The Grounds of Our Judgments

Wrapping up an exchange on judgment and morality.

In this concluding exchange, Hadley Arkes and Matthew O’Brien offer brief closing remarks. For the previous iterations of the exchange, see O’Brien’s initial review, Arkes’s initial response, O’Brien’s response, Arkes’s response, and O’Brien’s response.  — Ed.

Hadley Arkes writes:

As we bring this exchange to a close, it seems to me that the dispute, at least at this point, might be distilled in this way: O’Brien’s main charge against me is that I wish to trace my judgments back to the point where wrongdoers are those who fall into contradiction. But that is a charge that I draw from him only because I’ve indeed been insisting that, behind all of our practical judgments, we will have principles of judgment, or reasons for what we are doing. Those reasons do find their firmest grounds in the “laws of reason,” anchored in the “law of contradiction.” As Aristotle, Aquinas, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall insisted, there are “first principles” upon which, as Hamilton said, “all subsequent reasonings must depend.” If O’Brien joins me in that simple exercise in insisting on reasons to justify acts of moral consequence, I presume that he would want to reach a judgment on whether those reasons are finally sound or unsound, true or false. And what would it mean to say that the acts of the racist are “indefensible” unless we think that our judgment here finally rests on a ground that is unassailably true?

O’Brien seems to reproach me then for insisting on a regimen of giving reasons and testing the coherence of arguments. He offers instead a rich world of feeling often finding expression in literature rather than moral philosophy. But it is unimaginable that O’Brien has no reasons for the judgments he freely pronounces in his commentary. What he has done rather is to leave concealed and unexplained the principles of reason that stand decisively behind his judgments. And so we show that something is bad, he says, because it “frustrates and impedes the happiness of the person who does it.” But he surely knows that some people find their happiness in doing evil things. He would not count as a wrong the move that “frustrates and impedes the happiness” of a Himmler. But then what makes Himmler’s designs wrongful? Are we not obliged finally to explain the reasons we judge those ends as wrongful?

O’Brien tells us that “we could try to get the racist to expand his range of moral experience in order to get him to see things rightly.” And what does he see when he sees “rightly”? On what ground do we explain to the racist that his intense feelings of hatred are—pardon the expression—unjustified, indefensible, unreasonable? Finally, O’Brien takes two points I raised and casts them in this way: “failing to give to people who happen to be black, or who happen to have Down’s syndrome, what they are owed as persons.” Well, what is “owed,” for example, to people with Down’s syndrome? That is not evidently clear even to many people who read widely in literature. As we know, there is a substantial number of Americans who think that what people with Down’s syndrome are owed is an early death to foreclose to them a diminished life of little consequence. And how would we respond to those people? Would we not be compelled to say something, even to ourselves, on why exactly it is wrong to draw the moral inference that people with Down’s syndrome have lives “not worth living”? Or do we steer away from giving reasons, while we appeal instead to feelings?

Some of us were drawn to the study of moral and political philosophy because those subjects raised the highest questions—questions about things right and wrong, just and unjust, and “the way of life that is best for men.” We took the path of philosophy because it led us to the deepest layers of the problem. If O’Brien has come to the judgment that, on matters philosophic, reason is not sovereign; that the truer source of our best judgments lies rather in literature; then why has he chosen to make his vocation in philosophy and not in the study of literature? Here again, what O’Brien leaves unexpressed is probably the most decisive thing in explaining the path he has chosen. He has taken the path of philosophy, and anyone who knows him knows that to be his true vocation. There is where he will do the distinguished work to come, and become, as his friends have already known, an adornment to the academy.

Matthew O’Brien writes:

How far can moral argument get you? Aristotle, who has a claim on being a founder of moral philosophy, recognized its limits. In the midst of his logical work called the Topics, he paused at one point to remark, “people who are puzzled to know whether one ought to honor the gods and love one’s parents or not need punishment, while those who are puzzled to know whether snow is white or not need perception.” Aristotle did not suppose punishment and perception to be alternatives to rational argument, but necessary prerequisites for it. You can’t argue someone into perceiving that snow is white, any more than you can argue someone into perceiving that he ought to love his parents if he doesn’t already see, inchoately at least, that he should.

Punishment sounds illiberal to modern ears, but Aristotle just as well could have said “training” or “habituation” and his point would have been the same. In the course of this exchange with Hadley Arkes, I have been arguing for a view of morality along such Aristotelian lines: one that is grounded in reasons without falling into rationalism, that acknowledges the limits to discursive argument and the priority of perception rather than deduction. This view is consonant, I believe, with the main tradition in natural law thinking exemplified by Aquinas, but not with the rationalism that Arkes admires in Kant. In urging that moral sensibility plays an ineliminable and central role in moral theory, I have not implied that “feeling” should replace “reason,” or “literature” replace “philosophy,” or taken up any other half of a false dichotomy.

On the contrary, I have urged that to preserve reason’s place in moral thinking we need acknowledge the subordination of argument to habituated experience. Moral disagreement is a pervasive feature of modern western societies. This would not be the case if Arkes’ algorithmic moral theory were correct, and the wrong of racism, for example, could be demonstrated a priori as a condition for the freedom of the will. But the wrongfulness of racism or other violations of justice cannot be demonstrated in this way, and to encourage the expectation that they should be aggravates the consequences of moral disagreement. So often the moral skeptic is really just a disappointed rationalist.

Controverted debate over fundamental moral issues is not apt to produce agreement, let alone yield truth. As John Henry Newman wrote,

Truth is vast and far-stretching, viewed as a system; and, viewed in its separate doctrines, it depends on the combination of a number of various, delicate, and scattered evidences; hence it can scarcely be exhibited in a given number of sentences. If this be attempted, its advocate, unable to exhibit more than a fragment of the whole, must round off its rugged extremities, and unite its straggling lines, by much the same process by which an historical narrative is converted into a tale. This, indeed, is the very art of composition, which, accordingly, is only with extreme trouble preserved clear of exaggeration and artifice; and who does not see that all this is favourable to the cause of error,—to that party which has not faith enough to be patient of doubt, and has just talent enough to consider perspicuity the chief excellence of a writer?

Perspicuity as a writer Arkes unmistakably has, and indeed he and his work have much more than that. But his moral insight and gift for crafting the telling anecdote, comparison or example, for teasing out the narrative significance of our political history—these virtues deserve better company than the unfulfillable aspirations of moral rationalism.

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