Thursday, February 7, 2013

Harman and Moral Relativism

**This is from guest blogger Cassandra K.**

First of all, I don't sway toward moral subjectivity in the general sense, but many of my own personal questions with strict objectivity are addressed here by Harman and so I do find his argument compelling. It seems true to me that we often make moral judgments because we assume that the agent in question aligns with our own moral compass, so to speak. And the situations we find most unsettling and puzzling seem to be the situations in which the agent is decidedly not guided by our compass (Harman's Hitler example). In this way, it seems plausible that we might make two sorts of moral judgments: 1. comparatively, as in when we assume that the agent has reasons for their action and that those reasons coincide with our own and 2. externally, where we recognize that we are not on the same moral grounds as the agent and thus don't have the "implicit agreement" Harman discusses. Harman is only concerned with the first type of moral judgment, and it seems that he thinks the other form holds less meaning in terms of moral judgments.

I also think there's something to his claim that in some cases we may not have reasons for our actions, morally speaking. He cites that "there might be no reasons at all for a being from outer space to avoid harm to us; that, for Hitler, there might have been no reason at all not to order the extermination of the Jews" (44) and I think this is right. In fact, I think morality is the type of thing that often transcends rationality. We often struggle to rationalize our own moral beliefs and "it is because I say it is" or "it just works for me" is a pretty common base rationale for our personal moral systems. 

As a last thought, it seems that our "objective", standardized form of morality is really nothing but a consensus (whether cultural or otherwise) on what we accept to be true. This is how laws are formed that are intended to govern what is right and wrong for a society, country, or other establishment. Where there are communities, accepted communal guidelines for morality are needed. Here is where I found Harman's account the most interesting, because it does seem to give relativism a defense. His account of "agreement" sounds a lot like how the world seems to work in actuality. True, there may be moral outliers who have no moral qualms with murdering people and stealing and all of the other things that we've deemed "immoral" (and thus illegal) by societal standards, but as Harman states, these people are moral "outlaws."

In short, I wasn't expecting to be persuaded by Harman's account of relativism but because he addresses both many of my personal questions about objectivity and many of my concerns with relativism, I found his argument quite compelling. I'd be interested to hear from people who didn't find it compelling (kudos being a more devout objectivist) and their reasons for it.


Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for the post, Cassy.

I'm hoping others will chime in on the examples you mention as they relate to rationality/reasons one has. I found this part of your post/Harman's paper very interesting.

So, did Hitler have a reason not to try to exterminate the Jews?

Perhaps we can distinguish between two different senses of "having a reason." One sense might be something like "The agent believes something that he/she thinks provides evidence for..." So I might believe that the lottery ticket I just bought is going to make me rich because my horoscope indicated that I'd be very lucky today. I have a reason for believing that my ticket will win. Another case might be that I have a reason to believe my dog is hungry because I believe it's 6 and he always eats at 6. Hitler might not have had a reason to refrain from exterminating the Jews in this sense of "has a reason." That is, Hitler did not have any beliefs that would justify his refraining from killing so many Jews. What he believed (e.g., that the Jews were an inferior race, that their existence jeopardized the German People, etc.) justified, in his mind at least, doing the opposite. That is, his beliefs motivated him/provided reasons that caused him to kill millions of Jews.

Another sense of having a reason might involve something more idealized or have less of a connection with what a given agent's actual beliefs happen to be. Suppose that, unbeknownst to me, the tires on my car are severely worn. There are very good reasons for me to buy new tires. I'd get better gas mileage. If I don't buy new tires, I might injure myself or someone else. And so on. I'm not aware of these reasons, but they are reasons to buy new tires nonetheless. I thus have reasons to buy new tires. In this sense of the phrase, it seems Hitler did have a reason not to try to exterminate the Jews. Despite what Hitler believed, Jewish people are not a morally inferior race and killing millions of them in order to "protect" the German People is not morally permissible. Hitler thus had reasons for not trying to kill the Jews, even if he wasn't aware of these reasons. Perhaps some of these reasons involve moral facts--such as the fact that Jews are nor morally inferior to Aryans, that genocide is immoral, etc.

Michael Dean Hebert said...

I really like this distinction between two senses of "having a reason." I think the latter sense fits well into arguments I've made in the past that moral intuitions aren't necessarily a good reason to act in a certain way because deeper considerations may be hidden from our intuitions, but can be understood with reason.

However, how do you think this fits in with Harman's view of relativism? Reasons to act in a certain way definitely matter in Harman's view, but the reasons which matter are those that drive someone to act because of an agreement, either explicit or implicit. Perhaps if Hitler believed that Jewish people were not an inferior race, he would form an implicit agreement with them not to kill them (I think it likely), but clearly he didn't, he had no implicit agreement with them. Perhaps I'm being short-sighted, but this seems the end of the argument. What would it mean, within Harman's view, to say that he might have a reason not to think Jews are a morally inferior race. It seems the problems you raise with the second sense of "having a reason" rely on claiming there are moral reasons to act in a certain way which go beyond agreement, both explicit and implicit. I don't think Harman would agree that we can make sense of this idea, since moral judgments are only sensical within the context of an agreement. While I think he's wrong, I'm not certain this is the way to knock down his argument. Where to go from here to knock down his argument, I'm not certain.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Michael asked how the distinction between two senses of "has a reason" fits with Harman's relativism. Perhaps the distinction can be used as a way to undermine one of his arguments. Harman thinks that it's "odd to say" (and, in other places, he says it's false when one says) that, for example, Hitler should not have tried to kill the Jews. Part of his explanation for this is that Hitler did not have a reason not to try to kill the Jews. The distinction can be used to show that this second claim is only true on one sense of "has a reason." But Harman's claim is false when it's read using the other sense of "has a reason."

Now the key question is how does all this relate to Harman's argument for relativism? What sort of work is his Hitler example (alien example, etc.) doing in showing that his approach to morality is correct? Does the distinction between these two sense of "has a reason" undermine that work? This would make for an interesting paper. I'd be happy to chat more with anyone who is interested in working on this project for my class.

T. Stoehr said...

I think the point made about not having reasons for our actions can only be extended so far. Sometimes out actions are purely guided by our "moral intuition", and we cannot put our finger on an exact reason why we spoke or acted in a certain way. However, I think that in certain cases, like the Holocaust, there are most certainly reasons against committing a certain action, like the generally accepted immorality of baseless (in my opinion) murder. Now, those reasons might not overpower the individual's own rationale behind acting in whatever way the end up behaving, but I dont think it's true that in the case of Hitler, he had no reason not to exterminate six million Jews. It seems that in more extreme cases, especially those that are grounded in morality, reasons NOT to commit a certain action would prevail.
I guess my view mirrors what you, Jesse, brought up in your initial comment. I think the distinction between personally believing there are reasons for/against doing something, and being ignorant to possible reasons is really interesting.