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’.
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 community”4.
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.