External “Moral” Incentives Are Almost Enough

Hume criticizes philosophers for sliding in their writings indefensibly from an “is” to an “ought.”

Suppose then that you tell me: “You ought not to kill.”

To which I reply: “Who are you to tell me how to live? Maybe I feel like killing someone. In fact, I am right now going to go kill Smith, collect his insurance, and then enjoy a nice cake and a cup of coffee to celebrate and laugh at your presumptions.”

To which you reply: “If you do that, I’ll take your life.”

And this makes me pause right away. For, as pointed out already below, I am not facing the choice of killing Smith and getting rich vs. letting Smith live and staying poor. It may well be that my moral scruples will prevent me from committing murder. Or they will not. I’d then weigh the pleasures involved and decide on the most profitable course of action.

No, here I am threatened with the loss of my very life. A dead man cannot enjoy his ill-gotten money or eat cake and drink coffee. Mises makes a similar point in regard to the ideological choice between capitalism and socialism:

A man who chooses between drinking a glass of milk and a glass of a solution of potassium cyanide does not choose between two beverages; he chooses between life and death. A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society.

Similarly, a man who chooses between committing murder and moral behavior does not choose between two equally reasonable occupations or avocations; he chooses between life as a branch nourishing and being nourished by the vine of society and being cut off from the social body as though a gangrenous foot for the sake of the whole. He chooses between life and the electric chair; ultimately between heaven and hell.

This is not a free choice but a necessity imposed upon us by society and by God. One cannot desire as a result to do otherwise than as he ought and in so doing thwart the anti-Humean.

The argument works for a string of smaller crimes, as well, and not just for first-degree murder. A judge needs to find a deterrent sufficient to cause a criminal to reconsider his lifestyle. As a result, punishment must be ratcheted up each time the criminal is caught and found guilty. The first time Smith steals a car, he gets probation. The second, 1 year in prison. The third, 5 years. At some point the judge will wonder whether Smith is a mad dog who refuses to heed any incentive. In such a case, the judge must protect society from further harm by condemning Smith to death or life imprisonment.

This ties in with my earlier posts about “small” and “large” societies. In the former, such as the Crusoe-Friday society on their deserted island, injustice is directly irrational and makes no sense from the purely self-interested “economic” standpoint of the potential criminal. In the latter, crime becomes unprofitable through threat of punishment by the state.

Regarding interpersonal morality, I still favor (a) cognitivism, (b) duty-based motivation, and (c) internalism.

Hume’s Metaethics

He is a non-cognitivist and even emotivist, as is clear from passages like:

To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration.

We go no farther; nor do we inquire into the cause of the satisfaction. We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous.

The case is the same as in our judgments concerning all kinds of beauty, and tastes, and sensations. Our approbation is implied in the immediate pleasure they convey to us. (3.1.2)

However, later on in the same chapter he proposes a powerful objection to his own theory.

Remember that the proper metaethics is (1) cognitivist, (2) actuated by duty not desires, (3) internalist. But the proper conception of physical goods is (1′) non-cognitivist — a thing’s goodness (for me) is expressed in my enjoyment of it, (2′) driven by 1st-order desires, and (3′) also internalist, wherein the connection between judgment and motivation is that the motivation to pursue a pleasure causes the judgment “it is good” to be true.

If, following Hume, we mistakenly deem metaethics to be non-cognitivist + desire-driven, then how do we tell apart metaphysical goods (say, the nobility of charity or the wickedness of murder) from physical goods (say, the pleasure of eating ice-cream or the awfulness of the screech of monkeys)? “If virtue and vice be determined by pleasure and pain, these qualities must, in every case, arise from the sensations; and consequently any object, whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational, might become morally good or evil, provided it can excite a satisfaction or uneasiness.” Hume’s first reply is that the pleasures and pains associated with virtue and vice are “peculiar” and presumably uniquely different from any pleasure produced by a merely material object.

Hume will then say than a wine, music, and man are good because they cause pleasure but for different qualities; thus, wine is good for its flavor; music, for its harmony; and man, for his virtue. But there is a problem. Wine and music are my bitches. They exist solely for my pleasure and are thrown away with contempt and indifference or even hatred when I find them tiresome. On the other hand, a girl is not a mere device that assists my masturbation. A human being is not a consumer good. At the very least, then, we must acknowledge that good wine is good physically, and a good man is good metaphysically. Hume is indicating that the goodness of both is, despite this obvious distinction, fully derivative from the pleasure they cause to us. This is plausible for wine. But wouldn’t the man still be good, such as charitable or brave or loyal to his friends or cause even if I never knew of him? Isn’t it in fact a test of my moral goodness to admire him for these virtues? I am not at this moment distinguishing between subjective vs. objective goodness, though this is a worthy subject in its own right; merely between judgment that is obtained from sentiment in physical good vs. sentiment that is obtained from judgment in metaphysical good. For the former, I love X, and then and because of it, X becomes good. For the latter, Y is good, and then I had better love Y (or else).

In addition, (1) “theft is wrong” means (2) “it is one’s duty not to steal.” But it is the meaning of “duty” that it restricts one’s goals. One cannot, if he has a duty, aim at ends that conflict with the duty, and in fact it makes no sense to talk of “duties” if that is not accepted. So, understanding the concept of duty and accepting that you have a duty not to steal immediately by virtue of the meaning of term “duty” compels you to abstain from stealing. Proposition (1) motivates by cutting off certain desires at the root, such as desire to profit by a wrongful act. It motivates not by creating a desire but by destroying certain desires, by making them illegitimate. If one finds in himself a desire to steal yet recognizes that stealing is wrong, then he is led to suppress the desire posthaste.

Hume’s second argument is problematic, as well. He writes that the peculiarity of the feelings that virtue excites in us lies in their nature of pride / humility and love / hatred. I have written that the former are aspects of self-love. Regarding the latter, hatred for a fellow man is unnatural, as in, never justified, thereby being below human nature; at the same time loving another human being is impossible without divine grace which is above nature. (Thus, falling in love is due to the bestowal of grace; and mothers, too, I think, are given grace to love their children.) Since his book is a treatise on human nature as opposed to beastliness or deiformity, Hume is not allowed to invoke hatred or love in his arguments.

Property in a Large Society

Hume distinguishes nicely between

three different species of goods, … the internal satisfaction of our mind, the external advantages of our body, and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquired by our industry and good fortune.

[I] We are perfectly secure in the enjoyment of the first.

[II] The second may be ravished from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them.

[III] The last only are both exposed to the violence of others, and may be transferred without suffering any loss or alteration; while at the same time, there is not a sufficient quantity of them to supply every one’s desires and necessities. (3.2.2)

I think that [II] permits us to argue that each person owns his own body.

Hume makes another brilliant point a little later in the text.

After men have found by experience, that their selfishness and confined generosity, acting at their liberty, totally incapacitate them for society; and at the same time have observed, that society is necessary to the satisfaction of those very passions, they are naturally induced to lay themselves under the restraint of such rules, as may render their commerce more safe and commodious.

To the imposition then, and observance of these rules, both in general, and in every particular instance, they are at first induced only by a regard to interest; and this motive, on the first formation of society, is sufficiently strong and forcible.

But when society has become numerous, and has increased to a tribe or nation, this interest is more remote; nor do men so readily perceive, that disorder and confusion follow upon every breach of these rules, as in a more narrow and contracted society.

Ah-hah. In a small society (SS), then, such as one that consists of just Crusoe and Friday under normal conditions of moderate scarcity, Friday’s every act to benefit from cooperating with Crusoe will also happen to be just according to the laws of a large society (LS). For example, if Crusoe and Friday divide their labor such that Crusoe specializes in catching fish; and Friday, in gathering berries; then as far as Friday is concerned, Crusoe for him is just a remarkable if mysterious machine, Crusoe-Matic 9000, that efficiently converts berries into fish. It would be foolish for Friday to try to break CM-9000 and grab the few fishes inside without depositing the requisite amount of berries. He won’t find any more in there the next day, and the machine may up and zap him with an electric bolt while he sleeps. The fact that Friday must respect the CM-9000’s manual of operation is just a fact of nature. Call this fact “natural law” and the fishes that appear in the machine every day for use by Friday, Crusoe’s “property.”

As society grows “to a tribe or nation,” it becomes large and theft of all kinds may becomes profitable. The harm to society as a whole from an individual act of injustice is negligible, yet it benefits the thief considerably. Thus, we need the institutions of justice in LS to threaten punishment to lawbreakers in whose place in SS mere self-interest sufficed.

I think this works much better than the labor theory of property [1], [2].

Mea Culpa on Metaethics

I previously figured that the metaethics proper regarding the human nature trinity (intellect, will, power) was cognitivist, desire-driven, and externalist. And I defended that view with some eloquence.

Moreover, I correctly identified the external reasons for being just: charity, progression in virtue and narrow happiness, and fear of punishment.

But that implies that a proposition like “stealing is wrong” does not have any necessary or conceptual connection with the motivation not to steal. And indeed the connection is not 100% obvious, but I now think it most certainly exists.

Moreover, the other property must also be flipped: I reject the Humean theory of motivation in regard to metaethics.

Now “theft is wrong” is an abstraction. To understand and prove this statement, we reduce it to concrete self-interest. We have to, because it is the essence of human beings that they aim at ends.

There is an analogy here to other abstractions, such as high-level programming languages. The C++ language completely abstracts from hardware events such as electric currents flowing through the processor. It is impossible, as in beyond human powers, to write a non-trivial piece of software in machine code. Human-readable languages are different from 0s and 1s not just in degree but in kind, as enabling such a profession as “computer programming” and discipline of computer science. Of course, a program will be translated into machine code via a compiler which is just another program. But while the very first (and primitive) compiler had to be written in machine code (or assembly language), each next more sophisticated generation of C++ version N could be written mostly in C++ version (N – 1) and other high-level languages. A modern C++ compiler is precisely an instance of non-trivial software that is far too complex to try to write in machine code. This is an example of how abstractions are genuine game-changers.

We can rewrite (1) “theft is wrong” as (2) “it is one’s duty not to steal.” But it is the meaning of “duty” that it “must” be done irrespective of desires. It restricts the ends one can legitimately aim at. One cannot, if he has a duty, pursue goals that conflict with the duty, and in fact it makes no sense to talk of “duties” if that is not accepted. So, understanding the concept of duty and accepting that one has a duty not to steal immediately by virtue of the meaning of term “duty” compels one to abstain from stealing.

In other words, proposition (1) does not express a desire, like “vanilla ice-cream is good”; nor somehow creates or elicits a desire, but instead motivates by destroying certain desires, by making them illegitimate. The duty cuts off desires, such as a desire to profit by a wrongful act, at the root. If one finds in himself a desire to steal yet recognizes that stealing is wrong, then he is by that very fact led to suppress the desire ASAP. The truth of (1) motivates by telling each person which desires he ought not to act on; which desires defile the soul and hence are to be purged from the heart. The intellect must cleanse the will of evil through ruthless self-discipline, penance, prayer, and whatever other means are requisite.

We can see that the Humean motivation theory does not apply to (1). Men are motivated by the flaring up of desires, but moral duties motivate by eliminating desires.

The correct metaethics then is cognitivist, duty (and not desire)-driven, and internalist.

The theory of the the virtue trinity (self-knowledge, self-love, self-creation and self-discovery) must also now be adjusted. I thought the Humean theory of motivation did not apply to it, because it involved acting on 2nd-order desires. But those are still one’s own desires. Further, the virtue trinity is externalist for two reasons.

Regarding character, because one has to specialize even in regard to which virtues to cultivate. Becoming virtuous is an imperfect duty; unlike not stealing which is perfect. It may be true in some sense that good character traits form a unity: a cowardly man is not prudent; nor a foolhardy man, courageous. But the choice still needs to be made at least at each moment, and the final product of this self-making will probably not feature a perfectly well-rounded, harmonious, and maximally developed character.

Regarding self, even if one correctly judges that temperance is a virtue (so we are still cognitivist), one need not automatically choose to satisfy the 2nd-order desire of becoming temperate as opposed to a 1st-order desire to indulge in wild sex orgies. Each person is free to adjudicate these conflicting ends according to his own counsel.

In nature, the moral law is outside, commanding one to obey regardless of his own wishes, and even to eradicate those wishes; in virtue, the vision of one’s best self is inside, presenting a choice of whether, when, and how to achieve it. The choice between 2nd-order desires of what sort of person one wants to become and 1st-order desires is more momentous than the choice between 1st-order desires in the non-cognitivist, desire-driven, and internalist narrow happiness trinity, but it’s entirely one own nonetheless.

There Are No Duties to Self

There are no duties to self; there are rather 2nd-order desires whose satisfaction partly builds and partly reveals one’s personality.

Interpersonal duties are perfect: one must never steal; acting on 2nd-order desires is an imperfect imperative in Kantian terms; one is at times permitted not to seek self-perfection.

No particular personal virtue must be pursued, even imperfectly, since one needs to specialize even regarding character, in the way that one must not commit any crime.

Duties by their nature must be done regardless of desires; 2nd-order desires compete for satisfaction with 1st-order desires. In other words, duties motivate by demanding that wicked desires be suppressed; it’s always an individual choice whether to seek the satisfaction of incompatible 2nd- or 1st-order desires.

Feelings Cause Works; but Also Vice Versa

It would seem that if Smith hates Jones, then Smith has a reason to try to harm Jones. And if Smith on the contrary loves Jones, then he has a reason to work zealously for Jones’ sake, since the beloved is “another self,” and their wills unite and their hearts indwell in each other through charity. Finally, is Smith is indifferent toward Jones, then he should be willing to use Jones for his own advantage and profit from his existence and actions within society as part of social cooperation, free market, etc.

But in each case, Smith would seem to receive his reward in full. Even in the second case of love, Smith freely rejoices in Jones’ happiness. Whence then morality?

The answer is that the causal relation between feelings toward others and deeds toward them goes both ways.

Thus, Smith’s hatred for Jones can cause Smith to injure Jones. But injuring Jones likewise deepens Smith’s hatred. If Smith on the contrary “forced himself” to do good to Jones, then his hatred for Jones would likely diminish. Enough of such seemingly “unmotivated” good deeds, and Smith might rid himself of hatred for fellow men completely.

Similarly, it’s not just that charity toward neighbor causes good deeds; but good deeds tend to increase one’s charity, though not necessarily in an obvious fashion.

In this sense, natural morality involves the intellect purifying the will of violent hatred. It suppresses, often through prodigious effort and painful self-abnegation and penance, existing vicious desires, substituting at first “indifference,” non-aggression, abstinence from vengeance, and willingness to cooperate within society for mutual benefit. Therefore, morality motivates not through a desire but through a purely intellectual grasp of one’s duty which commands that certain desires be purged from the soul.

Christian morality goes further and enjoins not just peaceful self-interested cooperation but active love for fellow men. It therefore demands that one grow in charity throughout his whole life. Again, a Christian may not feel any particular charity at first, but through holy works, this charity is sure to increase; that’s how the world and human beings work. The motivation is an understanding of one’s grace-enhanced moral duty, not any desire. If the motivation for a good deed is 100% existing charity, then moral progress might not occur. St. Thomas even divides people into beginning, proficient, and perfect in virtue:

For at first it is incumbent on man to occupy himself chiefly with avoiding sin and resisting his concupiscences, which move him in opposition to charity: this concerns beginners, in whom charity has to be fed or fostered lest it be destroyed;

in the second place man’s chief pursuit is to aim at progress in good, and this is the pursuit of the proficient, whose chief aim is to strengthen their charity by adding to it;

while man’s third pursuit is to aim chiefly at union with and enjoyment of God: this belongs to the perfect who “desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.” (ST, II-II, 24, 9)

For some reason, this elementary dynamics, long well-understood in the Christian world, seems to escape modern moral philosophers. For example, Lester uses the strange and objectionable term “altruism” and, though defining it reasonably as “an interest in other people… as ends in themselves,” fails to connect it to love of friendship.