On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz

10. Some concluding remarks

We have arrived at Mr. Edwards' last chapter. In this review and comment there will follow another chapter with my own views. About the present chapter Mr. Edwards says

"In this chapter I shall discuss two very general objections which have been levelled against other metaethical theories and which some writers would very probably advance against my theory also. Briefly, these charges are (1) that the theory is "nihilistic" and (2) that, even if true, it is trivial since the questions which it answers are trivial questions." (p. 225)

In case you have read either my review or Mr. Edwards' book up to this chapter, the probability is appreciable that these questions won't trouble you much. Nevertheless, I will excerpt some of his remarks and make come comments.

1. Nihilism, Moral Chaos, Vishinsky!

Mr. Edwards opens this section thus:

"The charges which I shall examine in this section are usually brought up against various forms of subjectivism and against the emotive theory, though sometimes they are brought up against naturalism as such." (p. 225)

As the title of this section may indicate, Mr. Edwards is somewhat ironical in this chapter, and it should be noted that Vishinsky, whom one of the philosophers Mr. Edwards quotes refers to was Stalin's prosecutor in the Moscow show trials of the 1930ies.

I shall not copy the arguments of others that Mr. Edwards quotes. Here is his own summary of their import:

"Shorn of their rhetoric, these passages seem to amount to the following charges: (a) If the theory were true then neither party in a moral dispute could ever prove his case, then nobody could ever prove his case, then nobody could ever produce a reason or rational justification for a moral judgment, and (b) an acceptance of the theory is liable to have all sorts of results which civilized people, whether or not they are intuitionists, would hardly desire - e.g. an increase in murder, cruelty and fascism.
It will be convenient from now on to refer to (a) as the "theoretical" and to (b) as the "practical" charge. I shall attempt to show that the theoretical charge, while it has some amount of truth, is largely false; and that insofar as it is true, it is hardly a charge. I shall also try to show that the practical charge is an utter absurdity. " (p. 229)

I will take up some of Mr. Edwards' points, but may as well immediately give my own response to these two charges.

As to the theoretical charge. Suppose most of what Mr. Edwards summarizes in (a) were true - and note that not all it says can be true, for if it is true it must be true that one can prove that "nobody could ever produce a reason or rational justification for a moral judgment" and thereby one could disprove many moral judgments. Would it stop people moralizing? Of course not, for there would still remain opposing interests, desires and ends, and a finite world in which choices must be made. And if you can't rationally prove a case, this doesn't mean that you can't argue or plead it.

As to the practical charge. I take it to be common knowledge that almost all religious and political groups and parties have warned, possibly since the beginning of humanity, that dire consequences threatened for whomever did not practice and believe as they did. Hence, like the theoretical charge, one can hardly take it serious, at least in the form stated.

But Mr. Edwards raises some more sensible points. Here is one that I have mentioned several times before e.g. in the context of social relativism:

"To a very considerable extent, that is to say, the Nazis, in their official statements at least, used "bad" in the same sense as Western liberals, but denied that their actions had the features referred to by the word." (p. 230)

This is true, and it strongly suggests there is something much like a shared common human nature, also in humans who are ethically and intellectually in much disagreement and that there is also - even if the just mentioned assumption were factually false - at least a common human assumption that other humans feel, experience, desire, believe and reason in the same sorts of ways moved by many of the same needs as oneself. And clearly, the Nazis used "bad" in their official propaganda much like their opponents because this conforms to that assumption.

Also, this suggests a rather important question Mr. Edwards reaches after some considerations I skip:

"To all this, I am sure it will be replied that I am evading the real issue. Supposing, it would be said, the Nazis admitted that they and not the Poles were breaking an agreement. Supposing they admitted that their acts were certain to lead to enormous unhappiness for most people all over the world. And supposing they had added "but we approve of things of this sort. These are the features we refer to when we call an action 'good.'" How, on your view, could they then be proven wrong? How, on your view, could it then be shown that their action is evil?
If and to the extent to which there is no common ultimate object of approval here, I must admit that in the sense in which the Nazis are imagined to be using "good" and "bad" it is impossible on my view to prove that their invasion of Poland was bad." (p. 231)

Perhaps so, but at least three remarks should be made here.

First, here are the references to my earlier treatments of social relativism and the related nine features of moral judgments. Mr. Edwards - apart from a brief remark on p. 142 - has not dealt with these facts at all, though they are highly relevant in contexts like these and for morals in general. I will say more about them in my Supplementary Remarks.

Second, as I have indicated before and will also consider in some more detail in my Supplementary Remarks, it seems to me that Mr. Edwards is mistaken in his assumption that the last resort in moral judgments is some "common ultimate object of approval", which, moreover, on Mr. Edwards line of argument in Chapter VIII, must be a mere feeling. In fact, the source of fundamental moral judgments is far more complicated, and involves seriously considered human ends, an assumption about a shared human nature, and - usually to some extent, and for intelligent erudite persons easily quite a lot of - philosophical or religious ideas and assumptions. (Note 1)

Third, it seems a bit simple-minded, as Mr. Edwards does in fact, to reach a conclusion which is much like "If you call black white and call green red and call dark light, then we can have no more arguments about the colors things have or seem to have".

However, Mr. Edwards is to a considerable extent aware of the sort of remarks I just made:

"To this admission, however, two very important supplementary remarks have to be added. Firstly, with cases like the one just imagined, no other metaethic fares any better. On my view, all one can say in such a case is that while in the liberal's sense the Nazi invasion was bad, in the Nazi sense is was good." (p. 231)

This makes some sense, but seems to me not quite correct and overly simple. First, it is not true that "no other metaethic fares any better". It seems to me mine does, for one example - see Chapter VII, VIII and IX and the Supplementary Remarks - and second, it seems religious intuitionists would want to insist that God really exists and really disapproves of Nazism at least as much as they do. I agree with Mr. Edwards that I don't believe in this religious argument, but there is considerably more to say here than "your and my moral values disagree, and so our verbal arguments are over, useless, and bound to be irrelevant - let's fight".

Mr. Edwards continues:

"What if the Nazis said, "Yes - we admit that our invasion is going to lead to enormous suffering, etc., but our intuition tells us that this makes it good"? How could the intuitionists have proven them wrong?" (p. 231)

As pointed out above, the Nazis as a matter of fact did not do so, and instead - mostly falsely - claimed in their propaganda many of the same sort of widely shared human ends as their opponents. And this is an important fact about moral judgments and for moral judgments.

Next, of course the Nazis did do good in their own Nazi-terms: Many of them considered it very good indeed to exterminate jews, gass gypsies, and murder and torture all manner of political opponents, and went to a lot of personal trouble to be good in this sense. Also, while doing this sort of good, they felt and practised a lot of mutual solidarity with other Nazis, behaved  courageously under enemy fire, were very loyal to their leader, and helped their mutual friends to murder their mutual enemies, in a spirit of nationalism and patriottism, and indeed they also were for quite a few years fondly supported and admired by the majority of the German voters, and so could claim "to do the democratic will of the democratic majority".

But this does not mean, contra to what Mr. Edwards claims, that therewith all argument ends. Indeed, the photographic evidence and the testimony of the survivors concerning Nazi concentration camps show clearly to everyone - sadists and psychopaths possibly excepted - that they would not want to live in a concentration camp, and would not want to happen to their friends and families what was done to the prisoners of concentration camps.

Next, in the same context Mr. Edwards rightly says:

"Secondly, I wish to point out that the case we are considering is an imaginary one. In actual fact the Nazis never defended an action of theirs by saying it was going to produce enormous suffering. Nor do I know of anybody else who has ever done this (..)" (p. 231)

Indeed - and the vast majority of the horrors human beings have brought upon human beings were done for what were claimed to be the best and most idealistic of moral reasons, and in the name of the highest human ideals.

Also, there is another relevant point that should be met: Nietzsche, whose philosophy inspired the Nazi philosophy - though it is very probable that Nietzsche (who for example despised anti-semitism) would have despised the Nazis as inferior and stupid - had an aristocratic type of morals that insisted that human life on earth served to help a small minority of natively superior men and women to lord it over all others and produce high art and high civilization, in which only the ends and tastes of that small minority of natively superior men and women counted seriously.

Two relevant answers to this Nietzschean stand are, first, that it was based on factually false ideas about the genesis and preferences of "natively superior men and women" and, second, that supposing these to exist, they all or nearly all disagreed with Nietzsche, who indeed went incurably insane in his forties. And those who tended to agree with Nietzsche in his "Herrenmoral" (moral for lords and masters) were either Nazis or would-be superior minds of no great ability at all.

Then Mr. Edwards makes the following point:

"It is possible on the views in question (those of Mr. Edwards expounded before - MM) to give a rational justification for saying "there ought to be no concentration camps." The rational justification would be something like this: "Because they produce terrible suffering for the prisoners, because they brutalize the guards and those outsiders with whom they are in contact, and because they tend to produce an atmosphere of fear throughout the country." This, although not a justification in the sense of "deductive justification," is a justification in the only sense in which anybody ever in ordinary life uses the term "justification" with reference to ought-statements." (p. 232)

As I indicated above, I agree with this line of argument, but believe it could be much strengthened by speaking of human nature, human needs and seriously considering the issue who would want to live in a human society where opponents of the government are cruelly murdered as a matter of course by governmental bureaucrats simply because they are opponents of the government.

Now we turn to another point, which I mention because Mr. Edwards was a supporter of the sexual reformer Wilhem Reich, and because it admits of a factual remark. Writing in the early 1950ies, Mr. Edwards says:

"Let us briefly consider another case where intellectual considerations figure quite prominently. You very strongly disapprove of the code, still the official morality in our society, which forbids sex-life to adolescents. You do so because you believe that this code makes people miserable, malicious, hypocritical, and full of envy and crazy ambitions." (p. 236)

In fact, while you may not think so, this is what Mr. Edwards believed and Wilhelm Reich claimed. Well, as a matter of fact it may be claimed with great certainty, after the "sexually liberated 1960ies" and later, that the facts show that people also may be quite "miserable, malicious, hypocritical, and full of envy and crazy ambitions" when practising free sex. (In brief, the facts suggest that these human-all-too-human characteristics are not related to sexual frustration in the way claimed by Reich and believed by Mr. Edwards.)

Mr. Edwards ends the present section by considering some quotations of Bertrand Russell, whom he much admired and mostly agreed with. He quotes Russell thus:

"We have wishes which are not purely personal, and, if we had not, no amount of ethical teaching would influence our conduct except through fear of disapproval. The sort of life that most of us admire is one which is guided by large impersonal desires; now, such desires can, no doubt, be encouraged by example, education, and knowledge, but they can hardly be created by the mere abstract belief that they are good, nor discouraged by an analysis of what is meant by the word "good." (..)
In either case, you can only influence his conduct through influencing his desires: if you succeed in that, his ethic will change, and if not, not." (p. 238) (Quoting Russell's "Religion and Science")

Then Mr. Edwards continues:

"In view of these statements, it is very surprising that, in a later book, Russell himself echoes some of the chaos-charges, without however abandoning his own theory:

"If ethical statemets cannot be true in the sense in which scientific statements are true, we are driven in practice, whatever may be the philosophic truth, to a context by force or propaganda or both, whenever an irreconcilable ethical difference exists between powerful groups ....
Plato thinks he can prove that his ideal Republic is good; a democrat who accepts the objectivity of ethics may think that he can prove the Repulic bad; but anybody who agrees with Thrasymachus will say: "There is no question of proving or disproving; the only question is whether you like the kind of State that Plato desires. If you do, it is good for you; if you do not it is bad for you." If many do and many do not, the decision cannot be made by reason, but only by force, actual or concealed." (p. 238, quoting Russell's "History of Western Philosophy".)

Mr. Edwards correctly points out here that

"Just because a given dispute cannot be resolved by an appeal to observation or "reason," this does not imply that people have to resort to force. They often (..) resort, or are willing to resort, to compromise." (p. 238-9)

And as I pointed out, in addition moral judgments are more complicated than Mr. Edwards presented them to be, since they do not only refer to feelings and facts but also to philosophies, ends and and ideas about human nature.

Furthermore, as a matter of logic it should be pointed out that at least a considerable part of the problem Russell raised can be answered by restating the conflict conditionally and by reference to ends or characteristics of human beings one seriously desires to further: If you want to seriously further such and such ends, then so and so must be good according to you - and then reopen the question on the reasons one believes one has for adopting these ends, and no others, or those means to further these ends, and no others.

2. The Charge of Triviality

Mr. Edwards opens this section as follows:

"In this last section of my book I wish to defend myself against the charge which is certain to be made that, even if I have succeeded in giving a plausible answer to my questions, what I have written is pretty much a waste of time. (..)
I did often, while writing this book, feel that what I was doing was not very important. But insofar as this charge is just, it should, I think, be levelled against philosophy in general. (..)
The mere fact that there is a certain number of intelligent people in the world who wish to be clear about the way in which ethical predicates function in our discourse is, to my mind, a sufficient justification for concerning oneself with this topic." (p. 239)

I have given my own sort of justification in the introduction, and wish to refer here specifically to Mr. Rummel's statistics quoted there: In the 20th Century more than 200 million civilian persons were murdered by government-bureaucrats.

Mr. Edwards continues and sums up his own motivation for writing his book:

"But secondly, I deny - and this is the reply on which I would wish to place the greater emphasis - that an inquiry like mine is necessarily devoid of practical consequences. Intuitionism and, more generally, all forms of non-naturalism from Plato to Ross, have fundamentally had one and only one purpose: to help support the morality of self-denial and sin. (..)
Those who defend the morality of sin and self-denial usually have very little to offer in the way of an empirical justification for their moral judgments. In the last resort they fall back on God's alleged prohibitions and on conscience or what our moral sense is supposed to tell us." (p. 240)

This does not seem to me quite fair towards Plato and Ross, but it is true that intuitionists often have been religious, and often defended their moral claims by reference to their God.

And I should perhaps say here that, while writing my review I have not "often, while writing this book, (felt) that what I was doing was not very important". For this there are at least three quite good reasons: First, I liked Mr. Edwards book and approach to moral judgments, though I don't fully agree with it. Second, I think moral judgments are very important for humans, and they are in need of fundamental clarification also if there is no hope of definitely proving one's moral ideas as one can prove a theorem in mathematics. Third, writing this review was the work of 10 days, since I happen to have a facility for writing quickly, and so there was little time or occasion to worry about my motives or the ultimate yield of my work.

Also, part of my reason to write this review has been well summed up by Voltaire in the quotation which I also used to open my review, which sums up a lot about moral, religious and political teachings in human history, and their usual effects followed by a moral promise and diagnosis made by my fellow Dutchman Coster in 1618 A.D.:

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

Ach, waren alle mensen wijs
En deden daarbij wel
Dan was de aarde een paradijs
Nu is zij vaak een hel.

Dirck Jansz Coster, 1618

O, if only all men were wise
also acted well
Then the earth would be a paradise
Now it often is a hell

Dirck Jansz Coster, 1618

To conclude this review of Mr. Edwards "The Logic of Moral Discourse" I note here that there is an additional chapter of Supplementary Remarks in which I treat a number of fundamental points concerning moral judgments in my own way.

10. Some concluding remarks

Note 1: This is also why one can come to find oneself in considerable agreement with people one has considerable disagreements about as to the foundations of moral judgments. Thus, while I am an atheist I may believe that the social and moral ideals of sincere Christians when practiced would produce a better society - in my terms - than the social and moral ideals of sincere atheistic socialists when practiced. Back.