Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Getting cosy with David Hume

David Hume's ancient face.

Famous quotations please me, and Hume had some clever things to say - so here are a couple of his:
"Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous" and "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."

I’ve been up to my neck in metaethical texts and readings on political obligation recently, but sadly, none of it’s been part of my reading project. Tonight I’m remedying that with a reading by James Harris on the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume.

One thing I regret about the time spent doing my PhD is that I didn’t spend enough of it reading people like Hume. Since I had no intention of taking more than three years to finish, I became ruthless in my selection of relevant readings (or, rather, I did after year one). My own research is focussed on political theory and applied ethics – so during my PhD questions of moral judgement and motivation, and of human nature, addressed by Hume, didn’t grab my attention. Now that I’ve finished the PhD I’ve been making time to read more widely and more carefully. I’m pleased to have learn (from Harris) that Hume wrote an applied ethics essay ‘On Suicide’, which I’ve now added to my reading list.

I’m conscious already that I’ve yet to give any flavour of what Hume has to say about morality. I’ll remedy that in a moment, but I’m also conscious that so far I’ve violated all of the principles of writing for the web that I took care to follow in my previous incarnation working for ten years as a web developer. So, I’m going to try to keep it simple.

One area I don’t plan to get into is how we should interpret Hume’s words. Harris is forced by the format he’s writing for to discuss different interpretations of Hume’s work. I find disagreements over whether a particular author meant this, that, or the other, pretty tedious. I’d rather know whether the argument revealed by a particular interpretation is a good one, than whether it was an argument genuinely advanced by an author that nobody can ask for verification from in any case.

Nor am I going to discuss the ground-breaking influence Hume had on utilitarianism (the ethical theory that we should act so as to maximise utility, and minimise disutility, where utility is expressed as happiness, pleasure, well-being or some-such, and disutility is expressed as suffering, unhappiness etc.). And I’m not going to write much about his treatment of virtues, despite his thought-provoking claim that virtues can be divided into those whose value is derived from their social utility – promise keeping, allegiance, and justice, and those we accept without reflection – beneficence, generosity, clemency, etc.

Rather, it is Hume’s theory of moral motivation, and the threat it poses to the idea that there can be objective moral truths, that fascinates me most (sadly not discussed in any detail by Harris). The argument below leads to non-cognitivism (the theory that there are no moral properties or moral facts – see:

It starts with two premises:

1. Moral judgements are intrinsically motivating (i.e., if we judge something to be the right thing to do, we are motivated to act by that fact alone and not because we possess a desire or disposition to do what we judge to be right). This is known as moral judgement internalism.

2. Beliefs cannot motivate by themselves, they require additional conative states (desires, emotions, feelings etc) to generate motivation. As an example, take the belief that people in France tend to speak French – this is a true belief, but it doesn’t motivate me to do anything. Similarly, the belief that there is chocolate in the cupboard doesn’t motivate me to eat that chocolate without an accompanying desire, perhaps provoked by hunger, to eat chocolate. Beliefs are subject to tests for truth – it is a matter of truth or falsity that people in France tend to speak French, and that there is chocolate in my cupboard (there isn’t).

Since, if moral judgements are intrinsically motivating, and beliefs are not, the two premises together lead to the conclusion that moral judgements are not beliefs. Furthermore, if moral judgements are not beliefs, then they cannot be true or false, and therefore moral judgements cannot be true.

There are some very good responses to this little argument, which aim to show that moral judgements express propositions (and hence are truth-apt), or that morality can be objective (or at least that its objectivity cannot be ruled out by the argument). Some challenge premise one ( Svavarsdóttir’s written some wonderful stuff), and others premise two (Kant is the paradigm example), but, in the spirit of not over-writing, I’ll leave it to you to investigate for yourself.

Alternatively, you can tear me to bits in the comments section (or Hume, Kant or Svavarsdóttir if you prefer). Hopefully, you’ll at least have seen why I find all of this philosophy malarkey interesting.


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Freedom and Responsibility

One of the most problematic areas I’ve had to think about in moral philosophy is that of freedom and responsibility. The theory that the laws of nature are strictly deterministic makes the idea of free will is problematic. If every natural process is explainable then humans, as beings composed entirely of physical matter and obeying the laws of physics, cannot truly have free will. In other words, every action we’ve taken is explainable by reference to the physical processes proceeding it, and every action we will take results from those prior processes, and thus we cannot have free will. This thought has troubled moral philosophers a great deal. Fortunately, there are ways out of the deterministic bind, including one that relies upon quantum physics and the idea that there is a degree of randomness in the laws of physics, making the course of our actions probabilistic rather than deterministic. However, this isn’t entirely satisfactory, so for my reading today I’ve turned to Randolph Clarke’s chapter in the Routledge Companion to Ethics.

Clarke sets out to both uncover the nature of moral responsibility, and what kind of freedom it requires. Note here that the kind of responsibility we are concerned with is the sort that we use to apportion blame or praise following an act (and perhaps also thoughts, emotions, or intentions), rather than the sense of responsibility associated with being under a duty (being responsible vs having a responsibility).

Responsibility requires the exercise of freedom. We do not think someone is compelled to act in a certain way is responsible for their actions. But, we don’t think mere freedom is sufficient – a cat is responsible for the killing of a mouse in the sense that it’s actions caused the death, but it is not deserving of praise or blame for that act, and this is because it is not a moral agent. Thus, to be responsible an agent must be autonomous.

There problems immediately present themselves, I’ll raise a couple, but I won’t discuss them in any depth because I want to get on to the problem of determinism. One is that if I am under a duty to Φ then I am not free to Φ or not to Φ (I do not have a liberty to Φ). But, even though I am under a duty to Φ, it would seem that if I Φ then I am responsible for Φ’ing. A second and related problem concerns what is meant by compulsion: when conscientious objectors speak of their actions, they often claim that, due to the demands of conscience, they could not have acted otherwise. These two types of constraints are internal, and there are others like them, such a fear or phobia that prevents us from doing what we wish. So,when we speak of people acting freely, we should bear in mind that what we mean by this requires a great deal of clarification and thought.

On to determinism then. The first question Clarke addresses is whether we can have free will even if determinism is true. One position is that if determinism is true then we cannot have the kind of freedom necessary for responsibility – determinism is incompatible with having the necessary kind of freedom. This is a worrisome, but not exactly very interesting position. The theory that we can have the kind of freedom necessary for responsibility in a deterministic universe (compatibilism) strikes me as addressing a much more fascinating question. Could you have done other than read this blog post if the universe is truly deterministic? And even if we could not have done otherwise than that which we did, does responsibility require having been able to do otherwise?

The idea that we must have been able to have done otherwise than we did in order to be responsible for our actions is known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. If we reject it then it might be that we can be held responsible for our actions even in a deterministic universe. In response to this Clarke raises an interesting challenge taken from Frankfurt: if we do something of without being compelled, but we, without knowing it, could not have done otherwise – are we still responsible? It looks like I’d be responsible for doing something I chose to do, but at the same time I could not have done otherwise, which makes it seem like my choice doesn’t matter so much.

Responding to this, we could claim that what it is appropriate to blame or praise agents for actions that are attributable to them rather than that they are responsible for. If this is the case, however, it seems that there is no difference in blameworthiness between someone who acts whilst sleep-walking or insensible on drugs, and acting while conscious. However, there may be different kinds of responsibility that we can identify, which is where compatibilism comes in.

Compatibilists argue that it is possible for determinism to be true and for agents to be responsible for their actions.

As mentioned, to be responsible we have to be able to exercise freedom of the right sort. The right sort of freedom consists in autonomous action (i.e., it requires that we are acting as conscious, uncompelled, choice-makers). Compatibilist accounts attempt to show that we have this kind of freedom even if determinism is true. One version points to the capacity to act otherwise as the condition from which to hang responsibility. Another argues that the mechanisms that generate our behaviour are responsive to reasons – if there were sufficient reasons to have done otherwise than we did, then we would not have acted as we did, and therefore we are free even if those reasons are deterministically generated.

I can’t say I find either of these accounts very convincing or satisfying. If strikes me that they may well be little more than sophisticated ways of seeking comfort in the face of strong reasons to believe determinism. It also seems to me that this is one area where philosophers may have to wait for the physicists to tell them how the universe works before the philosophical questions can be satisfactorily answered. On the other hand, Clarke correctly points out that, if causation is probabilistic, then it would seem that how we act is to some degree a matter of luck – and we can no more be held accountable for bad luck than we can in the deterministic universe.

Here’s hoping that causation is not deterministic then, and that our decisions spring from ourselves in a way that is good enough to be described as free.


Ethics, Science, and Religion

This week I’ve had the very great pleasure of watching The Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins and Anthony Kenny debate the nature & origin of human beings thanks to a video posted online by Oxford University. I recommend you take some time to enjoy it too.

That debate prompted me to follow up by reading the entry on Ethics, Science, and Religion by Simon Blackburn in the Routledge Companion to Ethics. These topic are connected because both science and religion tell us about our lives and our natures and thus have bearing on how we ought to behave, which is the realm of morality.

Religion tends to claim that the source of values is divinity. The Euthyphro Dilemma that I’ve mentioned a few times now shows why this view is problematic, and Blackburn uses it too. Are the values we take to inform our morality merely the preferences of divinity, in which case why obey seemingly arbitrary diktats, or are they separate from divinity, in which case, why look to divinity to inform our morality? On top of this, we have the problem of choosing which favoured values of which divine power to chose, and addressing the issue that those values, as Blackburn tells us, are prone to change over time and place. As an ethicist I find lots to trouble me in the idea that values come from God, but that still leaves at least two significant areas of interest. One is the rather obvious follow-up question of where values do come from if not from a god, and the other is about the appeal of religion as a source of morality. Not being a sociologist or psychologist I’m not going to demonstrate my ignorance by trying to explain why faith is appealing, not least because I can’t really understand it myself. Blackburn though, suggests that one reason for the appeal is that religions must reveal important truths about ourselves. Humans need mechanisms for coping with fear and vulnerability, and religion provides mechanisms of hope and consolation in ways that are communal expressive of a culture. Another possibility is simply that without religious authority people fear that there is no morality – they need reassurance that the universe is not an immoral place and that the values of a community are shared by its members. Those are interesting theories, and I’m sure there’s more than a grain of truth to them, but providing functional explanations for religion doesn’t really tell us about the source of values, and this is where science supposedly comes in.

Blackburn introduces the relationship between science and ethics by speaking of the problem of deriving moral facts from natural facts (the ought-is distinction), and he makes the claim that the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is incorrect. He provides the example that it seems perfectly natural to infer from the fact that a child is injured, and we are the nearest person able to help, that we should help the child. He writes ‘Good people will be guided by the fact to the appropriate belief about what they should do’. I’m not sure how goodness got smuggled in here; it seems to me that we need something more to tell us why helping is the appropriate response to need and why that makes us good. Rather than adequately explaining how he has inferred facts from values Blackburn simply slips into a virtue ethics account or right action. The discussion then moves on to whether science can uncover whether certain moral attitudes are universally held across cultures – whether certain moral values are an innate part of our nature. The Aristotelian virtue ethicists’ idea that there is a describable human nature that we should strive to act in accordance certainly appears to be influencing this line of thought. Blackburn does raise the spectre of the is/ought distinction again here, pre-empting any potential criticism, but then goes off on a foray into Humean understandings of the passions and at that point I lost the thread in his argument.

In the end I was rather puzzled by Blackburn’s conclusion. He argues that we need not fear the absence of morality if we deny religion because it is in our nature to be moral. Our nature determines our desires and needs, and the necessary conditions of harmonious social behaviour, thus ethics must be derived from interpreting scientific knowledge about human experience. He then goes on to suggest that which qualities help us live socially are self-evident (I presume this is because of the moral aspect of our human nature). Even the child knows which ‘endeavours are named with words of admiration and praise [and which] are talked of with dislike or contempt’. Blackburn’s position rather seems to beg the question about whether we should behave ethically towards non-humans, the environment, alien races and so forth. It also assumes cooperative endeavour is good, and relies upon the moral emotions that have evolved in us to derive values – explaining any that might lead to actions we disapprove of as being self-evidently wrong. It all looks a little flaky to me, but then this may simply be because I’ve missed or misunderstood something. Still, it’s another chapter chalked up, meaning I can devote some time to reading the copy of the Journal of Applied Philosophy that popped through my letterbox earlier.

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Evolutionary moral skepticism

Reading and writing has been rendered rather difficult this week by a parental visit and the fact that it’s half term. Still, I’ve managed to squeeze in a short read on what the science of biology can bring to ethics.

I had wondered whether the chapter (by Michael Ruse in the Routledge Companion to Ethics) would address the famous difficulty of deriving moral principles from natural facts (ought from is), or whether it would perhaps focus on how biology goes some way to determining what the good life for a being might be. Instead, the chapter concentrated on evolutionary ethics – the idea that moral behaviour can be explained in terms of its evolutionary function. In other words, the theory that we act in ways that seem morally motivated, but which sees the underlying reason for our behaviour in the subconscious urge to ensure the survival and propagation of our genes. My first thought on reading this was to wonder if Ruse would discuss the problems that this raises for thinking that we have free will and are thus responsible agents, but sadly there’s no consideration given to this at all.

Ruse does mention Moore’s naturalistic fallacy (the problem mentioned above of getting from ‘is’ to ‘ought’), but only to say that evolutionary ethics generally “don’t care how clever it is and what it proves, they know it is wrong”.1 Moore is wrong, apparently, because (so the argument runs) “the evolutionary process itself promotes value, and therefore our ethical duty is to work with and within this process to see that it is realized as fully as possible”.2 I confess that I don’t see how this amounts to an argument of any kind that’s familiar to me, and Ruse thankfully doesn’t give it much credence either. However, where he goes after that (dismissing Kant as ‘an ageing bachelor in East Prussia in the late eighteenth century’ who relies upon his intuitions, and Mill as nothing more than a ‘Victorian English gentleman’ who goes on ‘gut feelings’ while ‘his wife was nudging him in the right direction’3) is not much better.

Instead, Ruse gives us with an evolutionary explanation for human social behaviour (not exactly a surprise), and an assertion that evolutionary behaviour might show that ‘there is no justification of morality in the way that philosophers have traditionally sought.’4 The reason given in support of this claim is that the pre-theoretical intuitions used in a good deal of ethical reasoning have evolved in us as a result of adaptation and natural selection. However, over-playing the importance of pre-theoretical intuitions in utilitarianism or Rawlsian contractualism (the two ethical theories Ruse focuses on) is something of a travesty. Each of these theories seeks consistency in moral reasoning and is more than happy to abandon an intuition that proves mistaken upon reasoned consideration. Secondly, I’m not sure how tying an initial intuition used to prime a process of moral theorising to an aspect of human biology in any way demonstrates that there is no basis for the ‘traditional’ justification of morality. Take the intuition that suffering is bad for a being that suffers – I’m not sure how showing that that intuition is a result of natural selection counts as proof that there is no basis for a philosophical argument that causing suffering is wrong, or that that intuition cannot figure in the process of reasoning that leads to that conclusion.

Now, I happen to find the idea that moral emotions derive from natural selection fascinating, and I’m increasingly amazed by their presence in other animals (see the work of the brilliant primatologist Frans de Waal for instance), but all I’m left with after reading this chapter is the feeling that evolutionary biologists should be less hasty to pronounce on moral theory (or that more space should have been devoted to developing an argument). I’m also a little disappointed that I’m beginning to flag a little after a long day, because this is a topic that could really do with some clear and detailed analysis of the sort that I’m too tired to give, and which is also so wide ranging as to be a little ill-suited to the blogging medium.

1John Skorupski (ed), The Routledge Companion to Ethics (Routledge, 2009), 401.

2Ibid., 402.

3Ibid., 403.

4Ibid., 404.

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Transcendental Ethics

Since the last chapter was so interesting, I’ve decided to delve straight into chapter 2 of the Routledge Companion. This one’s by Stephen Clark, who has written some excellent scholarly work on animal rights and retired a couple of years ago. Sometimes it seems like Stephen contributes almost all of the entries on the Philos-L philosophy mailing list – he’s provides a great service to the philosophy community.

Stephen’s chapter is on Ethical Thought in India – an ambitious thing to attempt in so small a space. Although very interesting, the first section, which is largely concerned with religious practices relating to purity, and an attendant caste system, doesn’t contain much that I can relate to familiar ethical practice. Religious views on right and wrong don’t interest me in anything other than a sociological sense.

The second section of the chapter deals with what Stephen identifies as ‘four broad human goals’ common to Indian doctrine: ‘sensual pleasure, public success, morality – and “freedom” ‘1 Unfortunately, it’s not clear where these goals are supposed to arise from – I get the impression that they are simply prescriptive rules of Hinduism. In fact, pretty much all of the ethical practice described appears to have faith as its foundation.

Call me a narrow-minded secular atheist, but if you tell me the reason we should all Φ is ‘magic’ then I’m going to lose interest sharpish. In ‘The Idea of Equality’ Bernard Williams gave short shrift to the Kantian idea that transcendental characteristics should form the basis of moral judgements, i.e. characteristics that people are assumed to have and not in virtue of any empirical reality – Kant thought we should respect humans as rational beings regardless of whether any particular human is actually rational. Similarly, I found little to hold my attention in any moral or ethical sense in this chapter, although it did provide interesting insights.


Virtue comes from punishment!

Having been a little bored by Searle’s deliberate exclusion of ethics in my last reading, I’ve tonight opened The Routledge Companion to Ethics as an antidote.

This one’s edited by John Skorpuski, who I’ve had the pleasure to meet a couple of times, and share a pint with – so it gets bonus points (although he can be a bit of a fearsomely prickly chap if he disagrees with you).

I’m typing this as a read (hurrah for ebooks), and I’m quote excited to see the book begin with a chapter on ethical thought in China. I’ve had a passing interest in philosophical Daoism for many years, so I’m looking forward to this already.

Well – that was fascinating. This sort of piece brings home how interesting putting ideas into philosophical context can be. Yang Xiao highlights the importance of the surrounding conditions of extraordinary levels of violence to the formation of early Chinese philosophy – reminding me of the upheavals of the Reformation that helped birth modern democratic liberalism. Just as the likes of Laozi, Confucius and others sought ‘peace,order and stability’ in a violent world, so too the progenitors of liberalism sought peace and toleration.

I’m not going to try to reproduce the content – it’s simply too rich to do justice to, but Confucianism comes across as a political theory of perfectionist virtue ethics, and Mohism as a cosmopolitan version of Confucianism.

Meanwhile, Legalism as a kind of terrifying political realism/rational egoism with an unhealthy obsession with punishment:

“Punishment produces force; force produces strength; strength produces awe; awe produces virtue. [Therefore], virtue comes from punishment” (Book of Lord Shang 210).

Thankfully, the rather scary Legalist philosophy is balanced by the gentleness of Doaism (although I know from my own readings that there’s a bit of a tendency to veer off into some pretty weird mysticism at times). In fact – if you haven’t before, stop reading this and go read the Dao De Ching now – it’s beautiful (and undoubtedly online somewhere – go Google).

And that me finished – a chapter I really enjoyed. Back to Strawson next time, or shall I select at random?