Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"The Other Profession




Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Twelve:

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!"

Shakespeare, Hamlet

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 be a ‘moral agent?’

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 self-hood are 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 imperatives”).

  • “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 one’s life.

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.

  • self-motivated activity.

  • 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 futures.

  • 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 universities.

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 individuals excepted).

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 appreciated.

Empathy and the Social Origin of the Self.

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 sea creatures.

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 clerks, etc.).

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 cooperation.

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 disputes.

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 and computer screens.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 responsibility entirely.15  In this direction lies some deep metaphysics, which we would be well advised to avoid.

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 self-interest.

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 agents.

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 behavior.

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 considered.'"18  Accordingly, "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 guilt. Concern 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 impossibility.

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 them

  • 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 View).

  • 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 (causes).

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.

Political Implications

[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 services.

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 Progressive.”




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 list.

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 to noun-object).

4. http://www.auburn.edu/~murraba/spellings.html 

5. This is Richard 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 words.

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 our discussion.

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 http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/animal.htm .

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 shortly).

12.   Here I am incorporating ideas of the American Sociologist-Philosophy, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)

13.   See my "Touch Football and Television," The 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.

17.  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.