A Brief Analysis of the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is typically considered to be a problem for divine command theories of moral properties. The dilemma in this guise usually goes like this: Either X is good/right because God commands it, or God commands X because it is good/right. The dilemma afflicts versions of divine command theory that take the good to be prior to the right as well as versions that take the right to be prior to the good. While the dilemma is definitely an issue for divine command theories, it is not a special problem for them. The Euthyphro Dilemma can actually be raised against any theory that aims to account for something general in terms of something particular.

The Euthyphro Dilemma will be a problem for any theory that attempts to account for the general in terms of the particular. For example, exemplar nominalism has to deal with the dilemma because it attempts to account for the appearance of commonly had properties (the general) in terms of an exemplar (the particular). To account for the seemingly common property of being red, the exemplar nominalist will pick out an exemplar particular that is red and then account for commonality by introducing a resemblance relation. So, something is red if and only if it resembles a or the red exemplar. This account has to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma, though. Either X is red because it resembles the exemplar or X resembles the exemplar because it is red. The nominalist will opt for the former horn, since the latter is to introduce universals or at least tropes.

Ideal observer theories also have to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma. The structural similarities between these theories and divine command theories will give rise to the dilemma, because both kinds of theories attempt to account for moral properties in terms of a particular. In the case of divine command theories, the particular is God, but for ideal observer theories, the particular is usually a hypothetical, idealized member of the moral community. Call the ideal observer, “Jeffrey”. Either X is good/right because Jeffrey approves of it, or Jeffrey approves of it because X is good/right. Like the theistic dilemma, this secularized dilemma arises because the Jeffrey is a particular, and he is supposed to account for something general, which is the good and the right in this case (and the bad and the wrong).

Trying to account for moral properties in terms of Jeffrey isn’t the only way the Euthyphro Dilemma can manifest itself as a problem for ideal observer theories. If we attempt to account for aesthetic properties in terms of Jeffrey, the same dilemma arises. Either X is beautiful because Jeffrey thinks so, or Jeffrey thinks so because X is beautiful. If we try using Jeffrey to account for cognitive/epistemic goods, the same dilemma will also arise. The same thing goes for attempting to account for truth in terms of a cognitive community, which is itself a very large particular.

So, it seems to me that the common thread running through these manifestations of Euthyphro is that each theory attempts to account for something general in terms of a particular. One issue that I have not yet explored is if it is the concreteness of the particular that raises the issue, or if abstract particulars like numbers could also be problematic when used to account for the general. Let me know what you think of my analysis of the Euthyphro Dilemma in the comments below.

Non-Moral Values Can Override Moral Values

It seems to me that there are states of affairs in which an agent ought to act immorally to secure non-moral goods. Here is one example:

Suppose that Michelangelo had to steal the marble that he used to form David. There was no other way to secure the materials to construct his sculpture. Michelangelo noticed that there was a marble dealer who had excess marble that he planned on selling for a massive discount. It was obvious to Michelangelo that the marble dealer would not miss the excess marble, since it would not impact his profit margins in a significant way. However, that excess marble belongs to the dealer; he has property rights over the marble. So by taking the marble without paying, Michelangelo has violated the dealer’s property rights. In other words, he did something immoral. But by virtue of crafting David, Michelangelo has instantiated aesthetic value that seems to excuse or maybe even justify his theft.

It seems like Michelangelo ought to have stolen that excess marble in this situation. The aesthetic values instantiated by David seem to override the moral requirement not to steal from the marble dealer.

Potential responses that occur to me are:

1. Those aesthetic values are actually moral values.

2. Michelangelo ought not to have stolen the marble.

3. The aesthetic considerations don’t override the moral considerations because they are incomparable.

The first response is to affirm that morality is tyrannical, which I have discussed in previous posts (here, here, and here). The second response just denies that Michelangelo ought to have stolen from the marble dealer. Since this thought experiment is intended to elicit intuitions from people, it does not constitute an argument in favor of the thesis that Michelangelo ought to have stolen the marble. However, for those who find the thought experiment convincing, they will need an argument for why their elicited intuitions are mistaken. So proponents of the second response need an argument for why the property rights of the marble dealer override the concerns of Michelangelo.

The third response is the most promising, and I will discuss comparability of values in later posts. For now, I will say that it seems like you can compare courses of action that would either instantiate moral values or aesthetic values in terms of whether or not the outcomes are on par. If two outcomes are on par, then it seems to me that the agent making the decision is free to go in either direction. So there seems to be at least some sense in which different kinds of values can be compared (which is not to deny that there are other senses as well).

Let me know what you think of the thought experiment and if I missed any promising responses to it in the comments below.

 

Emotions and Morality: An Introduction

When doing moral theory, the question of emotion will inevitably arise. Some theorists think that emotions should not play any moral role because they are antithetical to reliable reasoning. Others doubt that emotions are a wholly distorting influence. Some theorists believe that emotions are an integral part of our moral lives. In this post, I’m going to briefly introduce some ways in which emotions may feature in our theorizing about morality.

A popular view of emotion is to think of them as intentional states that present their objects in an evaluative way. For instance, being happy about graduating from college is to have the state of affairs of graduating from college being presented to a subject such that she has certain positive feelings towards it. She is happy about graduating, so graduating is the content of her emotion, but it is represented in a positive light. The way in which this view of emotion can be relevant to moral theorizing is when the object of emotion is a moral state of affairs. Your emotions get moralized in this sense when they are about moral states of affairs. Guilt is considered an example of a moral emotion in this sense. Feeling guilty about something is usually morally relevant because the intentional object of the guilt will be a moral state of affairs, such as breaking a promise. 

Another way in which emotions can be relevant to morality is if they provide us access to moral facts. If emotions are our means of contact with moral reality, then emotions are epistemically relevant to morality. Emotions may then be ways of representing states of affairs with a certain sensitivity to morally salient features of what’s being represented. One simplistic possibility is that our emotional reaction to the idea of pushing a man off a bridge to stop a train that is headed for five people tied to the track provides us with epistemic access to the separateness of persons, which explains why it’s wrong to push the man to his death.

However, there may be a flip side to the epistemic view of emotions. Emotions could also distort our sensitivity to morally salient features of states of affairs. Peter Singer has defended a view similar to this when he argued that deontological intuitions are subject to distorting influences rooted in our evolutionary development.

Emotions can also be the ways in which we are motivated to act morally. It could be the case that we need emotions to move us to act morally, which would make emotions necessary for moral action. On this view, a robot with the set of true moral beliefs would be unmoved to act on them if it is incapable of experiencing emotions. Mere belief is insufficient on this account of moral emotions. A view like this is developed and defended by Antonio Damasio.

We may also be subject to evaluation based on the emotions we experience. There are probably good and bad ways to behave at a funeral. If somebody began laughing uncontrollably, we would probably consider that to be inappropriate, whereas we would be tolerant of grieving in the form of loud crying. A similar view is defended by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson.

One last way that emotions can be relevant to moral theorizing is if they are integral to our moral development. Perhaps eliciting certain emotions is a necessary means of moral education. Making developing moral agents experience things like guilt over wrongdoing by pointing out how they’ve let a loved one down could be formative for them. In this sense, emotions are part of the development of moral agents.

There are probably other ways in which emotions are morally relevant that I’ve missed. If you are aware of any more, let me know in the comments section below.

 

Rights Absolutism and the Justice System

Rights absolutism is the view that rights violations are never morally permissible. There is no circumstance in which an agent can be morally justified in violating another agent’s rights. Rights absolutism contrasts with any view that allows for rights that can be overridden by other considerations. For example, we might have prima facie rights that can be outweighed by extreme consequences. On such a view it is permissible to steal my neighbor’s car to get my dying friend to a hospital to save her life if an ambulance cannot reach us in time. In doing so, I have violated my neighbor’s property rights over his car, but my action was permissible because my friend’s life is more important than my neighbor’s property rights over his car.

Rights absolutists cannot allow for such car theft to ever be morally permissible. So, there are no circumstances in which it is morally permissible to violate the rights of another agent. There is a problem with this view, though. If we grant rights absolutism, how do we justify the justice system? We are flawed, finite creatures who are not particularly good at figuring out the truth. That fact is reflected by our justice system. The innocence project has freed many innocent people. These people had their rights violated by our justice system. They were wrongfully imprisoned. However, this is an inevitability given our epistemic capabilities and the nature of institutionalized justice-seeking. So, a justice system run by us is going to inevitably violate some people’s rights. There is no way around it.

But it seems like we need a justice system. We cannot do without institutionalized justice-seeking. How does the rights absolutist reconcile this with the fact that any justice system we come up with will violate some people’s rights? The obvious way out is to argue that the benefits of our justice system outweigh the costs of the inevitable rights violations. But to claim that is to abandon rights absolutism. It seems like the absolutist must either explain how we could have a justice system in which nobody’s rights are violated, or argue that we do not need institutionalized justice-seeking. I’m unsure about the plausibility of either move.

The Tyranny of Morality

There are values, and they come in morally relevant and morally irrelevant varieties. The value of the tastiness of my espresso seems to be morally irrelevant. Promoting such a value is not to do something moral. Otherwise, sipping my coffee in the morning constitutes a moral act. However, some moral theories do not allow for this natural line of reasoning.

Any theory that takes the maximization of value to be a moral imperative will deny that there are morally irrelevant values. For example, a hedonistic act utilitarian will take the only intrinsic value to be pleasure. Everything else is valuable insofar as it promotes pleasure. Since the only duty we have on this form of utilitarianism is to maximize pleasure, that means that sipping my coffee this morning constituted a moral act. It was morally good that I drank coffee instead of water this morning, because the coffee was more pleasurable. In fact, I had a duty to drink coffee instead of water, as long as I was in a position to know that the former would be more pleasurable.

The problem I have with such a view is that it moralizes everything. We act in relation to perceived value or disvalue. When I engage in an action, I do it because I have some reason to, and that reason is typically because the action or consequence is valuable in some way. The same goes for avoiding actions because of their disvalue. But if our one moral duty is to maximize value then all of our actions are moralized. Nearly every action we engage in can be criticized on moral grounds because it could have promoted more value than it did. Call this the tyranny of morality.

A moral theory is tyrannical when it moralizes everything. All of our actions ought to be in the service of the good, despite any of our plans, interests, or desires. So our actions are all morally relevant, because they are all related to value in some way. I take this to be the real source of the common objection to forms of consequentialism that require value maximization. Such theories are far too demanding, as the objection goes. But the reason they are too demanding isn’t usually articulated, besides attempts at eliciting intuitions about demandingness. The reason these theories are too demanding is because they are tyrannical. They moralize all of our actions, because we are the sorts of creatures who act for reasons, and reasons are intimately related to values.

A Problem for the New Consequentialism

In a previous post, I outlined a non-deontic form of consequentialism. The theory was supposed to avoid what I called the extension problem. The extension problem plagues deontic consequentialism, which is the view that the rightness, wrongness, permissibility, and impermissibility of actions are determined by their consequences. A hedonistic act utilitarian will say that there is one categorically binding duty: maximize pleasure. But such a view is highly counter-intuitive.  For example, if  I made a promise to go to my fiance’s birthday party, it seems like I have a duty to go. But then I find out that there is a new club drug that, if I took and attended a rave, would give me more pleasure than I would get from going to her party. The pleasure I will get by getting high at this rave will outweigh the displeasure that my fiance experiences because I broke my promise, so the net pleasure will be higher if I break my promise. So I ought to get high instead. But that seems like really bad moral advice. Hedonistic act utilitarianism gets the extension of our deontic concepts wrong, then, because I have a duty to keep my promise to my fiance regardless of the more pleasurable alternatives. 

Non-deontic consequentialism is designed to avoid the extension problem because it defers to how those concepts are used by a society at a given time period. By doing so, the theory allows for the extensions of our deontic concepts to pick out what our society takes them to be, which will preserve our intuitions about particular cases. Take the classic case of the utilitarian surgeon seeing a drifter in the waiting area of the emergency room: Hedonistic act utilitarianism requires that, if the surgeon is in the epistemic position to rule out negative consequences, and he knows that he can use these organs to save five patients on the organ recipient list, then he is duty-bound to kill the drifter and harvest the organs. Non-deontic consequentialism avoids this result because a typical person who is not a thoroughly committed act utilitarian would not agree that the extension of the concept of duty covers the surgeon’s organ harvesting endeavor.

An alternative that avoids the extension problem is scalar utilitarianism, which does without deontic concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, we judge actions as better or worse than available alternatives. The problem with this view is that it just seems obvious that it is wrong to torture puppies for fun. But a scalar utilitarian cannot give an adequate account of what makes that act wrong, so she must explain why it seems so obvious to say that it is wrong to torture puppies, even though it’s false. In other words, she must give a debunking explanation of our intuitions about the wrongness of puppy torture. 

Setting aside both of these forms of consequentialism, I want to discuss the non-deontic consequentialism I outlined in my other post. Non-deontic consequentialism entails that the rightness and wrongness, along with other deontic properties, of actions are a function of the social conventions that obtain at a given time in a given society. The extensions of our deontic concepts track deontic properties, because our society’s deontic concept use determines the instantiation of deontic properties. The consequentialism part comes in at the level of critiquing and improving those social conventions. It provides a standard by which we can judge conventions to be better or worse than other potential arrangements, which allows for the possibility of moral progress.

Moral progress occurs when we adopt social conventions that are better by consequentialist standards. It used to be a social convention in the United States that we could have property rights over other human beings, and transfer those rights for money. Those conventions are no longer in place in the United States, and at the time they were, they could have been critiqued by consequentialist standards. Those conventions were not better than available alternatives at the time, so it would have been better not to have the institution of chattel slavery. But these facts about betterness do not determine what is right or wrong. Rather, they should guide efforts to improve social conventions, and thereby change the extensions of our deontic concepts.

This seems all well and good, but I am a bit worried. This view entails that social conventions have normative force, no matter what. So, just because something is a social convention, we thereby have at least some moral reason to abide by it. Take slavery again; such an institution was once enshrined in many social conventions. Does it follow that at the time, everybody had at least some moral reason to abide by the convention that said that we ought to return escaped slaves to their so-called owners? It seems to me that slavery is and always was wrong. There was never a time at which it was right to own another human being. I think that the basis of my concern is that deontic judgments, especially when applied to important issues like slavery, are not indexed to times and places. Just because a human being is sold in a marketplace in 1790’s Virginia does not change the deontic status of the situation. What exactly is the morally relevant difference between that time period and today? Why is it wrong now to sell another human being but it was not in 1790’s Virginia?

One potential response to my worries is to point out that I’m making these judgments from a particular time period when the extension of our deontic concepts rules out slavery being permissible. So, perhaps I find the entailment of this theory appalling because my intuitions are shaped by the extension of the deontic concepts I use. Since 1790’s Virginia, we have undergone moral progress, and now it is wrong to own slaves because of the shift in social conventions. It could even be that according to our deontic concepts’ extensions now, it was wrong in the 1790’s to buy and sell slaves.

I think these considerations certainly make my concerns less worrisome. But I’m experiencing a residual anxiety. It still seems counter-intuitive to say that, if we had grown up in 1790’s Virginia, our claims about the rightness and wrongness would be flipped. We would have an inverted moral spectrum when it comes to deontic judgments about slavery. That is what I find counter-intuitive. The theory was developed to explicitly address the extension problem, which was that deontic consequentialists seem to get the extensions of our deontic concepts wrong. The reason I think that they get those extensions wrong is because their theories entail counter-intuitive results. They end up having to bite a lot of bullets, such as the organ harvesting surgeon. But if non-deontic consequentialism also generates counter-intuitive entailments, like slavery being permissible in 1790’s Virginia for people at that time, then is it any better than its deontic consequentialist competitors?