Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Contra Consequentialismum: Relativism's Unrelative

RELATIVISM IS THE MOST COMMON FORM of moral skepticism about us. Personal relativism insists that there is no such thing as moral truths that extend beyond what is true for the individual. Since morality is a matter of individual opinion, of sentiment, then morality is subjective, about feeling, at best. Relativism also comes in other forms. For example, it can extend beyond personal relativism to cultural or social relativism, providing that morality is a cultural or social norm, and not necessarily a personal norm. But in whatever form it may be found, individualistic or socialistic, fundamentally all forms of relativism share "the central dogma that moral propositions, instead of having objective truth--truth for all people in all places at all times--are true relative to one standard but not another." Oderberg, MT, 16. In other words, relativists are relative or standardless about all things but one, the relativism of relativism. Relativism is, for them, the only thing unrelative. The relativist believes in no absolute dogma but one: all morality is relative. It would seem that relativism is inconsistent with itself ab initio, from its foundation.

And so it it is.

The foundational inconsistency of the relativists ethic shows up in the conundrums they are easily forced into. For example: If all morality is relative, subjective, personal, it follows that that morality ought not to be imposed upon anyone else. In other words, there is no warrant for me to force my views upon you, and you to force your views upon me. Tolerance, therefore, is the mandatum novum, the new commandment for the relativist. But isn't this prime virtue of relativism, tolerance, then, following relativism's own assumption that all is relative, subjective, a matter of opinion? What, then, of the man whose personal belief is that tolerance is wrong, that he has the right to impose his belief system on whomever he sees fit, by physical or legal coercion, even torture and violence if necessary? (Folks like this aren't too hard to find: look at the ranks of Al Qaida or the advocates of homosexual marriage. These folks insist we should see things their way and use rather forceful means to insist.) Must the relativist be tolerant of the intolerant? To be consistent with his principles, the relativist must be tolerant of the intolerant. This is then a collapse into a moral nihilism, as it will allow for anything. Am I to be tolerant of a pedophile who believes that pedophilia is the only proper expression of human sexuality, and that he has the right to indoctrinate children to his manner of thinking? Most relativists will not extend their dogma so far.

If the relativist, however, decides to be intolerant of the intolerant, then the relativist has violated his own principle. Against his central tenet, he has adopted an objective, absolute, exceptionless truth which requires him to adopt an objective moral law: intolerance is exceptionlessly, absolutely evil. On what basis do they found this? The relativist remains mum to the question. There is no basis, given the relativist's assumptions, to justify the dogmatic assumption of this one, exceptional principle. As W. V. Quine, the American analytic philosopher and himself a philosophical relativist, has conceded in the context of cultural relativism: "He [the cultural relativist] cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up." Oderberg, MT, 20 (quoting W. V. Quine, "On Empirically Equivalent Systems in the Word," Erkenntnis 9 (1975), 328-28).

Two other ethical theories reject the objective nature of the ethical realm. For these two schools of thought, the "world of ought" does not exist, and so they are foundationally skeptical like the relativist. The first such theory is expressivism or emotivism. This theory of morality also hales from Hume, who in his Treatise on Human Nature (III.I.II) concluded: "Morality, therefore, is more properly felt than judged of." This thought was taken and ran with under the name emotivism by the likes of Ogden and Richards, A. J. Ayer, and C. L. Stevenson. The central core of these school of thought is that moral precepts are not really moral precepts at all, and certainly not descriptive of a fact of the moral realm, but rather expressions of deeply felt feelings of repugnance or attraction. So the statement, "Child abuse is wrong," is really nothing other than an expression of "Down with child abuse!" Affirmatively, the statement, "Promises ought to be kept," is really nothing but "Up with promise-keeping!" Oderberg, MT, 23. Moral statements are really nothing more than sophisticated "grunts and groans" of emotional satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Morality is nothing other than discussion about boos and discussion about hurrahs, and so it may also be regarded as the "Boo-Hurrah" moral theory.

Prescriptivism, another moral theory that denies the factual reality of the moral realm, promotes moral statements from "grunts and groans" to mere prescriptions, that is, to imperatives or commands. A prescriptivist would therefore take the statement "Child abuse is wrong" to mean "Do not be a child abuser," and the statement, "Promises ought to be kept," as "Do keep your promises." In other words, moral oughts are really nothing other than efforts than one person trying to command another person, but have no real objective foundation.

The problem with such theories as emotivism and prescriptivism is that they run afoul of how men think, and how they use moral statements, and so are not satisfactory theories of the moral life of man.* We naturally use moral statements as the basis for reasoning. If moral statements were, in fact merely statements of emotion or statements of command disguised in other form, we would not be able to use them this way.

Both expressivism and prescriptivism equate the assertion of a moral proposition with something other than the statement of a fact: in one case an expression of emotion, in the other a command. However, one can do more with moral propositions than assert them: one can use them in the context of other more complex propositions, so the moral proposition that is a component of the more complex one is not asserted at all.

Oderberg, MT, 24. In other words, we use moral statements in a manner that is inconsistent with them being expressions of emotion or statements of command. We use them as statements of moral fact.

So, for example, from the moral statement "Prostitution is wrong," I can also say, "If Prostitution is wrong, then so is living off the earnings of prostitution." Using a form of syllogistic reason,** I can then reason that since Prostitution is wrong it necessarily follows that it is wrong to live of its earnings. Such reasoning cannot take place if the statement "Prostitution is wrong" is an expression or emotion or of command because it queers the syllogism.*** The term "Prostitution is wrong" must mean the same thing in the statement "Prostitution is wrong" as it does in the second statement "If Prostitution is wrong, then . . . ." or we have a fallacy.

Under the expressivist view, the first statement ("Prostitution is wrong") is nothing other than the statement "Down with Prostitution!" So the syllogism becomes: "Down with Prostitution!" If "Down with prostitution!" then "Down with living off its earnings!" Therefore, "Down with living of the earnings of prostitution!" In the prescriptivist view, the first statement ("Prostitution is wrong") is equivalent to "Do not be a prostitute." So the syllogism becomes "Do not be a prostitute." If "Do not be a prostitute," then "Do not live of its earnings." Therefore, "Do not live off the earnings of prostitution."

But the statements: "If 'Down with prostitution!' then 'Down with living off its earnings!'" and "If 'Do not be a prostitute' then 'Do not live off the earnings of prostitution'" are meaningless. So: (i) either they are wrong about moral statements being mere statements of emotion or statements of command (in which case they are wrong), or (ii) they are right about moral statements being nothing other than statements of emotion or statements of command, in which case any moral reasoning is made meaningless an nonsensical (because you can't take a command or expression of emotion and make and "if . . . then . . . " statement out of it) (which means they are wrong), or (iii) they use terms equivocally (to avoid the problems associated with "if . . . then . . . statements) and are guilty of the fallacy of equivocation (in which case they are wrong). Quartum non datur. No matter what, the result is "expressivism and prescriptivism are false." Oderberg, 25.

The fact is that, in reasoning about things in the realm of action, we use moral statements as if they were statements of fact related to a moral realm. We do not use moral statements as if they were in reality mere statements of command or expressions of emotions likes and dislikes. The emotivist and the prescriptivist simply do not describe what really happens among men. They fail to explain reality, and, in Oderberg's view "'ditch' reality." Oderberg, 26.

The fact is, man uses moral statements in a manner, not as expressions of command or feeling, but as statements of fact, as indicative statements. They are stated as if they are "being asserted as true or false," they are expressed in a manner where they can be "agreed or disagreed with," they are used "as premises in arguments."
[A moral statement] has the same indicative or fact-stating form as 'Grass is green.' As such, it can serve as a free-standing premise in an argument, such as the first premise [in a syllogism], as well as being embedded within a compound proposition, such as the 'if . . . then . . . ' proposition which [may be] the second premise of . . . [an] argument. . . . It is these arguments that we perfectly well understand, and which we assess for validity . . . , but which, if prescriptivism or expressivism were true, would turn out to be incomprehensible at worst, or implausibly have to be deemed invalid at best.
Oderberg, 25-26. But the prescriptivist and emotivist or expressivist do more than screw with, or misinterpret, moral reasoning, that is moral syllogistic reasoning. They also denude moral statements, restrict them, really dehumanize them. Man is fundamentally moral, and to wrest his moral utterances from a factual moral realm, in which he lives and moves and has his being, and put them into the realm of mere emotion or command, is to dehumanize him. "Moral propositions are not always asserted: they are embedded in unasserted contexts like 'if . . then . . . ' statements, but they are also assumed, wondered about, entertained, and the like. In all such contexts, treating them as commands or expressions produces nonsense." Oderberg, MT, 26-27.

Oderberg is clear. It is not that command or emotion have no role in moral reasoning or moral reality. Moral propositions--which are propositions of moral fact--can be used, and frequently are found, in commands. They can be formulated into law. Violation of moral propositions can also elicit disgust, disdain, anger, sorrow. But the real world of morality is not in command and not in emotion, the real world behind command and emotion is what the emotivist and the prescriptivist miss.

Expressivism and prescriptivism err by reversing the true order of explanation: it is the truth and falsehood of moral statements that justify the having of certain emotional responses and the issuing of commands.

Oderberg, MT, 27. The moral reality justifies the command and the emotion. And not vice versa. It is not the command and the emotion that justify the moral reality. The moral reality exists irrespective of command (command can err: laws can be unjust or vicious). The moral reality exists irrespective of emotion ("If it feels good, do it!" is a moral abomination).
*Oderberg attributes this argument to Peter Geach, who derived it from the German philosopher Gottlob Frege. Oderberg cites to two of Geach's papers: "Ascriptivism," Philosophical Review 69 (1960), pp. 221-5, reprinted in Peter Geach, Logic Matters (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), 250-54, and "Assertion," Philosophical Review 74 (1965), pp. 449-65.
**modus ponens: If A, then B; A; therefore, B.
***It results in the fallacy called the "fallacy of equivocation." In other words it ascribes the same meaning to an expression in two propositions that in fact mean two different things.

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