How is Morality Possible?
"What a piece of work is man! How noble in
reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in
apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the
paragon of animals!"
This chapter will deal with the nature of
personhood and the grounds
of the equality of persons. In the following chapter, we will discuss
the meaning and justification of human rights.
Underlying the enduring issues of good and evil, virtue and vice, and
justice and injustice, is the question, just what is it about the behavior
and cognitive abilities of most homo sapiens that make moral evaluation
possible? What qualities and capacities must an individual have to be
responsible for one’s actions, to be justifiably admired for one’s virtue or
justly condemned and punished for one’s transgressions – to be, in short, to
To assist the reader, I will briefly state at this outset, some of the
issues that I will explore in this chapter. If these points seem obscure at first reading, please be patient. They will become clearer
as we proceed with the chapter.
The words “human” and “person” are not synonymous.
“Human” refers to a biological species, homo sapiens, while
“person” designates individuals that are morally responsible for their
conduct (“moral agents”).
Human persons are most significantly distinguished from
other species by their possession and use of syntactical language. Thinking
is internalized language.
Through the acquisition and use of language,
human persons acquire a concept of “oneself” (a “self-concept”)
as a continuing being, with a past and a future. One also gains
a recognition of the selfhood of others along with the insight
that others have the same feelings, needs and aspirations that
one is aware of in oneself. This recognition, called “empathy,”
is a fundamental prerequisite of morality.
Language also provides the ability to be a
“spectator” of oneself, which is a pre-requisite of possessing a
“conscience.” With these cognitive capacities, persons are able
to assume a “moral point of view”– the perspective of a “benign
spectator” of society and politics.
Personhood and the sense of
inalienably social phenomena. We converse with ourselves (i.e., think) because
we converse with others.
Language allows individuals to be aware of the consequences of
their actions, and to imagine and evaluate alternative futures before
“committing” themselves to one or another of these futures.
From language comes abstraction and thence the ability to
formulate rules, which include rules of conduct (also called “commandments” and
“Moral values” are values that reflect upon the worth of persons
(“virtues”) and by extension, the worth of societies of persons (“justice”).
Humans and Persons
In ordinary language, the words “human” and “person” are used
interchangeably, as if they were synonymous.
To moral philosophers, however, these words are fundamentally distinct, despite
the fact that most humans are persons, and as far as we know, all persons are
human. An awareness and appreciation of this distinction is essential to an
understanding of the nature of morality and a justification of human (more
correctly, “personal”) Rights.
The words are distinct because they belong in totally different realms of
discourse. Put briefly, “human” is a biological concept – meaning a member of
the species homo sapiens. “Person,” on the other hand, is a moral
concept, indicating a cluster of capacities which, together, make an individual
responsible for his or her behavior, capable of acting on principle, worthy of
praise or deserving of blame, and entitled to be in charge of the course of
Earlier (in Chapter 10) we listed the capacities that define personhood.1
Here they are again:
sentience, or the ability to feel pain (also applies to
"moral patients" such as animals, as noted below)
consciousness of external objects and events.
reasoning: the ability to solve problems.
the capacity to communicate through the use of a complete,
syntactic system of significant symbols (i.e., a language).
the ability, through language, to conceptualize abstractions and
to formulate rules.
a concept of oneself as a being continuing through time.
a capacity to conceptualize and choose among alternative
a capacity to act on principle -- to deliberately govern one's
behavior according to rules.
empathy: the recognition of the personhood of other persons.
Notice that there is not a word in this list about the
biological properties of homo sapiens.
Are there non-personal humans? Certainly. These would be any individual
of the species homo sapiens without these capacities. Among them are infants who
have yet to acquire these capacities, and brain injured individuals who have
lost them, or never had the ability to achieve them.
Are there non-human persons? Not to our certain knowledge, though this is
an empirical (“factual”) assertion that may prove, with further evidence, to be
false. Some investigators claim that the great apes or cetaceans (e.g.
porpoises) may have some personal capacities. We would surely know how to
recognize non-human persons if we encountered them, for fantasy and science
fiction is abundantly populated with them. To name a few: in “Star Wars,”
Chewbaca, Yoda, R2D2 and 3CPO. In “Star Trek,” Spock, Worf, and Data. And
literature and folklore provide numerous examples of animal-persons, from Walt
Disney (Mickey Mouse) to Aesop (the ant and the grasshopper) and beyond. But in
fact? No fully personal non-humans have been identified as of yet.
The concept of personhood is essential to moral philosophy, for it is foundation
of responsibility and moral value. In a planet, teeming with life but without
persons, and in undisturbed wilderness areas on the Earth, there is no justice,
no virtue, no vice, and no right and wrong, and no rights. In a sense, there are
values: when the predator catches the prey, that is good for the predator and
bad for the prey. But such encounters are neither right or wrong, for no moral
agents are involved.. Moral praise and blame have no part of such valuation.
There are a lot of bold claims packed into that paragraph. Time now to attempt
an explanation and justification of these claims.
In the Word was the Beginning
The path toward an understanding of the foundations of morality
begins with language.
I invite you now to reflect and be astonished at yourselves. Not by dealing with
the strange and unfamiliar, but with that which is most immediate and familiar
to us all: our language. Like water to the fish, language is so constant,
pervasive and fundamental to our conscious life (we are never “away” from it)
that we generally take little if any notice of our language, much less
appreciate its significance to our lives, our culture, and as I will attempt to
demonstrate, our morality.
One often hears the question, “what was the greatest invention in the history of
mankind?” Quite often the suggested answers are “fire-making” or “the wheel.”
My candidate is: the sentence.
Without sentences, language (actually, “pre-language”) consists at best of signs
designating things, activities, qualities, or expressing raw emotion. With
sentences, a language can designate facts – true and false, real and
imagined – entertain hypotheses, and pose questions. With this breakthrough in
communication, knowledge can be shared among contemporaries, and “funded”
(accumulated) through generations.2
When was the sentence “invented”? We don’t know, just as we don’t know when
fire-making and the wheel were invented. All these inventions are lost in the
mist of pre-history. In fact, there are no primitive languages today that might
illuminate the origins of language. Every known human language is fully-formed.
Like chemical compounds, language is built out of a few elements and rules of
their combination. And like chemical compounds, sentences have properties
totally different from the properties of their component elements.3
The elements of speech are called “phonemes” – the smallest units of speech
capable of conveying distinctions in meaning. Most languages have less than
fifty phonemes. English has forty-two.4
From these few elements of speech, words are constructed. The vocabulary of the
average English speaker is from ten to twenty thousand words.5
The rules of combination of these words (the “grammar”) of modern languages, excluding
“irregularities,” can be expressed in a small pamphlet.
From these finite resources – phonemes, words and grammatical rules – a virtual
infinitude of sentences can be constructed, which means an infinitude of facts
(true, false, real and imagined) can potentially thought of and expressed. All
possible sentences have not been uttered or written, not in all the libraries of
the world. The content of our discourse is limited more by our education, our
experience and our imagination, than by our language.6
Language and Thought.
Thanks to language, and particularly to the use of
sentences, the mind breaks the bonds of immediate time, space and actuality.
(The “escape from actuality” allows fiction, hypothesis, imagined futures, and,
unfortunately, lying and deception). By encoding events and possibilities into
enduring sentences, language objectifies and fixates our cognitive past, and
constructs our cognitive future. Objects, events, qualities and processes, once
named, may become permanent and continuous in memory, even when “out of sight.”
These named objects of memory are recognized as identical in each encounter,
recalled in personal reflection with other memories, and reminded by other
individuals who have shared these experiences.
So too our “selves,” which are bound into an integrated and continuing entity as
memory and conception of these continuities “bind” them into memories of a
continuing self – our “self.”
As we are able to bind these past experiences into a continuity of memory – into
a personal “history” -- so too are we able to project clustered and integrated
memories into a hypothetical future – a future of expectations and
aspirations. Knowledge thus acquired is “funded” in the community, as it is
shared among contemporaries, and passed on to future generations. In human
history, the funding of knowledge took a quantum leap forward with the invention
of writing, and the subsequent establishment of libraries, schools and
To better appreciate this expansion of the human mind, compare the “reactive
environment” of a human with that of a familiar non-human, let’s say a squirrel. By “reactive environment” I mean the sum-total of all stimuli that
might affect the behavior of the organism. For the squirrel, this would include
all perceivable scents upwind of the creature, ambient sights and sounds
(possibly including the sight or sound of a predatory hawk or eagle, looking for
a meal), and the squirrel’s perception of the distance between the branch he is
on, and another upon which he might jump.
Compare this “reactive environment” with that of a human being.
With language, humans can react to events that long precede their own lifetimes.
A philosopher’s “environment” includes the trial of Socrates, and the
theologian’s “environment”includes the crucifixion of Jesus. An historical
geologist responds to events millions and billions of years in the past. Through
language transmitted by instant electronic communication, we are able to respond
immediately to events throughout the world. And the astronomer responds to stars
and galaxies millions of light years distant (and co-incidentally, millions of
years in the past).
All this is possible due to the “coding” of these events into sentences.
With language, we can form hypotheses to be tested, and we can imagine,
articulate and assess alternative futures. A young man can ask: Should I propose
to Jane or Mary, or perhaps remain a bachelor? Should I attend Yale University
(expensive!) or the state university (affordable), and how will this choice
affect my future career? How will my choices among alternative futures affect
the welfare of others? As we evaluate the impact of these alternative futures
upon the rights and welfare of persons, ourselves and others, morality emerges,
and it emerges inevitably. With choices forced upon us, we cannot escape
responsibility. “Doing nothing is doing something.”
John Dewey thus describes this endowment of language-use:
Events when once they are named lead an independent and
double life. In addition to their original existence, they are subject to
ideal experimentation: their meanings may be infinitely combined and
re-arranged in imagination, and the outcome of this inner experimentation --
which is thought -- may issue forth in interaction with crude or raw events.
Meanings having been deflected from the rapid and roaring stream of events
into a calm and traversable canal, rejoin the main stream, and color, temper
and compose its course. Where [linguistic] communication exists, things in
acquiring meaning, thereby acquire representatives . . . and implicates
which are infinitely more amenable to management, more permanent and more
accommodating, than events in their first estate.7
The ability to recognize consequences, and to conceptualize and
choose among alternative futures, is the moral-psychological foundation of the
ethical theory of utilitarianism.
Language also allows abstraction: concepts with broader
and broader application and meaning. Hawk to bird, to animal, to life-form.
Neighborhood to county, to state, to country, to world. From such abstractions,
rules emerge: sentences that encode allowed, forbidden or recommended
conduct. From the capacity to articulate rules, arises another ethical theory:
deontology, exemplified by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
The lives of animals, and of persons.8
Do animals have rights as PETA and other “animal rights” activists
proclaim? Yes, because sentient animals can be benefited or harmed, they have
interests and therefore rights. However, lacking the capacity for moral
deliberation, sentient animals do not have duties. I will elaborate on this
issue in the next chapter.
However, some “animal liberation” philosophers assert much more than this. Some
proclaim that human and animal experiences are “comparable,” and that while
humans and higher animals might differ in the degree of their pleasures and
pains, these experiences do not differ in kind.9
This claim can be shown to be false for reasons with which we are now familiar:
human beings (a) have language, and (b) are persons (infants and brain-damaged
Why should "personhood" loom so large in
a comparison of human and animal
experience and in an analysis of moral significance? Essentially for these reasons: (a) the
quality of personal life, and of the experience therein, may be fundamentally
different from that of non-personal life; and (b) this qualitative difference is
such that personal life may be said to be richer, more comprehensive, and more
valuable to the person, than a life of a non-personal being to that individual.10
While the life experience of non-humans is unimaginable to us,11
the life quality of human persons is familiar to us all. And thus from our own
reflection, and our observation of the behavior of non-personal animals, we can
appreciate that with language and personhood, life-quality is transformed. The
life and experiences of persons and of non-persons are not "comparable;" they
are "different in kind." “Animal liberation” advocates contend otherwise, as
they seem to assume that human and animal lives, like safe-deposit boxes
containing coins and notes of debit, are composed of discrete and transferable
experiential (and derivatively moral) counters -- i.e., "just one damned thing
after another." But surely, this is not how it
is. On the contrary, because personal experiences are interactive, organic,
intentional and systemic, the life experience of a person is more than a sum of
discrete sequential experiences. Because human experiences are contextual, they
come out of an ongoing life, and effect the future of that life. Experiences
which "happen to" a life -- a stubbed toe, a toothache, an unexpected prize,
etc., have sense, meaning, value, in the context of that life. Thus the quality
of a pleasure or pain can not be assessed apart from the quality of the life it
happens "in" or "to" -- apart from the matrix of attitudes, expectations and
evaluations that make up that life.
Now if the differences between human and animal lives are simply matters of
degree among isolated bits of experience, then some sense and use may be made of
this argument by analogy. Our account of "personhood" seems to suggest, however,
that this position is radically mistaken. Humans, qua persons, deal with each
other in conversation and with themselves in thought, with and through concepts
articulated through syntactical language. They think abstractly of themselves,
of others, of community, of time, of their past and future, of concepts such as
rationality and of morality. As persons, humans experience unique dimensions of
mental and emotional pain; self-reproach, dread of impending loss, regret for
abandoned projects, fear of death. Animals do not, which is why, for example, a
steer does not look upon its scheduled slaughter with the sense of dread and
foreboding suffered by a condemned prisoner. "Capital punishment" for beasts
simply makes no sense.
Persons also uniquely enjoy such pleasures as self-respect, intellectual and
creative accomplishment, patriotism, irony, humor and pride, and they possess
moral sentiments such as guilt, shame, and indignation. In sum the transcending
and transforming fact that human beings are persons gives them a moral
considerability far beyond that of animals. Thus, once we seriously reflect upon
and evaluate the human condition of personhood, talk of "comparability" or even
"equality" of experiences of animals and human beings becomes unsupportable.
Having said all this, we must not coast off the deep end. Acknowledgment of
these significant differences does not entail that animal experiences do not
morally "matter," and that gratuitous torture of animals is not morally
reprehensible. However different and even unknowable animal pain may be, it is
pain nonetheless. Furthermore, this point of view need not be regarded as what
Peter Singer calls "species chauvinism." If homo sapiens is the only
terrestrial personal species, this is a contingent fact. Personal capacities,
and the entailed transformation of experience, are conceivably attributable to
any creatures. The limitation thereof is based upon empirical fact and
circumstance. If we were to discover that chimps or dolphins could be educated
to personhood, our moral stance toward them would and should be radically
transformed. So too if we were to encounter an extra- terrestrial person.
Indeed, if recent experiments with "ape language" are as significant as some
claim then a reassessment of our moral stance toward these cousins is overdue.
To close my argument, I will move beyond these scholarly and
scientific studies to a case study of more familiarity: that of the “wonder-dog” Lassie. Those
who can remember far back into the ancient history of commercial television will
recall the plot line of (it seems) most of the episodes. Timmy and Lassie go
outside to play. Timmy gets into some kind of trouble - he is stranded in a tree
or by a flash flood, or falls down a mineshaft - whatever. Timmy says, "Lassie,
get help!" Lassie runs back to the ranch, barks at the door, leads Mom and Pop
to Timmy. Saccharine theme music. Credits. Fade out.
The following is a plot that we never saw: Returning to the ranch house for help, Lassie encounters
an impassable gorge or swollen river. However, on the other side within earshot
is "Rover." Lassie "tells" Rover, "Timmy is caught in a mineshaft on the side of
yonder hill. Go to the ranch and tell Mom, and lead them to the mine." Rover
does exactly what he is told. Timmy is saved.
We never saw this episode because we all know that it was utterly incredible. To
be sure, animals do "communicate." But they are incapable of conveying such
simple abstractions as "third-person" messages -- namely, messages
about an absent person or thing. Lacking this capacity, animals
are incapable of "funding knowledge," and thus they lack "culture" and a species
"history." The behavior of wild squirrels, wolves and hawks today is essentially
identical to the behavior of their ancestors hundreds of years ago. If there is
any change in that behavior, it is due, not to the "funding" of their knowledge
and experience through language, but through alterations in their genome through
natural selection. We homo sapiens are, in short, very different
sorts of critters - and for reasons that can be readily understood and
Sea turtles never know their parents. Their eggs are laid on
sandy beaches, and when they hatch, their parents are long gone. Once hatched,
the hatchlings make a desperate sprint to the sea through a gauntlet of feasting
sea birds. The fortunate few that make it to the safety of the sea lead solitary
lives until it is time for the males to fertilize and for the females to deposit
the eggs of the next generation. A similar tale can be told of salmon, and other
Human beings are not like sea turtles and salmon. They are born and grow to
maturity in the company of other human individuals and, if they are fortunate,
guided by the loving care of their parents, and then the instruction of their
mentors. Homo sapiens is unique among all species in the length of the
“infancy” of its successor generations. If by “infancy” we mean the time of
preparation for independent and productive adulthood, then in primitive
societies, that period extends into the teens. In advanced industrial societies,
“infancy” so defined might, in the case of such professions as medicine, the
law, or engineering, extend into the late twenties, when, with the award of a
post-graduate degree, the individual joins the ranks of mature, independent and
productive members of society. (Of course, pre-doctoral students are usually
productive as well, as they function as researchers, teaching assistants, law
Obviously, the child acquires language from the company of others, presumably
the parents and immediately family. And that child had better do so promptly
before the brain becomes “hard wired” past the sixth year. Case histories have
revealed that children who are language-deprived before that age are incapable
of “catching up” with their age cohorts, and thus their language skills, and
with them their cognitive abilities, are forever handicapped.
The self-concept is also a social construct. We acquire and refine our self
concept from the perceived responses of others to our behavior: what the
sociologist Charles Horton Cooley called “the looking-glass self.” Small,
face-to-face associations (“primary groups”), provide a kind of constant
“laboratory,” wherein our self-concept is tested and then either confirmed or
refuted by the responses of others. If a child mistakenly believes that his misbehavior is “cute”
and endearing, stone-cold responses by his elders will set him straight. If a
gifted child somehow gets the notion that because he is "different," he is “not very smart,” his parents and
teachers might, through encouragement and rewards, disabuse him of that
misperception. If, that is, he is fortunate. Sadly, the primary group “looking
glass” can at times be clouded and distorted.
Equally important, through social interaction and conversation, we come to
understand and appreciate that those “others” are, in the most fundamental
respects, just like ourselves. And this insight is the cornerstone of morality.
For without an appreciation that “others” are like ourselves, The Golden Rule is
meaningless. One cannot “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”
unless one recognizes that there are “others,” and that these “others” have
feelings, aspirations, a capacity for joy, and a vulnerability to injury, just
as we do. That recognition is called “empathy,” also a fundamental pre-requisite
for morality. Those who fail to achieve this awareness of the equivalence of
self and others are called “sociopaths.” Such individuals become especially
dangerous when they achieve political power.
Furthermore, through the recognition of the equivalence of self and others, we
acquire the capacity to view ourselves objectively – as one of many members of
our immediate group, and then of our community and then, perchance, of the
global human family. The conception of oneself as one-among-many is the first
step toward “the moral point of view,” as we will see shortly.
Empathy – the recognition of the equivalence of self and others – is so
fundamental to our personalities that we easily overlook the fact that the
child’s acquisition of this insight is a significant accomplishment. For our
immediate encounter with ourselves “from the inside,” is radically different
from our encounter with others, through our sense organs and through our
conversations. Our nervous system ends at the epidermis. Thus Bill Clinton’s
response, “I feel your pain,” while metaphorically appealing, is literally
impossible. Because of this radical subject-object gap, at the dawn of its
self-awareness, the infant is an unqualified solipsist: his world is the world. Only through time does the child come to understand that there is
an external physical world that is indifferent to his will, and that there are
other minds with ideas, desires and needs of their own.
How does one come to believe that those clothed, bi-pedal, speaking figures are
other persons with minds of their own?12
Through countless interactions, and at
every moment that one is in contact with other people. Consider, for example,
the simple act of two children tossing a ball back and forth. How can one fail
to notice that the other’s act is identical, and responsive to, one’s own?
Similarly, one recognizes the selfhood of the other in conversation, as the
other replies precisely as an individual with an independent mind like one’s own
would be expected to speak.
And how does one “objectify” oneself – i.e., regard oneself objectively as
“one-among many?” Again, through interactive activity such as game-playing, and
through conversation. For example, during a time-out in a football game, the
coach says: “John, when Charlie gives you the ball, fall back and wait for Jim
to go long, drawing the defense, then pass short to Gene.” Whichever you are –
John, Charlie, Jim or Gene – you imagine yourself, “out there” on the field,
one player among all the others. If not, the coach is wasting his words on you, and you are
bound to screw-up the play. Similarly, when a drama coach gives stage
directions. Finally, an authentic conversation can only take place when each
participant attempts to “get inside the head” of the other, in order to
understand just what the other means and intends.
In fact, socialization and a rudimentary morality emerges
out of the spontaneous play of children. For when children rush on to a
playground at the close of school or on weekends, something wonderful
happens, much more than is apparent to the casual eye. If the children begin
to play an informal game (a game without referees) – touch football, soccer,
or basketball– they immediately embark upon a competition in a context of
Inevitably, disputes break out, disputes about which rules are to apply and
whether or not they are violated. Was the forward pass thrown behind
scrimmage, and was the runner tagged (“touched”)? Was the hit fair or foul?
Was the soccer ball intercepted in or out of bounds? Remember, there is no
referee to impose a ruling; it is up to the players themselves to settle the
If the dispute is severe and unresolved, the game ends and the children quit
and go home. Usually, the children tacitly agree that continuing the game is
more important than winning an argument. So the dispute is resolved, often
with a coin toss or by “taking turns” on yielding. Children who doggedly
refuse ever to yield soon find that they are not invited to play.
Out of such activity, a sense of compromise and fair-play emerges,
sentiments essential both to democratic politics and to social morality. And
such compromises presuppose the child’s ability to assume the point of view
of the other, if only to calculate just how much he can “get” before he
yields and a settlement is arrived at.
If such moral advantages accrue from informal childhood play, one might
wonder what might be the social implications of the movement of children in
the past half century, from the playgrounds to the solitary and passive act
of watching the TV screen.13
To recapitulate: human persons are, through-and-through, social constructs and
social beings. Through our interaction with others, we acquire our self-concept.
And through such interaction, we come to recognize the equivalent selfhood of
others and we learn to objectify ourselves – to be, in imagination, spectators
or ourselves “out there” among the others.
Yet the libertarians tell us that “there is no such thing as society.”14
On the contrary, we are not the a-social “monads” that Ayn Rand pretends that we
are. There is, in fact, “such a thing as society." We think because we speak,
and we speak because we are born, raised and as adults live in the company of
others. Thought (including libertarian thought) is internal conversation. If we
had never conversed externally with others, we could not converse internally –
i.e., we could not think at all.
In sum, “the self,” which the libertarians proclaim is ultimate value [cite
Rand], is an inalienably social construct – constructed from society which, once
again, libertarians tell us does not exist.
Language, Society, and Moral Agency
Reasons and causes. Human persons are capable
of behavior that is initiated, not simply by the “mechanical”
working out of antecedent physical/chemical events (from “causes”).
They might also be prompted to act through an assessment of evidence
or through logical inference (i.e., from “reasons”). The distinction
is crucial. If an individual is to act responsibly and be judged for her acts, she must
be prepared to present reasoned justifications for the act. The imagining of
alternative futures, and choosing among them, is an act of reasoning, which
is why, again, a person is responsible for one’s choice of “futures,” which
is to say, looking back in time, responsible for the conduct of one’s life.
To be sure, there are psychologists and philosophers who maintain that all
human behavior is caused, and that so-called “reasoning” is nothing more
than elaborated causation. However, these thinkers are then hard-pressed to
explain freedom and moral responsibility, and indeed some deny freedom and
In this direction lies some deep metaphysics, which we would be well advised
The Moral Point of View. I have devoted two chapters
(Five and Six) to the
development and justification of this concept. However, it is so crucial to
a discussion of moral psychology, that a recapitulation is in order.
Born into the society of fellow humans, and acquiring the use of language
and abstract thought thereby, socialized individuals achieve
self-consciousness and thus learn both to treat themselves as an object of
their own reflection and to recognize in others the cares, aspirations and
values that are central to their own existence. Then, through the Humean
"natural sentiments" of benevolence and sympathy, the well-being of the
others becomes a good-for-themselves, dissolving the ego-boundary of
By assuming the equal value of all others, the individual as moral agent is
forbidden to allow himself advantage in moral deliberation. By regarding
himself as equally entitled to rights and equally burdened by duties, the
moral agent becomes, in reflection, a spectator of himself among others as he plays his role
upon the stage of interpersonal and inter-temporal interaction with other
It is from "the moral point of view" that game-theoretical problems such as
"the prisoner's dilemma" and "the tragedy of the commons" find their
solution, while the same problems are completely intractable from the
ego-centric perspective of the libertarian. From the moral point of view,
achieved from millennia of historical experience, has emerged communities
and governments. This realization and experience is reflected in the
political philosophy that has dominated Western thought from the time of
Aristotle, through Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, to John Rawls, and
which finds expression in such documents as the Magna Carta, The Declaration
of Independence, and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is thus
quite remarkable, and may prove ultimately tragic, that the rival "social
atomism" of classical economic theory, as proclaimed by the likes of Ayn
Rand, Milton Friedman, and many libertarians, has become the political ideology of the
"establishment" of our time.
The Anatomy of “Conscience.” As we all know, humans have a myriad of
desires regarding food, sex, prestige, power, and wealth. However, because a
fully-formed person is capable of objectifying oneself, such an individual
might (qua “spectator”) also have desires regarding desires - indeed one
must have these if one is to have a conscience, which is to say, moral
capacity. It is through the awareness and activity of these "second order
desires" that morality enters the stage of personal and social human
In a significant and influential paper, philosopher Harry Frankfort16
gives a vivid account of how the two orders of desire are both distinct and
conjoined. The basic concept is clear and accessible even to a child: to
take a familiar example, the reformed alcoholic both "desires" a drink and
"desires" to remain sober. The object of the latter desire (for sobriety) is
the former: This (second order) "desire" for sobriety is that his
(first order) "desire" to have a drink
be frustrated. In ordinary language, this dissonance between second and
first-order desires is called "moral temptation." Frankfort uses the term
"wanton" to describe individuals who lack second order desires. "Economic
man" is a wanton.
In an refinement of Frankfort's moral psychology, Gary Watson17
recognizes the "second order" as "the valuational system" which passes
judgment upon the "prudence" and "worthiness" of one's primary (first order)
desires – “the motivational system.” "The valuational system of an agent,"
writes Watson, "is that set of considerations which, when combined with his
factual beliefs (and probability estimates) yields judgments of the form:
'[this is] the thing for me to do in these circumstances, all things
"moral temptation" is a first order desire to do that which, at the
second order, is judged to be undesirable.
If we are successful in the second-order evaluation and control of our
first-order desires, we will earn the moral satisfaction of self-respect,
just as others whose "valuational system" rules their "motivational system"
deserve our moral admiration.
Moral and Non-Moral Values. Having identified the capacities of
"moral agency" (or "personhood", we are now prepared to define "moral
value." These are values that reflect the worth of persons. Moral
"worthiness" is manifested in the virtues, which include honesty, fidelity,
courage, compassion, temperance, etc. Moral "unworthiness" is displayed in
the vices which traditionally include pride, gluttony, lust, avarice, sloth,
etc.. It is noteworthy that the vices generally betray a failure of
"second-order" control over first-order desires and impulses.
The term "non-moral value" applies to anything else that might be "graded"
(termed good or bad), including beauty (of art objects or natural
landscapes), function (of machines), viability (of organisms), stability (of
societies or ecosystems), enjoyments (of experiences), and prices (of
commodities and services). Thus, while we speak of "good" automobiles, we
never regard them as "virtuous." And while locusts who devour our crops are
(from our point of view) "bad," it would be inappropriate to condemn them as
"wicked," for they are not moral agents. “Good” and “bad” is the vocabulary
of non-moral value; “right” and “wrong” is the vocabulary of moral value.
Because experiences “happen to” individuals without reflecting
upon the worth of the individuals, they are evaluated non-morally.
But how one goes about obtaining pleasurable experiences or avoiding
painful experiences, has great moral significance. Thus, for
example, a sexual indiscretion can, at the same time be non-morally
good (i.e., pleasurable) and morally wrong (because a violated
promise and a betrayal of a spouse’s trust). The morally correct
thing to do is choose (from the dictates of “second-order”
conscience) to forego the (“first order”) pleasurable experiences.
Our response to moral agency, in ourselves and others, gives rise to the
moral sentiments. Satisfaction with our own worth evokes the sentiment of self-respect; lack of such satisfaction causes
about other's opinions of our worth leads to feelings of shame.
Similarly, positive or negative evaluations of the worth of other persons
evokes sentiments, respectively, of admiration or contempt.
As we noted earlier, on a planet teeming with life but without moral agents, there may be
non-moral goods and bads. But there will be no right and wrong, no virtue or
vice, and no justice or injustice. Neither will such moral values as virtue
or justice be found in a society of individuals whose motives are confined
to self-interested utility, with all values reduced to market prices.
Indeed, it is doubtful that such a "society," lacking the adhesive of common
loyalties, could exist at all. Tragically, we Americans may well prove this
to be so, if the program of regressive libertarianism prevails.
Criteria of Responsibility. Finally, with this background in moral
psychology, we are prepared to define “moral responsibility.” This concept
normally implies knowledge, capacity, choice, and value
significance. That is to say, if a person is morally responsible to do
something, then he (a) knows of this requirement or is capable of acquiring
this knowledge (“plausible deniability” is no excuse), (b) is capable of
doing it, (c) can freely choose whether or not to do it, and (d) the
performance thereof has value significance; for example, it affects the
welfare and/or liberty of other beings.
Consider an example: At nine o’clock in the morning, you come across a note
on the street that says, “the gang has decided to rob the First National
Bank at noon.” You have the responsibility, in this case, to alert the
police. Because: (a) you have knowledge of the impending robbery, (b) you
are capable of informing the police, (c) yet you might not if you so choose,
and (d) whether or not you tell the police will affect the welfare of
others, i.e., possibly save their lives and surely protect their property.
Suppose, instead, that you find the note deep in woods, you have no cell
phone, and it is 11 AM. There is absolutely no way that you can get word to
the police in time. Therefore, because you cannot fulfill condition (b), you
are not responsible.
There is an ancient rule in moral philosophy: “ought implies can,” and from
this rule we derive condition (b). However, that maxim is not sufficient by
itself. After all, I “can” breathe and I “can” have a beating heart. But
there is no virtue involved, for there is no alternative. If these
conditions do not apply, I will have no capacity to act, for I will be dead.
On the other hand, one has no responsibility in a hopeless situation (such
as the note in the woods example above). Put another way, moral
responsibility resides on a continuum between inevitability and
Thus the ancient rule must be extended: “ought implies can, and yet might
not.” And that rule encompasses both conditions (b) and (c).
Finally, condition (d), “the value significance” condition, rules out
morally neutral or insignificant choices. For example, you want to purchase
a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone. You have a choice of 31 flavors. However,
you have no “moral responsibility” to choose one or another of them. Because
your choice is trivial, it fails the “value significance” requirement.
So How is Morality Possible?
We are now prepared to answer the title question of this
chapter. Morality is possible:
because, through the use of language, moral agents can
formulate rules of conduct.
because, due to language, agents can imagine alternative
futures before they choose to commit themselves to one or another of
because agents can be “objects” of their own reflection.
because they can conceive of other persons as
essentially like themselves (empathy).
because they can assume the perspective of benevolent
observer of themselves in the company of others. (The Moral Point of
Because, through self-reflection, they can have
(second-order) desires regarding their (first order) desires – in other
words, they acquire a conscience.
because they can make decisions based upon rules of
evidence and logical inference (reasons) rather than by brute impulses
A Theological Postscript: A theist would likely protest, “What is the
place of God in all this?” Absent agreement concerning the relevance and
interpretation of Holy Scripture, it is difficult if not impossible to
introduce supernatural “explanations” into an empirical study such as this.
However, the lack of reference herein to The Almighty commits this author to
neither theism, deism, atheism, or agnosticism. In this sense, this account
of the socio-psychological foundations of morality is comparable to the
theory of evolution. Once the facts and evidence are studied and combined
into a coherent theory, one is free to affirm, or deny, that we find here
evidence of God’s creative handiwork. If the late Pope John-Paul II could
make his peace with evolution, I see no reason why a theist should find
refutation of his faith in this chapter.
[Needs more work -- additions, refinement]
Libertarian politics is not an appropriate politics for
fully-formed human persons. It is a politics more fitting for totally
egoistic, totally self-contained, a-social beings. Such beings are not
human, either in their origin or in their functioning.
The libertarian premise, “there is no such thing as society,” is flatly
false. No political order whatever can be built upon that premise.
The self,” which the libertarians proclaim is ultimate value [cite Rand], is
an inalienably social construct – constructed from society which, once
again, libertarians tell us does not exist.
“The Moral point of view” is essential both to Progressive politics and to
the capacity for moral conduct. Accordingly, progressive politics is
grounded in fundamental human nature.
Because a stable and nurturing home is essential to the development of a
well-functioning citizen, it is the business of politics to create and
maintain conditions in society that provide security for families. This
would include, for example, minimum wages, universal health care, family
Looking Ahead: The next chapter. This chapter has dealt with what
philosophers call “meta-ethics.” We’ve made few judgments of “right and
wrong,” “virtue or vice,” or “justice or injustice.” Instead, we have
explored the conditions of human life that make morality, and therefore
moral judgments, possible.
In the next chapter, we will shift from meta-ethics to ethical theory, as we
attempt to justify a theory of rights, a theory of justice, and an account
of human dignity. Our conclusions, we will find, clarify, support, and
justify progressive political ideals, and thus validate “The Conscience of a
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. The first five criteria are adapted from Mary Anne
Warren’s paper, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” (The Monist, 57:1, Jan. 1973, p. 55). The final five criteria are my additions to Warren’s
2. Even so, many psychologists and philosophers find little
significance in the human capacity for language. B. F. Skinner, for example,
reduces language to “Verbal Behavior,” and in the index to his book, The Science
of Behavior, the word “language” does not appear. In two devastating essays
(1959 and 1972), Noam Chomsky dismantles Skinner. [Cf. My Prelims]. Animal
Rights advocates, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, also discount the significance of
language, as they must when they argue that the lives of humans and animals are
different in degree and not in kind. [cite].
3. Consider first this sequence of words: "kills, the, the,
snake, man." This is not a sentence, and thus no fact is represented here. Put
in one order, "the man kills the snake," we have a sentence with a clear
meaning. In another order, "the snake kills the man," we have another sentence
with a radically different meaning. In "inflected" languages such as Latin and
Russian, these distinguishing grammatical functions are expressed, less with
word order than with word endings (suffixes). In Russian, the sentences above
are: "Chelovek ubivaet zmeyoo," (Человек убивает змею) and "Zmeya ubivaet cheloveka"
(Змея убивает человека).
Notice how the suffixes change with grammatical function (from noun-subject
5. This is
Lederer’s estimate. Lederer’s total includes both active (“in use”)
and passive (“recognition”) vocabularies. The estimated size of a vocabulary
depends upon how one defines a “word.” E.g., are “study” and “studied” one word
or two? Are compound words (e.g. “whistle-blower”) distinct words? By way of
comparison, Shakespeare used 24,000 words, and the King James Bible used 12,000
6. I am mindful of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s maxim that “the limits
of my language are the limits of my world,” and accept it with some
qualifications. But these considerations are both technical and unimportant to
7. John Dewey, Experience and Nature. Open Court, 1958, p. 138.
8. This section incorporates material from my
published paper, “Three Wrong Leads in a Search for an Environmental
Ethic...,” Ethics and Animals, V. 3, Sept., 1984). The final
section of that paper, revised and extended, is at
9. Tom Regan, All That Dwell Therein, University of California
Press, 1982. Note the following: (a) ". . . because [animals'] interests are
frequently as important to them as comparable interests are to human beings,
their interests must be given the same weight as comparable human interests."
(86, see also pp. 8, 12, 31-2, 50), (b) ". . . attempts to mark a qualitative
chasm that separates man from the beasts must fail. . ." (159) See also Peter
Singer, Animal Liberation. [???]
10. Some researchers claim that some experimental apes have
broken this barrier (e.g., the Gardiner's "Washoe" and Paterson's "Koko"). Still
others, (e.g., John Lilly) believe that Dolphins may be "persons" with an
articulate language. If so, and if this can be demonstrated, then these animals
are welcome to the club (i.e., to our "moral community"). The issue, however, is
in doubt, to say the least. (Cf. Herbert Terrace's work with "Nim Chimpsky").
11. See Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?,”
Philosophical Review, October, 1974. Simply stated, Nagel argues that it is
impossible to know “what it is like to be a bat.” He explains why this is so in
this insightful essay which, by implication, deals with the perennial “mind-body
problem.” My answer: The life of any animal is incomprehensible to us for the
simple reason that whenever we try to imagine “what it is like,” we do so from
the inescapable point of view of a language-using, personal, human being.
However, we can know this much at least: the life-experiences of non-personal,
non-linguistic animals is profoundly different from our own. We know this from
the differences in human and animal behavior, and particularly, from the
limitations of animal behavior. (See the “Lassie example,” which follows
12. Here I am incorporating ideas of the American
Sociologist-Philosophy, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
13. See my
"Touch Football and Television,"
Online Gadfly, April 24, 2007. Also:
Morality as a Plus-Sum Game.
14. A recurring quotation throughout this book. The sources,
once again: Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society, there are
individuals and there are families.” (The Downing Street Years, Harper Collins,
London. p. 626). Ayn Rand: “there is no such entity as ‘the public.’ (The Virtue
of Selfishness, p. 109. “Man’s Rights”).
15. The late behavioral psychologist, B. F. Skinner, is a
prominent example. His views are clearly expressed in his book, Beyond Freedom
and Dignity, (New York: Knopf, 1971).
16. Harry Frankfort, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a
Person," Journal of Philosophy, 68 (January, 1971), p- 5-20.
Reprinted in John Martin Fischer (ed): Moral Responsibility,
Cornell University Press, 1986.
Gary Watson, "Free Agency," Journal of Philosophy, 72 (April,
1975), pp. 205-220. Reprinted in John Martin Fischer, op. cit.
18. Watson, in Fischer. Op Cit., 91.