In the previous post, I applied Williamson’s anti-luminosity argument to argue for the claim that there must be some moral truths that cannot be known. Now I want to look at one of the best arguments against the view at the other end of the scale – that all moral truths could be unknowable. I will use basic act-consequentialism as an example. Yet, similar problems would be faced by Rossians who think that we can never know the over-all ‘duty proper’ in particular circumstances and by contractualists whose view would imply that we can never know which principles are non-rejectable because we cannot know what kind of standpoints the principles create for individuals. The argument is an application of Wright’s Wittgenstein. It is based on the idea that, if all moral truths turned out to be unknowable, it is not clear whether anything would count as intending to do the right action because it is right.
A standard objection to actual consequence AC is that the paradox that if we try to pursue the options that have the best consequences we end up with less value. The standard reply to this is to make the distinction between deliberation procedures and the criteria of rightness and wrongness. AC is then said to be only the latter. But, this still seems to assume that there are moral deliberation procedures that we can use to settle on an intention to do what is right because it is right. But, if we can never know whether an action satisfies the criterion, it is not certain how any deliberation procedure could play such a ‘motive of duty intention’-forming role.
I’m pretty much going to only assume that we cannot ever know whether some action has the best consequences of the options we have in a particular circumstances. This has been done much better in, for instance, James Lenman’s ‘Consequentialism and Cluelessness’. The idea is that there are (almost?) always some directly or indirectly identity-affecting actions in our option-sets. The effects on the world-histories of such actions will be unknowable. After many enough generations different individuals will exist as their consequence. These individuals will act in different ways, and thus create different amount of value to the world. We cannot then know which one of the identity-affecting actions will create the best world-history.
Why would all of this threaten the idea that we can intend to do the right thing because it is right? Well, here I will quote in length Crispin Wright from his Realism, Meaning, and Truth (p. 25):
‘Consider an analogy. Suppose I place before you two small, identical-seeming boxes. Each has been sealed and cannot easily be opened. I tell you that each contains a vacuum, and that enclosed in one of them, but not the other, is a beetle, fashioned of a highly volatile substance that will vaporize tracelessly if it comes into contact with air. There is no betraying rattle or other symptom – difference in weight e.g. – to suggest which box this might be. The other contains an identical amount of the same material, used as a lining. In such circumstances, there is serious doubt whether you can so much as to try to pick the right box. … If you think you can aim at the right box, ask yourself what this aiming would consist in. You might, for instance, reach out and tap one of the boxes with your finger, but that will not distinguish your intention from that of picking the wrong box, or just picking a box. You might accompany your gesture with the words, thought or spoken, ‘This is the box with the mysterious beetle.’ But your having the thought is no guarantee of the requisite intention; you might have had it while picking one of the boxes quite aimlessly. We can make the thought carry such a guarantee, perhaps, if we construe it as, in effect, a performative: ‘I hereby intend to pick the box with the mysterious beetle in it.’ But this construal sheds no light on what, if anything makes such an intention possible in these outré circumstances; the question merely becomes whether the performative thought can succeed. A similar fate will befall any other candidates for psychological process or episodes which are putatively characteristic of the controversial intention.’
Wright then goes on to note that having an intention is not an atomic state but rather dependent on many other things that are true of the agent. Intentions are essentially a part of our aims and projects that are constituted also by many other wants, and also tied to our beliefs about how to aim at the particular result, i.e. about what are the actions that are likely to promote the fulfilment of the intention. There is also a connection between the content of the intention and a whole set of reactive attitudes – being satisfied or frustrated ‘when the sequence of events unfolds’. Wright claims that all of this background is missing in the beetle case. There is no sensible motives to pick the right box that would be part of our other projects, no beliefs about how one could rationally go on picking the right box, and nothing that could count as responding with frustration or satisfaction to what happens. For these reasons, nothing seems to count as intending to pick the beetle-box in this case.
Similar things could be said about the intention to do the right thing because it is right if we cannot ever know if our actions are right. We could often think that we were trying to do the right thing qua right, but what would distinguish this intention from intention to do the wrong action, from intention to do just some action, from the intention to do the action you think others would like you to do, from the intention to do the action you think others would recommend, from the intention to create happiness, and so on? But, if whether our action is right or not remains something we can never know, then the things that could distinguish this particular intention from the other intentions seem to be missing. Rightness so conceived could hardly be aimed at. This is because the relevant intention could not be integrated to other aims and projects, no beliefs formed about which deliberation-procedure gets us to reliably act in the right way, and no frustration or satisfaction could be felt when it turns out that either we managed or we didn’t manage to do the right thing.
Thus, it seems like unknowability of moral truths in general make it impossible to intend to do the right thing because it is right – to act from the motive of duty. If this is right, then nothing would count as a moral deliberation-procedure either – as a way of arriving at the moral intentions. But, I think we can intend to do the right action qua right action. So, I think moral rightness cannot be like the elusive beetle in the box.