The first three chapters from
THE NATURE OF MORALITY; INTRODUCTION TO THE SUBJECTIVIST PERSPECTIVE.
This book offers a brief and easily followed account of morality which contradicts the dominant view. Most theories, and most ordinary people, adopt some variety of "objectivism": i.e., they assume that there are distinct moral laws that are not reducible to considerations of human preference and value.
The first chapter gives an overview of the book's argument
Identifying the basic problem
Morality is a wide and complex field of inquiry with a literature extending back thousands of years and containing many conflicting analyses and positions. In addition to these theoretical debates, most of which remain unresolved and hotly contested today, there are a seemingly infinite number and variety of practical moral codes, rules, values and commitments built into the minds of individuals living in different cultures. In many cases the codes of one culture flatly contradict those of another, and the moral values of one culture often outrage and disgust members of another culture. Even within any one locality there are often very diverse opinions about what is right and wrong, what is important and what ought to be done in various situations. Argument about right and wrong at the scholarly level and at the everyday level is usually quite inconclusive. Participants often do little more than assert their own views and rarely does a discussion change a participant's moral beliefs or end with a sense of having arrived at the truth of the matter. In view of these characteristics of the moral realm one could be excused for thinking that morality is an impossibly complicated and difficult business. However, this essay is intended to show that there is a perspective from which all the pieces of moral jig-saw puzzle can be fitted together in a simple and satisfactory way.
It is tempting to think that the essential question with which to begin an inquiry into morality is, 'What things are good or right?' or 'How can I tell what things are good or right, or what things I should do?' These are of course questions of great practical significance because what we ultimately want to get from an inquiry into morality are answers about the way we should behave. But unfortunately these questions are the wrong ones to begin with because they usually embody erroneous and unrecognized assumptions about the nature and existence of goodness, rightness and similar things.
The correct question with which a profitable inquiry into morality must begin is 'what do terms like 'right' or 'good' stand for?' Two general sorts of answers are given to this basic question. One of them, the objectivist view, has been much more popular than the other, the subjectivist view, both among laymen and among philosophers throughout the history of ethics. It is the aim of this and the next chapter to show that the common objectivist answer is incorrect and has greatly confused and misled thought about morality.
The essence of the objectivist view about the nature of morality is that actions (and positions and values, etc) have a real and objective moral quality which exists in addition to any approval or disapproval or any consequences that the action might be associated with. For instance, people are strongly inclined to say that even though there might be circumstances in which the killing of unwanted children leads to consequences desired by all people involved the action is still morally wrong; i.e., they are strongly inclined to assume that this action has a moral quality that is not reducible to or constituted by or determined by whether anyone approves of it or desires the consequences it brings about. The rightness and wrongness of actions is not thought of as something that can be established by referring only to what humans think or desire. An action is regarded as being actually or really right or wrong no matter what anyone might think about it.
This objectivist view therefore involves the idea that there are 'moral facts' which 'exist' in something like the way scientific facts 'exist'. Just as the nature of a diamond does not depend on whether or not people think of it as being composed of carbon, so the wrongness of cruelly is a fact that does not depend on what anyone thinks about it. Just as gold would in fact still be a metal even if everyone thought it was not, so most objectivists think cruelty would be wrong even if everyone approved of it or thought it was right. Hence the problem of establishing the moral quality of an action is thought of by the objectivist as being a problem of fact like the problem of establishing whether something is a metal or made of carbon. Most people tend to think, 'Well I might not be able to tell, but this thing must in fact be a metal or a non-metal, and whatever it is is in no way determined by my opinion or preference.' Most of us take it for granted, indeed we find it difficult to doubt that out there in the world there are such things as metals and carbon and that their existence and nature are not influenced in any way by what humans think or prefer. Similarly, most thought about the nature of morality assumes that moral terms must also refer to some real things or properties or qualities that in some sense exist in nature and characterize certain actions or evens or values whatever humans might think about the matter. For instance, Hamlyn says 'it is... a truism that, other things being equal, we ought to keep our promises. There is no reason to deny that there is a fact to this effect, and no reason therefore, to deny that there are moral facts.'1 Most inquiry throughout the history of ethics has been devoted to pinning down the nature of these moral qualities and entities assumed to exist out there in nature. Just as scientists have sought to understand what heat or colour or hardness are, so most philosophers of ethics have sought to understand what things terms like 'good' or 'right' or 'moral' really stand for.
The subjectivist gives an entirely different answer to fundamental questions such as 'What is the nature of rightness or goodness?' The subjectivist understands that there is no more there to be considered about an action than things like the effects it has on people, the effects people would like to experience, the ways they would like others to behave. In other words subjectivists believe that there are only desires and consequences and that there are no 'things' like rightness and goodness or any other moral entities that exist and can be considered in addition to desires and consequences. The objectivist insists that there is something more: i.e., that in addition to what people want and approve and in addition to the way actions affect the experience of people, there is also the moral quality, the moral rightness or wrongness of the action. The objectivist sees the moral quality of an act as an issue that has to be discussed in addition to questions about whether or not it was approved or what its experienced consequences were.
At first encounter the general subjectivist perspective can seem to be most implausible and insufficient. It is not surprising that it has been neglected. It can appear to completely fail to provide criterial for settling moral problems. When first introduced to subjectivism many people see it as an absurd doctrine entailing hopeless moral permissiveness and anarchy. These reactions are understandable in a culture that has been dominated by the general objectivist view of morality. Nevertheless the purpose of this essay is to show that the subjectivist perspective is the correct one, that it can yield an entirely sufficient base for building moral codes and for evaluating action and that it can enable us to avoid the enormous theoretical and practical costs we now pay for our erroneous acceptance of the objectivist answer.
For convenience, the objectivist view can be labelled the 'Moral Law' view since it assumes that just as there are scientific laws of nature, moral laws also 'exist' in nature.2 Just as we can discover the laws of physics, so it is thought that we can discover the laws of morality (using different methods), that we should then live in accord with these laws and that we can no more change the laws of morality to suit ourselves than we can change the laws of physics to suit ourselves.3
The next chapter lists some of the main elements in objectivist or Moral Law thinking about morality. It then asks whether there are impressive reasons for accepting this general view about the nature of morality. It is claimed that the main arguments supporting this dominant belief are extremely weak and that there is no compelling logical justification for the generally undoubted conclusion that there are some Moral Facts and some Moral Laws of nature. It is then suggested that the main reasons why philosophers and laymen so firmly adopt a Moral Law perspective is because any alternative just seems to be quite unsatisfactory. This 'problem of plausibility' is of considerable importance. The general objectivist or Moral Law way of thinking about morality is so deeply built into our minds by our cultural traditions and by the conditions under which the child's cognition develops that many people actually find it extremely difficult to grasp the idea that there might be no Moral Law of nature and that objective rightness and wrongness are only mythical ideas.
Most discussions of the nature of morality, and especially arguments for the general subjectivist position, have failed to grapple with this crucial plausibility phenomenon, and they have therefore failed to expose the automatic disqualifying mechanism that the Moral Law assumption works against all non-objectivist positions. This essay frequently attempts to show that subjectivist explanations seem to be unsatisfactory only because of a prior implicit acceptance of the Moral Law assumption. It will be argued that the present confused and faulty state of ethics is directly due to the fact that, probably for important sociological reasons (speculated upon at the end of Chapter 5) the general objectivist or Moral Law conception has come to seem overwhelmingly plausible.
The following statement from Campbell is one of many examples that could be given of the way philosophers have found any non-objectivist analysis of morality to be incredible. 'Indeed, the simple appeal to reflect upon our own value responses to moral virtue seems to me to be by far the most effective weapon in the whole armory of the critics of subjectivism ...we are directly aware that conscientious action for example, has a value of its own, not identical with or even dependent upon our or anyone else taking an interest in it. Out reason informs us of this as surely as it informs us of anything..'4 Olafson notes the strong tendency there has been to assume that any alternative to an objectivist stance must '...plunge the whole subject of morality into irremediable disorder'.5
The central task undertaken in this essay is to demonstrate that a satisfactory alternative account of morality can be given; i.e., to show that we can explain the nature of morality and the way people think about morality and that we can design moral codes and evaluate action quite satisfactorily without making the unjustifiable and highly misleading assumption that there are Moral Facts or that Moral Laws 'exist' as laws of nature or that goodness and rightness are real properties like hardness or heat or colour. This is to say that we can fully explain all moral problems entirely in natural or scientific terms such as the desires or preferences people have and the consequences of various actions and the way different rules will probably work out. Chapter 3 sets out the framework of this alternative account and Chapter 4 indicates how it explains central ethical issues and problems.
It might be thought at this stage that these two different accounts or theories of morality are just different vocabularies for describing much the same thing. This is quite incorrect. They are two utterly opposed sets of claims about the nature of that large and important portion of our experience which we refer to as morality and each has utterly different implications for the way we should think about and approach all manner of fundamental social and personal issues. It will be argued that the Moral Law view is not just false but that it has been and still is responsible for all sorts of dreadful mistakes in the way we see the world and especially in the way human beings behave towards each other. Yet, it will also be argued that all this has in a sense been necessary because if Homo Sapiens had never come to hold a Moral Law perspective no more than the most primitive forms of social organisation could have been possible. This sets up the fascinating possibility that if in the future there is a wholesale shift to the sort of subjectivist perspective to be outlined in the following chapters, social order might collapse. This and other themes to do with the sociological significance of value orientations are explored at the end of the final chapter.
Progress in the history of inquiry has often come with the realisation that a problem has been completely misconceived; that previous thought has been fruitless because it has been devoted to a misleading formulation of the problem or to a problem which is not the essential one. One could imagine, for example, all the physicists in the land puzzling for years over the problem of what makes the Emporor's clothes invisible, when the most fruitful question to ask would have been whether he really had any clothes on after all. This essay proceeds on the belief that most literature in the field of ethics has been devoted to an extraordinarily misleading 'pseudo-problem', i.e., to one of the most powerfully confusing false ideas in the history of thought. The literature abounds with elaborate theories, refutations and counter-counter arguments which take it for granted that there is a Moral Law of some sort and that the task is to work out the nature of Moral Fact. Far too little serious attention has been given to the possibility that there are no Moral Facts at all. This essay has been motivated by the conviction that when freed from myth, morality is basically a very simple business and that it is therefore a very different enterprise from what contemporary writers in the field have made it seem to be by trying to answer the wrong question. Practical moral problems may be extremely complex and difficult, but the theoretical nature of the game is not. The impenetrable and mystifying world-jungles one encounters in almost any contemporary philosophical work on morality are due to the fact that the wrong path has been taken.
The question of whether or not there is any sort of Moral Law and therefore whether ethics is 'autonomous' is of crucial importance for the continued existence of ethics as a field of inquiry. As has been noted above, unless there is a Moral Law of some sort then the discussion of morality has to be carried out entirely in terms of natural things like human desires, the consequences of actions, and the way actions and rules work out in experience. All the questions that arise in this domain are in principle open to resolution by social science. Unless there is a Moral Law of some sort, there is, in other words, nothing left for ethics to do. If ethics is to have any distinctive and irreducible subject matter to study, then the existence of some Moral Laws must be established (or assumed). This puts a cutting edge on the issue. The subjectivist challenge is in fact a challenge to the very existence of and justification for ethics as a distinct field of inquiry.
The account of morality to be presented in Chapters 3 and 4 is not particularly original in content. All major themes are well known and the position being argued is a fairly straightforward variety of subjectivism. The intent has not been to break radically new ground but to provide a clear and comprehensive statement which will re-focus attention on the merits of an unduly neglected perspective. The venture has been undertaken mainly because the general subjectivist perspective on morality has been argued and popularised far less convincingly than it could have been. In Chapter 4 it is claimed that no one of the three main contributing strands of subjectivist thought, viz. Emotivism, Existentialism and Instrumentalism, comes close to being a logically sufficient account of morality. None of the exponents of these positions has developed a sufficiently comprehensive treatment of the main aspects of moral discourse and their incomplete analyses have invited serious confusions and misinterpretations which have weighed heavily against appreciation of the general subjectivist orientation.
The form of the presentation has been largely determined by a strong distaste for the convoluted, obscure and unduly protracted character of so much contemporary writing in the areas of ethics and social theory. An attempt has been made to present the essential ideas as directly and clearly as possible with a minimum of qualification and elaboration. The main disadvantage with this strategy has been that points are made with little of the acknowledgement and illustration that would related them to the history of ethics. It has been tempting to try to show at length how the various assumptions and lines of thought under discussion have been raised or handled in notable works, but that would have hindered the attempt to present a clear and simple account of the core subjectivist position.
The essay has been written primarily to introduce students and laymen to the subjectivist point of view. Consequently it might appear to be unduly confident at some points and to give insufficient attention to intricacies. It is hoped that these stylistic choices will not detract professional students of morality from the challenges which the analysis raises regarding a number of the foundations underlying much contemporary thought in the field.
1. D.W. Hamlyn, 'The correspondence theory of truth', in R.F. Dearden, et al., eds., Education and the Development of Reason, London, Routledge, 1972, p.272.
2. This way of introducing the basic distinction glosses over difficult epistemological problems to do with the nature of facts and scientific laws and the sense in which all knowledge is an uncertain construction. But whatever scientific facts are they are usually not regarded as being entirely reducible to matters of human preference.
3. Anscombe believes our tendency to cast morality in terms of law is due to Christianity. 'In consequence of the dominance of Christianity for centuries, the concepts of being bound, permitted or excused became deeply embedded in our language and thought.' (p.217). '... it has been characteristic of that ethic to teach that there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten.' G.E. Anscombe, 'Modern moral philosophy', in G. Wallace and A.D.M. Wallace, eds., The Definition of Morality, London, Methuen, 1970, p.222).
4. C.A.. Campbell, 'Moral and non-moral values; A study in the first principles of axiology', pp 3400-46 in J. Hospers and M. Sellars, eds., Readings in Ethical Theory, 2nd edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1970, p.341).
5. F.A. Olafson, Principles and Persons, Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins Press, 1967, p.13.
This chapter begins by detailing what the objectivist view of morality involves. It then examines and rejects the main arguments that have been offered in defence of that view.
A summary of elements in the objectivist view
Following is a list of the major elements that occur within the objectivist view of the nature of morality. It is difficult to state these without significant overlap. Each of these ideas should be thought of as an indicator that the person who made the statement embodying it takes a Moral Law view of morality. It is not that all or even several of these elements must be present before we can classify someone as a holder of this point of view. Indeed it is useful to think of these as contaminating agents; to the subjectivist the presence of any one in the most minute degree is a sign that the erroneous objectivist perspective on morality is being taken.
a) 'There are Moral Laws of nature, just as there are scientific laws of nature. We can only discover and work in accord with the scientific laws of nature. Similarly we should seek to understand the Moral Laws of nature and obey them. It is as misguided to talk about making up and/or changing Moral Laws as it is to talk about making up or changing the laws of science.'
b) 'Moral terms denote real entities or relations or qualities which exist in some form, as independent of human opinion as are the entities corresponding to the term of physics. For example, human rights exist as real or natural attributes of human beings; they are there, "inalienable", even though they may never be recognized. Hence the statement "The unborn child has a right to life" is formally similar to the statements "Fish have scales" and "Electrons have a negative charge". Both the latter statements denote characteristics which exist irrespective of human opinions as to whether or not they exist. Similarly, it is said, "Even if all mankind were agreeable to abortion and no one ever upheld the right to life, that right would still be there. There was a time when everyone thought the world was flat, but it isn't. Human opinions do not alter facts about reality and the right of a human to life is such a fact".'
c) 'There are Moral Facts. Over and above facts about what people desire, what they do, and what consequences will result from their actions, there are facts to do with the Moral quality of the actions. Just as there are facts about physics or chemistry which are true whether or not anyone thinks so, some actions are in fact right, some principles of action are in fact good, etc. whether or not anyone thinks they are. Although the facts of Morality are fundamentally different in kind to the facts of natural science, they are just as concrete and independent of human opinion.'
d) 'The concepts 'true' and 'false' apply to morality. Statements like 'That action was wrong' are true and false because they are claims of fact. They are not just statements of opinion or approval. They are claims that particular actions do in fact have some quality of wrongness about them.'
e) 'There are morally correct solutions to moral problems, just as there are correct solutions to physics problems, although in both cases it is possible that no one faced with a particular problem may be able to work out the correct solution.'
f) 'The moral quality of an action, and morality in general, can't be explained solely in terms of the consequences of action and the desires involved. Some actions could be morally wrong even though all their consequences are pleasant and desired. and some actions are right even though no one might want to perform them. One cannot tell whether an act is good or moral just by determining whether its consequences are pleasant or beneficial. There is, in other words, a fundamental distinction between what is desired and what is in fact desirable.'
g) 'There are 'categorical oughts': Some actions ought to be carried out just because they are in principle right, not because they lead to consequences which are desired. In other words, in addition to conditional ought statements (i.e., statements of the form, "If you want X you should do Y, because doing Y will bring about X"), there are some meaningful and valid statements of the "categorical" form, "You just ought to do X.".'
h) 'Moral Principles state Moral Laws. To hold honesty as a moral principle is to subscribe to the belief that dishonesty is in fact Morally Wrong. There can be situations in which you ought to be dishonest, but these would be situations wherein some other 'higher' principle or Moral Law, such as saving a life, is believed to take precedence. Similarly, there are situations where things do not fall, but these do not disprove the principle of gravity. The tendency to fall is always there, and so is the factual, Moral desirability-in-principle of honesty.'
Other elements might have been listed, for instance the idea that conscience reveals Moral truth. The order given is not meant to represent the relative importance of the elements. Precise mapping of the form and constituents of the Moral Law assumptions of various cultures and of the pattern which the above elements take in western culture are largely untouched empirical problems.1
It is most important at this point to counter the possible impression that this essay is only attacking the most narrow and rigid forms of 'absolutist' ethical theory. This impression might have been encouraged by the above emphatic statement of elements which are usually detectable in only vague and implicit forms. The crucial claim of this essay is that all of these ideas are wholly false; i.e., that any instance of moral thought which endorses any of these elements in even the slightest degree is invalid on that account. There is no Moral Law of any sort. There are no distinct Moral Facts of any sort.
This issue is well described by philosophers as a question of 'reductionism'. The basic question here is whether it is possible to give a full and satisfactory account of those phenomena and issues which we commonly discuss in terms like 'good', 'right', 'just', and 'obligatory' solely in terms of natural psychological and sociological facts and experiences, or whether these phenomena can be satisfactorily explained and accounted for only if some reference is make to some distinctively Moral factors or criteria which in some sense transcend and are not reducible to psychological factors. If the former approach is viable then we can explain and study all moral phenomena using only the concepts and methods of natural science because the questions then to be asked would be the sorts of questions that psychologists and sociologists ask, most notably questions about (a) what human individuals prefer (or desire or value or strive for or want) and intend and approve; (b) what consequences result from various acts and how the consequences of acts and policies relate to existing preferences and intentions, and (c) what rules of procedure humans can design to maximize fulfilment of preferred ends. The dominant view among professional philosophers in the field of ethics and among laymen is that a satisfactory account of morality and of moral phenomena cannot be given solely in these natural science terms and such phenomena are not simply and wholly reducible to natural or scientific considerations of preference, consequences and human-made rules because in addition to question about what humans prefer and about social rules there also arise questions about whether or not some things ought to be preferred, and whether or not some actions are Morally right or good, or justified, etc. There is a brutal all-or-nothing choice here. Either you accept that there are some distinctly Moral facts, or criteria or properties in nature, even though these might be regarded as extremely subtle and intangible (as 'transcendentalist' theorists are inclined to claim) or you must accept that there are none at all.
Throughout this essay the term 'The Moral Law position' is used to refer to all perspectives on the nature of morality which assume that the discussion of morality cannot be fully reduced to a discussion of natural things like preferences, intentions, consequences, and human-made rules, and that moral terms cannot be dispensed with because, in addition to natural or scientific phenomena like preferences and consequences, there are some distinctly moral qualities or entities or criteria that are relevant and necessary for thinking about human action, ideas, values, intentions, rules etc. Many philosophers deny that they hold a Moral Law position (because they tend to interpret this term as referring only to rigid absolutism) when in fact they do accept some sort of objectivist or Moral law position as described here.2 Most do endorse in some way and to some degree one or more of the elements listed and most therefore do not accept that morality can be satisfactorily reduced to a discussion of things like desires, consequences and man-made rules.3
We come then to the main business of this chapter. Are there good rational justifications for the widespread general acceptance of the objectivist or Moral Law view about morality?
Arguments for the objectivist or Moral Law position
As has been noted above, the assumption that there must be a Moral Law of some sort has been overwhelmingly dominant throughout the history of ethics and still characterizes most writing on questions within the field. Moral Law assumption also seems to underlie all thought surrounding the day-to-day behaviour decisions of ordinary individuals in all cultures. The Moral Law assumption must rate as one of the most pervasive, significant and implicit assumptions humans have ever made. It surely ranks with the most important items in the history of ideas. The Moral Law assumption is, nevertheless, quite unwarranted and unjustifiable. Nothing remotely approaching a promising, let alone a plausible or convincing argument in support of the assumption can be offered. The assumption functions in most cases as a deeply embedded, unquestioned, unexamined and indeed unrecognized axiom. It is simply taken for grant that some actions are in fact wrong, that some actions are objectively just, and so on. For a very long time philosophers have been aware of the issue of whether or not there is a Moral Law but the arguments they have produced to support belief in its existence are extremely unconvincing. Let us look briefly at the main ones.
(a) The intuitionist claim
Historically the main 'argument' has simply been that the objective existence of rights, the good, obligations, etc., is just plainly obvious or self-evident. 'Intuition' or 'reason', or 'conscience', or our 'moral sense' is claimed to tell one that this particular action could not possible be right, or that another is indubitably good, or that a person does in fact have duties, and so on. Similarly when one questions people about morality4 one usually finds that they take it for granted that there are some Moral truths, apparently without ever having thought about the question. They usually have no reasons for thinking that there are Moral Facts, but when pressed for reasons to support a firm stand that stealing, for instance, is in fact wrong, or that humans do in fact have rights, they will usually come up with the claim that it is obvious or that they can't doubt it. For most people the grounds for acceptance of the Moral Law assumption are at best intuitive.
Intuition in various senses may be a valuable process, but as a means for validating these sorts of propositional claims about the nature of the world its credentials are, to be very charitable, rather meagre. People holding intuitively-arrived-at positions are notoriously likely to disagree and to be demonstrably wrong. The briefest study of different cultures or the history of ideas within western culture reveals numerous cases where practices intuited by one group of human beings as representing the very ultimate in moral propriety are regarded by other groups as representing the very depths of moral depravity. For instance the Banroo of New Guinea would be appalled to find that in western society the first child born to a married couple was not fathered by one of the groom's best friends, and there are tribes in Borneo where no less disgust would result if a young man proposing marriage did not present his potential fiance with concrete evidence of having committed several bloody murders; i.e. a dowry of shrunken heads. Obviously a feeling of certainty about a proposition is irrelevant to the question of whether the proposition is true, and in the last analysis this is all that the Moral Law intuitionist can claim; i.e., the strong feeling that some practice or principle is a Moral Fact. We now have considerable insight into the way socialisation within a particular culture can lead an individual to a cognitive state whereby he or she can not doubt ideas common to that culture. The medieval man in the street knew that the world was flat and that it was absolutely wrong to obtain interest on money. In view of these considerations it should not be surprising that very few philosophers are now prepared to endorse an intuitive base for ethics.5
A qualification must be entered here. We do seem to have to accept or reject some classes of proposition/ on purely intuitive grounds, for instance propositions like 'That thing is my hand' and 'Nothing can have the qualities X and non-X at the same time'. The basic axioms of logic and mathematics probably provide the best examples. However, we should be very careful about what sorts of propositional claims we agree to accept on these grounds because the further we look back into the history of thought the more propositional claims we see which have been erroneously accepted as open to resolution by intuition; e.g., the claim that a cannon ball and a feather would fall at the same rate in the absence of air resistance. The basic themes in this essay are firstly that our moral intuitions are highly misleading and secondly that it is possible to give accounts of the 'truth', meaning and uses of moral propositions without resort to intuition. Whereas it seems impossible for anyone to imagine any alternative to intuition or self-evidence as a test of the claim 'nothing can at the same time be both X and non-X', in the area of natural science good alternatives exist and it is argued in Chapter 3 that the same is true of the area of morality (which we have erroneously distinguished from that of natural science).
(b) The argument from authority
Another common line of thought in support of the Moral Law is the argument from authority, usually taking a religious form, whereby some moral authority is believed to reveal absolute Moral Laws to humans. It is difficult to see how this argument amounts to more than a statement of faith. Anyone who accepts the argument cannot directly see or show that there are Moral Laws. The existence of the Laws is a secondary or derived claim based on the acceptance of the existence and purposes of the authority, and thus the grounds for the hypothesis concerning the existence of Moral Laws are no stronger than those for the existence of the authority. (In fact they are probably weaker. Assuming the existence of the authority, there is then the problem of whether or not one's perception of its moral pronouncements is valid). To say the least, the problem of whether or not there are gods or other sorts of moral authorities is highly controversial. In any case the main point here is that the believer is only accepting the idea that there are Moral facts because he or she believes his or her moral authority has asserted that there are; the argument from authority provides nothing that could persuade a reasonable non-believer in that authority that moral facts exist.
It is understandable that firm believers in various moral authorities will in general accept some sort of Moral Law position and one could not expect them to abandon the latter position unless one could show that the relevant Moral authority is a fiction. It seems to follow that this essay can have little impact on those who believe in the existence of absolute Moral authorities, apart from showing them that at least a coherent alternative account of morality to theirs is possible.
(c) The transcendentalist argument
The general idea embodied in this form of argument is that one cannot seriously engage in moral discourse without having actually endorsed some moral principles, such as the principle of taking the interests of others into account, being fair and respecting the interests of others. Therefore the very act of beginning to consider problems of right and wrong action seems to require recognition of some Moral principles; one must acknowledge that the existence of these Moral facts is somehow logically prior to the process, even to the possibility of enquiry into morality.6
At first encounter this form of argument might appear to be plausible but on closer examination it can be seen to be no more than a play on the way 'serious moral discourse' is initially defined. Peters, for instance, has simply taken for granted a particular (and problematic) definition of what it is to engage in serious moral discourse, i.e., one in which activities which do not involve consideration of the interests of others are not identified as instances of serious moral discourse. Peters' argument only unpacks his pre-selected definition; it seems to be working out or discovering what serious moral discourse has to involve when in fact all he is doing is revealing what he has assumed serious moral discourse to include.
Let us assume that we wanted to examine some instances of serious moral discourse in order to see whether they all did involve respect for the interests of others. What if we let someone other than Peters select cases for us to examine and we found that these cases all involved reference to what Allah wished and made no reference at all to the interests of other people? One can imagine this person emphasising, 'Don't you see, it's really impossible to get started on a conscientious and responsible process of working out what one ought to do without considering what Allah expects.' Would it follow that 'Respect Allah's wishes' must be recognized as an objective moral principle? Peters would of course say that these are not genuine instances of serious moral discourse. If he had accepted them he would have admitted that serious moral discourse need not involve nor commit one to consideration of the interests of others. But why aren't they such instances? Why is the decision process not serious moral discourse when someone who believes Allah's will to be the supreme consideration is deciding what to do, and why is it serious moral discourse only when someone who believes the interests of others must be considered is deciding what to do? It can be seen that to admit one and not the other one has to invoke and assume the very criterion which the transcendentalist argument ends up proclaiming to be a moral principle.
Some critical discussions of Peters' argument have located the source of his mistake in a slide between two meanings of 'considering the interests of others'. White7 indicates that one can engage in serious moral discourse without respecting or caring for the interests of others; all one has to do is make some reference to them or be aware of them, as when one is deciding to cheat one's business partner. This is a valuable comment but it can be seen in the light of the foregoing argument not to be a central criticism because it also derives from a particular definition of what counts as serious moral discourse. anyone who had thought 'Yes, engaging in serious moral discourse does not commit you to any more than a principle of referring to the interests of others' is operating from (merely explicating) the conception of serious moral discourse which this conclusion belies; i.e., one in which serious moral discourse has been assumed to be a process involving referring to but not necessarily respecting the interests of others.
Finally the transcendentalist form of argument can only establish what one is committed to if one has first resolved to engage in serious moral discourse. It does not establish that anyone ought to engage in serious moral discourse. Even if important and non-tautological conclusions about morality did follow logically from the commitment to engage in serious moral discourse it would not have been shown that these are objective moral principles true for everyone regardless of whether or not they wished to engage in serious moral discourse. Again it is evident that what one gets out of this form of argument depends on what one puts in via the definition of the key concept. This form of argument does no more than unveil what has been assumed in the initial definition.
This discussion illustrates the way assertions of preferred conceptions are often disguised and presented as the objective results of 'conceptual analysis'. At first sight the argument seems to be deriving conclusions from a careful analysis of 'what morality really involves' but all it does is unpack what has been assumed from the start within the notion of serious moral discourse.8
(d) The 'naturalistic fallacy' argument
This is probably the argument that has had most influence on philosophers. G.E. Moore argued, in effect, that there must be a realm of Moral Law because all attempts to define 'good' in terms from within the realm of science or of observable or experienced phenomena are obviously unsatisfactory. He pointed out that when confronted by any 'naturalistic' definition (such as 'Good means pleasant') it always seems to make sense to ask questions like 'But does good really equate to pleasure? Is this all it means or is it possible that in some situations what is pleasant is not good?' Moore was impressed by the fact that 'good' always seems to mean more than, or something other than, what is contained in any natural predicate like 'satisfying' or 'pleasant' or 'conducive to the maximum happiness of the greatest number'. He concluded that the essential element in 'goodness' can't be captured by these naturalistic definitions and that it must be an indefinable but objective or real quality which in some sense exists in nature and is capable of being know by us directly, as the quality of yellowness is.
Moore has certainly given a good account of what goes through our minds when we encounter attempts to define good in natural terms like pleasant or satisfying. This has been a most influential argument for the non reducibility of moral problems to problems about desires and consequences or other natural and scientific phenomena, and therefore a most influential argument in support of the 'autonomy' of ethics. (However Moore's account of what it is to define something, which is central to his argument, is not generally accepted). But Moore has only pointed to the fact that 'naturalistic' accounts of good strike us as being unsatisfactory. This could be because good is indeed something more than what yields pleasure (etc.) but it could also be because we hold false preconceptions about goodness. We are therefore embroiled here in the problem of plausibility noted in the introductory chapter. It is my contention that the widespread acceptance of Moore's naturalistic fallacy argument is just one more manifestation of the dominance and plausibility of the Moral Law perspective. The force of this 'naturalistic' fallacy argument for the existence of a realm of Moral Law derives entirely from the prior existence of belief in such a realm. Moore's claim is that when you think about the statement 'X is good' you realize that it does not mean merely 'X arouses feelings of satisfaction'. Of course it does not mean this to someone who has grown up in a culture which accepts without question that there is a Moral Law! The typical Moral Law believer 'knows' that some pleasant and satisfying things are nevertheless not good or right because he or she has always accepted that although experienced consequences are relevant to goodness and rightness they do not settle these matters. He or she 'knows' that some things can be good or right irrespective of any experienced consequences they might have. In other words an essential element in this perspective is the idea that no experienceable aspect of an action or value can settle the question of whether or not it is good. Of course anyone who comes into the discussion of how goodness should be defined with this view of the matter entrenched in his or her mind by the unchallenged weight of his or her socialization into a Moral Law culture will not find any naturalistic definition of good to be at all satisfactory. But nothing much about the nature of phlogiston or evil spirits follows from any analysis of what people in particular cultures think about them and will accept as satisfactory definitions of them. Moore however proceeds from this refusal to accept a naturalistic definition to the mistaken conclusion that the term 'good' must refer to some non-natural entity or property. What he has shown is that most people do not think of good being purely a matter of pleasant consequences or other natural experiences. The argument throughout this essay is that what most people think about goodness is incorrect.
This very brief look at the main arguments that have been advanced for the belief that there must be a realm of Moral Law points to some important conclusions. Firstly there are no weighty reasons for taking the Moral Law assumption seriously. None of the main traditional lines of argument stands up at all well to critical examination. Secondly, the Moral Law assumption prevails, not because there are good reasons for it, but because there seem to be no viable alternative explanations of morality. It has won by default. Thirdly, the significance of the plausibility phenomenon for the understanding of morality cannot be over-emphasized. The reason why non-Moral Law accounts of morality are normally dismissed on sight as hopelessly unsatisfactory and as absurd, and therefore the reason why objectivist or Moral Law accounts are accepted, is simply because the general Moral Law perspective on morality is so deeply entrenched in our culture and in the minds of normally socialized individuals (probably, as has been noted, for necessary evolutionary reasons.) The very existence of this perspective as almost a basic category of thought renders any non Moral Law account of morality implausible. The Moral Law assumption prevails and automatically disqualifies alternatives simply by virtue of its assumption in all cultures. In western culture it is built into the foundations of all manner of codes and idea systems. It is largely implicit and unrecognized and unchallenged. As a way of thinking about matters of value it becomes habitual and almost indubitable in our early years and it is continually reinforced in daily social interaction.9 Because we are so thoroughly accustomed to thinking in terms of the existence of a Moral Law we find any attempt to account for morality in other terms quite plausible. It just seems impossible to make sense out of moral experience or to develop a satisfactory moral code unless there are some Moral facts on which these ventures can be based. Not only does it seem absurd to suggest that there are no Moral facts but in addition it seems that if there were no moral certainties nothing could be right or wrong and utter spiritual and social chaos would reign.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the concept of plausibility for the discussion of moral thought. Even in learned journals one again and again finds that particular lines of thought, especially those pursued in this essay, are rejected without examination purely because they seem to be implausible. Following are a few of the abundant quotations that could be drawn on from professional students of ethics to illustrate explicit commitment to central elements in the objectivist or Moral Law perspective. They show the strong and unfortunate tendency writers in the field of ethics have to begin with what cannot be doubted.
I know the reality of obligations and goodness with as much self evidence as I know logical, geometrical, or causal necessitation... I cannot doubt the obligation to keep promises or to spare unnecessary pain.
E.F. Carritt, Ethical and Political Thinking, Clarendon, Oxford, 1947, p.43.
It is, I think, just because this form of the view (i.e., that happiness is the criterion of goodness) is so plainly at variance with our moral conscience that we are driven to adopt the other form of the view, viz., that the act is good in itself and that its intrinsic goodness is the reason why it ought to be done.
H.A. Pritchard, 'Does Morality Rest on Mistake?' in J. Hospers and W. Sellars, Readings in Ethical Theory, second edition, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970, p.152.
...ethical arguments have a criterion of validity which is neither that of deductive logic nor that of scientific method is doubtless true.
J. Harrison, 'Can Ethics Do Without Proposition?' Mind, LIX 1950, 358-371.
An important corollary can be drawn from this discussion of the plausibility phenomenon. It might be labelled the 'impalatibility fallacy', or more fully stated as the maxim, 'Do not reject unpleasant conclusions just because they are unpleasant'. Subjectivist analyses of most moral problems and concepts are usually rejected just because they are contrary to common sense. Yet the propositions that the earth is round and that it orbits the sun were at first rejected because they were contrary to common sense. Most of us find ideas like the curved nature of space and the capacity for time to speed up contrary to common sense and cognitively unpalatable in the extreme, but this has nothing to do with whether or not these ideas are valid and we would be poor physicists if we assessed the worth of these ideas according to the cognitive dissonance they cause us. There will be many points in the following discussion where those who are reading from a conventional Moral Law perspective will find the implications of the subjectivist position to be distasteful in the extreme but what such readers must do before they have any right to dismiss the offending analysis is show that the arguments leading to those conclusions are faulty.
Throughout this chapter the argument has been purely destructive. The more important task of building a myth-free account of morality is commenced in the next chapter but before going on to that it should be emphasized just how metaphysically enormous the Moral Law assumption is. Those who hold it rarely recognize what a weighty meta-theoretical cost they are paying for the order and sense this assumption brings to their perception of morality. To hold this assumption is to postulate an entirely separate ontological realm containing numerous entities, properties and relations which do not exist in the realm studied by the natural scientist. In addition, belief in the existence of a knowable Moral Law involves the assumption that there can be a distinct non-scientific way of knowing about these phenomena. The Moral Law believer therefore takes upon himself/herself the burden of demonstrating that moral statements must be recognized alongside scientific and analytic statements and of demonstrating the characteristics and validity of a distinct way of coming to know about Moral phenomena. These are great meta-theoretical costs and in the final evaluation of the relative merits of different theories of morality any account that does not have to make these assumptions must have a considerable advantage.
1. Some evidence is given in Chapter 4 of Dimensions of Moral Thought, F.E. Trainer, University of New South Wales Press, 1982.
2. No space has been given here to documenting the extent to which the objectivist has dominated the field. The following statement by Olafson indicates the strength of the case that could be made out: 'The belief that the concepts of truth and falsity are applicable to judgements of value has been a central theme of western moral philosophy since its inception. ... it is not too much to say that the whole subsequent development of moral philosophy has been dominated by Plato's original statement of what may be called the intellectualist thesis. This is the view that value predicates have meaning by virtue of standing for objective qualities or relations that are independent of our feelings and volitions ... and that true (or false) statements can accordingly be made about them.' F.A. Olafson, Principles and Persons, Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins Press, 1967, p.4.
3. The truth of this claim is evidence by the widespread acceptance among philosophers of the doctrine of the 'autonomy' of ethics. Anyone who thinks that ethical problems can be reduced to natural science problems risks immediate ridicule for having bumbled into 'the naturalistic fallacy' (dealt with below). This doctrine is so deeply entrenched that authors often feel little or no need to refer to it explicitly, and they proceed on it as an unacknowledged and taken for granted assumption. Most contributions to the contemporary literature on ethics make sense only as attempts to clarify or establish something about some sort of Moral Law which permits Moral evaluation of mere preferences, acts, intentions, consequences and human-made instrumental rules of procedure.
4. Statements made in this essay about the views people hold on morality are based on evidence from interview and questionnaire studies of moral thought published in Dimensions of Moral Thought, F.E. Trainer, University of New South Wales Press, 1982, Chapters 4, 5.
5. For an example examination and dismissal, see W.D. Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy, London, Macmillan, 1970, pp 100-105 and A.J. Ayer, 'Reasons and Causes', in J. Hospers and W. Sellars, eds., Readings in Ethical Theory, 2nd edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall, 1970, p.396. Warnock regards intuitionism as '... a confession of bewilderment got up to look like an answer'. G.J. Warnock, Contemporary Moral Philosophy, London, Macmillan, 1967, p.7. See also R.B. Brandt, 'The emotive theory of ethics', Encyclopedia of Philosophy, P. Edwards, ed., Collier Macmillan, 1967, p.495.
6. The main presentations of the argument have been by R.S. Peters, in Ethics and Education, Chicago, Scott Foresman, 1967; A.P. Griffiths, 'Ultimate Moral Principles; Their Justification', in P. Edwards, ed., the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, N.Y., Macmillan, Vol. 8, pp 117-182, 1967; S.I. Benn and R.S. Peters, Social Principles and the Democratic State, London, Allen & Unwin, 1959 and R. Dearden, The Philosophy of Primary Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1968, p.46.
7. J.P. White, Towards a Compulsory Curriculum, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. See also A.J. Watt, 'Education and the development of reason', Educational Philosophy and Theory, 8.2, October, 1976, pp 21-23.
8. The elaborate arguments of John Wilson in Introduction to Moral Education, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967) constitute another important example of this phenomenon. Some critical comments on Wilson's discussion are given below in Chapter 4. More detailed criticism of Wilson and Peters is given in Chapter 2 of Dimensions of Moral Thought, (op. cit.).
9. Evidence on the development of this perspective is reported in Chapter 4 of Dimensions of Moral Thought, (op. cit.), and in F.E. Trainer, 'Ethical Objectivism/Subjectivism: A neglected dimension in the study of moral thought', Journal of Moral Education, 12, 3, October, 1983, pp 192-207.
This and the next chapter endeavour to show that a satisfactory non Moral Law account of morality can be given. It will be argued that morality can be fully explained in the terms of natural science and consequently it is not necessary to assume that ethics is 'autonomous'. This is to say that the discussion of morality can be totally reduced to terms like preference, consequences and human-made rules and that such an approach provides us with all we need for forming and evaluating moral codes. It will be seen throughout this venture that the central difficulty concerns the plausibility phenomenon. Again and again we will see that an account of morality in natural terms just does not seem to be satisfactory, and yet at these points we will also see that such an account is indeed quite satisfactory if only we can approach the issue without pre-existing prejudices about the existence of Moral factors.
A non Moral Law account of morality must begin with a discussion of the nature of value.
The entirely subjective nature of value
The central element in objectivist thinking is the assumption that things, events and actions have value properties which exist independently of the ideas of any human individual or group. This view achieved its most notorious formulation in The Republic where Plato construed goodness as a non-material and changeless essential property (something like triangularity), where a basic identity between truth and goodness was asserted and where the realm in which these 'forms' were claimed to exist was regarded as the real world. Truth can be found in this world of the forms, not in the world of erroneous and untrustworthy appearances with which sensory experience is condemned to deal. The Republic has therefore been one of the most corrupting sources in the history of western thought, not primarily because of the elitist political theory Popper condemns but because of the insupportable metaphysics of value that underlies both this elitism and the dominance of the Moral law assumption. The latter is a forceful tribute to the fact that for the two thousand years until the Instrumentalists insisted that experience is the fundamental and sufficient category for the analysis of truth and goodness philosophy has been 'little more than a footnote to Plato'.
The single most important point to be made in the analysis of morality is that there is no value out there in the world; there are only objects, properties, relationships and events which are in themselves completely devoid of value. The evaluative element in any statement, including statements of moral value, labels or refers to nothing more than ideas in the minds of individuals. It is only when some sentient being reacts to an object or event that value or valuing come into 'existence'. Value is like wonder or fear or hope; it is a subjective state that occurs in the mind of an organism. It is therefore misleading to use the noun 'value' because 'the valuing process' is the central phenomenon. To attribute moral value to a thing or an event is to make a 'category mistake'. It is like saying, 'Length is actually quite heavy at times'. Length does not have a dimension of weight and things and events do not have or vary along a dimension of value. Objects like bricks and trees have properties or qualities like hardness, length or temperature, which in some sense 'are there' whether or not any human knows about them, but there are no value properties or qualities like this in objects or events. There is no property of moral goodness or rightness which inheres in events like a landslide or an eclipse of the sun or one person killing another. Sentient beings do not respond to any value in things; they react to things and put values upon things. When we discuss values we are discussing the reactions of organisms; we are discussing the evaluations formed in the minds of individuals.
Anyone who is not happy with the claim that there is no value in things, events and relations has the problems of coming forward with grounds to support the view that things, events and relations do have objective value properties that can be shown to exist independently of the evaluations people make regarding them. It is difficult to imagine how one could possibly begin to try to show this. How could one set about showing that irrespective of whether or not anyone values charity, for instance, it actually has the property 'valuable'?1
What is morality about?
In Chapters 1 and 2 it was seen that the essence of the Moral Law view is that morality can't be reduced to or explained solely in terms of things like desires, consequence and man-made rules and that a distinctly Moral realm of phenomena must be postulated. If the counter arguments in chapter 2 can't be defeated then we should accept that there is no rational justification for assuming the existence of a Moral Law. How then must we conceive of morality?
The general subjectivist answer is that morality can only be about planning, regulating and evaluating action by reference to natural things such as what is desired, the experienced consequences of action, and man-made rules. All our thought about and evaluation of action must be carried out in terms of only these sorts of natural concepts and phenomena and there can be no recourse to Moral criteria for judging which desires and rules are Right irrespective of their consequences.
It is not difficult to give an account of moral situations and familiar moral problems in these terms. What is difficult however is to get habitual Moral Law thinkers to accept that this account is satisfactory. To them subjectivism frequently seems to yield a quite insufficient explanation and the main problem for the subjectivist is usually to show that the plausibility phenomenon is at work making us dissatisfied with any account that does not provide the final and concrete Right answers that the Moral Law view provides.
Without a Moral Law morality involves us in precisely the same types of problems that any practical activity does, notably selecting means to achieve ends, evaluating the means and the ends in the light of experience and reconsidering the value initially put upon ends. These are the sorts of things that happen when an individual fixes a leaking tap, or when engineers build a bridge or when a society goes to war. We are quite familiar with this 'instrumental' paradigm for action. We are not generally familiar with the fact that unless the existence of some sort of Moral Law can be demonstrated morality has to be entirely fitted into and explained within this paradigm.
The main task this essay undertakes is to show that this instrumental account is sufficient; i.e., to show that all moral problems can be analysed in terms of selecting and evaluating means to desired ends and to show how the Moral Law myth has distorted our perception of what is at stake in various moral problems. This task might best be begun by considering some concrete examples (although the full significance of the subjectivist account will not be evident until its implications for many classical moral problems and concepts have been sketched in this and the next chapter). Take the 'problem' of how people should park their cars in their own garages. There is no need for a society to set up rules covering the ways people may and may not do this. One can do this in almost any way one likes without conflicting with others. However, people cannot conveniently go where they want to on the roads without some organisation. Some rules are necessary if satisfactory interaction is to be made possible. The rule 'Keep left' is therefore an instrumentally effective arrangement. It helps to maximize fulfilment of the desires of those involved. Presumably no one regards this principle as a manifestation of the Moral Law, or sees something intrinsically wrong about driving on the right of the road. Without a Moral Law assumption no rule, moral or otherwise (the worth of this distinction is rejected below), can be any more than a procedural arrangement or means for the purpose of facilitating realization of the desires of those involved.
This account of the instrumental nature of rules applies to what we would regard as the 'highest' rules of morality as well as to rules like those constituting the traffic code. Consider whether or not to set up a rule providing for the execution of murderers. In the absence of any Moral Law it is not possible to settle this rule-making problem by claiming that there is a Moral right to life, or that taking human life is Morally wrong. The problem we are faced with is simply one of deciding what we will do with murderers. We can kill them, let them go free, torture them, reward them, etc. All we have to go on are two sorts of considerations. (a) What do we want to do and to eventuate? Do we want to take retribution? Do we want to deter others? Do we want them locked out of the way? Do we want them to become capable of normal social existence again? (b) What effects will various actions actually have? For instance, will a long sentence deter others? Will it make the criminal into a worse criminal? All we can do is think out carefully what our desires are, estimate and think about the likely outcomes of various lines of action, frame a policy, act on that policy and note whether we are happy with the way it works out. If we decide to parole murders after they have served two years in prison and we find that ninety percent of them then murder again, we might be wise to change the strategy or to reconsider the initial value we put on the freedom of the murderer. There is no guarantee that any rule we set up will be effective in organizing conduct to achieve desired outcomes.
What about the rule 'Do not kill', or the moral judgement 'Killing is wrong?' Can these be put into the form of a convenient arrangement? It is with questions like the taking of life that the Moral Law assumption is most likely to force itself into the discussion. There is a strong tendency to think that taking life is simply wrong-in-itself, regardless of any possible benefit to the life-taker. (If there are situations where the taking of life is thought to be justified, for instance in the case of euthenasia, the justification is thought to derive from some other higher principle existing in the realm of Moral Law, such as minimising suffering.)
However, as was explained in the discussion of value, neither killing (nor walking nor any other activity) has any value-in-itself. Sentient beings place values on these actions.2 In some situations they tend to put an intensely negative value on killing, and in others, for example in war, they may praise it. Similarly there are situations in which walking should not be engaged in, e.g., if the movement might provoke a buffalo into charging, or if your car breaks down in the desert. When one realizes that no action, goal, or value has Moral Law status, one realizes that all one can do in any situation where one must choose whether or not to take a life is to consider the experiences likely to result. If nation A 'desires' national security more than it desires to avoid killing the troops of nation B who are threatening to invade and if it is clear that military activity against those troops is necessary to avoid invasion, then it will be instrumentally effective for nation A to take action which will result in the death of troops from nation B. Similarly if one puts higher value on the elimination of suffering than on the preservation of life then one will endorse the mercy killing of incurably ill people. If one puts less value on the continued life of an unborn infant than on the wishes of its potential mother then one will agree that abortion can be an instrumentally effective means to a desired end in this situation. Life and death issues like these may be extraordinarily difficult for those faced with them and for those attempting to establish what the likely outcomes might be, but they are theoretically simple because they all involve merely (a) deciding to what values or ends one gives highest priority, and (b) deciding what the most effective means to these ends are. There is no more to consider - unless one believes that there is a Moral Law.
On first encounter this account of the nature of the moral enterprise would almost certainly be regarded as quite inadequate and indeed as morally abhorrent. The theory appears to be concerned only with expediency, convenience and fulfilling desires and as therefore having nothing at all to say about the essentials of morality. Most people are quite unwilling to regard experienced satisfaction as the only possible criterion for evaluating rules and action to do with matters as serious as taking life. It is usually claimed that if calculation of consequences is the only possible criterion, then people will kill whenever it suits them. The question of moral motivation is taken up more fully below but it should be said here that whether or not individuals who understand that killing has no Moral quality of Rightness would actually kill others whenever it suited them is an open empirical question that would largely depend on the value they place upon the welfare of others, i.e., on the ends or desires they hold. I, for example, realize that there can not be anything Morally wrong about taking another person's life but I do not kill when this would benefit me and indeed I find the idea of killing so extremely unpleasant that I think it is most unlikely that I could ever kill anyone under any circumstances. I do not believe that I am much more saintly in this regard than most people, but if I am, then the implication is not that there must after all be a Moral Law. The main implication might be that we might be wise not to let it be known that there is no Moral Law. In other words, the way people would behave and whether or not social order would remain if particular ideas about the nature of morality were widely held is irrelevant to the question of whether or not those ideas are true. (My guess is that if more people were to understand that killing has no quality of Moral Wrongness then the murder rate would indeed increase).
This feeling that the theory being advanced here fails to provide for the extremely serious character of morality is understandable but it is quite incorrect. It will be shown at the end of this chapter that this account actually makes morality into a far more serious and burdensome business than the conventional western image of the Moral Law does and in the last chapter that image will be attacked for blinding us to major 'responsibilities', but the important task at this stage of the argument is to challenge those who find the account unacceptable to show that Moral issues involve any more than finding effective means to desired ends. They must show that killing, for instance, has a quality of Moral Wrongness quite independent of any of its experienced consequences. The argument in Chapter 2 was that this claim cannot be sustained.
The basic nature of morality as outlined above becomes clearer when some of the corollaries of the principles previously stated are briefly outlined.
There can be no guarantee for any rule
The objectivist believes that some absolutely valid or correct solutions are possible to problems of moral decision. These solutions are thought to be derivable from principles enshrined in Moral Law. Some would give as an example the judgement 'Abortion is wrong, because taking human life is categorically wrong'. However, there is no correct pattern of action existing in some Platonic Heaven while we are busily looking for it. In other words there is no theoretically correct answer to any moral problem. Furthermore, no guarantee can ever be given that practical solutions to moral problems will work out well. This is because practical moral problems are problems in social engineering and even if we became as good at this as we are at physical engineering absolute guarantees could not be given. When the Moral Law myth is abandoned moral rules have to be seen as human attempts to organize social conduct and these can only be based on fallible predictions about what actions will achieve what desired outcomes. It is possible that even with the best of intentions and research highly promising rules will sometimes be set up only to have disastrous outcomes. Social engineering is as open-ended as baking a cake or putting humans on the moon. Only Moral Law thinking supports faith in the existence of clear, firm or correct answers to problems of decisions and value.
The motivation of moral action
On examination meaningful answers to the questions 'Why ought one...?' reduce to only two types. These are, 'Because that action will be about a state of affairs you desire', and 'Because that action is in fact the right thing to do and it should be done whether or not you want to do it.' We have seen that answers of the second type are unacceptable unless a realm of Moral Law can be demonstrated to exist and to cover the action in question. So when one has given up the Moral Law assumption one realizes that there is no sense in the idea of being motivated to do something because it is Morally right or a Moral duty. One can only be motivated to do things which are either of intrinsic value to one's self or are instrumental in the realization of one's intrinsic values.3
It does not follow that if everyone saw morality as it is being described here there would be a complete breakdown of social order into a war of all against all. It is argued below that the welfare of others is of some importance to most people and that this desire would motivate some degree of other-regarding behaviour. How well it would do this is an empirical question and the problem of whether social order is possible without a Moral Law myth is taken up again in the last chapter. The following sections elaborate on the nature of moral motivation.
The desired versus the desirable
The position set out in the preceding section would probably strike most people as being completely unsatisfactory. It provokes the objection 'No, clearly there is a distinction between what one should do to bring about a situation one desires, and what is the right or moral thing to do - the desirable thing'. In other words the most likely objection to this analysis of moral motivation is that if fails to account for what is desirable, right, good, etc., irrespective of whether it is desired.
Of course there can be a useful distinction between what is desired and what is desirable in non-moral realms, where someone could say that after more careful thought the course of action someone initially chose (desired) was seen not to be the most effective (desirable) course. Here both terms refer only to natural things like preferred ends and effectives means. The distinction can have a similar meaning in the moral domain4 but usually the term 'desired' is given a quite different meaning. Usually it means the morally Morally desirable course irrespective of the preferred/desired course.
However, because there is no Moral Law there is no criterion for distinguishing what is Morally desirable. In other words the traditional distinction between desired and desirable in the moral realm collapses because no meaning can be given to the term 'Morally desirable'.
The significance of altruism
If it were generally seen that there is no Moral Law and that all moral motivation can therefore only derive from what the individual likes or prefers, it might be that too few would have sufficiently strong preferences for honesty and similar social values to ensure a tolerable society. This is no challenge to the validity of the account of morality being presented, but it does set the very important empirical sociological problem of whether we would be sorry if the truth about morality came to be widely understood. Perhaps orderly social interaction is only possible at this point in our evolution if there is widespread acceptance of the erroneous idea that some actions are Morally wrong and if there is a strong socialized reluctance to do what is Morally wrong. The functional significance of the Moral Law assumption is discussed in the last chapter.
The crucial fact which would probably ensure orderly social interaction if there were widespread dissolution of belief in the Moral Law is the existence of 'altruistic' desires in individuals; i.e., some degree of concern for the welfare of others. Perhaps there are circumstances under which anyone could be provoked to put his/her own welfare before that of others, or to gain satisfaction from harming others, but this does not conflict with the point being made; viz., to most people the welfare of others has some positive value. In general that value may not be very great and the welfare of others may rank rather low in most individuals' value hierarchies. But if it ranks at all this ensures that the premises entering the decision-making of one who has abandoned the assumption of a Moral Law will include concern for the possible effects of his/her actions on others. Enhancement of, or at least non-interference with the welfare of others will be among the aims to be achieved by action decisions. Again, how important these altruistic premises are, and whether they are sufficiently important to ensure orderly social interaction without the added force given by belief in the Moral Law, are matters for empirical determination.
The apparent 'a-morality' and hedonism of the earlier sections of this account, which seem to crowd in as soon as the Moral Law assumption is dropped, can now be seen as almost inevitable but mistaken impressions, usually due to the fact that the significance of altruistic desires has been overlooked. The welfare of others, the preservation of harmonious social interaction or respect for the rule of law can be desires entering the conditional part of ought statements made by subjectivists and therefore determining what they will want to do or will want others to do.
Altruism is a key problem for the analysis of social order and for the moral educator. A society in which individuals placed no value on the welfare of others would probably be very minimal in scope, unstable and erratic, and capable of reaching no more than a contractual level of interaction if indeed any social order at all would be possible under this condition.5 People would shop-lift whenever they thought it was safe, they would be subject to attack and theft whenever someone thought the benefits outweighed the risk. Perhaps the central problem for the moral educator is to understand how altruistic concern originates and develops in an individual, and in what ways, if any, the process involved should be reinforced or protected or modified. It seems arguable that (a) the processes constitute a variety of indoctrination; i.e., they are processes whereby there is developed in an individual a deep, unexamined affective bond for which he/she is not able to give any rational justification,6 and (b) unless these processes do take place society will be little better than a Hobbesian war of all against all. For the social analyst a basic question is, what quantity and types of other-regarding commitments contribute to what types and degrees of social cohesion?
Rightness, wrongness and the impossibility of moral praise or condemnation
The usual meanings attached to the terms 'right' and 'wrong' depend largely on the assumed existence of a Moral Law. An action is termed 'wrong' if it is thought to contravene a Moral Law. When one realizes that there is no Moral Law one finds it difficult to retain a use for the terms 'Right' and 'Wrong'. Actions have effects. Some effects are desired, enjoyed, satisfying and some are not. Individuals or groups can reflect on these effects and decide to encourage or prevent the actions which give rise to them. There is little point in going on to classify some actions as 'right' actions and some as 'wrong'.
Of all the implications of a myth-free perspective on morality this is one of the most awkward to grasp. It 'feels' quite absurd to be told that there is nothing wrong with fare evasion or murder, yet again the key question is,
what could possibly be said to defend the belief (feeling is the most appropriate term) that in addition to their effects these actions also have the characteristic or property of 'Wrongness'? What can the nature of this 'Wrongness' possible be? To realize the utter vacuousness, the absurdity of these and other common moral concepts and to see how their entire meaning and apparent validity derive solely from the Moral Law assumption are among the more difficult steps along the path to understanding the nature of morality.
A related unpalatable implication of the non-existence of the Moral Law is that one must accept the impossibility, indeed the meaninglessness of Moral praise and condemnation. Unless there is a Moral Law one cannot meaningfully say that an action was Morally bad or that it categorically ought not to have been committed. Nor can one justify Moral disgust or righteous indignation. One can express a feeling of dislike, but one cannot show that it is warranted. I am disgusted at the thought of incestual acts, baby bashing and cruelty to animals. I would not like to do any of these things and I would not like others to do them. I would try to persuade others not to be cruel or to permit cruelty, because the mere thought that this sort of action was occurring would upset me. But is makes no sense for me to express Moral outrage about cruelty. My dislike of it is formally no different to my dislike of cod liver oil or untuned instruments. (There is a quantitative difference; a difference in degree of dislike and therefore a difference in priority in my value hierarchy.) I do not like any of these things and I am sure I would find it very difficult if not impossible to come to like them no matter how hard I tried; but unless I assume the existence of a Moral Law I am wasting my time claiming that they are Morally Wrong or that anything more than a disliking is involved. I might be able to show that if they were not banned then some of these actions would lessen the maximum possible happiness of all. The discussion would then focus on the value 'the maximum happiness of all' and unless it can be shown that there is a Moral Law which enshrines this value, it must be regarded as just another of the things people may desire with different strengths and which is no more objectively valuable or Morally praiseworthy than my desire to hear well-tuned instruments.
Here we see another of the serious costs the subjectivist pays for his/her moral liberation. Righteous indignation is no longer possible and there are no longer any secure bases for cathartic attacks against unquestionably evil deeds or views. Unless one can demonstrate the existence of a Moral Law there is no excuse for regarding any repulsive action as any more than an action one prefers not to perform or to see performed by others.
This implication of the denial of the Moral Law assumption takes away a great deal of the moral power and security we are used to and it imposes a requirement for great emotional restraint and tolerance. One can no longer feel free to administer crushing moral judgements from the safety of morally certain ground. One must, on the contrary, limit one's judgements of the most repulsive actions to no more force or outrage than would be warranted by a judgement regarding unpalatable foods or revolting paintings or unpleasant smells. If I were told about an act of torture I would not be justified in asserting 'That is an outrageously Morally bad thing to do!' This could only be a true or justifiable assertion if there were a Moral Law. All I can say are things like, 'I am very upset by that act', 'I wish that act had never occurred', 'I hope and pray that the values producing acts like that do not spread', 'Society would be dreadful if only a few people who did those things were allowed to be free; let's make sure they are not'.
The parity between values
As has been indicated in the previous sections, there are no grounds on which one can claim that there is any objective difference in value between any idea, action, position, goal etc that one individual holds and any that some other individual holds. This is because there is no respectable justification for talking about objective values; one can only talk about what things are of what value to particular individuals. The ultimate values of the dedicated pacifist do not differ in Moral value from those of the sadist, because neither set has any Moral value at all. One has no justification for claiming the former to be more valuable. They may be infinitely more valuable-to-you, but if the latter are more valuable-to-someone-else there is no way you can show that his/her ultimate values are wrong or inferior to yours. All you can do if face the fact that he/she values inflicting pain more than anything else and you value peace more than anything else.
Readers suffering from the bad intellectual habits that constitute Moral Law thinking are very likely to see this as an absurd position. The challenge before them is again clear and simple, but impossible to meet. It is to show how inflicting pain is in fact less valuable (as distinct from being merely less valuable-to-people in general) than ensuring peace. Indicate how one could even begin to try to show this! Of all the implications of the rejection of the Moral Law assumption this parity between values is probably the most difficult to accept. Our indubitable conviction that some things must be more important, more valuable than others has been built into the foundations of our perspectives on the world.
But doesn't this concept of morality reduce to utter nihilism?
This conception of morality certainly does involve some thoroughly nihilistic elements but subjectivism is far from a position which implies that nothing matters or that there are no values or criteria or goals in life. Certainly there is no recourse whatever to any Moral criteria for deciding what one should do or what is important. All rules can only be made by humans and none can ever be any more than procedural arrangements. There is no such thing as Right or Wrong; there are only consequences of actions or positions which impinge on people's desires in different ways.
Hence Sartre's ethical nihilism is correct.7 There can be no more (or less) Moral justification for killing an ant than for killing a human. Neither can be any more Morally wrong than the other because each is an event without any value-in-itself. Individual humans tend to be very reluctant to kill other individual humans and they prefer to live in societies where life is protected and where those who do kill are punished severely. It can therefore be shown that in general killing is unwise (i.e., instrumentally ineffective) if you value your own life and liberty, and/or if you value a safe and stable society, and/or if the very idea of killing is repulsive to you. But without a Moral Law it makes no sense to say that killing is wrong or unjustified. (It is of course just as impossible to conclude that killing humans is right or justified. More extensive comments on the vacuousness of the concept 'justified' are given below).
This is the sense in which the basic principle of freedom in Sartre's existentialism is true and highly important. As there are no Moral value criteria in nature to which one can appeal to settle moral problems the individual is free; in fact he is condemned to the dreadful burden of free choice.8 Although one cannot avoid choices there are no moral facts to refer to in order to ensure that one has made the right choice. One can never say, for instance, that killing your political rival is 'clearly out of the question because murder is in fact wrong just as surely as copper is in fact a metal'.
There is an all or nothing choice here between the Moral Law assumption and ethical nihilism. Either one accepts that there are some Moral Laws which finally settle moral problems or one accepts that there are absolutely none at all, that the essence of morality as is generally conceived has no substance whatever and that problems of choice must be settled without the possibility of any reference at all to criteria beyond desires and consequences.
This 'ethical nihilism' would strike most people as having chaotic implications. The common reaction is, 'surely this means that anything goes. If there are no Moral Laws, anyone might as well do what he/she likes. He/she might as well go on a wild orgy of killing and looting'. Certainly one could do this without breaking any Moral Laws of nature, because there are none, but obviously it would not be a sensible thing to do if one values a peaceful, long and safe existence, and if the Moral Law assumption were to be dropped this is what most of us would come to regard as the main reason for having moral rules; i.e., to organize behaviour towards the satisfaction of desires.
Thus the fact that ethical nihilism is correct (i.e., as a denial of the existence of Moral Laws) does not mean that there are no considerations of any sort on which to ground codes of behaviour or evaluations of behaviour. All the considerations to which we have any need to turn for working out satisfactory rules of conduct and harmonious societies remain; i.e., the desires of sentient beings and the consequences of action. The great value of this nihilistic conclusion lies in the way it sweeps away the mass of confusing rubbish which so effectively blocks a clear view of the nature of morality and hinders movement towards more satisfactory codes for behaviour. Once the truth of ethical nihilism is grasped we can build firmly without being distracted and confused by the persuasive Moral Law assumption. The only foundations on which we should attempt to build codes of behaviour are desires and scientific evidence on how satisfactorily various social procedures and organizations work out. In some fields, especially that of rules to control traffic, we come close to building solely on these foundations. The tragedy is that we imagine there to be such a gulf between rules like 'Keep left' and rules like 'don't steal' and 'Don't kill'. Moral codes can only be built and rebuilt by humans. Rules can be no more than procedures human groups adopt for organizing conduct towards maximum satisfaction of the desires of all concerned. The truth of ethical nihilism therefore does not eliminate the possibility of morality, but it does drastically recast the nature of the moral enterprise.
The nature of moral argument
In the absence of any Moral Law moral argument cannot be concerned with proving or demonstrating whether or not actions, positions or principles are in fact Morally right, i.e., whether or not they have any objective quality or rightness that is not reducible to or explicable in terms of consequences and desires. Similarly there would be no force in any argument which supported an 'ought' statement on the grounds that the recommended action is Morally right, i.e., right in some sense that goes beyond the realm of consequences and desires. Moral argument could only attempt to clarify relations between actions (or positions), consequences and desires. The most common moral arguments would then be about whether or not an individuals' particular action or position would or would not be instrumental in bringing about some end that individual desires, or would desire if he or she fully understood the situation. The most common moral arguments are in support of a claim that begins 'You ought to ...'. We are often persuaded by these arguments because we accept the Moral rightness in principle of some values or actions that the arguer insists are at stake. If we have rejected the existence of any such Moral qualities, things or facts, then moral argument can only be persuasive if it shows that the action or value being recommended promotes some consequence that we desire, which means that moral argument can only take the same form as any other argument about means to desired ends.
This takes much of the persuasive force out of ought statements. We can't expect to influence someone against being cruel unless we can show that cruelty interferes with some end that he or she desires. It is of no use to point out that we are disgusted by cruelty, unless he or she wants to avoid action that disgusts us. We might point out that the practice of cruelty could have unpleasant social consequences but this would only dissuade this person if he or she desired to avoid those consequences. One's moral argument therefore could influence another person only if it established that the act in question is conducive to the achievement of ends that the other person desires.
This seems to be an unsatisfactory position because moral argument is usually thought of as leading to conclusions of the form, 'You ought to do this whether or not you desire its effects', but such statements only make sense if it is assumed that the act in question has some quality of Moral rightness that is not reducible to its experienced consequences and their relation to desires. This analysis means that some moral arguments collapse into or can be seen to be nothing more than the pointless assertion of incompatible desires held by the parties on either side of the argument. What could we achieve by moral argument if we were confronted by someone who claims that extermination of Jews is far more important to him than anything else and even more important than his own life. We could get him to think carefully about what he is saying and what consequences would follow if he or others acted on this position and about whether he really would than be happy with what had been done. If he does think carefully and does not change his position, then there is no more that rational discussion can achieve. Of course it is tempting to conclude that regardless of what he thinks an argument against the validity of his value commitment is possible. But try to imagine how we could argue against such a commitment. Only three lines of argument seem to be open. (a) We could try to show him that pursuit of this value would clash with some other value he holds, or that he is mistaken about what his policy would achieve or why it is important to exterminate Jews. (b) We could make statements emphasizing how appalled we and others are at this attitude and (as Stevenson's account of moral argument indicates) we could hope that a barrage of this sort might change his mind regarding the value of exterminating Jews, but this is not the way the term 'argue' is usually used. (The term is being used here to mean reasoning intended to establish a proposition; i.e., to show that it is warranted: it does not refer to, for instance, emotional expressions of rejection or of disgust at another's values.) (c) We could claim that this value was contrary to Moral Law. If the discussion established that he did in fact place overriding value on the extermination of Jews and that no expression of disgust would have any effect on him, and that he understood that there is no Moral Law, then no argument can show him that he should change his position. We would have to admit that his argument was valid because he had shown that in view of what he values he should pursue the extermination of Jews as this is the effective means to his ends. There is a good argument against his position only if we begin from value premises we hold and he does not. For example if we place great negative value on harming others then we have a very good reason for opposing the extermination of Jews, but this is a very different argument to the one we are engaged in.
Three important implications can be seen to derive from this discussion. firstly, because moral arguments are about actions or judgements or stances the question of whether or not these ought to have been carried out or made or taken can only be determined by reference to ends held by the individual or group whose action or judgement or stance is being examined. When we say 'X should not be done' we either mean (a) 'He should not do X because it will lead to consequences which he does not want', or we mean (b) 'He should not do X because it will lead to consequences we do not want'. Assertion (b) will only influence anyone who does not want to upset us (and in this case we have another instance of (a). In both cases meaning derives from connections with something the individual in question values.
Secondly, it can be seen that the rationality of a moral position depends solely on the instrumental effectiveness of the means it embraces, and not in any way on the ends it is geared to or assumes. A resolution to exterminate Jews is perfectly rational if one values their elimination; it is then obviously an instrumentally effective way to proceed. (The view that the rationality of ends can be assessed in terms of whether or not 'good reasons' can be given for holding them is discussed and dismissed in the section on 'Rationality and Morality' in Chapter 4).
Thirdly, strictly speaking there can be no argument between people about their intrinsic or fundamental or ultimate values. There can be expressions of differences in preferences, there can be clarification of an individual's value hierarchy and of unrecognized relations within it, but unless one assumes the existence of a Moral Law no argument can be put forward to establish the validity or the objective Moral quality of any of an individual's intrinsic values. If Schweitzer were to confront Eichman discussion about the very different effects of practising reverence for life and of practising genocide could take place, but assuming this established that these respective values were of overriding importance to the two participants, neither could put forward an argument to show the other or any independent third party that the other's value is inferior to his own.9
It should not need emphasising that this account does not destroy the possibility of important and meaningful moral disagreement. People obviously do have different values concerning conduct. but, to repeat, moral argument (in the sense of reasoning to logically valid conclusions and as distinct from asserting strongly held preferences) is only possible about means to ends (and therefore about whether or not some ends are effective means to more distant ends). One cannot dispute the objective or Moral value of another person's intrinsic values; one can only state that one accepts or rejects those values, or try to show one's adversary that his/her pursuit of these values will thwart other more important values that he/she holds, in which case the arguments is about means to ends.
The conditional nature of all ought statements
No categorical ought statement can be sustained. Such statements assert no demonstrable or verifiable proposition about the nature of things. We can understand what those who utter such statements think they are asserting; i.e., that the recommended action is a Moral Law or is deducible from one. In other words categorical ought statements can only make sense if there is a Moral Law. If there are some actions which have some quality of rightness that can be discussed in addition to the desires and experienced consequences relating to them, then it makes sense to utter statements like 'You ought to do this, full-stop. You ought to do it whether you want to or not and whether or not you like the consequences, because it is in fact the right thing to do.'
When Moral Law thinking has been abandoned only conditional ought statements make sense. Any meaningful ought statements will be seen to take the form 'If you want Y, then you ought to do X because X does (or usually does, or in view of the evidence is likely to ...) bring about Y'. Ought statements therefore can only point out relations between actions which might be taken and consequences which might be desired; i.e., they make clear what means are instrumental to what ends.
The absence of important distinctions between morality and expedience or prudence
Conventional thought holds this to be a most important distinction but in the absence of belief in a Moral Law it collapses. Once can then only speak of whether or not a particular individual prefers to do one thing or another. It can't be argued that some types of ends are in fact more Morally important and that the Moral action is in pursuit of these whereas the expedient action is not. If morally liberated person A goes through life continually seconding his own welfare to that of others and morally liberated person B does just the reverse you can express preference for A if you wish and you seek to show that A's approach to life is more likely to generate general happiness, but this would only be to state the relative position of the two ends in your value hierarchy. There is no difference between them in Moral quality. Both courses of action are clearly 'expedient' as each is instrumentally designed to achieve outcomes desired by its executor, and at the same time both are just as clearly 'moral' in that they affect the experience of others. One might resolve to apply the term 'moral' only to actions motivated by preference for the welfare of others but this should not obscure the fact that any distinction between 'Moral' and 'expedient' cannot transcend the realm of objectively-valueless preferences.
The homogeneous nature of all rules
It is usually thought that an important distinction can be made between rules which cover conventions or customs and rules which are matters of moral principle. This is especially evident in Kohlberg's account of moral thought10 and in the literature on moral education where the concept of moral autonomy is usually taken to involve the capacity to transcend the particular conventions of one's society and to think about moral problems in terms of the higher or universal moral principles, such as the principle of justice or respect for human rights.
The preceding discussion of the entirely subjective nature of value and the parity between intrinsic values argued that values cannot be ranked in terms of their Moral worth. They can be ranked in terms of their importance to a particular individual or group, but there is no way of showing that commitment to conformity or pleasure is objectively less valuable or Moral than is commitment to justice or human rights. In the jargon of contemporary ethics, there is no way of showing that Kohlberg's justice or rights or Wilson's principles 11 are other than the highly valued 'first order moral principles' of twentieth century anglo-Saxon society.
The scientific approach to moral problems
A science of morality is not only possible; the scientific method provides the only sensible strategy for tackling moral problems.
The majority of philosophers and laymen who have theorized about morality have firmly supported the conclusion that there is an unbridgeable gulf between matters of scientific fact and matters of value.12 (Moral Law believers see Moral Laws as facts of nature, but as facts within a very different realm from that studies by natural scientists.) Today most would probably say that scientific method is only appropriate for settling issues of empirical fact, and that although it can therefore clarify any empirical problems involved in Moral problems, e.g., what the results of incest might be, it is utterly inapplicable to the essentially Moral aspects of problems of choice which require judgements about what would be right, good, just, obligatory, etc.
In the absence of any Moral Law the basic elements entering any moral calculus can be no more than the desires of the individuals involved and the probable consequences of various possible courses of action. Insight into these elements can only be gained by the application of scientific method. When we have become as informed and as clear as possible about the facts regarding our situation, about the desires of those involved and about the possible options and their probable consequences, all that is left to do is to choose one of the options. The actual making of the decision might not be easy and it is not being suggested that consensus is always possible. Many important choices might always remain subject to resolution by head counting and political processes.
Of course the act of choice, whether made by an individual or a nation, is not a scientific process. The scientific method cannot be used to make choices. Science can only clarify desires, options and consequences, but the essential point is that in solving moral problems there is nothing else to do in addition to clarifying desires and consequences and options and then choosing. The conventional view is that there is something else to do; that, indeed, the most important thing remains to be done, and that is to take into account what the Moral Law decrees should be done in such situations. When one sees that there is no Moral Law and that the only sensible point for rules is to facilitate the pursuit of desires, then one realizes that it is absurd if continual steps are not taken to collect evidence on the effectiveness of rules in use and to experiment with different rules. We do something like this in our development of traffic codes. When the Moral Law assumption is dropped and choices of action and rules are seen to be problems of the form 'What will we do?' or 'How will we organize this to optimize satisfactions?', then choice depends entirely on our knowledge of what is at stake, what desires are held, what alternatives are open and what outcomes are likely. These are all problems which only science can solve or throw light on.
It is quite paradoxical that for a long time we have taken this scientific approach to many problems of social policy, such as designing traffic and health systems, but we still fail to apply it to all problems of social policy.13 We single out some problems as being distinctly Moral problems and refuse to approach them solely in a scientific way.
The Moral Law perspective on morality assumes that there is a clear logical boundary separating moral problems and action from non-moral problems and action. It implies that there is a threshold to morality. The Moral Law decrees that some actions are moral, some are immoral, and some are not matters of morality. Any particular action is either covered by the Moral Law or it is not. The Moral Law assumption encourages one to think that the first question to ask of any action is whether or not it is required or prohibited by any Moral Law. One therefore has moral problems only in particular situations or on particular occasions. Usually relatively few of one's daily actions are moral problems. One might get right through the morning, having brushed one's teeth with the left hand, having had hot milk rather than cold, etc., actions which are neither right or wrong as they are not referred to in the Moral Law, before being confronted by a charity button seller, at which point in time one enters a Moral situation. One must then decide whether to give money to others or to keep it for oneself. If one believes that the requirements of the Moral Law in question can be met by buying a button, and one does so, one has resolved that Moral problem. This on-or-off conception of morality is reinforced by the structure of our legal codes. If the ticket inspector comes across a parent with a child for whom the parent has not bought a ticket, he knows that a wrong either has or has not been committed depending on the precise age of the child. If the child is under the legal age level, all is well; the parent has not been under any obligation to buy a ticket for the child.
This convenient image of a sharp distinction between moral and non-moral terrain fades away completely once the Moral Law assumption has been abandoned. Because there are no laws of nature which decree that there is an obligation in that situation but there is none in this situation, one is always in a position where an infinite number of choices are open and each will have a particular pattern of effects on the welfare of oneself and others. The implications of this absence of a threshold for morality and the consequent freedom of the moral actor are extremely profound and disturbing.
Reference has been made to the common view that if belief in Moral Law were to be dropped there would be nothing to restrain impulse. It has been explained that, on the contrary, there would still be criteria which can be used to build a moral code, but of course there is no Moral necessity that these should be followed. It would seem that without a Moral Law assumption there is likely to be little place for any sense of obligation, responsibility, discipline or restraint in the making of behaviour decisions. However, when the full implications of the revised account of morality are understood, the apparent freedom attending the abandonment of Moral Law thinking turns out to be a seriously false impression. Actually, the individual carries on intolerable burden of freedom and responsibility which can be escaped only by deliberate acts of self-deception. It is far more comforting to live under the assumption of a Moral Law as usually conceived in Western society than to live in full realisation of the actual nature of morality.
The elucidation of these themes might best be commenced by means of an example. If a Moral Law believer were to win $1,000 in a lottery she would probably feel no moral difficulty in spending it on things like a new carpet or a set of books or a trip, because none of these actions is usually thought to be prohibited by any Moral Law. The threshold of morality set by Moral Law thinking has not been crossed. But what situation would such a lottery winner be in if she took a subjectivist view of the nature of morality? The considerations which would then bear on her attempt to answer the question 'What will I do?' include the facts of her situation (let us assume that he/she has no pressing needs), and her desires. The problem seems simple enough until we see that the list of relevant desires in this situation is far wider than might at first be suspected. It includes altruistic desires; i.e., our lottery winner's concern for the welfare of others. Unless she is a most atypical individual she will place some negative value on the experience other people have of disease, exploitation, poverty, hunger and so on. Everyone knows these experiences occur on a large scale. The miracle worked by the Moral Law assumption is that it prevents these sorts of facts from being considered when most people in affluent societies make decisions about action and policy. Our lottery winner will probably not perceive these facts as setting any moral problems for her or as being relevant to the question of how she will use her winnings. The sort of Moral Law commonly assumed in our society does not brand as immoral any of the ways she is thinking of spending the $1,000. But that she does have a serious moral problem becomes clear when we add to her decision considerations (a) the fact that she puts some value on the alleviation of other people's sufferings; (b) the fact that $1,000 could bring the diets of 100 Bangladesh families up to sufficient standards for one year, or could provide TB vaccine for 50,000 children, and so on. Our lottery winner clearly has the power to save many lives, and to alleviate much suffering, and these are outcomes she values. She therefore has the problem of deciding whether she will spend the money on these purposes or on a trip or on books, etc.
This is not the end of the matter. She could, in fact, draw another $1,000 from her bank account and spend that too on improving the circumstances of those in dire need. In fact she could draw all of her money out and spend it on these purposes. Most of us living in developed countries choose to spend much of our money on things we have very little need for when it could be spent improving the quality of life of some of the millions of human beings who exist in the unspeakably had conditions we know characterise the Third World. The conventional Moral Law perspective usually does not lead people to regard the latter sort of action as a clear and forceful obligation and therefore those who hold this perspective usually feel little or no effective compulsion to take these actions. They are protected from feeling this 'responsibility' by the fact that it is not clearly prescribed by the Moral Law they assume to exist. They see obligations as clear-cut things that the Moral Law decrees one has or does not have and they typically do not see themselves as being under any Moral obligation or duty to assist the Third World
Immediately one gives up the Moral Law perspective one cannot avoid being confronted with the fact of one's selfishness and/or the hypo-critical contradiction between one's desires and one's actions. Virtually all of us do put some value on other people's experience of health and happiness, but if a moral subjectivist is asked 'Why do you not devote your relatively abundant resources to alleviating some of the extreme suffering you know exist?', he cannot offer as a sufficient answer, 'Because I have no responsibility to do this'. Of course he has no Moral responsibility to do this, but if he does value the alleviation of suffering and if he does have money in the bank he can only answer either, 'It is more important to me to direct my resources to providing myself with new clothes, theatre visits, books and travel than to the alleviation of starvation, poverty and disease', or, 'I do think that the alleviation of these experiences is much more important than enhancing my already comfortable and enjoyable existence, but nevertheless, I spend most of my money on the latter end'. Neither is a very comfortable stance.
It is worth stressing the comparative magnitude of the values at state here. Try to imagine what you would be prepared to pay in theatre visits or new books or new carpets foregone to ensure that you could avoid the experience of having to watch one of your children slowly die because you cannot provide it with enough to eat. Would all your savings be too great a price to pay to avoid this experience? Would you be prepared to go into debt for the rest of your life? The avoidance of such an experience would probably be of inestimable importance to you. Each year somewhere between 4 and 20 million people die from starvation or related causes, and in some regions one quarter of all children die before they are one year old. The importance of these phenomena, the full significance of the experiences they entail, is utterly beyond an individual's capacity to imagine. Belief in the existence of a Moral Law miraculously blinds one to and absolves one from the intolerable burden or responsibility which phenomena such as these otherwise impose. If one has the power to make a positive difference and if one values that difference, then one has the problem of whether one is going to take the trouble to make such a difference.
Moral Law thinking usually completely misses the problem of the actions which one is not 'obliged' to perform but which would increase human welfare if they were performed. For instance, few people see any moral problem in the choice of a career. Most would think that the important considerations in this choice are, for instance, 'What sort of work would I enjoy doing?', 'What jobs pay best?', 'Will I be secure?' The question 'What good can I do for others in this or that career?' is usually not considered because there is not usually thought to be any Moral Law which requires that it should be. It is therefore as morally acceptable to become a fashion model as it is to become a nurse, and there is no moral difference between being an executive in food sales or in sports car advertising. When the Moral Law assumption is abandoned, the great difficulty of the choices involved in problems like these become evident. The question then is not, 'Is there anything Morally wrong with becoming an advertising executive?', but 'Given the things I value, including the welfare of others, am I happy to devote my skills to increasing sales of sports cars when I could apply my talents to the care of orphan children (etc.)?'.
Philosophers have not been very interested in responsibility in this sense. Most attention given to the concept has been in a Moral Law context and the main question has been when do responsibilities exist, implying again that the Moral Law casts a definite shadow and the task is to see whether or not this or that action is in fact covered by the Law. Orthodox philosophers have given some attention to benevolence and 'imperfect duties' but the existentialists are the ones who have been most concerned with the way in which denial of the Moral Law perspective yields a state of freedom bringing with it not unlimited moral chaos but unlimited responsibility. In other words, to abandon the Moral Law assumption is to come face to face with the intolerable burden of freedom and responsibility which Sartre recognizes in his statement 'I am condemned to be free'.14 Either one must acknowledge that the welfare of others in desperate plight is not very important to one compared with titivation of one's own relatively pampered desires, or one has a continual and massive problem of deciding how one will allocate one's resources between one's own needs and those of others who are far worse off. If the welfare of others, which we know to be in an extremely poor condition in the case of several hundred million humans on this earth, is important to you, then you have the problem of deciding what you are going to do about it. To understand one's freedom from any Moral Law is to understand the possible implications of the relations between one's selfish and one's altruistic values. It is to see that if one does value the welfare of others there is a grinding clash between enhancing their welfare and one's own welfare. Will I devote 10% of my income to the Freedom From Hunger Campaign? But that would leave me with an income fifty times the average in the underdeveloped countries of the world. Why don't I give 30%, or 60%? Where do I draw the line? The world would clearly be a better place if I devoted all my time and energy and resources to the care of the hungry and diseased even if I abandoned my own family to do this. They would still be better off in a welfare state such as ours than would the many people I would thereby be able to lift at least for a time to a more tolerable existence. Yet, of course, even if I were extraordinarily successful in my new vocation I would not have made a noticeable difference to the proportions of the total problem. Is the best solution then to do nothing and to put up with my knowledge of the disturbing freedom I have, like enduring an endless toothache?
This is the perspective existentialists refer to in terms of our absolute moral freedom and responsibility. I can't say 'The Moral Law does not include any clause which puts me under a responsibility to try to help any of those who desperately need assistance.' It is completely up to me whether I choose to make the enormous difference to the experience of other people that I could obviously make. I could do this, I am free to, and all that stands between the existing situation and the difference I could make is an act of choice on my part. This is the sense in which existentialists would say I am responsible. By this they mean that by my choice I will determine which of various possible outcomes will occur . When one has the power to make a difference then one is responsible for, i.e., one causes, the difference one does choose to make (and this includes the choice to make no difference). As Sartre says, '...man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. We are taking the word 'responsible' in its ordinary sense as 'consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object'.'15
Now who can be seen to have taken the soft option? The concept of an intolerable burden or responsibility begins to make some sense. How nice it would be if there were Moral facts precisely delineating one's responsibilities so that one could determine whether one actually did have a responsibility to worry about the poor and what would precisely fulfil that responsibility. In the absence of such Moral facts the threshold dissolves; there is no convenient boundary marking where moral problems begin. One is enmeshed in an infinite number of impossibly difficult moral problems at every moment of one's life. The most important of these problems are set by the usually unrecognized alternative actions open; the beneficial things one might have chosen to do but which one never thought of doing. Thus the individual asking herself 'Will I go to the theatre of stay home and write some overdue letters?' does not see that one of the things she could decide to do there and then is to offer all her money to the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, and another thing she could do is resolve to study medicine so that she could eventually work in a Calcutta hospital. To recognize one's freedom, to see that these options are not 'out of the question because the Moral Law does not require them to be taken', is to recognize that one exists in an intolerable situation. The experience of hunger and poverty and so on is overwhelmingly enormous. Few of us would be willing to say that we place no value whatsoever on eliminating these experiences. Most of us have the power to make life or death differences to the experiences of many individual human beings, and without a Moral Law there is no reason why we should not or need not try.16
The burden of this responsibility can only be escaped by either (a) placing little or no value on the welfare of others, which most of us would not want to do even if it were psychologically possible, (b) deliberately tuning out psychologically; pushing from the centre of one's mind the magnitude and reality of what is at stake and of one's freedom to make a difference to the world.. Sartre and Berger illuminate the ways in which most of us employ social definitions to this second end, usually unwittingly.17 We take socially-given roles and values to have settled many problems of the form 'What will I do?' and especially to have settled issues of responsibility. 'It is the Council's job to keep the streets clean', 'The judge is only applying the law as is required of anyone in that situation', 'Officials are not supposed to take their personal feelings into account', 'Bomb aimers have a duty to press the button'. And of course the Moral Law provides the most clinching problem and choice settling arguments; e.g., 'I simply can't do that; it is wrong', 'I simply must do that; it is my duty.'18
Sartre applies the term 'bad faith' to the common state of mind whereby beliefs about social expectations unwittingly settle the 'What will I do?' problem.19 'Bad faith' involves failure to accept (more often, failure to perceive) one's freedom of choice, and therefore one's responsibility. It involves the assumption that some courses of action must be taken, that one has no choice, because, in terms of this essay, the Moral Law limits moral choice to these courses of action. Existentialists unite in condemning bad faith, yet it would seem to follow from the above argument that some degree of deliberate bad faith is crucial for the mental health of anyone who understands morality. Existentialists explain that to be fully and continually aware of one's existential situation is to experience a state of anxiety or 'dread'. It is to realize not just that one is alone, vulnerable, cosmically insignificant, but also to realize that one is continually faced with inescapable choices and one is totally without any value criteria one can employ to ensure that one has made the Right choice. Above all, if one places any value on the welfare of others, one is continually faced with the problem of allocating one's energies and resources between one's own welfare and that of others, in a world where millions of others fare very badly. The magnitude of one's freedom and responsibility, therefore, seems to set one a choice between a state of continual anguish and possibly self-imposed deprivation on the one hand, or, on the other hand, of wilfully ignoring essential aspects of one's moral situation. If one wants some peace of mind it would seem that one must be capable of at least periodically blocking these realities out of consciousness by an act of sheer will.
Responsibilities can only be taken on; they can't be recognized
As has been noted, Moral Law thinking usually involves an image of responsibilities similar to that of rights or obligations. Depending on the situation and the relevant Moral Laws one is thought either to have a responsibility or not to have one. Thus, if I make a promise to devote money to an appeal, I thereafter have a responsibility to give the specified amount (although I may be absolved from this responsibility by circumstances which invoke other Moral Laws).
If there is no Moral Law, responsibilities can only be actions one agrees to perform or is expected to perform. One most important corollary of this is that responsibilities cannot be given or encountered; they can only be taken on. Without a Moral Law the statement 'You have a responsibility to care for your children' can take no stronger form than 'We expect you to care for your children; we would like you to do this, because if you do not, various consequences will follow which will be unpleasant for many people'. If a father does not care for his children then observers can express their dislike of this behaviour or they can reason with him about its possible effects, but unless there is a Moral Law it makes no sense for them to tell him he has failed to meet the responsibility he is in fact under.
It follows from the above discussion of moral motivation that responsibilities will only be taken on if the individual sees that the action in question will be a means to the achievement of some end which has intrinsic importance to that individual.
This chapter has filled out the basic structure for an account of morality which lies wholly within the realm of experience and natural science and which deals only with things like desires and consequences. This is almost a biological theory of ethics; it focuses on the fact that human beings have desires and that they exist in a situation where there are problems of adaptation and organization. It is quite conceivable that some primitive societies have become extinct simply because they adopted unworkable codes of behaviour. Any society has the problem of devising ways for ordering conduct. Rules should be seen simply as arrangements, as ways of proceeding, formulated humans. The only sensible criteria to be drawn upon in this task are to do with the quality of experience; i.e., with whether or not the codes have outcomes which are satisfying to those involved. There is, therefore, no need for any reference to other-worldly entities or criteria in tackling problems of adaptation to the conditions of existence. Just as a tribal group must work out a strategy for coping with wild animal raids on their gardens (more accurately, would be wise to, if they want to survive), so they must face problems of interpersonal conduct and social organization, or put up with the problems. Some arrangements will be very satisfactory to all concerned, some will not. Some will require change after a time. The merits of some arrangements will be perennially debated. That this is the nature of our moral situation has been thoroughly obscured by the idea that in addition to the realm of experience, adaptation and natural phenomena which can be understood by scientific method there is a realm of Morality, that there are Moral properties and qualities and criteria, that rights and responsibilities exist, that terms like 'good' and 'wrong' stand for objective realities which exist as independent of human opinion as do the entities and qualities denoted by terms like 'brick' or 'canine', and that these must be the overriding determinants in decisions about action, value and social policy.
The discussion of morality can, in other words, be entirely reduced to or entirely carried out in the terms of natural science. Indeed there is no justification for carrying it on in any other terms unless there are good reasons for thinking that some sort of Moral Law or Moral objectivity holds. Moral problems are problems about what humans value and prefer, how their actions affect themselves and others, what rules of procedures they set up and how these work out. These are natural phenomena which science can investigate, and these are the terms in which we can fully represent what is involved in moral problems. Nothing but confusion is added to an account of moral situations by the use of Moral terms which are not fully translatable into natural, scientifically investigatable concepts. Anyone who objects to this position must demonstrate what objectively and distinctively Moral qualities moral terms stand for.
1. Arguments similar to those given in this section can be found in F.A. Olafson, Principles and Persons, Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins, 1967, pp 47-50. Hume makes the basic point by asking us to locate the vice in an act of wilful murder. 'The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You can never find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast and find a sentiment of disapprobation...' D. Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, II, 3.3, Oxford, Clarendon, 1888. Popper claims that moral standards '... are not to be found in nature. Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral.' The Open Society and Its Enemies, London, Routledge, 1966, p.61. (According to Popper, Protagoras may have been the first explicit subjectivist. He taught that 'Nature does not know norms.' See p.66).
2. Hume makes the point in terms of a sapling that grows up and eventually kills its parent tree. The difference between this event and an act of human patricide lies only in the feelings we have about them.
3. Connections with Hume's account of moral motivation and with Nowell-Smith's concept of 'pro-attitudes' are made more explicit below. See especially P.H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1954, p.132. Foot makes the general point asserted above in her 'Moral beliefs', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, LIX, 1958, pp 83-105.
4. Connections with Dewey's philosophy are discussed in Chapter 5.
5. And perhaps incapable of reaching even this level if some element of altruism is essential in what Durkheim called 'the non-contractual element in contract'.
6. See the discussion of 'internalization' in Chapter 4 of Dimensions of Moral Thought (op.cit).
7. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen, 1957, p.38.
8. ibid., p.439.
9. As Ayer says, '... one really never does dispute about questions of value'. 'Reasons and causes', in J. Hospers and W. Sellars, eds, Readings in Ethical Theory, 2nd edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1970, p.399. According to Norman the idea that moral stances and arguments derive from premises which cannot be disputed is evident in the writings of Anscombe, Foot, Gauthier, Nowell-Smith and Hume, and it probably derives from Aristotle's dictum that in practical reasoning '... the starting point is the thing wanted.', R. Norman, Reasons for Action, Oxford, Blackwell, 1971, Chapter 1. In Chapter 4 of his Utilitarianism Mill also accepts that ultimate ends cannot be proved. At the beginning of Chapter 5 below it is emphasized that emotivists do not make it sufficiently clear that it is dispute about fundamental as distinct from instrumental values that is not possible.
10. See for instance, L. Kohlberg, 'The development of children's orientations towards a moral order', Vita Humana, 1963, 6, pp 11-33.
11. J. Wilson, N. Williams, and B. Sugarman, Introduction to Moral Education, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967, p.192.
12. This was a dualism in our attitude to problem solving which Dewey regretted and which he hoped a revolution in philosophy would overcome.
13. Dewey, Durkheim and Stevenson are among the few to have discussed the relationship. The views of Dewey and Durkheim are analyzed in Chapter 5. See also, C.L. Stevenson, 'The emotive meaning of ethical terms', Mind, 1937, pp 29-30.
14. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen, 1957, p.439. See also pp 38-45, 628.
15. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen, 1957, p.553.
16. This does not mean that all conceptions of Moral Law do provide reasons why one need not try. Some of course locate altruistic purposes very high in their value hierarchies.
17. P. Berger, Invitation to Sociology, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963, Chapters 3 and 4. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen, 1957, pp 44-45, et. seq.
18. For an account of responsibility similar to that put forward by Sartre, see S. Hampshire, Thought and Action, London, Chatto and Windus, 1960, pp 186-187.
19. See J.P. Sartre, op. cit.; M. Warnock, Ethics Since 1990, London, Oxford University Press, 1960, p.125; and P. Berger, Invitation to Sociology, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, pp 163-171.