Tag Archives: intuitionism

Good Snake, Bad Snake

One bright Spring morning, Karen opens her front door and steps onto the porch to take the morning rays. She lives on a cul-de-sac, and in the middle of the traffic circle just beyond her front yard, she sees a large rattlesnake. No one else is around, but she knows that the neighbor kids will soon be out to play in the street. She must do something. Karen likes snakes (she considers them beautiful, graceful creatures) so she shoos the animal into the underbrush well off the travelled way, posts a homemade, “Danger Snake” sign on the path to the underbrush, and knocks on her neighbors’ door to warn them of the danger to their kids.

The following morning, Karen sleeps in, but her other neighbor, Kate, is up early and out to her porch. Once again, the rattlesnake sits in the traffic circle. Kate does not like snakes, so she promptly chops its head off and disposes of the body in the underbrush. Not long after, Karen appears, having heard some commotion. They stand together, regarding a small bloodstain on the pavement.

Unbeknownst to Kate and Karen, Marsha, the nosey insomniac who lives 2 doors down, has been observing the events of the last two mornings. Marsha feels moved to acknowledge the noble actions of her neighbors, so she promptly goes out to present each of them with a card of appreciation which reads, “Thank you for your good work in your good works.”

It is pretty clear what Marsha means by the first “good”. She thinks that each of her neighbors, given their purposes, acted in a manner to most effectively realize the ends of those purposes. The first “good” is instrumental; it describes the effectiveness of a means to an end. It may be tempting to say that the second good is just the same. For instance, one could propose an argument from evolutionary psychology: We seek to bring about good circumstances and avoid bad ones because such efforts improve our odds of survival. Assuming the viability of an evolutionary account. we are still left with an elephant in the room. We have no explanation of our valuation of life. It is easy to claim it as a logical tautology: Living things live because that’s what makes them living things. But living is an activity. To live is to strive to survive, so to speak. The motivation to carry on this activity is intrinsic to the activity and if living is self explanatory, then so is the life-motive.

Closely examined, all motive looks this way.* When I reach for a beer, for instance, certain neurons have responded to environmental cues. The activity of those neurons causes in me the notion that I want to have a beer, which turns on other circuits in the prefrontal cortex, spinal cord, neuromuscular junction, etc. At the end of it all, I have a beer and an exhaustive explanation. The story of my obtaining beer is a story, still. It is representational. The story exists as the result of a desire to tell stories, and the desire to tell stories has its own, exhaustive reduction. But all the branching stories of motives are fixed by an active orientation, which I also indicate when I say that I want a beer.

And as Hume, among others, observed, when we talk about moral goodness, we don’t just tell a story containing an end and its means, we do also refer to a motive directly. Good, if it is something, is something which we ought to do. Even when we speak of evil acts, we don’t simply mean acts which are ignorant or negligent, we mean acts which somehow fail in their motivations. Marsha’s two ‘goods’ do mean two different things. The first meaning is instrumental. The second is something – else.

To get at what else a moral value may be, it may be instructive to examine how Karen evaluates the snake. For her, the snake elicits a sense of beauty which weights her moral calculus. She has a moral obligation to the neighbor kids, and aesthetic obligation(?) to the snake. Nor do those values seem bound to the snake; they seem to be bound to the beholder. Kate certainly does not attribute the same value to the snake. We must look to the motivation of the evaluator to account for the snake’s aesthetic value.

We can attempt a functional account of the discrepancy in snake esteem. The snake has symmetry, color contrast, impressive venom, etc. which the human brain finds attractive, and which Karen has the proper sort of history regarding snakes (a history which Kate lacks) to allow an appreciation of snakes on the above grounds. The reduction can give us an instrumental evaluation of the snake’s aesthetic value. For instance, we will have a pretty good idea of where Karen’s line is when it comes to snake rescue – will she risk her life to save one, or just suffer a little inconvenience. We will not have a good account of why the line is where it is.

George Moore refers to the analogous moral problem with his open question. He noted that we can identify an act as good, but we cannot find an attribute inherent in the act itself which makes it good. When we say something is morally good, we don’t seem to be able to go on and say that it is constitutive of good, so that any morally good thing contributes to our knowledge of good. We speak as though we already know it, even when we have changed our minds about what is or is not good! It is the same with the line demarcating the limits of snake-appreciation for Karen; we start behind it and cannot pick apart a final source of its position in the facts we have about the line. The value attribution seems to come from within the person making it, and their motive.

Moore postulated a moral intuition to explain the whole moral mess. We have a faculty which responds to events by arousing Good and Bad sentiments in us. With a moral sense, it all occurs in the heart, which is only stimulated by events past and current.

Aesthetic sentiments also occur ‘in the heart’. A urinal in the bus station moves very few, while the same urinal in a gallery moves many – and beyond its representation. In fact, part of what the gallery urinal represents is the significance of aesthetic disagreement. The difference, the urinal reminds us, occurs in the heart and its appreciation of white porcelain curves, beyond any differential understanding of context and symbol – the instrumental aspects of art.

So it is with morality, as well. Aesthetic evaluations and moral evaluations prove difficult to distinguish, because they share a structure. But aesthetics are appreciated, not by the stimulation of a mysterious, aesthetic faculty, but by an operational method. When we consider the urinal in the gallery, we take in its given structure and attempt to align the proper elements of that structure in terms of our given motive. The sense of appreciation that we enjoy after the act of appreciation may be mistaken for the appreciation itself, but the sense is merely a tale of reminiscence.

The appreciation of the child/snake situation occurs in the moment, too. When we look back on it, we can analyze the process, but the analysis is not the process. It leaves facts in its wake, but the facts are not the act, and the act is what we wish to indicate when we speak in moral terms. We feel comfortable with this sort of arrangement in similar cases of activity, like painting or juggling. We understand that instruction in painting or juggling does not effectively capture the act, and we do not expect that a manual detailing the performance of the activity, even if the manual were complete in every detail, would enable us to paint or juggle the first time, every time or even any time.

The intuitionists got it right regarding our moral situation. Moralizing occurs within the speaker, and the speaker’s report inevitably misses a key element of morality when the report attributes moral properties or refers to moral facts. But what seems to be going on is not the inscrutable machination of a non-natural moral sense. Instead, it looks like the enactment of a method.

______________________________________________________________________________* I think that is because all motive devolves to a single motive – der Wille zur Macht.

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