Tuesday, December 28, 2004
On Moral Skepticism
You might complain that I have put the skeptic in a box, and this is true. I've interpreted the skeptic as someone who believes that we act on reasons, and accepts that there is something to the notion of the best reasons. Both of these, of course, are things about which there is room to be skeptical – or at any rate to claim to be skeptical. Once I've got everything on the table I think it will be clear why I'm reluctant to take such a thoroughgoing skepticism about reasons very seriously. In the meantime, let me just say that I've put the skeptic in the same box as the rest of us.
Another legitimate complaint calls attention to the fact that my thesis is compatible with the possibility that morality might require all sorts of seemingly disagreeable things, so long as those things accord with our best reasons. An example will help press the point, so here's one. Suppose that it turned out that we have better reason to betray our friends at every opportunity than we have to do anything else. It would then follow from my thesis that it is moral to betray one's friends. But that can't be right, can it? If it turned out that this is what we had best reason to do then we'd say that morality required us to act against our best reasons.
And this is the skeptic's point, right? The skeptic wants to say that it is more reasonable to be immoral than to be moral, and challenges us to prove him wrong. An argument that does nothing more than establish the link by definitial fiat may provide a formal answer to the skeptic, but it won't do anything to legitimate our substantive moral judgments. More concretely, it won't do anything to show that we ought not to betray our friends at every opportunity.
Some philosophers have thought that what we need in order to answer the skeptic is a deep account of 'best reasons', an account that precludes the possibility that things like the systematic betrayal of one's friends will turn out to be justified. The idea is that if we can get such an account then the link between our pretheoretical moral judgments (some of them, anyway) and our best reasons will be formal but not merely formal. This, anyhow, is a way to understand the contemporary rationalist project of trying to show that morality is built into rationality itself.
One version of this project proceeds by looking closely at certain non-moral concepts to which we are deeply committed and attempting to provide an analysis of those concepts which shows that they have moral implications. An example of this approach is provided by Thomas Nagel's argument from resentment. According to Nagel, resentment arises when others have failed to take your interests into account. Insofar as we are committed to the possibility that we can resent the actions of others, then, we are committed to the notion that others should take our own interests into account. In order to remain consistent, however, we must then admit that we should also take the interests of others into account, and this is enough of a foundation to support morality. Or so Nagel argues.
Even granting the rest of Nagel's analysis, there seems to be a gap here. Namely, Nagel hasn't said why it is that we must be rationally consistent. Similar criticisms, of course, apply to any argument which purports to show that the penalty for immorality is rational inconsistency.
A second strain of the project attempts to close this gap by linking rational consistency to agency in a fundamental way. This approach is best exemplified by the work of Christine Korsgaard and receives its most complete treatment in her Locke Lectures. There, Korsgaard argues that we constitute ourselves as agents by acting on reasons, and that the requirement of consistency is built into this procedure. So, on Korsgaard's account, the need for rational consistency is founded on a deeper need, the need to constitute ourselves as agents.
Korsgaard's picture is one in which our agency is constantly under threat, but in an odd way. If we fail to act with rational consistency, and so fail to be agents, we'll still be able to walk the dog, plan our day, and, generally, do everything that agents do. Except, Korsgaard, tells us, we won't really be doing anything, because only agents do things. And this might leave us with the same feeling of dissatisfaction as Nagel's account. We might wonder, that is, why it is that we should care whether or not we are agents.
At the end of the day, projects like those of Nagel and Korsgaard seem worth pursuing because the skeptic's challenge has been taken seriously. The skeptic has said that it might turn out that our best reasons don't support our moral commitments, and a way has been sought to guarantee that this won't happen.
A different kind of moral apologetic is possible. For we might also have said to the skeptic that this isn't how things turned out. People have done a lot of thinking and arguing about what we have best reason to do, and the result of those activities is the amalgam of rules, principles, and procedures that we understand as common sense morality.
That's not to say that common sense morality is flawless. Often we are told to do something simply because it is the right thing to do. But this is only enough, if it ever is, in those cases where we already agree with the judgment being offered. There, the injunction serves to remind us of the course that we understand ourselves to have best reason to pursue. When we disagree, though, we look for further reasons. And when we find them and reach a decision about what is to be done we say, as shorthand, that we did it because it was the right thing to do.
Now, suppose that I have set myself on a course of action and believe myself to be acting on reasons, moral reasons, which support that action. My reasons might be challenged directly or skeptically. If they are challenged directly then, as I said at the beginning, this is no threat to the thesis that moral reasons bind us in virtue of the fact that they are the best reasons we know. At worst I might have been mistaken about what I have best reason to do. What of a skeptical challenge?
The thoroughgoing skeptic's claim isn't that I have reason to do something else, but that I have no reasons at all. To see how odd our dispute is, consider how the skeptic is to make his case. Whatever is said in support of the skeptical position will be a reason for it, except that if the skeptic is right then it won't. A pyrrhonnian might be satisfied, but the rest of us can rightly wonder whether this is a conversation worth having.
None of us is Buridan's ass and few of us are Hamlet. Action is not something we undertake only when compelled by the force of reason. Our lives are a flurry of action and we only rarely contemplate the reasons for those actions. When we do – and this is really all that I am claiming – we endorse those reasons which appear better to us rather than those which appear worse.