The Myth of Morality: Moral Inescapability

This post is the second in a series covering Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, a book arguing both for error theory and fictionalism about morality.

In the last post, we left off with a method of determining  whether an error-theoretical stance should be taken toward moral discourse: first, find one or more non-negotiable propositions implied by the discourse; second, attempt to ascertain whether these non-negotiable propositions are true. In this post, Joyce begins to build his case for an error theory.


Moral Inescapability & Prudential Oughts

Joyce’s argument for error theory centers on what he calls ‘moral inescapability’.  He views moral discourse in the tradition of J.L. Mackie, as being objectively prescriptive:

..it is the idea that there are actions which we “have to do, regardless” that underlies the claims of objective prescriptivity. The problem of ordinary moral discourse is not a matter of what motivations accompany our moral judgments – it is, rather, that we think that people are “bound” even if they make no moral judgments at all. Even the person who has rejected that whole realm we still think of as being under the jurisdiction of morality.” ~ Joyce, p. 31.

These ideas about being “bound”, about having to do something “regardless” seem hopelessly vague. However, we can begin to see just what they mean by comparison with non-binding and circumstantial ‘prudential reasons’:

Moral inescapability is an elusive notion. Imagine the child asking why he mustn’t pinch his play mate. The parent replies “Because it’s wrong.” The child continues “But why mustn’t I do what’s wrong?” The parent might give an exasperated “Because you mustn’t!” It is the attempt to clarify the inadequate parental response that is the task of this chapter. Of course, there are all sorts of kinds of reasons that the parent might give: “If you pinch Violet Elizabeth, then she might pinch you back” or “. . . then she won’t play with you” or “. . . then you’ll be sent to your room.” All good (and possibly effective) prudential reasons. But prudence, I shall argue, is not what underwrites moral prescriptivity. Regarding any type of prescription which can be justified on prudential grounds, we can always imagine an unusually situated or unusually constituted agent who “escapes” the prescription. Perhaps the child doesn’t want Violet Elizabeth as his friend, perhaps he doesn’t mind being pinched or being sent to his room. Or perhaps these costly consequences are things he has the power to avoid. In such a case what becomes of the injunction against pinching? On prudential grounds, it must evaporate. But moral proscriptions do not evaporate, regardless of how we imagine the agent situated. If it is not pinching, but torturing that is at stake, then there is no escaping. But the thought that torturing is always proscribed on prudential grounds is just silly. That it always is as a matter of fact is a case that might be made – but that it must be, even in situations where the philosopher gets to stipulate the costs and benefits (let’s say without breaking any laws of nature) is nothing but groundless optimism.” ~ Joyce, p. 31.

So, being “bound” by moral prescriptions can be understood in terms of inescapability, where no unusual facts about an agent can suffice to exempt them from such prescriptions. Their rational force does not evaporate upon discovery of an agent’s desires or circumstances, unlike prudential prescriptions.

Of course, this remarkable difference between prudence and morality hasn’t prevented philosophers from arguing that moral prescriptions are to be fulfilled due to their practical consequences. After all, it is difficult to see just how else moral prescriptions are to be supported. But aside from the above quoted concern, that prudential grounds cannot always be available to support a moral prescription, this longstanding practice appears to give the wrong answer to the question of why one ought not to perform immoral acts: e.g. if the reason why one ought not to murder is because murdering is morally wrong, and a prudential reason is offered as the reason why one ought not to murder, then this seems to identify moral reasons with those prudential grounds. Yet although it may be true that eternal damnation, guilt, imprisonment, etc., are reasons not to murder, their threat is not what makes a prescription moral. So, useful though it may be to catalogue the prudential reasons in favor of a moral cause,  it appears that this project does cannot tell us what reasons stand behind moral oughts qua moral oughts. A better model for what they are is afforded by ‘institutional oughts’.

Institutional Oughts

Another way to gloss the prudential prescriptions considered above is to take them as supporting hypothetical imperatives, where these prescribe action to an agent on a hypothesis of that agent’s supposed desires or ends1. As alluded to earlier, such prescriptions are dependent for their application upon facts about an agent, and so may not always apply to “unusually situated or unusually constituted” agents. By contrast, categorical imperatives declare ““an action as objectively necessary in itself apart from its relation to a further end.”2. So, lacking a dependency on contingent facts about the agent to whom it is applied, a categorical imperative cannot be escaped by those for whom the contingent facts do not hold, and thus its prescriptive force is non-evaporable too. As these two features are shared by moral imperatives, it therefore seems that they must be categorical in nature.

Interestingly, moral imperatives aren’t the only sort of categorical imperatives. Various systems of rules, or ‘institutions’ – those of ettiquette, of a social club, of gladitorial combat, even – give rise to imperatives which are likewise non-evaporable. For instance, suppose it is the rule of one’s social club that each member should bring a plate to their regular meetings: in such a case this rule supports a corresponding imperative “You ought to bring a plate” and accounts for the correctness of its use. That this is so even if the member has good prudential reasons for not bring a plate, that the imperative cannot be discharged by producing those reasons or any other facts, marks the imperative as categorical. But suppose the prudential reasons were compelling, that perhaps a member has failed to bring a plate because her house has burnt down and this makes bringing a plate an inconvenience as well as a financial burden? Well then, we feel the need to make a distinction: in one sense, the member ought to have brought a plate, in another sense, she needn’t have done so. Of course, we think that the prudential considerations here trump the institutional considerations, but by the same token, the fact that the rules of the social club remain in place regardless require us to continue to recognize the correctness of the original prescription. (Rules are rules, after all). And so it is with morality – so far, so good.

However, this analogy obviously has its limits. Perhaps the social club member doesn’t particularly value their membership: if so, then although it would still be true to say that the member ought to bring a plate, we could no longer think of these rules as binding her, as being her rules, as really saying what she should do. It would be legitimate to ignore the rules in favor of her own prudential considerations. But moral imperatives cannot be legitmately ignored, and cannot be escaped in the event that an agent doesn’t particularly care for morality.

Categorical Imperatives, Weak & Strong

So what accounts for the difference between the weak categorical imperatives generated by systems of rules and the strong categorical imperatives of morality? One Kantian answer is that strong categorical imperatives bring with them reasons for action, and such reasons may not be legitimately ignored. But don’t weak categorical imperatives too imply reasons for action? With J.L. Mackie we might think that part of what we mean by ‘ought’ is ‘has a reason’:

MP: It is necessary and a priori that, for any agent x, if x ought to φ, then x has a reason to φ3.

In support of MP (Mackie’s Platitude) it might be pointed out that linguistic constructions of the form “You really ought to φ, though you have no reason to φ” sound incorrect. Moreover, it seems perfectly in order to respond to an imperative’s invocation by asking for a reason in its favor, and refusing the prescription if no reason is supplied. Supposing MP is true, then, the difference between weak and strong categorical imperatives must be found elsewhere.

Still, why should it be initially plausible that weak categorical imperatives fail to imply reasons? Perhaps because the reasons which are offered in favor of, say, etiquette, often amount to an impotent invocation of that framework: suppose I ask you not speak with your mouth full, and you ask for a reason – here it would seem pointless of me to point out that you would violate etiquette in doing so, as your question makes it unlikely that you would accept the dictates of etiquette, were they explicated. So it is not that weak categorical imperatives do not imply reasons, but rather that the reasons they provide are in some sense internal to a framework, and so such reasons may be escaped by a person who places themselves outside the framework. In contrast, one cannot step outside of the moral framework in the same way. One can question the framework (‘why should I be moral?’) or signal a lack of commitment to it (by using relativistic locutions like “According to our moral framework, X is wrong”), but even so, we take this framework to bind reasons to persons and make demands of them which cannot be legitimately ignored. Morality cannot be escaped “by simply flying the skull and cross-bones and renouncing altogether the aim of belonging to the moral community4.

It is this inescapability, then, that distinguishes strong categorical imperatives from their weak counterparts. It is this inescapability which is peculiarly moral, and the target of Joyce’s substantive criticism.

1 Hypothetical imperatives take the form of a conditional: “If φ, then ψ”, where φ might be something like ‘..you want to dunk a basketball..’, and ψ ‘..perform calf raises, squats, and plyometrics exercises daily.”. Since they only apply to an agent if φ is true of the agent, assertion of a bare hypothetical imperative, or its consequent (φ) typically presuppose that φ is true of the agent. The presupposition can be cancelled by an explicit denial of φ.

2 Joyce, p. 35.

3 Joyce, p. 38. Strictly MP needs sharpening: sometimes ‘ought’ is used in a predictive sense, as when we say “John ought to arrive any minute now”. MP only applies to non-predictive uses of ‘ought’.

4 Joyce, p. 42, quoting David Wiggins.

6 thoughts on “The Myth of Morality: Moral Inescapability

  1. Yair says:

    I fail to see how weak categorical imperatives provide *categorical* reasons for action. As far as reasons for action are concerned, they are really just hypothetical imperatives that are granted the assumption that “the agent wants to remain within the framework”. The force of Kant’s idea on the Categorical Imperative is that it is a reason for action that is necessitated by Reason itself; it is hence a Categorical reason for action, as it is shared by all intelligent agents. The weak categorical imperatives don’t provide the same degree of universality of the reason-for-action.

    I don’t think Kant’s CI is true, BTW. But the idea of anchoring morality on one is at least an interesting one.

  2. TaiChi says:

    It’s true, weak categorical imperatives only have rational force if the agent is committed to the framework. But they are different to hypothetical imperatives in that we are not required to retract them if it is revealed that the agent is not so committed. They remain intelligible, even correct, despite an agent’s lack of interest in them. Joyce’s original example:

    Consider Celadus the Thracian, an unwilling gladiator: he’s dragged off the street, buckled into armor, and thrust into the arena. Despite his protestations, he is now a gladiator (I take it that being a gladiator is rather like being a shark attack victim – something that can be forced upon one very unwillingly). Let’s imagine that there are various rules of gladiatorial combat: you ought not throw sand in your opponent’s eyes, for instance. Celadus is a gladiator, subject to the rules, and so he ought not throw sand in his opponent’s eyes. But these rules are not his rules – what are they to him? Imagine that things are looking bleak – his opponent is a sadistic professional fighter, and Celadus finds himself pinned down and swordless. His only hope is to throw some sand in his rival’s eyes. (Let’s stipulate, with utter implausibility, that he can get away with nobody seeing him do this, just as a way of being sure that there will be no negative repercussions in the form of punishment for breaking the rules.) The rules still say that Celadus shouldn’t do it, but he doesn’t care about the rules – he has no particular reason to follow them, and every reason to reject them. Given that he has never entered into any form of contract to follow the rules, and that following the rules will lead to his quick and unjust demise, I think we will all agree that Celadus ought to throw sand in his opponent’s eyes. He ought to do what he ought not to do.
    This last statement is not in the least paradoxical, so long as we keep track of our “ought”s. The first “ought” is something like an all-things-considered “ought” – it presents
    the thing to be done. The second “ought” is an according-to-the-rules “ought.” Saying that Celadus ought to do what he ought not to do is just a way of
    saying that he ought to break the rules. The fact that he should break them doesn’t make them evaporate – they continue to
    be rules – and so there continues to be a sense in which he ought not throw sand in his opponent’s eyes. If we denied this we could make no sense of the fact that Celadus was breaking a rule at all.”

    So here is an example where the agent has no interest in staying within the framework. But the weak categorical imperatives, licensed by gladiatorial rules, continue to apply. So they are not conditional on the agent, but categorical.
    I find that makes perfect sense. But you might still think that these institutional reasons are not real reasons, that they would only be real reasons if the agent were committed to the framework which spawns them. And they could only be real categorical reasons if something like the Kantian picture were right. Fair enough – Joyce says as much himself. You could then call institutional reasons ‘ersatz reasons’ and their imperatives ‘ersatz categorical imperatives’, without disputing the content of Joyce’s position.

  3. Yair says:

    But if we allow ourselves to bring forth pseudo-reasons, why stop there? Why not entertain the pseudo-reason “to please the gods” (divine command theory)? The situation is exactly analogous to the gladiator’s – people didn’t AGREE top get created and judged by god’s rules, after all! And why should god get to be an “institution” and me not? There is a hidden normative claim there.

    No. This is an extension of “categorical” that doesn’t really work. It only spreads confusion on the central issue – how can moral claims both have normative force and be universal. I don’t like it one whit. “Weak categorical” should just be abandoned, and institutional norms understood in terms of hypothetical imperatives. There’s nothing truly categorical about them, except by arbitrary stipulation.

    It appears Joyce doesn’t either, but can live with the “ersatz” disclaimer. I just find it confusing and needless.

  4. TaiChi says:

    But if we allow ourselves to bring forth pseudo-reasons, why stop there? Why not entertain the pseudo-reason “to please the gods” (divine command theory)? The situation is exactly analogous to the gladiator’s – people didn’t AGREE top get created and judged by god’s rules, after all!

    Yes, why not? I’m sure that these pseudo-reasons abound. Why are they objectionable, exactly? Remember, the claim on behalf of institutional reasons is not that they always have rational force.

    And why should god get to be an “institution” and me not?

    Joyce doesn’t actually explain this (the distinction actually belongs to Phillipa Foot), but I presume being an institution refers to what is customary in society. The rules established for the appeasement of the gods might then be an institution, but your rules wouldn’t.

    There is a hidden normative claim there.

    I think you might be right – the appeal to an institution would amount to presenting the institution as worthy of commitment.

    There’s nothing truly categorical about them, except by arbitrary stipulation.

    The imperatives of etiquette apply to persons without exception, and in that sense they are categorical.

    “It appears Joyce doesn’t either, but can live with the “ersatz” disclaimer. I just find it confusing and needless.

    Well, I’ll be leaving it behind in the next post. The account of weak categorical imperatives is mainly useful in that it shows what moral imperatives are by contrast – rationally inescapable.

  5. John D says:

    Any plans to continue this?

  6. TaiChi says:

    Yes – the next post is about 2/3 done. I’d got interested in other projects, but I’ll see if I can get that done and up shortly.

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