Morality and the Skeptical Paradox


Morality and the Skeptical Paradox


We follow moral rules; deontological ethics revolves around such rules. We make it a rule to keep our promises, not lie, not steal, etc. Even if we are consequentialists we follow the rule of utility maximization. What we call our conscience directs us to follow such rules. Virtue consists in adhering to the rules of morality. But if that is so, Kripke’s skeptical paradox should apply to morality.[1] I won’t rehearse all of this, but the point is straightforward enough. We can envisage someone who keeps his promises up to time t and then diverges (as we would say) from that rule; he insists that this is the rule he was following all along. How can we refute this claim? What can we cite about his past actions that rules out the deviant moral rule? No fact we can point to restricts the moral rule to the one we naturally assume. What does it consist in to follow the promising rule? It can’t be overt behavior up to time t; it can’t be a qualitative state of consciousness; and it can’t be a disposition to behave in certain ways. We might be tempted by that last suggestion, but then we recall that people can make mistakes about their promises without thereby following a deviant rule—they might just forget they have made the promise or lose track of time when the moment comes. If we phrase it in terms of virtues, we have no account of the fact that constitutes having a particular virtue: none of the facts about the virtuous person adds up to the virtue—behavior, states of consciousness, or dispositions to behave. Virtues are normative, telling us what we ought to do, but no facts that we can cite ground such normativity. None of this is surprising if Kripke’s rule-following considerations apply to the concept of rule in general—moral rules are just a special case. Platonic forms, inner voices, biblical commandments, pangs of conscience, urges and tingles—none of these can constitute following moral rules. For we can always envisage alternative moral rules that are logically consistent with them. So the moral skeptic contends.

            What about the skeptical solution? In Kripke’s telling this consists in finding assertibility conditions concerning agreement with the community: the individual speaker conforms to a community-wide pattern of use. There is no fact of following the promising rule, but there is a set of justifying conditions that guide our ascriptions of such rules. What is the analogue for moral rules? Easy: we can assert that someone is following a moral rule when his or her behavior matches that of the community to which he or she belongs. That is, we take a page out of the relativist’s playbook and say that a particular virtue can be ascribed to an individual if and only if that individual’s behavior matches the behavior of other members of society that are already agreed to exhibit the virtue. This skeptical solution has two components: an assertibility conditions theory and a social theory. Someone might want to reject the first component but endorse the second component, holding that the fact that constitutes virtue is of some second-class kind that questions the universality of virtue. The idea would be that moral rules have no validity outside of a social context, so that they may vary from one society to another. The moral skeptic denies the absoluteness of morality but accepts that we can usefully talk about morality as long as we recognize that it is relative to a particular society. He saves the talk while abandoning the robust existence of moral facts. The structure of his position matches that of Kripke’s semantic skeptic: no fact about the individual can constitute following a moral rule (or having a moral virtue), but we can still make sense of ascriptions of moral rule-following in terms of social relations.

            The interesting point here is that this is a familiar position about morality, unlike with the case of meaning and linguistic rules. Moral nihilism combined with moral relativism is an established view of morality (I don’t say that it’s true). Many people spontaneously believe that there is nothing to ground moral judgment in the individual case but only arises in the context of the social group. If I ask what I should do, I can find no fact about myself to give me the answer: no acquaintance with a Platonic form, no compelling inner voice, no external authority, no sacred text, no feeling of revelation, no reliable intuition, no irrepressible inclination, no past behavior—nothing that could force me to choose one way rather than another. All anyone has is the approval and censure of the social group; there is nothing to the existence of moral rules or virtues apart from that. So in the case of morality there is nothing surprising or shocking in the skeptical paradox: it isn’t a paradox at all, just a new way to articulate an old truism (as the nihilist supposes). It is just plain common sense. The existentialists were onto this long ago in their assertion that the free human will is the sole ground of moral discourse: nothing in perception or reason or science or religion can ground moral action—we must simply decide. Nothing compels us to act in certain ways deemed moral; morality is a matter of pure freedom in interaction with others. My being moral is not a given fact about me but a freely chosen construction (a fiction, we might say). My personality doesn’t contain various pre-existing virtues but simply expresses the results of my radical freedom. We might try to save our ordinary moral discourse by situating it in a social context, but the idea of the individual following moral rules is a chimera. If this can be established by means of Wittgenstein-inspired arguments, all well and good, but it is hardly earth-shattering news. The nihilist-existentialist might indeed be unimpressed by the original application of these arguments to the case of meaning, observing that he has already been there and done that in the area of morality. Kripke has merely generalized what is obviously the case for so-called moral rules.

            Alternatively, the confirmed moral realist might find himself discomfited: he thought there were moral facts that could guide behavior, but the skeptical paradox attacks that idea. Whatever we cite (e.g. Moore’s non-natural primitive property of the good) we find that deviant courses of action are possible consistently with the facts; nothing in our moral psychology can dictate a particular course of action. We thought there were robust virtues that people either had or lacked, but it turns out that this is a mare’s nest—no such thing can be detected in the mental landscape. If moral behavior is construed as following moral rules, then there is no such thing according to the skeptic; and even if virtues are not understood in a rule-based way, there is still a problem about saying what they are. Moral psychology turns out to look like semantic psychology, as the skeptic sees it—a kind of blank slate, an empty spontaneity. There are no meanings and there are no personality traits; at best there are communally accepted criteria for using the relevant vocabulary. I am not saying I accept this kind of conclusion—indeed I think there are convincing replies to it[2]—but I am saying that the issues are very similar and shed reciprocal light on each other. In particular, it is not clear what could constitute the kind of mental attribute required by semantic and moral rules. This has both an epistemological and a metaphysical aspect: we can’t find anything to justify our actions, and we can’t find anything to constitute the fact that we take to underlie them. We thus have no adequate psychology of meaning and morality, and for much the same reasons—the extreme elusiveness of the alleged psychological basis. This comes out in the question Wittgenstein pressed: how does the mind contain or anticipate future behavior (use or moral acts)? We want to say that it is already decided how someone will use words, or act in the future given his present mental state; but this leads to extraordinary ideas about what such containment would be—have I already thought of all the situations in which I have made a promise and kept it? My behavior, linguistic or moral, is spread out in time, and yet I mean something at a particular moment, or possess a virtue during a specific interval: how can we reconcile these two facts? We have an idea of potentiality here, but this idea is obscure and mysterious. My mind doesn’t run ahead to all future uses, or envisage all the future occasions on which moral action will be required of me. I just act as I do without consulting anything, and yet I feel fully justified: I act blindly, as Wittgenstein says. Again, it is not that I agree with all of this; I am simply pointing to the parallels. Moral and linguistic rules, virtues and meanings, present and future, inner and outer, facts and norms—all these concepts permeate both topics. The issues are remarkably similar. Each raises difficult questions in the philosophy of mind. What kind of fact is a virtue (or a personality trait in general), and how does it relate to temporally extended behavior? What is it grasp a moral rule and act on it? These are the very questions investigated by Kripke’s skeptic about meaning. He would have done well to bring in the moral case as precedent and prime example.[3]


[1] See Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982).

[2] One response is to insist that meanings and virtues are an irreducible kind of fact not to be explicated in terms of the kinds of facts to which Kripke limits himself. Another is to claim that the facts that constitute meaning and virtue (and rule-following generally) are not available to us, yet perfectly real, i.e. adopt a mysterian position.  

[3] I have always thought that Wittgenstein’s complete lack of interest in moral philosophy limited his philosophical perspective. Imagine if he had decided to focus on moral rules not mathematical rules in the Investigations. And what would he say about the right and the good in connection with his philosophical naturalism? He had a strong interest in philosophical psychology and philosophy of mathematics but was remarkably silent on the philosophy of value (in the Tractatus this was consigned to what could only be shown). 

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