Sidgwick on Philosophical Moral Intuitions

Sidgwick on Philosophical Intuitions (Book 3, Ch. 13)

Yo, check it.  Weez gonna learn about Sidgwick’s philosophical intuitions.  Sidgwick (aka Jesus–in my opinion) had this idea that moral truths can be found in the “Common Sense” morality of the everyman.  Well, not exactly.  More precisely, he thought that if one could systematically analyze the common sense moral principles that are floating around and reject the incoherent (i.e., tautological) axioms, and clarify those that are left–then we can discover the self-evident moral axioms to which every rational person will agree.

What he ends up with are the principles of Justice, Prudence, and Rational Benevolence.  And he regards the apprehension of “these abstract truths, as the permanent basis of the common conviction that the fundamental precepts of morality are essentially reasonable.”  What’s important to extract from this conclusion is that the fundamental principles of morality are rational and self-evident.

By ‘rational’ he means that each on its own is internally consistent (but not necessarily consistent with the others–this will come up later).  By ‘self-evident’ he means that neither one needs to be justified to be accepted as true.  We somehow are just able to grasp their truth.

So, lets take a closer look at these famous universal axioms of morality…

Justice:  Justice can be divided into two main ideas, both of which are too general to serve as particular rules, but are recognized as giving general guidance.
(1)  Golden rule-ish justice:  “whatever action any of us judges to be right for himself, he implicitly judges to be right for all similar persons in similar circumstances.”
(2)  Legal Justice: impartiality in the application of general rules; i.e., treat like cases alike.

Prudence (Rational Self-Love):  One ought to aim at one’s own good.  With the qualification that, given greater probability of realizing a future good over a present good, we ought not pursue the present good if I causes us to lose the future good.  In other words, suppose you will get 1000 units of happiness from finishing your paper on time and 10 units of happiness from going on facebook.  Going on facebook will prevent you from finishing your paper on time.  So, stay the fuck off facebook!

Rational Benevolence: The good of one individual is of no more importance that the good of another individual, from the point of view of the impartial universe, (unless you live in ‘merica, cuz God thinks ‘merca in #1–that’s a scientifical fact)

Ok, so now that we know what the universally true moral axioms are, lets qualify them.  While these are absolute practical principles, they are too abstract and too universal in scope to determine what we ought to do in any particular case; “particular duties have still to be determined by some other method.”  Nevertheless, (it is supposed) they are useful guides to which all particular moral rules can be logically traced.

I think there’s a question here about how significant Sidgwick’s 3 principles are.  I guess from the point of view of the philosophical task of demonstrating–contra the skeptic–that there are universal moral principles, we might say that Sidgwick is successful.  

But from the point of view of utility, I’m not sure that these principles offer us much guidance when we have tough moral decisions.  Of course, Sidgwick acknowledges their generality, but perhaps his project (at this point) is not to present a practical set of principles, rather his enterprise is one of description. 

As Sidgwick later points out, the 3 principles aren’t necessarily logically consistent with each other.  That is to say, in situations where prudence conflicts with rational benevolence there is no rational argument to prefer the one principle to the other, or to shew that one can be derived from the other:

But in the rarer cases of a recognized conflict between self-interest and duty, practical reason, being divided against itself, would cease to be a motive on either side; the conflict would have to be decided by the comparative preponderance of one or other of two groups of non-rational impulses.

By ‘non-rational impulses’ he means ‘desires’ for things other than self-interest and duty to society.

Why These and not Other Ones?
So, given all the possible moral principles that exist, why are these the self-evident ones and not some others?  Recall that Sidgwick is looking for the founding principles of morality.  If a principle is foundational that means it can’t be deduced.  If we deduce it from some other premises then it would seem that the premises were foundational rather than the conclusion–in fact, this is true by definition.  So, Sidgwick needs principles that aren’t rationally deduced, yet self-evidently true to er’body.

Consider some other rules like, “you ought not to lie” or even “you ought not to kill”.  These principles are not self-evident.  They seem to require some rational justification, and they aren’t universally accepted without qualification–whereas Sidgwick’s principles don’t require justification.  His principles are as self-evident as a mathematical principle (such as the sum of any two even numbers will equal an even number).

The upshot here is that foundational principles will not be deducible from other principles.  This in turn which means that if there are universal foundational principles they will only be accessible through our intuitions (how else could we know them?).  The best place to look for universal moral intuitions is in the “common sense”  (i.e., informal, everyman’s) morality.  Of course, the common sense morality isn’t a systematic moral system but a mishmash of confused and conflicting principles.  However, if you go through through it systematically (as he does in an earlier chapter) and tease out the content-ful from the vacuous, you will end up with Sidgwick’s 3.  That is, all of the principles in common sense morality are either vacuous or can be deduced from Sidgwick’s 3.

The Origens of Moral Principles 
This this bring up the issue of where moral principles come from (Jesus…duh!).  So, of course, Sidgwick, like virtually all moral philosophers is hopelessly misguided on this question because he doesn’t realize that er’thing he needs to know about morality he can find in the Bible…or the Koran…or the Vedic texts,  or the Tipitaka…etc…

Anyhow, for Sidgwick, because we can’t by definition reason our way to foundational moral principles, the only way to access these self-evident moral truths is through our intuitions (not in a new-age-y sense, but a more sophisticated philosophical sense, the details of which don’t really matter at this point).  

But this raises an objection which goes like this:  intuitions are just a psychological fact.  The mere fact that our psychologies align on these principles only tells us something about the psychology of humans, it doesn’t tell us anything about the objective world in regards to morality.  That is, psychological convergence doesn’t necessarily imply truth, only that we share some psychological intuitions–which isn’t surprising considering we share the same evolutionary past.

Sidgwick’s reply to this is that the critique is engaging in a sort of genetic fallacy/burden of proof-y argument.  It goes like this.  The other principles in common sense morality (those that he discarded) where shown to be either false or vacuous without appeal to their origens.  So, we should apply the same sort of standard to the 3.  If they are false we should be able to shew it by pointing out that they have internal some logical problem or that they are vacuous.  In short, a principle’s origen is irrelevant to its truth value.

There are obviously some assumptions about human reason but setting that aside, I think Sidgwick has a strong case here.  Lets suppose someone is a liar but occasionally tells the truth.  When they say something is that is true, we don’t automatically say it’s false just because it came from a source that often produces false statements.  That would be committing the genetic fallacy.  Instead we ought to evaluate statements and principles on their own merit.

There is another objection to Sidgwick.  This objection agrees with his invokation of the genetic fallacy but says that he has drawn the wrong conclusion.  Sidgwick’s conclusion excludes other possible self-evident principles.  In other words, he was on the right track but he missed some!

Fairly recently there has been a huge collaborative project between moral psychologists, cognitive scientists, and moral philosophers to empirically discover the foundations of morality loosely organized by Haidt.  The most current version of the “moral foundations” theory looks something like this:  there are 6 foundations of morality.  They are liberty/vs oppression, don’t harm others/care for others, sanctity/purity, fairness/don’t cheat/proportionality, loyalty (to group and individuals), and respect for authoritar.

The moral foundations theory explains cultural differences in moral rules as arising from the assignment of different values to each foundation.  For example, Western liberal countries have the liberty/vs oppression foundation very high and the sanctity/purity quite low (there are, however, regional variations–predominately between the north and the south).  More traditional cultures place a higher value (than Western cultures) on sanctity/purity and respect for authoritar.
(Fun activity! find out your own value weights!)

I think you might be able to make the case that Sidgwick’s ‘prudence’ could be rolled into liberty/vs oppression, rational benevolence could be rolled into “don’t harm others/care for others”, and Justice could be accommodated in “fairness/don’t cheat/proportionality”.   The fit might not be exact but with a little exigenical liberty and charity I think it could be done.

The problem will be accounting for the other three:  purity, loyalty, and respect for authoritar.  Did Sidgwick’s intuitions miss out on something?  Did he dismiss something from the common sense morality that he shouldn’t have?  Or is there some way to fit these remaining 3 into Sidgwick’s?

My inclination is that the psychologists and cognitive scientists probably have a model (based on resources and method) that better reflects global intuitions than does Sidgwick’s arm-chair theory.

What does this mean for Sidgwick’s theory?  Maybe we can say that he got some things right, but he missed a couple of things too.  Maybe what I need to do is to go back to the text and look at what he dismisses.

Another possibility is that the moral foundations project has a different concept of “foundational moral principle” than does Sidgwick.  Stitch and Machery have done some interesting work on the nature of moral concepts to show that often different theories are talking past each other.  For example, the moral foundations theory people might mean by “foundational moral concept” motivating force in an agent’s decision making, while Sidgwick might mean the fundamental premises to which all rational moral decision making can be traced.  

So, one possibility is that we are comparing apples and oranges.  We’d need to do some work to determine precisely what each means by “fundamental moral concept” to properly evaluate whether the two theories are different. 

Assuming similar notions of what it is to be a fundamental moral concept, one implication of accepting the “moral foundations theory” is that it weakens Sidgwick’s claim that all moral rules are derived from just 3 self-evident moral principles.

Sidgwick derives further confidence in his conclusion from the history of (Western) ethics where we find many of the same principles (Clarke, Kant, Mill).  The difference between Sidgwick and these other schools of ethics are that they try to shew that the moral axiom are logically linked.  That is, by pursuing the good of all we make ourselves better off or that by pursuing our own good, we make society better off.  Sidgwick’s main point is that all attempt to logically connect these principles fail.  The fact that there are self-evident moral truths don’t necessitate that they be logically connected.

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