On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz

9. The Logic of Moral Discourse (III)

1. Blanshard's Rabbit

Mr. Edwards opens this chapter as follows:

"Brand Blanshard, the ablest and certainly the most lucid American champion of intuitionism, has attacked the emotive theory and also naive subjectivism on the ground that both theories have the following absurd implication: the goodness or badness of an event, according to these theories, depends for its existence on the approval or disapproval of a human being who happens to arrive on the scene and pass a moral judgment about the event. I have little doubt Blanshard would maintain that his criticisms apply equally to my theory." (p. 199)

Now Mr. Edwards gives a considerable amount of space to this objection, which concerns the suffering of a small rabbit that was accidentally found in a trap and apparently died slowly in great agony, but I shall not. However, I shall discuss Mr. Edwards' main conclusion and some other points he makes.

Mr. Edwards sums up thus after some pages of quotations and arguments, and in what follows his "sentence (1)" is - referring to abovementioned rabbit - "Something bad happened here".

"On my theory, the word "bad" in sentence (1) has a double function: it both refers to the features just mentioned and it also expresses the speaker's unfavourable attitude towards events having these features. While not endorsing all their formulations, it is I think this which most defenders of the emotive theory have also wished to maintain. That is to say: the position is not
     A sentence like (1) has no referent and only expresses the speaker's attitude.
Their position rather is
     A sentence like (1) does have a referent but the only thing which the use
     of the word "bad" does and which is not done by the use of non-ethical
     predicates is the expression of the speaker's attitude.
Or, stated in a slighly different way: the position of the defenders of the emotive theory is not
     "bad" is only used to express the speaker's attitude - it does not refer to
     any feature of the event in question.
It is:
     "bad" does not refer to any additional features over and above (in
    this case) "suffering intense pain to no useful purpose". Its only
    additional function is the expression of speaker's attitude." (p. 203)

And after some more pages of arguments says

"In any event, whether my theory is expressed by saying that "bad" has both referential and emotional meaning or by saying that "bad" has referential meaning and also certain characteristic emotive aspects, the badness of an action according to it will always consist entirely in certain features of the action." (p. 207)

I agree mostly with both points and note also that part of Mr. Edwards' concern is to make clear that his theory is naturalistic and objective and not non-naturalistic or subjective. This raises another difficulty, though, for Mr. Edwards:

"But, it will be said, what about fundamental moral judgments which on my view have emotional meaning only?" (Np. 207)

Mr. Edwards proceeds to discuss it, but as I think I have shown quite convincingly in the previous Chapter, his position about fundamental moral judgments is both confused and mistaken, and also not necessary for an adequate naturalistic and objective approach to moral judgments.

Indeed, this does not settle all possible points concerning fundamental moral judgments but then these will be raised later on, notably in the next section and my Supplementary Remarks.

2. Concerning the "Naturalistic Fallacy"

We have arrived at a fundamental objection to a naturalistic approach to ethics, like Mr. Edwards expounds and defends.

"In this section I wish to show how my theory can account for all the facts to which Moore drew attention in his famous argument against what he called the "Naturalist Fallacy" - the facts to which brief reference was made in Chapter IV, Section 2, (vii). (Note 1) Moore's argument, stated in formal mode, is roughly as follows: consider any suggested definition of "good". Let x be the suggested definiens. Then construct questions of these two types:
(1) Is goodness good?
(2) Is x good?
If the definition is really synonymous with "good" then (2), no less than (1), should be a senseless or self-answering question. It should be a senseless question in the sense that "x is not good" would be a verbal mistake. But in fact the investigation of any definiens that has ever been or could ever be suggested shows that (2) is not a senseless or self-answering question. "Is happiness good?," "Is obedience to the will of God good?," "Is aiding the struggle for survival good?" - none of these is a self-answering question." (p. 209)

Moore's own conclusion of this argument was that "good" is indefinable, and that therefore naturalism is mistaken, since it attempts to define it.

What the argument shows, it seems to me, is - rather - that people will disagree about what is good, and one cannot define "good" unproblematically and merely in factual terms or with factual examples, though it is well worth pointing out at this place that the good and bad people seriously mean is often illustrated with examples, such as human kindness or courage in adversity as examples of goodness, or what happened in German or Soviet concentration-camps as examples of badness.

But all of this follows quite evidently from my own and Mr. Edwards' earlier considerations about ethical predicates and moral judgments. Also, whatever the ultimate validity of Moore's argument, it is a fact that through the centuries very many people, including many serious and able philosophers, such as Aristotle, have held that what people desire for themselves and their friends and family is well indicated by the term "happiness", though it is also true that some have disagreed, especially religious people, who often inclined towards claiming that "obeying God's will" is what is truly and really and ultimately good - but even then in the faith that if they did so in this life, they would be rewarded with "eternal happiness in the next life".

In any case, there is - it would seem - a quite satisfactory stipulative definition of "good" that both meets Moore's argument and seems quite close to what people actually mean. It depends on clearly noting and admitting that what a person believes to be good is personal - and in simple personal terms: The good for me = the ends I desire i.e. more specifically: The characteristics of myself and of other people that I seriously want to further. The same applies to you and to everybody else, and also gives quite a good indication about what you or someone else would call "good": If I know someone's ends, I can often quite confidently say whether he would consider something good or bad. And for this I do not need to agree with him: All I need to know besides the ends one has is a little about human psychology, logic, and some common knowledge, and that is, humanly speaking, often quite sufficient to know about quite a few examples whether one considers them good or bad.

But it makes sense to keep following Mr. Edwards' arguments. He says:

"The question of meta-ethics is the function or meaning of ethical predicates as they are normally used. Definitions of ethical terms are to the point only if they are public definitions. If people normally use "good" in such a way that "Is happiness good?" is not, in their usage, a self-answering question, and if utilitarians use it in such a way that in their usage the question is self-answering, this only shows that utlitarians use "good" differently from ordinary people. It does not make the statement "'good' means 'producing happiness'" into a true public definition." (p. 210)

This raises at least two distinct points.

First, concerning public definitions. Apart from the fact that one can use a word in a new sense or propose a new sense, there is the fact, that is quite important for morals in practice, that very much of morals is fraudulent, hypocritical or merely conformistic, wholly apart from whether the moral systems that is thus maintained would make sense if held honestly and individually. I have made this point before, but Mr. Edwards does not seriously raise it (an incidental remark on p. 142 excepted), so I will discuss this problem in the Supplementary Remarks.

Second, concerning the identification, equivocation or confusion of 'goodness' and 'producing happiness': As I pointed out before, very many people and very many philosophers have in fact defended that the end most persons seek to realize is happiness - of some sort, for some people. This is not a sufficient reason to assume - unconditionally, as a valid proposal of how nearly everyone uses the word - that "'good' means 'producing happiness'". But it is a sufficient reason to assume that in moral systems and moral thinking producing some sort of happiness for some sort of people plays a rather central role - much more so than, say, "producing beetroots" or "producing chess players", for example.

Next, Mr. Edwards correctly says

"As Moore also took great pains to point out, they (the Utilitarians - MM) very much want the statement, "Happiness is good" to be a synthetic and not an analytic statement." (p. 210)

And their reason to take that stand is obviously that they believe themselves to state a matter of fact and not a matter of linguistic convention. And while I am not a Utilitarian, I agree with them that - as a matter of historical fact - the ends of many persons and political religious groups are much concerned with the happiness of some group of people. Mr. Edwards adds:

"I shall try to show that this does not imply that "good" is indefinable in concrete contexts." (p. 211)

Of course, the reason Mr. Edwards supplies "concrete contexts" is that he believes he can do so for what he called non-fundamental moral judgments.

"Once we turn to actual concrete situations in which "good" is used, it is not at all impossible to provide a definiens. Thus in the case (..) when I said, "X.Y. is a good person" I roughly meant, "X.Y. is truthful, loving, gentle and free from envy and malice." Moore's second question is never self-answering when asked in the abstract not because "good" has no referent or because it has a non-natural referent but because, among other things, its referent tends to vary from group to group and even from person to person." (p. 211)

Now from my own point of view, that insists that a person's good and usage of "good" is quite easily derivable in many cases from that person's considered and serious ends, there is no problem - as there is for Mr. Edwards - with fundamental moral judgments. Also, it seems quite obvious to me that being "truthful, loving, gentle and free from envy and malice" happen to be among the characteristics of human beings that Mr. Edwards seriously wants to further, and so belongs to his ends, as I use words, while others may have other ends in the same sense, such as "intelligent, honest, fair, rational, erudite".

And I also do not need to make the sort of relativization Mr. Edwards makes at the end of the last quote: On my proposal, it is quite obvious that what a person thinks good depends on the person and involves a personal appraisal, and also quite obvious that another person may think that the very same fact is bad. But I agree with Mr. Edwards that there is usually a large objective part in such disagreements, namely the fact that is judged, and unlike Mr. Edwards I claim that the foundations of one's judgments of good and bad lie in one's theories of human nature, human society and natural reality, and one's ends for humans living in human society, where an "end" in the present sense is conveniently defined as: "the characteristics of human beings one seriously desires to further".

Mr. Edwards, unlike me, feels moved to somewhat confuse the matter by his - often repeated - appeal to the polyguity of ethical terms:

"The fact that there is no one observable feature or no one set of observable features to which one can point and say, "This is the referent of 'good'" no more implies that the referent of "good" is a simple, non-natural quality than the corresponding fact implies this in the case of "nice"." (p. 211)

At this place that seems to me a mistake, and someone who wants to defend a naturalistic approach to ethics should simply agree that in the end the meaning a person gives to "good" depends on his personal assumptions and feelings, for which reason an initial sensible approach to "good" is that "what is "good" according to a person is what satisfies the serious ends, desires or needs of that person".

And now Mr. Edwards feels forced to the following concession which I also see no reason for:

""good" is hardly ever used with anything like a precise referent. (..) this implies that in a sense "good" is indefinable" (p. 212)

Personally, I don't think at all that ""good" is hardly ever used with anything like a precise referent" - I don't use it in that way, nor do many people I know (of): Very many people in very many circumstances feel quite certain and quite convinced that a quite definite commission or ommission is good. And in this they may well be mistaken in my opinion, but this does not mean that they do not believe there is something quite specific and precise and well circumscribed - "You should not touch yourself between your legs, Junior!" - that is good, according to them.

3. Higher and Lower Moralities

We have arrived at another issue:

"In Chapter II we concluded that frequently when people say that one morality is "higher than" another, they do not merely mean "it is my morality." Frequently (at least) they are making objective claims and sometimes these objective claims are true.
My theory is perfectly consistent with and accounts for these facts. The words "higher" and "lower," when applied to moral codes, function in a way which is fairly similar to that of "good" and "bad" when applied to actions or to the character of human beings." (p. 213)

Since Mr. Edwards wrote this, there have arisen a Black Power movement, a White Power movement, not to speak of a not similarly named but similarly motivated Islamic Power movement the speakers for which agree, nominally at least, that their morals are quite a lot "higher" than those who do not agree with them. However, it may be said that this is for the most part obvious propaganda, and for the rest, in the cases mentioned, confused or prejudice based on wishful thinking.

Mr. Edwards instantiates his own attitudes:

"I believe that the morality, i.e. the moral recommendations in Reich's Sexual Revolution and Russell's Marriage and Morals is higher than the teachings of the Catholic Church or Lord Elton or Mr. Sokolsky on sexual questions. What I mean by calling the former morality higher is (roughly) that it is based, at least in the case of Reich though also to some extent in the case of Russell, on extensive clinical and sociological data of which the other side is totally unaware, and that, unlike the other morality, it is not the result of neurotic anxieties and resentments and of superstitious errors. This, too, is clearly an objective claim (..)" (p. 213)

For those who don't know: The sexual morals Mr. Edwards here supports were, certainly for the 1950ies in which this was written, very libertarian, and Wilhelm Reich was an originally Austrian originally Marxist psychiatrist who ended up (after Mr. Edwards wrote this) at least slightly mad in an American prison, where he died. (There is an article on Reich by Mr. Edwards in "The Encyclopedia of Philosophy".)

Also, it is true that Mr. Edwards claims are "objective" in the sense that they are about intersubjective facts.

Apart from that, my own inclination is towards believing that in the vast majority that someone says "this morality is higher than that morality" he is in fact propagandizing something, and probably the morals he calls "higher".

4. Moral Blindness

"By terms like "moral blindness," "moral idiocy,"  or "moral insanity" we normally refer to two kinds of phenomenon. We refer firstly to cases where a person acknowledges a certain general moral principle but then arbitrarily fails to apply it to a certain group or a certain person. We refer here to the case sometimes called "special pleading". I do not see that situations of this kind require the assumption of some special faculty of moral intuition in which people whom we call morally blind or morally insane are defective." (p. 215)

Here I have to make two critical remarks.

First, when Mr. Edwards says "We refer firstly to cases where a person acknowledges a certain general moral principle but then arbitrarily fails to apply it to a certain group or a certain person. When he refers here "to the case sometimes called "special pleading"" he is right to some extent but appears to wholly miss the fact I mentioned before, namely that so very much of real moral acting is in fact mostly posturing and comes with social role-playing. See in considerable more detail social relativism and nine features of morals.

Second, most psychiatrists and indeed the criminal law disagree with Mr. Edwards, in the sense that these insist that some persons - serial killers, torturers of small girls, compulsive arsonists etc. - are criminally insane. In any case, there are persons of the stated kind, and have been through the centuries, though it is often not clear what causes such behavior. In some cases there is evidence of brain damage, or shortage of certain foods. Also, there is good statistical evidence that being raised by mentally disturbed or mentally subnormal people increases the chances that one will be oneself mentally disturbed or subnormal considerably.

The only consolation one has here, it seems, is that the vast majority of human beings that have existed were neither serial killers nor torturers nor arsonists. (Note 2)

Next, Mr. Edwards turns to the second type:

"The second type of situation in which we use the phrase "morally blind" concerns people who are devoid of sympathy. These cases may or may not overlap with the first type." (p. 215)

Here it should be mentioned that Schopenhauer held sympathy to be fundamental in morals, and that there are a small proportion of people, called autists, who find it very difficult to identify with others or think themselves in another's position.

To conclude this section, I should remark that I am much more concerned with the sort of selective blindness and the totalitarianism I indicated under social relativism and nine features of morals, neither of which are rare possibly medical conditions but are very common human weaknesses that differ from the "moral blindness" discussed in this section, and also that there is quite another side to the issue, which may be called "moral fanaticism": Quite a lot of the great amount of harm that human beings have done to other human beings was done by moral fanatics, who lived out their penchants for sadism, cruelty, mass-killing, domination, or the exercise of personal power as very loyal, very good patriottic soldiers, Members of the Party, or Inquisitors of the Holy Church. Indeed, most of the harm that has been done in history seems to have been done in the name of the highest moral ideals, motivated by the lowest human passions.

5. The fact of obligation

Mr. Edwards now precisifies some of his earlier statements about obligation:

"In Chapter VI we noted that intuitionists place a great deal of emphasis on the objectivity of judgments concerning obligation (..)
From my remarks about "ought" in Chapters VII and VIII, it should be clear that, except for fundamental moral views, my theory fully accepts the objectivity of obligation-judgments. That is to say: obligation-statements have descriptive meaning in the same sense in which ought-judgments have descriptive meaning." (p. 216)

This seems sensible, though a logical remark in in place that relates to the just mentioned facts concerning social relativism and the nine features of morals: Very many statements of obligation can be made quite objective by adding an if of the form "If you really believe such and such moral ideas, then you are obliged ...", where the "obliged" is logical: A consistent and honest believer of the intended moral ideas must for logical reasons hold that certain things are obliged in virtue of his holding those moral ideas. (If you desire never to break the laws of the land, you are obliged not to break the speed limits when driving. And so on.)

Mr. Edwards also says:

"Many obligation-statements differ from other moral judgments in that they express not only the author's attitude towards something, but also his feeling impelled to perform a certain action."

This seems true, but what also strikes me in Mr. Edwards treatment of obligation is the absence of considerations about rewards and punishments, since these are often related. Also, these are quite important in real life, while a salary is a reward for work done and a price is a monetary demand for handing ove goods.

6. The Apparent Equivalence of Moral Judgments with Autobiographical Statements

Another precisification by Mr. Edwards:

"In expounding one of the arguments for naive subjectivism (Chapter II (..)), I pointed out that people are frequently willing to substitute a statement with an autobiographical referent for a moral judgment."

He also refers to his chapter on the niceness of steaks. I only want to add here that I for my part usually care less whether someone else believes that my moral judgments are subjective in some sense or for some part than whether he agrees with them or is capable of rationally argueing about them if he differs from me. Likewise, I do not care very much whether some arbitrary person does not try to kill me because he enthusiastically tries to live by Mr. Russell's or Mr. Edwards' moral ideas or because he is a sincere Christian and pacifist, as long as indeed does not try to kill me. (For there are more people - who could kill one or do far more pleasant things - than there are seconds in one's life, as one can see from 60*60*24*365*75 = 2,365,200,000.)

7. Are Moral Emotions "Intellectual Emotions"?

"In Chapter VI we saw how intuitionists in some contexts insist on the "immediacy" of moral judgments, while in other contexts they insist that they are not immediate but based on deliberation. Ross, in particular, insisted that the moral emotions, i.e. the emotions which moral judgments express, "presuppose some insight" into the objects to which they are directed." (p. 218)

In this I agree with Ross if by "insight" is meant "relevant knowledge". Indeed, since I maintain that properly reasoned out moral judgments involve judgments about facts, judgments about personal feelings, and judgments about the nature of reality, human beings and human society, and since evidently moral judgments are in part or come with emotions, the term "intellectual emotions" is appropriate.

Furthermore, it seems the intuitionists are also right in the sense that small children seem to have quite a few rather clearly moral ideas about their parents. Even so, what I called "properly reasoned out moral judgments" tend to be quite complicated; tend to involve quite a lot of - supposed - knowledge of various kinds; and tend to be made by persons older than 14 or so at least, apart from exceptions (that are probably due to education and example rather than native talent).

8. The Origin of Ethical Terms

In this section Mr. Edwards is concerned with the ideas of C.E.M. Joad, which he doesn't like (and whom he doesn't seem to have liked):

"In various of his widely read books, C.E.M. Joad has maintained that naturalistic theories cannot account for "the origin and distinctive use of ethical terms." (p. 219)

Mr. Edwards quotes quite a bit by Joad, which I can wholly forego apart from its last statement, that makes Joad's point clear enough:

"But if this is so, why do we moralize our disapproval of cruelty but not our disapproval of toothache and spinach?"

Personally, I believe this is a good question when directed against the moral theories of the early Ayer, while it happens to be a fact that quite a few people have moralized their attitudes to food (vegetarianism etc.).

Apart from that, the question is good but easily answered: The values that are moralized concern how people treat each other (or also, e.g. for vegetarians: how people treat animals). Mr. Edwards spends a considerable amount of words here, but does not get further than

"even the most radical defender of the emotive theory could rightly reject Joad's argument on the ground that he does not claim that moral and aesthetic judgments express the same feelings or attitudes. Moral judgments, he would say, express moral feelings like approval and disapproval, while aesthetic judgments express certain forms of enjoyment and displeasure. (..)
As for my own theory, moral and aesthetic judgments are distinguished by the different attitudes they express and also by the different (natural) features to which they refer."

This seems to me weak and mostly verbal, and my own answer seems much more to the point.

Mr. Edwards ends this chapter with a statement in which he extends his theory to aesthetic judgments:

"Aesthetic as well as moral judgments - with the reservations explained in Chapter VIII, Section 7 - are objective claims and frequently true. But the referent neither of moral nor of aesthetic judgments is the same feature in different instances. Nor is it in most cases a single feature. Nor, finally, is it a set of features disclosed by some special faculty." (p. 223)

This is a fair summary of Mr. Edwards' theory. I disagreed with "the reservations explained in Chapter VIII, Section 7" and indeed this is a quite fundamental disagreement. And while I agree with many of Mr. Edwards points about features in moral judgments, I do not believe they are as important as he thinks they are and I do not believe they always have the logical import he attributes to them.

What I agree with him about is that there are no non-natural features in moral judgments and that it is important to have a clear statement of a naturalistic ethics or moral system.

9. The Logic of Moral Discourse (III)

Note 1: I faithfully reproduce Mr. Edwards' text, but - having the book - the state textual reference makes no sense, and Mr. Edwards almost certainly meant to refer to the passage I linked to. Perhaps it makes also sense to add that in this html I have several times corrected obvious typos in Mr. Edwards' text, but these concerned single letters only. Back.

Note 2: The persons who hijacked the planes they drove into the New York Twin Towers in September 2001 seem to me to qualify rather easily as 'criminally insane'. Back