Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Reading Notes: Korsgaard on Hume and Moral Justification

If we find upon reflecting on the true moral theory that we still are inclined to endorse the claims that morality makes on us, then morality will be normative. I call this way of establishing normativity the ‘reflective endorsement’ method.
(Christine Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press, 1996)

After Christine Korsgaard presented her "reflective endorsement" standard of normativity, she attempted to argue that David Hume (among others) used this method to justify his moral theory.

According to Korsgaard, Hume recognized a distinction between the work of the theoretical philosopher - which was to explain morality, and the practical philosopher - which was to promote moral behavior. Neither actually justifies moral claims. In the first case, it is quite possible that once we can fully explain morality we may discover that it is a field whose claims we cannot justify (e.g., they are divine commands where there is no God). In the second case, it is possible to promote something that lacks justification.

So, how do we get moral justification?

However, Korsgaard shows that, for Hume, once we explain morality we find it to be something that people have reason to embrace.

As a side note, Korsgaard represents the work of the "sentimentalists" such as Hume as being in contrast to that of the "realists". I dislike these terms since they implies that sentiments are not real - or that they are distinct from that which is real. I hold that statements about sentiments - and the relationships between objects of evaluation and sentiments - describe reality. They are real. A morality that talks about relationships between objects of evaluation and sentiments (or, actually, desires) is a part of the real world.

However, I don't believe that one can read the morality of something directly from one's own sentiments. Morality has to do with the sentiments that people generally have reason to promote - not necessarily the sentiments an agent has.

According to Koorsgaard, Hume may agree with this.

According to Hume, moral judgments are based on sentiments of approval and disapproval which we feel when we contemplate a person’s character from what he calls ‘a general point of view’.

The degree that these two accounts can be reconciled depends on the degree to which we can match up contemplating a character from a general point of view and desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. For one thing, the latter does not require contemplation or a point of view - it describes a relationship that exists in the real world. On the other hand, both approaches may still yield the same conclusions.

There is a feature in Korsgaard's account of Hume's ethics that I have long thought to be a mistake in philosophy. This is the struggle to find something in an agent's motivational set that gives the agent reason to do the right thing or be the right sort of person - always. In fact, some philosophers seem to take it that a moral claim cannot be justified if somebody, somewhere, lacks a reason to do what she "ought" to do.

In this article, we find Korsgaard discussing Hume's attempt to argue that everybody has a reason to be moral because - apparently - everybody has an aversion to others thinking poorly of them. This is not just a reason to do the right thing, but a reason to be the right sort of person - the type of person that others can admire and respect.

We can wonder whether everybody indeed has such a desire and, even if they do, the strength of that desire.

Ultimately, Hume argues that, even where people lack this aversion at the start, they are disposed to acquire it. The attitude that others have towards an individual (or the attitude that one knows that others would have "if they only knew") is an attitude one eventually adopts towards oneself. Everybody has a reason to be the type of person others can respect because that is the only way they can respect themselves.

Even where this is true, these interests would still be a small set of the interests a person may have. In some people they may be the weaker concern - potentially too weak to support the conclusion that an agent must act in a particular way.

We can also wonder what it would mean for morality if somebody lacked that desire. Would it no longer be wrong to do what society disapproved of?

More importantly, we need to worry about how this would work in the case in which a person lives in an immoral society. We can imagine a person being condemned because she is working to free the slaves or hide Jews from the Nazis in a society where a great many people have adopted the Nazi's attitudes towards Jews (the way many in America today share Trump's attitudes towards Muslims).

In another type of case, there are people with desires that others condemn without having a good reason to do so. We must consider the case of homosexuals seeking to live in accordance with their interests in a society that condemns homosexuality.

In short, what people may condemn and what is immoral are often not the same thing.

Desirism holds that there may be a gap between the desires that a person has (and, thus, what the agent has a reason to do) and the desires an agent should have (the desires that people generally have reason to promote). This gap is the distinction between a good person and an evil person. The possibility of a person not having the desires or interests she should have is not a problem - it is a fact. Indeed, it is the presence of this gap (and the reasons that exist to promote certain desires) that justifies condemnation and punishment.

Similarly, there can be a gap between what a society does condemn and what it has reason to condemn. A society can condemn homosexuality while lacking any good reason to do so. Similarly, people generally may have good reason to abolish slavery even where a few manage to convince the majority of non-slaves that this is not the case. A person can want to be the type of person others can respect. However, a person can also recognize that, even though others would likely condemn the individual if they knew some relevant fact (she was freeing slaves, hiding Nazis, or in a homosexual relationship) she can say that the fault is in society, and not in her.

If normativity requires that each and every individual have compelling reason to do what is right - then morality lacks normativity. This gap between what an agent desires and what an agent should desire guarantees that we cannot always persuade people to "do the right thing" by showing that it fulfills her current desires. Sometimes, we have to reward, praise, condemn, and punish in order to create the desires that would then motivate an agent to do the right thing (and not do the wrong thing). If morality cannot tolerate such a gap, then there is no such thing as morality.

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