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Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint

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Catherine Wilson

Enquiry VI

Résumé

The Enquirer determines what makes a relationship between Person 1 and Person 2 morally significant and investigates the origins of her moral feelings and attitudes. She then discovers that prudence and self-interest sometimes have a moral dimension insofar as they concern the relations between a Present Self and a Future Self.

Texte intégral

1Thus far I have established that I can obtain knowledge of several kinds of ‘oughts’—knowledge of what is good for me and so what I ought and ought not to do, knowledge of what is likely good for others—what it is in their self-interest to do and not to do, and, finally, knowledge of how to treat others in a civil fashion and what to expect from them. I know how in many contexts, including some contexts in which Person 1 and Person 2 stand in conventional social roles, you and I, or Person 1 and Person 2, ought to behave, and what we ought to do and say.

2My knowledge of what is good and bad for me has been acquired by observation, introspection, and through my reading and inferring. While these processes required me to have a functioning Neurological Constitution and to be subject to Cultural Transmission, there is a lot that I simply figured out for myself. I haven’t only been brainwashed by my culture or forced to think things by my brain. I have taken an active role in learning about prudence and civility.

3I learned early on that shocks and falls were bad for me, and I came to realise that there were many discomforts and deprivations that I preferred to avoid. My life went better when I was warm, dry, amused, occupied with meaningful work, had the companionship of interesting people, access to books and films and natural landscapes, such as fields, forests, lakes, and oceans, and when I could take pleasure in clothes and furnishings. All these things made my life better in the sense that it was more pleasing to me. To the extent that I am a typical person and others are like me, I can assume that what’s good for me is good for them as well, and I can therefore claim to know that they ought to strive for and to have these things. To the extent that I recognise others as having different preferences, abilities, and limitations, I can know what is good for them and what they ought to strive for and have, even if these goods are not those that I ought to strive for and to have.

4In turn, my knowledge of how to behave in civil fashion was acquired by instruction, observation, and social feedback. I grew up in a culture, I was told what to do, I experienced the approval and disapproval of my fellows, and I experienced resentment and gratitude at the incivility and civility of others. I established that I could ignore what I had learned only if I was prepared to be a Happy or forced to be an Unhappy Hermit, for if I were to try to behave consistently like an Arrogant Great Man, I might save myself the effort of civility for a time, but only until others became fed up with my behaviour and excluded me. Moreover, I continue to learn how to treat Person 2 and how to expect Person 2 to treat me as new situations with different relations and conventions arise and I continue to refine my knowledge and correct my behaviour.

5To return to the central question, what is ‘morality’ all about, if it is different from self-interest, prudence, and civility?

6Reflecting back on the kinds of issues I used to consider ‘moral issues,’ before I decided to put all my moral beliefs in question, I recall that they clustered around a certain range of topics amongst which were: bodily harm and killing, treatment of the young, the helpless or vulnerable, the actions generated by love, passion, and sexual attraction or repulsion, deception, economic exploitation, and damage to a person’s self-esteem, confidence, honour, or reputation. What do these topics have in common, I now wonder? What has sex to do with killing, or financial behaviour with insult?

7Let me try to recall some of the actions that, before I decided to question all my moral ideas along with all my other normative ideas, I considered morally wrong. I still have not established that I can know them to be so, but here are some that occur to me:

  1. A politician poisons a political rival.

  2. A police officer tortures a prisoner to make them confess.

  3. A woman tells a man the falsehood that she is pregnant to persuade him to marry her.

  4. A man who has been living with a woman refuses to take a paternity test to establish whether he is the father of a woman’s child.

  5. A student writes and sells essays to other students.

  6. A mother chains her young child to the bedpost to go to a nightclub.

  7. An employer profits magnificently by forcing his employees to work long hours for low pay.

8Like violations of the Norms of Civility, these situations involve the purported misbehaviour of Person 1 towards Person (or sometimes Persons) 2. But what do these situations have in common in virtue of which I used to regard them as violations of morality?

  • 12 I am not considering the case where a politician accidentally poisons a rival by lacing his soup wi (...)

9Reflecting on what these cases have in common, I can see that the actions performed by Person 1 are deliberate12 in every case, and that they fulfil a personal desire, ambition, or goal of Person 1 at the expense of Person 2. The ‘helping’ behaviour of the student in 5) certainly benefits the lazy or untalented purchaser in the short run; it can only be wrong if it harms the purchaser in the long run because they do not learn, or if it harms those who had to write their own essays, or misleads future employers. The politician believes they will benefit from having their rival out of the way; the police officer that they will obtain valuable information which it is their mission to obtain; the woman seeks the security of marriage; the man, escape from a financial burden; the student desires more spending money for desired goods; the mother, an exciting evening out; and the employer, profit.

10In cases 1 and 2, the cost to Person 2 is death, or extreme pain and grievous bodily harm. In case 3, the cost is entrapment in a relationship; in 4, it is disappointment—perhaps abandonment and humiliation; in 5, the loss of due reward for effort and ability in a competitive situation. In 6, Person 2 is immobilised and risks physical injury and psychological distress; in 7, Person 2 experiences exhaustion and poverty.

11Now, I do not think that there is anything unreasonable as such about the desires of Person 1 in each of the cases above when they are considered ‘in the abstract.’ Political victory, obtaining a confession to a crime, security, sex, spending money, and profit are all legitimate human aims. Their pursuit makes the world go round. But even worthy aims can impose costs, hardships, and suffering, just as deliberate cruelty and sadism do.

12So ‘morality,’ I think, is essentially the subject that deals with relations between Person 1 and Person 2, where the satisfaction of human aims that impose costs on others is concerned. (Perhaps one can behave morally and immorally as well towards animals, or the landscape, or the ocean, or even towards oneself, but I think it is important to get clarity on moral relations between different persons first.) Insofar as morality concerns the behaviour of Person 1 and Person 2 in certain familiar types of situation in which they are interacting, it is like civility. But morality also concerns the prudential interests of both Person 1 and Person 2. For I think I can see that:

In pursuing her prudential interests—what’s good for her, her self-interest— Person 1 can undermine the prudential interests of Person 2—what’s good for him.

13What about actions of the sort I used to consider morally worthy before putting everything in question? The following occur to me:

  1. A politician resigns his post to care for his recently disabled wife.

  2. A police officer intervenes to stop a colleague from manhandling a prisoner.

  3. A woman tells a family-oriented man who is getting serious about her that she is unable to bear children.

  4. A man assumes financial responsibility for a child born outside of wedlock and helps to care for it.

  5. A teenager takes a wallet full of cash they found on the bus to the police without removing any of it.

  6. A mother works long hours to pay for art supplies for her talented child.

  7. An employer responds promptly and effectively to an employee grievance.

14In each of these cases, Person 1 gives up something that is normally valued in order to benefit Person 2 or prevent a harm to Person 2. The politician gives up fortune, fame, and influence; the police officer, the chance to obtain valuable information; the new father, a proportion of his time and income. The woman may lose a man she loves; the teenager foregoes a windfall; the mother sacrifices her free time and recreation; and the employer may reduce his profits by improving working conditions. Yet, these are the sorts of actions I was formerly inclined to think of as morally good.

15At the same time, I was never disposed to regard any and all actions intended to prevent harm to or to benefit another person as moral. I recognised cases in which Person 1 could make things better for Person 2, but without acting morally. For example, I can imagine cases such as the following:

  1. A show-off tipper leaves a waiter a 50% tip to impress their companion.

  2. A driver speeds up on the motorway when entering from the slip road so that other drivers need not anxiously brake.

  3. A father leaves his desk and rushes to comfort his child who has fallen and skinned their knee.

  4. A politician puts their career at risk by voting for a law that lowers the tax rate for top income earners.

16In these cases, Person 1 confers a benefit on Person 2 (or on several Persons) that requires something from Person 1: money, attentiveness, interruption of a project, or the sacrifice of popularity. However, the intention of the tipper is not to sacrifice for the benefit of the waiter, the driver simply follows the rules of good driving, and the father acts spontaneously and irresistibly. In Case 4, political effort was required, and the action was bold and risky, but the wealthy beneficiaries are perhaps not deserving of the benefit, and the side-effects of the politician’s action for the poor may be deplorable. The fact that an action is done only in order to show off, or from good manners, or from an unreflective impulse, or only benefited someone incidentally—someone who did not really deserve it—seems to disqualify it as a moral action. A quintessentially moral action, on my former understanding, is one that is done at a cost to the agent that he or she recognises, that goes beyond everyday good manners or caretaking, and that is done reflectively, with the intention of benefiting someone. But wouldn’t this characterisation fit the underling Person 1 who risks a long prison term by helping the Mafia boss Person 2 to fit concrete shoes on their victim? It must also be the case, I suppose, that the benefit conferred does not contribute to the harm that is done to yet another Person.

17Further, there seem to be certain kinds of harms Person 1 can inflict on Person 2 for Person 1’s benefit that, although they are extremely serious, I had trouble conceiving as quintessentially immoral. For example:

  1. A brain-damaged man kidnaps and murders five young women.

  2. In a fit of rage, a normally forgiving and equable woman stabs her taunting, unfaithful husband.

  3. A schizophrenic patient leaps from a window to his death, devastating his family and deeply upsetting the hospital staff.

18The results of these actions are terrible—the suffering they cause to Person 2 or a number of affected persons is immense and irreparable. Yet the ‘benefit’ Person 1 receives is not the sort of benefit that the agents in my earlier cases received. It is not obvious to me that the actions of Person 1 are under control in the same way as the earlier cases described. The brain-damaged killer is driven by a neurological abnormality; the two others act out of desperation or from disturbed states of mind. To say that they act ‘immorally’ seems both too weak, given the horror of their deeds, and too strong, given their inability to engage in the sorts of knowing and caring that would deter them from these deeds. The realm of morality thus seemed to me to embrace deeds that present constant temptations to normal people—people who are persuadable rather than compulsive.

19Morality, like civility, seems to depend on the existence of social relationships, even relationships that are not mediated by language. It is not surprising to me that Darwin thought that all social animals that can help one another to survive and that are capable of interfering in the lives of others of their species might be able to evolve a form of morality. In my own case, the fact of my social dependency on other humans has long been obvious to me. Without these others I could not survive, or, if I did survive, I would not resemble a human being of the sort that lives in any culture. I have read reports of feral children, fed by animals of other species, who grew up mute and unaccustomed to the care and teaching of a mother and other adults and to interaction with other children. They behave very strangely, and I can readily believe that to grow up in a culture and to participate in observation, imitation, and conversation with other humans is absolutely necessary to becoming a normal human being.

20The desire for human society in babies, for example, is not instilled by life in human society, or not altogether, while, at the same time, experience in human society is needed to become human. True, there are hermits who turn their back on human society and live in caves or in the desert, but I have reason to believe that they are either suffering from a type of mental illness or have been so inspired by devotion to an idea or an ideal that they have adopted a form of life that most human beings would find distressing and unsustainable. This is not to say that some degree of solitude is not good for me. I am surely able by my very nature to tolerate and even to enjoy periods when I am alone with my work or my thoughts.

21But why do I prefer to live in a society with others rather than on my own? Why is it in my interest to do so? When I was young, I could not nourish myself and depended on others to feed me; as a young child unable to swim, run fast, or make judgements about invisible dangers, I was unaware of the threats posed by animals or violent human beings, by fast moving automobiles, electric currents, poisons, and water. I required tending when sick, and, were it not for the care of my elders, I surely would not have survived my infancy. As an older child, I required to be shown what plants and animals were edible and how to procure and prepare them, how to fashion and use tools to do so, and how to build or find shelters against cold or wind or heat. I imagine that for my ancestors these methods of instruction were quite different, as they are for people living in different cultures today. In my own country, I do not learn how to build a hut and thatch the roof but rather certain intricacies having to do with buying or renting houses or flats, and keeping them in good repair, which I rely on others to explain to me. I depend on others for amusement and entertainment with jokes and stories; they can do better at this than I can myself.

22Further, I depend upon others to explain to me what to expect from my own behaviour and that of other people. I do not need to be taught when someone is angry, for I can interpret the raised voice, the flushing, the scowling as threatening to me, but I need to be taught why people sometimes become angry when I cannot see the cause for it, and when I am perhaps myself the cause.

23I can see now that from the dependency of my ancestors on others for nourishment, for protection from danger, and for learning, my own dependencies, however different in form, have persisted and arisen. I must find a mate and co-operate with that person to produce and raise to maturity our offspring, and I can understand the origins of romantic obsession, jealousy, rejection, and other forms of human behaviour as efforts to attract and retain the best mate I can.

24I need not be in doubt that certain of the things I judge to be good for me—the nutritional and environmental requisites of life and a surrounding society—really are so and that this is the case in view of the way I came to possess enjoyment in these things and a desire for them through a long process of evolution.

25In particular, I seem to share a narrower set of dispositions with my closer evolutionary relatives, the apes and monkeys. I suppose that there was a common ancestor and that this explains the similarity between the faces and bodies of apes and mine, though we also differ in the upright gait, the differentiation between hands and feet, the larger brains, and the relative hairlessness of my species.

26Apes, I have learned, share food when others beg for it. They may threaten one another and even injure one another, but they generally do not kill other members of their local troops. They assist one another by grooming and tending one another’s wounds and show concern when a member of their party is injured. Some animals appear to grieve over the deaths of their fellows and to remember them. I seem to have inherited some of these patterns of behaviour. Like my living primate relatives, I have the capacity to make friends, to display loyalty, to seek revenge and to suffer it, and to be helpful to others, especially those who have been helpful to me.

27But some dispositions, I have learned, are specific to my species: for example, spontaneous food-sharing, paternal care of infants and children, elaborate ceremonies for the dead, the veneration of ancestors, and religiosity. The fact that my species employs articulated language with a complex grammar, and that thoughts can be memorised and recorded on paper, that they can be discussed and debated, gives rise to practices that the other animals cannot share in. I have learned as well that there are powerful human capabilities including ‘mind-reading,’ the ability to understand what others feel, believe, and do or do not know. At the same time, much of people’s inner lives is hidden from me.

28What I perceive as a good or bad condition of the world can motivate me to take action. If I notice a picture hanging crookedly on the wall, I tend to want to straighten it. If I see that the refrigerator door is open, I move to shut it. If someone asks me to remove a splinter or examine a wound, I am quick to do so. Many of my ‘corrective’ reactions of this sort seem to have to do with harm to others. I notice the following:

  1. When I observe a child about to run into a street full of cars, I am immediately inclined to stop her.

    • 13 Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments calls attention to these vicarious experiences; see no (...)

    When I observe someone getting a bump on the shins, I wince. If someone shows me an injury or begins to bleed, I start to feel a little unwell myself.13

  2. If someone near me is struggling with a package to open a door, I am inclined to help.

  3. If I read in the newspaper of the mistreatment of workers or children, I feel a sense of unease or even anger.

  4. Although I know that it is not real, a film in which a young person dies or lovers are separated forever can make me weep.

29These responses indicate that I know what it is like to have difficulties, to need something, to struggle with something, or to be in pain; that I am disposed to mirror the suffering of others even when they are fictional; and that I try to improve matters when it is easy to do so.

30I conclude that some of my responsiveness to other’s requests, and to the needs and wants I can see they have even when they are not articulated, together with some of my feelings of approval and disapproval of others’ actions, are part of my inherited Normative Kit. The urge to pick up a crying baby if it is my own, to feed it, to fret over the injuries of my children, to help strangers struggling with bundles, and to give directions to those who are lost is spontaneous and must have been imprinted in my evolutionary history.

31But doesn’t evolution favour selfishness? I can see that this is not necessarily the case. Evolution favours whatever behaviour is conducive to my getting my genes into the next generation. Kindness and altruism may help me if others help me in turn to survive and flourish. Selfishness may induce others to withdraw their co-operation or to punish me. Helpfulness and kindness to my siblings, cousins, and my parents who share my genes are also conducive to getting my genes and those I share with my close relatives into the next generation. Moreover, anger when I have been cheated or when I observe that another is being mistreated may improve my relations with others and the social environment. With less stress, I can reproduce and bring up my young more easily.

  • 14 Autism, certain types of cerebral pathology, and psychopathy influence moral responses and judgemen (...)

32I suppose that I am a typical human being and that others of my species have similar underlying dispositions and tendencies. I know, however, that there are persons who do not feel empathy, who are not troubled, and who are rather excited and gratified by the suffering of others.14 They are not a threat to my project of understanding morality and its sources, but they are, I concede, a threat to peaceful and happy existence.

33In this way I think I have come to a better understanding of what morality is and how moral dispositions have evolved in my species. Whenever Animal 1 could gain something for itself—food, a sexual opportunity, a good place to sit or sleep, or the intimidation of a rival, but does not take advantage of the situation so as to spare an injury to Animal 2, and whenever Animal 1 confers a benefit on Animal 2 at some cost or some trouble to itself, it is showing ‘proto-moral’ behaviour. Animal 1 could have gained a short-term advantage for itself by molesting, hurting, killing, deceiving, raping, or thieving from Animal 2, or refusing to help it, but it resists the impulse. These self-denying patterns of behaviour must not only have enabled the groups in which they arose to flourish, they must have enabled the more moral animals to out-reproduce the less self-denying ones. For otherwise the selfish ones would have dominated in these populations. My evaluative judgements are accordingly based in nature in the sense that nature has fashioned me into a creature spontaneously disposed to generate useful emotions and evaluations in the face of certain actions, events, situations, persons, and useful feelings of right and wrong, obligation and shame.

34In order to understand the nature of the ‘oughts’ of self-interest, I had to consider such notions as: ‘needs,’ ‘comforts,’ ‘good and bad outcomes,’ and ‘likelihoods.’ Good decisions regarding my self-interest took these features of the world into account. To understand the ‘oughts’ or Norms of Civility, I had to consider such notions as: ‘practices,’ ‘skills,’ ‘social roles,’ and ‘social harmony.’ Good decisions about how to behave in a civil fashion and when to do so depended on my taking these features of the world into account. And now, in order to understand the notion of a ‘moral ought’ or a ‘Norm of Morality,’ and to make good decisions about what to think and how to behave in morally significant situations, it seems I have to consider such notions as ‘sacrifice of interests,’ ‘reciprocity,’ and perhaps even ‘species- specific behaviour.’

35Meanwhile, the following thought occurs to me. Morality and self- interest seem to have something in common that I did not earlier suspect. Decisions about what is in my self-interest can involve questions of sacrifice. My present self may stand to my future self in the relationship of Person 1 and Person 2.

36Suppose I decide to give up smoking, which I enjoy, so as not to die prematurely, or to scrimp and save so as to avoid pauperism in old age. My Future Self has thereby extracted a sacrifice from me! Why should my Present Self sacrifice their enjoyments in order to reduce the risk of misfortune to Future Self? Why shouldn’t my Future Self endure pains, if they come, so that Present Self can enjoy the moment? While some prudential dilemmas—such as whether to continue at the poker table in the hope of recouping my lost winnings or quit now—do not concern the relations between the Present Self and the Future Self, many such dilemmas do. I now realise to my astonishment that they are a kind of moral dilemma, involving an action by Person 1, my Present Self, which can benefit or harm Person 2, my Future Self.

37In making prudential decisions, I take the needs and comforts of my Future Self into consideration along with those of my Present Self. It would be irrational to attach too much weight to the needs and comforts of my Future Self, for the future may never in fact arrive, or it may be shorter than I expected. But it would also be irrational to attach no importance to the future and to think only of the present moment. Who in their right mind would not act now so as to prevent their experiencing a searing, long-lasting pain ten minutes or two days from now, even if the measures required for prevention were slightly inconvenient or troublesome, or involved a lesser pain? Thus prudence requires that reasonable interests be weighed in a reasonable way. What allocation of burdens and benefits, amongst all those I can envision, do I prefer? What will my Future Self have to say about my decision?

38At the same time, insofar as my Future Self does not yet exist, the decision to sacrifice now on behalf of my Future Self or, conversely, to require my Future Self to suffer deprivations for the sake of my Present Self is made from the unique perspective of Present Self, who is required imaginatively to project into the future. There are many possible futures and many possible Future Selves, making prudential decisions that concern the long term exceedingly difficult. I can, however, try to find out how people like me facing similar dilemmas to mine who have chosen one way or another come to feel about their choices. By and large do people conclude: I wish I had saved more, foregone the champagne, quit smoking? Or do they wish they had indulged themselves more and stored up more memories of good times to look back on? I can read biographies of people who seem to resemble me to get a sense of how things turned out for them or ask friends and relatives. Alas, however, I cannot get useful feedback from my Future Self—not until it is too late, at which point my story becomes a source of useful information for others.

39It is often hard for me to be certain that I know now what it is in my self-interest to do, what I ought to do, and what will be best for me. Perhaps the question of whether I made the right decision regarding the allocation of burdens and benefits between my Present and my Future Self can only be answered when the future arrives, on the basis of the regret or relief I come to feel. But my aged Future Self might be unreasonably resentful of the youthful indulgences of my Present Self. Moreover, the correctness of my decision, on this view, will depend on the moment n at which I recall and evaluate it. The decision could be ‘correct’ by these standards at t1 but then ‘incorrect’ at t2 if my regrets are postponed. Furthermore, insofar as the entire purpose of prudential deliberation is to identify the right course of action now, it does not help me to know that I shall endorse or regret this decision at various times in the future. My conviction that my decision is a reasonable one that has taken into account all that I ought to know and all that I ought to care about will weaken as the distance between now and the time I am planning for lengthens.

40Nevertheless, I conclude that I can sometimes know what I or someone else ought to do. My judgements are reasonable if they would survive scrutiny based on the considerations I arrived at earlier: what usually happens, what most people want to happen, and why I could consider myself to be an exception to the general rule, either because I want something different or because the usual outcome is less likely to happen to me.

41With luck, I can arrive at reasonable decisions even if I fail to perform this scrutiny. For example, suppose I am motivated to quit smoking by seeing a public service message on TV. Responding to urgings presented on TV is a very dubious method for making good choices. Nevertheless, the decision to quit smoking is in fact reasonable if I am a person with an average risk for the debilitating diseases and the average desire to avoid them.

Notes

12 I am not considering the case where a politician accidentally poisons a rival by lacing his soup with arsenic mistaken for salt. On morality and intended and unintended consequences, the ‘doctrine of double effect,’ see G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

13 Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments calls attention to these vicarious experiences; see note 8 above.

14 Autism, certain types of cerebral pathology, and psychopathy influence moral responses and judgements. See Joshua D. Greene, ‘The Cognitive Neuroscience of Moral Judgment,’ http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~mcl/mcl/pubs/Greene-CogNeurosciences-Chapter-Consolidated.pdf

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