January 29, 2014

Morality and the (im)personal

In a recent article, Drew Carter (“’Part of the Very Concept’: Wittgensteinian Moral Philosophy”, Philosophical Investigations, 36 (2013), 37-55 ), criticizes philosophers like Raimond Gaita and Christopher Cordner for leaving the foundation of morality unclear. They appear to suggest, he claims, that moral judgments are grounded in a conceptual scheme (a grammar), but if so, they constitute mere conventions. This is obscured, it appears, by the fact that what these philosophers claim to construe as matters of mere grammar are actually facts of human nature. Carter’s underlying worry, if I understand him correctly, is that in the absence of a grounding in human nature, nothing distinguishes moral convictions from mere matters of personal taste or preference.

In a response (“Inwardness and Sociability”, Philosophical Investigations, 37 (2014),  57-77),  Michael Campbell questions the idea of a grounding of morality whether in grammar or in facts of human nature. In the same issue there is a rejoinder by Carter . I found Campbell’s response on the whole well-argued and instructive. At the same time, there were things in the discussion I found it hard to get a grip on. In this and a later installment I wish to make a few comments, mainly with the purpose of trying to work out the issues for myself.  

Why is it a problem if moral convictions cannot be distinguished from matters of taste or preference? One central reason, I take it (though this is not made explicit in the debate), is that this would make it impossible to understand why we should accord a person’s moral convictions a respect which we do not accord, say, his taste in curtains or his preference for watching hockey rather than football on tv. Respect, I should empasize, is compatible with rejection, though it will show itself in the manner in which the rejection gets expressed.

Thus, for instance, there is the question of whether the unwillingness of health-care personnel to participate in abortions is to be respected, or whether they can be obliged to participate as part of their professional duties. This, one might suggest, is connected with whether we think of their unwillingness as an expression of a moral conviction or just a personal reluctance.

For another example, let us consider an episode in the film Chariots of Fire, which is based on real events. Eric Liddell was on the British team for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He was deeply religious, and was reported to have said, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." This meant that he would not race on the Sabbath. He is selected to run the 100 metres, but when it turns out that the trial heats for the event are on a Sunday, he declares that he cannot compete. The British Olympic Committee, including the Prince of Wales, try to persuade him to change his mind, but he does not budge. (The standoff is resolved by his swapping events with another member of the British team.)

What I found of interest in this connection is the way the committee members approach the issue. They ask Liddell whether he would not be willing to make a sacrifice for Britain by competing on a Sunday. Thus, they seem to treat his unwillingness to compete as a matter of personal preference rather than an ethical / religious conviction. (I submit that the ethical and the religious are on a par in this respect.) They think that for him running on the Sabbath is something he prefers not to do, and thus running would involve a sacrifice on his part, one that he might be persuaded to undertake for a more important cause (the glory of Britain). But actually abstaining from running was the sacrifice he felt obliged to make; for him, there was no higher cause.

As I construe Carter’s position, if it is to be intelligible why certain convictions are to be accorded respect, they must be grounded in something independent of the individual or the practices of some group. A conviction deserves respect if it is “right”, as it were. The analogy here seems to be with being a credible witness: the speaker deserves to be believed if she has what we can all agree are valid grounds for the claims she is making. Similarly, the Olympic Committee might have been able to respect Liddell’s abstention if he had adduced grounds on which we can all agree, e.g. considerations of health. Since he could not adduce such grounds, there was no right or wrong about his wish, it simply boiled down to a matter of personal (or group) preference, and thus had no particular claim to be respected.

Campbell’s position, I gather, is almost the opposite of this. What makes a conviction deserving of respect is the depth with which it is held by the individual, the degree to which it is anchored in his or her life. This is why it is hard to imagine, for instance, how a love of evil – one of the examples discussed by Carter and Campbell – could take a form worthy of respect. Perhaps we could say: the more alien the proposed object of love appears to us, the heavier the burden of proof required if we are to be able to meet it with respect.

In a later entry, I plan to comment on the relation between morality and grammar.