Moral Concepts and Meanings

I’m pretty sure this is discussed somewhere, but maybe it hasn’t been, so let’s try.

It’s (very) plausible that someone can share our moral concepts and disagree, perhaps extremely, about how they apply. Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean something different to what I do by ‘good’, he just has wild views about which kinds of actions are and aren’t good. The proof of this, if it’s needed, is that when he says “Killing Westerners is good”, he’s revealing he has different morals to me, not a different language. (Well, he has some different languages to me, but when we’re both speaking English we mean the same thing by good.)

It’s also plausible that some people can share our moral concepts and disgaree, perhaps extremely, about the conceptual connections between moral belief and action. This is just David Brink’s case of the amoralist.

It’s not plausible, or at least not to me, that someone could share our moral concepts, but differ extremely in both which things they apply to and what their connection to action is. That is, someone who said things like “Killing Westerners is good”, “Supporting democracy is bad” etc., but wasn’t at all moved to kill westerners or undermine support for democracies would, I think, mean something different to us by “good” and “bad”. Or at least so I think.

Perhaps we can imagine such a person. Imagine an amoralist in Al-Qaeda land, who goes around saying “Killing Westerners is good” and so on, but is completely unmotivated, even denies that the goodness of killing Westerners provides her with a reason to actually go and kill Westerners. Perhaps she would be just like Brink’s amoralist, and perhaps she would mean what we mean by “good”. But the case looks very marginal.

All of this does make me think that the ‘scare quotes’ response to Brink is the right one. If we can only make sense of the amoralist as expressing moral concepts when her moral expressions match up with moral orthodoxy, then it’s plausible that by “good” she just means something like “usuallly called good“.

11 Replies to “Moral Concepts and Meanings”

  1. I guess I don’t see how OBL saying “Killing Westerners is good” proves that he means the same thing by ‘good’ that you do. Do you really mean to say that that is some kind of proof? Or do you just mean that it gives us some or good or best reason to think that OBL means what you do by ‘good’?

    (Two Lukas posting in a row. Nice!)

  2. Brian,

    I guess I don’t see the final step. Maybe something like the following interpretative principle holds:

    (*) Attribute S mastery of the concept good iff ceteris paribus, her employment of her cognate concept is similar enough to our concept good

    The weird case might just be one that is just too dissimilar to ours to warrant attribution of mastery. But that doesn’t show that Brink’s case is too dissimilar. Maybe overwhelming agreement in application, even in the absence of motivation, is sufficient to satisfy (*).

  3. Andrew,

    The problem with that principle is that it leads to an intransitive account of has the same concept as, which strikes me as implausible. That’s why having the Osama character is important. The idea is that if Brink is right, then the strange guy has the same concept of good as Osama, and Osama has (I take it – unless someone gives me a reason to believe otherwise) the same concept of good as us. So by transitivity, the strange guy has our concept. If you give up transitivity, then Brink has a way out, but if faced with a choice between transitivity and Brink’s intuitions about the amoralists, I’m keeping transitivity I think.

  4. Brian,

    If Osama uses ‘good’ in a way that makes him call VERY different things good than you do (crashing planes into buildings, preventing women from getting educated, etc.), shouldn’t we at least consider the idea that he doesn’t mean the exact same thing you do by the term?

  5. Since we already have very good independent evidence that Osama does think that crashing planes into buildings etc are good, by far the simplest explanation of what he’s doing when he says “Crashing planes into buildings is good” is expressing his belief that crashing planes into buildings is good. Is there any reason to believe any other explanation?

  6. Well, it seems to me that crashing planes into buildings (with only unarmed civilians in them) is so clearly not good that anyone that says it is is very possibly just using the word differently than I am.

    And the fact that Osama talks like this about multiple things that are clearly not good gives us some reason to think that he’s just using the word differently than us.

    I mean, how much would he have to seemingly disagree with you about what’s good before you started suspecting that he didn’t mean the same thing as you by the term ‘good’?

    What if he said that raping babies was good? What if he said that destroying the world was good? At what point (if any) do you start to question his usage of the term?

  7. At what point (if any) do you start to question his usage of the term?

    At just the point when it loses the distinctive connection to motivation.

    Do you think that Osama doesn’t believe that crashing planes into buildings is good? He sure acts like he does.

  8. I’m not sure. I was taking it that the ‘our’ was rigidifying. The principle ensures that Osama has the same concept as us, and an amoralist who agrees with us in application has the same concept as us. But the putative Osama-style amoralist doesn’t have the same concept as either us or Osama, since Osama shares our concept, and the other guy is too strange to do so. So transitivity isn’t under pressure. Neither is Brink, so far as I can see, since all he needs for his purposes seems to be that the amoralist who agrees with us in application can share our concept.

    In any case, I wasn’t taking it that the principle (*) governed what it was for S to have the same concept as T, but rather, when we were right to ascribe mastery of a given concept. We know already that the availability of sorites-type sequences can appear to put transitivity under pressure. (Surely we can make sense of somebody who is just a tiny bit less inclined than Osama to act upon his moral judgements. Surely that can’t make the difference between having and lacking the concept good. Iterate that step, and pretty soon we have the rejected case). The principle (*) is supposed to say something like: only ascribe mastery of a concept C to S if S’s salient abilities are relevantly similar enough – read, safely similar enough – to clear, definite cases of C-mastery. It isn’t supposed to entail that that’s what such mastery consists in, or that similarity to less-than-wholly-definite cases suffices, or that S is only master of C if we are permitted to ascribe mastery, etc.

    You might think that Brink’s arguments, or intuitions, commit him to the Osama-amoralist as a genuine possibility. But I’m not sure what exactly commits him to that, nor why he couldn’t simply make the suggested retreat.

  9. Brian,

    I see. So, yeah. I think that it’s plausible that Osama doesn’t think that crashing planes into buildings is good but that he’s motivated to do it anyway. He might be interested in some other properties that action can have that isn’t goodness. And he might be motivated by his judgments that such and such an action possesses this property.

    But do you really want to say that everytime somebody acts very motivated to do something (like crashing planes into buildings) it’s because they think it’s good? (Isn’t that what you’re saying?)

    Here’s a thought. It seems to me that if someone is very motivated to walk around killing people just for the joy of watching them die and he says that he thinks what he’s doing is right or good, then he’s just confused as to the maning of ‘right’ or ‘good’.

    But you’d want to say that he’s not confused about what those terms mean, right?

  10. Just to make something clearer. In my last thought and question in the above comment I’m trying to see if you can think of any possible situation where a person is very motivated to do something that you think is OBVIOUSLY bad or wrong and they describe their action using terms like “good” or “right” but you think that they are misusing the terms.

    And I’m guessing that if you think that the mass-murderer in my above example is not confused about the meaning of moral terms, then nobody would be in a relevantly similar sort of situation.

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