Friday, January 04, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0007: Moral Language

If you have a moral theory that requires that a person get a PhD in philosophy and learn a technical moral language before they can decide whether it is morally wrong to rob a convenience store, you have a very poor moral theory.

Morality is something that a vast majority of the population - even the least educated - indeed, everybody except young children and the most severely mentally impaired adults - should be able to participate in. In this way, morality is like language. If your theory of language does not have a way for people to communicate unless they have advanced knowledge of the elements of your theory, you have a poor theory of language. Your theory of language has to allow for a pair of five-year-olds playing on the living-room floor to be able to communicate, even though neither of them knows anything about your theory.

In fact, even animals can engage in moral behavior. That is to say, they "praise" members of the colony who do things that they like and "condemn" those who do things that are aggravating or (potentially) harmful. They certainly do not have a moral theory. I mentioned this in the previous post on Eliminating the Categorical Imperative, where I objected that animals can certainly eat, drink, have sex, and avoid pain and discomfort without appealing to some sort of "imperative" in deciding what to do.

I bring this up because Thomas Hurka, in his book, British Ethical Theorists, devotes a section to the moral language of those British Ethical Theorists (BETs).

Hurka reports that many of these BETs thought that our conventional moral language - the language of people making moral judgments in their everyday lives - was mistaken and needed to be improved. However, whenever a theorist makes this move, one needs to ask whether there is any sense to getting the subject population to actually adopt it. In the case of redefining the term "planet", the subject population is "professional astronomers" and one can propagate a new rule through the actions of the International Astronomical Union. However, when the practice is one of all native-English speakers and there is no authoritative body that can decide on a change, this requirement is much harder to meet. We would have to be able to introduce a change that 97% of the adult population can adopt.

Hurka writes, "Our language was developed in pre-philosophical times by people with non-philosophical interests. Why should the distinctions it draws always line up with those most needed in philosophy?" (p. 41)

But why think that the distinctions "most needed in philosophy" is at all important when it comes to morality? What is important in a moral system are distinctions "most needed by ordinary people living ordinary lives." A moral language consisting of distinctions most needed in philosophy would be great for a community made up entirely of philosophers. They could no doubt put that set of distinctions to good use. However, those distinctions will likely not be of much use to a society made up of truck drivers, elementary school teachers, engineers, doctors, artists, and soldiers. They are also likely to be useless to parents who have to provide their children with moral education starting quite early in the child's development such that those children can grow up and function well in that society of truck drivers, engineers, and soldiers.

This does not imply that it is a mistake to study morality and even to use a specialized language to do so - where this concerns an academic situation where morality (as practiced by that 97%) is the focus of that study. The study of digestion involves a great deal of technical language. Fortunately, nobody needs to learn this language in order to biologically process the food that they eat. People are quite adept at eating and digesting without having a PhD in biology to tell them how it is done. This merely recognizes an important distinction between a philosophical investigation of morality as an object of study and the practice of morality.

As an example, Hurka discusses the "illocutionary force of commending or prescribing." R.M. Hare, a mid twentieth-century British ethicist, argued that the purpose of moral language is to commend. I think he was right in saying this - at least in part. On this view, to call an action "right" is to praise the person who performed it and to call it "wrong" is to condemn that person. I hold the further view - which Hare did not hold (so far as I know) that this commendation or condemnation is used to act on the reward centers of the brain to encode behavior rules. Those rules, in turn, will motivate the agent to repeat the behavior that was praised or form an aversion to performing the behavior that was condemned. Fortunately, nobody needs to know the definition of the phrase "illocutionary force" to say, in an angry tone, "Hey! Watch where you're going!" Like with digestion, a person can express moral indignation without having a theory of expressing moral indignation.

From here, academics can have a meaningful discussion about how morality works and, in particular, how it works when it works well. Hare argued that, since moral terms are used to commend action, this means that it is a part of the meaning of moral terms. Because commendations do not have a truth value, this, for Hare, meant that moral claims do not have a truth value. However, we can know that this was mistaken. Hurka points to W.D. Ross as providing a response to this. "Ross recognized that we can perform a speech act by using a sentence whose meaning contains no specific reference to that force." (p. 41). Indeed we can. I can shout at you and say, "YOU ARE STANDING ON MY FOOT!" in a tone that makes the condemnation of your action quite apparent. Yet, the statement that you are standing on my foot has a truth value. Furthermore, if you can prove that the factual claim is false you can, at the same time, prove that the condemnation was unjustified. So, we can have a situation where, even though moral claims are "emotive" in a sense, they are also, at the same time, either true or false. We do not have to choose between moral claims being either emotive or having a truth value. We can have both.

This has been an example where a technical moral language is used correctly - to talk about morality in the same way that biologists use a technical language to talk about digestion.

If we want an example of where moral theory can go wrong we can look at Hurka's praise of Henry Sidgwick for using a single sense of the term "ought" for both practical and moral considerations rather than drawing a distinction between practical "ought" and moral "ought". Hurka bragged that the simplicity of the conceptual minimalism of the BETs such as Sidgwick "encouraged them to develop these richer substantive views." (p. 43). But this is not a proper criteria for simplicity. You might get a great deal of creative philosophy if you tried to reduce all matter to just four elements rather than the 100+ elements that we know of today. However, this is not a very wise move if you cannot properly explain, predict, and understand the events that chemists are concerned with by using just those four elements. If you need more, then you add more.

In fact, we need the two conceptions of "ought" - the moral ought and the practical ought.

I distinguish the practical "ought" from the moral "ought" in the following way.

Practical "ought" evaluates possible actions in terms of being "such as to fulfill the desires of the agent" either in itself or in its effects (or both).

Moral "ought" evaluates possible actions in terms of being "such as to fulfill the desires of an agent with good desires and lacking bad desires." A good desire, in turn, is one that tends to fulfill other desires, while a bad desire tends to thwart other desires. Consequently, a good desire is one that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally (in everybody) and a bad desire is one that people generally have reasons to inhibit universally.

This theory explains a category of "non-obligatory permission" where people may act on their own individual interests without making any call that those interests should be universal. Choosing a career, for example, does not involve desires that people generally have reason to promote universally. When it comes to choosing a career, people generally have reason to promote a wide variety of interests, and to allow each person to seek the career that is compatible with her interests. When people are making decisions within the realm of non-obligatory permission (e.g., choosing a profession), they need an "ought" that relates the objects of evaluation to their own desires, not one that relates it to desires that people generally have reason to promote universally.

The attempt to reform our moral language so as to eliminate one of these categories of "ought" is a mistake. It does not allow people to do with their moral language what they are in the habit of doing and what, in fact, it is practical for them to use that language to do. When somebody (e.g., Hurka) invents a theory that does not allow this then the problem is not to be found in the practices of their common people and their common language. The problem is to be found in the moral philosopher's moral theory.

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