Ethical Realism

October 19, 2010

Review of Robert Audi’s The Good in the Right

Robert Audi’s The Good in the Right (2004) attempts to offer a comprehensive understanding of morality that incorporates W. D. Ross’s moral intuitionism, Kant’s categorical imperative, and intrinsic values. I will summarize Audi’s major claims and assess their plausibility. The moral realist view that morality is irreducible to non-moral properties is traditionally the “intuitionist” project, and “intuitionism” is traditionally based on the idea that we know moral facts from “intuition”—and “intuition” is traditionally viewed as a realization that something is true based on self-evidence.1 First, Audi argues that Ross’s intuitionism is “intuitive” and can help us determine our “prima facie duties.” He defends a moderate form of intuition and argues that many arguments against self-evidence are based on misunderstandings. Second, he argues that the categorical imperative can be used as a way to ground intuitionism and help us choose between conflicting duties. Third, he argues that an understanding of intrinsic value can be used as a way to further ground our duties.

1. Rossian intuitionism is intuitive.

I will briefly describe Ross’s intuitionism and how Audi defends it from various “misunderstandings.” Audi is willing to defend an intuitionism similar to that of W. D. Ross, but he is also willing to make corrections as he sees fit.

What is Ross’s Intuitionism?

Ross proposes that we have self-evident prima facie moral duties. We have various prima facie duties, such as the duty of non-injury (the duty to not harm people) and the duty of beneficence (to help people). These duties are “prima facie” because they can be overriden. Duties can determine what we ought to do “nothing else considered” but they don’t determine what we ought to do all things considered. Whatever we ought to do all things considered will override any other conflicting duties. For example, the promise to kill someone would give us a prima facie duty to fulfill our promise, but it would be overridden by our duty not to injure others.

What does it mean for these duties to be self-evident? It means that we can contemplate the duties and know they are true based on that contemplation—but only if we contemplate them in the right way. Ross compares moral self-evidence to the self-evidence of mathematical axioms (25). A logical axiom that seems to fit the bill is the law of non-contradiction—We know that something can’t be true and false at the same time.

Audi describes intuitive reasoning as our ability to reason “non-inferentially” and apparently “self-evident” truths are known in this way. This contrasts with reasoning based on “inference” or premises or arguments. An example of inference (based on premises or arguments) is: “Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.”

How have people misunderstood self-evidence?

Audi argues that self-evidence is often seen as objectionable because people make assumptions about it that aren’t necessarily true. Audi discusses the following six “myths” about self-evidence:

  1. People often think that if something is self-evident, then it’s self-evident that it’s self-evident; but Audi argues that we can have justified beliefs without knowing why they are justified (29, 42-44). This is why some people reject self-evident truths entirely.
  2. People often think that if something is self-evident, then we can’t help but believe it; but Audi argues that this is false (42).
  3. People often think that if something is self-evident, then we can “just see” that it is true without effort; but Audi argues that it can require quite a bit of contemplation and understanding before a self-evident truth is realized. For example, “[t]he existence of great-grandchildren is impossible apart from that of four generations of people” is a self-evident truth, but it isn’t necessarily realized without effort (49).
  4. People often think that if something is self-evident, then everyone should agree that it is true; but Audi argues that some people are incapable of understanding self-evident truths because they lack the maturity or “comprehension” (25, 36).
  5. People often think that if something is self-evident or known intuitively, then it must be indefeasible or infallible—it couldn’t possibly be wrong; but Audi argues that it is possible to prove some self-evident truths to be false (25, 32).2 Although self-evident truths can be apprehended without a theory, “[t]he independence of theory… does not entail that intuition has a complete independence of theory: an intuition may be defeated and abandoned in the light of theoretical results incompatible with its truth, especially when these results are supported by other intuitions” (36).
  6. People often think that if something is self-evident, then it’s impossible to prove it’s truth; but Audi argues that something can be self-evident and yet still proven. It could be that moral truths can be known from observation and intuition (45).

If we reject these six “myths,” then we can have a less objectionable and more plausible form of self-evidence and intuitionism. However, there are at least four objections to self-evidence that Audi does not discuss:

Objection 1 – Audi doesn’t discuss the fact that “intuitions” and “self-evidence” seem mysterious. We tend to say that we use “intuition” to grasp “truths” precisely when we have a hard time describing and understanding why exactly some belief is justified. If Audi could give some concrete uncontroversial examples of self-evident truths and how we know they are self-evident, then the case for intuitionism would be much more plausible.

Objection 2 – It’s not clear how we can identify a truth as being “self-evident.” In fact, he doesn’t ever tell us how we can know something is self-evident. We can know lots of things our entire lives because they are self-evident, but we might reject them because of our inability to prove that they are true (or self-evident) to others.

Objection 3 – It’s not clear how self-evidence is completely different from observation and inferential reasoning.3 I know that I have two hands because I can see and feel them. No “argument” is needed, but we say that I know that I have hands through observation rather than because it’s “self-evident.” Additionally, I know that something can’t be true and false at the same time after sufficient contemplation, but I don’t know for sure that my contemplation doesn’t include anything like premises or inference.

Consider that “pain is bad” seems self-evident. It’s part of the meaning of the word “pain” that it is bad in some way. We can experience for ourselves pain and realize that it is “pain” because it is bad in the appropriate way. The problem here is that self-evidence seems a lot like “observation.”

Someone might say that we know pain is bad because it is self-evident—the meaning of the words “bad” and “pain” have a necessary connection. However, it’s not clear that this “necessary connection” is based on anything more than our experience of pain.

Objection 4 – It’s not clear that self-evident truths can be anything other than tautological truths. Such truths would be true by definition, but they would not say anything about how the world really is. They would be unsubstantial and arguing about them would be playing with words. If all self-evident truths are tautological, no substantial moral truths could be self-evident.

2. The categorical imperative can help ground intuitionism.

Audi believes that Ross’s Intuition was incomplete (non-comprehensive) and that an understanding of the categorical imperative and intrinsic values can make it more comprehensive. Audi not only attempts to demonstrate that intuitionism is compatible and coherent with Kant’s categorical imperative, but also that (a) the categorical imperative offers more general principles that prima facie duties are based on, and (b) the categorical imperative can help us make moral decisions when we have to choose between conflicting duties.

What is the categorical imperative?

The formulation of the categorical imperative that Ross is interested in is the “intrinsic end” or “humanity” formulation, which requires us to “[a]ct in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (90). In other words, treat people respectfully and don’t “use people.” Audi describes the categorical imperative as the following:

First, to treat someone as an end is above all the relevant acts towards the person (the “treatment”) to be motivated by a concern with the good, say the physical or psychological well-being, of the person for its own sake. Second, to treat someone merely as a means is for the relevant acts towards the person to be motivated only by instrumental motivation towards the person. (91-92)

And again:

The notion of merely instrumental treatment expresses a negative ideal. Treatment of persons that instantiates it is prima facie wrong and commonly repugnant; but even conduct that approaches it is, if not wrong, then criticizable to the extent that it approximates merely instrumental treatment. (98)

How the categorical imperative grounds prima facie duties.

Audi argues that our prima facie duties are more specific than the categorical imperative, which is more general. However, all of our prima facie duties could be more specific formulations of the categoical imperative. For example,

  1. The prima facie duty of beneficence is based on valuing people or people’s humanity. If we treat people as“ends” (respectfully), then we will have an interest in helping them.
  2. The prima facie duty of non-injury requires us to treat people in part as “ends” (with a certain amount of respect). If we value people, then we will have an interest in protecting them rather than harming them.
  3. The prima facie duty to promise keeping is important because it’s respectful to keep prmomises and breaking promises is disrespectful.

How the categorical imperative can help us make moral decisions.

Ross thought that ethical theories were incapable of telling us the “right thing to do” in any given situation, and we need to develop “practical wisdom” (similar to the beliefs of Aristotle) to make everyday moral decisions. However, Audi argues that Ross gave up too easily and it could be that moral theory has a lot more to offer our decision-making process than Ross’s intuitionism.

Consider the following three examples:

  1. We have a prima facie duty of beneficence (to help people) and a prima facie duty of promise keeping, and these duties can conflict. The categorical imperative could help make it clear that the duty to help save someone’s life will override the duty to meet a friend for coffee on time because the value of the person being saved will be greater than the value of seeing your friend on time. Additionally, your friend will probably not feel disrespected and will fully understand that saving the person was more important.
  2. Our prima facie duty of beneficence could to be equally important with our prima facie duty of non-injury—and someone might think that harming one person to help another is justified for that reason. For example, stealing from one person to give money to someone else. The person who is harmed might be less harmed than the person you helped. However, Audi argues that this sort of action tends to be morally unjustified. Our duty of beneficence tends to be less important than our duty of non-injury, so our duty of non-injury tends to override our duty of beneficence (99). To treat people respectfully (as an end) doesn’t always require that we help them, but it does require us to refuse to harm them.
  3. Our prima facie duty of beneficence could seem to be too demanding and override our personal interests. It seems more important to help the poor than to entertain oneself (or even educate oneself)—but certainly we have a right to have a personal life beyond helping others. Audi argues that our duty not to treat people primarily as a means includes oneself—to spend every waking moment helping others is to disrespect oneself by using oneself primarily as a means to help others (99).

3. Intrinsic values can help ground intuitionism.

Audi argues that intrinsic values can help ground and clarify our prima facie duties, but he rejects conequentialism—the view that something is “right” if it maximizes intrinsic values and “wrong” it it doesn’t.4 In particular, we need to know what exactly the duties of beneficence and non-injury require. We need to know what counts as helping or hurting a person. To possess knowledge, virtue, or happiness seems to to be in possession of intrinsic goods, but to experience suffering is to experience something that’s intrinsically bad. Audi discusses three important aspects of intrinsic values: (1) Experientialism and (2) clarifying vocabulary.

Experientialism

Audi suggests that we might want to limit intrinsic values to experiences, which he calls “experientialism.” “On this view, the bearers of intrinsic value (and intrinsic disvalue) are experiences, including experiential states and processes, where these experiential elements are construed purely psychologically, roughly as qualitative mental states or processes” (124-125).

Objection 1 – Experientialism seems plausible as long as we can’t find a counterexample. Is everything we value intrinsically an experience? No. Virtue, knowledge, and minds all seem to have intrinsic value by many people; but they aren’t experiences. If experientialism is true, then these three goods actually lack intrinsic value.

Objection 2 – To only rate the value of “experiences” seems to treat experiences as “free floating” parts of reality, and it might make more sense to treat experiences as part of bodies or minds. Instead of saying that pain is a “subjective experience” it might be better to say that pain is a “negative aspect of consciousness.” Instead of rating the existence of pain as “bad,” it might make more sense to rate a consciousness that is experiencing pain as having a negative aspect—and it could be that consciousness itself is the key holder of intrinsic value. I discuss this possibility in more detail in “Does Human Life Have Value?

Clarifying vocabulary

Audi makes many clarifications concerning intrinsic value. He distinguishes intrinsic from inherent value (125-130), episodic from aspectual value (127), hedonic from nonhedonic value (128), and contributory from contextual value (128-129):

  • Intrinsic value – If something has intrinsic value, then it’s good for its own sake. It’s good just for existing.
  • Inherent value – If something has inherent value, then it’s useful. It has instrumental value likely to promote an intrinsic good. For example, a beautiful painting isn’t good just for existing, but it is likely to produce “experiences of beauty” that have intrinsic value.
  • Episodic value – Something has episodic value if it is good overall, such as an overall positive experience of watching a horror movie that causes us fear and other negative emotions at certain parts of the movie.
  • Aspectual value – Something has aspectual value when it is valuable as just one element of an experience. An enjoyable horror movie can produce negative feelings, but those are just certain aspects or elements of the overall movie-watching experience.
  • Hedonic value – Something has hedonic value if it is pleasurable or painful.
  • Nonhedonic value – Something has nonhedonic intrinsic value if it is intrinsically good (a positive experience) but isn’t pleasurable (or a negative experience without being painful). For example, contemplating a criminal who is justly punished can be an overall positive experence despite the fact that it’s not pleasurable.
  • Contributory value – Something has a contributory value if its additive. The more intense a pleasure is, the better it is, for example.
  • Contextual value – Something has a positive contextual value if it makes an overall experience more positive (have more intrinsic value) despite the fact that it might have negative elements (aspects); and something has a negative contextual value if it makes an overall experience more negative despite the fact that it might have positive elements. For example, to be afraid during a horror movie can actually make the experience even more positive despite the fact that fear is unpleasant.

Audi’s discussion of contextual value is thought-provoking, and he relates it to the idea that intrinsic value can be unfitting or undeserved (129). Sadism—to feel pleasure at another person’s pain—tends to be unfitting. The pleasure has an intrinsically good aspect, but it actually makes the experience intrinsically worse overall (episodically).

Additionally, an evil person might not deserve happiness (127-128). The happiness of an evil person could have an intrinsically good aspect while simultaneously making the experience intrinsically worse overall.

Objection 1 – For the most part “contextual value” seems to relate to our psychology—will our experience seem to be more positive or negative given the aspects found within the experience? Fear during a horror movie seems painful, but it is merely a painful aspect that can make an experience more positive overall. However, the idea that someone doesn’t deserve positive experiences and someone else does seems to be an objective fact beyond someone’s experience in question. The evil people who feel happiness don’t necessarily feel worse overall because they don’t deserve it. Audi might respond that it is us who contemplate happy evil people who will feel worse overall.

Of course, Audi doesn’t answer some of the more important questions regarding contextual value and “deserving good things.” Do people who deserve happiness deserve it beyond the opinions and experiences of others? The fact that I don’t like someone else being happy might seem a bit oppressive or judgmental. Additionally, what people actually experience seems to relate to their psychology rather than the actual appropriateness of a state of affairs. If I don’t like contemplating that an evil person is happy, that wouldn’t seem to prove that the evil person doesn’t deserve happiness.

One reason that I suspect that some people seem to deserve happiness or suffering is because we think that reward and punishment befit certain behaviors. Psychologically, it seems educational to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. For example, a person who is rewarded for bad behavior will likely continue to exhibit the bad behavior because of the expected rewards. I’m not convinced that reward and punishment is objectively befitting because it seems like it’s merely helpful and informative to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. The idea that evil people deserve suffering seems to encourage revenge and ultimately the very evil that we should want to avoid encouraging.

Objection 2 – Intrinsic values (such as pleasure) can be understood to be “inappropriate” without an appeal to contextual value or desert. We know that hurting people to benefit ourselves is almost always wrong despite the fact that we are personally benefited. Sadism is inappropriate insofar as it is wrong for people hurt other people to feel pleasure, but it’s not entirely clear that sadism is always wrong. Lots of people watch America’s Funniest Home Videos and laugh at the expense of others, and most people think it’s “all in good fun.”

Conclusion

Audi’s The Good in the Right is a thoughtful and thought provoking read that offers us a more comprehensive moral theory and moral worldview. However, it is merely a beginning and there is much more to be said on the subject. The main concern of the book was to introduce a comprehensive outline of what it means to understand morality. The main concern was not to defend the theory and it was not to argue that it has to be true. At this time it is merely one moral theory among others, and it would take more research and argumentation to decide which one is the best—or if it is probably true.

Update (10/20/2010): (1) I added a little more information to “objection 3” on my discussion of “How have people misunderstood self-evidence?” (2) I added “objection 2” to the discussion of “experientialism.”

Notes

1 The view that moral facts are reducible to non-moral properties is often called moral naturalism, and “naturalism” is the view that moral knowledge is analogous to scientific knowledge (such as physics, biology, or chemistry). However, this categorization is based on the assumption that “naturalism” must be reductionistic. It is quite possible that mental facts are irreducible to non-mental properties, but psychology could still be a “scientific” discipline.

2 I have a hard time understanding how a self-evident “truth” could be “false.” If something is self-evident, then I would think it has to be true, and would therefore be irrefutable. However, I can understand that we could misidentify a statement as being “self-evident” due to prejudice or a misunderstanding. This might be what Audi really wants to say. After all, he doesn’t even tell me how we can identify any statement as being self-evident, so it seems likely that we can do so.

3 The objection that it’s unclear what “noninferential knowledge” consists in was also discussed by Bart Streumer in his review. (“The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value.” Notre Dame Philosopical Reviews. 18 October 2010. <http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=3041>. Originally published July 3, 2005.)

4 Audi agrees that consequentialism contributed an understanding of intrinsic value to philosophy, but he isn’t sure that consequentialism is able to fully prohibit exploitative behavior (121). Also, consequentialism has a hard time explaining why our duty of non-injury generally overrides our duty of beneficence, which Audi thinks the categorical imperative can explain..

2 Comments »

  1. I agree with your note #2. I also have a hard time understanding how a self-evident truth could be false.

    Re: objection 1 to Audi’s “six myths”:

    Audi doesn’t discuss the fact that “intuitions” and “self-evidence” seem mysterious. … If Audi could give some concrete uncontroversial examples of self-evident truths and how we know they are self-evident, then the case for intuitionism would be much more plausible.

    I think there are historical cases where we experience something in the first person, and then later come to know that that experience was of something real by other means. I think experience of “temperature” may be self-evident. If the problem is that these self-evident experiences are mysterious, that problem should be modulated by the fact that temperature is, after all, real.

    That is admittedly not enough to demonstrate that from within the experience there was self-evidence.

    Re: objection 1 to experientialism,

    Experientialism seems plausible as long as we can’t find a counterexample. Is everything we value intrinsically an experience? No. Virtue, knowledge, and minds all seem to have intrinsic value by many people; but they aren’t experiences. If experientialism is true, then these three goods actually lack intrinsic value.

    I am okay with this. It may be that virtue, justice and the like are useful fictions, but that they circumscribe this cluster of good experiences and promote conditions necessary to realize those experiences. The totality of underlying conditions that create good experiences, actions to bring about those conditions, estimations one needs to make as to which actions will be most successful, and the actual experiences themselves… all these may be held together by complicated mechanisms.

    So wrapping them up in conceptual packages in the forms of “virtue” and “knowledge” is a way for us to deal with these in language and cope with the complexity. Then the good of the experience bubbles up to the top, and it seems like virtue and knowledge are good in themselves.

    I think objection #2 to experientialism is very good.

    Re the introduction:

    The moral realist view that morality is irreducible to non-moral properties is traditionally the “intuitionist” project

    If moral properties are reducible to some other properties, if they are simply the same as one another, then the “non-moral properties” are moral properties after all. Or am I missing something?

    Comment by josef johann — November 30, 2010 @ 5:08 am | Reply

    • josef johann,

      Thanks for the comments.

      You said, “I am okay with this. It may be that virtue, justice and the like are useful fictions, but that they circumscribe this cluster of good experiences and promote conditions necessary to realize those experiences.”

      I don’t consider my objections to be knock-down reasons to reject Audi’s theory. I think they are just weak points that need further research. It is possible that virtue, knowledge, and minds are merely useful things for promoting values, but it’s not entirely clear. I personally do think human life (minds) have value and discuss that here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/2010/10/14/does-human-life-have-value/

      This thought actually mixes with objection 2, which you found more problematic for experientialism.

      You say, “If moral properties are reducible to some other properties, if they are simply the same as one another, then the “non-moral properties” are moral properties after all. Or am I missing something?”

      That’s right. Intuitionism tends to be non-reductionism and therefore rejects such a possibility. If moral facts are reducible to non-moral facts, then something could have moral and nonmoral properties (or be both a moral and nonmoral property) — but then non-reductionism would be false.

      Comment by James Gray — November 30, 2010 @ 6:13 am | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: