[lit-ideas] Re: Moral Judgment and Perceptual Metaphor -- Good to Think?

  • From: John Wager <jwager@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 09 Aug 2010 14:27:04 -0500

A few even more scattered ideas as a prolegommena to a possible response, interspersed below:

Walter C. Okshevsky wrote:
. . . .Here's the *really* interesting part: Students, both undergrad, grad and
doctoral, find it very difficult to suspend judgement and "follow the arguments
wherever they lead you." The imperative of submitting your judgement to nothing
but "the force of the sounder argument" (who said that?) is a very taxing one,
it appears. (This is the Categorical Imperative in one of its guises, btw.) The
risk involved - i.e., changing your beliefs - seems to be one that
threatens one's already attained psychic unity (C. Korsgaard), and reflective
equilibrium (Rawls) and one's identity within an ethical community defined by a
specific substantive conception of the good/authentic life and its virtues.
Thus such transformation is deemed to to be avoided at all costs.

I agree that we all start out with certain moral "certainties" that are anything but certain. We all must submit these to the lens of some kind of moral theory; there isn't any such thing as a theory-less morality. When we examine our individual judgments, we usually find that our individual perceptions are not at all connected by logical consistency; we act in contradictory ways and don't even notice. So, yes, a first step is to try to over-come the kinds of irrational prejudices that we are all raised upon, just like we must submit our beliefs to the same kind of reasoned approach.

In my classes  we try to overcome such epistemic illness with therapy provided
by, amongst others,  J.S. Mill and his arguments against censorship on grounds
of necessary conditions of inquiry and pursuit of truth. For surely a view that
one possesses but cannot bracket as to its truth or rightness for purposes of
impartial analysis, marks the host of such a view as a victim of censorship
(and indoctrination).
One kind of illness is the kind that won't submit ethical intuitions to rational analysis. But I think that there is another equally destructive kind of illness, and that's the illness of carrying a theory to such extremes that it seems to allow (or prohibit) things that we begin to seriously question as being wrong (or right). Kant is a case in point. I agree that, rationally, to lie is to destroy the idea of thought itself, and so can never be morally justified. But then I'm asked a question that causes me to seriously question this theory. It's clearly going to break another duty that is just as pressing if I tell the truth. So I have to re-think my whole Kantian position and try to come up with something like "prima facie" duties or some variation on the ordering of duties to preserve the truth of what I already accept but allow for some kind
of modification of that truth to account for some new perceptual facts.

It seems to me that the reasonable thing to do in this circumstance is to stop and re-think one's whole position on lying and try to make a decision that tries to do justice to both my perceptual facts of this particular situation AND my moral theory. To just check lying against the C.I. and see that it's always wrong, and then go ahead and tell the truth with full confidence that one has done the right thing seems to be a kind of illness just as harmful as not being rational in the first

Of course I don't think that most beginning students in ethics are at a point when they seriously begin to question and modify a theory that they learned last just week, so I agree entirely with your pedagogy. But a few years later, when the seams of Kant become more problematic, the attempt to work out some kind of revision to whatever theory one started
with just seems to be the most moral and most human thing to do.

I have little patience for those who act with logical inconsistency, but I have even less patience for those who act with complete logical consistency only by ignoring perceptual information that seems obvious to me.

To make this perhaps a bit more concrete: I am not very successful at maintaining romantic relationships. I think that one of the reasons for this is that I tend to see what's right as more important than what's most helpful to maintain the relationship. It's difficult for me to admit I'm wrong, especially when I don't think I am. But often that's precisely what's required if one wants to keep the relationship alive; it's sometimes one or the other, not both. Sometimes, the "right" thing to do is to lie, and say I'm sorry, that I was wrong, even when I'm sure it wasn't me. I don't think Kant would ever agree with this, but to me it now just seems an obvious part of human life that this is sometimes required, and is not
morally wrong.

I really like your description of a "dialectic" relationship in ethics because it can account for these kinds of conflicts. The "synthesis" required is a more comprehensive theory that includes both the previous theory and the new perceptual
facts that require the previous theory to be modified.

Walter O.

Quoting John Wager<jwager@xxxxxxxxxx>:

John McCreery wrote:
/Morality is so rich and complex. It’s so multifaceted and
contradictory. But many authors reduce it to a single principle, which
is usually some variant of welfare maximization. So that would be the
sugar. Or sometimes, it’s justice and related notions of fairness and
rights. And that would be the chemist down the street. So basically,
there’s two restaurants to choose from. There’s the utilitarian
grille, and there’s the deontological diner. That’s pretty much it./

We need metaphors and analogies to think about difficult topics, such
as morality. An analogy that Marc Hauser and John Mikhail have
developed in recent years is that morality is like language. And I
think it’s a very, very good metaphor. It illuminates many aspects of
morality. It’s particularly good, I think, for sequences of actions
that occur in time with varying aspects of intentionality./

But, once we expand the moral domain beyond harm, I find that
metaphors drawn from perception become more illuminating, more useful.
I’m not trying to say that the language analogy is wrong or deficient.
I’m just saying, let’s think of another analogy, a perceptual analogy./

Johnathan Haidt, Edge

To an anthropologist entranced for more than four decades by
Levi-Strauss’ call to consider the “logic in tangible qualities” and a
student of Victor Turner, who envisions dominant symbols as
bipolar–one pole a cluster of concepts the other, the sensory pole, a
cluster of tangible qualities that evoke powerful emotions, Haidt’s
thinking is highly appealing. What say others here?

This question of John's is a bit old, but I've been mulling it over and
want to send a delayed response.

What is ethics?  What place do concepts or principles have in ethics?
What do we do when we practice “ethics” as a thoughtful process?  Many
philosophers try to begin with the “theory” that would allow us to
predict what general form “X is right” would have.  If I am treating
someone fairly, then “X” is the right thing to do. If I am maximizing
happiness, then “X” is right.  If “Happiness” implies “X,” and
“Happiness” is the correct view, then “X” follows.  Our old friend Modus

But I don’t think this is the way we always operate when we try to do
ethics as a rational process.  Sometimes we start with the conclusion,
and then try to argue back to the premises.  “Y” is wrong.  Ooops! I
hadn’t ever had to deal with “Y” before, but clearly “Y” can’t possibly
be the right thing to do!  Ooops again; it looks like “Happiness”
implies “Y.”  What to do?  Our old friend Modus Tollens: If “Happiness”
then “Y.”  Not “Y.” Therefore, not “Happiness.”

What this means in practice is that most of us are more than willing to
throw out a theory when it conflicts with some deeply held idea of the
immorality of a particular practice, no matter what theory might say
it’s the right thing to do.  (At least, that seems to me what I have
done in the past, and what I see as a reasonable prospect for following
in the future.) It also seems to be how philosophers write journal
articles; they try to modify the theory to allow for its use in
situations where the theory seems to allow “Y” so that the theory no
longer allows “Y” to be seen as the right thing to do.

I think that this is similar to Turner's two "poles" of "concepts" and
the "sensory" component.  We change both as we go. We need both as
starting-points for ethics.

What say other others?

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