Marcel S. Lieberman’s book, Commitment, Value, and Moral Realism (1998), provides us with a practical argument for moral realism. Lieberman argues that substantive commitments (such an the commitment avoid cruelty) require us to believe in values of a moral realist variety. People who deny moral realism and have stable substantive commitments are incoherent. It is impossible for them to sincerely deny moral realism and simultaneously have substantive commitments.
Lieberman’s argument looks like the following:
- Substantive commitments must be believed to be supported by stable values.
- If these stable values can’t be understood as desires, and they can be understood as desire-independent facts; then they are desire-independent facts.1
- These values can’t be understood to be desires.
- These values can be understood to be desire-independent facts.
- So, these values are desire-independent facts.
- Therefore, our commitments must be believed to be supported by stable desire-independent values.
Lieberman also implies the following addition to the argument based on his discussion that both moral realists and moral anti-realists tend to agree that our common sense understanding of morality makes sense:
- Our substantive commitments are part of a common sense understanding of morality.
- Therefore, a common sense understanding of morality is moral realist.
Lieberman is not arguing that moral realism is probably true. He is only arguing that we have to believe in moral realism insofar as we have substantive commitments. If it is possible to give up substantive commitments entirely, then it is possible to be a coherent anti-realist. However, this is atypical of anti-realists because they typically want to avoid revisionary explanations for morality. Our common sense understanding of morality is that substantive commitments can be justified—such as the commitment against cruelty. Revisionary approaches to ethics, such as the idea that substantive commitments require false beliefs, would require us to admit that our common sense understanding of morality is radically mistaken. Given Lieberman’s argument, it is quite possible that we are radically deluded about morality. The task to argue that we aren’t radically deluded about morality is left unfulfilled.
Lieberman’s argument is an important one because if moral realism is true, then there is an important question—how can anti-realists be moral? Do they imitate moral realism? Are they in denial and actually endorse moral realism in the back of their mind? Lieberman gives us some reason to believe that anti-realists are in denial. They are actually moral realists and don’t know it. They simply haven’t examined their own psychological tendencies close enough to realist that their behavior requires realist assumptions about morality. An anti-realist might not be consciously a moral realist, but their behavior doesn’t make sense unless moral realism is true.
I will discuss commitments and the first four premises of Lieberman’s argument, and I will propose objections to them. These four premises are sufficient to lead us to the conclusion. Lieberman’s argument provides a good starting point and discussion for accepting his conclusion, but there are two weaknesses I will discuss in particular. One, Lieberman argues that our substantive commitments require us to have a self-conception, but his arguments are not entirely persuasive. Two, Lieberman argues that moral values are based on human nature, but he does not fully justify that conclusion. I certainly will not prove that Lieberman’s premises are false, so further discussion in the future could increase the plausibility of his argument.
A discussion about commitments.
Commitments are stable behavior patterns guided by a goal, which can override our desires. Commitments are stable in part because they reflect our self-conception, and they can override our desires precisely because they reflect our self-conception rather than merely our desires. In order to understand “commitment,” Lieberman compares and contrasts it with intentions and policies.
Intentions are our acts of will. We “intend” to do something when it is something we are trying to do. There are some similarities between intentions and commitments:
- They can be stable though revisable.
- They can be conduct controlling.
- They can prompt and terminate practical reasoning.
- They can impose consistency and coherence restraints.
- They can play an important role in inter- and intra-personal coordination. (61)
However, commitments differ from intentions in the following ways:
1. Commitments are more vague than intentions (63). I can intend to finish my homework and I must actually expect to be able to finish my homework if I intend to do so, but being committed to peace doesn’t mean that I intend to make the world peaceful or that I can actually make the world peaceful. A commitment to peace is vague and it isn’t entirely clear what such a commitment would require. I could go to anti-war protests and start an anti-war blog, but I certainly don’t expect to be able to end all war.
2. A change of desires is not a reason to reject a commitment (78-79). We can intend to do something just because we desire it, such as get a glass of water, but we can’t endorse a commitment just because we desire it. First, desires tend to be too temporary to explain the “stability” of commitments. Second, commitments are often made precisely to override our temptations. A commitment to stand up for the poor might require us to do so even when it is inconvenient and puts our lives at risk. Three, commitments often require counter-preferential and counter-prudential actions. Our most stable and powerful desires, such as to avoid pain and survive, can be overridden by our commitments. For example, a commitment against cruelty might require us to refuse to kill even when we are drafted into the military and can be killed for refusing to kill.
How do commitments compare to policies? Policies are sorts of intentions that are vague. We can have a policy to not tolerate lies. In such a case it is clear when I should act (when I witness a lie) even though it is not clear what I should do when I witness a lie. This is not as vague as commitments can be, but perhaps policies can be as vague as commitments. Perhaps I can have a policy to promote peace (and such a “policy” is the same thing as a commitment for peace). Lieberman rejects that commitments can be reducible to policies not only because they tend to be too easily discarded and don’t seem to give us a good reason to overcome our desires, but also because policies don’t reflect our self-conception, but commitments do reflect our self-conception (83). We are detached from our policies. For example, a policy of never loaning to friend is “nothing personal” despite the fact that we might be committed to our friendships.
One of the reasons that our commitments are so stable is because they are part of our self-conception, which involves beliefs about ourselves that are relatively resistant to change (83). We can choose not to act on a policy and break the rules without causing us to reconsider having the policy in the first place, but we can’t refuse to act on a commitment without causing ourselves to reconsider whether or not we should continue to have the commitment. To break a commitment is serious business. If we have a substantive commitment to friendship, for example, we can’t easily choose not to help our friends in need without then destroying our commitment entirely. Imagine your friend is drowning and you can save your friend, but you choose not to. Such a person seems to be no longer committed to friendship.
Finally, desires don’t seem to be part of our self-conception. The desire for sex isn’t part of our self-conception and some people actively try to resist their sexual desires (112). They might even believe them to be wrong. Their commitments against sex are based on their self-conception, but their desire for sex is not.
Lieberman’s Argument Examined
Substantive commitments must be believed to be supported by stable values.
The main reasons to support this premise are (a) a change in desires is not a reason to change our commitment and (b) commitments reflect our self-conception. These were already explained in the above discussion about commitments. However, this premise is not sufficient to prove moral realism because we don’t yet understand the nature of these “stable values.” Our stable values might be nothing other than stable desires, which has nothing to do with moral realism.
If these stable values can’t be understood as desires, and they can be understood as desire-independent facts; then they are desire-independent facts.
The above premise seems to be taken for granted by Lieberman. The main idea is that stable values must be either desire-independent facts or desires. So far the literature seems to support such an assumption because those are the only two hypotheses I have heard discussed in detail. I don’t know of any significant challenge to this premise, so Lieberman seems justified in not discussing it.
Some people might object that we need to know for sure that values can be desire-independent facts. We can’t decide that values are desire-independent facts rather than desires just because we can’t make sense out of the idea that values are desires. It might be that we can’t make sense out of either possibility. We might simply be unable to decide which possibility is more likely given our current understanding of morality and the universe in general.
It could also be objected that this premise is too strong. There might be an alternative to the belief that stable values required by commitments are either desire-independent facts or desires. However, I think we do have reason to hold this belief at this time. I know of no plausible alternatives.
These values can’t be understood to be desires.
If stable desires can explain our commitments, then we don’t need moral realist assumptions to have commitments. Such moral realist explanations could be unnecessarily “extravagant” rather than modest (121). Values must be based on facts beyond our desires in order to support moral realism.
Lieberman attempts to show that commitments require desire-independent values in two ways. One, he gives us a list of ways that commitments can’t be explained in terms of desires. Two, he considers how some people might think that our stable values could be understood to be desires and he objects to these explanations.
A list of ways that commitments can’t be explained in terms of desires.
Lieberman gives us the following reasons to think that commitments aren’t merely based on desires:
- Commitments are more stable than our desires because they reflect beliefs about our self-conception (83).
- A change in desires is not a reason to change our commitments because commitments can override desires (78-79).
- We demand consistency of our commitments, but we don’t require our desires to be consistent (88-89).
- We reject our commitments when we no longer believe they have value (103). Such commitments will then be seen to be “no longer worthwhile” (ibid.).
I already discussed the first two reasons in the discussion of how commitments relate to intentions and policies, but I will now discuss the final two:
We demand consistency of our commitments. – We reason about our commitments and we reject them when we don’t believe that they are worthwhile. Desires can be inconsistent without giving us a reason to reject them, but beliefs and commitments can’t. If I desire chocolate, but I also desire to lose weight; then I will probably still desire chocolate if I choose not to eat it. This is what resisting temptation is all about. No matter how we feel about our desires, they tend to stick around. If they didn’t stick around, then we wouldn’t have to resist them. However, commitments must be consistent. We have a good reason to reject a commitment if it is incompatible with another commitment. For example, a commitment to human rights is incompatible with a commitment to a totalitarian regime (89).
We reject our commitments when we no longer believe they have value. – When we want to learn a language, we must put in a lot of hard work that could be used elsewhere. In fact, learning a language is fairly contrary to our desires. We would rather go to see movies and so forth than learn a language as far as desires are concerned. The only reason that a person would be committed to learn a language is if he or she believed it was of value—either because (a) the skills attained will be valued or (b) certain ideals, such as being well educated and cultured, are valued (98). If we found out that we are wrong that learning a language has value (if we reject that that the skills will be of value, or that learning a language will make us more cultured, or that being cultured has value), then the commitment will be destroyed and we will probably stop trying to learn a new language.
What about our experience of desires? – Lieberman does not discuss the fact that desires and commitments are experienced quite differently. We experience desires as a sort of urge. Hunger, thirst, and sexual desire are all good examples of desires that make us feel like we need something. However, we don’t experience commitments this way. This fact could support Lieberman’s argument.
He considers how people might think that desires could account for the values required to have substantive commitments.
Lieberman considers the following ways that people have proposed that desires can account for our overriding moral values (substantive commitments), but he finds such hypotheses to fail:
- Frankfurt’s Hypothesis
- Velleman’s Hypothesis
Frankfurt’s Hypothesis – One of the reasons to think that commitments aren’t desires is because they are part of our self-conception and they override desires, but Harry Frankfurt’s theory of desires might be able to explain these issues. Harry Frankfurt suggested that freedom could be better explained in terms of “second order desires” (106) These are desires about desires. A person who decides to quit smoking would desire to no longer desire smoking. We could then explain why commitments can override desires—because some desires cause us to act on certain desires rather than others. It can also explain why some desires are part of our self-conception. The desire for cigarettes isn’t, but second-order desires (such as the desire to stop wanting cigarettes) is part of our self-conception.
If we do whatever we want, then we are not being controlled by outside influences (110). It is important that we act in a way that isn’t forced in order for our actions to be part of our self-conception. If we desire to desire to stop smoking, then we won’t feel “forced” to decide not to act on our desire to stop smoking despite feeling that we are resiting a temptation.
The problem is that our desires are not part of our self-conception (108-109). They seem to be forced upon us and outside our control. If we have desires about our desires, then we still wouldn’t feel like our desires are part of our self-conception. Our desires (and our desires about desires) seem arbitrary and don’t necessarily tell us what is worthwhile.
It has been suggested that there might be a non-arbitrary way to create our second-order desires, but that leaves open the possibility that commitments could determine our desires (108). It isn’t clear how our desires could be determined in a non-arbitrary and rational way unless they can be determined by our beliefs—especially our beliefs about what is worthwhile.
Velleman’s Hypothesis – David Velleman agrees that our self-understanding is essential to substantive commitments and morality. He suggests that the desires that matter in our self-conception must be coherent, and the most relevant desires are what he calls “intrinsic desires” (136). These desires are “timeless,” “leads a person to identify outcomes that make sense for him to want at all times,” and such outcomes must be desired “knowingly and willingly.” (137) Additionally, such desires are useful to us because they help us predict our own behavior (136). We need to know what sort of person we are in order to make decisions concerning our future. If I decide to take a vacation to Europe in 6 months and I spend lots of time preparing for the trim only to later lose interest and decide not to go, then my decision not only lacks serious commitment, but it also makes my life much more difficult.
Velleman admits that we do talk about our values as though they were objective facts, but he argues that we do this merely because it makes our lives easier. “[V]alue judgments, while false since they fail to represent any state of affairs, are still instrumentally useful in developing a coherent set of desires which in tern aids self-understanding” (137). It is important that desires be coherent (or at least compatible) not only because they help us attain a better and more predictable self-understanding (two conflicting desires make it unclear what course of action will motivate us), but also because some desires might even motivate actions that undermine other desires. We can’t accomplish our goals well or satisfy our desires well when different desires are causing self-defeating actions.
There are two problems that Lieberman finds in Velleman’s hypothesis:
One, his hypothesis has the same sort of problems of Frankfurt’s hypothesis—Such desires seem arbitrary and forced upon us. We often resist our strongest and most stable desires. Velleman admits that our desires must be knowingly and willingly desired in order for them to count as values, but we can’t knowingly and willingly desire anything we don’t find to be valued for good reason. For example, we might be committed to be against cruelty precisely because we think suffering really is bad.
Two, Velleman dismisses our common sense experiences of substantive commitments in favor of predictability, but predictability is not a good approach to human behavior (164). Attempts to understand the human mind in terms of predictability are notoriously unsuccessful and we have little choice but to continue to use something like “folk psychology” (a common sense understanding of psychology involving desires and beliefs) (153-164). It is hypocritical of Velleman to decide that our common sense understanding of commitment should be dismissed when he doesn’t think that our common sense understanding of psychology should be dismissed. (He also makes use of beliefs and desires in his hypothesis.) We should take our common sense understanding and experience of substantive commitments seriously just like we should take them seriously for psychology in general. Our common sense understanding and experiences of substantive commitments force us to reject Velleman’s hypothesis because such “timeless” desires are not something we understand to be part of us (they are not a substantial part of our self-understanding, and they aren’t our stable values).
Presumably Velleman wants to dismiss our common sense experience of substantive commitments because he sees it to require immodest commitments concerning moral facts out in the world, but folk psychology would then suffer from the exact same objection. Why should we believe that there are psychological facts (such as desires and beliefs) if not because of our actual psychological experiences? Either our experiences are able to counteract the objection from extravagance or they aren’t.
These values can be understood to be desire-independent facts.
If desire-independent facts can’t explain the stable values required by our commitments, then we have no reason to think that our stable values really are desire-independent facts. Lieberman offers three main reasons to support his claim that values can be understood to be desire-independent facts:
- Much of his reasoning is based on comparing and contrasting the two possibilities. There are four reasons that desires seem unable to account for some of our stable values, but commitment seems to be able to account for them. I already discussed these four issues above in the section “These values can’t be understood to be desires.”
- He considers how our commitments can be understood as requiring values in the form of desire-independent facts rather than desires.
Substantive commitments can be understood as requiring impersonal values.
Lieberman suggests that there are personal and impersonal values.
Personal values come from ourselves (118). Some objects have value based on the fact that we care about them. Personal values might be explainable in terms of desires, but we must also be able to communicate to others why such values can be understood to be a reason for action. For example, a hobby of stamp collecting isn’t necessarily justified in terms of objective values, but we might still be able to explain to others why it captivates our interest.
Impersonal values are values that can be taken by anyone to be a reason for action (125). They are based on a conception of oneself (self-conception) as merely one person in a world with other people (ibid.). They are reasons for actions because we are human beings rather than because of personal desires. Instrumental values are required to justify substantive commitments—such as a commitment against cruelty. These values explain why an action is meaningful and worthwhile to everyone. Personal quirks (desires) can’t justify to other people the worthiness of a commitment in this way (127).
Our substantive commitments require impersonal values, which are desire-independent values that can only be understood as requiring moral realism. If Lieberman is correct that substantive commitment can be understood as requiring desire-independent values, then he has succeeded in providing us with an understanding about how moral realism can make sense. His view of desire-independent values is only the beginning of fully justifying and understanding moral realism, but it can help us realize that moral realism should be taken as a serious possibility.
What can such objective impersonal values look like? Lieberman suggests that impersonal values are based on a conception of human nature and “the human good” (127). Lieberman does not say much else about the human good or how it can be used as an impersonal value. Some illustrations could be helpful. I offer the following illustrations based on my personal understanding of “the human good”:
- Part of the human good is be happy, so cruelty is immoral.
- Part of the human good is to have our “needs” met, such as our reproductive needs, so it is wrong to force others to be sterilized. (Other needs can include our need to be free from coercion, free to seek knowledge, etc.)
- Part of the human good is that we function properly, so it is morally necessary to try to stay healthy, and it is immoral to cause bodily harm to others.
Lieberman’s conception of morality in terms of human flourishing could meant to to be a contrast to hedonistic utilitarianism—something can have value other than pleasure and pain.
A common objection to desire-independent values is that they must mysteriously motivate action without actually being desires. Lieberman makes it clear that the motivation for action is different than the reason for action (125). Why I can commit myself against cruelty is based on my motivation, but why my commitment is justified is based on objective reasoning.
Lieberman argues that our substantive commitments require us to have a self-conception, but his arguments are not entirely persuasive.
I agree that our commitments require stable values, but that doesn’t mean that they also require us to have a self-conception. Values are not necessarily tied to our self-conception. If I think that torture is horrible, it might be because the suffering inflicted is horrible rather than because human beings are the type of thing human beings are.
I suppose Lieberman could reply that I see myself as the sort of being to try to do what I think is right (rather than merely do what I desire). It is true that my self-conception might include the fact that I am the sort of person that cares about wonderful and horrible events, and I will try not to do anything that inflicts suffering onto others.
Lieberman argues that moral values are based on human nature, but he does not fully justify that conclusion.
If our self-conception is that we are the sorts of beings that can be harmed and benefited, then the idea that human nature (or the human good) is quite convenient. Self-conception could then be sufficient to understand moral values. However, our self-conception and moral values can be two different things.
One, if my self-conception is merely based on the idea that I care about what is morally right, then what is morally right could be based on some more abstract intrinsic value—such as the value of existing minds or the value of pleasure.
Two, it isn’t clear how human nature or “the human good” is morally relevant. The nature of insects doesn’t tell me not to squash them. Insects seem fairly irrelevant to morality. They might be merely automata (biological machines) with no consciousness. What does “the insect good” have to do with morality? The only answer that I can imagine is that human beings really matter (we have intrinsic value) and that might somehow justify the belief that we should try to benefit people.
Lieberman’s argument isn’t entirely persuasive in its current form, but he does offer us a great deal of discussion that could give us some reason to agree to his premises and conclusion despite the discussion being somewhat inconclusive. I have not offered good reasons to reject any of Lieberman’s premises, but his support for those premises are not always persuasive. His second premise, “if these stable values can’t be understood as desires, and they can be understood as desire-independent facts; then they are desire-independent facts” can be challenged, but it does seem to be fairly uncontroversial at this time. The belief that commitments require self-understanding is an essential element of his discussion for desire-independent values and I am not convinced that such a belief is true, but such a belief might not be necessary for his argument in the first place. Finally, his discussion of desire-independent values being based on human nature (or the human good) seems speculative rather than well-supported, and such speculation might not even be necessary for his argument to succeed.
One final point—Lieberman’s argument does not prove that moral realism is true, but the fact that “common sense” (unobjectionable and uncontroversial beliefs, such as the belief that commitments are sometimes rational) could itself give us some reason to believe that moral realism is true. Additionally, if we assume that Lieberman’s argument succeeds and we can prove that our commitments are rational, then we could prove that moral realism is true.
Marcel S. Lieberman’s Commitment, Value, and Moral Realism can be purchased at Amazon.com.
1Desire-independent facts are facts that can exist without human desires. Rocks and people exist no matter what I desire. What is right and wrong also seem to be facts beyond my desires. I might want to kill someone, but that doesn’t justify such an action. It might be true that we tend to desire things we value, but it might be that can desire something because it has value.