Sunday, September 01, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. Recent post: “Flint’s 1632: We Hold these Truths to be Self-Evident”. “The Fundamental Errors of Leftism” will be up soon. The future holds "Limits of Libertarianism" and "Religion in American Political Life". Now this:

How to Determine the Right Thing to Do

When it’s not obvious what is the right thing to do, we have to determine the answer in one way or another. For thousands of years, philosophers have been proposing various ways. We have Platonism, Kantianism, utilitarianism, religious natural law theory, Confucian traditionalism, etc. But none of the proposals has turned out to have much merit. It seems that common sense cannot be improved upon, but Americans have knew this even before Tom Paine’s Common Sense spurred us into declaring independence. Still, there is some philosophical work to do. We should make clear just exactly how we use common sense to determine the right thing to do. Reflecting on the mechanics of common sense will make it keener and help obviate future abuses of it. Philosophy still needs a theory of moral reasoning, albeit a common-sense one.

Let’s name our theory of moral reasoning “critical common sense-ism”. This is the name that the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) coined for one of his theories in epistemology. It’s a bit of a stretch of the term from Peirce’s meaning, but no matter. Let there be a cluster of ideas in American philosophy, all aptly named “critical common sense-ism”. I should point out that the heart of the theory I will explain was developed by the contemporary American philosopher Alan H. Goldman during the late 1970s and the 1980s. I’ll have a bit to add of my own at the end.

It’s really very simple. We all embrace many moral judgments that are obviously true. There are millions of ordinary actions that we could imagine and pass obviously true judgments on: breaking your neighbor’s window for fun, praising a child who’s tried hard, returning a lost wallet, etc. The judgments of these cases are our moral values, and they are a matter of common sense. However, we also face cases that are difficult to decide. Then we can’t just get out of the way and let our common sense make a pronouncement, because it can’t. We have to be critical: to conduct some form of reasoning in order to determine what is right. Hence, the name “critical common sense-ism”.

The “critical” does not deprive common sense of any of its authority in these matters. On the contrary, the critical reflection merely serves common sense when it needs assistance. We have a large set of moral judgments that we know are true. Therefore, in order to judge a new, difficult case in which a person does X, we need only determine which judgment - “X is right”, or “X is wrong” - fits with that set. One or the other must be true. It can’t be that X is neither right nor wrong. Only one of the two statements will be consistent with the large set of judgments that common sense knows to be true. That one is the true one, the other the false one. For a statement can’t be true if it is inconsistent with another statement that is true.

But how do you determine fit? It’s easy. You determine the cases about which you know the true moral judgments and that bear the closest resemblance to case X. For examples, if X is an abortion, then we determine whether X is more like ordinary murders or more like perfectly permissible medical procedures. Common sense tells us that it’s wrong to kill a child but also that it’s not wrong to scrape skin cells off of your skin. It depends on what the fetus is. If X is a welfare program, we determine whether X is more like robbing Peter to pay Paul or more like requiring Peter to do his duty to save a child who is drowning right before him. It depends on the program. Common sense can make its pronouncement, but only after we make fine distinctions and comparisons, and draw analogies and disanalogies between various cases we’re sure about and X.

These deliberations depend on having our facts straight; we need to know the relevant facts in order to judge them. Whether the fetus is not importantly disanalogous to a skin cell is question that can be decided only if we know the pertinent biological facts. In the other case, we need to know whether the welfare program will support the indolent or be wasted and not help the deserving, and whether innocent lives will be saved, whether innocent people who are unable to support themselves will be kept from living in abhorrent conditions, whether they will be given more than that, how costly the program will be, how rich the rich are, etc. Saving a drowning person might be analogy to the welfare program. But it might be disanalogous if the people it helps are not in as dire straights as the drowning person, for example.

By relying on the analogies and disanalogies between the puzzling case and the many cases about which we know the right judgment, we can find out whether X is more analogous to cases of obviously wrong action or more analogous to cases of obviously right action. This will determine the judgment about X that our values commit us to. We need to know the relevant facts, in order to draw any conclusion.

That’s all there is to critical common sense-ism. We apply common sense values to tough cases under a critically comparative examination. There are a few more points to add. First, what about principles, such as “Do not kill”? Don’t principles have a role in moral reasoning? It is true that there is a place for citing moral principles in effort to determine the right thing to do. But the place is just one of framing the issue. It won’t solve the issue. It doesn’t solve the abortion conundrum, for example, unless we figure out whether abortion is more like killing or more like scraping off a skin cell. That’s where the real moral reasoning lies. This becomes clear when we notice that the principle “People may do as they please with their bodies” does not solve the abortion issue any more than “Do not kill” does, though both help frame the issue. Each side has a principle in the abortion debate, but if little effort is made to go beyond the principles, stalemate results. So, principles won’t take you very far. Principles get the ball rolling by calling to mind some values that may come into play. But they can’t substitute for the moral reasoning of critical common sense-ism. None of this means that critical common sense-ism is “unprincipled”. Rather, critical common sense-ism is a theory of the correct application of principles.

What about religion? Why can’t one let one’s religion settle the tough cases? The reason is that religion doesn’t settle them. It passes judgment but gives no basis or argumentative grounds for the judgment. Now, religion can come into play, just as principles do: by enabling us to call to mind important values. But we need to reason our way to the right answer after that. “Because I think God says so” is not good enough. You could be wrong. And what is one to do when religious inspirations conflict? Religion may guide us, but reason makes the final determination.

There is one more thing to say about determining the right thing to do. Let me offer a simple topographical map of the moral terrain we face when making determinations of right and wrong. This may also help you call to mind important values when you begin your deliberations about a tough case. Morality has largely to do with burdens and benefits in life. It is wrong to foist one’s burden onto someone else, unless it will save one from terrible consequences and not be very burdensome to the person on whom you foist the burden (as in the case of leaning on someone’s shoulder without asking for their permission, if you will otherwise lose your balance and plummet to your death.) It is also wrong not to provide benefits for someone who would otherwise face terrible consequences when providing the benefits is not costly to the provider. You can imagine several examples, besides the one I’ve given in parentheses, to illustrate the contours of these two principles. Note that the principles assume that the parties foisting burdens onto others or receiving aid are innocent people.

What these two principles show is that we have three important values that often enter into moral reasoning: that of self-reliance for shouldering burdens, that of the liberty one has to keep one’s benefits to oneself, and that of the duty to help others in need. These values of self-reliance, liberty, and beneficence fit together such that in cases of dire need the duty of beneficence outweighs the right to liberty, while the duty of self-reliance cancels any right to take other’s benefits against their will, except in cases of dire need. Whether the need is dire enough and the liberty not important in a given case is a matter for critical common sense to determine.

Now, you may be wondering how critical common sense-ism can rest assured that the set of moral judgments embraced by common sense is true. Using our set of values, we can determine what, according to that set, is the right thing in a new and difficult situation. But how do we know the common-sense set of judgments is true in the first place?

This appears to be a deep question. But notice that it asks how we know that torturing children for fun is wrong, that giving back wallets is right, that helping the dying is good, etc. These are matters of common sense understandings of the English words “wrong” and “right”. In one respect, then, the question is senselessly nihilistic. But it has a subtler side. It also asks how we can be so sure that a plausible alternative set of moral judgments isn’t the right one. Various European countries, Taiwan, and Singapore, all are societies with plausible alternative sets of values. Now, take for the sake of argument that the alternative set in question is found not to be flawed: neither incoherent, based on factual errors, nor conducive to unhappy lives. (If we don’t assume that, then the answer to the question is easy.) In such a case, the question asks how we can be sure that our values are preferable to alternatives. It’s not a nihilistic question, but it is, nevertheless, senseless. Our values simply are our preferences. We prefer to live according to their dictates; that’s what makes them our values.

It is a matter of common sense that people in a society may live the way they prefer and should live up to their values. This does not make morality “simply a matter of preference” in any way that should disturb us. Anyone who thinks he needs a reason to refrain from torturing children besides “these are the values I stand for” hasn’t listened to common sense. For if it were determined that there is no additional reason at all, he would know full well that he has reason enough to refrain from torturing children. This does not make morality subjective or relativistic in any way that should disturb us. Our values are our preferences, but there are constraints on them (already mentioned: coherence, basis in fact, conducivity to good lives). The abhorrent forms of relativism one finds bandied about nowadays are all ruled out by critical common sense-ism. This will become clear in another essay, “Relativism,” which will appear later on Philosoblog.