On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz

  "If we believe absurdities,
    we shall commit atrocities."

0 - Introduction

- Chapters
- Literature

Much of human argumentation concerns moral or esthetical values, in some sense, yet there are few books that present or discuss the logic of moral discourse and do so both rationally and sensibly. Lately, it has been my pleasure to read one such book, which is called "The Logic of Moral Discourse". It was first published in 1955, was originally written in 1950-51, and is by the editor of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy that was first published in 1967, namely Paul Edwards. And indeed, it is also my pleasure to have read most of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Since Mr. Edwards discusses an important topic in a sensible way; since there is much fallacious reasoning in moral discourse; since "The Logic of Moral Discourse" has the merit of being mostly logical without being technical and without using a notation that is obscure to non-mathematical people; and since I also liked the Encyclopedia of Philosophy I will try to make an excerpt of and a comment on it.

Besides, there are three other reasons to do this, and indeed to do this for logical and moral reasons:

First, it seems in general there is much obscurity and much confusion connected and involved with moral judgments of all kinds - that include what society should be like, how people should behave towards each other, what are the foundations of law, what rights and duties one should have, what characteristic of human beings one seriously desires to further etc.

Second, especially at the time when I am writing this, in international terms there is a war going on in Iraq where it appears the American government and their allies have occupied Iraq for ostensibly humanistic reasons, and to prevent the use of "weapons of mass destruction" and to fight terrorism and a cruel dictatorship, while in fact (1) there have been found no "weapons of mass destruction" even after a year of occupation, and while (2) the occupation seems to be maintained, in part, by means of terrorism and torture in - so-called - Allied prisons by Allied soldiers, and specifically by U.S. soldiers.

Third, at the time I am writing this my own government, which is Dutch, while still in fact protecting the trafficking, dealing and yearly selling of literary billions of dollars in illegal drugs of all kinds, that in fact has been going on from and on Dutch terrritory for several decades, at the same time initiates "a nation-wide discussion" of what the current Dutch Prime Minister calls "norms and values", which, according to him, the Dutch in great majority do not have or hardly have had the last decades.

The excerpt will follow the ten chapters in Mr. Edwards' book, but I will be mostly concerned with the gist of these ten chapters and with a few criticisms, rather than that I will attempt to give a full, adequate, fair and complete summary. My Supplementary Remarks that follow are necessary, I think, because while Mr. Edwards does propose a useful approach to and theory of his subject, he also misses a number of rather important points, and his position on fundamental moral propositions differs from mine. The second section of the Supplementary Remarks also provide a summary of the most important points in my review, both of Mr. Edwards and myself.

The text I use is the 'First Free Press Paperback Edition' of 1965, and I copy Mr. Edwards' chapter and section titles and part of his arguments. If you like my text you are adviced to find your own copy of Mr. Edwards book, for which you probably have to go to a good library, since it is long out of print.

Also, it should be remarked that I treat Mr. Edwards text as the basis of a rational discussion between him and me about an important topic, for which reason I have, mostly either in fairness or to make his views clear, quoted more of his text that is currently fashionable in academic prose including reviews.

And it should be remarked - as Mr. Edwards will outline in his first chapter that follows - that his treatise is not meant to be a treatise on morals at large, or on all moral questions, but mostly is about moral judgments in general, inquires into their possible foundations, and centers on the answering of three questions that may be asked about moral judgments.

0. Introduction

The book has an introduction by the American philosopher Sidney Hook, who was better known in the 1950ies than afterward. Mr. Hook's introduction starts as follows:

"It is not often that a book in philosophy is a contribution of the first importance to fundamental theoretical questions, is argued with skill, incisiveness and eudition, has wider bearings of concern to all reflective persons and not merely professional philosophers, and is written with a delightful and piquant vivacity." (p. 13)

I mostly agree, but it is well to quote Mr. Hook's own reasons:

"The Logic of Moral Discourse" is an important contribution to ethical theory because it is the soundest and most systematic fusion, in the study of metaethics, of the emotive and objective naturalistic points of view. Mr. Edwards restates the central contentions of the emotive theory persuasively and at the same time does not imply the paradoxical conclusion that moral judgments are never true or false. His analysis establishes that moral judgments do indeed express attitudes, chiefly those of approval and disapproval, but they are at the same time assertions about the objects of these attitudes."

Most of this will become clearer later on, but it may be well to note here that Mr. Edwards' theory has both a subjective aspect (what you desire is in the end up to you, your constitution, your needs, your education etc.) and an objective aspect (what you desire is more or less of certain kind of facts in the one world we all live in but all explain and experience differently).

Also, it makes sense to mention that 'metaethics' is a somewhat unfortunate term for 'discussions and theories about ethics'. It is mostly unfortunate because it sounds pedantic, and because 'discussions and theories about ethics' mostly are part and parcel of ethics even if they overlap with other fields and considerations, like logic or anthropology.

Next, and to conclude this summary of Mr. Hook's introduction, here is a quotation of Mr. Hook's statement of the core of ethics:

"Mr. Edwards takes as his point of departure distinctions that are commonly recognized whenever human beings seriously discuss what actions should be done or left undone insofar as they affect others."

This is a fair statement of what ethics is about, except that classical moralists also considered effecting oneself. Even so, it makes sense to claim that ethics and morals concern the question how human beings should and should not behave towards other human beings. And because this is so it is well if I remind the reader right at the beginning of a few facts related to moral judgments and human behavior.

Some basic factual considerations relating to morals

Before entering upon what may seem like a lot of "falsche logische Spitzfindigkeit" or vain or useless reasoning about morals, let me remind the reader of a few moral facts, that I have taken the trouble to list briefly.

Rummel's statistics:

Mr. Randolph J. Rummel has taken the trouble of finding out how many civilian persons have been murdered in the 20th Century apart from the many soldiers that were killed on battle-fields. He wrote a book about it called Death by Government, in which one can find, among other things, the following table - that lists only civilian deaths and no military deaths in wartime:

Dictator Ideology Country Years Deaths
Joseph Stalin Communist Soviet Union 1929-1953 42,672,000
Mao Tse-tung Communist China 1923-1976 37,828,000
Adolf Hitler Fascist Germany 1933-1945 20,946,000
Chiang Kai-shek Militarist/Fascist China 1921-1948 10,214,000
Vladimir Lenin Communist Soviet Union 1917-1924 4,017,000
Tojo Hideki Militarist/Fascist Japan 1941-1945 3,990,000
Pol Pot Communist Cambodia 1968-1987 2,397,000
Yahya Khan Militarist Pakistan 1971 1,500,000
Josip Broz Tito Communist Yugoslavia 1941-1987 1,172,000







Muller's question:

F. Muller is the only one who survived the Krematorium-kommando in Auschwitz. He is a Cech, and wrote a book about his experiences that has been translated as "Auschwitz Inferno". He poses the following question in it:

"How was it possible, I often asked myself, for a young man of average intelligence and normal personality to carry out the unspeakable atrocities demanded of him in the belief that thereby he was doing his patriotic duty, without ever realizing that he was being used as a tool by perverted political dictators?" (p. 301)

Milgram's experiments:

Stanley Milgram was an American psychologist who experimentally investigated the sort of question I just quoted from Mr. Muller. Here is one summary of his work, cited from a standard university course concerning psychology, namely "Introduction to Psychology" by Hilgard & Atkinson:

"A more recent and controversial series of studies on compliance has been reported by Milgram (...). In these studies, the experimenter required each subject to deliver a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks to another subject (the "learner") whenever te latter made an error while engaged in a learning task. The learner (who in fact was a confederate of the experimenter and did not actually receive any shocks) was strapped in a chair in an adjacent room and could be heard protesting as the "shocks" became more intense. As they got stronger, he began to shout and curse; at 300 volts he began to kick the wall; and at the next shock level (marked "extreme intensity shock" on the subject's apparatus panel) the learner no longer answered nor made any noise at all. The last shock in the series was marked 450 volts. As you would expect, subjects began to protest to the experimenter during ths excruciating procedure,pleading with him to call a halt. But the experimenter continued to push by saying tyhings like "please go on" or "the experiment requires that you continue".

In the basis experiment, 65 percent of the subjects continued to obey throughout the experiment, continuing to the end of the shock series (...). No subject stopped prior to administering 300 volts - the point at which the learner began kicking the wall. Milgram concludes that obedience to authority is a strong force in our society, since the majority of his subjects obeyed the experimenter even though they thought they were hurting another person.

Variations on the Milgram experiment show that the obedience rated drops significantly if (1) the subject is brought closer to the learner or put into the same with him when the shocks are administered, (2) the experiment is conducted in a run-down suite of offices not connected to a prestigious university as in the original experiment, and (3) the subject is made to feel more personally responsible for his behavior. The last factor is important." (p. 552 - 3)

"But perhaps the most important lesson of the (...) Milgram studies is not to be found in the results, but in OUR SURPRISE at them. Every year in is social psychology class, one psychologist asks students to predict whether they would continue to administer the shocks in the Milgram situation after the "learner" begins to pound on the wall. About 99 percent of the students say they would not (...). Milgram himself surveyed psychiatrists at a leading medical school; they predicted that most subjects would refuse to go on after reaching 150 volts, that only about 4 percent would go beyond 300 volts, and that fewer than 1 percent would go all the way to 450 volts." (p.554)

Kohlberg's investigations and explanations:

Kohlberg is another psychologist who investigated the actual moral behavior and thinking of human beings. Again, I quote from the "Introduction to Psychology" by Hilgard & Atkinson:

Stages in the development of moral values



Level I. Premoral


1. Punishment and obedience orientation

Obeys rules in order to avoid punishment

2. Naive instrumental hedonism

Conforms to obtain rewards, to have favors returned.

Level II. Morality of conventional role-conformity


3. "Good-boy" morality of maintaining good relations, approval of others.

Conforms to avoid disapproval, maintaining good relations, dislike by others.

4. Authority maintaining morality.

Conforms to avoid censure by legitimate authorities, with resultant guilt

Level III. Morality of self-accepted moral principles


5. Morality of contract, of individual rights, and of democratically accepted law.

Conforms to maintain the respect of the impartial spectator judging in terms of community welfare.

6. Morality of individual principles and conscience.

Conforms to avoid self-condemnation.

"Kohlberg's studies indicate that the moral judgments of children who are seven and younger are predominantly at Level I - actions are evaluated in terms of whether they avoid punishment or lad to rewards. By age 13, a majority of the moral dilemmas are resolved at Level II - actions are evaluated in terms of maintaining a good image in the eyes of other people. This is the level of conventional morality. In the first stage at this level (Stage 3) one seeks approval by being "nice"; this orientation expands in the next stage (Stage 4) to include "doing one's duty", showing respect for authority, and conforming to the social order in which one is raised.

According to Kohlberg, many individuals never progress beyond Level II. He sees the stages of moral development as closely tied to Piaget's stages of cognitive development, and only if a person has achieved the later stages of formal operational thought is he capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for postconventional morality at Level III. The highest stage of moral development (Level III, stage 6) requires formulating abstract ethical principles and conforming to them to avoid self-condemnation. Kohlberg reports that less than 10 percent of his subjects over age 16 show (...) kind of "clear-principled" Stage 6 thinking (...)"

"Kohlberg describes the child as a "moral philosopher" who develops moral standards of his own; these standards do not necessarily come from parents or peers but emerge from the cognitive interaction of the child with his social environment. Movement from one stage to the next involves an internal cognitive reorganization rater than a simple acquisition of the moral concepts prevalent in his culture."

"Kohlberg claims that moral thought and moral action are closely related. For proof he cites a study in which college students were given an opportunity to cheat on a test. Only 11 percent of those who reached Level III on the moral dilemmas test cheated. In contrast, 42 percent of the students at the lower levels of moral judgement ceated (...)".

I believe that the reader who has arrived at this point either has concluded that he doesn't care for morals or that there are quite important human questions related to morals, about which it would be good to have some rational answers. In the last case, the reader is invited to proceed; in the first case, to reconsider, if only because he or she may be counted as 1 in a list some future Mr. Rummel may compile about the 21st Century.

0 - Introduction


        1. Preliminary Clarifications

2. Naive Subjectivism

3. The "Error Theory"

4. Intuitionism

5. "The steak at Barney is rather nice"

6. Imperatives and their justification

7. The logic of moral discourse (1)

8. The logic of moral discourse (2)

9. The logic of moral discourse (3)

10. Some concluding remarks


11. Supplementary Remarks (by MM)


Here I shall give the details of
(A) The texts in Mr. Edwards' "Bibliography" I have read
(B) Some additional references
(C) Some relevant political, historical or philosophical references

(A) The texts in Mr. Edwards' "Bibliography" I have read:

Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth and Logic.
Broad, C.D. Five Types of Ethical Theory.
Feigl, Herbert, "De Principiis Non Disputandum...?
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.
Moore, G.E. Principia Ethica.
---            Philosophical Studies.
Ross, David. The Foundations of Ethics.
Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science.
---                    What I believe.
---                    An Outline of Philosophy.
---                    A History of Western Philosophy.
Schilpp, P. The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell.
Sidgwick, H. The Methods of Ethics.

(B) Some additional references:

Edwards, P. Ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Kogon, E. Der SS-Staat.
Oksenberg Rorty, A. Ed. The Many Faces Of Evil - Historical Perspectives.
Tatarkiewicz, W. Analysis of Happiness.

(C) Some relevant political, historical or philosophical references

Some years ago, I prepared a reasoned and commented bibliography about politics, that consists of a number of philosophical, historical, political and anthropological texts. Here is the link

Introduction to Politics

Most of the texts I mention and briefly discuss there are relevant for the questions raised in the present text.