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.”
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!