Friday, May 16, 2008

Moral Roots and Alienating Aspirations

Morality is made for man, not man for morality
   -- William K. Frankena.

I'm not sure what to make of Frankena's maxim. It's uncontroversial that human welfare is important. So let's interpret the maxim more strongly, as expressing a form of moral conservatism -- a rebuke of the radical and alienating demands of impartial consequentialism (to name just one example). An ethics for living, we may think, must be more firmly rooted in our actual condition, our personal concerns and interests.

There are many complex issues in this vicinity, but one way in is to ask whether there might be irreconcilable but reasonable conflict. I think not: I tend to conceive of the moral point of view as one that everyone can share, and thereby resolve any conflicts equitably, at least in principle. But if normativity must always be rooted in our particular perspectives, there's no reason to expect such compromises to always be possible. I may despise the frat boy as a boor, and he may despise me as an egghead, in a fundamental clash of values that is not susceptible to any common resolution. (The alternative is to think that one or both of us is making a mistake, and really ought to be more sympathetic to the other and their way of life.)

Rooted ethics implies a kind of relativism, since different people lay their roots in different places. But perhaps that's to be expected, and at the end of the day the most we can hope for is that our own values prevail in the culture wars. The metaethical conservative will not think that those who lay their roots elsewhere from his are in any sense mistaken or irrational. There is no shared ideal viewpoint for all to aspire to,* so those who disagree are not confused or misguided, but stalwart enemies.
* = Note that this abandonment of truth is what saves the metaethical conservative from incoherence

Another approach is to ask whether our prior dispositions (or perceived "common sense") place significant constraints on normative guidance. Could it possibly be the case that I ought to give up my most cherished projects and personal values? If my "idealized self" is radically different from me, so different that I can no longer recognize my self in him, what normative authority do his prescriptions really have over me?

If (the best account of) realism about value leads us to such conclusions as that newborns may be killed harmlessly, and that it would have been better if disabled persons (or children of teen mothers) had not been conceived, then some may wonder whether we'd do better to be anti-realists.

Indeed, this seems to be Velleman's position, in response to the apparent conflict between a parent's love for their particular severely disabled child, and their recognition that the creation of a severely disabled child is lamentable. He writes (in the conclusion to 'Love and Non-Existence'):
The parents experience their emotions as assessing the value of the child's existence in itself, apart from how it is conceived [i.e. under what guise or description], and the emotions cannot be simultaneously correct if so interpreted. But their emotions make perfect sense despite there being no consistent distribution of values that they would reflect, because emotions can only project value, and only when appearing to do so enhances their intelligibility.

The parents should therefore forget about evaluating their child's existence and feel the emotions that clearly make sense for them to feel. What's intelligible in their responses may cast an inconsistent set of shadows on the world, but they are, after all, only shadows.

On Velleman's view, what fundamentally matters is making sense to oneself. Making evaluations is one way of going about this, but one's personal narrative is primary, in line with Frankena's maxim.

But is it right? Or should we be realists about value, and think that what fundamentally matters is making the world a better place?


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