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.

Categories: Metaethics


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