* Foundations of Ethics, III: Relativism Philosophy 160 Winter 2009 Peter Railton Lecture 21 * What’s the big idea? Understanding moral difference: a becoming moral modesty. * Review: Psychological Egoism: The Basic Argument If you do X voluntarily, it must be because you wanted to do X more than the alternatives But if you most wanted to do X, then doing X is simply seeking to satisfy your own desires, to gratify yourself Hence, all action really is aimed at gratifying ourselves, even if it appears to be aimed at something else. For example, let X = helping a friend, giving to charity, studying ethics. Your act might appear to be aimed at helping a friend, giving to charity, etc., but really, it is ultimately aimed at self-gratification. * An example Of course, some examples don’t easily fit this pattern, e.g., “unthinking action” (habit), “reflexive action” (emergency), and “irrational action” (fear). But take a case of considered, (what we would call) rational action. Let X = aiding someone you care about – say, the child of a dear, departed friend Make it the sort of case Hume discusses: this child lacks resources, needs other’s help, and isn’t someone who could benefit you And imagine that, in order not to humiliate this young person, you are making sure she cannot see who is aiding her And further imagine that she doesn’t particularly take any interest in you, shows no liking for you, etc. Basically, she ignores your existence. Yet you really do want to aid this person. You would feel frustrated and unhappy if you could not. Aha! You are ultimately doing it for your own sake not hers, or to please yourself. * Aha? Hume’s simple point: You would not take any pleasure in doing this unless you already cared about this person as such. Otherwise, how her life goes would be of no particular interest to you. That is, your taking pleasure in doing this simply shows that you care about helping her. Aristotle: we know someone’s motives when we know what makes her happy or unhappy, frustrated or content. So we learn from your pleasure in helping your friend’s child that you have an “original propensity” to help her. Just look at people who don’t really care about this person, and care only for themselves. They certainly wouldn’t find helping her gratifying. And that is why they don’t help her. There are I-desires and non-I-desires. “I want …” is an I-desire. “I want the inventor of the potatoe peeler to be honored” is a non-I-desire. * Explaining behavior So we cannot explain the difference between your behavior and the behavior of these other people by appealing to your desire to gratify yourself. According to this theory, we all have that desire. But you alone seem to be interested in aiding this young person. So what could account for this difference? One explanation looks overwhelmingly likely: you care about this young person, and they do not. We also know: you don’t care about being thanked for this, or benefited by it. Why? Because you make no effort to achieve these things. “I Want….” In the blank you cannot use self-gratification. Humes point is to understand human behavior, human motives is not to do what we want to do. It is what our the things we aim at, what gratifies us? * Diff’rent strokes Different people find gratification in pursuing different things some of which they pursue because they foresee a benefit to themselves others of which they pursue without foreseeing such a benefit Of course, once one has set one’s heart on something, one will find it gratifying in some measure to pursue it successfully Kant called this “practical pleasure” But we can feel this only after we have set our hearts upon something. So we cannot use it to explain what we set our hearts upon. And the egoist theory is that people always have their hearts set upon self-gratification, and self-gratification alone. So that should explain what we seek. But it doesn’t. * The conclusion? “Nature must, by the internal frame and constitution of the mind, give an original propensity to fame, ere we can reap any pleasure from the acquisition, or pursue it from motives of self-love, and a desire of happiness. If I have no vanity, I take no delight in praise …” “In all these cases, there is a passion which points immediately to the object, and constitutes it our good or happiness; as there are other secondary passions which afterwards arise and pursue it as part of our happiness …” “Were there no appetite of any kind antecedent to self-love, that propensity could scarcely ever exert itself”, for it would have no object. * Aristotle’s model of the pursuit of happiness Aristotle held that true happiness occurs when we are engaged in activities that utilize our capacities – mental, physical, emotional, experiential, etc. Such activities typically have an end other than happiness. We aim at our goals such as an archer ends at a target. We discover happiness not because it is our end, but because the process of pursuing goals is a process that also produces happiness. Picture of an archer shooting an arrow to the target. The journey is happiness. Activities that allow one pursue happiness are those when a person is successfully pursuing an end that occupies many of their abilities. It is very engaging (reading an excellent book, throwing a party, fixing your motorcycle). Aristotle says it is our nature to seek ends. An animal that only finds pleasure by doing things that are passive would be an animal that does a very poor job of finding resources,reproducing would not be happy. But their successful pursuit can yield happiness. Contemporary evidence in psychology appears to bear this out. “Flow”. Mihaly Csiksznetmihalyi and Ecological Momentary Assessment. Contrast passive, pleasure-seeking activities. The “paradox of hedonism” Humans would find happiness by doing things that aren’t associated with making themselves happy, but activities that bring them pleasure. They are not even thinking about themselves, they are completely engaged in the activity. * Evolutionary considerations? Wouldn’t evolutionary theory predict that we are selfish at core, striving above all to advance our own interests? Evolutionary interests are not individualistic – they are a matter of genetic relatedness, “inclusive fitness”. From the standpoint of evolution, you would be indifferent between your own survival and the survival of your twin, two siblings, or eight cousins. Moreover, once you are above the age of reproduction, your “evolutionary interest” is in securing the reproduction of your offspring and relatives, not your own survival. “Sexual selection” could also have selected for individuals who will devote resources to their offspring at their own expense. * Psychological Egoism: A shortage of evidence Essentially, there is very little evidence that humans are egoistic, or that only egoistic goals could interest them. Therefore, we need not think: humans are incapable of being spontaneously moral because they have no capacity for non-self-interested motivation or, humans can only behave morally if they are under strong, reliable external sanctions that make it in one’s self-interest to behave morally. that is, that, as egoists, they could never be moved to act in self-sacrificing ways morality might demand. * Rational egoism? Could it be that egoism is rationally required even if it is not psychologically necessary? This is difficult to believe. If my well-being is a reason for me to act, a concern I ought to have, then yours is a reason for you of just the same kind. Take pain. Why do I have a reason to avoid being in pain? Not because I am PR. I would have the same reason to avoid being in pain if I were you. What explains this reason is the badness of pain. Just try it. So it isn’t part of the explanation of why I have a reason to avoid this dreadful experience that I am PR. I therefore would not be making a rational mistake if I saw your pain as a reason to act, too, even though it isn’t PR’s. * Moral motives and emotions? Is there positive evidence that we are equipped with moral motives or emotions? There is strong evidence for certain primates, and for many small-scale human societies, of willingness to cooperate in ways that are not maximally self-beneficial There is increasing evidence for certain primates and many small-scale human societies of some notion of fairness as an important motivator There is also evidence among certain primates and many small-scale human societies of the existence of emotions connected to ideas of cooperation, hierarchy, and fairness. See J. Henrich, R. Boyd, S. Bowles, and C. Camerer, Foundations of Human Sociality and M. Hauser, Moral Minds * But how universal? Looking at such evidence raises the question of whether morality can make good on its claim to universality. As we study other societies, we see much that is the same, but also much that is deeply different. Rachels: consider, e.g., notions of marriage, family, gender, relations with outsider groups, treatment of the dead, etc. We tend to assume that our way simply is the moral way of doing things. But what justification do we have for doing this? Could we defend this to people in other cultures? How? “Every standard is culture-bound” Perhaps what is moral is relative to a given society and time, or to certain communities of individuals? We have proto feelings and proto emotions * Moral relativism The worry is: there is no objective, universal moral standard by reference to which to make fundamental criticisms or evaluations of individuals or societies. (this will not be found across human societies) There are only the standards of different individuals or different societies, none on its face more valid than the others. (this will be found across societies) Is this skepticism about morality? The obvious explanation for why there is no agreement is because there is no moral reality. There are no facts that distinguish something to be right or wrong. Example, when you travel around the world you will find different style of dress. But is there one that is better or the other? And are we making a mistake if we choose one style over the other? Similarly with language. Language is different throughout the world. Does anyone think that a specific language is the right language? In all areas of human life are these varieties. These observations might be used to argue for skepticism. But moral relativism is quite different from skepticism. It is a positive view about the truth or validity of moral claims. They possess truth relatively. There is a relative content. * Some analogies The notion of size is relative to a standard. We cannot ask, “Is a breadbox large?” independent of reference to a standard of largeness. Its large compared to an ant but small compared to the Empire Standard Building. We have to have a standard (a point of reference) before we can ask questions, otherwise there is no answer to the questions being asked. Once we have a standard than it is perfectly acceptable. The notion of legality is relative to a legal system. We cannot ask, “Is capital punishment legal?” independent of reference to a legal system. Well are we? To know whether it is legal we have to know what legal system we are under? In contemporary physics, the concept of motion is relativized to a choice of reference frame. We cannot ask, “Is this body at rest or in motion?” independent of a frame of reference. But once we have selected a standard, legal system, or frame or reference, these questions all have perfectly good answers. There is good hard fact to answer these questions relative to a certain society. We cannot make a moral judgment independent of any moral system. There really are moral facts and they are relative to prevailing norms and social facts. * Objective questions, objective answers Once we relativize to a moral code, the answer to the question “Is x right?” will not be “a mere matter of opinion” or “depend upon whom you ask”. At least in the clear cases. Here is a clear case. It is quite simply false to say that “Chattel slavery is permissible” holds in current western moral systems. No one who understands current western moral systems would say that they permit slavery. This claim is independent of the moral views of the individual making the assessment. Just as we can judge that 17th century European moral codes permitted chattel slavery, even though we ourselves do not. The answer is not “viewpoint dependent”. So this sort of moral relativism does not reject the possibility of objective moral knowledge – it simply says such knowledge has the form: “ x is wrong in system S” (like legality, size, motion) not “x is wrong, period”. * A quick refutation? Moe and Joe: Round One You might have heard that there is a “quick refutation” of moral relativism: Moe: (a moral relavist) There’s no such thing as absolute truth when it comes to morality – everything is relative to your point of view. Joe: Including what you just said? If Moe says what he just said isn’t relative to a point of view, then he’s contradicting himself. If he says it is relative to a point of view, then it looks as if his view lacks any force for someone with a different point of view. So this view is a non-starter. But the sort of relativism we’re considering works differently. * Moe and Joe, Round Two Moe: I mispoke myself. What I meant to say was: Judgments of right and wrong are relative – they do not have the form “x is wrong”, but “x is wrong in moral code M”. Joe: What about that statement? Is it only true relative to a code? Moe: You weren’t listening. I said judgments of right and wrong are relative. But the statement I made wasn’t a judgment of right or wrong, it was a statement about the nature of such judgments. A meta-ethical statement, not a normative moral judgment. Under moral judgment: right and wrong Meta-ethical claims: concerns the meaning of “right” and “wrong” Right and Wrong are incomplete terms, they are relative to a particular moral code, or it won’t have a definite answer. Joe: So meta-ethical statements don’t have to be relativized to a moral code? Moe: Of course not. They aren’t moral judgments. * Normative ethics, meta-ethics * The case for meta-ethical relativism Some will say that any position other than meta-ethical relativism is mere hubris – cultural arrogance or immodesty. It therefore is more appropriate to accord each moral code its own due, accept it in its own terms. But is this really immodest? It commits us to: A huge raft of objective moral truths. Someone who accepts this accepts a wide variety of truth An argument made is that is represents an attempt to avoid cultural arrogancy. I am not going to claim what is true, I am going to say that there are moral judgments for any particular code. Accepting the following way of resolving moral disputes: (1) Determine which code would apply (2) Then determine whether it permits or prohibits a given act. But is it so easy to answer (1) and (2)? * “Our culture” Do we have a unified, homogenous “culture” on moral questions, which yields clear answers? Whose morality do we pick? Underdog? Overdog? How could we justify this? How definite are the implications of this code? How to select among overlapping codes? Larger worry: do we seem actually to be able to settle moral questions in this way? Can’t we ask: The current code prohibits this – but is it really wrong? We understand this question perfectly well. A survey of opinion would not answer it. * The role of circumstances Many moral differences seem attributable to differences in belief, not fundamental differences in moral attitudes: E.g., reincarnation and vegetarianism Or differences in resources: E.g., ancient Norwegian custom with the elderly, or exposure of infants Or differences in history: E.g., matrilocal vs. patrilocal societies There is very good reason not to seek to substitute our moral norms for the moral norms of others – to instead be tolerant. But tolerating what? Underdog vs. overdog again. * Some likely common underlying principles Some situations will recur in all societies A society that lacks an adaptive way of dealing with such situations will not long survive So: Expect norms for care of children Expect norms for fixity of personal property Expect norms against inter-group assault and homicide Expect norms of gratitude Expect norms of truth-telling Expect norms of fairness in sharing Etc. * Avoiding hubris? It is one thing to judge another society’s practices to be wrong, or bad, and something else to judge the people in that society as deserving condemnation or blame. We attach blame to a judgment when we think a person could reasonably have been expected to do otherwise. This will often fail to be the case in historical examples. What is the point of judging a practice wrong or bad if not to blame? Essential to clarifying our own moral view Challenging our “intuitions” Widening our moral imagination Pushing for moral change Relativism turns out to be a rather ineffectual way of capturing the salutary lessons to be learned from comparative ethics.