Logic


On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz


8. The Logic of Moral Discourse (II)


1. First- and Second-Order Reasons

This is a fairly long chapter with three different subjects

- first some precisifications of moral terminology
- then a fairly extended discussion of three moral examples
- finished by a discussion of some fundamental theoretical points.

I shall deal with most points, but will have most to say about the fundamental points, although I will also, though somewhat more briefly than Mr. Edwards does, introduce two examples of my own, namely relating to suicide-bombing and to torture.

Mr. Edwards starts this section thus:

"The distinction of what I shall call "first-order reasons" and what I shall call "second-order reasons" will be of some importance in subsequent discussions in this chapter." (p. 161)

As you may have noticed, Mr. Edwards has a somewhat fussy approach towards the stating of distinctions that I am not always happy with, so here I will telescope his considerations by simply noting that he means by "first-order reasons" those reasons people give for their moral judgments, and by "second-order reasons" those reasons people give for their "first-order reasons". A simple example Mr. Edwards does not give is this: A "first-order reason" for "Thou shalt not kill" is that it is bad to harm people, and a "second-order reason" for "Thou shalt not kill", which accordingly concerns the question why it would be bad to harm people, is that the Lord, in his Infinite Wisdom, has told us so in his Holy Writ.

It is obvious that this kind of distinction can often been made when reasoning about morals, and about the reasons people give about their moral conclusions, but we will find out below that Mr. Edwards and I disagree about what fundamental moral judgments really are.

Speaking of moral disputes, here are two moral examples that refer (i.a.) to the events in Iraq in 2004, where a a war is going on in which the American government and their allies have occupied Iraq for ostensibly humanistic reasons, and to prevent the use of "weapons of mass destruction" and to fight terrorism and remove a cruel dictatorship, while in fact (1) there have been found no "weapons of mass destruction" even after a year of occupation, and while (2) the occupation seems to be maintained, in part, by means of terrorism and torture in - so-called - Allied prisons by Allied soldiers, and specifically by U.S. soldiers. 

Here are twice four statements that concerns a moral spectrum, so to speak, of some moral judgments:

Torturing is good. Suicide-bombing is good.
Torturing of enemies is good. Suicide-bombing of enemies is good.
Torturing of enemies is good in certain conditions. Suicide-bombing of enemies is good in certain conditions.
Torturing is not good. Suicide-bombing is not good.

The points I want to make - or problems I want to raise - speaking of moral judgments, are three:

First, how relative such judgments are in a socially relative way (see the link I provided to Chapter I - and see also Chapter VII): It seems as if for many people in such judgments "good" depends mostly or completely on who does what is otherwise the same - torturing or suicide-bombing - to whom. Is it Our Boys and Girls who do it to Them (good), or is it Their Boys and Girls who do it to Us (bad). (Compare Orwell.)

Second, how well this supports that both opposing parties in such moral judgments make very similar assumptions about human nature - and are quite similar in condoning or approving in Our Boys what is condemned and hated in Their Boys. (Compare Kohlberg's Theory of Morals.)

Third: These are currently actual examples of moral judgments, and the fact that these are socially relative for many and indeed very probably most is an interesting feature of moral judgments, and is also relevant for the logic of moral discourse, with which we are concerned. 

2. Model Disputes

Next, Mr. Edwards surrects "several artificial cases" to make some points about moral disputes. As may be expected by now, the disputants may agree and disagree in various ways and strengths concerning moral judgments, concerning their reasons fot their moral judgments, and also concerning either the facts they judge or use to base their judgments on, and concerning the moral desires they hold to appraise the facts by.

I will not summarize or comment this, except for the following point that Mr. Edwards does not discuss as I would. In the course of his discussion he asks

"Can this dispute be settled in some other than sense (2)? Here the answer is clearly "No". No appeal to any facts are of any avail." (p. 164)

Apparently Mr. Edwards supposes - at least in the case of the "artificial case" he surrected, which I shall not bother the reader with - that then the matter is ended. I disagree, for it seems to me that in such a case where there are not "any facts (..) of any avail" it is at least possible in theory to shift the disagreement to the moral standards, desires, values or ends by means of which either party in the dispute appraises the facts (or, Mr. Edwards's terms: to the reasons for their reasons i.e. their second-order reasons) and this is - whether rationally or not - in fact how such disputes often proceed.

3. "Should Communists be Allowed to Teach in Universities?"

The quoted section-heading is the start of a fairly protracted discussion of just that topic:

"As my first actual case I have chosen the discussion as to whether members of the Communist Party ought to be allowed to teach in universities. Sidney Hook has lucidly stated the case that as a general policy they ought not be allowed to teach, while Irving Howe has ably presented the case that they ought to be allowed to teach." (p. 165)

As the reader has undoubtedly gathered, this concerns American universities, and Mr. Edwards - who gives a lot of moral examples relating to Communism, by the way - wrote this in a time (the early 1950ies) where there was much concern with the topic in the U.S., McCarthyism was starting, as was the Cold War between the US and the SU, and also while there were trials going on against supposed or real Communist spies (Hiss and the Rosenbergs).

The problem for me and for the reader is that I write this review in 2004, and the vast majority of my readers will have hardly any knowledge of the relevant facts, even though they were widely discussed at the time Mr. Edwards wrote his book. So I merely shall lift some points and remarks from this discussion, without attempting to render it fully and fairly, and also add a few remarks of my own.

The first remark of my own I should make is the somewhat interesting observation that Mr. Sidney Hook wrote the introduction to Mr. Edwards book, and may have been trying to do some face-saving in the early fifties, since he was quite sympathetic to Marxism in the thirties. Likewise, Mr. Irving Howe was something of a Trotskyite in the late forties and early fifties, but has since emerged as one of the prominent American Conservatives, who completely - or almost completely - changed his moral thinking on many issues.

Then there is the following somewhat interesting point in the course of the discussion Mr. Edwards provides:

"Catholics, when living in a country in which they are in a minority

...have Papal justification to live under and even enforce certain laws which run counter to Catholic dogma. For example, Catholic judges on the bench in New York grant divorces even to Catholics and recognize that they have a duty both to the standards of their professions and to the laws of the state, insofar as it is not a Catholic law or a Catholic state under which they live." (p. 166, quoting Mr. Hook)

My main reason to lift this point from Mr. Edwards' discussion is that I think it is interesting for several reasons such as the following: (1) This is the teaching of the Catholic Church, and indeed is justified by its supreme leader, whom the Catholic faithful are supposed to believe is infallible (since 1871). (2) Nevertheless, the teaching seems a very good example of either hypocrisy or double dealing or very shifty standards. (3) Moreover, the Catholics in previous ages or other countries (e.g. where they had more power) have persecuted and killed many persons for disobeying or merely disbelieving "certain laws which run counter to Catholic dogma".

Mr. Edwards has quite a lot more concerning the dispute between Hook and Howe which I skip for the reason I stated, namely that the relevant facts are too old for most to know or remember. Here is his reason to give the discussion:

"I have presented this dispute at some length since it seems to me a mine of information to the student of the logic of moral discourse." (p. 170)

This is probably so, but the same might be said about many other real cases. There is then one moral about reasoning about morals, though: It helps much if one discusses and quotes real cases of real disputes between real people, rather than imaginary cases.

Then Mr. Edwards makes the following point, which indeed is to some extent illustrated by his discussion that I have not given:

"There is a very considerable range of situations for which the disputants have not "provided." By this I mean that their commitments are not sufficiently definite for us to be able to say, in quite a number of possible situations, in whose favor the dispute has been settled." (p. 171)

And this seems usually the case in serious moral debates. Part of the reason is that, while these tend to be discussed in terms of purported general or universal moral principles, nevertheless the case tends to be particular and individual, and to need, usually and for both parties in a moral dispute, some ad hoc assumptions of various kinds to meet it properly in its own individual terms.

It should be noted that this is very similar to what happens in the law in courts, but is rather unlike to what happens in scientific disputes. The main reason for the difference is that in moral disputes the feelings, values, desires, ends, interest, health and happiness of persons are directly concerned and relevant, while this usually not so in scientific disputes (or if it is so, not in the same way as in moral disputes).

Mr. Edwards also makes the following point:

"Hook might elaborate the position we are assuming him to adopt by saying: "The conquest of the world by Stalinism is certain to result in destruction, for many centuries, of all the most precious things in life including those without which any genuine happiness for the human race is impossible; living without the fear of arbitrary arrests and being spied on, free science and philosophy and art, etc. etc." (p. 171)

Apart from the terminology: As I argued before, I agree that basic moral reasons tend to concern "the most precious things in life" and tend to be motivated by a - purported - search for "genuine happiness of the human race". However, I do not think Mr. Edwards' theory can do full justice to this - as I have also remarked before, and as we shall see later on in the present chapter.

And Mr. Edwards concludes his section in the spirit of his previously cited remark about "very considerable range of situations for which the disputants have not "provided"":

"It is very interesting to observe that Howe does not content himself with challenging some of Hook's factual assertions but adds factual considerations which he claims to be relevant and which Hook did not take into account in the magazine articles which constituted his original statement. Similarly, Hook in his rebuttals (..) introduces still further facts which he had not introduced in his original statements." (p. 172)

Hence, it may be said and indeed Mr. Edwards clearly suggests: In this case, both disputants behaved rationally, and showed how a moral dispute should be conducted: In a spirit of giving empirical evidence and rational argument, and by appeal to presumed facts.

4. "Should Mercy-Killing be Legalized?"

This is Mr. Edwards' second example of an actual moral dispute. He introduces it thus:

"My next example concerns the topic of euthanasia, or mercy-killing. "Euthanasia" means "the termination of human life by painless means for the purpose of ending severe suffering." The Euthanasia Society of America has for many years been trying to get a law passed which will make euthanasia legal in certain types of cases. Section 30 of the proposed bill reads:

Any person of sound mind over 21 years of age who is suffering from severe physical pain caused by a disease for which no remedy affording lasting relief or recovery is at the time known to medical science may have euthanasia administered.

This bill has been violently opposed by dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church and also by some other people whose religious affiliation is unknown to me." (p. 172)

This seems to me an interesting example, which happens to be still relevant and is still discussed. But again I will only quote some points and not attempt to fully summarize Mr. Edwards' discussion, which quotes both "the literature of the Euthanasia Society of America" and the words of "the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Robert E. McCormick" who wrote for "The Catholic Information Society".

Here is one argument:

"Euthanasia (..) is not contrary to the principles of Christianity. A group of non-Catholic ministers of New York has stated:

In our opinion, voluntary euthanasia should not be regarded as contrary to the teachings of Christ or to the principles of Christianity.
"I cannot believe," said a Catholic physician who is a member of the Euthanasia Society, "that the Prince of Peace who said "blessed are the merciful," would condone unnecessary suffering." " (p. 173)

I leave this to your consideration, but it is well to note that people here argue by reference to "the teachings of Christ", to "the principles of Christianity" and in terms of what "the Prince of Peace" (who also happens to be "the Son of God", according to true believers) is supposed to have said - and moreover, that the persons putting forward these arguments believed themselves to state relevant matters of fact. (Namely: The Lord exists, is Christian and indeed Catholic, and His Wishes are known from The Bible, and mercy was high on His list of ethical priorities.)

This is interesting in itself with regards to moral disputes, namely that opponents tend to believe in facts their opponents do not at all believe are facts, and also invites a problem I will consider after considering the next argument:

"A man may be punished for cruelty if he does not put a horse or dog out of its misery but is liable to be prosecuted for murder if he helps a patient to an overdose of morphine. This is an intolerable situation in which the suffering of human beings is regarded more lightly than the suffering of animals." (p. 173)

On the face of it, this is a good argument - but it will be obvious to most readers how a Catholic will meet it, namely with a reference to his assumption that all men have immortal souls. This is the problem I mentioned that I want to raise:

What rational weight should be given to supposedly factual beliefs of religious people who appeal to all manners of supposed facts, from the existence of the Lord, the moral purity and intellectual sufficiency of the Holy Writ, the many miracles wrought by the Lord and His Servants, the sincerity and wisdom of the priestly defenders of the faith, and many other equally factual assumptions and claims which for non-believers in the faith simply either are not facts at all, but illusions, delusions or superstitions, however sincerely believed and nobly practised, or else are at least very doubtful?

My own answer - that could be given in far more detail - comes down to this:

Such supposedly factual beliefs of religious people that belong to their religious faith have hardly any or no rational weight at all (or indeed a negative weight) in moral discussions between the holders of one faith and the holders of another, including those who reject any religion, to which I myself happen to belong, like Mr. Edwards.

To be precise: These supposed matters of faith may - and possibly should - play an important personal part and inspiration for those having the faith, but cannot be rational grounds to convince anyone who does not share the faith - and neither is it necessary:

If people are to live in peace and settle there conflicts by arguments, or perhaps by mediators and the law, they must be able to settle their differences without intersubjective appeal to highly disputable religious matters of faith, but should do so on the basis of their shared humanity and such principles of logical reasoning and matters of scientific theory almost every qualified intelligent person, regardless of religious faith, accepts.

My main reason is that in fact these religious assumptions are at best rather wild metaphysical postulates nobody but the faithful of that faith has seen much or any rational reason to believe in and, moreover and far more importantly:

People should try to settle their moral differences by reference to such facts as they can agree on they know, and by reference to the shared human nature that all human beings have in common, and that enables all human beings in principle to understand many of each others' needs, feelings, interests, values, concerns and ends, at least, also when one does not agree with what one does understand.

From the moment someone starts to insist that his God insists or forbids something, he appeals to what must be a superstition for the majority of human beings, since no divinity is believed in by all or a majority, and any divinity involves a clear assumption, and usually an irrational leap of faith to, at least, far more than is necessary to adequately explain the known natural facts.

People should be mostly free to chose the assumptions by which they wish to guide their lifes and choices, but should not be free to impose their own religious beliefs or practices on non-believers.

Furthermore, moral conflicts, if possible, should be resolved by reference to real facts and real feelings of real people. Your metaphysical beliefs very probably inspire you to have ideals and values, but if you want to convince another that your metaphysical beliefs and values make sense then this requires meeting the other on the common ground of agreements about facts and feelings apart from metaphysical postulates, and showing that you also can make sense in terms you both agree to.

Then there is this quotation of the Catholic side of the argument Mr. Edwards charts:

"Catholic teaching holds that sufferings have their place in God's plan, for the salvation of the individual soul. (..) Christ Himself said, 'He that taketh not up his cross and followeth Me is not worthy of Me' (Matt. X, 38). St. Paul says, 'Whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth' (Heb. XII, 6)." (p. 174)

I merely quote this for the consideration of the reader, and in support of my own previous remarks on the relevance of appeals to the Lord in moral discussions: I certainly do not believe it is morally justified that my atheist father with uncurable bone-cancer and great continuous pain, should so much as listen to, let alone abide by the sort of religious superstitions he had rejected his whole adult life as irrational, insane and/or immoral. (Note 1)

And there is this  quotation of the Catholic side of the argument:

"The reason that suicide and murder are condemned by God in the Old Law and Christ in the New is that destruction is the act of dominion, and a man does not have dominion either over his own life or that of any other person. Who made man in His own image, has that dominion." (p. 175)

Once again, I merely quote this for the consideration of the reader, and in support of my own previous remarks. Also, it should be pointed out here that what the Catholics claim here, namely that "a man does not have dominion either over his own life or that of any other person" is simply and evidently contrary to fact, even if it is not contrary to the supposed teachings of "He Who made man in His own image". Furthermore, it should be pointed out that while The Lord and His ways are hidden in deep mysteries if they exist at all, obviously Catholic argumentation serves "the dominion" and interests of the Catholic priesthood really well (and by and large these seem to have been not the most saintly of men, apart from a few exceptions, as emerged recently when the many scores of American Catholic pedophile priests became known to the public).

On the side of the Euthanasia Society, there is this argument:

"Murder is the "illegal killing of another person with malice aforethought." But euthanasia is administered in mercy, not malice; and it will not be illegal when the proposed law is enacted. Therefore it is not murder." (p. 176)

This seems a reasonable argument, but it should be mentioned here that one argument of anti-euthanasia speakers has been that Hitler called his murdering of the insane and unfit (by Hitler's standards) "euthanasia" as well. Of course, the answer to this is that this was an intentional abuse of the term.

And here are arguments of both sides, with the Catholic side first, followed by the answer of the Euthanasian Society:

"It has also been said that

Suffering is part of the Divine Plan for the good of man's soul, and must not be interfered with.

In that case

... we should not countenance the use of anaesthetics or any relief of suffering by the medical profession. "Blessed are the merciful - All things whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do you even to them." (p. 176)"

Again, I leave the judgment of the arguments to the reader, except that I want to reiterate that I do not admit to the validity of appealing to "the Divine Plan" to disbelievers in such a plan for reasons given above, and besides that it seems to me that the supposed "Divine Plan" - as manifested by the history of the world - appears to involve very much cruelty and torture, e.g. by the Catholic Inquisition, that I find utterly immoral and inhumane. And this seems to me an excellent argument that the Catholics cannot be as morally right or as morally good as they like to believe and say they are, and that there must be something mistaken in Catholic theology.

Then there is this argument on the Catholic side:

"To God alone belong the full and direct power over life of a man (Wisdom, XVI, 13), but He can, and does, delegate it to the civil authority which has the right to impose capital punishment for heinous crimes." (p. 177)

This too I leave to the reader's consideration and moral sensitivities, apart from a remark of my own: As history shows, the Catholic teaching and practice with regards to torture, persecution, and killing of, especially, religious opponents is varied, and in fact the Catholics have tortured, persecuted and murdered many of their opponents (and indeed also some who claimed to be good and sincere Catholics) in quite a few periods and places, when they got the chance and the power.

Furthermore, the Catholic Saint Thomas Aquinas argued in the Summa Theologica in favor of the burning of heretics. It is true that he also believed that it were good (the Divine will) that "the civil authority" did whatever public burnings the Church proposed.

Mr. Edwards ends his consideration of this case with two points he made about the earlier case as well:

"As in the previous case the commitments of the disputants are not sufficiently definite to cover all possible situations.
(..)
It appears here, even more clearly than in the previous example, that there is no closed set of facts which can be described as "the facts of the situation." " (p. 177-8)

This is true and a fundamental point, but a logical remark that should be made here is that this involves a problem for Mr. Edwards' position, since he argued in Chapter VI that there is a new and morally and logical relevant sense of "follows from" that involves "the situation itself"". (I do believe this can be answered along Mr. Edwards' lines, but he doesn't do so.)

5. "The seating at Camp T."

This concerns a much less serious example than the previous two. I shall not discuss it, but merely note that this is a case in which the disputants are supposed to agree (i) on "the facts of the situation" (ii) on the relevant features of the situation and (iii) on the "general" features that apply to the situation. What they disagree about is only the relative importance of the features.

This no doubt occurs often among friends, family and like-minded people, and can be seen as an instance of the difficulties of arriving at the same sum when trying to judge the importance of something with several features.

6. Summary and Conclusions

We arrived at the section called "Summary and Conclusions", though there are two more rather theoretical and important sections to follow. But let us first consider the conclusions Mr. Edwards offers in this section, and some other of his further conclusions.

"1. Many, though not all, moral disputes are within certain limits capable of settlement in sense (3) and not only in sense (2). They are capable of settlement, that is to say, by an appeal to facts, whether these facts move the disputants or not. In this respect, they resemble scientific disputes.
2. The commitments of the disputants are frequently rather indefinite. There is often quite a large range of possible situations concerning which it is impossible to say in whose favor the dispute has been settled.
3. In moral disputes we are rarely faced with a closed set of facts. The facts of the situation tend to be "open" in the sense that "they cannot be uniquely described and finally circumscribed. Situations do not present themselves with their labels attached to them." " (p. 180, quoting S. Hampshire.)

I think these conclusions are - with minor qualifications that don't matter - true and important (for those who want to understand the nature of moral judgment), and in any case they were part of what Mr. Edwards wanted to establish and wrote his book for.

One possible response at this point is "Big deal! I knew this all the time." I think this would be a mistake, for even if you did, you did not know it with the precision and reasons you know now, and you now should know at least some arguments why at least some moral disputes could in theory be settled on the basis of rational argument and empirical evidence or investigation.

Moreover, many disagree about the conclusions Mr. Edwards reached, and indeed Mr. Edwards quotes the following case:

"If this account is correct, then Stevenson's theory concerning the nature of moral disputes is altogether mistaken. Thus he writes:

Any statements about any matter of fact which any speakers considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as reason for or against an ethical judgment." (p. 180)

We don't need to consider Stevenson's arguments here, but can give a response of Mr. Edwards, where he refers to earlier arguments of his I provide links to:

"Properly to describe "ordinary moral thinking," "to enable us to make distinctions we all want to make," we do not need to invoke some non-natural realm; nor do we need to restate some form of private subjectivism (..) All we need to do is recognize a further sense or set of senses of "settle" and "relevant"." (p. 181)

Next, Mr. Edwards answers another question he raised earlier:

"We are now in a position to deal with the questions which we raised at the end of Chapter VII: are ought-judgments polyguous in the same sense as good-judgments? To the first question the answer is plain now: ought-judgments are just as polyguous as good-judgments in the sense that their descriptive meaning varies a great deal from topic to topic." (p. 181)

Furthermore:

"They are also polyguous in the sense that when talking about the same subject different people do not always imply the same features when using the word "ought."" (p. 182)

Here we have an apparent problem:

"It would seem to follow from this that when the disputants do not refer to the same features by "good" and do not imply the same features by "ought," moral disputes are a species of pseudo-disputes, i.e., that they are merely verbal disputes. This, it would be rightly added, is an incredible consequence."

Even so, many have defended it, and indeed we have considered some of these in earlier chapters, e.g. Chapter III. Here Mr. Edwards first says:

"In reply, I should like to point out that there are many "verbal disagreements" which are not merely verbal differences. The verbal disagreement is there, but as a symptom of a different kind of disagreement. The use of "healthy" by different schools of psychiatry could be cited in this connection." (p. 182)

This is a good example, and the rest of the argument we have had before. Now Mr. Edwards ends this section as follows:

"Very much the same applies to moral disputes. I do not refer to the same features by "good" as a Catholic. Among other things, this is due to factual disagreements concerning the existence of God, the trustworthiness of the Bible, the effects of suffering, etc. Even in those cases as in Example III above, where there seemingly was no factual disagreement at all, the disagreement was nevertheless not merely verbal." (p. 182)

But here start my fundamental difficulties, that will continue in the next two sections. Since I have mentioned these difficulties before, I will merely summarize them here:

Even so - taking as example the differences between sincere and honest Catholics and sincere and honest atheists, who disagree much about the causes and working of the real world and about the final foundation of moral judgments - there seems to be a common basis to different moral systems of human beings, and all ordinary moral systems center around one fundamental question: How can human beings live peaceably in society and become happy? Or to avoid the term happiness: How to prevent unnecessary human pain, misery, suffering, poverty, ill health etc. and further human lifes without much pain and with some satisfaction, health, well-being and good education?

Note the important underlying fact that humans form societies for mutual benefit: By social cooperation they can gratify more of their desires than when not living socially. Also, it should be added that there almost certainly is a social instinct involved, i.e. humans have little choice about being social animals and indeed cannot even grow into real - talking, cooperating, sympathizing - human beings when not raised by a human group.

7. Fundamental Moral Judgments

We have arrived here and indeed at the end of the previous section at the topic of fundamental moral judgments. Mr. Edwards says:

"I have so far ommitted any discussion of one peculiar kind of moral judgment which must be exempted from the objectivism advocated in this work. I am referring to what are sometimes called "fundamental" or "basic" moral judgments. When a man is unable or unwilling to support a moral judgment with anything that would be considered a reason, we shall say that he has made a fundamental moral judgment. When and in so far as he can support a moral judgment with a reason, we shall refer to it as non-fundamental. Whether the statement offered as a reason is true or false is immaterial - the moral judgment will be non-fundamental so lang as it can be supported with such a statement, so long as "it does not stand on its own feet". In making this distinction I do not wish to rule out the possibility that some moral judgment may at the same time be both fundamental and non-fundamental. In such a case a man would be ready to support his moral judgment with reasons while insisting at the same time that he would hold to it even if he could not support it with any reasons." (p. 183)

It should be remarked here that Mr. Edwards reasoning is much like the reasoning used in mathematics: In mathematics you can prove a statement by deducing it from statements you have proved already, but obviously to prove anything at all you must have made some assumption, supposed some axiom, introduced some premise to start with. And indeed such axioms or first assumptions in mathematics cannot be deduced from other axioms (in that system), and in that sense are "fundamental" or "basic" in the way Mr. Edwards applies also to moral judgments.

I have at least four problems with this.

The first is that it seems to me - as mentioned before - that all human moral disputes are based on a factual assumption of the participants that the members of the other party feel, believe, desire, need and indeed are built much in the same way as the members of one's own party and oneself do, even if one much hates or despises some or all members of the opposing party, and completely disagrees with their ideals, ends or desires about something.

The second is that it seems to me - as also mentioned before - that at least in the vast majority of human moral disputes both sides assume and argue on the basis of a theory of human nature that is supposedly the same in every human being, though it is likely that different parties in a dispute, like Catholics and atheists, differ considerably on what this supposed common and shared human nature really is.

The third is that, as I have mentioned before, it seems to me that the characteristic mark that makes a judgment moral is that it refers both to some facts, and refers to some desires, ends, needs, interests, feelings or values of persons, and normally also, at least implicitly, refers to some metaphysical, religious or political theory about the nature of man, society and reality, within which the moral judgments function and are motivated and defended.

The fourth problem emerges from Mr. Edwards' words:

"Now, I wish to maintain that these fundamental moral judgments have "emotive meaning" only. They express a stand or an attitude on the part of their author. Usually they are also prescriptive - especially when the moral predicate is "right" or "wrong" or "ought" rather than "good" or "bad." On my view, however, fundamental moral judgments lack descriptive meaning. While naive subjectivism does not supply a fully adequate analysis even of fundamental moral judgments, in their case the subjective statements offered as translations would come a great deal closer to preserving the force of the original sentence." 

We will soon come to more in this strain, so I will here make only two related points.

A. Although Mr. Edwards insisted - implicitly - on the analogy between the axioms of mathematics and the "fundamental moral judgments" that function as axioms in moral reasoning, in fact the analogy here breaks down, because (normally, i.e. apart from not widely believed non-standard philosophies of mathematics) the axioms of mathematics are supposed to be true in the very same sense as the theorems that can be deduced from them.
B. By contrast, whereas Mr. Edwards insisted much on the objectiveness of moral judgments if they are non-fundamental, here he insists that the fundamental moral judgments are not objective i.e. do not refer to facts in any way, and only refer to the feelings of the human beings who hold (or reject) them.

Especially the second point is quite incredible, first because it seems fairly clear that there is a lot to be said for my characterization of judgments as moral if they refer to the natural facts and to human desires and ends and to human ideas about the natural facts, human desires and ends, and human nature, and second because in obvious real cases Mr. Edwards' present point is not compatible with the facts about moral disputes.

For clearly, to take two examples, the Catholics defend part of their morals and all of their faith by their factual assumption that their Lord created the world; His Son suffered for humanity on the cross etc. and likewise the Marxists defend part of their morals and much of their faith by their factual assumption that the history of mankind is the history of class-struggle, and everyone must take sides in it, whether or not he wants to. And so both the Catholics and the Marxists would insist that their "fundamental moral judgments" have some "descriptive meaning" - and as Mr. Edwards insisted correctly, it doesn't matter here that both may very well be mistaken in their metaphysics and factual assumptions.

Now Mr. Edwards was to some extent aware of objections such as I just made. Indeed, he says when imagining someone making a case against him as saying to him:

"You are so prejudiced against the introduction of a non-natural quality that, when you come to fundamental moral judgments, you resort to the dodge of "merely emotive meaning".
I am sure every opponent of intuitionism who has given prolonged attention to the whole subject has sooner or later felt the apparent force of this objection." (p. 183-4)

Perhaps, but the objection, also since it is both logically and factually based is not merely "apparent" but quite real, and indeed I might say to Mr. Edwards at this point: "You are so prejudiced against the introduction of a non-natural quality that, when you come to fundamental moral judgments, you seem to regard the factual assumption of a shared common human nature as a kind of intuitionism."

However, Mr. Edwards does offer a line of argument, in the course of which he considers Voltaire:

"Let us suppose such a "utilitarian" defender of the conviction of innocent men had asked Voltaire the question "Why is it wrong to sentence an innocent man?" Very probably he would have answered partially in utilitarian terms. (..) From all we know about him, however, Voltaire would also have given an answer of a different kind, somewhat along the following lines: "But regardless of the total happiness or unhappiness produced by such a conviction, it just is wrong. It is simply wrong to convict an innocent men. If everybody else became a hundred times happier as the result of the sentence, it would still be wrong. If the intention of the judges were solely to promote the social welfare and not at all to advance their personal fortunes by hook or crook, the sentence would still be wrong. If, finally, the accused man himself were mentally deranged and derived positive pleasure both from the accusation and from the sentence, his conviction would even then be wrong." "(p. 187)

I suppose this indicates Voltaire's position more correctly than not, and it also is a reasonable example of how a supposedly fundamental moral judgment, like "It is simply wrong to convict an innocent men" might be used.

Even so, at this point it is well to remark that an ordinary and correct alternative way of proceeding is to have a closer look at the available evidence rather than keep repeating that something is wrong, really wrong, truly and definitely very wrong and so on. A good example concerns national socialism, which is a political creed that was enthusiastically embraced by tens of millions of men and women in the 1930ies, which made the Second World War possible, in which more than 50 million persons were killed. (Note 2)

Now one way to argue about national socialism is to keep repeating it was wrong, very wrong, criminally wrong etcetera. Another way is to take a quiet, long and daring look at the pictures that were made in the German national-socialist camps Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, which give good evidence of what national socialism meant in practice, in actual fact, for real people, and read a little in books provided by ex-prisoners of those camps. 

Of course, at this point, and after having carefully considered the photographic and written evidence about what really went on in those camps, it still remains logically possible to say something like "None of this is wrong or bad or mad in any sense, and in fact much of it is good and desirable and quite sane" - except that (1) I guess few human beings who have considered the mentioned existing evidence would agree, especially if something like this were or would have been done to their friends or family or themselves and (2) one achieves at least some clarity about the mind and reasoning of whomever fondly approves of the goings on in Dachau and Auschwitz etc., namely that the psychiatric chance that he is mad or a sadist are considerable.

Finally, it is part of the point I am presently trying to make - which, to understand well, you do need to have some idea of the pictures made in Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz: instructive about the capacities of human beings, but not disposing to optimism - that it seems every human being does make quite a few mostly tacit assumptions about the human nature he shares with all other humans, regardless of individual and superficial differences, and that it seems at least rather obvious that nobody would like to have done to himself or his friends what the national socialists did to many of their imprisoned enemies. And indeed, the assumption of a shared human nature is also made by torturers: You cannot be much of a succesful torturer - the sort that gets praise of their bosses for the confessions they forced out of people - if you have no good ideas at all about what would denigrate, humiliate, hurt or harm another human being.

Next, Mr. Edwards gives some examples, and sums their import up as follows:

"In all these instances the objective features of the subject are somehow involved in the moral judgments, either directly or at least by implication. For this reason it would be grossly inadequate to substitute for the moral judgment an exclamation or subjective statement, unaccompanied by any description of the features of what is disapproved or abhorred." (p. 188-9)

Then he says - and "Muriel" refer to one of his examples I have not quoted, who is a young woman much given to honesty:

"In contrast to the instances considered sofar, when Muriel said "It's just that stealing is wrong" and when Voltaire exclaimed "It is just wrong to convict an innocent man," they were primarily concerned to indicate their stand or attitude. Moreover, they were concerned to indicate that their judgment did stand on its own feet, that it did not require to be followed by a sentence beginning with "because". Here it seems to me extremely plausible to say that to the extent that they were maintaining that stealing or the conviction of an innocent man were just wrong, their judgment had emotive meaning only. In saying this I do not believe I am adopting a dodge to escape the need for admitting a non-natural quality of wrongness." (p. 189)

Perhaps Mr. Edwards is right about his own motives, but it seems to me he is mistaken about fundamental moral judgments. To put it in general terms: Fundamental moral judgments also have reasons, namely that they seem to further certain ends or desires the speaker has about human beings and human societies. And an important fact here is that human societies are entered into (or fled from, if possible) for reasons, namely in general to further certain ends and desires of the human beings that enter into them (or try to flee them). Moreover, in a rather solid sense these ends tend to be (a conception of) human happiness and (a conception of) the prevention of human misery. And in addition, what makes human beings happy or miserable is something human beings agree about in quite a few ways where it concerns pain, pleasure, health, illness, food, sleep and similar human states or needs and the causes thereof.  And in fact, this fact is of fundamental importance for human morals. (See also social relativism.)

By contrast, Mr. Edwards claims this:

"In fact many people would in such situations more naturally use subjective language of some kind. Muriel, for instance, might easily have said "I just abhor stealing - that's all" and Voltaire frequently did say such things as "It just goes against my grain to see an innocent men convicted." (p. 189)

It seems to me this is mostly a delusion that Mr. Edwards seems to have because he looks on fundamental moral judgments as if they are like mathematical axioms, for which something like what is quoted may be said to hold (though more should be said about axioms of mathematics that I don't want to enter into in the present context).

The real fact seems to be that the moral judgments of every human being who has done some intelligent thinking are based on a mixture of assumptions of fact, personal feelings and appraisals, and general ends and desires usually much intertwined with some sort of metaphysical, political or religious system of ideas and dependent on some idea of what it is to be human in the sort of reality one assumes one exists in.

Furthermore, the sort of fact Mr. Edwards appeals to, that people who argue about morals easily may end up reiterating a judgment to the effect that so-and-so "just is wrong" or "just is right" does not tend to show that they have arrived at what is for them a fundamental moral judgment, but rather that they have given up hope to convince their opponent. And indeed, the judgments that "stealing is wrong" and "convicting innocent men is wrong" can both be founded on an argument to the effect a society in which many men steal as a matter of course or in which many innocent men are convicted as a matter of course is not a society a man would want to live in.

Finally, the sort of judgments that are fundamental in morals also tend to be moral in the sense I used: They combine (1) factual claims; (2) presumed human ends and desires; and (3) assumed and ideas and ideals about human beings and the reality they live in. Three typical kinds of examples are the assumption of a certain kind of God by the Christians; the assumption of a certain kind of necessary historical development by the Marxists; and the assumption of biological evolution and social market forces by the Liberals. And indeed no Christian, Marxist or Liberal - unless very stupid or very drunk - will defend his ultimate moral position on the line Mr. Edwards sketches: "It is just so and that's all there is to it". Instead, they all will appeal to supposed facts about reality and human beings, though indeed it is quite true they can't all be right about the facts or their bearings (and quite conceivable that all are mistaken in at least some respects).

Next, Mr. Edwards approaches the theme of fundamental moral judgments as follows:

"What about "happiness is intrinsically good" or "unhappiness is intrinsically bad"? What about these old war-horses which have often been regarded as the only fundamental moral judgments? The first thing to note here is that nobody in any living context ever says "happiness is good" or "unhappiness is bad." I can say nothing about these judgments unless some concrete context is specified. But when that is done, my answer is the same as before: in any concrete situation, when sentences more or less resembling "happiness is good" or "unhappiness is bad" are used, they will usually be found to be non-fundamental moral judgments with natural feelings as their descriptive meaning. On the few occasions on which they really are fundamental moral judgments, the background against which they are made is very different indeed and there it is very plausible to maintain that those judgments have no descriptive meaning." (p. 189-90)

This is definitely not so.

First, as to the evidence about what philosophers have said about happiness and may have meant by it, there is an excellent volume by W. Tatarkiewicz: "Analysis of happiness". It turns out that many philosophers have said quite a lot about happiness and have believed it to be a quite fundamental human aim, indeed like the American Fathers of the Constitution also did, inspired by such philosophers.

Second, I very much doubt that "nobody in any living context ever says "happiness is good" or "unhappiness is bad"" and my main reason is not that people don't believe this but that people would hold this is a matter of course, like saying "sugar is sweet" and "fire is hot". These also are not frequently said, though occasionally used as example, simply because they are so obvious and well-known. The same seems to hold for "happiness is good" or "happiness feels good".

Furthermore, while it seems a reasonable assumption that the great majority of men would agree that one of their main ends is to achieve a happy life for themselves, their friends and their family, at least, it is an equally reasonable assumption that most would agree that such an end is embedded in and part of quite a few related assumptions and assessments about what reality really is, what men really are, and what is practically possible in the kind of situation in which one lives.

Third, it is very implausible that "On the few occasions on which they really are fundamental moral judgments, the background against which they are made is very different indeed and there it is very plausible to maintain that those judgments have no descriptive meaning."

To support this, I can first refer to what I said above about the fundamental moral judgments of Christians, Marxists and Liberals, which seems to me far more realistic than what Mr. Edwards claims. Besides - and the theme will crop up below - it is quite implausible to the vast majority of men that their fundamental moral judgments would be in the nature of mere emotions, or would express "merely" or "nothing but" a feeling on their part. (See also Chapter III.)

Fourth, fundamental moral judgments concern (1) human well-being and happiness (as Aristotle agrees with me, for example, as do many others philosophers) and (2) involve a philosophy or general theory of reality, humanity and human society. So here too - and Mr. Edwards should be happy to agree! - there is a combination of presumed fact and asserted feeling, of supposed reality and personal appreciation of that reality. And a further relevant point is that these fundamental moral judgments, like non-fundamental moral judgments, relate to supposed human ends and supposed human means.

Fifth, there is a quite interesting fact Mr. Edwards has not mentioned (and will not mention in the rest of his book), which is closely related to the fact that all human beings only feel their own feelings, and that all their experiences are in fact private to them. It is this:

Human beings in various ways, to various extents and for various reasons identify with other human beings. What "identify" precisely means here also seems to depend, and must be metaphorical anyway in a quite fundamental sense, but it seems a fact about human nature that this capacity for a - partial, imaginary, but often personally very important - identification with other human beings is at the basis of their capacity to socialize, to play social roles, and to imagine how it would be to stand in another's place. And it can be seen (and felt) when one considers one's children, one's friends, the people one loves or likes etc.

Sixth, a logical remark that is of some importance about moral discussions: Few people have a ready list of moral axioms, and of those who do - e.g. sincere simple-minded Christians who believe that the Ten Commandments are sufficient moral instruction for humans - few would suppose it is in every or most cases obvious how to apply these to concrete cases. (See also my remarks on the difficulties of arriving at the same summary judgment.)

That is: What one considers a fundamental moral judgment may well depend on the case one discusses, and may shift with different cases, all possibly without dishonesty or logical fallacies on the part of the person argueing.

Now it is true that Mr. Edwards seems a bit uncertain at this junction, and as I remarked this and the following section, which both concern fundamental moral judgments, seem to have been written as a sort of afterthought, after the rest of the book was written (as emerges from a footnote on p. 191: "Mr. Hook's introduction to this volume was written before I revised" the present section.)

Indeed, Mr. Edwards continues thus:

"What I have been saying in this section may sound like a retraction of the objectivism which I have been advocating throughout this volume. Such an impression would only very partially be correct. Of course, if by "objectivism" one understands a metaethic which maintains that all moral judgments without exception have objective descriptive meaning, then I am not an objectivist. To this observation it should be added, however, that, if I am not mistaken, fundamental moral judgments are very rare in actual discourse." (p. 190)

I have given my criticisms of Mr. Edwards position of fundamental moral judgments above, and it seems to me they are quite strong and cogent. So here I merely add that indeed it does seem to me that his stand on fundamental moral judgments seems to me both a serious weakening of his theory and quite unnecessary in the way he makes it or for the reasons he gives.

And indeed, I can indicate part of my own theory here by saying that I insist that all moral judgments, whether fundamental or non-fundamental, that are worth discussing and can be taken intellectually serious, have both a factual reference and a reference to personal feelings, and also some reference to a philosophical - political, religious, metaphysical - theory within which such moral judgments get their full meaning.

Stated otherwise, and with some additional logical force: I maintain that all moral judgments can be given reasons for, though I agree with Mr. Edwards that not all these possible reasons will be good reasons and I also agree with him that not all these possible reasons will be deductive reasons. In fact, and that is why I spoke of "logical force", this is precisely the same as with non-moral judgments: A human judgment can be given reasons for (validly or not, convincingly or not, deductively valid or not), and moral judgments are human judgments.

Mr. Edwards adds:

"It should also be noted in this connection that, as I am using the term, non-fundamental moral judgments include not only all those moral judgments that are usually referred to as "instrumental" but also most of those which are concerned with "intrinsic" good or right, which are about the qualities and not the effects of the subjects judged to be good or right." (p. 190-1)

It seems rather as if Mr. Edwards here wants to both have his cake and eat it, for as he defined it fundamental moral judgments have no reason. As I indicated, I consider this a mistake. Mr. Edwards says:

"Yet, since we were willing and able to support our judgments with reasons, we too were making non-fundamental moral judgments." (p. 191)

First, see my previous remarks. Next, my response here is that then one should say rather that there are no fundamental moral judgments in the sense that Mr. Edwards proposed. Indeed, I maintain that all moral judgments can be given reasons for, and the special feature of moral judgments is that they involve and partially depend on (1) human ends (2) human feelings, desires and needs and (3) philosophical and factual ideas about the nature of reality, humanity and society.

Also, since Mr. Edwards relied on an anology between his fundamental moral judgments and the axioms of mathematics, I should make a rather obvious point he also seems to have missed. It is this:

While it is true in some sense that the axioms of mathematics are the ultimate reason in mathematical proofs and have themselves to be accepted without proof, it is emphatically not true that the axioms of mathematics cannot be given good reasons for, though these reasons are not quite of the kind deductive proof offers (within the system in which the axioms function as axioms). Indeed, the reason usually offered for axioms is that these axioms deductively entail consequences one does want to prove. And it is quite the same outside mathematics, e.g. in morals or philosophy: The propositions one there takes as axiomatic are taken as such, by rational men, if one believes that (1) they do entail certain propositions one does wish to prove and knows or believes to be true and (2) these supposed axioms are not known to deductively entail propositions one knows or believes to be not true. (For more, see my 'Fundamental Principles of Valid Reasoning'.)

Mr. Edwards says a little more in the present context that I will skip since what he says has been dealt with before or should be obvious from what has been dealt before. Besides, these points also will be covered or touched by what follows in the next chapter. So I merely quote the end of the present section:

"I should also like to explain in a general way why I recognize the existence of fundamental as well as of non-fundamental judgments. In doing this I am simply trying to note the following facts: very frequently human beings approve or disapprove or have some other moral attitude towards a specific action or towards a class of actions because of certain attributes of the action or the class of actions. Sometimes, however, they have this attitude towards a class of actions "for their own sake" or just because it is that kind of action. In the latter case we might say "they just have that attitude." My point has been that moral predicates are used to express moral attitudes both in the former and the latter kind of sense." (p. 191-2)

Nearly all I should remark here I have already remarked earlier. What remains is to say a little about the "class of actions "for their own sake" or just because it is that kind of action." I agree there is such a class, but it does not at all coincide with the class of fundamental moral judgments, at least if one means by "fundamental" that it functions rather like an axiom does in mathematics.

Obviously, there are certain things everyone does mainly or only because one likes doing these kinds of things, from sex and listening to music to eating oysters and climbing mountains or playing chess and sitting in the sun, and obviously what one can say to others who like other kinds of things may come down to: "Well, I do these things because I happen to like them a lot, and that's it. I do them for their own sakes, because I love doing them." 

But these judgments will be rarely or never "fundamental moral judgments" in the sense that they would function rather like an axiom does in mathematics, and indeed the moral judgments human beings will regard as fundamental are just those ends and factual beliefs by which they defend their expectations or hopes that, if these factual beliefs are true and these ends realized, at least they and their friends and family will be able to do many things that they happen to like.

And normally, such fundamental beliefs will concern the nature of reality, human beings and human society; the place of the law and the kinds of rights and duties it holds; the freedoms of various kinds of men have to voice their opinion or be elected to an office, and so on - in short, they concern the general conditions in which one believes one's ends, including doing the things one likes to do for their own sakes, will be realized or mostly realized.

8. A Note on the Emotive Theory

We have arrived at the last section of this chapter. It is in fact a further defense of the stance Mr. Edwards has taken in the last section and is conducted by reference to metaethical theories of Stevenson, Ayer and Hampshire.

"Stevenson, even in his later writings, does not admit the possibility of reasons for moral judgments in any other sense than that of factors causing attitudes or changes of attitudes. Nor (..) does he allow for the possibility that moral disputes can be settled in another sense than sense (2). On these matters my position does not coincide with his. However, as regards the "meaning" of moral judgments, what I have been urging does appear to coincide to a large extent with his view. For, in Ethics and Language, Stevenson seems to hold that moral judgments generally have both descriptive and emotive meaning. On this, which is perhaps the most basic of our three questions, my theory is therefore very close to the emotive theory (..)" (p. 192)

I disagree with Stevenson and agree with Mr. Edwards on the first part of this quotation, but it seems to me Stevenson is right if he maintained, as I do, that all moral judgments of a minimally reasonable kind "have both descriptive and emotive meaning" - or, in everyday English, refer to a possible fact with a certain feeling. And if this concerns "the most basic of our three questions" Mr. Edwards has a logical problem, for he maintains, quite falsely as I have argued, that this ceases to be true when one arrives at "fundamental moral judgments".

Mr. Edwards continues:

"On the other hand, it may at first sight appear that, in so strongly stressing the objective character of most moral judgments, my theory is very far removed from the emotive theory as it has been stated by several of its British supporters, especially by Ayer and Hampshire. For these writers have usually expressed their position by saying that moral judgments, that is all moral judgments, have emotive meaning only. "A valuation," writes Ayer, "is not a description of something very peculiar; it is not a description at all." "Moral judgments," in Hampshire's words, "are not properly classified as statements of any kind, autobiographical or otherwise ... they are not normally taken to describe facts, but to prescribe or recommend courses of action." (p. 193)

I quote this mostly to provide some background. Personally, I have not read Hampshire but I have read Ayer, also on morals, and I quite disagree, but this is not the place to enter into my reasons or specify my disagreements with Ayer, though I will get occasion to indicate some of it when discussing the following quotation.

Mr. Edwards continues:

"On further examination, however, it becomes clear that my theory is on this point very close to the emotive theory, even in the version just quoted. I am sure that in the case of most of the sentences for which I claimed descriptive meaning Ayer and Hampshire would endorse the claim. What they would refuse to do is call them "moral judgments." They would say that these statements are not moral judgments because of their descriptive meaning.
(..)
Thus Ayer grants that "a great many ethical statements contain, as a factual element, some description of the action, or situation to which the ethical term in question is being applied," but "it is not qua descriptive that they are ethical. If, for example, the word 'wrong' is simply equated with 'not conducive to human happiness' some other term will be needed to carry the normative implication that conduct of this sort is to be avoided, and it is terms of this kind, which are not descriptive, that I am treating as definitely ethical." Similarly, Hampshire concedes that it is "very easy to find multitudes of sentences which could, as normally used, be interpreted as partially descriptive and partially prescriptive." But it is their prescriptive and not their descriptive aspect which makes them into moral judgments (..) " (p. 193)

I much doubt - the early - Ayer would have agreed, but it doesn't matter. What should be clear to the reader is that both Ayer and Hampshire relied on implausible doctrines about the "prescriptive" and "descriptive" import of words, and apparently sanctioned the quite odd usage in which "moral" means or connotes "prescriptive" only.

This is simply not so, and one of the strengths of Mr. Edwards' position is that he clearly saw that and argued why this is not so. Hence it is a pity he tries to make Ayer and Hampshire into much closer allies than they seemed to have been from a logical point of view, thereby also confusing his own position.


8. The Logic of Moral Discourse (II)


Note 1: Some people may like to know this refers to actual fact: My father died by using euthanasia to escape from uncurable bone-cancer, and I entirely agreed with this and indeed cooperated with it. One reason to add this note is to warn others that it is a lot easier to judge a moral choice in theory than to have to face the choice in real life, and another is that - whatever the Catholics claim - there are very cruel and painful and undeserved ways in which a man is forced to die, if he does not have the means and courage to avoid it.  Back.

Note 2: A relevant factual point about moral desires is a recording one should try to listen to if one can finds it, in which Hitler asks in a screaming voice in a national socialist rally "Wollt Ihr den totalen Krieg?" i.e. "Do you want total war?" and is answered with a loudly yelled "Ja!" by thousands.  Back.