By In Ideas, Metaethics, NDPR Discussion Forum, Normative Ethics Comments (11)

The Point of Moral Philosophy: An NDPR Forum with Ingmar Persson

Welcome to another in our regular series providing forums for authors reviewed in NDPR to respond and discuss features of their new books. We are very pleased to welcome Ingmar Persson today, whose new book Inclusive Ethics (OUP 2017) was just reviewed two days ago by David Kaspar for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Ingmar has chosen to do something different this time: Rather than responding directly to the points made in the review, he has written up a guest post about a topic in the book not included in the review, namely, on the point — or lack thereof — of doing moral philosophy. What follows is that post. We encourage our readers to join in on the discussion of what is a very interesting post.

FROM INGMAR PERSSON: The problem what, if any, is the point of (doing) philosophy is itself a philosophical problem. It might even be the fundamental problem of philosophy since, if it lacks any point, there’s apparently no reason to do it. But to find out whether philosophy has any point, we have to philosophize, thereby risking to do something that turns out to be pointless!

Fundamental, though it may be, this problem is rarely discussed. So is the more limited problem the discussion of which in Inclusive Ethics, chap. 12, I’ll now summarize: what, if any, is the point of moral philosophy? More specifically, what’s the intrinsic point of moral philosophy, what is its method of argument designed to accomplish? Sure, moral philosophy can be done as a means to various ends external to it, such as earning a livelihood, getting reputation for smartness or intellectual stimulation.

My proposal is that moral philosophy has an intrinsic point just in case it produces a rational consensus about what’s morally right and wrong, and about the ground and meaning of this. At least an approximation to consensus is required because morality is about what, individually or collectively, we do to each other.

Suppose the morality about which there’s rational consensus can’t be applied – applying it is too intellectually or motivationally demanding for us. Such a morality might be pointless, but that doesn’t mean that moral philosophy that has produced it is pointless. Human beings have created a civilization which is vastly different from the small, tribal societies with a primitive technology which is likely to have shaped their moral dispositions because this is where the overwhelming portion of their history was played out. If moral philosophers dutifully develop the moral kit we carry with us, and this results in something that’s useless today, moral philosophy isn’t at fault.

Now, what are the prospects for a rational consensus about what’s morally right and wrong in all situations we’ll encounter? My conjecture is that there are such deep divides in moral philosophy that these prospects are gloomy. These divides are between

deontologists whose morality comprises the act-omission doctrine and/or the doctrine of the double effect, and consequentialists who reject such moralities;

desert theorists for whom justice consists in getting what you deserve, and those who deny this;

rights theorists who claim we have moral rights e.g. to life, limb and property, and those who reject rights;

theorists who believe we’re morally permitted to be partial ourselves and people near and dear, and those who espouse impartial moralities.

It’s undeniable that we exhibit biases that are irrational. Take the bias towards the near future, which could manifest itself in preferences for a smaller good to a bigger good simply because it’ll be received sooner. Or the ‘cuteness effect’ which could make us favour cute babies to less cute babies with greater needs. These biases are irrational because the mere fact that a future good is closer in time, or a baby is cuter isn’t a reason that could justify preference for it. But even though we realize that these biases are irrational, they keep their grip on us. This indicates that they are ‘hard-wired’, i.e. biases we have because they have served our reproductive fitness.

Similarly, even if we’ve been convinced for ages that there’s no moral difference between harming and letting harm occur, that the concept of desert isn’t applicable to us, etc, we go on feeling more responsible for harm done than for harm not prevented, or that evil-doers deserve punishment (speaking from my own experience). So, it’s understandable if people refuse to believe that these reactions are unsound. Yet, there are philosophical arguments against their validity strong enough to convince many. As a result, normative ethics ends up in an impasse.

It’s futile to hope that metaethics could help it out of this impasse by revealing objective norms that support one side or the other. For in metaethics there’s an equally deep divide between objectivists/externalists and subjectivists/internalists, which renders it unlikely that any objective norm could be so firmly established that it could resolve a deep normative conflict.

There are seemingly irresolvable controversies in other philosophical disciplines, for instance, in epistemology between those who think that our beliefs in the external world, or induction, can be justified, and those who are skeptical. But we can more easily live with these unresolved disagreements than with unresolved disagreements about what is morally right and wrong.

It might be objected that even if philosophers belong to different normative camps, they could agree about what should be done in many situations. For instance, they could agree that it would be wrong to let someone die in order not to lose a button. But to have a point moral philosophy must increase our rational consensus about what’s morally right or wrong; it isn’t enough that it merely underlines what we pre-reflectively know.

Of course, I can’t show that moral philosophy is incapable of significantly increasing our rational consensus by resolving deep disagreements. But as the debates continue the arguments pro et con are bound to become more and more complicated and for that reason alone less likely to be persuasive to all parties.

Even if moral philosophy will get bogged down by inconclusiveness, it’ll generate conceptual refinement which sharpens our understanding of the complexities of morality, and doesn’t this provide moral philosophy with an intrinsic point, at least for its practitioners? Okay, but it seems to me that this is a subsidiary point which could sustain moral philosophy only as long as it is thought to be on the road to increasing rational consensus.

Moral philosophy being pointless – a terrible conclusion. Fortunately, few people keen on it will believe it, least of all younger people. Like people in love who are told the loved one isn’t worth their love, they won’t believe it. They have to find out by hard experience. They start doing moral philosophy, hoping to find conclusive arguments, and soon enough their investments in it are so extensive they continue to avoid sunk costs. In Schopenhauer’s words, they now live off philosophy, for the fun, fame and fortune it may bring rather than for it.

11 Responses to The Point of Moral Philosophy: An NDPR Forum with Ingmar Persson

  1. Eric Wiland says:

    Recall that Aristotle cogently argued that some good activities are pointless. He further argued that the best activity (eudaimonia) had to be pointless (complete). There are some problems with his conclusions, but the basic insight is correct. We are tempted to go from “A-ing is pointless” to “A-ing isn’t worth while.” But that’s a bad inference. At least some of the best activities in life will be pointless. I’m not insisting that doing philosophy is among them, although I myself find that plausible. Rather, I encourage you not to fret too quickly, should it turn out that doing philosophy is pointless. It still might be worth while.

  2. I’m curious why you (Ingmar) think that moral philosophy has an intrinsic point only if it can achieve “rational consensus about what’s morally right and wrong in *all* situations we’ll encounter,” as well as consensus on the grounds and meaning of this. That is an awfully high bar. Why think there ought to be an answer to ALL such situations? What if it achieves rational consensus on 80% of those things? What if we get agreement on verdicts but not grounds (as the “consequentializers” think)? What about grounds but not meaning? These would still be pretty cool accomplishments, I think. (A side point: Your examples of a dis-consensus are mostly about grounds.)

    Another point. The aim of being a sommelier is, one might think, to tell us which wines are good and which ones are bad. But as training and sensibility-development occurs, it might be that the best sommeliers will always disagree on those all-in verdicts. That’s because some have tastes for roses or whites, but not reds, and vice versa. But what they might gain rational consensus on is a conditional: IF you like roses, then X is the best of the lot. Or IF you like oaky reds, then Y is the best of the lot. That is, the intrinsic point will have changed, to being precisely about identifying and discriminating between the various more particular features of the wines in question.

    So too with moral philosophy, perhaps. There are some people who simply have more of a “taste” for normative grounds that implicate empathy/emotions/fairness, and there are those who have more of a “taste” for hardheaded normative grounds appealing to consequences and the numbers. So they might disagree about what the right grounds for some verdict are “all in.” Nevertheless, they might, as good moral philosophers, be outstanding at identifying and making discriminatory judgments about the various features contributing to the verdicts, how they might weigh against one another and so forth. This kind of skill you think of as a “subsidiary” point to moral philosophy, but it seems that the intrinsic aim might well (and already have) shift to this as the fundamental aim.

  3. Brad Cokelet says:

    I can see thinking that moral philosophy has a point if it establishes rational consensus, but why think it is necessary to avoid pointlessness? For example, moral philosophy might shed light on the nature of morality and put skepticism about the authority of morality to bed without producing consensus on first order moral issues. Or alternatively, moral philosophy could establish that moral norms are not authoritative. In either case these outcomes would seem to give moral philosophy an intrinsic point for its practitioners. The more general thought is that we need to look around for other possible point-grounding aims of moral theory before we conclude moral philosophy is pointless.

  4. Heath White says:

    I agree with the OP that moral philosophy by itself rarely produces consensus of any kind. It does not follow that moral philosophy, *plus some other stuff*, cannot produce consensus.

    It seems to me that it works this way: there are some moral tensions in everyday life, and thinking types start chewing over them, and produce some moral philosophy which says do this rather than that. People disagree, but some folks try it. Then the resulting community is either (a) attractive enough to join or imitate, or (b) unattractive enough that the moral philosophy is refuted in a practical sense. I would say that religious toleration and the rights of women are an instance of (a) and Marxism is an instance of (b).

    Businessmen are the slaves of dead economists; politicians and activists are the slaves of some dead moral philosopher. That is not quite right in that moral philosophers are rarely first movers but they do play an important role in the process.

  5. David Sobel says:

    Just reiterating one of Shoemaker’s points. If some activity could rule out as mistaken some quite widespread moral beliefs, that activity would seem very worthwhile, even if that activity could not produce rational consensus on every single question.

  6. Nick Smyth says:

    Thanks for this provocative post. Here is one line of response: perhaps we can accept that disagreement is fundamental to the practice of philosophy itself, since there is no example, contemporary or historical, of philosophers coming to anything like a consensus described here.

    And then, perhaps, we can refuse to label as “external” those personal and social goods which are closely tied to the disagreement-based practice: self-expression, the development of one’s particular talents, the refinement of ideas, the exchange of those ideas with brilliant minds, or the construction of a particular narrative framework within which one’s life and activity makes sense (consider: would Parfit’s life have been so enriched by his conclusions about personal identity had those conclusions been part of philosophical orthodoxy when he entered the field?).

    Arguably, none of these goods are possible under total or even near-total consensus: most require the existence of contrary thinkers. In short, while we often tell ourselves that we aim at consensus, we betray this alleged commitment every day, so maybe we should wonder whether it is really something at which we truly aim.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I would like to thank David Shoemaker for the invitation to this discussion. I really appreciate PEA Soup for hosting it. And I’m quite happy for the opportunity to touch on some points in Ingmar’s excellent book, which I very much enjoyed reading and working through.

    Let’s suppose Ingmar is right: ‘moral philosophy has an intrinsic point just in case it produces a rational consensus about what’s morally right and wrong, and about the ground and meaning of this’. Clearly, if indeed that is the point, our current direction recommends a pessimistic outlook.

    But what might possibly explain our going so wrong? And what might be done to correct this? Without quite saying so, Ingmar’s post seems to suggest we’ve been doing ethics right, or at least in the optimal way since 1970, or at whatever point one wishes to mark the start of the current era of ethical inquiry. But if we’re going so awry, what good reason do we have to believe we’re doing ethics right, or optimally?

    Perhaps ethics is pointless, something few ethicists would wish to believe. Or maybe we’re not currently doing ethics in a theoretically optimal way.

  8. David Kaspar says:

    Anonymous is me 🙂

  9. […] Is there a point to moral philosophy? — And will moral philosophers accept the answer? “Like people in love who are told the loved one isn’t worth their love, they won’t believe it” […]

  10. ingmar persson says:

    Many thanks for these responses. They are much needed because when I have been writing on this issue,I haven’t been aware of any other discussion of it. Here are some replies.

    I don’t think that something has to have a point in order to be worthwhile. For instance, enjoying pleasure could be worthwhile without having a point. But arguing about ‘a point’ doesn’t seem to be like that. It seems it could have a point only as long as there appear to be prospects of reaching an agreement, or getting closer to it.

    I doubt however whether we get any closer to agreements in philosophical discussions, though initially it may seem so. For instance, when Harry Frankfurt first put forward his cases in favour of the view that freedom doesn’t entail ‘could have done otherwise’, they seemed pretty compelling. But objections soon enough started being voiced, and almost fifty years later the issue is still unresolved. Certainly, our understanding of it has sharpened, but that doesn’t mean that we are any closer to settling the issue. Greater precision in philosophy isn’t like greater precision in the measurement of something’s physical dimensions: it presents us with a number of marginally different alternatives between which we can’t hope to agree which is the best in place of the rougher ones that we have discarded.

    Dave Shoemaker thinks I’m asking for too much when I demand consensus about ALL cases. I agree, I could have asked for something like consensus in MOST cases. This would be enough to give moral philosophy something of a point, though not quite as much of a point as we would like.

    Dave also mentions the possibility of agreement in moral judgments, without any agreement about their grounds or justifications. For some purposes this might be enough, but it’s a bit shallow and unstable. It’s rather like having somebody agreeing with you not because they think you are right but because they don’t want to upset you.

    His sommelier example touches on something I would like to put this way. Even if there is no consensus with respect to the normative divides I mention, we might find arguments which convince ourselves – given the personalities or temperaments we have – what is the correct moral position. On the basis of this position we might then campaign against positions which we see as mistaken. This would provide moral philosophy with a point for us, but the point wouldn’t be entirely intrinsic to it, as I see it (though admittedly the distinction between what’s intrinsic and extrinsic is hard to draw here). For it would depend on us having the aim to use moral philosophy for this purpose.

  11. Rob Hughes says:

    Even if we haven’t reached rational consensus about specific moral judgments, we can and do reach rational consensus about which sets of moral judgments are coherent and which sets of moral judgments are inconsistent or in tension with each other. It is valuable to know that one’s moral beliefs need revision, even if one doesn’t know what revision would be correct.

    As a small, straightforward example, here are four things I believed in 2010: (1) Pigs’ cognitive abilities are at least as great as dogs’ cognitive abilities. (2) It is not wrong to eat pork. (3) It is wrong to eat dog meat. (4) Whether it is wrong to eat the meat of an animal depends exclusively on the cognitive abilities of animals of that species; if it is wrong to eat the meat of animal X, it is wrong to eat the meat of any animal with greater or equal cognitive abilities.

    These four propositions are, uncontroversially, inconsistent. If the empirical claim (1) is true, it follows that at least one of the value judgments (2), (3), or (4) is false. I think it was valuable for me to realize this about the beliefs I had.

    A second, more contentious point: if rational consensus means consensus among the intelligent people who think seriously and write publicly about an issue, rational consensus might be the wrong standard for philosophy, or any field, to aim at.

    Sometimes very intelligent people firmly believe and persistently defend a position though they are incorrect and their opponents know it. Thomas Hobbes and John Wallis had a long, public debate about whether Hobbes had discovered a way to double a cube with straightedge and compass. Hobbes was wrong, and Wallis knew that Hobbes was wrong.