Mistaking the good for the true
Every philosopher knows the difference between is and ought. What is the case and what ought to be the case are two fundamentally different questions. But we are constantly tempted to conflate them.
To see what I am getting at, imagine someone tells you a disgusting joke. You might say, “That’s not funny, that’s cruel!” But humor doesn’t respect moral boundaries. Some really funny jokes are really offensive. Clearly, if you try to restrict the genuinely funny to jokes that give no offense, you will not advance much in your understanding of humor. But this is just the sort of mistake to which philosophers are prone.
For example, Plato inquired into the nature of reality and concluded that the physical world is not real. This is because the physical world is in a state of flux, and Plato disapproved of flux. On the basis of his moral preference for permanence he reasoned that reality must be a static world beyond all experience, of which our ever changing world is only a flickering shadow. Plato isn’t alone in succumbing to this sort of thinking. We all long for stability. Almost all major religions attempt to provide some promise of its existence on a different plane of being.
You might scoff: Plato didn’t just reason: “I disapprove of flux world, therefore there must be a stable one!” Right. He provided ingenious arguments for the reality of the Forms. But it is fundamentally motivated reasoning. Plato needed to approve of existence as much as he needed to understand it.
There is a basic pattern here which you should try to grasp: We identify an idea or concept that strikes us as both important and poorly grasped at an ordinary language level. Then we attempt to determine the real or genuine notion, using our moral intuitions as a guide. Let’s sketch a couple of other examples.
Everyone approves of free will, and most philosophers tend to develop theories that satisfy our estimation of it. Hume is a notable exception, and that is why Kant ridiculed Hume’s natural notion of free will as a “wretched subterfuge.” Hume suggested that we are free to whatever extent our actions are the outcome of our reasoned decisions. But this countenances the humiliating possibility that our reasoning processes are themselves fully determined. It is an inglorious notion, hence a false one.
Ordinary folks tend to think that knowledge is just something like useful information. Good stuff if you can get it. But philosophers esteem knowledge much more highly than this. The argument we like to bully students with is that you can acquire useful information by pure luck. You might, e.g., guess your roommate’s PIN and use it to make a withdrawal from her account. In this case, we insist you surely didn’t know the PIN. You merely guessed right.
This is a surprisingly persuasive argument. But if knowledge is a natural phenomenon, there is no reason to expect it to conform to our scruples. To this we should simply reply that guessed knowledge is no less knowledge than stumbled upon treasure is treasure. Guessing is just not a reliable way to achieve it.
Of course, a lot of the concepts that philosophers study are moral in nature: justice, responsibility, liberty, rights, duties, etc. So you would think that in regard to such we surely do not err in developing theories that respect our moral intuitions. But indeed we do. We do this by trying to get a normative concept to do too much work. I will call this Philosophical Overreach.
In fact, philosophical overreach is what is happening in the above examples as well. We try to develop a concept that subsumes things that are conceptually distinct: nature and morality. The result is a morass that remains perpetually subject to counterexample. Within ethics proper, we do this by trying to pack too many different kinds of good (or bad) stuff into one concept. Here are a couple of examples:
The meaningful life
It is very easy to state what a meaningful life consists in. Life is meaningful to the extent that we care about the things we are involved in. The philosopher rejoins: That is not a genuinely meaningful life. What if you care about doing things that are evil? Hitler cared about what he was doing! But that just means that there is a difference between the meaningful life and the moral one. It is fine if we want to develop an overarching notion of the good life according to which it is meaningful, morally admirable and other good things as well. But these are different things and we achieve them in fundamentally different ways.
This is Peter Singer’s notion of moral obligation: "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it". It doesn’t take long to discover that this is awesomely austere. e.g., It implies that morally you ought never to splurge on a fancy meal. You ought to eat simply and cheaply, and feed the hungry with the money you save.
Philosophers have many objections to this view, but one is that it can not be right because it entails that almost all people fail catastrophically to satisfy their basic moral obligations on a daily basis. They seek a less demanding theory that allows us to attach greater moral significance to our own happiness. But they are overreaching. Satisfying obligations is one good thing; satisfying our interests is another. To live well we must learn to balance, not conflate them.
G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy