An Argument I Lost: Where My Moral Philosphy Comes From

About fifty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I got into an argument with Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher visiting the school. The subject was the nature of normative claims, oughts. My view at the time was that my belief that murdering people was bad had the same logical status as my belief that chocolate ice cream was better than vanilla, that both were statements of tastes rather than objective facts.

Berlin’s response started by pointing out not how strong the evidence was for normative claims but how weak the evidence was for facts. How do I know that there is not a tiger sitting on my dining room table? It is true I do not see one there, but why is that subjective fact about my perceptions good evidence about reality?

His answer was that we believe our perceptions of reality because we have subjected them to all of the consistency tests we have available and they have, for the most part, passed. Not only do I not see a tiger on the dining room table, I do not see other diners fleeing in terror or commenting on what a handsome beast it is. I do not hear any of the noises I might expect if there was a tiger on the table. If I pass my hand over the table, touch gives me the same result—no tiger—as sight.

None of this proves that there is not a tiger there; all my senses could be lying to me in a consistent manner. But that is a possibility I have no way of testing. Once my perceptions have passed all the tests available, it is reasonable to act in the belief that what I perceive is really out there, while recognizing the logical possibility that it is not and the more plausible possibility that my perceptions are not perfectly accurate.

That brought us to what he argued was the parallel case of normative reality. He offered the following example.

You encounter someone who enjoys sticking pins in people. When you ask him to explain his behavior, he tells you that he enjoys the feeling of a pin going into a resilient object and people happen to be the resilient objects most readily available. After briefly considering the situation, you offer him a rubber ball. He finds it a satisfactory substitute and thanks you for providing him something to stick pins in that does not respond by screaming or hitting him.

The point of the example was that while there may be many moral claims (as there are many factual claims) about which people disagree, there are some which pass the same tests as factual claims. There are people who approve of causing other people pain; we call them sadists. There are people who believe that pain may in some circumstances be good for you. But people who believe that human pain is completely irrelevant to judgments of what one should or should not do are about as rare as people who see a tiger sitting on what everyone else perceives to be a bare tabletop. Hence it makes as much sense to describe the former as crazy, as failing to perceive obvious facts, as the latter.

A possible response might be that Berlin’s example is the exception not the rule, that about most moral propositions there is massive disagreement. That claim, in my view, confuses the moral equivalent of direct observation, a judgment about the moral status of a well understood and clearly described act, with higher level claims about moral rules. There is a lot of disagreement about the moral status of private property, intellectual property, government redistribution of income and much else. But then, there is also a lot of disagreement about factual claims at a similar level of abstraction: global warming, the effect of deficit spending on unemployment, what sort of diet is good or bad for you.

When it comes to something closer to the normative equivalent of direct perception, we get something much closer to general agreement. That fits my observation of political arguments. While each side may dispute the other’s moral position, each also finds it difficult or impossible to accept the factual claims on which the other side’s argument is based. It fits my observation of how readers respond to well written ideological works with which they disagree. The liberal reader’s response to Ayn Rand is that she is giving a false picture of the world, not that the world is as she says but her protagonist was wrong to do what he did. Very few people of whatever political persuasion, reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, see Ebenezer Scrooge Mark I as the hero. The same observation was offered by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, where he argued that all societies have, at some level of generality, the same moral code, which he referred to as the Tao.

The view that I eventually came to as a result of losing my argument with Berlin is what philosophers refer to as intuitionism, the claim that there are facts of moral reality that we perceive via moral intuition just as we perceive the facts of physical reality via our physical senses, and that the evidence for the reality of those facts is the considerable, although not perfect, agreement in how different people perceive them. That is the position that I described, back in Chapter 48, as Catholicism without God.

My claim is not that we deduce moral reality from physical reality, the claim of Ayn Rand that I disputed back in Chapter 59. It is that our knowledge of moral facts comes in the same way as our knowledge of physical facts and so has the same epistemological status—a reasonable, although not in either case certain, basis for belief. Readers interested in a more detailed description and defense of the position, one written by a professional philosopher, will find it in Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism.

There is an alternative view of the status of normative beliefs to which I can offer no adequate rebuttal: moral nihilism. According to that position, nothing is good or bad, virtuous or wicked. Moral beliefs are neither true nor false. The consistency of those beliefs, at the level at which they are consistent, is due not to moral reality but evolutionary biology. Humans have evolved those hardwired moral beliefs whose possession led to reproductive success in the environment in which we evolved, along the general lines of the previous chapter. Since we are all descended from ancestors who evolved under roughly similar circumstances we are all hardwired with about the same beliefs, with the exception of a small minority of defectives, the equivalent of people with the misfortune to be born blind. The blind have the misfortune of being unable to perceive some features of physical reality. Psychopaths have the misfortune, or sometimes the fortune, of failing to share the useful illusions of the rest of us.

I do not usually bother to read books arguing for things I already agree with. I read Huemer’s largely in the hope that he, as a professional in the field, could provide a better defense of our shared moral philosophy than I could, in particular a better rebuttal to the nihilist alternative. It is a thoughtful and well written book, but while the author finds his arguments against the nihilist position adequate, I do not.

I continue to reject it for two reasons. One is that I have an alternative that I find satisfactory. The other is that I am psychologically unable to actually believe that there is nothing wrong with torturing children or even that there is nothing wrong with telling lies. Rather as I am unable to believe that what I see is not actually there or that what I do not see, the tiger on the dining room table, is.

[It may occur to some readers, combining ideas from this chapter with ones from the previous chapter, that the psychopath may not be defective at all. He may be the equivalent of a very tall giraffe whose long neck pays for itself because there are not very many other giraffes competing with him for leaves on high branches. If there are not very many psychopaths, being a psychopath may be profitable. If so, we would expect evolution to “deliberately” produce some, but not many.]