Welcome to our NDPR Review Forum on Philip Pettit’s book “The Birth of Ethics: Reconstructing the Role and Nature of Morality” (OUP 2018), recently reviewed in NDPR by David Phillips. Below is a brief description of the book, an excerpt from the review, and an initial response to the review by Philip Pettit. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, review, and discussion below.
From the book blurb:
Imagine a human society, perhaps in pre-history, in which people were generally of a psychological kind with us, had the use of natural language to communicate with one another, but did not have any properly moral concepts in which to exhort one another to meet certain standards and to lodge related claims and complaints. According to The Birth of Ethics, the members of that society would have faced a set of pressures, and made a series of adjustments in response, sufficient to put them within reach of ethical concepts. Without any planning, they would have more or less inevitably evolved a way of using such concepts to articulate desirable patterns of behavior and to hold themselves and one another responsible to those standards. Sooner or later, they would have entered ethical space.
While this central claim is developed as a thesis in conjectural history or genealogy, the aim of the exercise is philosophical. Assuming that it explains the emergence of concepts and practices that are more or less equivalent to ours, the story offers us an account of the nature and role of morality. It directs us to the function that ethics plays in human life and alerts us to the character in virtue of which it can serve that function. The emerging view of morality has implications for the standard range of questions in meta-ethics and moral psychology, and enables us to understand why there are divisions in normative ethics like that between consequentialist and Kantian approaches.
From the NDPR review:
This book is an expanded version of Philip Pettit’s Berkeley Tanner Lectures from 2015. Pettit aims to tell a naturalistic story about the origin of morality. And he claims that his “reconstructive” strategy is an alternative, and a superior alternative, to more standard reductive defenses of ethical naturalism.
The story begins with people like us who live in small, relatively equal groups. We have language with which to make basic factual reports, but no way of prescribing. We are largely self-interested: one of the differences between Pettit’s and Tomasello’s stories is the extent to which they want to rely at the start on altruistic motivation. The main driver of the series of conceptual and linguistic innovations Pettit sketches is, as he puts it on p. 314, the aim ofsecuring the benefits associated with mutual reliance . . . [we want] . . . to prove ourselves reliable in our communications with one another, making it possible to rely on others when we need to do so and to get them to rely on us when it is in our interest.
The first steps on the path to prescriptive language and concepts are to introduce what Pettit calls “avowal” and “pledging”. When we make primitive reports (about our beliefs, desires, or intentions), we have open to us two kinds of excuses if the reports prove inaccurate: what Pettit calls “misleading mind” and “changed mind” excuses. A misleading mind excuse would say that we were in error about that on which we were reporting; a changed mind excuse would say that conditions have changed since we acquired the evidence on the basis of which we made our report. Pettit argues that it can be strategically advantageous to us to put our reputations on the line by foreclosing appeal to either kind of excuse. If we avow, we foreclose appeal to a misleading mind excuse. If we pledge, we forego appeal to either kind of excuse. Once we can avow and pledge, the next stage in the story is the introduction of co-avowal and co-pledging. With the same basic driver, the importance of mutual reliance and reputation, Pettit argues that we will be led to avow and pledge desires and intentions not just on our own behalf but on behalf of others. Sometimes the others will belong to some particular delineated group. Sometimes the group will be open-ended.
These practices, Pettit argues, lead us into the realm of prescriptive concepts. The key idea in the transition is that when we are prepared to avow a belief or desire, we must think of that belief or desire as appropriately supported: by the data in the case of belief, by the desiderata in the case of desire. If we had not been appropriately careful in our response to the data, we would not be in a position to avow a belief; correspondingly, if we had not been appropriately careful in our response to the desiderata, we would not be in a position to avow a desire. So it will be natural to start thinking in terms of credibility and desirability: of what we ought to believe and what we ought to desire. At this point “we in Erewhon have entered prescriptive space” (164).
So far, the treatments of credibility and desirability, have been parallel. The articulation of the concept of moral desirability involves, however, an important difference between the case of belief and the case of desire. A belief is credible if it is supported by the evidence. And there is no reason to suppose that the evidence for one person is different from the evidence for others. By contrast, the transition from desiderata to moral desirability is not so straightforward. For some attractive features of options will be agent-relative: they will be attractive to some of us but not to others, or more attractive to some of us than to others. The concept of moral desirability must in some way resolve these conflicts, either by filtering out all agent-relative desiderata, or, less drastically, by filtering out all agent-relative desiderata that generate competition. At this point, then, we have reached the first of the key concepts in terms of which, Pettit argues, morality can be understood: the concept of moral desirability.
The second key concept is responsibility, to which Chapter Six is devoted. Pettit begins with an account of the ordinary connotations of a remark, of someone who transgresses a norm, that he or she “could have done otherwise”. There are three key connotations: a claim that the agent robustly had the capacity to do otherwise, a retrospective exhortation to have done otherwise, and a reprimand. Pettit then argues that in Erewhon we would come to use the expression “you could have done otherwise” with these three connotations. The driver, as elsewhere, is cooperation and reputational effects. The distinctive twist here is the thought that ongoing cooperation requires some serious marker for bad behavior, but a marker less serious than expulsion from the community. This is the role of these distinctive expressions. Pettit also gives an analysis of the concept of moral obligation in terms of the concepts of moral desirability and responsibility:
It is obligatory for an agent to choose one option rather than another just when it is the morally most desirable alternative among ‘erogatory’ options: i.e. options that are undemanding enough not to count as supererogatory. (229)
Pettit contrasts two different strategies for ethical naturalists. The first is the standard reductive strategy. As he sketches it,
In a familiar relatively strict form, this reduction would involve two claims. First, that what it takes for an ethical property to be instantiated is that this or that set of non-prescriptive conditions are satisfied. And second, that these conditions can be satisfied in the actual world by one or another configuration of broadly naturalistic properties. (20)
The second is the reconstructive alternative:
It starts rather from a naturalistic story about how recognizably ethical terms and concepts could have emerged among creatures of our ilk and could have played a referential, yet prescriptive role in registering bona fide properties in the world. And then it argues on that basis for a naturalistic realism about desirability and responsibility.
The argument involves two claims. First, that insofar as the terms or concepts that emerge in the story respond to the same sorts of prompts, and serve the same sort of purposes, as our actual ethical terms, the properties they predicate are good candidates for the properties we ourselves predicate with them. And, second, that since the appearance of those concepts in a predicative role is naturalistically explicable, the properties they ascribe . . . must be naturalistic too; if the concepts ascribed non-natural properties, after all, then those properties would presumably have played a role in explaining how the concepts came into use. (20)
Pettit’s most important example of the reconstructive strategy is an account of the origin of money according to which the need for a medium of exchange and store of value would have led a society without money to begin to treat some widely desired and available commodity (gold, cigarettes, etc.) as money.
It might be argued, however, that the mere availability of a genealogical explanation of our coming to employ a set of terms and concepts does not in itself demonstrate that the properties those terms ascribe are naturalistic. To see this, consider first mathematical concepts. We can imagine an Erewhon story about their acquisition. We start with people quite like ourselves who have no words for numbers, or no words for numbers beyond “one”, “two”, and “many”. We could plausibly explain why it would be advantageous to such people to acquire at least a good range of number concepts and the ability reliably to do arithmetic (to keep track of the numbers of animals in the herd they are hunting, the size of a combination of two groups of hunters, etc.). But does the fact that such a genealogical story is available itself demonstrate that mathematical properties are empirical? Instead, couldn’t someone who accepted the genealogical explanation hold that mathematics involved necessary truths about relations between properties that are importantly non-empirical? The mere availability of an Erewhon story about the usefulness of arithmetical concepts doesn’t seem to show that that view is false.
Or, second, imagine an Erewhon story about the acquisition of religious beliefs, beliefs of a quite explicitly non-natural kind about powerful entities not subject to the laws of nature. Such beliefs are widespread. Couldn’t their existence too be given an Erewhon explanation? We might suppose, in a way that isn’t terribly distant from Pettit’s appeal to the importance of incentives to prove our reliability, that those who believed in such beings and appealed to them at appropriate points (inter alia by swearing on holy relics or texts rather than merely avowing or pledging) were more likely to be reliable cooperators. But, again, the mere fact that we could tell this story surely would not demonstrate that the religious entities referred to and properties ascribed by those in Erewhon were naturalistic.
Philip Pettit’s response:
Defending counterfactual genealogy
David Phillips’ review of the Birth of Ethics (OUP 2018) offers a nice, brisk summary of the line of argument, something for which any author must feel gratitude, and then raises a challenging line of critique. He focuses on the way I rely on a counterfactual genealogy to generate an overall view of our ethical toolkit, in particular the dimensions associated with moral desirability and moral responsibility. While that view is neutral between divides in normative ethics like that between consequentialism and deontology, it is quite committal on matters of moral metaphysics, epistemology and psychology. Phillips raises a question about whether such a genealogy offers an alternative to standard analysis, focusing on desirability concepts.
I use the counterfactual genealogy of money, common among economists, to introduce the methodology adopted. This gives us an account of how bartering practices would plausibly lead in a human society, say Erewhon, to the identification of a favored commodity in exchange: perhaps, gold; and how the upshot would give that commodity a role that would likely elicit a distinctive term and concept among Erewhonians: say, ‘aurum’. It then argues that the natural translation of that term in English would be ‘money’, given the role played by aurum in serving for Erewhonians as a medium of exchange and, consequently, as a metric of prices and a means of storing wealth. And so, it raises a question—in effect, rhetorically—as to whether we should not take ‘money’ amongst us to refer to the same sort of thing and to assign money the same sort of role.
Counterfactual genealogy, as I argue in the book, is common in philosophy too; and this, even beyond the work of people explicitly embracing it such as Edward Craig (1990) and Bernard Williams (2002). David Lewis’s (1969) account of conventions is an example. He tells us about how patterns would likely emerge among creatures with our needs and abilities in response to coordination predicaments, and how those responses would likely aggregate in regularities to which everyone conforms because of expecting others to conform. He suggests that such patterns would give those agents natural referents for a term that we might usefully translate as ‘convention’, in virtue of the important coordinating role they would play in the counterfactual world. And then he asks the rhetorical question as to whether we should not take our word ‘convention’ to refer to the same sort of pattern—setting aside some niceties of ordinary usage—and assign to conventions the same sort of role.
Another example of counterfactual genealogy is illustrated, as I have argued elsewhere (Pettit 2019b), by Herbert Hart’s (2012) account of law. He begins with an imagined regime—call it, Normitania—where some collectively beneficial, individually burdensome norms (primary rules) regulate how people treat one another. And then he identifies a set of responses that would likely be made by Normitanians in response to problems of indeterminacy, change and the like, arguing that they would aggregate in the appearance of norms (secondary rules) for supplementing primary rules in the regulation of behavior. Finally, in a move parallel to those charted in the other cases, he suggests that this development would transform the regime into a law-governed one— Lexitania, we might say—and that its dual system of rules, duly internalized, might well serve as the referent for what we ourselves call the law.
My book seeks to provide the same sort of counterfactual genealogy for concepts in the desirability and responsibility families; I shall focus here, as Phillips does, on the first. It begins with a society, Erewhon, where people otherwise like us use language just for reporting on their environment. It then identifies problems they will face in communicating their own attitudes, say of belief and desire, as they will certainly want to do. These problems will arise, in particular, because giving reports on their attitudes would be cheap and unpersuasive; it would allow them, as with any reports, to explain a miscommunication, even one on which others later relied, by their having misread or changed their minds.
But reporting on a state of affairs, p, so the argument goes, would mean expressing or avowing a belief that p and would communicate that attitude in a way that manifestly foreclosed the misleading-mind excuse. Avowing a belief in this way would be more hazardous and expensive than reporting it, of course, but for that very reason would appeal in many cases to speakers: it would increase the credibility of their words. And by parity of argument, elaborated in the book, avowing certain desires would also appeal on that ground.
How are Erewhonian speakers going to be confident enough, however, to avow beliefs and desires? In the one case, according to the argument, by relying on data they take to be robustly persuasive, in the other by relying on desiderata they take to be robustly attractive. Seeking to prove reliable as interlocutors, they will want to be able to live up to their words and will manifestly back themselves to do so when, in virtue of the presence of such data or desiderata, they feel able to avow corresponding attitudes.
But now consider how you in Erewhon will feel about having avowed a desire to take a certain action in some context, when it turns out that, without an independent change of mind, you are inclined rather to do something else. As a creature engaged in widespread practices of avowal and other forms of commitment—the book argues that this is what makes humans into persons—you are bound to think that in general it would be a failure to go with the experienced rather than the avowed desire. You will fail to live up to your words if you are moved by the impulse or incentive supporting the experienced desire rather than by the desideratum or desiderata supporting the avowed.
The claim in the book at this point is that any desideratum that you see as robustly attractive, and fit for the role of supporting the avowal of a corresponding desire—other things being equal, of course—will have a profile in your way of seeing things that entitles us to describe it as a ‘value’, translating whatever word you might use in Erewhon into an English evaluative term. Like a value, after all, it will appeal in a way that can conflict with inclination and will make an appeal such that you must count it a failure not to prove responsive.
As desires may be formed from the perspective of the enduring self alone, or that of a local or more general group, or even that of humanity itself, so desiderata and values may vary accordingly. And suitable values, so the argument continues, are likely to be identified among you and your compatriots—and to count in our language as moral— insofar as they answer to the perspective you will share with them of putting yourself beyond the complaints of others. Why not treat our evaluative and moral terms, then, as serving us in the same way that the terms you use serve you and your compatriots? Why not take them to have referents analogous to the referents of your Erewhonese concepts?
Doing so would make it intelligible why a world of naturalistic desiderata can offer us referents for evaluative, including morally evaluative, terms and concepts, and thereby deliver truth-makers for the truth-conditional statements they allow us to make. And, paralleling the other stories, it would point us to a plausible account of the role of values: specifically, to an account of the role of robustly attractive desiderata in supporting avowals of desire, and serving thereby in a way we take values to serve us.
David Phillips suggests in an initial objection to this genealogy that as ‘an Erewhon story about the acquisition of religious beliefs’—or of hyper-realist beliefs about numbers— would not naturalize them, neither can my story naturalize ethical beliefs. But this objection is off target. Mine is a story about how ethical concepts gain application in a naturalistic world, not a story about the acquisition of ethical beliefs; this would indeed be consistent, like the stories he imagines, with the concepts involved referring to nonnatural properties. And so, as he quotes me saying, it can make ‘the appearance of those concepts in a predicative role…naturalistically explicable’.
But, to turn to a second, more challenging issue he raises, does the genealogy do this explanatory work only in virtue of surreptitiously relying on an independently accessed, naturalistic analysis of value terms? If it does, then it will be redundant.
In pointing us towards the roles associated with money and convention, laws and values, the narratives sketched do indeed support role-based analyses of those concepts, identifying functional conditions that anything must satisfy to count as an instance of the relevant kind. But those analyses do not have to be independently available; they may become accessible only in wake of the genealogy. The analyses produced certainly have to conform in suitable measure to assumptions widely shared among ordinary users of the terms, if they are not to ‘change the subject’ (Pettit 2019a). They may alert us for the first time, however, to such assumptions or may make us aware for the first time of the pattern they reveal in the assumptions; they may give us a new level of understanding.
But even if a genealogically motivated analysis does not presuppose prior access to that analysis, there is a related question as to whether the genealogical route to analysis is any better than standard alternatives. These would generally require us, first, to identify in independent terms the conditions under which a concept to be analyzed applies and, second, to find a property or whatever—a naturalistic property, if the analysis is naturalistic—that it can be taken to predicate. My own view is that in the sorts of cases considered the alternative routes are less easy to access and, if accessed, less satisfying.
Alternative routes will be less easy to access because the conditions relevant to whether a term or concept T applies to an object O is a function in any such case, not just of the conditions that O observably meets, but equally of conditions that the subjects who use the term satisfy without necessarily noticing: practices they engage in, for example, desires or sensations they undergo. These conditions become salient in a genealogy but may not be easy to discern otherwise. That is surely why the conditions highlighted in 4 Hart’s analysis of law or Lewis’s analysis of convention escaped attention before their genealogies. (My own analysis fits comfortably with (Jackson and Pettit 1995)). Alternative routes to analysis, even if accessed, will be less satisfying than the genealogical route, because the sort of analysis they support in the cases considered will treat potentially unnoticed conditions on the subject’s side in the same way as it treats observable conditions on the side of the object. Thus, it will not present the object under the aspect foregrounded for users of the term, giving to background, possibly unnoticed conditions the same role it gives to foreground, observable conditions. The analysis will not find support, then, in a subject’s sense that, yes, ‘that is just what I have in mind when I employ the term’. A genealogy can do much better because it invites us to enter the background perspective of the practices, desires and sensations of users, simulating how things would present to them.
Some purportedly standard analyses clearly fail on this count and if they are useful, it is only because they point us indirectly to a genealogy. Take the analysis: X is red iff it is intrinsically such as to look red to normal observers in normal conditions. As often remarked, that does not tell us what it is we have in mind about an object when we say it is red. If it is helpful, I would say, that is because it points us to a genealogy: a story as to how suitable observers will identify a similarity class of (red) surfaces in virtue of those surfaces having the effect, perhaps unnoticed by them, of eliciting a certain visual sensation (Pettit 2004). I conclude that while genealogy may not be indispensable, it offers a uniquely accessible and satisfying route to analysis in a prominent range of cases. These, as I argue in the book, include cases relevant to our thoughts about what it is for something to be desirable and what it is for someone to be fit to be held responsible.
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