The Myth of Morality – Notes on Richard Joyce

ET = extra thought

Polynesian islanders have/had word ‘tapu’ which was developed by European settlers into ‘taboo’, but it doesn’t mean ‘morally forbidden.’ Tapu implies an uncleanliness or pollution that may reside in objects and can be transmitted to people via contact and spread like a contagion. Certain rituals can remove tapu.

This is not just a different word for the same thing, it is a concept we do not employ at all. How could intelligent people using this every day be so wrong?

Phlogiston is a defunct scientific theory from 17th century that says that: 1. phlogiston is released during combustion, 2. phlogiston is stored in bodies 3. soot is made up of phlogiston.

The concept of oxygen was introduced and combustion was understood and the ‘discoverer’ of phlogiston could make no claim that oxygen was the same as his phlogiston.

In the same way Tapu cannot be translated into taboo. Tapu involves beliefs super-natural and magical forces, and so the Polynesians didn’t just have faulty beliefs, they had a faulty framework. Tapu is a defunct concept.

ET: I would be curious to learn examples of Tapu as perhaps they weren’t completely wrong. Perhaps they could sense things that would lead to ‘sin’ as they were very wise and didn’t want things to ruin they possibly idyllic existence? I Could be completely wrong. LOOK UP TAPU: I did this – I am completely wrong, it is nonsense. It is a positive force for life, but the chief’s house was tapu, so was the chief but he could’t eat food in side it, food for high ranking people was tapu and couldn’t be eaten by inferiors.

Moral error theory holds that a discourse ‘this is x’ ‘this is tapu’ is used in an assertoric manner. It isn’t a disguised command or to express approval/disapproval, and that the assertion is not true.

Could morality be an institution? ‘yes I can see that morality requires me to keep that promise, why should I adopt that set of rules?’

Is practical rationality an institution? Practical rationality is the framework that tells us what our reasons for acting are. If we question it, ‘what is my reason for being interested in practical rationality’ we are alleging allegiance to it.

ET surely ‘acting’ (above) can be replaced with ‘existing’ ET: ‘for what reasons should I have reasons for doing things?’ –this is circular but still good, because at our core we are a just ring of reasons aka values. In that we are all the same and so our reasons for morality are correct.

Joyes is opposed to my ET. He says to question rationality is to ask for a reason while implying that no reason will be adequate, therefore practical rationality is not an institution we may intelligibly question.

Joyce says practical rationality only produces hypothetical imperatives.

ET: So Joyce is claiming you can separate a person from their reasons. This cannot be done. Asking ‘why do I have reasons?’ or ‘why ought I have reasons to exist?’ is the same asking ‘why do I exist?’ It is not an unintelligible question, it is a very good one and shouldn’t be brushed aside.

ET: Reasons vs action, dualism. Dimensions are an illusion created by our minds, the important part is the reasons.

The Rationalist’s Dilemma

Moral rationalism is the thesis that moral reasons are a subset of normative reasons. Therefore moral failing is rational failing.

N.B Normative ethics asks how one ‘ought to act, morally speaking’

Humean response to being told ‘why do you do X’ is ‘because it gives me pleasure’. Or ‘why do you want to cease your friends suffering’ he would reply, ‘because we go back a long way and I care about him’. To question ‘why’ or to say ‘so what’ further would be to question practical rationality itself, which according to Joyce (and Hume) is incoherent. To question it is to acknowledge it.

Hume said, “it is impossible that there can be a progress in infinitum; and that one thing can always be a reason why another is desired. Something must be desired on its own account.”

ET: evolutionary perspective offers answers, as well as questions if brought to the debate. How can it be left out?

Someone asking ‘so what’, or ‘why ought I?’ is acknowledging they have the ability to to use practical reason for other matters and can weigh competing desires and reasons Therefore if someone says ‘so what?’ when there are reasons for them to do x, it is unintelligible.

ET. Makes sense now, but it’s only unintelligible because we can’t work out the answer.

If the person were made dispassionate then it would make a ‘so what?’ intelligible.

Relativism: People have different desires, projects and interests. Therefore if X ought to do something it doesn’t mean Y ought too as well. To refute this the absolutist would have to demonstrate that there is sufficient convergence between agents. Their position is that with careful reflection and full information a convergence of motivation will form between all people.

Joyce argues against this objectivism/absolutism. There are no agents that can deliberate flawlessly and if there were, full information and flawless deliberation alone do not produce desires. Also, a rational agent as such need not desire to be or remain a rational agent.

This idealized rational agent (whom plato would have said could rule unchecked) does not have any reasons to instil desire in others to take on his beliefs.

ET: It has to be an idealized version of yourself telling you what to do. (parents/god?)

There is a danger that a theory of normative reasons stumbles into relativism and vice versa. But being impaled on the horn of relativism is no disaster, one should embrace normative relativism. Trying to defend moral rationalism – tying moral reasons to normative reasons- then normative relativism will be moral relativism and that is a problem.

The relativity of normative reasons: The substantive question

Convergence of entrenched disagreements can be solved inter alia (among other things) via a process of moral argument/debate. So convergence can be explained in other ways sometimes. E.g. It could be said that people all over the world are starting to wear or desire the same cars and clothes. But the whole world has not had a rational debate about it. The convergence lies in complex cultural hegemony

Convergence itself can be considered valuable. E.g. countries in mainland Europe should require drive on the same side of the road, it doesn’t matter which, but convergence is beneficial.

If a group of people with different moral values get together to live they may have a rational debate and converge on policy X. Another group of people with different moral values to each other may debate and converge on policy Y. Convergence in these scenarios is beneficial within both groups. But if the two groups interacted another round of negotiations may be entered into. But suppose they don’t interact or their interaction doesn’t demand common policy so there is no pressure for them to have the same opinion. Would rational debate there lead to convergence? When convergence is not of use there is no reason to assume it exists. I.e. when objective morality is not of use there is no reason to assume it exists.

The clearer question is would the two parties converge even when they are not interacting with each other?

What if the two parties were in fact two people, a couple trying to form a joint policy?

They both want a joint policy and so would take into account what the other wants, but:

Would the idealized rational and informed versions of themselves both want the same thing for each other, even when not trying to form a joint policy in a partnership?

Rational debate can fail when one or more parties doesn’t participate properly, e.g. one of them forms their moral beliefs in response to directives from a religious authority rather than their own free thought. Some entrenched disagreements are explained this way – so is argument against relativism. But convergence can

The moral rationalists position boils down to; moral failure is rational failure.

Joyce’s Conclusion:

Non-institutional reasons have been located – let us called them ‘normative reasons’. They are not going to ‘rescue’ moral reasons. Normative reasons are agent relative, depending on the desires of the agent in question. There is no argument that there must be convergence towards a view of promise keeping and that condemns harm on others. There is no moral authority that binds us regardless of our desires.

What do I think?

Our senses are limited to feeling ourselves. In the future would it not be possible to connect people in ways that lets them feel physical and or emotional responses of others. Is the Internet such a device? We have a (limited) capacity for caring about people who don’t affect us at all, but we all have that capacity.

Realism and Normativity

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