The advice model of moral truth and meaning

I recently wrote the first (and, given the lack of interest, the only) instalment of a children’s story. The tale is meant to illustrate some basic ideas in meta-ethical theory in a fun and accessible way. However, on the face of it, I only make allusions to meta-ethics, and don’t really get explicit about what model of meta-ethical theory I am advocating.

But if you’re not satisfied by mere allusions, you can always hover over the images in the story. In this way, you get a few more details on what theories are being illustrated. Here (with some editing for clarity) is what it says, along with some references to who I’m drawing on. I’m advocating what you might think of as an ‘advice model’ of moral semantics and truth.

1. Cognitivism, not emotivism.The meaning of a moral sentence, like “Stealing is wrong”, is not as obvious as it looks on first glance. Let’s assume that some moral sentences are true, and hence that ‘error theory’ is wrong. What is it that makes them so?2. Existentialism, not realism. There are no spooky moral properties in the world. Hence, moral sentences do not directly refer.
3. Deference, not reference. It is plausible to believe that moral sentences are true or false depending on whether they are spoken with the right authority. Moral sentences are true or false depending upon whether or not the sentences felicitously defer to a moral authority.  [The irreducible sense of authority attached to moral claims is something I learned from H. Sidgwick’s Method of Ethics, though come to think of it, it probably owes more to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.]
4. Epistemically objective, not subjective. However, it is not always obvious who that authority might be. In case of uncertainty, we might be tempted to say that a moral sentence is true just in case it is uttered by an authority who is giving good advice. The authority of the speaker is determined, in part, by whether or not we have a justified sense that the authority making the claim knows that the advice shall lead to good consequences.  
5. The problem of egoism. But even if moral sentences were about giving good advice to achieve the best outcomes, it isn’t obvious what outcomes count as good ones. For example, a thief can always claim that the maxim, “Stealing is wrong”, does not lead to good consequences for him.  [The argument of the moral knave, of course, belongs to D. Hume.]
6. Grounded in orientation, not psychology. It is obvious that the victims of stealing are the ones who are suffering the consequences. The question is, how can you convince the thief that the suffering of his victims should be a reason not to steal? The answer, I think, is just that moral advice is addressed to a certain kind of audience: namely, people who have a pro-social orientation towards others. Anyone who lacks a pro-social orientation will not have the ability to understand what is said in a moral claim. And at this point, the thief faces a dilemma. If he thinks the moral claim is true, then you might say one of two things to him. a) On the one hand, you might say that the thief implicitly recognizes that the moral claim entails that there is a reason for action. b) And if he persists in recognizing that the moral claim is correct, but disagrees that this entails he has a reason for action, then you might use that as grounds to say that he is unable to understand the point of the moral claim after all. [The use of ‘orientation’ as a technical term is borrowed from R. Geuss, though I don’t know that ‘orientation’ has ever been used as a sui generis category used to block a reduction to beliefs and desires.]
7. Generated by psychology: desire. Admittedly, the connection between morality and the motivations of pro-social people is still pretty obscure. Even if everybody agrees that genuine moral claims provide a reason for action for pro-social people, that says almost nothing about what it takes for moral claims to be effective in bringing about an actual intention to act. If moral claims nominally provide a reason for action, but rarely or ever compel actions among pro-social people, then we might have reason to question whether they provide a reason after all. We need, in other words, to acknowledge the role of sentiments.
8. Generated by psychology: reasons. The role of the sentiments should not be overstated. For while all must agree that reasons aren’t sufficient to bring about intentions to act in pro-social people, sentiments aren’t sufficient to explain the distinctively sane and practical quality of moral claims. If the only thing behind moral claims were expressions of ‘boo’ and ‘hooray’, then you couldn’t make arguments which appeal to evidence, or have rational conversations about what ought to be done. But that is clearly false: not all moral blame is piacular. [The non-cognitive position of ’emotivism’ probably owes the most to the formulation given by A.J. Ayer.
9. So neither reasons nor passions are individually sufficient to account for the distinctiveness of moral claims, and their efficacy in producing intentions to act. However, they may be jointly sufficient. (Some may argue that reason or passion necessarily precedes the other; but, it is more likely that they are mutually supporting. If desires produce an intention to act, we call it eudaimonia; and if the desire coming after the action, then we call it eleutheronomia.) [The division between those forms of moral cognition owes to I. Kant, though I have modified the categories for my own purposes.]
10. Prerequisite of authority. What makes moral claims true or false, we remember, is the degree to which we think they are trustworthy, conferred by the right kind of authority. And when people base their advice on little more than intuition or feeling, untempered by deliberation, we all have a basic sense that this advice is not to be trusted if there are alternatives. The reason it cannot be trusted is that the authority has no integrity; and if they lack integrity, then all other things equal, you don’t have a reason for believing what they say. [The importance of integrity was a trenchant theme in the work of B. Williams]
11. Requirements of integrity. Integrity implies two things. First, it implies that the advice given or accepted has been, in some sense, voluntarily adopted — that it is not enacted by rote. Second, integrity implies sincerity; and sincerity implies non-arbitrariness in one’s convictions. By improving the coherence of your beliefs, you become more distinctive as a person, and any moral claims that you assert begin to take on a veneer of plausibility.  [The idea of wholeheartedness owes to H. Frankfurt.]
12. One of the potential downsides of looking at moral claims as advice is that it raises a difficult question: “Who can you trust, and when?” We can gesture towards a few characteristics, like “reasonable” or “social”, but it seems as though it is a fact of the matter that people tend to trust their familiars and close associates more than they trust strangers. And if that is true, then it is very hard to see morality is the sort of thing that could apply between strangers. This is a genuine dilemma, since it cannot be taken as an item of faith that the human race shall continue along the track to have a heightened sense of maturity and enlarged sympathies.  [J.S. Mill, in Utilitarianism, articulated a kind of optimism about the moral capacity that I’m skeptical of in this passage.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your 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