Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Best about Two Chairs

A contemporary German philosopher (I forget who) once said that the best about two chairs is that you can sit between them. Right now this is the comfortable position that I happen to find myself in. In a critique of an article published earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Ethics (Giubilini and Minerva on "after-birth abortion") I claimed that morality was fundamentally irrational in the sense that there is no moral belief that is, as Don Marquis put it, "utterly compelling to any rational person". Moral convictions can always be contested, and it is never unreasonable to do so. Moral beliefs are not the results of rational reflection, but rather starting points. They are more like axioms upon which we build our world: foundational bricks in the house that constitutes the way we look at, think about, and relate to ourselves and the people and things around us. To believe, for instance, that it is wrong to torture people, is neither rational nor irrational. We may, of course, be able to explain why we think it is wrong, but nothing that we can say by way of an explanation is such that no rational person can deny its moral relevance. In that particular article, however, my main point was that the appearance of rational compellingness that many bioethicsts (especially those with roots in the analytic tradition) attempt to lend to their personal views is just that: mere appearance. It is a rhetorical device that is often used to trick the reader into accepting conclusions that intuitively they are inclined to reject.

Anyway, voicing this view - that morality is, ultimately, irrational - has now landed me in trouble. Readers of the Hasting Center Report, in which my critique was published, strongly reprimanded me for making such an obviously unreasonable claim. How could I! It was the academic equivalent of hate mail. The funny thing, however, is that this strong response came from both people who are convinced that abortion is morally wrong (and just as wrong as the murder of an adult human being) and people who are equally convinced of the exact opposite, namely that abortion is perfectly all right, as is infanticide. So the two opposing parties both believe that the reasons for holding their respective views are, or should be, "utterly compelling to any rational person", without realising that the very fact that they disagree so much about the moral permissibility of abortion shows clearly enough that their arguments simply cannot be as compelling as they think they are. I find it rather bizarre how anti-abortionists and pro-abortionists suddenly stand side by side, united against the common enemy: the ethical, or rather metaethical, non-cognitivist.

This of course raises the deeper question why it is so important to people to be able to see their moral views as rational. It is almost as if we feared that we might have to give up our moral convictions if they turned out to lack a rational foundation. We seem to need or want some assurance that we are right and those who don't agree with us are wrong. We want our moral convictions to be true, and the idea that they might not be is disquieting. Makes it more difficult to stand up for one's views, to feel righteous about them and to fight those who oppose them.


  1. With your last sentence I am thinking of those who are vegetarians. Some people are quiet about it and others really wear it on their sleeve.

  2. Quite right. I used to be a vegetarian. For more than twenty years, until (I think) I got tired of being good. But I remember that at times I felt really smug about it. It's good to be able to see oneself as one of the good guys and to fearlessly fight evil. And of course people sense that and resent it.

  3. That reminds me of the German saying that preaching moral convictions is easier than to give reasons for them ("Moral predigen ist leicht ..."). But of course you go further - there are probably no utterly compelling reasons at all. At the same time, a supposed rational conviction would be to weak in itself to cause
    moral behaviour, which normally need to be based on feelings, beliefs and interests (e. g. the interest to make this world a better place).

    I wonder where the fundamental convictions and beliefs come from (education, society, feelings including reciprocating our own feelings) and whether the core of rationality (generalizability, reciprocity) is also
    the core of some of our moral feelings, e. g. compassion.

    Another question relates to the consequences of your insights for the "moral education".

    1. Thanks for this, Ralf. The saying you refer to is actually a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer, I think from his Preisschrift über die Grundlagen der Moral. And Schopenhauer himself did not believe that one could give reasons for being moral, because all reasons ultimately had to appeal to self-interest (for else they wouldn't be accepted as reasons), and all morality is, qua morality, free of any interest. In other words: whenever I do something for a reason, my actions are no longer moral. I wouldn't go that far, though, because unlike Schopenhauer I'm not a psychological hedonist. The fact that someone suffers may well be in itself a reason for me to help them, and if I act for this reason, then I'm not acting in my own interest. But the claim that I ought to help them is still not rationally justifiable because it just doesn't follow from the fact that they suffer. And you are right, of course, a purely rational conviction that something is wrong is hardly a conviction at all if not accompanied by strong feelings or emotions. If I don't feel that something is wrong, then I cannot know that it is, although how I feel about things may also be influenced by my beliefs (about other things). Where do these feelings and beliefs come from? I would say from all sorts of sources. Certainly education plays a role and what we have experienced, but these inputs never form us in a mechanical, predictable way. How I experience what I experience always depends on who I am. And what I learn also does. We are never blank slates. There must, accordingly, be something in us that responds to moral demands. Now, as for the "core" of rationality perhaps being the same as the core of our moral feelings, I just don't see it. In what way might generalizability be regarded as the core of rationality? Well, for instance if I claim that I have a right not to be killed because I am a human being, then I seem to be rationally required to accept that all other human beings also have such a right. Okay, but I don't have to claim that. I could also claim that I have a right not to be killed because I'm a superior being - which would then rationally require me to accept that any being that is equally superior also has a right to life, but not that there is any such being. I could be the only one. Also, I don't need to claim that I have a right to anything. I can wish not to be killed or harmed in any other way without claiming that I had a right to it (or that it would be morally wrong for people to harm or kill me). Then generalization doesn't get me anywhere near a moral outlook. Now, compassion does not require generalization, but rather that the suffering of the other matters to me, that I suffer with them. Mere generalization doesn't give me that. Yes, I don't want to suffer and my suffering is bad for me (or is perceived as bad by me), and I can see that the other doesn't want to suffer either and that their suffering is bad for them, but from that it doesn't follow that their suffering is, or should be, bad for me. This is not a rational generalization, but a leap of faith: a penetration of the boundary that separates us, not in form of a rational insight, but in form of an emotion: something like Schopenhauer's tat twam asi: this is you.

  4. Thank you very much for your reply! I think I need some more time to think through the ramifications and consequences of your example. What I was trying to express was exactly what you refer to
    in the last part of your reply. Describing it in a vague way it is the following: At least for some periods, "rational" generalization has been a key element of ethics in philosophy. Most prominently of course Kant but not limited to him. Others have referred to a general, commom human nature (e. g. reason) on which they based their ethics. Both approaches imply what you call the "penetration of a boundary" away from individuality to generality. Or we have things like the "golden rule", based on reciprocity, which seems to be a generalization of viewpoints. Now lets look at compassion. We have also a "this is you"-element, close to reciprocity and we have the penetration of the boundary, but more in a way that an individual "feels" it is part of a whole and what hurts any other part of the whole hurts this individual, too. This type of emotional "generalization" is of course different from the step from an individual to its "genus" in the rational generalization. I agree this is somewhat vague and maybe I am carried away by analogies, which are not precise and therefore not justified.

  5. I guess you're right that what I have described as a penetration of boundaries is, or involves, some kind of generalisation. But my main point is not affected by that, namely that whatever it is, it is not rationally required (despite what Kant and others may have believed).