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Wednesday, July 10, 2019


OK, I have rehung our bird feeders, which were taken down to allow the windows to be washed, so now I have some time to attend to a less urgent matter, namely, the foundation of morality.  Let me begin by reprinting the comment of Matt, who very nicely poses the issue for us.  He starts by quoting a line from my post and then responds:

“Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?” You cannot determine the fundamental principles of morality by reasoning about them. You must make an existential choice. 

“I have recently been reading the (in)famous work _The Concept of the Political_ by Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, and will admit that this sounds uncomfortably close to his take on politics as based around an a-rational friend/enemy distinction. I don't mean this to be a guilt by association claim, and it's not that I think that Schmitt's views are false because they are dangerous, but rather that they are dangerous because they are false - it's not the case that these choices are a-rational, or existential, or based or necessarily based on this sort of "friend/enemy" basis. It's a choice to see and base politics that way, and an optional one. But, seeing it that way very predictably leads to bad results, even if you're on a fundamentally good side. wallerstein's example of people being hesitant to criticize Stalinism is a fine example of it, I think. If you see politics this way, you'll tend to see anything done by "friends" as good, and anything done by "enemies" as evil, and will see the other side as something that needs to be crushed. But, the other side will see the same, leading to endless conflict, needless repression, and so on. There are other ways to see politics - as looking for ways that people with diverse conceptions of the good and nonetheless live together, for example. This seems to me to be a better approach. This need not mean that you accept anything. People who reject the idea of living together in some way must be, at best, quarantined. But, it does mean rejecting the decisionist, a-rational, approach to politics.”

Rather than respond immediately to Matt, I should like to take time to remind us all of the history, at least in the Western tradition, of this debate about the foundations of morality.  The oldest view of which I am aware is that our knowledge of the principles of morality is grounded in Divine Revelation.  The Lord gives to Moses the Ten Commandments and the debate is over.  To be sure, later philosophers fussed over whether God said the Commandments were the truth about morality because they were right or, alternatively, that they were right because God said they were to be obeyed.  “Whatever …” as young people are prone to say today. 

An alternative view was put forward in the Gorgias by the dramatic character Callicles as a deliberate and provocative paradox which later was embraced by the Stoics as foundational truth, namely that there are normative as well as descriptive laws of nature, or Natural Laws, which are grounded in the natural order.  This Natural Law tradition has had a long and distinguished career, most recently in the theorizing of Roman Catholic scholars.  The theory played a central role in post-war debates about the Nazis and the operations of the Nuremburg trials.  [Thus, Matt’s reference to Carl Schmidt is quite apposite.]  I first became aware of this debate sixty-one years ago when it took the form of an argument in the pages of The Harvard Law Review between two legal theorists, Lon Fuller and H. L. A. Hart.

There have, of course, been other attempts to find an objective grounding for our moral convictions, most notably in the writings of the Utilitarians in the British Isles and those of Immanuel Kant on the continent.  As some of you know, I spent a good deal of time and effort in the ‘60s and ‘70s trying to find a defensible version of Kant’s claim that the Moral Law, as he called the fundamental principle of morality, can be demonstrated a priori to be unconditionally biding on all rational agents as such.  My failure is what led me to the position Matt disputes.

Before I turn directly to Matt’s remarks, let me re-tell a story about a dinner I had during my first visit to South Africa, in 1986.  I quote, with excerpts, from my Autobiography:

Quite the eeriest episode of my first visit to South Africa was my dinner in Pretoria with Koos Pauw, a philosopher then serving as the number three man in the Ministry of Education.  I had gone to Pretoria to meet with the director of the Human Studies Research Council….That evening I had dinner with the Director and Koos Pauw.  Our dinner table conversation was an eye opener for me.  Pauw was intelligent, relaxed, well-spoken, and utterly evil.  I imagined it was what it would have been like to dine with a sophisticated Nazi.  I challenged him about apartheid [my parents, you will recall,  had taught me to speak up if anyone passed an anti-Semitic remark at a dinner table, and this was the closest I had ever come to putting their advice to use], but he was totally unfazed by my objections, all of which he had of course heard many times.” 

It was obvious to me that no philosophical argument could bridge the gap between us.  Since I had chosen to throw in my lot with, to make common cause with, to choose as my comrades those who had committed their lives to the defeat of Apartheid, Koos Pauw were enemies.  Oh, I did not stab him with my dinner knife, nor would I have slipped poison into his beer if I had been carrying some.  Perhaps some of you will find “enemy” needlessly provocative and strong.  But we were on opposite sides of a struggle and we were there because we had made choices.  Were there Afrikaners who rejected Apartheid?  Indeed there were.  Were there Americans who chose to cooperate with the Nationalist government?  Of course there were, including the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

Matt and I do not disagree at all in the belief that we ought always to “look… for ways that people with diverse conceptions of the good [can] nonetheless live together.”  The alternative is civil war, and although there are times when civil war is unavoidable, Americans should know as well as any people what its costs are.  But the effort to find peaceful resolution of differences does not rest – it cannot rest – on the belief that there are sound arguments for fundamental principles of morality, because such arguments do not and cannot exist.

Let us be specific for a moment.  There is a large group of Americans [a minority, fortunately] who are deeply, irreconcilably, religiously convinced that the termination of a pregnancy at any stage is the murder of a person with an immortal soul, and hence that both the doctor who performs the abortion and the woman who seeks it are murderers who should be charged, tried, convicted, and punished as such. Matt suggests that “[p]eople who reject the idea of living together in some way must be, at best, quarantined.”  Really?  The passive voice of that sentence leaves it quite undetermined who does the quarantining and who gets quarantined.  There is a large group of Americans [happily no longer a majority] who say it is wrong for my son to marry.  There are still very large numbers of people, most of whom keep their mouths shut, who believe that Black people are getting too uppity and should be held down.  And even now most of the people whose voices are heard in the modern version of the public square believe that no claims on a share of the product of our common labors can be allowed that threaten the monopoly ownership currently exercised by a small group of entitled men and women.

There is no objective pou sto when it comes to morality, not Revelation, not Natural Law, not Utilitarianism, not Kantian reason, not even the Original Position.  When all is said and done, each of us must decide,

Which side are you on?


Anonymous said...

I fundamentally agree.

I would qualify only in pointing out that "morality" is embedded in our being, our species nature. Look at our closest cousins, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Very different morality, different hierarchies, different sex "preferences", etc. It is "built in".

Humans have their own built in morality. It is a "choice" in that our rational mind can override our inheritance. And there is something noble about struggling against fate. But in the end we are a social species with certain very deep commitments to what behaviours are right or wrong. Our ability to empathize is the glue that lets our communities grow to be inclusive, accepting those with different appearances, different ideologies, even different "ethics". But that acceptance has limits and when the limits break down, bad things happen.

The mark of civilization was the ability of different clans, tribes, etc. to find a way to live together, to build a community. That is our destiny. But within us lurks true evil. Psychopaths are simply built differently. They don't empathize. They don't make good "companions". But they are very effective at climbing to the top of our social hierarchies because they will literally do anything to climb over others, to lie, steal, cheat, and kill to get to the top.

The hopeful future is one of cooperation, of a leveling up for all, and a shared vision. That is the utopian dream. I am committed to it. But I recognize that our animal nature puts limits to us, so the struggle will be forever until we as a species evolve (if ever) to that happy end.

My only quibble is the ambiguity I find in your statement: "the alternative is civil war". You are right to point Americans to the utterly devastating cost of civil war (it would have been cheaper to buy the slaves and set them free, but that wouldn't have settled the "moral issue" of whether one man can "own" another). My quibble is that I'm not sure that the cost of "war" or "civil war" is ever justified when you look at the long and sad history of humanity. I'm not a Neville Chamberlain willing to sell out for "peace". But I believe that social actions (shunning, non-violent resistance, etc.) are viable alternatives (except in the face of violent attack such as the determined "extinction" policies of the Nazi "final solution". In extremis, violence is justified. But too many hotheads claim that "now is different" and "we must act now" when in fact there are alternatives, i.e. mobilizing opinion and action.

The above may sound like I have "the answer". I don't. I just know that morality and conflict are the hell to which humanity has been condemned by our shortcomings as a species.

s. wallerstein said...

That's all very moving, and any decent person, even some on the right, although maybe not on the U.S. right, was against apartheid. Some Chilean conservatives even support gay marriage and a woman's right to choose too.

Let's take a more difficult example, the one I brought up in the previous thread, Venezuela.

You have a leftwing government, that of Maduro, which, according to the UN human rights commission, tortures, has murdered thousands of people in the opposition and in addition, does not provide basic services such as healthcare, electricity and running water for the population.

However, the chief opposition to Maduro is not Nelson Mandela, one of the great men of the past century, but a group of rightwingers with ties to the Trump administration, who if they come into power, will privatize Venezuela's oil resources, turning them over to multinationals, who are as corrupt as Maduro is (which is fairly corrupt) and who are often explicitly racist (Maduro is moreno, dark-skinned).

There are no other options on the table. If you condemn Maduro for his human rights violations, you are strengthening the hand of the opposition with ties to Trump and Bolton. If you support Maduro, you are backing a corrupt dictatorship which violates basic human rights.

Which side are you on?

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein,

That’s a tough one and, unfortunately, the world is full of choices that present that problem; fortunately, few offer two options that are as objectionable. There is no formula that I can see, apart from trying to decide which is worse and accepting the horrors of the choice you make. As Sartre told the young man who, during the Nazi occupation of France, whether he should join the resistance or stay home and take care of his mother, who would die without his care: you have to make your choice and live with the consequences.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Yes, this is very much Jean Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir territory.

In plays like Dirty Hands or The Devil and the Good Lord Sartre explores the dilemmas of choice, in situations where the only ethics is what de Beauvoir refers to as "an ethics of ambiguity", where whatever choice one makes, one's hands get dirty, but where not to choose is just another form of choosing.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

As liberal democracies around the world crumble and stumble towards authoritarianism, I can't help but wonder (as I've commented before), if we are past the peak of positive freedom. What if, for all its flaws, liberal democracy was the best form of society that we humans ever create? What if, from here, it's just one long, slow descent into either climate change-induced or nuclear weapons-induced extinction of Homo Sapiens?

Given the increasing strength of global capitalism, I certainly don't see much hope in a more just, socialist order winning out.

I'm a Bernie supporter, but I am not hopeful of his chances of winning the Democratic nomination, much less the Presidential election. I suspect that Trump will win re-election, and that the institutions that allowed the relative flourishing of the so-called middle class in the post-war era will continue to sicken until they die completely.

I furthermore suspect that meaningful soon-ish carbon emission reductions are a fantasy, and that humans will continue to spew ever greater amounts of carbon into the atmosphere with each year that passes.

In 50 years, if I am still alive, I will be 87. I do not picture the US, much less the globe in general, being a very pleasant place to live at that time.

To be blunt, I do not think human rights (and the morality which makes them possible) have much of a future.

A bit of personal context: Reading Camus in university was perhaps the greatest single influence (of which I am conscious) on my view of the world and my sense of morality, The Plague in particular. So I very much feel similarly to you, Prof, about morality and humanity, and choosing to fight La Peste.

But that is more an impulse than an inference. I don't think, ultimately, there is rational justification for human rights, though I am deeply committed to them, nonetheless.

David Palmeter said...


On human rights or any other moral issue, take comfort from Hume; A decision as to whether something is morally required, whether it is praise-worthy or blame-worthy, depends “on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal.”

Human rights have come a long way since Voltaire probably began recognition of them in the Calas Affair. Progress has been made on human rights and on civil rights, glacial progress, but progress nonetheless, despite many set-backs e.g., what's going on at the Southern border right now. But there is an important difference between now and the early 1940s, when the SS St. Louis, carrying a few hundred Jewish refugees was turned away by Canada, the United States, and Cuba, and sent back to Europe where most of the passengers died in the death camps. There is widespread condemnation of what's going on today. So far as I know, no one apparently had any qualms about sending the St. Louis back across the Atlantic.

Charles Pigden said...

Dear Professor Wolff
1) Scholarly question (boring to those who are not meta-ethicists): in which of your works do you try to reconstruct Kant's argument or arguments for the categorical imperative concluding that they fail? I've got a long paper on the stocks arguing that there is quantifier shift fallacy in the central argument of the Groundwork and would be interested in doing a 'compare-and-contrast'.

2) It seems to me that you move rather too swiftly from the claim (A) that there is no objective basis for ethics and that our fundamental values are matters of existential choice, via thesis (B) that rational argument in defence of humane ideals is impossible to the conclusion (C) that the ethical life is a matter of 'who side are you on?'. It seems to me that (B) does not follow form (A) nor (C) from (B). Furthermore I would argue that (B) is also. See the work of my colleague JR Flynn (discoverer of the Flynn effect) especially his book 'How ot Defend Humane Ideals' .


Charles Pigden

s. wallerstein said...

Charles Pigden,

In your 2). B is also what?

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I certainly agree that humanity has made moral progress (or, perhaps I should say: from my perspective, humanity has improved morally).

The real question, I think, is whether such improvement is maintained. If material conditions determine what morality gets instantiated in a society, and the material conditions of our existence decline, will not our morality also decline?

I am glad for the outrage over children in cages and the existence of concentration camps in our country; but, if humanity really had improved as much as we thought (or hoped), there would never have been such camps, or children in cages, in the first place.

I would love for the 2020 election to give me some hope for the future that my nieces and nephews will inherit, but I do not expect it to do so. Still, I give what pennies I can to Bernie, and pray to the Invisible Pink Unicorn that he somehow manages to win.

Charles Pigden said...

To S Wallerstein. 'False' . As usual my incompetence as a typist lets me down. So I think ~(B) : that rational argument in defence of humane ideals IS possible (though the possibilities are limited.) You can for instance show the your opponent's view is incoherent or contradictory in some way.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I subscribe via the Feedly app to the Feminist Current blog, and this link was included in the most recent news post. Setting the horrific violence aside, this line struck me like a slap to the face: "I wake up in the morning, go to make a fire in my kitchen..." Fire allowed humanity to flourish in a completely new way. I doubt the Agricultural (and certainly not the Industrial!) Revolution would have been possible without having first harnessed fire.

Even now actual flame fire is a norm for vast swathes of humanity, and prior to post-war era, for industrialised countries, was the norm for all of humanity for its entire existence. Perhaps I was too hasty in suggesting that humanity would go extinct from climate change. We have survived much immense climate change in our history. Perhaps humanity will survive, in small communities at either pole, maybe even evolving into two different intelligent species! I'm doubtful large scale technologically advanced societies based on fossil fuels have a long-term future, but maybe, just maybe, some remnant of humanity will survive, and after tens of thousands of years have passed, a new technologically advanced society will emerge, one that understands the limits of nature and human desire. That's a pleasant dream.

Sonic said...

Wow! I'm deeply inspired by both of these arguments. You know that epiphany feeling? I feel that when I read probably 60% of the posts on this blog at least, and it's great!

I really understand that Hegelian dialectical analysis stuff, but it has a really poetic appeal to me. In a way, it's kind of cool that morality should boil down to a confrontation of synthesese and antithesese.

It's also interesting then, that if we have given up on proving a moral base, that doesn't mean we actually give up. If the best we can do is fight from our side against the other, then we still have to make and understand moral argumentation as best as possible, even if we ultimately know it's useless. We have to continue making these arguments, because that's one of the main battlegrounds of our fight against the other side.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say even though I am currently following the day-to-day of American politics quite closely (a bit from enthusiasm about AOC and some residual hope Bernie will win, a bit from morbid fascination with Trump), I am glad you have stepped back from discussing the minutiae of today's politics. These posts are vintage RPW, and brilliant as usual.

Matt said...

Thanks for the reply, Bob, which I appreciate. I'm sorry to be slow to respond, and that my response won't be long or adequate. (I've spent the day working on preparing lecture notes and slides for a fairly tedious section of the workplace law class I teach, and it has worn me out a bit.)

So, a few points. On natural law - this idea comes in lots of different degrees, of course. (I'm taking part in a book symposium session on a new book on the topic next week, and struggling to finish up that is one reason why I'm behind on preparing lectures!) But, the only versions I find interesting or useful can be found in Hobbes and, in a slightly different way, HLA Hart - this looks at natural facts about humans, and the world, and tries to use these to provide constraints on moral and political reasoning. Hobbes thought you could go very far this way (as you surely know). Hart, less far. And, there is legitimate grounds for debate about whether particular claims about people (the extent of our altruism, for example) is due to our nature or our condition. But, these features can start to provide some grounds for thinking about both morality and politics. (I don't want to collapse the two, and think they are best kept apart, conceptually, at least, and in some ways in practice, too.)

Following Hobbes, then, in politics we ask, "how can we, who have conflicting interests, get along?" It's important to see that while there may be true answers to that question, they are not answers about "moral truth" in the way that is usually thought of in metaethics and the like. The question of "moral truth" just never comes up. (I think this is so for Rawls's project as well, for what it's worth.) Answering the question of how we can get along is very hard, at least in detail. And, there is no answer such that, anyone who heard it would just have to fall in line. That's disappointing to lots of people, perhaps especially to philosophers, who tend to have a dream of an irresistible argument - one that, if someone heard it and understood it, they would have to be moved by it. But, that's a dream, and I reject that. But, I don't think that that implies rejecting the role of reason in politics, even at a deep level.

So, what about people who don't want to get along? Here I want to quote something by Burton Dreben that I like a lot, and at least mostly agree with. He says, "Too many philosophers ... spend too much of their time trying to argue in the abstract for political liberalism against, say, totalitarianism and so forth. This does not seem to me to be a worthy philosophical enterprise. If one cannot see the benefits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy, if one does not see the virtue of that ideal, then I do not know how to convince him. To be perfectly blunt, sometimes I am asked...what do you say to an Adolf Hitler? The answer is nothing. You shoot him. You do not try to reason with him. Reason has no bearing on that question." (*)

Does this just take us back to the "which side are you on?" question, and the friend/enemy distinction? Maybe - I am genuinely not sure here. But, the point I want to insist on is that this isn't the only question of politics, and isn't, I think, even the first question, even though it may be, at times, the most pressing one. It's mistaking it for the only or the most important question that leads Schmitt astray, I think, and is what I am very concerned to avoid.

(*) That's from Dreben's contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Rawls. I made the index for that, while I was a grad student. I very much wanted to include an entry, "Hitler, what to do with", but was told it just had to be "Hitler, Adolph." That wasn't nearly as much fun.)

David Palmeter said...

Matt, I looked at my copy of the Cambridge Companion to Rawls and, sure enough, I'd underlined the "You shoot him" passage. Didn't Dreben also say something to the effect that A Theory of Justice reads like it was translated from the original German?

Matt said...

Didn't Dreben also say something to the effect that A Theory of Justice reads like it was translated from the original German?

I never heard it first hand (I never met Dreben myself) but I think I remember the quip being that TJ sounded better in the original German. But, the basic idea is clear enough whatever the actual remark was. (I think I'm an outlier in that I actually typically like Rawls's writing style. To me, it reads clearly and pretty easily, but I know most people think it's not great.)

s. wallerstein said...

Here's a way to look at this problem.

In sociological terms there are two or at times three sides (in some countries there are more than two political forces). At a fairly early age most of us commit ourselves to one side or the other. That commitment determines often who we hang out with, who we mate with, the books we read, the music we listen to. Thus, we end up in a political tribe.

However, in philosophical or intellectual terms, any issue can be focused in many many ways and perspectives. Any thinking person will often question the received wisdom that comes from his or her side. Thus, as a thinking person, I'm not really on any side, but as a tribal person, I'm on the left and have been there since age 16 or 17, over 55 years ago.

Anonymous said...

S. Wallerstein,

This dilemma, if I understood your argument, is almost an argument for the impossibility of choosing which side one is on.

If you condemn Maduro for his human rights violations, you are strengthening the hand of the opposition with ties to Trump and Bolton. If you support Maduro, you are backing a corrupt dictatorship which violates basic human rights.

Matt's argument, I think, is useful here[*].

If I chose Maduro, then I am pre-empting the right-wing paradise the opposition promises. By siding openly with him, ideologues "self deceive themselves for the sake of the cause".

I don't want to be an ideologue and self deceive myself, do you? So, I don't side with Maduro.

Of course, exactly the same argument applies to siding with the opposition: if I choose them, then I am pre-empting the socialist paradise into which Maduro's corrupt dictatorship might evolve. Again one risks self deceiving oneself.

Therefore, incapable of choosing either side, one is left to choose catatonia. One chooses not to choose. As Homer Simpson adviced Lisa and Bart: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is never try”.


[*] This is Matt's wisdom:

But my argument with ideologues is how they self deceive themselves "for the sake of the cause". It was clear in the early 1920s that the USSR was an oppressive regime. The February revolution with Kerensky was not idea (from a left perspective), but it had the possibility of evolving toward the left. This was pre-empted by the "self appointed" Commies with their top-down "revolution".

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.