On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz

6. Imperatives and their Justification

1. Some General Properties of Imperatives

Mr. Edwards starts this chapter thus:

"According to a widely supported contemporary theory, moral judgments are equivalent to or closely resemble commands. They are prescriptive and not descriptive, imperatives and not assertions. I believe that this theory containes a great deal of truth, but it is also very apt to be misunderstood, sometimes by its own supporters. We shall avoid these misunderstandings if we first become clear about the nature of imperatives in general, and their relations to other types of discourse." (p. 123)

This seems a reasonable approach, but it should be mentioned that, indeed as in the case of naive subjectivism, quite a few of those who have insisted that "moral judgments are equivalent to or closely resemble commands" have added that they are also "merely" or "nothing but" commands. Indeed, Mr. Edwards seems to mean specifically those by "its own supporters" who have "misunderstood" this theory of moral judgment.

And it should be clear right from the start that moral judgments often get expressed in the form of commands, since every human being has received and uttered many of them, even if the conventions of polite discourse may have moved one to inject a "Please" before uttering a commanding phrase.

Mr. Edwards distinguish a number of features that commands have:

"The first thing we notice (..) is that at least two people or parties are involved - the party issueing the imperative and the party to whom it is issued." (p. 124)


"Secondly, (..) imperatives express, in the sense defined in Chapter I, a desire or demand on the speaker's part. These desires and demands may be satisfied or they may fail to be satisfied. The people having the desires may be obeyed or disobeyed. By a familiar linguistic device we shall from now on say that an imperative is itself satisfied if the desire or demand which it expresses is satisfied; and we shall say that an imperative is not satisfied if the desire or demand it expresses is not satisfied. We shall also say that an imperative is obeyed if the person who has the desire or issues the demand is obeyed; and we shall say that the imperative is disobeyed if the person is disobeyed." (p. 124)

 Next - and Mr. Edwards refers to examples I skipped:

"The third feature we shall have to notice is that none of our (..) imperatives can be said to be true or false in any sense in which these terms are commonly used. There is no conceivable state of affairs which would make "Please stop talking!" true. If the people in question do stop talking this would satisfy the imperative, but it would not make it true. Similarly, there is no conceivable state of affairs which would make it false." (p. 125)

I will take the above stipulations as explications of what Mr. Edwards means by "imperatives", "commands" etc. and suppose them sufficiently clear and easily understood.

Indeed, the main logical point is the last: Imperatives, that are often rendered with an exclamation-mark when writing them, and requests, that are often rendered with a question-mark when writing them, are emphatically not true or false in the sense statements of fact are true or false. And since imperatives and requests occur quite naturally in moral discourse, we have here a part of moral discourse that does not fall under the normal logic of statements, that assumes statements are true or false.

2. The Justification of Requests

Mr. Edwards rightly remarks:

"From the fact that an imperative cannot be true or false it does not follow that it is capricious. Of course many imperatives are capricious in the sense that their authors are not willing to support them with reasons. (..)
However, there are also many imperatives which their authors support or are willing to support with reasons. Partly following terminology suggested by Barnes, I shall refer to the former as "blind imperatives" and to the latter as "persuasives". It will also be convenient to distinguish between persuasives, such as requests and exhortations, where the speaker's desires or demand is somehow central to the situation and those persuasives, such as suggestions and pieces of advice, where the desire of the person to whom the imperative is addressed is central." (p. 126-7)

These are useful distinctions, though it should be mentioned that in many cases of "blind imperatives" some sort of recognized authority of some kind will tend to be involved, whether this is religious, scholarly, political or simply someone who is clearly physically stronger and willing and able to use his strength to force you to do as he pleases. Also, as Mr. Edwards' section heading suggests, imperatives in fact can be seen as requests. ("Gimme the money!" and "Would you please be so kind as to hand over that filthy lucre you are holding?" practically may be taken as expressing the same desire.)

Then there is the following point:

"We commonly use the terms "good reason" and "bad reason" in talking about the statements which are brought forward to support persuasives. We also commonly characterize some imperatives as rational, sound or sensible, and others as irrational, unsound, or senseless." (p. 127)

This is undoubtedly so, and every reader will know of rational, sound or sensible persuasives and requests from his childhood education, and will also know of irrational, unsound, or senseless persuasives and requests, e.g. by bullies, unfair teachers, emotional parents etc.

Also, there is the question what a term like "rational" means in contexts like the present one. Mr. Edwards addresses this as follows:

"Now, when we say that a request is "rational" we may be using the word in one of two senses. The first of these - to be called sense (i) - is the narrower, the more common, and the only one of importance to us. In this sense a request is rational if (1) it can be satisfied - i.e., if its satisfaction is "practically possible," (2) if its satisfaction is the satisfaction of a desire on the part of the person who makes the request or a necessary or at least a convenient means toward the satisfaction of that desire, and (3), if the desire is "rational" in a way to be explained a little later on. We call a request "rational" in this first and main sense if, and only if, all three conditions are fulfilled (..)" (p. 127)

This seems fair enough, except that "rational" is still to be defined. About this Mr. Edwards says:

"We very commonly call some desires rational and others irrational. We say, for instance, that a man's desire to be a musician is rational if he is very gifted and his prospects for a brilliant career are great. We call it irrational if he has no gift and no hope of success. It is impossible, I believe, to give one simple definition of the phrase "rational desire" for much the same reason as in the case of the phrase "nice steak"." (p. 128)

This is true, but the sense in which desires are deemed rational or not in the present sense can be suitably precisified by noting that it relates to the supposed factual chances of gratifying the desire if one tries. Thus, it tends to refer to the - supposedly - available means to realize an end, rather than to the end.

Mr. Edwards continues:

"Although no simple definition of "rational desire" can be given, in very many actual instances it is not at all difficult to determine what the phrase refers to. (..) I hope I have now clarified the meaning of "rational" and "irrational," as applied to requests." (p. 128-9)

I suppose so, and note that this sense of "rational" is much like "practically realizable", "feasible", "non-utopian", "practically possible, if one tried real hard and had some luck" etcetera.

And it is very true and noteworthy that this is a highly relevant dimension of desires, since so much harm has been done by trying to realize ends and - utopian - desires that in fact had no realistic chance of being realizable.

But there is more to desires than their - supposed, eventual - probability of being realized. This Mr. Edwards addresses thus:

"We call a statement a good reason for a request if, given a certain rational desire on the speaker's part, the statement truthfully asserts or is evidence for the fact that the satisfaction of the request is a necessary or convenient means to the satisfaction of the desire. Or else we call it a good reason if, given that the satisfaction of the request is a necessary or convenient means to the satisfaction of a rational desire, the statement truthfully asserts that the person has this desire." (p. 129)

This again is so, though it could have been phrased more clearly. Also, it should be noticed that the presumption is that the desire is rational, and also presumably that it is the sort of desire that in the speaker's community - that may be pacifists, or professional torturers, or trained spokespersons for politicians, or pupils of a purported Buddhist saint - is considered good or allowable.

It is also fair to remark, I think, that Mr. Edwards is prone to forgetting this last possibility of rational desires: There are quite a few desires that are rational and feasible and good according to some community, such as professional torturers or pirates, that also consider them rational and feasible in a practical way, which are seen by by others, such as their victims, as quite bad.

Mr. Edwards adds:

"Fairly similar remarks apply to the meaning of "relevant," as applied to statements to support requests. A statement is relevant to a request if, given the person has a certain desire, it asserts or is evidence for the assertion that the satisfaction of the request is a necessary or convenient means to the satisfaction of the desire; or, if given the latter, it asserts the existence of a desire. It is noteworthy that in the case of relevance no provision is necessary either concerning the "rational" character of the desire or concerning the truth of the statement." (p. 129-30)

The same sort of remarks as I made about the previous quotation apply here.

Mr. Edwards now states two of his conclusions:

"In other words, "good reason" and "justify" are ambigiuous expressions which mean one thing in the case of deductive reasoning, another in the case of inductive reasoning and yet another in the case of supporting requests.
The upshot of our discussion is very simple but also, as we shall find in the next chapter, very important: requests can be justified although they have no referents." (p. 131)

The first conclusion is one based on points of Mr. Edwards I have quoted, and seems quite correct. (Those who want some more formal precision of these and similar questions are referred to my "Fundamental principles of valid reasoning.")

Also, it is true that nevertheless one can speak quite sensibly about the realizability of desires, requests and commands, perhaps supposing one agrees (more than not) to them, and also about their decency, morality, or justification as end if one does believethey should be realized.

This is indeed the main import of Mr. Edwards second point, which is directed against those who argue along the line I distinguished at the beginning of the chapter, namely that because moral desires are "merely" or "nothing but" imperatives or requests, neither of which are true or false in any useful sense, that "therefore" moral desires can not be rationally justified or argued for or against. This is a mistake for the sort of reasons Mr. Edwards explained.

Mr. Edwards also distinguished, next to what he called persuasives also what he called suggestions and advice. He correctly asserts that most of what he said about persuasives also holds for suggestions and advice, and I agree and do not believe it is necessary to quote him here.

3. A Note on Categorical Imperatives

Mr. Edwards now considers a topic that is of some importance to philosophers, namely Kant's Categorical Imperatives. What these are in Kant's sense may be fairly left undiscussed, and all that matters here is that these tend to have the form of unqualified commands: "Do such and such!", "Do not do so and so!", possibly combined with what sounds like advice or threats in the form "if you want this" or "if you want to avoid that". (Note 1)

"It is still widely held among empiricists (1) that there are no such things as (meaningful) categorical imperatives and (2) that the admission that there are categorical imperatives would constitute a surrender to intuitionism. In my opinion both these views are plainly false. In a perfectly familiar sense of "categorical," there are millions of imperatives which are categorical and perfectly meaningful." (p. 132)

By "empiricists" Mr. Edwards seems to mean what others called neo-positivists, and indeed he refers to a book of Schlick, who was a leader of that philosophical movement, that glorified in holding that many commonly accepted philosophical, ethical, moral and metaphysical statement are "meaningless", for example because they cannot be properly verified by a good scientific procedure.

And by "a perfectly familiar sense of "categorical,"" Mr. Edwards means that they have the form of unqualified (or hardly qualified) commands. He is quite correct that there are many categorical imperatives that are made and are quite comprehensible and meaningful.

4. "Should-Persuasives"

This chapter ends with a discussion of a certain kind of should-statements.

"In discussing persuasives (..) we found that while it is perfectly correct to say that they may be supported by good reasons or that certain factual statements may justify them, it is never correct to say, as language is used as present, that they follow from or are implied by these statements. I now wish to show that there is a sub-class of persuasives (..), including categorical as well as hypothetical imperatives, about which it is perfectly meaningful to say that they follow from or are implied by certain statements. The persuasives in question are those containing the word "should" or "ought" in what would generally be recognized as a "non-moral" sense. I do not contend that the same does not apply to cases where "should" and "ought" are used in a moral sense. Far from it. But I do not wish to discuss that topic as yet." (p. 133)

So in part this continues the topic of the previous section, namely concerning when - moral - statements are (not) meaningful, and in part this opens new territory, namely that of statements involving "should" and "ought", though "as yet" only in a "non-moral" sense.

And the point of Mr. Edwards is relatively simple:

"To say that the two statements "X desires to put on weight" and "Drinking a glass of milk every night is a convenient way of putting on weight" justify or constitute a good reason for the imperative, "X, you should drink a glass of milk every night!" is equivalent to saying that they imply the imperative or that the imperative follows from them." (p. 134)

 That is:

"To say that a should-persuasive follows from a set of factual statements simply means that these statements assert (1) that the person to whom the imperative is addressed  has a certain desire and (2) that the satisfaction of the imperative is a necessary or convenient method of bringing about the satisfaction of that desire. Where (1) is known or obvious, we tend to say that the imperative follows from (2). It follows from (2) together with "the situation itself".

I shall suppose this is so, though from a logical point of view several remarks could be made that I forego. In any case, it seems rather clear that in many cases like Mr. Edwards describes, where person A knows that person B desires X and person A believes that person B would realize X if he did Y, it is quite sensible and understandable and indeed correct English if A says to B "You should do Y!" or "Then you ought to do Y!".

But it remains also true that this inference is not normally recognized in standard deductive formal logic. This is why Mr. Edwards adds:

"It will be convenient to distinguish this sense of "follows from" from the sense in which the conclusion of a valid deduction follows from its premise and also from the sense in which the conclusion of an inductive argument is sometimes said to follow from certain premises. We shall from now on call it sense (3) of the word." (p. 134)

There is a considerable problem here, that is involved with the phrase "It follows from (2) together with "the situation itself"", which Mr. Edwards used above, and which is, first, that judgments on "the situation itself" tend to involve quite a lot of personal taste, personal conviction, and personal superstition, lack of information or bias, and second that it often is far from clear, since what one counts as belonging to "the situation itself" another would reject as irrelevant. (Note 2)

On the other hand, and mostly forgetting about formal logic, since Mr. Edwards' book is not about formal logic, he is right that there are ordinary senses and usages of "should" and "ought", that most people know from their childhood or their raising children, which are quite reasonably explained along such lines as he offers.

He also has a few remarks on the difference between should-persuasives and other statements:

"There are two other interesting respects in which should-persuasives differ from all other imperatives. Firstly, it is possible in the case of a should-persuasive to accept the imperative without obeying it. In the case of all other imperatives, the only sense in which it is possible to accept or reject them is to obey or disobey, satisfy or fail to satisfy them." (p. 135)

This is so, but seems to me to be at least in part due to the terms Mr. Edwards chose, for what he calls "should-persuasives" others would not so much call "imperatives" as "advice" or "suggestion" and then Mr. Edwards' point is a matter of course.

"Secondly, unlike the case of all other imperatives, should-persuasives can be about a third person and they can also be in the past tense." (p. 135)

I think the same remark as I just made applies. Furthermore, Mr. Edwards explains that:

"when we say that the meaning of "should" is the same in the (..) sentences, we are referring to what in Chapter I, section 6, we called sense (4) of "meaning".(p. 135)

Indeed, we may quote here his fourth sense of "meaning":

"the meaning of the statement is not the referent  but the fact which is or would be brought up as the reason for the statement - either in the sense of inductive reason or in the sense of which "X helped me when I was down and out" is a reason for "I feel gratitude to X." We shall from now on refer to this sense of "meaning" as sense (4) of the word." (p. 39-40)

At the present place Mr. Edwards adds:

"It should be emphasized that this sense (4) of "meaning" is not an artificial construction of my own. On the contrary, it is an exceedingly common usage, although philosophers have hardly ever recognized it. We constantly use "meaning" and other related expressions in this sense when justifying or explaining the reasons for our feelings or attitudes and also when giving reasons for advice, requests, or indeed almost any kind of imperative." (p. 136)

I mostly agree, as I indicated, though some philosophers would reply, with some reason, that the whole topic started with Hume's observation that he did not know how to logically derive a statement with "ought" or "should" from purely factual statements, and that Mr. Edwards himself agrees that his own usage of "follows from" in his sense is not the usual deductive sense, since it refers both to human desires and to ""the situation itself"", which is a none too clear concept.

In any case, I think one can agree with Mr. Edwards' conclusion of this chapter:

"I have made it clear in this chapter that, whatever else can be said against it, a theory according to which moral judgments are disguised or undisguised moral imperatives, does not imply that all moral judgments are equally irrational or equally valid. It does not imply that moral judgments cannot be supported with reasons and it also does not imply that moral judgments can never follow from factual statements." (p. 137)

This is so, except that the logically finicky might add that, even so, moral judgments follow from factual statements only if these factual statements somehow refer to human desires. But indeed, I have from the beginning insisted that moral judgments differ from ordinary factual judgements in - also - referring to human desires, feelings, ends etc., so this should neither come as a surprise nor constitutes a logically valid objection.

6. Imperatives and their Justification

Note 1: Strictly, the difference between a categorical and a hypothetical imperative is that the former makes no reference to a condition and the latter does, but often categorical imperatives, if stated without condition are intended with some condition that's presumed obvious in the context. Back.

Note 2: One moral case here that moved some in 2004 is whether or not the Convention of Genève about the treatment of prisoners is "relevant" for personnel of the U.S. Army, and if so, in what sense. Back.