Ethics as a Serious Game Again

Monday’s offerings at Three Quarks Daily included “Is Moral Equality a Christian Ideal?” by Tim Sommers. Mr. Sommers concluded that equality has a widespread, longstanding status as an ethical ideal not reserved to Christianity. Here’s part of his conclusion:

Moral equality is not based on the obviously false claim that we are all alike – or equal in every way. Nor is it based on the claim that all humans possess some ineffable, transcendent something that we got from God. It’s based on the idea that there is at least one morally relevant way in which we are alike that qualifies us for equal treatment (or treatment as equals) in certain ways.

…. Here’s why I think this is worth writing about. I think people, even smart people (maybe, especially smart people), give in to an easy cynicism about moral notions in general, and equality in particular. For example, I received an otherwise smart and insightful comment on a prior article that began, “Rights are clearly imagined.” Well, I don’t think that’s clear. I don’t believe that the hard-headed, realistic thing to think is that moral concepts are imaginary or wishful thinking or a hangover from religion that we are still recovering from. I think cynicism about right and wrong and equality is the last thing we need right now. So, keep in mind, that morality and moral equality are not somehow less realistic concerns simply because they are more abstract and complicated. Maybe, it will help to recall that Hobbes says that the basis of human equality is our ability to murder each other in our sleep. That seems like a realistic concern.

Reading this made me think about what I wrote a few days ago: “Ethics as a Very Serious Game”. Here’s a much shorter (and possibly clearer) version of what I wrote, now in response to Mr. Sommers:

Would it be helpful to think of morality as a set of rules, so that instead of saying things like “breaking a promise is wrong” we’d say “don’t break a promise”? The question whether moral rules are imaginary or wishful thinking wouldn’t arise. We don’t worry about the rules of chess or baseball being imaginary or wishful thinking. They’re the rules. The origin of the moral rules would still be an interesting question (religion was certainly involved), as would whether the rules should be changed. Since morality isn’t as organized as chess or baseball — there’s no official rule book — we could still argue about what the rules are and whether we should obey them.

The metaethical question whether moral judgments are true or false would kind of fade away. The statement “three strikes and you’re out” is true in baseball. The statement “breaking a promise is wrong” isn’t true simpliciter. It is, however, true in morality.

He responded to what I wrote, mainly wondering why we should be moral if what I wrote is true. All I’ll say about that now is that whatever reasons we have for paying attention to morality can’t themselves be moral reasons. Giving a moral reason for paying attention to morality would be going around in circles. Some other justification would be needed, like “God wants us to behave that way”, “society benefits from people being ethical”, “you’ll be a happier person” or “it’s just obvious that we should be ethical”. The answer might also be the one Ring Lardner once expressed: “Shut up, he explained”.

Ethics as a Very Serious Game

What are we doing when we say that an action is morally right or wrong? That’s one of the questions philosophers try to answer when they do “metaethics”. In metaethics, the question isn’t whether a particular action, like stealing candy from a little kid, is right or wrong. That’s a question for ethics. Metaethics concerns the nature of ethical judgments themselves. Is an assertion like “stealing candy is wrong” true or false, or is it more like saying “Hey everybody, don’t steal candy!”

Here’s part of a metaethical article by a University of Miami philosophy professor named Richard Chappell. It’s from a series of articles he wrote about the highly influential British philosopher Derek Parfit:

J.L. Mackie famously objected that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities… of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Parfit seeks to defang such metaphysical qualms by denying that objective values (or normative properties more generally) would have to exist “in the universe” at all. Nor do they exist in some separate, ghostly Platonic realm. That is still to treat them too much on the model of concrete objects that exist in space and time. Instead, Parfit suggests, abstract entities like numbers and objective values exist in a “non-ontological” sense. True claims about numbers and values are as true as true can be, but—Parfit insists—these truths “have no positive ontological implications.” This is Parfit’s Non-Metaphysical Cognitivism in a nutshell.

Parfit thus hopes to secure the best of both worlds: the objectivity of robust non-naturalist normative realism, without the ontological costs. Whether this is a coherent position is, unfortunately, less clear. Parfit claims that abstract entities “are not a kind of entity about which it is a clear enough question whether, in some ontological sense, they exist, or are real, though they are not in space and time”….

Some skeptics have thought that objective values would be more problematic than other abstract objects. Mackie supposed that they must be imbued with a kind of magical motivating force…. [Parfit responds that] normativity is causally inert: it marks what truly ought to be done, but it cannot push us to do it. Their causal inefficacy makes Parfit’s non-natural properties more metaphysically innocent (being compatible with the principle that physical effects can only stem from physical causes), but perhaps more epistemically puzzling.

If abstract objects cannot causally influence physical objects such as our brains, how can we possibly know anything about them? … Parfit suggests that the necessary truths of logic, mathematics, and philosophy are self-evident in the sense that full rational understanding of the claim in question gives one sufficient justification for believing it: no causal interaction or external evidence is required.

To appreciate that 2+2=4, or that pain is bad, you don’t need to run a scientific experiment to better reveal the causal structure of the world (and indeed, doing so wouldn’t help). Once you’ve acquired the relevant concepts, you just need to think clearly. Not all self-evident truths are so obvious as these examples, and we are all fallible, imperfectly rational beings. So people may disagree about what is truly self-evident, and sometimes get it wrong. But the core suggestion is nonetheless that careful thinking may see us right (and at any rate is the only hope we have, so we might as well give it our best shot).

Non-cognitivists hold that our moral judgments express (something like) desires rather than beliefs. The early emotivists claimed that “murder is wrong” meant, roughly, “Boo to murder!” Contemporary expressivists and quasi-realists are more sophisticated, but Parfit notoriously dismissed their developments as mere window-dressing for a “bleak view” that is ultimately “close to Nihilism”. For Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover.

It can be difficult to pin down the disagreement between realists and expressivists, however. For expressivists can affirm normative truths (given a minimalist theory of truth, on which “it’s true that murder is wrong” is just to affirm that murder is wrong). And they can even affirm objective, stance-independent normative truths, for they can affirm norms opposing murder without condition. The affirmed norm thus negatively evaluates murder even in those possible worlds in which the expressivist comes to adopt pro-murder norms.

So we cannot straightforwardly assert that only realists can hold murder to be objectively wrong, independently of their attitudes. Expressivists may endorse that same norm. They, too, can disapprove of their pro-murder counterpart. And of course even the moral realist could have counterparts that believe murder to be good. So: what’s the difference? Parfit insists that moral truths are true in a way that goes beyond minimalism. He isn’t just re-affirming his preferred moral norms, but claims that some norms are right in a way that goes beyond merely affirming them.

Of course, if expressivists insist on reinterpreting this claim as just yet another norm affirmation, then I’m not sure how to stop them. But it does seem clear enough that there’s a distinctive claim here that the rest of us can grasp, even if they refuse to admit it!

Unquote.

I’ve been thinking about metaethics off and on for more than 50 years. I’ve never thought metaethical questions are easy to answer. But after reading Professor Chappell’s article, it all became clear! Eureka!

No, actually, that’s a lie, but I did reach a tentative conclusion.

I think ethics is like a game, a very serious game. And ethical statements can be true or false in the same way statements about the rules of a game are.

Chess is a game. Some people take it extremely seriously. Chess has official rules:

The rules continued to be slightly modified until the early 19th century, when they reached essentially their current form. The rules also varied somewhat from place to place. Today, the standard rules are set by FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), the international governing body for chess [Wikipedia].

If ethics is like a game, does it have any official rules? According to some people, it does (see The Bible), but I think it’s more like chess before people accepted the creation of a governing body. Everybody who played the game correctly in the 17th century agreed that the queen could move in any direction, but not everybody everywhere handled promotion the same way (that’s when a pawn is replaced by a more powerful piece).

So, like the statement “the game always ends before a king is taken” is true in chess, “everything else being equal, keeping promises is the right thing to do” is true in ethics. “The queen can only move in one direction” is false in chess, while “it’s fine to make random people suffer just for the hell of it” is false in ethics.

There are obviously big differences between ethics and chess. Ethics is practiced or  “played” much longer than chess and by more people, apparently in every culture. There is more disagreement about what’s permissible in ethics than in chess. Everybody who plays chess thinks it’s a kind of game; very few people think ethics is (although that will depend on how many people read this blog). The scope of ethics is much broader than the scope of chess; what’s at stake is usually more serious in ethics; we engage in ethics to get along with other people or be a good person or maybe go to heaven, not to have fun, pass the time or defeat an opponent.

But like in chess or baseball or roller derby, rules aren’t “discovered” in ethics. This is a controversial idea. Quoting the article above, “for Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover”. Parfit and other “ethical realists” think ethical rules weren’t created by human beings; they were discovered, as if they existed independently, waiting to be found.

I don’t think ethical rules or norms were discovered. Scientists, mathematicians and detectives make discoveries. You make a discovery when you find your keys. You could make a discovery about the rules of chess by looking in a chess book. But the rules of chess weren’t “discovered” the same way the Pythagorean theorem or the chemical composition of water were. The rules of chess developed through the years as people decided how the game should be played. Some rules were probably discarded; others were added; some were revised. I think ethics works that way. Ethical rules or norms were developed over thousands of years as people decided how to live, in particular, how we should behave toward each other. Chess was presumably improved when its rules changed, when it became true that chess is played a certain way. People’s behavior was presumably improved when ethical norms changed. It became true that ethical people behave in certain ways.

Beyond Moral Judgment by Alice Crary

Sometimes you (I mean me) finish a book and decide you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not sure about this one.

It began with an interview. Richard Marshall spoke with philosophy professor Alice Crary as part of his End Times series. This is part of what she said (or wrote, since the conversations are at least partly via email):

“Moral realism” is a label that I deliberately don’t use in describing my image of ethics. Not that . . . the term is obviously ill-suited to capture things I believe. It is, for instance, a conviction of mine that that there are morally salient aspects of the world that . . . lend themselves to empirical discovery. A case could easily be made for speaking of moral realism in this connection. But that would likely generate confusion. When I claim that, say, humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such observable, I work with an understanding of what the world is like, and of what is involved in knowing it, that is foreign to familiar discussions of moral realism. These discussions are often structured by the assumption that objectivity excludes anything [related to] human subjectivity. Moral realism is frequently envisioned as an improbable position on which moral values are objective in this subjectivity-extruding sense while still somehow having a direct bearing on action and choice. . . .

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified . . . I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view. . . .

 I favor a “wider” conception of objectivity. I mean a conception loose or wide enough to encompass, inter alia, ethical values. . . .

I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze. . . .

The upshot is that [for many philosophers, or most] there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

So I bought and read her book.

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To sum it up, if I can, Prof. Crary says that being ethical and understanding ethics both require us to pay more attention to our feelings or “sensitivity”, what might be called our human reactions to what we experience as we go about our lives, and less attention to strictly ethical propositions, concepts and rules. She discusses cases in which people’s pre-existing ethical views (for example, that ethical people must follow certain rules) make it impossible for them to properly appreciate and evaluate people’s behavior, including their own. 

I’m not sure if her views are controversial among philosophers. The idea that feelings underlie ethics has a very long philosophical history, going as far back as ancient Greece (or consider, for instance, the title of Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments). That’s one reason I’m not sure I should have read her book.

Another reason is that the book isn’t well-written. It’s repetitious, with lots of descriptions of what she has already argued and what she’s going to argue next. Her sentences also tend to go on and on, requiring frequent backtracking to see how the various clauses relate. I kept reading party because I expected her to show how her approach to ethics yields different ethical views. But the chapters that primarily provide examples amount to saying that various characters in literature deserve more understanding than they get from other characters (works by Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James portray people who are too “moralistic”) and that feminism requires awareness of the social, cultural and economic contexts of women’s lives.

But Prof. Crary may have the (edited) last word (almost):

The idea is that, if the person’s thinking . . . expresses her moral outlook, then, even where it deals with what we are inclined to think of as a “non-moral” topic, it is rightly brought under the heading of moral thinking. . . [Being indifferent] to subject matter . . . allows [moral thought] to range over . . . any topic (e.g. the ways in which humans live and work with animals, the role of luck in human life, the role of . . . games in the cognitive development of children, the manner in which sibling rivalries . . . affect major life choices, etc.) . . . I submit that once we remove ourselves from the artificial atmosphere of academic moral philosophy , where a preoccupation with moral judgments is generally granted the status of a disciplinary requirement, this broad understanding of moral though will strike us as entirely natural . . .

Within contemporary moral philosophy, it is generally assumed that moral differences take the form either of disagreements about whether to apply a moral concept or of disagreements about whether some moral concept . . . is one we ought to operate with in the first place. In contrast, . . . moral differences may exist between people who inherit and develop different ways of thinking and talking about the world even where there is no question of a disagreement of either of these types. . . . 

Once we acknowledge the possibility of these additional kinds of moral differences, we are obliged . . . to consider not only individuals’ moral judgments but also mode of thought and speech that do not employ moral concepts, and the sensibilities that inform these additional modes of thought and speech. What becomes apparent is that proper respect for . . . moral conversation involves concern with . . . individuals’ entire personalities, the whole complicated weave of their lives [44-45].

I don’t disagree.

Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation by Cheryl Misak

Cheryl Misak is an expert on America’s pragmatist philosophers (Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al.) and a practicing pragmatist herself. This book grew out of her doctoral thesis. It argues that the philosophical position known as pragmatism best explains how the idea of truth applies to ethical judgments. This is a “cognitivist” position in ethics, as opposed to the “non-cognitivist” view that ethical statements merely express feelings or preferences and should never be considered true or false (non-cognitivists think that saying something like “Generosity is more ethical than greed” is like saying “I prefer generosity to greed and I want you to feel the same way”).

On the face of it, it isn’t obvious that ethical statements can be true or false. Most of us think of truth as correspondence to reality (this is the “correspondence theory”). “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the cat really is on the mat. But there doesn’t seem to be anything real for ethical statements to correspond to. How can they be true (or false)?

However, there is more to truth than correspondence. After all, what do true statements of arithmetic correspond to? And how about logical statements like “it is not the case that P and not P”? Pragmatists like Professor Misak don’t accept correspondence as the basis for truth. Instead, they view truth in terms of successful inquiry:

It is not that a true belief is one which will fit the evidence and which will measure up to the standards of inquiry as we now now know them. Rather, a true belief is one which would fit with the evidence and which would measure up to the standards of inquiry were inquiry to be pursued so far that no recalcitrant experience and no revisions in the standards of inquiry would be called for. Only then will pragmatism preserve the kind of objectivity that might suffice to attract those philosophers and inquirers who insist that truth is more than what we happen to think correct [68].

The basic idea here is that people (which people depends on the case) can try to figure out if a statement is true, whatever kind of statement it is, using appropriate methods (direct experience, scientific research, philosophical discussion, etc.) and if it looks like they wouldn’t be able to proceed any further in their inquiry, without it being a complete waste of time, the statement is true.

It’s easy to see how this approach can be applied to simple factual statements like “the cat is on the mat”, but also to statements of mathematics and logic, as well as judgments of value, such as deciding which is the most practical course of action in a given case, the ethical thing to do or the best economic policy to adopt. What isn’t easy is to know when all reasonable avenues of inquiry have been exhausted, so that no further inquiry would make a difference.

Misak discusses many issues that her position raises, and many possible objections. I found her explanations and arguments to be quite convincing. I think her hopes for the book are fulfilled:

What I hope to have shown is that there are some good reasons for thinking that we can make assertions or have genuine beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, cruel and kind; that we can inquire about the correctness of those beliefs; that our moral deliberations aim at the truth. And I hope to have shown that if we are to make sense of this, we must conduct ourselves via democratic principles — ones which encourage tolerance, openness and understanding the experiences of others [155].

If we want to answer questions in the most effective way, and have good  reasons for our answers, we need to look at issues from different perspectives. That is how the pragmatists believe we should search for truth.

I want to mention one other thing. It’s common to think that the best way to find out what is true is to confront reality head on. Is the cat truly on the mat? Look at it. Make sure other people see it. Verify that it’s a cat — not a mouse — and that underneath it is a mat. Does the cat purr? Will it run away if you bother it?

Reading this book, I wondered what kind of reality can be confronted when deciding if a statement of ethics is true. It’s harder to say what the reality would be to make true a statement like “generosity is generally more ethical than greed”. Isn’t that a statement about how the world should be, how people should behave, and not how the world is (or how some mystical, supernatural realm of ethics is)? Misak’s answer is that if we try to figure out whether an ethical statement is true, we eventually get to a point where we can’t think otherwise. We end up being confronted with the brute reality of what our ethical beliefs are in the given situation. We will eventually say to ourselves “that’s simply right, it’s as simple as that” or “that’s just wrong, and there are no two ways about it”. I don’t recall hearing anyone give that answer before. It’s worth thinking about.

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

After reading Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, I wanted to read something from the philosopher himself. I hadn’t read anything of his since On the Genealogy of Morality — or Moralsseven years ago. I wanted to understand better what was bothering the poor man. And how he thought people should live.

Beyond Good and Evil has nine parts. Each part is composed of aphorisms or sections, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a single paragraph. Overall, it was rough going. I often had no idea what he was complaining about (he mostly complains). There were also passages like this, the meaning of which seems clear at first:

Today, … when the herd animal alone obtains and bestows honours in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all too easily change into equality of wrongdoing: I mean into a general war on everything rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery — today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self-responsibility pertains to the concept “greatness”; and the philosopher will betray something of his ideal when he asserts: “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will; this shall be called greatness…. [sec. 212].

Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that the most important fact about human beings is their will to power — their desire to control and create. He was convinced that Christian morality, the morality of “the herd”, with its ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, interferes with humanity’s will to power. In particular, it interferes with the will to power of those blessed with genius, the greatest among us. He was well aware of Goethe, Beethoven, Napoleon and Wagner, all towering figures in his opinion, but he apparently believed there would be more such tremendously accomplished figures if only everyday morality didn’t hold them back. In order to achieve greatness, a person must go beyond the standard ideas of good and evil. If one is to achieve greatness, the transvaluation (or reconsideration) of all values is necessary.

But what values should a genius live by? Is it necessary to ignore the Golden Rule? Sacrifice everything else to one’s art or projects? Ignore common courtesy? Trample other people however and whenever it feels right? After reading Nietzsche’s biography, two of his books and several summaries of his ideas, I still don’t know. I also don’t understand why he was so bothered by everyday morality. He seems to have taken the existence of common beliefs about good and evil as a personal affront.

He offers a clue when discussing what “a born, unavoidable psychologist and reader of souls” is confronted by:

The corruption, the ruination of higher human beings, of more strangely constituted souls is the rule: it is dreadful to always have such a rule before one’s eyes [sec. 269].

If anyone has ever been one, Nietzsche was a born psychologist. Perhaps he was speaking for himself in this passage. He must have viewed himself as “strangely constituted”. After he lost his mind, he suffered from extraordinary delusions of grandeur, describing his frequent contacts with the leading statesmen of Europe and sometimes referring to himself as God.

Scholars have determined that Nietzsche was not a German nationalist or an anti-semite. Some say the notion of the Übermensch was not central to his philosophy. So it was surprising to read some of his strongly-worded views. For example:

… that what is right for one cannot … by any means be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality [sec. 228].

Every elevation of the type man has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society — and so it will always be: a society which believes in … orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other [257].

The noble caste was always in the beginning the barbarian caste: … they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means … “more complete beasts”) [257].

The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is [that it] accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as a foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself .. to a higher existence [258].

One has to … resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… Exploitation … pertains to the essence of the living thing … it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power [259].

There is master morality and slave morality … The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges “what harms me is harmful in itself”, he knows himself to be that which … accords honour to things, he creates values [260].

A morality of the rulers [says] that one has duties only toward one’s equals; that towards beings of a lower rank, towards everything alien, one may act as one wishes or “as the heart dictates” and in any case “beyond good and evil” [260].

The grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the “individual” stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption [262].

Egoism pertains to the essence of the noble soul, I mean the immovable faith that to a being such as “we are” other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us … “it is justice itself” [265].

Nietzsche’s ethical theory might be called “aristocratic egoism” — self-centered behavior for the natural aristocrats among us (not the aristocrats with hereditary titles); a reasonable amount of respect for other aristocrats; and everybody else knowing their place. Who knows how many impressionable readers have taken these ideas seriously enough to have acted on them? The man wasn’t joking when he wrote: “I am dynamite!”

In conclusion, the best thing I can say about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is that I no longer feel the need to understand its author.