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A Conflict in Common-Sense Moral Psychology


Ordinary thinking about morality and rationality is inconsistent. To arrive at a view of morality that is as faithful to common thought as consistency will allow we must admit that it is not always irrational to knowingly act against the weight of reasons.

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1 See Atlas Jay, Philosophy Without Ambiguity: A Logico-Linguistic Essay (Oxford, 1989).

2 See Wedgwood's, ‘The Meaning of “Ought”’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 1, ed. R. Shafer-Landau (Oxford, 2006), pp. 127–60. Cf. James Drier, ‘Internalism and Speaker Relativism’, Ethics, 101 (1990), pp. 6–26.

3 For a recent discussion of the options see Bennett Jonathan, A Philosophical Guide to Conditionals (Oxford, 2003).

4 For discussion see Urmson J., ‘Saints and Heroes’, Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. Melden A. (Washington, 1958), pp. 198216; and, more recently, Zimmerman Michael, The Concept of Moral Obligation (Cambridge, 1996).

5 Such is the effect normally attributed to the very strong principle advocated in Peter Singer's ‘Famine Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 228–43; ‘If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it’ (p. 231). Of course, Singer's principle will only have this consequence if we assume that we simply ought to do what (in Singer's words) ‘we ought, morally to do’. For related arguments, some of which are based on weaker (more easily defensible) principles, see Unger Peter, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford, 1996).

6 I thank Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for pressing me here.

7 There is something of this in De Sade D. A. F., Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings, trans. Seaver R. and Wainhouse A. (New York, 1965).

8 Joyce Richard, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge, 2001).

9 See Parfit Derek, ‘Rationality and Reasons’, Exploring Practical Philosophy: from Action to Values, ed. Egonsson D. et al. (Aldershot, 2001), pp. 1739; Scanlon Thomas, What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard, 1998), and Skorupski John, ‘Reasons and Reason’, Ethics and Practical Reason, ed. Cullity G. and Gaut B. (Oxford, 1997), pp. 345–68.

10 The example comes from Williams Bernard, Moral Luck (Cambridge, 1981). For two quite different attempts to reduce certain uses of ‘reason’ to others see Jonathan Dancy, Practical Reality (Oxford, 2000) and Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford, 1980). The first philosopher I know of to draw the relevant distinction is Francis Hutcheson, who separates ‘justifying’ and ‘exciting’ reasons in his Illustrations on the Moral Sense, ed. Bernard Peach (Cambridge, 1971).

11 For endorsement of these claims see, among many others, Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, 1970) and Scanlon (1998). Humean theorists of psychological explanation deny the first claim by arguing that beliefs cannot cause or explain action without the aid of desires. Humean theorists of motivating reasons deny the second claim by arguing that every such reason is a composite of beliefs and desires. (As far as I can tell, these two ‘Humean’ views are always embraced or rejected as a pair.)

12 For arguments to this effect, see Smith Michael, The Moral Problem (Cambridge, 1994), p. 96. I leave confirming this hypothesis with verb-phrase ellipses as an exercise for the reader.

13 This view of reasons to act as one should may be losing ground even in traditional religious communities. For example, Larry Nucci found that Amish youngsters reported that if God had not set aside Sunday for rest it would not be immoral to work on that day whereas 80 percent said that if God hadn't prohibited hitting it would still be immoral to hit people; ‘Children's Conceptions of Morality, Social Conventions and Religious Prescription’, Moral Dilemmas: Philosophical and Psychological Reconsiderations of the Development of Moral Reasoning, ed. C. Harding (Chicago, 1986). See Nichols Shaun, Sentimental Rules (Oxford, 2004) for discussion of this and related studies.

14 We might also allow a robustly non-naturalist view that has recently come under fire: that the mere fact that x-ing would be bad (where this is regarded as distinct in nature from x-ing's being bad in some particular way) is a reason not to x. For criticism see Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, ch. 2.

15 The revisionist view is advocated by Philippa Foot in ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, Philosophical Review 81 (July 1972), pp. 305–16, though she has since abandoned it.

16 See, e.g. Brandt Richard, ‘Moral Valuation’, Ethics 56 (1946), pp. 106–21; and A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford, 1979); and Bernard Williams ‘Internal and External Reasons’, in his Moral Luck.

17 David Brink, ‘Externalist Moral Realism’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, Supplement (1986), pp. 23–41.

18 Though I cannot defend the claim here I think that moral sense theories (like those defended by Hutcheson and Hume) offer what is perhaps the best hope for explaining why this stance toward basic moral reasons is a rational one.

19 What's the psychological difference between the two cases? Can we say that I fail to exercise rationality in those cases in which I don't do what I know I should? Insofar as common sense holds to (4) our intuitions should suggest a negative answer. I will discuss some of the relevant issues in what follows.

20 Pew Research Center For the People and the Press and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2002 Religion and Public Life Survey (February 25–March 10 2002);

21 I want to reiterate here that I don't mean to suggest that instrumental considerations were once universally thought to ground the authority of morality through appeals to God's executive power, and that this line of thinking has dissipated (in some uniform way) with the growth of secular ethics. It seems that there never has been any ideological consensus on the link between God, instrumentalism, and the reality of our moral obligations. See Schneewind J. B., The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, 1998) for support.

22 I take it that J. S. Mill endorses roughly this picture as a general epistemology of normative and evaluative facts. Our knowledge that we are obligated to x is grounded in our knowledge that an emotional or physical penalty for x-ing would be better to instill than not; Utilitarianism, ed. R. Crisp (Oxford, 1998) at 5.14, p. 93. Our knowledge of this last fact is grounded in: (i) observational knowledge of the overall positive effects on happiness that the penalty yields, and (ii) knowledge of the analytic, axiomatic fact that equal amounts of happiness are equally good, so that more happiness is better than less (5.36.25.fn., p. 105).

23 In saying that someone might make these judgments I am not saying that both might be true. The relation between the good and the right is a substantive issue not to be decided here.

24 Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, p. 25. See too Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, p. 129: ‘There certainly are cases in which our failure to give weight to considerations of well-being is irrational. These are cases in which . . . we judge that these considerations are good reasons for acting a certain way but then fail to act accordingly’.

25 Nichols S., ‘How Psychopaths Threaten Moral Rationalism: Is it Irrational to be Immoral?’, The Monist 85 (2002), pp. 285304.

26 Much of this article was written while visiting at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University during a sabbatical generously granted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thanks go to scholars at both ANU and UCSB for interesting conversations. I would also like to thank Jonathan Way for helpful written comments.

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