Bryan Caplan  

Moral Knowledge: A Question of Timing

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In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand writes:
No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values.  So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined.  The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.
Suppose every one of these sentences were correct.  Wouldn't this imply that until she constructed her arguments, no one knew the difference between right and wrong?  When Rand loyalist Harry Binswanger spoke at Berkeley in the early nineties, I asked him this very question.  He hastily denied it, but on Rand's premises, there wasn't much he could say.  If moral conclusions require logically sound arguments, and Rand was the first philosopher to produce such arguments for moral conclusions, then until she came along, moral knowledge did not exist. 

By itself, the non-existence of moral knowledge does not imply the non-existence of moral (or immoral) behavior.  However, Rand also accepted a common-sense distinction between "errors of knowledge" and "breaches of morality":
An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul.
When you snap the two views together, they actually imply that pre-Rand, no one ever "breached morality."  After all, if no moral knowledge exists, no one can choose an action they "know to be evil." 

It's tempting to blame these bizarre implications on Rand's philosophical ineptitude, but that's hardly fair.  Her positions on these two issues are uncharacteristically conventional.  I've heard many flavors of amateur and professional philosophers insist that, "Moral conclusions require an argument."  Then they either admit that they don't have an argument, or defend some bizarre argument that no more than five people on earth are able to explain.  If the reason why "murder is wrong" is that it violates the Categorical Imperative, then it follows that (a) before the Categorical Imperative was discovered, no one knew that murder was wrong, and (b) the vast majority of people who never have and never will understand the Categorical Imperative still don't know that murder is wrong.

Bizarrely, then, the "no moral knowledge without arguments" position almost ends in historical relativism.  Everyone who died before the wide release of the "proof" gets a pass, no matter how monstrous their actions: "Back in those days, no one knew that mass murder was wrong!  How can you blame me?  I'm no philosopher!"

What alternative is there?  Ethical intuitionism - the view that some moral premises are obvious on their face, and therefore require no proof.  On this view, not only does moral knowledge predate professional philosophers; truisms like "murder is wrong" have been independently discovered countless times.  This doesn't mean that moral arguments never lead to new moral knowledge; in fact, I think that Rand's unofficial moral arguments do just that.  But the point of moral argument is to build on the obvious, not prove what every decent person already knows.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Kevin Pearce writes:

"If the reason why "murder is wrong" is that it violates the Categorical Imperative, then it follows that (a) before the Categorical Imperative was discovered, no one knew that murder was wrong, and (b) the vast majority of people who never have and never will understood the Categorical Imperative still don't know that murder is wrong."

maybe I'm missing something, but (a) and (b) don't seem to follow. Even if the real reason murder is wrong is because it violates the catagorical imperative, that still doesn't mean that people had no idea that murder is wrong if they knew nothing about the CA-they could know that murder is wrong, but just be mistaken about why it is wrong, just as I can know that grass is green without knowing anything about why it is green-i.e., because grass absorbs every other color except green.

Joshua Herring writes:

What Kevin said. I know that if I drop something it will fall; not knowing the equations that quantify this doesn't mean I'm unfamiliar with the Law of Gravity. And even before the Law of Gravity was stated as such, people knew enough about it to function here on Earth, even if that knowledge was imprecise. Apply the appropriate analogy and you have what Kant was trying to do for Ethics: make precise that of which everyone already had latent knowledge, and thereby to hopefully learn something about it in the process. If that analogy doesn't help, try a Linguistic one. I have expert-level skill in English without being consciously aware of the rules. Nevertheless, there are rules, and I apply them when I speak. That Linguists take the time to observe what I (and other native English speakers) do in an attempt to arrive at a more precise description in no way implies that no one spoke English before people bothered to write down the grammar.

Dick White writes:

Bryan's post and the comments of Kevin and Joshua bring us to the elephant in the room--the standard for right conduct. Is that standard, as some would assert, a convention of a given society or is the standard based on real truth like, say, arithmetic.

Ryan Vann writes:

Can't really add more than Mr. Pierce, Herring, and White already did. I'd goes as far as to contend that nobody yet has demonstrated an "objectively demonstrable, scientific answer" for why people need an leverage moral codes.

fundamentalist writes:

And what is the foundation of ethical intuition? Might it be the Christian concept of conscience? Still no scientific explanation for the rise of ethical intuition in humanity exists.

Jason Brennan writes:

I think it's bizarre to believe that people need something as robust as a moral theory in order to have moral knowledge. People have all sorts of moral knowledge, even if they lack a moral theory, or even sometimes if they subscribe to the wrong moral theory. For instance, I think Martin Luther King knew that racism was wrong, even though he (I'm pretty sure) subscribed to divine command theory, which is a silly moral theory. I think my mom knows that racism is wrong, even though she lacks a moral theory altogether. Any good theory of moral epistemology should account for how ordinary people know certain mid-level moral principles and moral particulars even if they lack a full theoretical framework which explains and unites all of their knowledge.

Some parallels: Jimi Hendrix knew how to play blues-rock guitar well even though he apparently did not know the theory of blues-rock guitar. Many baseball players know how to catch balls, and where balls will land, even though they don't know the physical theories that explain the trajectories of balls.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

I would think that the reason is simply that we find ourselves to be social animals, that we derive a great deal of power and value from our social interactions, and that this power and value is derived from the net advantages that come from cooperation. Values are ideas that increase the net advantages of cooperation with other human beings.

CJ Smith writes:

See my comment on Bryan's same blog regarding the fallacy of "intuiting" a moral absolute or moral imperative from "concrete examples."
Bryan, every time you posit through your moral intuitionism that there are moral absolutes, you get shot down by multiple commentators. That's because moral intuitionism is just sloppy analysis. You "intuit" the absolute, which allows you to avoid the tedium of identifying and testing the multiple scenarios where your absolute will fail. This also allows you the freedom to make blanket assumptions about what all "decent" people believe to be moral, which are in fact nothing more that your unconscious determinations about what you believe to be moral, combined with limited experiential affirmation from people who believe like you do.
Here'e the challenge - provide a concrete example of a moral absolute - an act or decision that this is demonstrably good or bad in all situations. You are not allowed to create definitional absolutes (like calling killing someone "murder," which assumes a moral judgment by its very terminology). I and other commentators will then show: why your absolute is not absolute; and how the moral determination can be delineated from a set of underlying assumptions combined with rational follow-up analysis (I’ll avoid the “irrational decision maker” problem by using lack of perfect knowledge, counterbalancing considerations, and mistake.)

Lee Kelly writes:

What problem is a code of ethics intended to solve?

In a way, there is nothing "obvious" about our moral intuitions -- they were discovered by millions of years of trial and error. Most individuals do not even understand the problems which ethical rules solve, but just follow them because it "feels right" or is "just the way it is done." There is a an ethical knowledge bound up in the institutions of society, though not necessarily available to any individual mind.

These ethical rules are easy fodder for intellectual argument, since their proponents often can't articulate why they are important (or provide only naive rationalisations). It is not until the intellectual sees the abolishment of these supposedly arbitrary "social construsts" that the problems they solved become painfully apparent.

Matt writes:

Good post.

People knew things fell down before Newton came along. There may have been some marginal ignorance, but basically people knew the what just not the why.

Mike Huemer writes:

Kevin and Joshua seem to have missed Bryan's point, because they seem to think they're objecting to Bryan, but they're actually supporting him. That you can know something is so without knowing why it is so, is exactly Bryan's point, if I'm understanding him.

You know that grass is green and that unsupported objects fall because you can *see* that these things are so, even without having a theory to explain them. Now, what is analogous to seeing things, in the case of morality? Presumably, ethical intuition.

Mike Huemer writes:

CJ also seems to be missing Bryan's point. Bryan didn't say anything (at least not here) about "absolutes".

Philo writes:

There is, indeed, "a common-sense distinction between "errors of knowledge" and "breaches of morality"; but common sense ("intuition") does not carry us as far as we would like to go. Suppose, first, that the "errors of knowledge" concern ordinary empirical facts. For example, if it had turned out that dolphins are much more intelligent beings than we had thought, who for some reason were unable to communicate this fact to us, they would count as "persons," morally speaking. But tuna fishermen who killed dolphins, in ignorance of their true moral status, might not be considered to have acted immorally. I say "might," because common sense, or intuition, is often imprecise. Suppose, in my imaginary dolphin-person scenario, a particular fisherman *could have learned* about dolphins' true status by taking a little trouble, which he did not bother to do. And suppose his failure to put himself in a position to learn was actually morally wrong. Some would say that, given this failure, his subsequent killing of dolphins was not wrong. But others would say that the wrongful failure to learn carried over to and infected the later killing, making *it* also morally wrong (though not as seriously wrong as if he had known dolphins were persons). Since "intuition" is just one's casual, unconsidered reaction to situations, it will tend to imprecision about what, exactly, we intend to condemn morally--the failure *and* the killing, or just the former. So even the case of ignorance of empirical fact (in my example, the intelligence or rationality of dolphins) is intuitively unclear.

How about ignorance of moral principle? Suppose Jones sincerely believes that ethical egoism is true, but in fact utilitarianism (or Kant's Categorical Imperative, or whatever) is the true moral theory. Jones performs some action that accords with egoism but violates utilitarianism (Kantianism, whatever). Is it a matter of common sense that his action is *not morally wrong*? Is it, perhaps, important how, in detail, he arrived at his misapprehension of moral principle (if so, let us stipulate that *no moral error* was involved)? Here I think "intuition" (common sense) is out of its depth.

David Landy writes:

"Suppose every one of these sentences were correct. Wouldn't this imply that until she constructed her arguments, no one knew the difference between right and wrong?"

In a word, yes.

I don't speak for Ayn Rand nor Harry Binswanger, but let me present to you what I think she meant.

From your excerpt of Ayn Rand:

"No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined."

To answer your question, one must first know what is the difference between right and wrong. To answer this, one must have a standard against which to measure; namely what is "the good" and what is "the evil" as it relates to a man's life. Before Ayn Rand standards did exist - but they were not "rational, scientific, objective" standards. The classic example of such a system is Christianity. Christianity is a primitive code of values for living a life but observe what it holds as its standard: altruism - sacrifice of one's own life to that of another. The is certainly not rational for to consistently practise this code of values is to consistently undermine one's life, and ultimately one's very existence. On the contrary, to earn and obtain values in the name of sustaining his life in the long term (which of course includes trading such values with others), a man must act *rationally* for his own *selfish* interest. This is what Ayn Rand termed "rational selfishness":

"The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival[]"*

The practise of altruism, (which is the fundamental ethics behind most codes of values in human history with the exception of Ayn Rand's) is in *direct contradiction* to the requirements of a man's life.

So in answer to your question - namely have men never known the difference between right and wrong - the answer is plane to see: no they have never known it. Until now!


Kevin Pearce writes:

I was only trying to say that I thought Bryan was committing a logical fallacy when he says that, if murder is wrong because it violates the Categorical Imperative, then people who don't know about the Categorical Imperative don't know that murder is wrong.

My own view is that the ethical intuitions people have are probably acceptable enough when making arguments about why a certain action or policy is right or wrong--at least when addressing a general audience. But that does not excuse us from coming up with a coherent moral theory as to why things are right and wrong to justify (or perhaps override) these intuitions, just as the common sense observation that grass is green does not excuse us from doing the hard work to investigate why it appears green to our eyes.

If we do investigate why grass is green, we discover that grass is really every color in the rainbow except green, and technically speaking, we are mistaken in thinking that grass is green, because it only reflects green light at us, which makes it appear green. It seems like similar things could happen with our ethical intuitions: we could really be mistaken about a core ethical assumption which in the past has been good enough, but is now no longer acceptable because the core morality of our society was formed long ago in a different world. Such a scenario might seem far-fetched, but I think we should at least be open to the possibility that we are just completely wrong about core ethical concepts, and that they should be replaced with other concepts that are more logical or justified.

Urstoff writes:

Sometimes it's bad to be the village verificationist, but in the case of intuitionism I think we should invoke some positivist skepticism. What happens in moral disagreement? If there are two people with completely opposed intutions, what kind of evidence could settle the disagreement? And if there is no such evidence, then, even if we can't tell, why assume one counts as moral knowledge and the other doesn't?

Loof writes:

Virtue in selfishness?

Liked Bryan’s commonsensible “ethical intuition” though L’d call it “moral intuition” since ethics are collectively constructed in sophisticated society as morals are created in commonsense community and culture.

Ayn Rand could, and can still, impress many schoolboys with her smarts. Smart she was but hardly wise: appearing pointedly foolish getting into a fit about “virtue of selfishness”. Its altogether different than the virtue of self that Smith wisely saw in self-interest. If you read between his two great books: self-interest doesn’t move to selfish-interests; it moves with sympathy to enlighten self-interest, though that movement is better understood as empathy nowadays. So, dear dead Ayn, “rational selfishness” is as oxymoronic as rational atruism is anti-moronic.

Still, she was somewhat wise to ask why; but looks a little silly searching everywhere for a wholly objective answer to why, when the answer everywhy is mainly subjective. Its like being a true believer about Love looking for love objectively in handsome objects. No doubt Ayn believed in the virtue of selfishness—it’s the same for anyone in love with themselves; and a disaster for any society when everyone is in love with themselves. Wonder if, with truth and in goodness, Ayn ever really loved another?

Philosophically, the ethic-moral problem is constructing a square to create a circle issue. And its mostly commonsense with a little special sensibility, as Loof views it. When qualifying morality, the goodness and badness of a subject, with an individual point of view – its a “good” idea and “right” thinking – distinguishing it from the quantification of an ethic, the rightness and wrongness of an object, in how it suits you personally. They are separate, yet work together: complement each other, like Yin-Yang.

Why construct a house? To create a home! And, to objectively construct a house ethically is right; to subjectively create a home morally is good. Commonsense, huh. Further: virtue (desirable qualities) in ethical constructions appear to individual nature and collective society; as virtue in moral creation appear to personal community and common culture. Also, it seems natural and societal ethical constructions enables more objective freedoms, with fair competition; communal and cultural moral creations enables more subjective fairness, with free cooperation. But that’s just commonsense yinning and yanging, not a sophisticated social philosophy at all.

Back to Rand. She was a very smart woman; probably a poor wife, mother, not a good sister but definitely would make a great big brother. With her smarts and self-love (inflated ego) she constructed a philosophic house to impress many men—who seemingly fell in love with her Objectivism; but alas, appears to be a cold constructed mansion in the sky to me. Grounded, as a wife, mother, sister, L’d bet she didn’t have the feel to create a home, a good family, care for children, all of which rely more on empathy (feeling and intuitions about others interests); less on ego (sensing and thinking about self-interest). Rand turning her back on altruism is simply another foolish point about irrational selfishness.

No virtue in selfishness there: so wonder, wonder where – but, do not wonder why.

Harry Binswanger writes:

In the age of Google Alerts, speak my name and I shall appear.

The issue is the difference between "sort of knowing" and objective knowledge. In Rand's philosophy, objectivity is an added layer--there are things you know and then there are the things that you can prove--i.e., things you know that you know.

Clearly, in many fields people can arrive at a mixture of knowledge and false beliefs, without yet being able to separate the two. Thus, I agree with all those who gave such examples as knowing in one sense about gravity and in another sense not knowing about it until Newton. It is not just a matter of knowing that vs. knowing why, though that can be the case, but also a matter of implicit vs. explicit knowledge. Jimi Hendrix knew in a pre-verbal, unconceptualized form what blues is.

Rand made much of the principle that you can have and use information that you have not yet conceptualized (and perforce have not yet validated). I call it "the Prose Principle," because in speaking about this point she referenced the Moliere line “By Jupiter! I’ve been speaking prose for forty years without even knowing it.”

Mike Huemer writes:

One more note. Binswanger makes an interesting point. But it still seems wrong. Pre-Newtonian people knew that objects fell to the ground. They also knew that they knew it.

It's false that they knew but didn't know they knew. It's false that their knowledge was pre-verbal and unconceptual. And it's false that it was only implicit. If you asked them, "Do objects fall to the ground?" they would have said, verbally and explicitly, "Yes, they do." And if you asked them, "Do you know that?" they would have said "Yes, I do."

Murali writes:

It all depends on what you mean by knowledge. If knowledge is justified true beliefs and not just beliefs that happened to be true then we see that there is no particular reason why saying that in the old days they didnt know that killing innocents was wrong. (The may have believed it and it may be true, but it does not follow that they were justified in believing it) Of course even after Ayn Rand it is not clear that we know that it is wrong to kill innocents. Her arguments may not work. (we may believe it and there may in fact be arguments that seem to show that it is the case, but they are certainly not Mr Caplan's intuitionist arguments.) And if we do know that it is the case that killing innocents is wrong we probably owe that more to Immanuel Kant than Ayn Rand. (Where she was right, she was being derivative and where she was original, she was often egregiously wrong.) The thing to show for Rand fans is in what manner she was both original and right.

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