Notes on Moore and Parker, Chapter 12: Moral, Legal and Aesthetic Reasoning

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1 Notes on Moore and Parker, Chapter 12: Moral, Legal and Aesthetic Reasoning The final chapter of Moore and Parker s text is devoted to how we might apply critical reasoning in certain philosophical contexts. The most obvious contexts of application are contexts involving values whether those values be moral, legal or aesthetic. I shall have the most to say about the first of these. Moral Reasoning Nature of morality Ethics (another branch of philosophy!) deals with questions about what things in life are good, and also with questions about how we ought to act. A crucial idea about making judgments about such issues is that those judgments do not merely describe a state of affairs; rather they prescribe or have some normative content. If I say that the sky is blue, for example, I am merely describing (a part of) the world, saying that a certain thing in the world has a certain color. By contrast, if I say that happiness is good, then I seem to be doing something else. I seem, perhaps in addition to describing happiness as having a certain feature (namely, goodness), to be somehow recommending happiness, or saying that happiness is something to be pursued. And surely, if I say that lying is wrong, I am prescribing action and not describing it. It is this extra evaluative dimension of the moral that allows us to distinguish the immoral from the non-moral. 1 To be immoral is to be or to act counter to morality. Thus if there is a moral rule against lying, then I am acting immorally when I lie. To be non-moral is to be outside the realm of morality. Thus if we are arguing about, say, the origin of the universe, we are involved in nonmoral considerations. 1 Note also the existence of the word amoral. People are often called amoral to the extent that they take themselves to be outside of the bounds of ordinary morality. So to be amoral is to take one s actions to be non-moral, which it may well be immoral to do!

2 Two principles There is, as one might imagine, a tremendous amount of disagreement over what moral principles ought to look like. But here are two (very general) principles that should strike us as very intuitive. other Principle #1 ( Consistency ): Cases not relevantly different from each should receive the same treatment. Principle #2 ( Burden of Proof ): The burden of proof 2 is on her who appears to violate Principle #1 to show that she is not. A word on these principles: The first says, in effect, that if a certain course of action is appropriate in a given situation, then that course of action will be appropriate in all similar situations. The second says, in effect, that someone who seems to be disobeying Principle #1, i.e. someone who seems to be following a course of action different from what was appropriate in a similar situation, owes us an explanation as to how he is justifying his behavior. The explanation may proceed by arguing that the cases aren t relevantly similar after all, or by arguing that his behavior isn t relevantly different from the behavior that was appropriate in the first case. These principles sacrifice precision for intuitiveness. The urgent question, of course, is when cases are and are not relevantly different. Is abortion relevantly similar to capital punishment, for example? Both involve killing. But of course there are many differences as well. Capital punishment involves the killing of someone (found to be) guilty of some crime, whereas abortion does not. Capital punishment involves the killing of an adult human being, whereas abortion does not. Is State spending on education relevantly similar to State spending on national defense? These are, of course, hard questions. Moral principles as general Recall that, in everyday situations, premises and conclusions are often suppressed. It is of course common to make moral arguments, and these are not immune to this natural tendency toward suppression. 2 If you need a review of this notion, go back and check the Chapter7 PowerPoint!

3 Consider, for example: You re well off, so you ought to give to Oxfam. We can flesh out the argument by adding a general moral principle (premise #2): 1. You are well off. 2. All well-off people ought to give to Oxfam. 3. Therefore, you ought to give to Oxfam. The addition of premise #2 renders the argument valid. Whether the argument is sound, of course, and hence whether we ought to accept the conclusion, is another matter. Notice, in fact, that the argument s soundness depends most critically on the truth of this very premise #2, the one that was suppressed. Major perspectives In order to get a lay of the ethical land, it is helpful to introduce a few popular and historically important moral theories. Consequentialism. The thesis of consequentialism is that whether an action ought to be done depends entirely on that action s consequences. In particular, it says that the action that what we ought to do is the action with the best consequences. Thus consequentialism is more of a framework for moral theories than a theory itself, because we need also to be told how to measure the value of consequences. I said at the beginning that morality is concerned with two sets of questions: questions about which things are good, or questions of value, on the one hand; and, on the other, questions about how we ought to behave, or questions of duty. Consequentialism is distinctive and important inasmuch as it claims there to be a particularly tight relationship between these two sets of questions: In a word, questions of duty are completely determined by questions of value. Determine which action, out of all the ones available, has the best consequences, and then do that one. A famous version of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which says that we are to measure consequences in terms of their utility, or happiness. What we ought to do is to maximize happiness. (Traditionally, this is understood as the happiness of human beings.) Deontology. There is something very plausible about consequentialism. After all, how could it be wrong to do what makes things best? And yet consequentialism seems to be incompatible with another popular idea, which is that we may have duties in certain situations that must be done no matter what,

4 and, hence, no matter how good the consequences might be of transgressing them. If I have made a promise to you, for example, it might well seem that, even if, at the critical moment when I am to keep my promise, I could actually achieve the best consequences by doing something else, still I ought to keep my promise to you. Consequentialism is also silent about the intentions with which actions are done. We are often inclined to think that it s the thought that counts, which seems to mean that, even if my action ends up hurting you, still I can be thought to have acted appropriately if I acted with the intention of helping you. But it is hard to see how consequentialism can make room for this very intuitive idea. To hold that there are certain constraints on acting so as to produce the best consequences is to adopt a deontological ethic. This name comes from a Greek word that expresses the idea of what must be done. Historically, the most famous representative of this sort of view is Immanuel Kant. It is fair to say that utilitarianism and Kantianism are the two most taught views in philosophy classes. The views are also often taken mistakenly, as we can already see to be exhaustive of the moral space, as if we all need to adopt one or the other of the two views. Kant s idea was that morality is grounded in the nature of human reason, and thus that the laws that we are to follow must have a rational basis. Kant puts the point by saying that we must be able (rationally) to will that everyone act as we are proposing to act. Thus Kant s view invites a kind of universal test. Imagine a world in which everyone is acting in the way that you are considering acting. If such a world is desirable, then what you are considering doing is morally permissible. If such a world is not desirable, then what you are considering doing is morally impermissible. Note, in particular, the anti-consequentialist character of Kant s view: It may well be that I could maximize happiness, say, by lying to you about something when the truth would be painful. But since I could not rationally want to live in a world in which everyone lies, lying is impermissible, even when telling the truth hurts. Other deontological views locate the source of our duties in other things. The divine command theorist, for example, locates the source of our duties in the word of God. Again, the crucial point is that such a view will not be consequentialist: God may command us to do something when some other action would produce the best consequences. But if it is God s word that matters, then we should be acting immorally in pursuing the action that has the best consequences.

5 Relativism. A view that has recently grown much in popularity says that rightness and wrongness are a function of culture. The idea here is that what is right in and for one culture may be wrong in and for another. This view gives up on the idea that there are universal moral truths. Despite its popularity, this view has some serious objections to face. First, what are the boundaries of a culture? Does the United States, for example, comprise just one culture, or many? Second, how can we make sense of intra-cultural disagreement or civil disobedience? It was apparently part of Alabama culture in the middle of the last century to have schools, restaurants, drinking fountains etc. segregated by the race of their patrons. Cultural relativism would suggest that these things were all morally permissible because culturally permitted. But then how do we make sense of what people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were doing? Were they not claiming that the status quo was not morally permissible? Third, how can we make sense of inter-cultural disagreement? Suppose that Turkey has the death penalty while Germany does not. Cultural relativism would apparently say that the death penalty is permissible in Turkey but not in Germany. And yet the German and the Turk would seem to be capable of arguing about the morality of the death penalty in more universal terms. The German may well think that Turkey ought not to have the death penalty (because no one should); the Turk may well think that Germany would be permitted to have the death penalty (because everyone is). But in having these thoughts they would be appealing to universal moral truths, which cultural relativism denies. Virtue Ethics. A different sort of view comes out of the ancient Greek tradition. The focus here is much less on what I ought to do and much more on how I ought to be. The idea is that the ethical person cultivates the moral virtues: temperance, courage, humility, moderation etc. Think, for example, of the Boy Scout Law: Scouts pledge not to do certain actions but to be certain ways: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and all the rest. Aristotle is often the go-to source for this sort of view. Aristotle thinks in terms of becoming a virtuous person, and this, says Aristotle, is a matter of acquiring good habits. Prior to training, we shall not be inclined to do the courageous thing. We may even find it painful to do the courageous thing. But if we try to get in the habit of doing the courageous thing, we may eventually become the sort of person who does the courageous thing willingly and naturally. Such a person is the truly courageous person. A significant criticism of this view is that it seems to offer us little guidance in how to act. It can tell us to mimic the courageous person and the loyal person and all the rest. But unless we know who the loyal person is and how he acts, it may be

6 difficult to follow this advice. The modern question: What would Jesus do? is an appropriate question for a virtue ethicist to ask. Legal Reasoning The most distinctive feature of legal reasoning, one that distinguishes it from almost all philosophical reasoning, is its appeal to precedent. The philosopher may ask about how the law ought to be, and there is great freedom in how she may try to go about answering that question. But when the lawyer asks about how to apply the law, there is, in effect, a history of right answers. There is often a tremendous amount of precedent in how the law has been applied in the past. And these precedents often dictate how the law must be applied in the present case. (Look back at our Moral Consistency Principle!) The philosopher of law may ask about what justifies the State in enacting laws. An anarchist may in fact decide that the State has no justification for enacting laws. Laws, after all, inhibit our freedom, and a philosopher may decide that our freedom is the most important value on the table. But most philosophers think that some laws are justified. What does this justificatory work? Here are a few common answers: Harm to Others. The State is justified in restricting us from harming others. Offense. The State is justified in restricting us from offending others. Paternalism. The State is justified in restricting us from harming ourselves. Legal Moralism. The State is justified in restricting us from acting immorally. One might adopt any or all of these principles. The first, often called just The Harm Principle, has likely had the greatest impact on shaping the U.S. Constitution. Aesthetic Reasoning Aesthetics is about art and what makes it valuable. Most of us judge some artworks (paintings and sculptures, to be sure, but also movies, TV shows, dances, books, musical performances, recordings, plays etc.) to be better than others. Is there room for objectivity here or is it all just a matter of taste? Just as

7 in the moral case, we can often reason about aesthetic matters by appealing to general principles as premises. Here are eight fairly intuitive principles: Principle #1: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they teach us something or are otherwise meaningful. Think, for example, of educational films. Principle #2: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they can convey values that are important to the artist or the artist s culture. Think, for example, of Picasso s Guernica or of Milton s Paradise Lost. Principle #3: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they can bring about social change. Think, for example, of Jonathan Swift s satires or of Harriet Beecher Stowe s Uncle Tom s Cabin. Principle #4: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they can produce pleasure. Think, for example, of Buster Keaton films. Principle #5: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they can produce emotions we value, at least in the context of artistic appreciation. Aristotle said that, when watching drama, we enjoy the feeling of fear. Principle #6: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they can produce certain nonemotional responses. Coleridge said that we willingly suspend our disbelief in response to good stories. Principle #7: Objects are aesthetically valuable if they have a certain form. If there is such a thing as beauty, the aesthetically valuable objects would be the ones that have it! Principle #8: De gustibus non disputandum est. That is, there is no arguing matters of taste. This principle militates against the other seven. The other seven suggest that there are universal aesthetic truths; this one suggests a kind of relativism.

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