthmaker. [I wish that R. Brown would give me a fuller account of what makes some non-trivial (i.e. non-analytic) so-called moral truth true. Perhaps he has been too busy with other things to get to it.]

    One way of putting my main concern is to ask what makes some particular act unjustifiable, wrong, morally impermissible, or whatnot. I think it will be less confusing if we stick to a concrete real-life example. To the end I ask: What makes it true that Ted Bundy’s act of raping and killing his first victim was a morally impermissible act?

    My answer is that nothing makes this true, and that nothing can make this true; because moral claims do not express propositions. (Moral claims are meaningful in roughly the same way that commands and requests are).

    It further seems to me that anyone who attempts to specify a truthmaker for this moral claim is going to be forced to assume the existence of simple unanalyzable moral properties (such as being morally impermissible, being unjustified, or being wrong.)

    The problem with recognizing unanalyzable moral properties is that one is then essentially forced to say that some people are “moral-blind” in much the same way that some folks are color-blind. And that leads to holding dogmatic moral positions. Also, there is simply not the same degree of intersubjective (and cross-cultural) agreement on moral claims as there is on claims about the colors of objects. I do agree that certain core values are extremely wide-spread; but it’s also true that there are plenty of disagreements on such issues as abortion, the use of animals in certain kinds of expriments, euthanasia, publishing cartoons that most Muslims find offensive, etc.

    When someone (R. Brown, for example) says that it’s true that Hitler was evil because he deserved moral condemnation, I find the explanation completely uninformative. For then I need to know what makes it true that Hitler deserved moral condemnation; and I can’t see how any fact could make this true. Rather, I think, when R. Brown says this he is merely attempting to influence his audience’s values and behavior by expressing disapproval of certain acts performed by Hitler (and is advocating that we adopt this attitude, and also express disapproval on suitable occasions when the issue arises.) He claims that there’s more to it than just that; and that moral claims also express propositions. The problem (so far) is that he has not seriously attempted to explain what makes a single moral truth true in a genuinely informative way. What is needed is to identify the truthmaker of some such so-called truth AND to give some account of that truthmakers constituents and how they are related to each other. My claim is that no one can do that without making an appeal to simple unanalyzable moral properties which we have no objective (and certainly no scientifically respectable) way of detecting – and so the whole enterprise ends up collapsing into conflicting intuitions, and stubbornly held non-cognitive attitudes which are mistaken for cognitive beliefs.

  4. Hey ST,

    (btw to put something in italics use the tag ’em’ (short for emphasis be sure to close it, i.e. ‘/em’ in between the ‘less than’ and ‘greater than’ symbols )

    You say “I wish that R. Brown would give me a fuller account of what makes some non-trivial (i.e. non-analytic) so-called moral truth true. I thought I did in my response to your comment over at the other post. For me personally it has to do with the categorical imperative and our realizing that some actions result in contradiction. So, Ted Bundy’s actions are morally impermissible because they involve action types that do not pass the test of the categorical imperative. One could just as well think that they are not morally permissible because they do not maximize happiness (I do not think that any respectable version of utilitarianism will give us the result that these actions maximize happiness). This was the point of the ‘simple argument for moral realism’ Some actions will end up being morally impremissible on EVERY theory of justification.

    Though, I agree that I have not really tried to explain this so far, but that is because I was making a metaethical claim, not a normative one. I do not claim that there are ‘moral propositions’; what I claim is that moral judgemnts consist in a moral emotion and a belief that the emotion is the correct one to have. The belief is made true (or false) according to a theory of justification. So when Isay that ‘Hitler was evil’ means that he deserve moral conemnation I am talking about the SENTENCE type. When people use that sentence, I say that they are thereby expressing a moral emotion and the belief that it is the correct emotion to have. The reason that it si the correct response to have will depend on a theory of jusitification.

    But I also agree that there are real cases of people being morally-blind. These people are the ones who agree that a certain action is wrong but do not see any reason not to perform that action (or that it is right and see no reason to perform it).

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