Category Archives: Metaethics

I have some good ideas on this one. Should I write a book?

Active Life’s Acts, Virtues, & Relations

In active life, qualities of character are split into 3 kinds: those for the sake of (1) acts, (2) themselves, and (3) relations.

Thus, "being a doctor" is for the sake of curing illnesses. It is better to cure an illness than to be a doctor. Being a doctor (a state) has no value apart from the curing (an act).

On the other hand, it is better "not to be a glutton" than "on many occasions to have eaten in moderation." A routine, such as not overeating, is for the sake of a state, not being a glutton. This virtue contributes to the loveliness of the soul and is for its own sake.

Finally, some virtues are for the sake of relations between different individuals. "Not stealing" (act) is for the sake of and inferior to "hating theft" (state) which in its own turn is for the sake of and inferior to a "just society" in which people respect each other's property rights and are related to each other according to justice.

It is interesting that in the speculative life, these distinctions are not present. To "know" something (an act) is to be able to recall it from memory and contemplate it. Which is exactly identical to "being knowledgeable" about something (a quality). Which again is identical to having a true belief, defined as a correspondence relation between thought and reality.

What Is the Good?

Goodness means different things for different grades.

For 1st-grade merely material things, goodness is measured by conformance to a perfect archetype. The more a thing resembles an ideal, the better it is.

Now what then is "perfection" on the 1st level? It is suitability to a (human) purpose. A perfect knife cuts with wonderful efficiency. A perfect chair is extremely comfortable. Then a "good" knife is one that cuts pretty well if perhaps imperfectly. And that's all there is to it.

For 2nd-grade rational beings, goodness has the property of being relative and is directly linked up with happiness.

Goodness is metaphysical if it refers to human nature; moral, if to personality; and physical, if to narrow happiness. Call any such good relative proximate.

In particular, physical goods consist potentially of <desire, plan, execution>, and actually of <vision, comprehension, fruition>.

Relative ultimate goodness refers to true happiness, which is a combination of perfected nature, virtue, and narrow happiness.

Most practical ethics is concerned with relative proximate goods.

For the 3rd-grade God, goodness is not happiness-sought-by-a-rational-being, but that whose self-diffusion creates out of nothing beings that seek happiness.

This goodness is absolute.

Natural Law: A Tension

We have begun the argument that each man has natural rights to his justly acquired property. However, there is a problem.

Let's call a society "small" if it consists of only a few people, such as solely of Crusoe and Friday. Let's call a real-world society "large."

In presenting the argument, we have demonstrated that in a small society (SS), violating Friday's natural rights is directly and immediately irrational for Crusoe. He fails to use Friday in an appropriate way and suffers here and now. From this we extrapolated that even in a large society (LS) all people have Friday's natural rights by virtue of their humanity.

But we can easily see that in LS when Smith mugs Jones, the harm to Smith from this unnatural use of Jones is minimal. Society will not crumble from a single criminal act, yet Smith is enjoying his stolen cash. Committing a crime in LS is no longer self-evidently irrational.

Now this does not invalidate the logic of the argument. But it does show that while in SS, intellectual apprehension that "theft is wrong" is immediate grounds for not engaging in theft, this connection is severed in LS. Theft may be wrong, and Smith may know this, but he can still seemingly have his own reasons for stealing. Knowledge that theft is wrong in LS need not motivate a person to abstain from this wrongful act.

Therefore, it seems that the proposition "theft is wrong" has different grounds for it in SS and LS. In LS, theft is wrong, because the state will punish one for stealing. A thief is an outlaw, rejected, hunted, pushed out by society into wilderness. The threat of punishment for Smith in LS substitutes for or mimics the natural incentives to Crusoe in SS.

Natural Law in a “Large Society”

Mises actually nailed it:

We may agree that he who acts antisocially should be considered mentally sick and in need of care. But as long as not all are cured, and as long as there are infants and the senile, some provision must be taken lest they jeopardize society. An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government.

He just failed to connect this to the natural law in a "small society," as outlined in previous posts.

Even that is not entirely true; witness:

Every step by which an individual substitutes concerted action for isolated action results in an immediate and recognizable improvement in his conditions. The advantages derived from peaceful cooperation and division of labor are universal. They immediately benefit every generation, and not only later descendants. For what the individual must sacrifice for the sake of society he is amply compensated by greater advantages. His sacrifice is only apparent and temporary; he foregoes a smaller gain in order to reap a greater one later. No reasonable being can fail to see this obvious fact.

No reasonable being indeed, but only in a small society, not a large one; hence the reason for the state in a large society!

Ethical Naturalism: Is-Ought Gap

It proposes that the term "good" can be reduced to a some natural property N, where "natural" means roughly within the scope of natural sciences or psychology.

The main objection, as I understand it, is the need explicitly somehow to bridge the is-ought gap for N, whereas it is the very meaning of "good" that it ought to be or that one ought to bring it about.

As a result, the non-naturalists argue, since the properties of all N vs. goodness differ, no natural N is analytically "good."

Contra Emotivism: Three Kinds of Human Good

"Ayer denies that moral judgments express beliefs: rather, moral judgments express emotions, or sentiments, of approval or disapproval." As a result, judgments have no truth value.

This is a confusion. Judgment is an intellectual not a volitional phenomenon; moreover, it is possible to judge correctly or incorrectly.

For metaphysical goods, those who judge right are called wise, and those who judge badly are called foolish. Here, judgment compels the emotion of love. Judgment is objective. Grasping my humanity and the natural law flowing from it imposes certain demands on me, such as love or at least lack of hatred for fellow men.

For physical goods, those who judge right are called smart and successful, and those who misjudge are called stupid losers. Here, love or desire compels judgment. Judgment is subjective. I am enjoying this orange, and then and because of this, the orange becomes good.

For physical goods, then, if an orange is loved, then it ought to be. For metaphysical goods, if there is Friday, then Crusoe ought to love him.

Things are more complicated for moral goods, where we observe the phenomenon of a soul judging itself. Here judgments and emotions cooperate in forming moral goodness. Judgment is intersubjective, as in one judges how well he conforms to his own moral ideals, loves his virtue, and hates his vices. One has a true vision of himself as he is or at least as he wants to be. Those who judge these ideals aright are called just; and those who judge poorly are called unjust; moreover, those who judge aright yet do not care to conform to their ideals are called hypocrites. There are true virtues and true vices, but each personality, understood as a harmonious union of numerous well-developed virtues, is unique. Moral propositions are in part true objectively ("courage is a virtue") and in part may be true for one person yet false for another ("it is moral to save the whales").

Thus, in order to qualify for the appellation "just," one must both judge that bovarism is wrong (judgment) and hate bovarism (emotion).

Ethical Naturalism: Candidates for “Good”

Again, it is analytically part of the meaning of "good" that it ought to be.

But for any natural thing, it is an "open question" whether it ought to be. For example, ought "what is desired" always to be? Maybe sometimes for some person but certainly not essentially. Therefore, "what is desired" cannot be equivalent to "good."

First, note that "good" is relative to an individual or the human race and the judgments they make. We are not concerned with what is good for gorillas or lizard space aliens.

In my book, I describe something called "true happiness," and I think it qualifies more than anything for the property "such that it is always and for all individuals ought to be."

My rendition of natural law also allows me to say that inflicting pointless, deliberate cruelty on the cat is "evil," i.e., always and for everyone ought not to be.

God who is goodness is different, because, though goodness and hence God are good, it is not the case that God ought to be, because God is, always has been, and cannot fail to continue to be.

Perhaps the definition of "good" can be thereby expanded: what is purely good is the set {God, human true happiness, all things that are at one time or another conducive to true happiness}.

Emotivism vs. Subjectivism

Both say: "Murder, boo!" thereby expressing their disapproval for murder. So, both disapprove of murder.

However, the subjectivist takes his own personal disapproval to be grounds for the truth of the proposition "Murder is wrong."

The emotivist demurs. For him, "Murder, boo!" and the disapproval are phenomena of one's vomiting out his feelings on another without any epistemological import. Nothing is being affirmed as true or false.

As a result, it's not that the emotivist's judgments are false; rather they are entirely meaningless and even costly for the judging individual: why should he go to the trouble of "expressing" his feelings to another? And why should his interlocutor bother to listen to such melodrama?

It follows that making emotivist "moral judgments" is irrational, and with that the entire discipline of ethics vanishes away. And that's a potent reductio of emotivism.

Emotivism: Not So Imperative

Ayer's emotivism is concerned with identifying the specific "moral" feelings that are being expressed, as distinct from other judgments of value. He writes:

In adding that this action is wrong, I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval about it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money," in a peculiar tone of horror, or written with the addition of some special exclamation marks. (emphases added)

But he fails to describe the relevant properties of the "moral" feelings. Here is an attempt to do just this; as Kivy writes:

The direct purpose of ethical argumentation is implied in the exhortative moment of moral value terms: what the late Charles L. Stevenson called their "quasi-imperative" part. These terms evince our approval; but they also urge our attitudes upon others. "I approve; do so as well," was Stevenson's rough analysis of "good."

This idea does pick up on something real. All virtues are intersubjective; but other-regarding virtues are objective, being principles of natural law and between different human persons; whereas self-regarding virtues are subjective, justifying one's own personal trinity within, being about how well one conforms to his own moral ideals.

So, "murder is wrong," if truth-apt, and if true, then true for all people. If I am convinced that murder is wrong, I might indeed be interested in another person's moral improvement, as well, perhaps out of charity, and so desire that he, too, realize that murder is wrong.

But for emotivists, "murder is wrong" is not truth-apt and has no truth value. How then am I to persuade you that murder is wrong? Suppose we both agree on the facts of a particular murder: the butler did kill his master with a blunt weapon for money. I then, bleah, vomit my emotions onto you. What reason do you have to imitate me from now on? I can't think of any. You may have your own emotions to vomit quite pleasurably. If you are content, what can I do to change your ways? Nothing, and this version of emotivism fails.

I mean, seriously, when a philosopher is doing any work in normative ethics, is he saying: "Alright people, I'm about to vomit my emotions on you. Prepare yourselves; hold on to your handrails and brace for impact, because this baby is coming out full blast. AAA-aaahhh!!"

Emotivism, aka Nonsensism

Miller proposes an argument against emotivism which I think does not work.

According to emotivism, when I sincerely utter the sentence "Murder is wrong," I am not expressing a belief or making an assertion, but rather expressing some non-cognitive sentiment or feeling, incapable of being true or false. ...

But what about... "If murder is wrong, then getting little brother to murder people is wrong"? ... now there is a problem in accounting for the following valid inference:

(8) Murder is wrong.
(9) If murder is wrong, then getting your little brother to murder people is wrong.
Therefore:
(10) Getting your little brother to murder people is wrong.

Consider the following example:

(a) If abracadabra, then hocus-pocus.
(b) Abracadabra.
Therefore:
(c) Hocus-pocus.

This looks like a valid modus ponens, but if abracadabra and hocus-pocus cannot have truth values, it is nothing of the sort. It's entirely meaningless.

Similarly, if (8), the minor, has no truth value, then (9), the major, has no meaning; the apparent inference collapses; and hence (10) stays undefended; moreover, (10) itself seems to be a moral statement and as such, like (8), lacks a truth value.

Which is perfectly fine as far as the emotivist is concerned.

If the concern is that (9) seems true, then in denying not only that (8) is true but that (8) has a truth value at all, the emotivist has already proven himself perverse beyond hope. He would have little compunction denying in addition that (9) is meaningful.