Thursday, February 7, 2013

Harman and Moral Relativism II

**This is from guest blogger Cole D.**

In his “Moral Relativism Defended”, Gilbert Harman deviates from the definition of moral relativism formulated by its detractors, which states that, “…(a) there are no universal moral principles and (b) one ought to act in accordance with the principles of one’s own group, where this later principle, (b), is supposed to be a universal moral principle,” (41).  He instead utilizes a more logical thesis which postulates that something’s morality is akin to its largeness.  Just as it is meaningless to say that an item is big without any references, he argues that judgment of an action’s morality only makes sense within the context of an agreement or understanding.

I found Harman’s discussion of cases in which moral judgments are not applicable to be especially interesting and convincing.  For Harman, we only make inner judgments (calling their actions “right” or “wrong”) about someone’s morality if we believe that relative moral considerations are applicable to them.  For this reason, we may call a group of cannibals heathens and savages, but we cannot say that they were wrong in their actions, because they would merely scoff at us (and then eat us). 

This distinction isn’t only for people who belong to other societies.  Harman argues that moral judgments are also not applicable to those whose actions are “beyond the pale” (43).  He gives the example that it seems strangely weak to say that Hitler’s perpetration of the holocaust was “wrong”.  This is because we view an action as going beyond mere wrongness.  Harman believes that this intuition comes from us knowing that our morality did not apply to Hitler; if he could have done something so incredibly reprehensible, he obviously had a completely alien sense of morality which we would not have been able to influence.  The author convincingly compares this with the case of Stalin, who was responsible for the death of millions, but believed that this decision was preventing greater disaster.  As such, we can logically say that Stalin made the wrong decision, but we cannot say that about Hitler. 

While I have traditionally found myself to be in opposition to moral relativism, I felt that I could not deny that Harmon made several powerful arguments in favor of the theory, and his examples of extreme cases especially made me question my views.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

I'm very confused by what Harman means when we he says it is "too weak" to say that "Hitler was wrong to hae acted in that way" (43). Can anyone shed some more light on what we think he is getting at here? Why is saying that Hitler is an evil man not an odd thing to say, but saying he was "wrong" is odd, according to Harman? It seems to me if you're saying he is evil, then this is a moral judgment which under Harman's relativism would make no sense. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I feel like Harman is trying to have his moral cake and eat it too.

Jesse Steinberg said...

I don't find Harman's take on the examples plausible either.

Later in the paper, Harman considers a society that has slaves and he thinks we can say that they "are unfair and unjust, that the slavery that exists is wrong, that it ought not to exist. But it would be inappropriate in this case to say that it was wrong of the slave owners to own slaves."

As we said in class, if people that own slaves are unjust or unfair and slavery ought not to exist, then this appears to entail that it is wrong for a slave owner in this imagined society to own slaves.

It might be helpful to think about the dialectical situation. On one reading, Harman makes sense of the above picture/take on such cases by appealing to moral relativism, e.g., it's because of the agreements that have been made within that society that makes it morally permissible for slave owners in that society to own slaves. But these are precisely the sorts of cases that Harman uses to motivate/spell out (even justify) his version of moral relativism. If that's the dialectical situation, then he's done something illegitimate. His argument appears circular. On the one hand, Harman seems to think that a certain verdict is appropriate regarding these cases. And he think that moral relativism is the best way to make sense of this verdict. On the other hand, he seems to think that such a verdict is appropriate because moral relativism is true.

Maybe I'm misrepresenting how these cases serve in his argument for moral relativism. It's not clear what work these cases (involving Nazis, aliens, slave owning societies, etc.) do for his argument. What do you think these cases are supposed to show exactly?

Heirron said...

As far as I can gather, Harman's claims rest on the way he defines "inner judgments." He says, "We make inner judgments about a person only if we suppose that he is capable of being motivated by the relevant moral considerations" (42, in our anthology). Two sentences later, he states, "Inner judgments include judgments in which we say that someone should or ought to have done something or that someone was right or wrong to have done something." Also, inner judgments are not supposed to apply to people like Hitler who are, allegedly, literally evil. As was suggested in class, Harman seems to think his position is intuitive. I take it that we are all supposed to readily agree that it seems odd to say that it is wrong for cannibals eat people, or that it was wrong for Hitler to order the eradication of the Jews. Given this, he offers inner judgments as the explanation for our intuitions. If this is right, I think Harman escapes circularity. However, given the discussion, I suspect our intuitions are not in line with Harman's. If so, I am not sure why one would accept his account of inner judgments, and if one does not accept that, we have no reason to say that an ought claim must be false of a given individual if that individual is not "capable of being motivated by the relevant moral considerations."

We might be able to defend Harman's view, however, by appealing to the 'ought-implies-can' principle (though there may not be room for it in Harman's theory if it turns out to be an objective moral principle). We might then run an argument as follows:

1. If it is true that someone ought to do something then that person can do that thing.
2. For a person to be able to do something, it is necessary that, given his or her motivational set, it is possible for that person to be motivated by the relevant considerations to do that thing.
3. Therefore, if it is true that a person ought to do something, his or her motivational set must be such that he or she can be motivated by the relevant considerations to do that thing.
5. Therefore, if a person is not capable of being motivated by the relevant considerations to do a certain thing, it is false that the person ought to do that thing.

If something like this is what Harman meant, I do not know why he did not state it more clearly. Premise 2 should be okay in Harman's theory since it is just a claim about how humans operate. Premise 1, however, might be at odds with what comes later. I am simply not sure and would be interested to hear what others think.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Heirron is definitely right about the notion of inner agreement being central to Harman's argument. I suppose the worries that people are expressing on this blog (including mine) are partly directed at this notion.

He gives an interesting case involving an employee of "Murder, Incorporated" who has been ordered to kill a bank manager. In spelling out the notion of inner agreement, Harman claims that it would be a "misuse of language" to say of him that he ought not kill the bank manager, and that it would NOT be wrong for him to kill the bank manager. This is because, Harman claims, inner judgments imply that the agent has reasons to do something (or not do something). Since the employee of Murder, Inc. sees no reason not to kill the bank manager, it is not wrong for him to kill the bank manager. And so it would be a incorrect (odd, a misuse of language, etc.) to say that it would be wrong to kill the bank manager.

However, given the other comments, what reason do we have for accepting the notion of inner judgment as part of the standard for what is morally right/wrong, just/unjust, etc.?

And doesn't it seem that (like all his cases) the employee of Murder, Inc. DOES have a reason not to kill the bank manager (even if he's not aware of that reason)? One reason might be that the bank manager is not deserving of being killed or that killing him would violate certain rights that he has. Even if the employee doesn't appreciate these reasons or give them their full weight, he ought to.

Regarding Heirron's argument, (2) seems problematic. What does it mean to say that it's "possible for a person to be motivated by the relevant considerations"? If you mean logical possibility, then it's certainly logically possible that the employee be motivated by the considerations about the bank manager's rights. So I think the premise might be true, but it's too weak to get Harman's conclusion.

If we were to make the principle stronger (and put it in terms of what the agent is actually motivated to do), then I think it would be even more in line with Harman's arguments. However, it would likely be too strong. One would never be morally responsible for doing anything other than what she in fact is motivated to do. As you said, this might not be exactly what Harman had in mind. Nevertheless, it seems this kind of problem will raise it's head for Harman's argument.

Will Psilos said...

I had not thought about this before it was brought up in class, but I think it's relevant and bears repeating. How can we know whether someone "is not capable of being motivated by the relevant considerations"? Harman seems to imply that this is self-evident due to a person's behavior - that Hitler was so terrible that he couldn't have had the same sense of morality as us - but this is not self-evident to me. First of all, I should note that I think these questions - about what motivates people and how they are motivated - are mostly psychological by nature and hard to systematize the way Harman does. But in any case, it seems to me that Harman is assuming rationality in moral agents and that rationality dictates that people act in accordance with the particular rules and motivations they agree to with others. But if he's assuming this, I don't know why he leaves room for people to act in opposition to these intentions and still be considered rational. Unless he's referring to irrationality when he says "evil" and "beyond the pale", but I doubt that, since he still considers that these people have rational judgments about their means and ends. In other words, why not call Hitler evil and irrational in Harman's system? Also, if "inner judgments" can't apply to those who irrationally act against their moral agreements, then "inner judgments" don't seem very applicable. That is, one must be motivated to do something and choose not to do it, in order to be subject to a negative "inner judgment" and this does not seem to work descriptively. I mean it doesn't fit what people mean when they say that someone shouldn't have done something. Also this doesn't even address the idea that people can be motivated to do bad things (or things that one ought not to do according to one's moral agreements) just because they are bad. Again, this could just be called irrationality, but I don't think Harman addresses it, and I think he ought to.

Kyle Serafin said...

I'm also unnerved by Harman's Hitler analogy. I find the fact that his account of moral relativism so strongly favors the perpetrator to be both arbitrary and unsettling.

So long as we're speaking of intuitions, as Harman does with his assumption that most intuit Hitler's actions to be beyond wrong, I personally find it more intuitive in a system of relative morality to allow the afflicted party to hold that they were, indeed, wronged, regardless of their aggressors subscribing to a different set of implicit codes of conduct and cooperation. In Harman's theory as it stands now, individuals such as Hitler are allowed to exempt themselves from the moral damnation of their peers by failing to acknowledge the moral statuses of their victims. By this account, anybody could theoretically be impervious to moral judgement, islands unto themselves with their unique and unquestionable ethical codes. Accordingly, it seems no less controversial to pose a revision to Harman's theory in favor of those who feel wronged by a particular action.

Rather than requiring a formal agreement between two parties in order to cast moral judgement on each other's actions, perhaps it need only be necessary that a party's implicit expectations for the conduct of others towards themselves be violated in some egregious fashion. With this revision, those who infract upon the expectations for conduct of others can be considered immoral by the "wronged" parties, which in turn allows for the far more intuitive understanding of Hitler's actions as still being morally reprehensible. It would open a new floodgate, admittedly, to the criticism that then any action could be deemed morally reprehensible by others, that virtually any person at any given time can be considered immoral based on some unreasonable expectation for their conduct held by others. But is this more problematic than a relativist account which grants Hitler, the man universally held to be the figurehead for hyperbolic evil, moral impunity?

Danny Witt said...

Kyle, you make an interesting point about how people negotiate the moral space between them. That is, instead of basing the moral judgment on whether an agent had the appropriate ‘moral background’ (i.e., abide by some morality code that coincides with a community), you make the move that moral judgment should be levied by those on the receiving end of an agent’s action. This is very interesting. How would Harman handle this? Is this compatible with what his theory proposes, or is this supposed to be a counter-argument? It seems like you are saying that this principle of the recipient weighing the moral status of an act might be a better avenue than Harman’s doctrine. I think you get to an interesting point though, when you question if this helps us? Yes, it does cast Hitler under (more intuitive) moral abhorrence , but are we ultimately faced with the other side of the relativist’s coin? Wouldn’t we still run into the problem of a community or individual who has an (evil/twisted/(insert bad word here)) moral code making moral claims about an agent’s actions. If the agent does something intuitively good, but is judged (from our perspective) unfairly by the individual with the “beyond the pale” moral principles, the same problem exposed in the converse situation seems to remain. It seems that both fall victim to the typical pitfalls of moral relativism—since they both include individuals making moral judgments based off of conditioned moral precepts. Do you agree with this, or were you making a more nuanced distinction that I missed?