Tuesday, May 10, 2005

An argument against morality from determinism, part 1

There is an interesting argument against objective moral values that I heard from a guy I know. He said that whenever people act, their acts are the inevitable outcome of their motivations, and a person’s motivations are themselves the effects of things not under the control of the will, such as their neurological makeup, and social and environmental factors which contribute to our entire noetic structure. He argues that since this is the inescapable human condition, then we cannot have any moral obligations.

His argument seems to depend on the notion that “ought” implies “can.” In other words, the only way a person can have a moral obligation to do something is if they are able to do it. If they are not able to do it, then they can have no obligation to do it. Since our choices are determined by our motives, desires, and inclinations, then our choices aren’t free. We are not able to choose contrary to our motivations; therefore, we cannot be morally accountable for our actions.

This argument against morality strikes me as being self-refuting, because on the one hand, the conclusion is that there is no objective morality, but on the other hand, one of the premises in the argument is a moral principle. If there is no objective morality, then the premise is not true, and if the premise is not true, then the argument fails to show that there is no objective morality.

The intuition that “ought” implies “can” is a moral principle, because it defines fairness. It’s not fair to hold somebody accountable for something they could not help. Also, it tells us when we should require moral justification. We only require moral justification from people who are able to obey or disobey moral imperatives.

How do we know that the ought-implies-can principle is true? It can’t be proved. There is no empirical evidence for it. There are no premises which logically entail it. The principle can only be known by intuition. It is part of our moral intuition, because it informs us of when a person is blameworthy or praiseworthy. It informs us of when it is fair to hold somebody accountable for their actions.

Suppose, for example, that a man is thrown from a rooftop and lands on a woman and kills her. Our moral intuition tells us that the man has done nothing wrong, because though he resisted, he was not able to overcome the one who threw him off the rooftop, and having been thrown, he was not able to resist the force of gravity. Suppose, on the other hand, that the man was standing on the rooftop and freely chose to kill the woman by jumping off and landing on her. Since the man acted willfully, our moral intuitions tell us that he is blamable.

We would not be able to make this distinction if not for our moral intuitions, because it is a moral distinction. It is self-refuting, then, to rely on this distinction in order to argue against the existence of moral distinctions.

Part 2


At 5/10/2005 2:01 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

I was thinking about the man being thrown off the roof incident. Isn't he partly responsible for the woman dying? Maybe if he had went to the gym more often before that incident he could have 'saved' that woman's life. Our moral intuition tells us that he's not the main person responsible, but I think he is still partly responsible.

What if beforehand he had said to his wife, "I'm not going to go to the gym because I am lazy." His wife chastizes him but he still refuses to go. Then this incident occurs and it turns out his past action has contributed to the death of this woman.

In other words, there is no such thing as nonmoral choices. Every choice has a moral connotation to it, even if it isn't apparent at the time. That means in every situation, there is a breakdown of responsibility between multiple persons and, therefore, a breakdown of accountability.

For example, if the person who threw the man off the roof was 51% responsible for that action, then perhaps the man who was thrown may have been 20% responsible (for being there in the first place, for not working out, etc.), the woman was 15% responsible for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, the company who built the building is 5% responsible for building the roof (and the building) where this all happened, the man's wife is 2% responsible for not badgering her husband enough, etc, etc.

Now, when the moral accountability (punishment/reward) is handed out, each of them will receive their share corresponding to the amount of responsibility they had in that situation. The person who did the actual throwing will have the most accountability, the man thrown will have the next most, and it will go on from there.

So, in reality, the one doing the throwing may be the most responsible, but he's not the only one responsible. So we might waive the punishment for the rest of the people who we think their responsibility was relatively negligible and pin the crime on the one who actually did the throwing. (e.g. don't blame the victim for the crime)

A more practical example would be mob bosses. They don't usually do the killing but they send their cronies to do it for them. However, many would agree that the mob bosses are more responsible for the victims' death than the people who shot them, since they were only following orders.

That means that everything we do has weight in a moral situation. So we can all be blamed or praised for something that happened, not only the person who was the main culprit or main hero. But our accountability should correlate to our responsibility.

At 5/10/2005 3:57 PM , Blogger Jeff Downs said...

Can you give me your real name (at least your first name) so I can include it when I include some of your entries in my Resource Blog?


At 5/10/2005 4:05 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


While I see your point, I think it goes way beyond the purpose of the analogy. As you said, the man may be responsible for the choices he made which lead up to his being thrown from the roof, but he can't be guilty for the actual throwing since having been in that situation, he wasn't able to resist.

I would consider ignorance to be a natural inability. Just as missing legs prevent people from walking, and so excuse them from any obligation to walk, so also would lack of knowledge excuse a person from acts that, through a series of unforseen effects, led to some kind of immorality. I don't think it's possible for everybody to forsee the consequences of everything they do, so to blame the man thrown from the roof, and to blame the woman who happen to be there at the wrong time, and to blame the builders of the building for building it, seems far fetched to me.

At 5/10/2005 4:06 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, I'm Sam Harper.

At 5/10/2005 4:51 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Since you know right now that ignorance is a natural inability that may pardon you from crimes you do not know of, if you chose to try to be as ignorant as possible (e.g. by not reading the Bible, nor the Constitution), would you be guilty of committing a crime while in that self-imposed ignorant state? In addition, if lack of knowledge can spare me from punishment, how about lack of reasoning ability? Even if I have the knowledge, what if I have a natural inability to reason properly and I think it is justified for me to throw someone off a cliff (a lot of people commit crimes and believe they are doing the right thing and have reasoned to that conclusion); am I guilty then?

Also, do you mean lack of knowledge or lack of accessible knowledge? Suppose a man kills his wife in a rage. In his rage he forgets and does not access his knowledge that killing is wrong. So he is temporarily ignorant. Is he guilty of killing his wife?

Finally, should we be blamed for having the knowledge of a possibility of a bad event coming from our actions? If I choose to read a book for school with controversial, immoral content, and it is possible that I may become convinced that immorality is justified, am I guilty of choosing to read the book while running the risk that my morality will be undermined? I guess what I'm really saying is, are we guilty for our choices, or the consequences that our choices bring about? And should we be held more accountable for our choices if more bad things happen as a result of it?

At 5/10/2005 5:02 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Assuming that "ought" implies "can" it follows that if something is too difficult for me to do, then I'm completely excused. However, if it's half as difficult, then I'm excused in part.

I think this applies to acquiring knowledge and reasoning, too. I do think we have some responsibility if we choose to remain in ignorance, but the degree, I'm not sure of.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home