It’s taken to be a platitude of folk morality that I can only be morally responsible for my own actions.Call this The Platitude.Sometimes The Platitude is presented in a more expansive form: (a) I can be responsible for my own actions; and (b) I cannot be responsible for anyone else’s actions.This platitude is then taken to entail what I’ll call The Slogan: moral responsibility presupposes personal identity.Classical philosophers who have embraced The Slogan include Locke, Reid, and Butler, and contemporary philosophers who do so include DeGrazia, Glannon, Haksar, Madell, Parfit (on one reading), Schechtman, and Sider.Nevertheless, The Slogan is false.Responsibility doesn’t presuppose identity, even if The Platitude is true.
Some questions I had been thinking about came up at the Wisconsin Metaethics Workshop, and I wondered if people had any thoughts about them. As a moral irrealist, and indeed someone tempted by the error theory, I am inclined to say that I don’t believe any moral statements to be true. Thus, I am inclined to believe things like:
1) “‘Torturing children for fun is wrong’ is false.”
The LEM says that if 1 is false, then its denial must be true. Thus, the irrealist (or at least the error theorist) seems committed to:
2) “It is not the case that torturing children for fun is wrong”
And I am inclined to believe it too.
That raises two questions:
A) Are 1 and 2 moral statements?
B) Does 2 imply that torturing children for fun is permitted or ok?
I want to say no to both. The answer to B is easier. 2 better not have that implication. For the error theorist does not believe that anything is (morally) ok. 2 is just the sort of moral statement she denies to be true.
One way to see this is, a la Harman (the Elder)’s comments at the WMI, is to note that certain statements may seem to make presuppositions, and yet the presuppositions are inappropriate all things considered. Suppose I say, “John has not stopped beating his wife.” The presupposition seemingly revealed in ordinary discourse is that John is still beating his wife. (“John has stopped beating his wife,” after all, appears to be true if the statement above is true.)
But the presupposition can be defeated explicitly, for example by my saying “John has not stopped beating his wife because he never started!” And it can also be defeated implicitly. (Or perhaps, in some contexts it doesn’t even arise.) In realms we do not think of as realms of fact the presupposition seems inappropriate. “No flavor of ice cream is really best” does not presuppose that all flavors are really equally good. (Of course there is a sense in which they are, namely they are all not at all “really good”. But there is a sense in which the very point of the statement is to deny that such predicates as ‘good’--if taken literally or in their ordinary usage--are correctly applied to things like ice cream flavors.
The same can be said (by the error theorist) of statements like 2, I think.
What about A? Are 1 and 2 moral statements? Well, what is a moral statement? 1 and 2 do express propositions and do employ the moral vocabulary. As such it is natural to think of them as statements about morality, and thus, perhaps, as moral statements. “It is illegal to park there,” by analogy, does seem to be a statement about the law. Still, ‘legal statement’ may seem unclear or awkward. Or take, “Those flowers are red.” Perhaps it does not seem odd to think of that as a color statement. But how about a ‘flower statement’? That’s just not something we’d recognize. ‘Statement about flowers’ is better. By analogy, it seems like the error theorist might be able to live with 1 and 2 being statements about morality, if not moral statements.
Furthermore, if we treat 1 and 2 as moral statements then it looks as though the error theorist believes many many moral statements to be true—has many moral beliefs—but nevertheless doesn’t believe in morality! It seems unfair to saddle her with inconsistency or paradox. (And we wouldn’t, I think, for “coolness irrealists,” e.g.) So I’m inclined to say that the error theorist does not believe any moral statements to be true.
Perhaps at this point it looks like going further would be to engage in a fruitless terminological quibble. Does this all seem right so far? (I have many more thoughts on this, including some big complications related to that bogey of bloggery, moral incoherentism. But I’m sure I have already violated several norms of bloggery by posting such a long entry. Luckily, I don’t think it’s wrong to do so. Still, I do not want to be kicked off.)
Many philosophers believe that suicide is permissible in at least some circumstances. Others go further and claim that there are circumstances in which suicide is morally obligatory — that there's sometimes a "duty to die." While I accept that suicide may be morally permissible in some circumstances, I have reservations that there is a ever a duty to commit suicide. Here I'd like to explore these reservations, framing them in terms of self-defense, and enlist your help in trying to make sense of these matters.
The Committee for the Graduate Conference in Political Theory at Princeton University welcomes papers concerning any period, methodological approach, and/or topic in political theory, political philosophy, and/or the history of political thought, for a conference at Princeton April 11-12, 2008. For more details, visit the conference website. Questions or comments may be directed to email@example.com.
I’m working on putting together an anthology of readings in political philosophy.The book is aimed for use in undergraduate courses and will have both classic (e.g. Locke, Hobbes) and contemporary (e.g. Rawls, Dworkin) sources.It will contain about 40 readings, and these readings should generally be at a level where they can be accessible (if challenging) to non-philosophy majors (political philosophy courses, in my experience, draw a lot of ‘pre-law’ students who major in something other than philosophy).What I hope will be distinctive about the collection is its use of ‘non-standard’ readings to illustrate, motivate, and explain certain core ideas.‘Non-standard’ readings could come from literature, economics, sociology, psychology, etc.
The Rutgers Institute for Law and Philosophy, based at the Law School in Camden, is pleased to announce a two-day symposium on F. M. Kamm's Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (Oxford, 2007). The symposium will take place on Friday, February 22nd and Saturday, February 23rd, 2008. Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor Philosophy and Public Policy at Harvard, will attend, and presentations will be given by Shelly Kagan (Yale), Jeff McMahan (Rutgers), Gideon Rosen (Princeton), T. M. Scanlon (Harvard), and Seana Shiffrin (UCLA).
For further information, including registration details, please see the conference website: