Moral Principles and Human Happiness


Moral principles should be derived from experience about what makes people happy, not from logic.

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Among the few tasks that are more tedious than reading the writings of Immanuel Kant is the task of reading the writings of philosophers debating about the writings of Immanuel Kant. The dispute between Professor Hadley Arkes and me over the grounds of moral judgment is, happily, only incidentally about Kant. The criticisms I made of Arkes’ claims could be restated without mentioning Kant or any other historical figure, which is evident enough from my review of his book and initial reply. What our disagreement is really about is what a moral argument looks like. I think that argument about foundational moral questions is more like criticism in literature and Arkes thinks that it is more like deductive proof in geometry.

In this installment of our exchange, I want to give some further reasons for thinking that my picture of morality is the more plausible one. Arkes’ geometric picture of morality cannot account for the pervasiveness and depth of moral disagreement, imputes to evildoers contrived motivations that they need not have, and ultimately fails to carry through the promised deductive proofs that are supposed to ground moral judgment. In order to show how argument about foundational moral questions is more like criticism than Arkes’ mode of deductive proof, I will take as example one of the specific issues Arkes highlights: racist discrimination.

Arkes thinks that racist discrimination is wrong because it is impossible to be a racist without contradicting yourself. As he puts it in Constitutional Illusions:

Behind the will or passion to discriminate on the basis of race is a species of “determinism”: the notion that race exerts a kind of deterministic control over the character and moral conduct of persons. Under this persuasion people may slide into the assumption that if they know someone’s race, they can draw some plausible moral inferences about him….

But, Arkes continues, if it is true that “we are ‘determined’ or controlled in our conduct by our race… then none of us could plausibly bear responsibility for our own acts.” Therefore, “…the willingness to discriminate on the basis of race denies that moral autonomy, or freedom, that is the very premise of our standing as ‘moral agents.’” The problem with this argument is that it is at once too narrow and too broad. It’s too narrow because in order to be a racist you don’t have to think that some sort of racial determinism is true, and so the argument doesn’t tell against ordinary racists. What of the racist who denies determinism, appeals to the ‘wisdom of repugnance,’ and says simply, ‘I feel disgust for people different than I am, just as I feel affection for my family and fellow countrymen’? There’s no self-contradiction here. Yet Arkes’ argument is also too broad because there are many unchosen and “determined” features of human life that, unlike race, are morally significant. Kinship is the most obvious of these, which I mentioned in my previous reply, and kinship is “determined” to the same extent as race is.

Even though my family members’ relation to me is determined antecedent to anyone’s choice, once I know that someone is my kin then I can draw plausible moral inferences about him. If I have scarce resources, for example, then I’m justified in privileging my family by giving to them first. Arkes’ argument has the consequence of undermining the partial concern that families should have amongst themselves, even as it fails to show the evil in all but a caricatured sort of racism. So how do we respond to the racist? Why am I—or the state—not justified in privileging people of a certain race, if certain partiality toward family is just? The difference between kinship and race has nothing to do with self-contradiction. Rather, the difference lies in the fact that concern for one’s family is a necessary component of human happiness and skin color is not.

It seems to me that the only way to show that some action is bad is to show that it frustrates and impedes the happiness of the person who does it. In this sense “happiness” means one’s deep and sustained fulfillment and not merely momentary satisfaction. One of the integral parts of any person’s happiness, furthermore, is the happiness of other people he lives with. Since Plato’s Republic, we have been debating over just how much one person’s happiness is tied up in the happiness of others. In other words, we have been debating whether justice is really an excellence of character that benefits the person who has it, or whether it is merely a strategy to adopt provisionally when it’s useful. It is significant that the two evils that Arkes highlights are violations of the virtue of justice: failing to give to people who happen to be black, or who happen to have Down’s syndrome, what they are owed as persons.

If we take justice to extend to all people, regardless of their race or developmental maturity, then it is very difficult to give a discursive, non-theological argument that demonstrates that justice really is an excellence of character. There are fairly strong arguments for other virtues like friendship, temperance, good sense, and courage, but justice is particularly problematic. Plato and Aristotle had a hard time showing that justice among fellow city-dwellers was necessary for a good life; it’s even harder to show that justice among all human beings is. What, then, is the argument against someone who simply doesn’t see the irrelevance of skin color to moral personality, and is inclined to treat race as if it were like tribal family membership?

First, we might examine the racist’s arguments for evidence of bad faith. Pro-slavery Southerners, for example, often justified the enslavement of blacks because they were supposed to be inherently inferior. At the same time, however, they passed laws against teaching slaves to read, which presumably should have been irrelevant if their racialist theories were true. Second, we could try to get the racist to expand his range of moral experience in order to get him to see things rightly. The two most important factors in combating racism in America were probably the integration of the military and professional sports. The longer blacks and whites fought for the same victories and cheered for the same teams, the more absurd racism came to appear. Literature, too, can play a part in moral argument, because good literature can supplement our lived experience. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me are more consequential for thinking about race than any philosophical treatise.

This latter point about the significance of literature is not an accidental one that is the consequence of ordinary people’s distaste or inability for serious moral philosophy. Rather, it is a consequence of the fact that literature can widen one’s experience and many basic moral judgments are matters of perception, not deduction. Reading good books does not produce a good character, but it can educate the already well-disposed, but confused, one. Racism is a failure of moral sensibility and so must be met with inducements directed toward sensibility. I have no quarrel with Hadley Arkes over whether moral judgments should be principled, but I think the principles are to be found in experience and not the logic of practical reason.

Matthew O’Brien is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a lecturer at Rutgers University.

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