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July 2016

Some Basic Problems in Ethics

Smith explores the nature of belief, knowledge, ethics, the difference between moral and prudential decisions, and some ideas about virtue.

In my last essay, I explored the issue of whether beliefs are volitional or whether beliefs are necessitated by the evidence and arguments known to us. I summarized the views of Thomas Aquinas and John Locke on this controversy, both of whom argued that some beliefs have a volitional component. Of course, in some cases we have no choice except to affirm the truth of a proposition, as we find with logically necessary propositions, such as 2+2=4. If we understand what numbers mean and know the rules of addition, then we cannot help but affirm that 2+2=4; we cannot will ourselves to believe that 2+2=5. But in many other cases, as when we must choose to consider the evidence we deem relevant to a belief, a volitional factor comes into play. We can choose to remain ignorant of important evidence or arguments that might call our beliefs into question. Scholastic philosophers called this vincible ignorance, or ignorance that could have been avoided by honest and diligent investigation. And they contrasted this with invincible ignorance, or unavoidable ignorance of some relevant facts.

Before proceeding, I should call attention to my dissent from the classical distinction between belief and knowledge, which was defended by Aquinas, Locke and many other early philosophers. I discussed this terminological distinction in my last essay, so I won’t repeat the details here. Suffice it to say that I regard a cognitive belief as the mental affirmation of the truth of a proposition, whether that truth be probable or certain. Moreover, I agree with the now widely accepted definition of knowledge as a belief that is at once true and justified.

According to this conception of knowledge, it is not enough for a belief to be true (i.e., to correspond with or identify a fact); that belief must also be justified. For instance, if a person chooses a number in his mind and I correctly guess the number, I cannot be said to know (have knowledge of) the number, even though my guess happened to be correct. To claim knowledge of the number I would need to justify my guess according to rational standards. In other words, I would need to explain how I knew the number. A lucky guess does not qualify as knowledge.

Thus in evaluating knowledge claims we need to take into account not only the content of a belief but also the process that generated that belief. A true belief will not qualify as authentic knowledge if it lacks adequate justification, or grounds. A belief that lacks justification, even if that belief happens to be true, is said to be irrational, because it was arrived at without using the canons of reason to substantiate the belief.

We now arrive at the tricky problem of whether moral judgments should be applied to beliefs per se, quite apart from whether or not a belief results in an action that we might deem immoral. This problem is impossible to resolve in a few essays; a substantial book would be required, and even that would probably leave much unexplained. A major obstacle here is that people use words like “moral” and “immoral” in different ways, and even professional philosophers disagree on what these terms should mean. Therefore, the best I can do is to explain my own views and hope for the best. But a good deal of preliminary ground must be covered before we can tackle the issue of “immoral” beliefs directly. The remainder of his essay will deal only with some fundamental issues in ethics. Later I shall apply this material to the topic of beliefs.

The Moral and the Prudential

Broadly conceived, an “immoral” action is any action that contravenes a moral standard. Thus if I accept as a moral standard the proposition that we should treat our friends fairly, then to cheat a friend would be dubbed “immoral.” But more complexities arise as we dig deeper. For example, is every choice we make either moral or immoral? Most philosophers would say “No,” and they would draw a distinction between prudential choices and moral choices. A standard example, popular among philosophers, is our choice of ice-cream flavors. If I like both chocolate and vanilla ice cream but choose to purchase chocolate in a particular instance, this choice has no moral significance. It is a purely prudential decision, a morally indifferent decision based on what I happen to prefer at the time.

Although I agree that we should distinguish between moral and prudential decisions, I disagree with how these terms are often conceived. Many moral philosophers have used the distinction to argue that egoism does not qualify as a legitimate moral theory, because to act in one’s self-interest involves nothing more than prudential choices. The following remarks by Marcus Singer (Generalization in Ethics, 1961, p. 303) are fairly typical:

In evaluating the prudence of an action, we must consider its effects on the agent. But its morality depends on its effects on others. The fact that an act would tend to harm oneself is a reason for regarding it as imprudent, but not a reason for regarding it as immoral; the fact that an act would tend to harm others is a reason for regarding it as immoral, but not a reason for regarding it as imprudent.

This dichotomy between the moral and the prudential appears quite often in modern books on ethics, with the result that egoism is thrown out of court as a nonmoral doctrine. In his influential book, The Moral Point of View (1958, p. 189), Kurt Baier maintained that “those who adopt consistent egoism cannot make moral judgments. Moral talk is impossible for consistent egoists.” W.T. Stace elaborated on this perspective in The Concept of Morals (1937, p. 123).

The difficulty of the problem of the basis of moral obligation is precisely the difficulty of seeing why I ought to do something which I do not desire to do. Why should I concern myself about the happiness of any person other than myself? No one would think of asking what is the basis of my obligation to try to make myself happy. Or at least I should personally think such a question pointless. Why I should seek my own happiness is obvious. It is simply because I desire my own happiness. But why I ought to try to make you happy, especially if by doing so I decrease my own happiness, is not at all obvious. And to find an answer to this question is, as I understand it, precisely the point of the problem of the basis of moral obligation.

Many assumptions underlie this point of view, but I cannot possibly analyze those assumptions here. Instead I shall point out that this position, according to which moral judgments cannot legitimately be used in ethical egoism, is a relatively recent development in ethics. In many books on ethics written during the eighteenth century, for example, one will find one or more chapters devoted to the topic of “duties (or moral obligations) to oneself.” These treatments, which generally fall in the Aristotelian tradition, view the purpose of ethics as instructing us in the art of living well. While granting that people naturally desire happiness, these books point out that we are not born with the knowledge of how to attain happiness, and to provide this knowledge is a basic purpose of ethics. It is through the discipline of ethics that we discover, justify, and apply those objective, universal values that tend to promote happiness. The result, when this knowledge is successfully applied to our own lives, will be enlightened, or rational, self-interest—or self-love, as it was commonly called—which includes moral obligations both to ourselves and to others. The egoistic type of moral obligation, in this theory, is not an obligation to pursue our own happiness per se but to pursue our happiness by rational means, according to objective values discovered by reason.

I explained my own position on moral and prudential decisions in a previous essay, so here I shall rest content with a summary. Moral decisions are made when we refer to our fundamental values when making a choice. Consider this example: Bob and Jesus are deliberating whether or not to watch a porn video. Bob has no moral objections to pornography, so the choice for him is a purely prudential one—Is he in the mood? Does he have the time? and so forth. But Jesus, in contrast, has strong moral objections to pornography, at least in theory; he views it as a serious sin, a degradation of human sexuality. Thus in deciding whether he will watch a porn video, Jesus will consult his fundamental values in the course of deliberating. We thus see how the same choice may be prudential for one person and moral for another.

I recall when this distinction first became clear to me. While I was attending a graduate seminar on ethics at the University of Arizona around 1969, the professor presented the example of whether we should eat peas with a knife while dining with friends. He argued that this decision was purely a matter of etiquette, not ethics. If I decide to eat peas with a knife (by balancing them on the blade and then rolling them into my mouth), this may show bad table manners on my part, but under no circumstances would my choice qualify as a moral decision. Well, being the troublemaker that I am, I offered this revised example: Suppose I belong to a strange religious cult that absolutely prohibits eating peas with a knife; this activity, according to my religious beliefs, is a mortal sin. In this scenario, my decision to eat peas with a knife would have obvious moral implications, since it would entail disobedience to God. The professor thought for a few seconds, acknowledged that I had raised an interesting point, and said he would give the matter more thought.  

Immoral Actions and Immoral People

Another important distinction is the difference between an immoral action and an immoral person. On this matter I agree with the traditional Thomistic approach, as explained by many Catholic philosophers (and other Aristotelians) for centuries. According to this approach, a moral person may commit immoral actions on occasion, but the term “immoral” should apply only to a person who commits immoral actions as a matter of habit—only, in other words, when the tendency to commit immoral actions is part of that person’s character. Here is an interesting hypothetical that is roughly (very roughly) based on an example given by Aquinas. Suppose two people, Jack and Jill, are attending a lavish party given at a home with many expensive knick-knacks scattered about. Jack spots an expensive item that he might be able to steal without getting caught, But being a “rational” person, in the sense proposed by the “rational choice” school of economics, he engages in a cost-benefit analysis of stealing the item. With over 100 people at the party, what are his chances of getting caught? How much money could he get from pawning the item, and is that amount of money worth the risk? After engaging in these and similar calculations, Jack decides not the steal the item.

We now turn to Jill, who admires the same expensive item. But stealing the item never occurs to Jill, so she never engages in a cost-benefit analysis in the first place.

The traditional question about this scenario is: Who is more virtuous, Jack or Jill? And the traditional answer is: Jill is more virtuous than Jack, even though neither actually stole anything, because the value she places on honesty is so ingrained in her character—it is so much a matter of habit—that the possibility of stealing never occurs to her at all. The fact that Jack regards theft as a serious possibility, the fact that he reaches a decision not to steal only after weighing the pros and cons in this particular case, does not speak well for his moral character. Virtues, in this way of thinking, are good moral habits, whereas vices are bad moral habits. Among other things, the example of Jack and Jill illustrates an important difference between the ideal of rational behavior proposed by some schools of economic theory and the traditional moral view of rational behavior.  

As predicted, I have not yet addressed the problem of whether we should apply moral judgments to beliefs per se. This is because we must first clarify some basic features of ethics and how moral judgments apply to actions and persons before we can sensibly address the problem of whether moral judgments should apply to beliefs and believers as well.  

This is part of a series