The Human Prejudice by Bernard Williams — Lecture Transcript

YouTube playlist embedded at the end.

The Walter E. Edge lecture presented at Princeton University on 15 October 2002.

It was only after I had already transcribed about two-thirds that I found out this lecture has already been published. The published version has subtle but important changes that clarify, qualify, or otherwise “correct” vague portions. I have not done so with my transcript. The changes I have made are very minor. Williams seems to love using the word “now” to begin with most of his sentences. I have deleted almost all of them. I have also removed almost all the contractions. I have, I must add, added two paragraphs at the very beginning from the published version of the essay (see below) which he omits saying in the lecture.

Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice,” in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, ed. A. W. Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 135–152.

Once upon a time, there was an outlook called “humanism”. In one sense there still is: it is a name given these days to a movement of organized, sometimes militant, opposition to religious belief, in particular to Christianity. What was more or less the same movement used to go under a name equally inherited from the past of philosophy, which was “Rationalism.” In Britain atheist organizations under these different names have existed at the same time, and I believe that one man, who wrote indefatigably to the newspapers, may once have been secretary of them both.

It is not “humanism” in any such sense that I shall be concerned with, but I will make one point about it, because it is relevant to questions about our ethical outlook and the role played in it by the idea of humanity, which are the questions that I do want to discuss. Humanism in the sense of militant atheism encounters an immediate and very obvious paradox. Its speciality lies not just in being atheist—there are all sorts of ways of being that—but in its faith in humanity to flourish without religion; moreover, in the idea that religion itself is peculiarly the enemy of human flourishing. The general idea is that if the last remnants of religion could be abolished, humankind would be set free and would do a great deal better. But the outlook is stuck with the fact that on its own submission this evil, corrupting, and pervasive thing, religion, is itself a human invention: it certainly did not come from anywhere else. So humanists in this atheist sense should ask themselves: if humanity has invented something as awful as they take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?

However, that is not the subject. The time I have got in mind is that of the Renaissance. The term, at that time, applied in the first place to new schemes of education emphasising the Latin classics and the tradition of rhetoric, but it came to apply more broadly to a variety of philosophical movements. There was an increase in intensified interest in human nature. One form of this was a new tradition inaugurated perhaps by Petrarch; of writings about the dignity and excellence of human beings, or, as the tradition inevitably put it, of man. These ideas were certainly not original with the Renaissance. Many of the arguments were already familiar: for instance, the Christian argument that the superiority of man or human beings was shown by the choice of a human being to be the vehicle of the incarnation; or the older idea which goes back at least to Protagoras as he is presented by Plato that humans have fewer natural advantages, fewer defences, for instance, than other animals, but that they or more than compensated for this by the gift of reason and cognition.

Others, of course, took a gloomier view of human powers and potentialities. Montaigne wondered how peculiar human beings were and he was a lot less enthusiastic about the peculiarities they had. But whether the views were positive and celebratory, or more sceptical and pessimistic, there was one characteristic of almost all those views shared with each other, and they shared it too with traditional Christianity and this was hardly surprising, since virtually everyone in the Renaissance influenced by humanism was some sort of Christian”.

For a start, almost everyone believed that human beings were literally at the centre of the universe, with the exceptions perhaps of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno who thought there was no centre to the universe. Besides that purely topographical belief, however, there was a more basic assumption that in cosmic terms, human beings had a definite measure of importance. In most of these outlooks, the assumption was that that measure of human being’s importance was high, that humans were particularly important in relation to the scheme of things. Well, that is most obviously true of the more celebratory version of humanism according to which human beings are the most perfect beings in creation.

But it is also present in fact in outlooks that assign human beings a wretched and imperfect condition: Luther’s vision, for instance, in which man is hideously fallen and can do nothing about it simply by his own efforts. The assumption is still there. Indeed, it is hardly an assumption; it is a central belief in the structure that that fact itself is of absolute importance. The cosmos may not be looking at human beings with much admiration but it is certainly looking at them. The human condition is a central concern to God. So central in fact that it led to the incarnation, which in the Reformation context too plays its traditional role as signalling man’s special role in the scheme of things. If man’s fate is a special concern to God, there’s nothing more absolute than that. It is a central concern. Period.

Overtly anthropocentric views of the cosmos are certainly less common today than they were then. Leaving aside the distribution of concerns on earth itself, which I am going to come back to, people for a long time now have been impressed by the mere topographical rearrangement of the universe by which we are not in the centre of anything interesting. Our location in the galaxy, just for starters, seems almost extravagantly non-committal. Moreover, many people suppose that there are other living creatures on planets in this galaxy, in other galaxies, perhaps in other universes. It seems hubristic or merely silly to suppose that this enterprise has any special interest in us. Even Christians, or many of them, are less impressed by the idea that God must be more concerned with human beings than he is with any other creature, though I am afraid I don’t know what the current state of thought is about the incarnation. The idea of the absolute importance of human beings seems firmly dead or at least well on the way out.

However, we need to go a little carefully here. The assumption I am considering, as I put it, is that in cosmic terms, human beings have a definite measure of importance. The most common application of that idea naturally enough has been that they have a high degree of importance. And I suggested that that itself can take two different forms: the Petrarchan or celebratory form in which man is splendidly important, and what we may call the Lutheran form where what is of ultimate significance is the fact that man is wretchedly fallen. But there is another less obvious application of the same assumption: that human beings have a definite measure of importance in the scheme of things but that it is very low. On this view, the significance of human beings to the cosmos is vanishingly small. This may not be a very exciting truth about the cosmos as contrasted with those other outlooks I mentioned. But it is still meant to be a truth about the cosmos. Moreover, it is meant to be an exciting or at least a significant truth about human beings. I think this may have been what Bertrand Russell was thinking when for instance in an essay significantly called “A Free Man’s Worship”, he went on about the transitoriness of human beings, the tininess of the earth, the vast and pitiless expanses of the universe, and so on in the style of self-pitying and at the same time self-glorifying rhetoric that made Frank Ramsey remark that he himself was much less impressed than some of his friends were by the size of the universe, perhaps because he weighed 240 pounds!

Now this outlook can make people feel that human activities are absurd because we invest them with an importance which they don’t really possess. Now if someone who feels about human activities in this way, there is never much point, it must be said, in telling him that his feelings involve a muddle. Those feelings probably come from some place which that comment won’t reach. At the same time, they do involve a muddle. It is a muddle between thinking that our activities fail some test of cosmic significance and as contrasted with that, recognising that there is no test of cosmic significance. If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance. And perhaps in a way, that is what Russell wanted to say. But his journey through the pathos of loneliness and insignificance as experienced from a non-existent point of view could only generate the kind of muddle that is called sentimentality. Nietzsche, by contrast, got it right when he said something to the effect that once upon a time, there was a star in a certain corner of the universe and a planet circling that star and in it some clever animals who invented knowledge and then they died and then the star went out and it was as though nothing had happened.

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ”world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra Moral Sense”.

There is, in principle, a third possibility between a cosmic point of view on the one hand and our point of view on the other and that is a possibility familiar from science fiction: that one day we encounter other creatures who would have a point of view on our activities. A point of view which, it is quite vital to add, we could respect. But perhaps science fiction hasn’t made any interesting use of this fantasy but there is something to learn from it and I am going to come back at the end of these remarks.

Suppose we accept that there is no question of human beings and their activities being important or failing to be important from a cosmic point of view. That doesn’t mean that there is no point of view from which they are important. There is certainly one point of view from which they are important, namely ours. Unsurprisingly so, since the we in question, the we who raise this question and discuss it with others who we hope will listen and reply, are indeed human beings. It is just as unsurprising that this we often shows up within the content of our values. Whether a creature is a human being or not makes a large difference a lot of time to the ways in which we treat that creature or at least think that we should treat that creature.

Let us leave aside for the moment distinctions of this kind that are strongly contested by some people such as the matter of what we are prepared to eat. Less contentiously, we speak for instance of human rights. And that means rights that are possessed by certain creatures because they are human beings, in virtue of their being human. We speak of human values. Indeed you have here a distinguished university centre for human values. Of course, that phrase could mean no more than the fact that the values in question are possessed by human beings. But in that merely possessive sense, that term would hardly be adding much since on this planet at least, there isn’t any other creature that has values or certainly a centre to study and promote them! Human values aren’t just values that we have, but values that express our humanity and to study them as the centre does, is to study what we values in as much as we are what we are, that is to say, human beings.

There are some people who suppose that if in any way we privilege human beings in our ethical thought, if we think that what happens to human beings is more important that what happens to other creatures, if we think that human beings as such have a claim on our attention and care in all sorts of situations in which other animals have less or no claim on us, they think that we are implicitly reverting to a belief in the absolute importance of human beings. They suppose that we are in fact saying, when we exercise these distinctions between human beings and other creatures, that human beings are more important, period, than those other creatures. That objection is simply a mistake. We don’t have to saying anything of that sort at all. We don’t have to be referring to cosmic importance. These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us. And that fact is hardly surprising. That mistaken objection takes the form of claiming that in privileging human beings in our ethical thought, we are saying more than we should. We are claiming their absolute importance. That is the mistaken objection.

There is a different objection which might be put by claiming that we are saying less than we need to say. That is to say we need a reason for these preferences in favour of human beings. Without a reason, this objection goes, that preference for human beings would just be a prejudice. If we have given any reason at all so far for these preferences, it is simply the one we express by saying, “it’s a human being,” or “they’re human,” or “she is one of us”. And that, the objectors say, isn’t a reason. They will remind us of the paradigm prejudices: racism and sexism. “Because he is white” and “because he is male” are no good in themselves as reasons though they can be relevant in very special circumstances, for instance, gender in the case of employing a bathroom attendant. Though even that might be thought in some circles to involve a further prejudice. If the supposed reasons of race and gender are offered without support — “he is a man”, “he is white” — the answer they elicit is quite rightly, “what has that got to do with it?” Those supposed reasons are equally of the form, “he is one of us” for a narrower us. The objectors say the human privilege is itself just another prejudice like racism or sexism and they have a suitably unlovely name for it, speciesism.

How good is this objection? And how exactly does it work? I am afraid it will take a little while to answer those questions because they require us to try to get a bit clearer about the relations between our humanity on the one hand and our giving and understanding reasons on the other. And the route to that involves several stops. A good place to start I think is this: not many racist or sexists have actually supposed that a bare appeal to race or gender — merely saying “he’s black” or “she’s a woman” — did constitute a reason. They were, so to speak, at a stage either earlier or later than that. It was earlier if they simply had a barely articulated practice of discrimination. They just went on like that and they did not need to say anything to their like-minded companions in the way of justification of their practices.

Well, the day came when they did have to say something in justification. To those discriminated against if they couldn’t simply go on telling them to shut up, to outsiders or radicals, or to themselves in those moments when they started to wonder how defensible it might be. And then they had to say something more. Mere references to race or gender wouldn’t meet what was by then the need. Equally, references to supernatural sources which said the same thing wouldn’t hold up for long. Something which at least seemed relevant to the matter at hand — a job opportunity, the franchise, or whatever it might be — would have to be brought up about the supposed intellectual and moral weakness, say, of blacks or women. These were reasons in the sense that they are at least to some degree of the right shape to be reasons. But they were very bad reasons both because they were untrue and because they were the products of false consciousness working to hold up the system. And they didn’t need any very elaborate social or psychological theory to show that they were.

With the case of the supposed human prejudice, it doesn’t seem to be quite like this. On the one hand, it isn’t simply a matter of inarticulate or unexpressed discrimination. There is no secret that we are in favour of human rights, for instance. On the other hand, “it’s a human being” does seem to operate as a reason but it doesn’t seem to be helped out by some further reach of supposedly more relevant reasons of the kind which in the other cases of prejudices turned out to be rationalisations or false consciousness. We are all aware of some notable differences between human beings and other creatures on earth. There’s a whole range of cases in which we cite or rely on the fact that a certain creature is a human being but where those differences between us and other animals don’t seem to figure in our thought as justifications for going on as we do. In fact, in many cases, it is hard to see how they could. Uniquely on earth, human beings use highly articulated languages; they develop to an unparalleled extent non-genetic learning through culture; they possess literatures and historically cumulative technologies, and so on. Of course, there’s quite a lot of dispute about the exact nature and extent of these differences between our own and other species. There are discussions, for instance, of how far some other primates transmit learned skills and whether they have local traditions in this. But this isn’t the point. There is on any showing a sharp and spectacular behavioural gap between ourselves and our nearest primate relatives. And that is no doubt because other hominid species have disappeared, doubtless with our assistance.

But why should considerations about those differences — about culture and technology and language and all that — true as they are play any role at all in an argument about vegetarianism for instance? What’s all that stuff about language and culture and so on got to do with human beings eating some other animals but not human beings? It is hard to see any argument in that direction which won’t turn out to say something like this: it is simply better that culture, intelligence, and technology should flourish as opposed presumably to those other amazing things that are done by other species which are on the menu. Or consider, if you like, not the case of meat eating but of insecticides. If we have reason to use insecticide, must we claim that it is simply better that we should flourish at the expense of the insects. If any evolutionary development is spectacular and amazing, it is the proliferation and diversification of insects. Some of them are harmful to human beings, they are food, or they are artefacts, but they are truly wonderful.

What this last point shows is that even if we could get hold of the idea that it was just better that one sort of animal should flourish rather than another, it is not in the least clear why it should be us. But the basic point is that we can’t get hold of that idea at all. That is simply another recurrence of the notion we saw a little while ago: absolute importance, that last relic of the still enchanted world. We can say rightly that we are in favour of cultural development and so on and think it very important, but that itself is just another expression of the human prejudice we are supposed to be wrestling with. So, there is something obscure about the relations between the moral consideration, “it’s a human being”, and the characteristics that distinguish human beings and other creatures. If there is a human prejudice, it is structurally rather different from those other prejudices, racism and sexism.

This doesn’t necessarily show this isn’t a prejudice. Some critics will say on the contrary, it shows what a deep prejudice it is to the extent that we can’t even articulate reasons that are supposed to underly it! And if, as I said, we seem very ready to profess it, the critic will say, that it shows how shamelessly prejudiced we are, or that we can profess it, express it because very significantly we have no one to justify it to, except a few reformers that are fellow human beings. That certainly is a significant fact and we have to bear it in mind. Other animals on this planet are good at many things but not at asking for or understanding justification. Oppressed humans, women and minorities, come of age in the search for emancipation when they speak for themselves and no longer through reforming members of the oppressing group. But the other animals will never come of age. Human beings will always act as they are trustees. And that is connected to a point we shall come back to, that in relation to those other animals, the only moral question for us is how we should treat them.

Someone who speaks vigorously against speciesism and the human prejudice is of course Prof. Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in this very university. As you don’t need telling here, he holds his chair at the said University Centre for Human Values. And I have wondered, I must say, what he makes of that name. In the purely possessive or limp sense, it is probably alright. But in the richer sense of the expression, human values, which must surely be its intention, I’d have thought it would have sounded to him like the Centre for Aryan Values! Whatever exactly may be the structure of the human prejudice, if it is a prejudice, Singer’s work has brought out very clearly some important consequences of rejecting it, consequences which he has been prepared to advocate in a robust style.

A central idea involved in the supposed human prejudice is that there are certain respects in which creatures are treated in one way rather than another simply because they belong to a certain category, the human species. We don’t at this basic initial level need to know any more about them. Told that there are human beings trapped in a burning building, on the strength of that fact alone, we mobilise as many resources as we can to rescue them. When the human prejudice is rejected, two things follow, Singer has made clear. One is that some more substantial set of properties supposedly better fitted to give reasons are substituted. The second is that the criteria based on those properties, the criteria which determine what you can properly do to a creature are applied to examples one at a time. It is always a question whether a particular individual satisfies the criteria.

Let us consider the question not of protecting but of killing. Singer thinks that our reasons for being less ready to kill human beings than we are to kill other animals, the “greater seriousness” of killing them as he puts it, are based on

our superior mental powers, our self-awareness, our rationality, our moral sense, our moral autonomy, or some combination of these. They are the kinds of things which we are inclined to say which make us uniquely human. To be more precise they are the kind of things that make us persons.
(Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics [2002] by Peter Singer, edited by Helga Kuhse, p. 193)

Elsewhere, he cites with approval Michael Tooley’s definition of persons as “those beings who are capable of seeing themselves as continuing selves, i.e. as self-aware beings existing over time”. It is these characteristics that we should refer to when we are deciding what to do and in principle, we should refer to them on a case by case basis. “If we are considering whether it is wrong to destroy something, surely we need to look at its actual characteristics not just the species to which it belongs.” And “actual” here is taken in way that leaves no room for potentiality. You can’t say that an embryo gets special protection because it is potentially a person. It is not yet a person, therefore it is a non-person just as, in Tooley’s perhaps unlovely terminology, someone suffering from acute senile dementia is an ex-person.

As I have said, Singer brings out very clearly these two consequences of his view, namely, that we rely on some substantial properties — like those of personhood — other than belonging to the human race, and that we apply them case to case. And he relies on those consequences in arriving at various controversial conclusions. I am concerned with the view itself, the rejection of the human prejudice, rather than particular details of Singer’s own position. But there are a couple of points which I should mention in order to make clear what is at issue. First, what Singer rejects isn’t quite the form of prejudice to which I and many other people are attached. Singer considers the following syllogism.

Every human being has a right to life.
A human embryo is a human being.
Therefore, the human embryo has a right to life.
(UHL, p. 192)

It is certainly a valid argument; we better agree that the conclusions follow from the premises. Those who oppose abortion and destructive embryo research, people who particularly in the United States are sometimes called pro-lifers, think both those premises are true and therefore they accept the conclusion. Those who defend abortion and embryo experiment under certain circumstances have to reject one of the premises. They typically deny the second premise, namely that the human embryo is a human being. But Singer denies the first premise, namely every human being has a right to life. More strictly, he thinks that the first premise is correct only if “human being” means “person”. In that sense, the second premise is false: the human embryo isn’t yet a person. There is a sense in which the second premise is true because the embryo belongs to the species but in that sense of human being, it is not true that every human being has a right to life.

I mention is perhaps rather fiddly consideration because it distinguishes Singer from those such as most moderate pro-choice campaigners who accept obviously enough that the embryo is human in the sense that it is a human embryo, but don’t yet accept that it is yet a human being, any more than a bovine embryo is a cow. My colleague Jonathan Glover once caused nearly terminal fury in a distinguished pro-life advocate in England by what seemed to me the entirely reasonable remark that if this gentleman had been promised a chicken dinner and was served served with an omelette made of fertilised eggs, he’d have a complaint! The point is an important one. The standard view, the view which Singer attacks, is that “human being” is a morally relevant notion, where “human being” indeed means an animal belonging to a particular species, our species. But those who hold that view are not committed to thinking that a fertilised ovum is already such an animal any more so than the case of any other species. Singer sets up then the principle that the idea relevant to these moral questions is not the species term, human being, but the term person, where that brings in notions of self-awareness over time and so on. It must be said, and this is the second point, that he notably fails to apply this principle in a very thoroughgoing way.

Singer has become notorious for defending infanticide in certain circumstances. He does so because, I quote, “new born infants are in most morally respects more like fetuses than like older children or adults”. As he cheerfully puts it, “neither a fetus nor an infant has the conceptual wherewithal to contemplate a future or to want or value that future”. He then argues a case for possible infanticide in the case of seriously disabled infants. But why the restriction to seriously disabled infants. If the objection to killing human beings is the objection to killing persons, and infants aren’t persons, what’s the objection to killing any infant if you do it painlessly and there aren’t other objections such as distress to parents. If, for instance, they are simply a nuisance! I think a lot of the peculiarities of Singer’s position come in part from his concern with one kind of controversy. He is trying to combat conservative policies based on a particular notion of the sanctity of human life. This helps to explain why his position on abortion and infanticide is the same as the pro-life position but the other way up. He and the pro-lifers both argue if abortion, then infanticide, but they take that as an objection and he takes it as an encouragement! Against all these, it is very important to say that one can believe, as I believe, that the notion of the human being as a member of the species is central to our moral thought without being committed to the entire set of rules that go under the label “the sanctity of human life”.

The most basic question however is that raised by the general structure of Singer’s position rather than these details and it is the same kind of question we have encountered already. Why are the fancy properties grouped under the label of personhood “morally relevant” to issues of destroying a certain kind of animal while the property of being a human being isn’t? One answer might be that we favour and esteem these properties, we encourage their development, we resent and hate it if they are frustrated. And that is hardly surprising since our whole life and not only our values but our having values at all involve our having these properties ourselves. That is a fine answer but that doesn’t answer this question, since we also and in complex relation to all that do what Singer complains of, namely use the idea of a human being in our moral thought and draw a line around the class of human beings with regard to various things that we are ethically prepared to do. A different answer would be that it is simply better that the world should contain instances of the fancy properties of personhood but it is not simply better that the world should contain human beings as such but that is once more our now familiar friend, absolute importance, that survivor from the enchanted world bringing with it the equally familiar and encouraging thought that the properties we possess — well, most of us, not counting the infants, the Alzheimer’s patients, and a few others — are being cheered on by the universe.

I should say at once that this isn’t Singer’s own answer to the question. He is a Utilitarian and he thinks, very roughly speaking, that the only thing that ultimately matters is how much suffering there is. To the extent that we should give special attention to persons, this is supposedly explained by the fact that persons are capable of suffering in some special ways that other animals can’t suffer because they can foresee the future and so on. I don’t want to argue over the familiar territory of whether that is a reasonable or helpful explanation of all the things that we care about in relation to persons, namely whether the only thing that makes a difference is the various ways in which they can suffer. I want to ask something else which leads us back to my central question — our moral conceptions of ourselves as human beings living among other creatures. My question is not, does the utilitarian view make sense of our other concerns in terms of our concern with suffering? My question is rather, how far does the utilitarian view make sense of our concern with suffering itself?

Many utilitarians, including Singer, are happy to use the model of an Ideal or Impartial Observer. The idea of the model of an imaginary figure who knows everything, is equally impartial about everything, can take on board as it were all the suffering in the world. A philosopher proposing one version of such a model fifty years ago memorably described this figure as “omniscient, disinterested, dispassionate, but otherwise normal”!

1. He is omniscient with respect to non-ethical facts.
2. He is omnipercipient.
4. He is dispassionate.
5. He is consistent.
6. In other respects he is normal.

Roderick Firth, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer”.

The model comes in various versions in many of which the figure isn’t exactly dispassionate. Rather he is benevolent. That can mean several different things itself. But let’s concentrate on the simplest application of the idea that the ideal observer is against suffering and he wants there to be as little of it as possible. With his omniscience and impartiality, he so to speak takes on all suffering however we are to exactly conceive of that and he takes it all on equally. Now, he does begin to look a lot like a slimmed down surrogate of the Christian God and this might suggest that it represents yet another enactment of the cosmic point of the view. Suffering or its absence is what has absolute importance but I assume that utilitarians such as Singer hope that the model can be spelled out in more disenchanted terms.

They deploy the model against what they see as prejudice, in particular the human prejudice and the idea behind this is that there is a sentiment or disposition or conviction which we do have, namely compassion and sympathy or the belief that suffering is a bad thing, but, they claim, we express these sentiments in an irrationally restrictive way. The way in which our sentiments of sympathy or compassion for suffering work is governed by the notorious inverse square law. That is the further away the less you feel it roughly where the distances is involved can be of all kinds: spatial, they are on the other side of the world; familial; national, remember there’s always a headline in the Oxford paper when there is a vast earthquake somewhere in the other side of the world, “Oxford man injured in earthquake; racial, of course, notoriously governed by species membership. The model of the Ideal Observer is supposed to be a corrective. If we could take on all suffering, as he does, we wouldn’t be liable to these parochial biases and would feel and act in better ways. No doubt, the history of the device does lie in fact in the kind of secularised imatatio Christi and I suspect that some of the sentiments it mobilises are connected with that but the utilitarians hope to present it as independent of that as a device expressing an extensive rational correction of the kind of thing we indeed feel.

So, I want to take the model seriously in secular way, perhaps more seriously from a certain point of view than those who use it. I have got two problems with it. One is very familiar actually and concerns the relation between the model and human action. Even if we thought that the Ideal Observer’s outlook was a reliable guide to what would be a better state of affairs, how is that connected with what we each of us should be trying to do. With regard to animal suffering, a form of the problem that goes back to the 19th century, is the question of policing nature. Even though much suffering to animals is caused directly or indirectly by human beings. It is also true that an immense amount of it is caused by other animals. This suffering must form a significant part of what is on the Ideal Observer’s screen. While we are certainly in the business of reducing harm caused by other animals to ourselves, we seek in some degree to reduce the harm we cause to other animals. The question arises as to whether we should be in the business of reducing the harm that other animals cause to each other and generally in the business of reducing the suffering that goes on in nature. Utilitarians do offer some argument to suggest that we shouldn’t bother with that, arguments about saving our energy and time and so on but I have found it hard to avoid the feeling that those answers are pallid and unconvincing rationalisations of a more basic reaction that there is something altogether crazy about the idea, that it misrepresents our relation to nature. Some environmentalists of course think that we shouldn’t try to improve nature in this respect because nature is sacred and we should interfere with it as little as possible anyway. But they certainly aren’t governed simply by the model of Ideal Observer and his concern for suffering.

This leads to a more fundamental point. Those who see our selective sympathies as a biased and prejudiced filtering of the suffering of the world, who think in terms of our shadowing as far as we can the consciousness of the Ideal Observer and guiding our actions by reflection and what the Ideal Observer takes on, I wonder whether they consider what it would really be like to take on what the Ideal Observer supposedly takes on. Whatever exactly “takes on” may mean, it is supposed to imply this: that the sufferings of other people, of all other creatures should be as vividly present to us in some sense, as closely connected with our reasons for action, as our own suffering, of those of people we care for who are immediately at hand. That is how the model is supposed to correct for bias. But what would it conceivably be like for this to be so even for a few seconds. What would it be like to “take on” every piece of suffering that at a given moment any creature is undergoing. It would be an ultimate horror. An unendurable nightmare. And what would be the connection of that nightmare to our actions. In the model, the ideal observer is supposed just to be an observer. He can’t do anything. But our action, the idea is, is supposed to shadow or be guided by reflection on what he and his omniscience and impartiality is taking on. And if for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of what that is and really guided our actions by it, then surely we would annihilate the planet if we could. And if other planets containing conscious creatures are similar to ours in the suffering they contain, we would annihilate them as well.

This model has got things totally inside out. We indeed have reasons to listen to our sympathies and to extend them not only to wider groups of human beings but into a concern for other animals so far as they are in our power. That is already a human disposition. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “humane” reads

marked by sympathy with the consideration for the needs and distresses of others; feeling or showing compassion and tenderness towards human beings and the lower animals …

We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life. It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we can’t care about all the suffering in the world. It is a condition of our existence and our sanity. Equally it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns including our own by criteria including our own by criteria derived from nowhere. We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror. We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent. We can think about how this human estate or settlement should be run and about its impact on its surroundings. But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. It is an irony that this illusion, even when it takes the form of rejecting so-called speciesism and the human prejudice, actually shares a structure with older illusions about there being a cosmic scale of importance in terms of which human beings should understand themselves.

If we look at it in the light of those old illusions, this outlook — namely, the opposition to the human prejudice — will be closer in spirit to what I called the Lutheran version than to the celebratory version, in virtue of its insistence that human beings are twisted by their selfishness. It is unlike the Lutheran outlook, of course, precisely in its anti-humanism: Luther thought that it did matter to the universe what happened to mankind, but this view thinks that all that matters to the universe is, roughly speaking, how much suffering it contains. But there is another difference as well. Luther thought that human beings could not redeem themselves unaided, but the opponents of the human prejudice typically think that with the help of rationality and these theories, they may be able to do so.

I have said that it is itself part of a human, or humane, outlook to be concerned with how animals should be treated, and there is nothing in what I have said to suggest that we should not be concerned with that. But I do want to repeat something that I have said elsewhere, that, very significantly, the only question for us is how those animals should be treated. That is not true of our relations to other human beings, and that already shows that we are not dealing with a prejudice like racism or sexism. Some white male who thinks that the only question about the relations between “us,” as he puts it, “white males”, and other human beings, namely, women and people of colour is how “we” should treat “them” is already prejudiced, but in the case of other animals that is the only question there could be.

That is how it is here, on this planet, now; it is a consequence of the fact I mentioned earlier, that in terms of a range of abilities that control action, we happen to live on an evolutionary plateau. Human beings do not have to deal with any creature that in terms of argument, principle, worldview, or whatever, can answer back. But it might be otherwise; and it may be helpful, in closing, to imagine something different. Suppose that, in the well-known way of science fiction, creatures arrive with whom to some extent we can communicate, who are intelligent and technologically advanced (they got here, after all), who have relations with one another that are mediated by understood rules, and so on and so forth. Now there is an altogether new sort of question for the human prejudice. If these culturally ordered creatures arrived, a human being who thought that it was just a question of how we should treat them has seriously underestimated the problem, both ethically and, probably, prudentially.

The late Robert Nozick once gave it as an argument for vegetarianism that if we claimed the right to eat animals less smart than ourselves, we would have to concede the right to such visitors to eat us, if they were smarter than us to the degree that we are smarter than the animals we eat.

What about persons distinguishes them from animals, so that stringent constraints apply to how persons may be treated, yet not to how animals may be treated? Could beings from another galaxy stand to us as it is usually thought we do to animals, and if so, would they be justified in treating us as means à la utilitarianism? Are organisms arranged on some ascending scale, so that any may be sacrificed or caused to suffer to achieve a greater total benefit for those not lower on the scale?

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 45.

In fact, I don’t think that it is an argument for vegetarianism, but rather an objection to one argument for meat eating, and I am not too sure how good it is even as that. But the main point is that if they proposed to eat us, it would be quite crazy to debate their rights at all! The nineteenth-century egoist philosopher Max Stirner said, “The tiger that assails me is in the right, and I who strike him down am also in the right. I defend against him not my right, but myself.”

But Stirner’s remark concerns a tiger, and it is a matter of life and death. Much science fiction, such as the puerile movie Independence Day, defines the issue in those terms from the beginning and so makes the issues fairly easy. It is fairly easy, too, if the aliens are just here to help, in terms that we can recognize as help. The standard codings of science fiction, particularly in movies, are designed to make such questions simple. The hostile and nasty tend to be either slimy and disgusting, or rigid and metallic  — in one brilliant literary example, Wells’s The War of the Worlds, they are both at once. The nice and co-operative are furry like the co-pilot in Star Wars, or cute like ET, or ethereal fairies like those little things in the bright light at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, we can imagine situations in which things would be harder. The arrivals might be very disgusting indeed: their faces, for instance, if those are faces, are seething with what seem to be worms, but if we wait long enough to find out what they are at, we may gather that they are quite benevolent. They just want to live with us — rather closely with us! What should we make of that proposal? Some philosophers may be at hand to remind us about distinguishing between moral and non-moral values, and to tell us that their benevolence and helpfulness are morally significant whereas the fact that they are unforgettably disgusting is not. But suppose their aim, in their unaggressive way, is to make the world more, as we would put it, disgusting? And what if their disgustingness is really, truly, unforgettable?

Or we could turn things around in a different direction. The aliens are, in terms of our preferences, moderately good-looking, and they are, again, extremely benevolent and reasonable; but they have had much more successful experience than we have in running peaceable societies, and they have found that they do need to run them, and that too much species-self-assertion or indeed cultural autonomy proved to be destabilizing and destructive. So, painlessly, they will rid us, certainly of our prejudices, and, to the required extent, of some of our cultural and other peculiarities. What should we make of that? Would the opponents of speciesism want us to join them — join them, indeed, not on the ground that we could not beat them — which might be sensible if not very heroic — but on principle?

The situation that this fantasy presents is in some ways familiar. It is like that of a human group defending its cultural, possibly ethnic, identity against some other human group which claims to dominate or assimilate them, with this very large difference, however, that since we are dealing here with another and indeed non-terrestrial species, there is no question of cultural or ethnic variation being eroded by sexual fusion. Indeed, from the perspective of sex, it must be said, the idea that speciesism, racism, and yet again gender prejudice are all alike, does look extremely peculiar.

Anyway, the fantasy situation with the aliens will resemble the familiar political situation in some ways. For one thing, there may well be a disagreement among the threatened group — in this case, human beings — in part an ethical disagreement, between those who think the invaders are right and we ought to side with them, let us call them the collaborationists, and others who are resisters. It looks as though the Utilitarians will be committed to joining the collaborationists. In this fantasy case, the resisters will be organizing under the banner “Defend humanity” or “Stand up for human beings.” That is an ethical appeal in an ethical dispute. Of course, this does not make “human being” into an ethical concept, any more than the cause of Basque separatism — an ethical cause, as Basque separatists see it — makes “Basque” into an ethical concept. The relevant ethical concept is something like: loyalty to, or identity with, one’s ethnic or cultural grouping; and in the fantasy case, the ethical concept is: loyalty to one’s species. Moreover — and this is the significant lesson of this fantasy — this is an ethical concept we have already. It is the one we are using implicitly all the time, when for instance, in the context of our ethical thought, we appeal to the fact that a creature is a human being. It is simply that as things are in real life — because we live on this evolutionary plateau — we don’t spell it out, because there is no other creature in our life who could use or be motivated by the same consideration but with a different application: that is to say, there is no creature belonging to some other species can articulate, reflect on, or be motivated by reasons appealing to their species membership.

So, the idea of there being an ethical concept that appeals to our species membership is entirely coherent. It is shown by the fantasy case and its actual case is familiar in the actual case. Of course, there may be ethical arguments about the merits or value of any such concept, namely, a concept that appeals to something like loyalty to group membership or identity with it. Some people, in the spirit of those who would be collaborationists in the fantasy case, are against such ideas. It is notable in the political morality in the present time, that some people seem to be opposed to such attitudes in dominant groups but very much in favour of them for subordinate groups. Others, again, may be respectful of the energizing power of such conceptions, and of the sense they can give of a life that has a rich and particular character, as contrasted, at the extreme, with the Utilitarian ideal of the itinerant welfare-worker who, with his bad line to the Ideal Observer, goes round turning on and off the taps of benevolence. At the same time, however, those who respect these conceptions of loyalty and identity may be rightly sceptical about the coercive rhetoric, the lies about differences, and the sheer violence that are often associated with such ideas and with the movements that express them. Some of those objections no doubt carry over to the ways in which we express species identity and loyalty as things actually are, and that is why the opponents of so-called speciesism and the human prejudice quite often have a point about particular policies toward other animals, even though they are mistaken about the framework of ideas within which they condemn those things.

Should we conclude that the human prejudice, if one wants to call it that, must ultimately be inescapable. Let us go back once more to the fantasy of the arrival of the benevolent managerial aliens, and the consequent debate among human beings between the collaborationists, who want to join them, and the resisters, who want to run the human independence movement. In that debate, even the collaborationists have to use a humanly intelligible discourse, arguments which their fellow human beings can recognize. If that meant that their arguments would have to be peculiar to human beings, then their situation would indeed be paradoxical. It would be as though, in the familiar political discussions about, say, the cultural identity of the Basques, even the assimilationists had to use only arguments peculiar to Basque culture. So, let us suppose that it does not mean that, that is, although they have to use arguments which are comprehensible to other human beings, they are not arguments peculiar to, as it were, the separatists or the resisters. The relevant alternative, I think, in the fantasy case is that the collaborationists use arguments which they share not only with their fellow human beings but with the aliens. Indeed, many moral philosophers think that the correct moral principles are ones that could be shared with any rational and reflective agents, whatever they were otherwise like.

But even if this were so, those principles would not necessarily tell us and these creatures how to share a life together. Maybe we and they would be too different in other respects for that to be possible. Remember the disgusting benevolent aliens. And the best we could do is to establish a non-aggression pact with them and co-exist at a distance. That would leave our prejudices where they were. But suppose that we are to live together. There is no reason to suppose that the universal principles we share with the aliens will justify our prejudices. We cannot even be sure that they will justify our being allowed to have our prejudices, as a matter of toleration; as I said in setting up the fantasy, the long experience and benevolent understanding possessed by the aliens may enable them to see that tolerating our kinds of prejudice leads to instability and injustice, so they will want to usher our prejudices out, and on these assumptions we should agree. The collaborationists must be right it seems, because their moral conceptions they share with the aliens transcend the local peculiarities.

But if this is so, doesn’t something even stronger follow? I said, in setting up these space-fiction fantasies, that the Independence Day scenario, in which the aliens are manifestly hostile and want to destroy us, is, for us, an ethically easy case: we try to defend ourselves. No doubt, we shall try. But should we try? Perhaps, the critics will say, this is just another irrational, visceral, human reaction to defend ourselves in this situation. The benevolent and fair-minded and far-sighted aliens may know a great deal about us and our history, and understand that our prejudices are unreformable: that things will never be better in this part of the universe until we are removed. I am not saying that this is necessarily what such aliens would think. I am not saying that the universal moralists, the potential collaborationists, would necessarily agree with them. But I don’t see that if they disagree, they could be certain that was just not another self-serving prejudice. This, it seems to me, is a place at which the project of trying to transcend altogether the ways in which human beings understand themselves and make sense of their practices could end up. And here I can only ask, we can only ask at this stage: what side are you on?

In many, more limited, connections, hopes for self-improvement lie very close to the risk of self-hatred. When the hope is to improve humanity to the point at which every aspect of its hold on the world can be justified before a higher court, the result is likely to be either self-deception, if you think you have succeeded, or misanthropy, when you recognize that you will always fail. Personally, while I think that there are many things to loathe about human beings, their sense of their ethical identity as a species is not one of them.

Modern Moral Philosophy by G.E.M. Anscombe — A Summary

G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1–19.

Before you start reading the summary…

The influence that this article — or more correctly, this unrelenting attack — had on moral philosophy, especially the impetus it gave to virtue ethics, is difficult to overstate. (However, it is a matter of dispute whether that is the lesson the article intended to teach.) A bit of trivia: the term “consequentialism”, which is described derisively as a shallow philosophy (shallowness is a necessary feature, Anscombe adds!), is introduced in this article.

For somebody new to moral philosophy, the article will be a difficult read. Not only because Anscombe is engaging with moral philosophy since Aristotle up to the mid-twentieth century but also because she does it with frustrating brevity. She disposes off a procession of some of the most prominent moral philosophers, Joseph Butler, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, with a few terse paragraphs in less than a page! As such, I have added more than a few hyperlinks. The interested (and intrepid) student may follow them for more.

[Analytic writing presents a certain difficulty for readers, especially uninitiated ones. It never belabours the point. And while the concise, rigorous, matter-of-fact arguments present themselves with, to invoke Hume — Anscombe also invokes Hume but for more philosophically pertinent reasons — force, they are sorely lacking in the vivacity which would beckon and then hold the interested but uneducated reader’s mind. Without philosophical literacy, analytic writing is difficult to follow and its beauty easy to miss.

To get a glimpse of such (beautiful) writing, and these are only the few that I have encountered, see Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [Anscombe, in addition to being greatly influenced by, was actually friends with, Wittgenstein], Willard Van Orman Quine’s On What There Is and Two Dogmas of Empiricism [Quine can be both fun and funny], as well as Anscombe’s own Intention. These works, I might add, have been unfathomably influential.]

The divisions are my own. Commentaries can be skipped. So can the relevant extracts from other books to which Anscombe (explicitly or implicitly refers).

Alright, lets get on…

Three theses will be presented in the article.

  1. The first is that it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking.
  2. The second is that the concepts of obligation, and duty — moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say — and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of “ought,” ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.
  3. My third thesis is that the differences between the well-known English writers on moral philosophy from Sidgwick to the present day are of little importance.


The contrast between Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and any modern work on moral philosophy is striking. Aristotle talks about moral virtues. But what he means by “moral” is very far from our notion of moral. So that, “If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such, he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don’t come together in a proper bite.”

[COMMENTARY 1: Being moral, for the modern mind, has come to be associated with right and wrong. For instance, in Christian morality (or ethics, the terms are interchangeable in this essay), the morally upright person abstains from extramarital sex. Where as the immoral person is promiscuous. Whatever their authority or source (religious authority, contract, reason, etc.), these ideas of right and wrong are, as it were, pre-given or already there for us. You either act in accordance with them (in which case you act morally) or violate them (in which case you act immorally).

But when Aristotle talks of “moral” virtues, what he has in mind has nothing to do with what has just been outlined. For him, “..moral excellence [or virtue] comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name [ethike] is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word for ‘habit’ [ethos (we get the word ethics and its cognates from this term!)].” (Quotations are from Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics.] Moral excellence is about acting or doing things well: defined as that which “must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate” and where there is neither excess nor defect. A moral person, in other words, is someone who excels that what he/she does. And excellence is, in an important way, connected to moderation. Consider the moral virtue of courage, one of the cardinal virtues for the Greeks: “the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash … courage, then, [is] destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.” (This is Aristotle’s infamous doctrine of the Mean, described by Bernard Williams as the “most celebrated and least useful” of Aristotle’s ideas.)

Whatever the attractions or weaknesses of this notion of moral virtue as doing things well which requires that we stay away from excess and defect, and which can be acquired only by habit, it must be clear that reading the Nicomachean Ethics with the modern meaning of “moral” would cause terrible misalignment: the teeth won’t come together, as Anscombe puts it, in a proper bite. END OF COMMENTARY 1]

Aristotle cannot, therefore, elucidate the modern way of talking about morality. And the best writers on ethics in modern times fail to provide any “direct light on [morality]”.

[Joseph] Butler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.”

[David] Hume defines ‘truth’ in such a way as to exclude ethical judgments from it, and professes that he has proved that they are so excluded.

[Immanuel] Kant introduces the idea of ‘legislating for oneself,’ which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0.

Bentham and Mill do not notice the difficulty of the concept ‘pleasure.’ … The reason is simple: since Locke, pleasure was taken to be some sort of internal impression. But it was superficial, if that was the right account of it, to make it the point of actions.

[I wish I could go in depth into these terse paragraphs, but that would turn this summary into a commentary. And so I will not.]


“Suppose that I say to my grocer “Truth consists in either relations of ideas, as that 20s.[shillings] = £1, or matters of fact, as that I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill. So it doesn’t apply to such a proposition as that I owe you such-and-such a sum.”

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain.

Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality.

David Hume, An Enquiry into Human Understanding, Chapter 4:1–2.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is pereciv’d by reason.

David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Book III, Part I, Section I.

[COMMENTARY 2: In the paragraph quoted above, Anscombe is bringing together two very influential — although to say that they are merely influential would be a great understatement — ideas of David Hume. The first is his division of all human knowledge or understanding, or “all the objects of human reason or enquiry” into relations of ideas and matters of fact. This is also known as Hume’s fork. See the extract from the Enquiry.

The second is the is-ought problem (see the extract from the Treatise which argues that it is logically invalid to go from is statements, i.e. positive statements like “Human females evolved to take care of children” to ought statements, i.e. normative/evaluative statements statements like “Women ought to stay in the house and take care of children” [example from this explainlikeimfive post].

If we put this two ideas together, we conclude that it is invalid, to use the example Anscombe uses, to go from: I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill; to I owe you money. END OF COMMENTARY 2]

That’s to say, truth cannot properly be the attribute of evaluative statements, e.g. of statements like: I owe you money, but only of relations of ideas, e.g. of statements like: 20 shillings = 1 pound, or matters of fact, e.g. statements like: I ordered a sack of potatoes.

[What follows is three paragraphs summarising another very influential paper, “On Brute Facts”. (See Sections 5 and 6 of the IEP entry on Anscombe. Also this video explanation by]

Brute facts are those facts “which held, and in virtue of which, in a proper context, such-and-such a description [of a state of affairs] is true or false”. For the description — for instance, that I owe someone a certain amount of money — to be true, both the facts of the description — the facts: that I ordered potatoes, that you supplied them, that you sent me a bill etc. — and the context — the existence of certain exchange and market institutions — must hold. In a situation where all of these hold, we may call the facts of the description as brute relative to the description and the context. Having said this, it is possible that special circumstances — perhaps the exercise was part of an act in a movie, or perhaps the grocer decided to let me have them for free after he had sent the bill, etc. — will intervene to upset the truth of the description. That’s to say, if the description that I owe the grocer a certain sum of money were, for example, made in the context of an act in a movie, it would not be actually true that I owe the grocer that sum of money.

There are a number of points to be observed. First, given certain facts and a certain context, an evaluative/normative statement can be true. That’s to say, it is perfectly alright, contra Hume, to go from: I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill; to I owe you money. “It would be ludicrous to pretend that there can be no such thing as a transition, e.g. “is” to “owes”.

Second, brute facts are brute relative to some description [of a state of affairs, or fact] and some context. In other words, brute facts are always relative, they are not absolute. And it is brute facts along with a certain context (which can always be altered or rendered inapplicable by extraordinary circumstances and which therefore cannot be theoretically anticipated) which makes a description true. But moral philosophy is populated with notions such as theft, adultery, slander, and punishment of the innocent, to use her examples, which are conceived as always (or absolutely) wrong. Anscombe’s argument is that the description, for instance, that I should never steal does not hold true absolutely but holds only in the context of certain background institutions — property relations and ideas of ownership in this case, which can, as we have seen, be upset by extraordinary circumstances — and certain facts which are brute relative to that description and context.

Third, and this has to do with the first thesis. There seems to be no good way of characterising acts apart from considering them as brute facts relative to other brute facts. That’s to say, the description I owe you money could be a brute fact relative to a further description, say, I am a bilker. Given a certain set of facts, and a certain context, it would be perfectly correct to call me a bilker. However, in this case, the concern is only factual (or brute factual, to invent a term). But this does not say anything about how bilking is unjust, and certainly not how this bilker, this unjust man if we assume that he is indeed an unjust man, is a bad man. So that, “[i]n present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology.” [Thesis I]


The words ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘needs’ relate to good and bad — “machinery needs oil, or should or ought to be oiled, in that running without oil is bad for it, or it runs badly without oil”. Here, these words don’t have a moral sense. In this conception, the sentence “I should not steal” would have no special moral sense. But to us, this sentence does have a special moral sense in that the word ‘should’ implies an absolute verdict on the action that is described, i.e. that it is morally wrong to steal.

How did this come about? Because of the dominance of Christianity, in the time between Aristotle and us, with its law conception of ethics. “To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues, failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician [as Aristotle would hold]), is required by divine law.” Even if this conception based on divine law has now been abandoned, the special moral sense and weight which it bequeathed to the concepts of ‘obligation’ and of being bound or required as by a law has remained.

It is as if the notion “criminal” were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by “criminal,” which alone gave the word its sense.

[The next few paragraphs expound, extend, as well as critique, Hume’s is-ought argument. (See above.)]

In the dicussion on brute facts (see above), it has been observed that given a certain context and a certain set of facts, it is perfectly alright to make the transition from “is” to “owes”. The example there was that given a certain context of market relations, it is perfectly alright to make the transition to from factual (or is) statements such as “I ordered potatoes”, “You supplied them”, “You sent me a bill” etc. to the evaluative statement that I owe you money.

A second point may be observed by considering the transition from “is” to “needs” in the case of an organism which needs an environment. To say that an organism needs water to live is to simply say that it would not flourish without water. That’s to say, it is perfectly alright here as well, to go from “is” to “needs”. Whether or not you want it to flourish — which is the whole point, Hume might say — is relevant only when your wanting it to flourish has an influence on your actions. But in any case your wanting it to flourish and it needing the environment are quite independent. It will continue to need the environment whether or not you want it to flourish.

However, what you want and what you need (or think you need) have a complicated relationship. “It is possible not to want something that you judge you need. But, e.g., it is not possible never to want anything that you judge you need.” Hume’s ideas about the is-ought problem would lead us to believe that there is some problem with the “need” to which we may not jump to. But the problem is not about it but rather about the nature or phenomenon of wanting.

Thirdly, and finally, when it comes to the derivation of the moral ought from is, somebody saying that it remains impossible to infer “morally ought” from “is” sentences would be in the right. This moral ought with its mere mesmeric force cannot be derived from anything!

The argument is that the word “ought” — so invested with a moral sense which is the legacy, a “survival”, of an ethical system we have since abandoned, more or less — now posseses merely a “mesmeric” force and that “no [ethical] content [can actually] be found in the notion ‘morally ought’”. Therefore, “[i]t would be most reasonable to drop it.” [Thesis II]

The notion of “morally ought” has no reasonable sense outside a law conception of ethics; they are not going to maintain such a conception; and you can do ethics without it, as is shown by the example of Aristotle. It would be a great improvment if, instead of “morally wrong,” one always named a genus such as “untruthful,” “unchaste,” “unjust.” We should no longer ask whether doing something was “wrong,” passing directly from some description of an action to this notion; we should ask whether, e.g., it was unjust; and the answer would sometimes be clear at once.


In all modern English moral philosophers starting from G.E. Moore, the overriding concern of ethics has become consequences. “The ‘right action’ is the action which produces the best possible consequences.” Of course, it is possible to generate diversity of views by probing various interpretations of “right” and “best” as well as the connections between them. But underlying this diversity, which is only apparent, lies a unity which is revealed by the fact that “every one of the best known English academic moral philosophers [since Henry Sidgwick] has put out a philosophy according to which, e.g., it is not possible to hold that it cannot be right to kill the innocent as a means to any end whatsoever and that someone who thinks otherwise is in error.” [Thesis III]

This is significant because this is quite incompatible with the Hebrew-Christian ethic which prohibits a lot of things “simply in virtue of their description as such-and-such identifiable kinds of action, regardless of any further consequences”.

Sidgwick’s defense of a notion of intention covering all (only) foreseen consequences is problematic.

I think, however, that for purposes of exact moral or jural discussion, it is best to include under the term ‘intention’ all the consequences of an act that are foreseen as certain or probable; since it will be admitted that we cannot evade responsibility for any foreseen bad consequences of our acts by the plea that we felt no desire for them, either for their own sake or as means to ulterior ends: such undesired accompaniments of the desired results of our volitions are clearly chosen or willed by us.

Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, Book III, Chapter I.

Say a man is (I) responsible for maintaining a child. Say, he wants to stop supporting the child either because (I.a) he no longer wishes to do so or (I.b) by doing so he would compel someone else to do something, say an admirable thing. Now, consider that that man has to also choose between (II) doing something disgraceful and (III) going to prison. Obviously, III entails that the man fail to do I. For Sidgwick, there is no difference between I.a I.b and III because in all cases case, the consequence is the same, i.e. the child loses its maintenance, even if the motivations are different: it is self-regarding in I.a, consequence regarding in I.b, and for III, the consequence is entailed.

The man then has only to choose between these and II. If he judges that doing II is less harmful than withdrawing maintenance of the child (I.a/I.b and III), he will do the former. Now, it may be that the man misjudged things and II is in fact more harmful than the rest. But for Sidgwick and given what his definition of intention allows, the man would get away with his action because its consequence was not what he had foreseen. For Sidgwick, the badness of an action is dependent on its expected, i.e. foreseen, consequences. This is troubling because we see that one can get away with the (terrible) actual consequences by making a case that they were unforeseen (or unexpected).

“The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences ... explains the difference between old-fashioned Utilitarianism and ... consequentialism.”

Also, consequentialism cannot deal with borderline cases. And such cases are commonplace in ethics. The consequentialist can only say in such borderline cases that a person must not bring about this or that. What ‘this or that’, i.e. the consequence, is will of course be judged on the basis of standards invariably determined by current standards in society. What are the chances that the standards of a society will be decent?


There are people who accept the notions of ‘obligation’ and of the ‘moral’ ought but reject the notion of a divine legislator. They look for non-divine sources of moral norms: society, reason or legislation by oneself, contracthuman virtue.

Society, it will be obvious, is hardly a steady standard for decent norms. Legislating for oneself sounds good but it must be realised that left to his own reason, ahem, devices, a person will more often than not come up with rules he thinks are good on the basis of custom, determined by his society. With contract, it is difficult to determine who promulgated it to whom and whether, if, or how, we are party to it. Also, even if these are worked out, it is likely that the norms arising will be largely formal — along the lines of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” — and not at all concerned with ethical particularities.

Might we find ‘norms’ in human virtues? Perhaps, it is a norm that man qua social/moral/political being has such-and-such virtues in the same way that it is a norm that man qua biological being has so many teeth. However, in this sense, the notion of ‘norm’ no longer has the distinctly Christian meaning. Instead, it has become Aristotelian. If this direction is where we want to go, “the notions of ‘moral obligation,’ ‘the moral ought,’ and ‘duty’ are best put on the Index”.

But meanwhile — is it not clear that there are several concepts that need investigating simply as part of the philosophy of psychology and, — as I should recommend — banishing ethics totally from our minds? Namely — to begin with: ‘action,’ ‘intention,’ ‘pleasure,’ ‘wanting.’ More will probably tum up if we start with these. Eventually it might be possible to advance to considering the concept ‘virtue’; with which, I suppose, we should be beginning some sort of a study of ethics.

“I will end by describing the advantages of using the word ‘ought’ in a non-emphatic fashion, and not in a special ‘moral’ sense; of discarding the term ‘wrong’ in a ‘moral’ sense, and using such notions as ‘unjust.’”

It is quite possible to distinguish between what is intrinsically unjust and what is unjust given the circumstances. To arrange that a man be convicted for a crime he did not commit is intrinsically unjust. To deprive a man of his property without legal procedure, to not pay debts, to break contracts, etc. are unjust given the circumstances. Circumstances are crucial to determining questions of justice and injustice, and the circumstances may sometimes include expected consequences.

A man’s claim to a property, i.e. a matter of justice, will be nullified if its seizure can avert some obvious disaster, i.e. an expected consequence. This is not to say that consequences always overrule considerations of intrinsic justice. The point is that the lines to be drawn between intrinsic and circumstantial (including consequential) factors in determining justice is complicated and that in particular cases, the line is drawn “according to what’s reasonable”. In other words, “there can in principle be no canon other than giving a few examples.”

That is to say, while it is because of a big gap in philosophy that we can give no general account of the concept of virtue and of the concept of justice, but have to proceed, using the concepts, only by giving examples; still there is an area where it is not because of any gap, but is in principle the case, that there is no account except by way of examples: and that is where the canon is ‘what's reasonable’: which of course is not a canon.

In the intrinscially unjust example, it is clear that no circumstances or consequences would modify the description of the action as unjust. However, in English moral philosophy since Sidgwick, it is possible to question the description. Might it (arranging for a man to be convicted for a crime he did not commit) be morally right in some circumstances? The point again is that we lack the philosophic equipment to answer this question with any certitude.

There is a dilemma here. If we are to use unjust as a factual description, without the moral connotation of wrongness, it is open to ask whether one ought to do injustice? [If unjust, understood to be determined by a consideration of whether it is right to do so-and-so in such-and-such circumstances, is used with the moral connotation of wrongness, the question (whether one ought to do injustice) simply does not arise!] One could reply to the question by determining moral rightness in terms of some other principles or make a principle out of injustice itself (that injustice is morally wrong). But however we reply, so long as the term unjust remains factual, the moral propriety is determined not by the term ‘unjust’ but instead by a decision that injustice is wrong. If one grants this, he cannot criticise someone who does not make that decision.

We find that in this discussion of the dilemma, the moral sense of the term wrong is retained while its substance is quaranteed quite null.

And I should be inclined to congratulate the present-day moral philosophers on depriving “morally ought” of its now delusive appearance of content, if only they did not manifest a detestable desire to retain the atmosphere of the term.

If we discard the notion ‘morally ought’ and return to its ordinary notion, we might reasonably ask if commiting injustice would be the best thing to do. The answers will be various. A philosopher might, à la Plato and Aristotle, permit only just actions since just, i.e. virtuous, actions are necessary for a man to be good (to flourish) even if such actions might actually make him flourish less, or not at all.

[P]hilosophically there is a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human “flourishing.” And it is the last concept that appears the most doubtful. For it is a bit much to swallow that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is “flourishing,” as Aristotle himself admitted.

A person unimpressed by this argument might, faced with a hard choice, answer that given such-and-such requirements, which we can’t fulfill without doing injustice, we ought to do it. And it has been the job of modern moral philosophers since Sidgwick to construct systems according to which this person may be virtuous!

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant — A Summary of the First Section

Kant, Immanuel. (1785) 2002. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven: Yale University Press.

This translation is faithful to the original. Translated, forgive the pun, that means it’s a difficult read geared towards the advanced, perhaps critical, reader. Translator’s note: “I have tried to reproduce the same murkiness and cumbersomeness in English that the German reader would encounter.” p. xiii.

If this is your first read, see Jonathan Bennett’s very accessible translation at earlymoderntexts. You will come back to more faithful translations later anyway. 🙂

As a minimum, bear in mind that the term “practical” has a not unrelated but crucially different meaning from how we would use it in day-to-day conversation. If you don’t follow, it is absolutely necessary that you read the first section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Practical Reason.

Summary of the Preface

Transition from Common Rational Moral Cognition to Philosophical Moral Cognition

Only a good will is necessarily [absolutely/perfectly/without limitation or qualification] good. Talents of the mind like understanding and wit, qualities of temperament like courage and persistence and gifts of fortune like wealth and health are only contingently good for they may be used for evil and harm by a bad will. The same goes for even for qualities like moderation, self-control, and sober reflection which might at first appear to ‘constitute part of the inner worth of a person’.

The good will is good in itself. It does not derive its goodness from its efficacy or its effects but from its mere willing.

Even if through the peculiar disfavor of fate, or through the meager endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will were entirely lacking in the resources to carry out its aim, if with its greatest effort nothing of it were accomplished, and only the good will were left over (to be sure, not a mere wish, but as the summoning up of all the means in so far as they are in our control): then it would shine like a jewel for itself, as something that has its full worth itself. Utility or fruitfulness can neither add to nor substract anything from this worth.

This appeals to our common reason but, all the same, there seems something very strange about the insistence on the ‘absolute worth of the mere will’. For if we accept as a principle that all beings are naturally and necessarily arranged purposively for a suitable and appropriate end, and if we further accept that a being that has reason and a will is arranged for securing happiness, it is apparent that nature has hit on ‘a very bad arrangement in appointing reason to accomplish the aim’: instead, happiness would be sought more precisely and accomplished more safely by instinct.

Nature would have taken over the choice not only of the ends but also of the means, and with wise provision entrusted both solely to instinct.

This is because we find that the more cultivated reason is, the further it frustrates the pursuit of happiness so much so that the people most cultivated in reason develop a hatred for reason and start envying rather than despising people closer to natural instinct.

Reason is a bad instrument for pursuing and accomplishing happiness, but since it has been imparted to us as a practical faculty holding sway over the will, its purpose must be something other than securing happiness. Its purpose — and we have accepted that every capacity is assigned to an appropriate end — must be to produce a will good in itself.

To develop the concept of the good will, we will examine the concept of duty. We will differentiate between actions performed from duty and actions performed for other reasons in order to determine the moral worth of actions. We shall ignore (a) actions that conflict with duty as well as (b) actions which do conform to duty but are performed with no immediate inclination, i.e., driven by another inclination, to secure a further good, for the attainment of which the action performed is necessary as a means. The question of duty does not arise in the former and in the latter, it is easy to see that the action was performed to secure a further good. The interesting cases are those in which (c) the action is performed from duty and is driven by an immediate inclination, i.e., the results of the action are what’s actually desired.

Consider a shopkeeper who does not overcharge any of his customers. This conforms to duty and his customers are honestly served. However, we cannot assume that it is only the good of the customers that he has in mind. Also, it is obvious that it is in his interest to maintain a consistent price so that his business can flourish in the long run. The point then is that his actions are not done solely from duty nor from what the actions might immediately result in [the good of the customers] but instead from a self-serving aim [the success of his business]. His actions thus have has no moral worth.

Consider this other case. Preservation of life is a duty and people not only conform to it but also have an immediate inclination towards it. Still, the preservation of life happens in conformity with but not from duty and thus has no moral worth. But when faced with hopelessness and insurmountable adversities, and having lost all taste and love for life, a person still preserves life from duty, there is moral worth.

Consider further, a sympathetic soul who, without vanity and without concern for utility, delights in helping others and spreading  joy. Such a soul is still short of achieving true moral worth however amiable and praiseworthy his actions are, they are still inclinations. Suppose now that the same soul is beset with such personal grief that he no longer has the emotional resources to feel sympathy for others’ distress. If he still continues to help others and spread joy no longer out of any inclination but from duty, his actions would now have authentic moral worth.

Even more: if nature had put little sympathy at all in the heart of this or that person, if he (an honest man, to be sure) were by temperament cold and indifferent toward the sufferings of others, ... would he not find a source within himself to give himself a far higher worth than that which a good-natured temperament might have? By all means! Just here begins the worth of character, which is moral and the highest without any comparison, namely that he is beneficent not from inclination but from duty.

Securing happiness is itself a duty, even if only an indirect one, because the lack of happiness can undermine the performance of duties. But the precept of happiness often infringes upon other inclinations. Now, consider a diabetic who nevertheless chooses to continue to eat and enjoy what he likes [gives in to inclination] regardless of future consequences [without considering future happiness]. Still, this does not mean that the injunction to preserve his health from duty [and not out of concern for happiness, which he has rejected] does not apply to him. His conduct would have moral worth if only he follows this injunction.

Summing up, only those actions have genuine moral worth if they are done out of a singular commitment to duty. This is the first proposition.

Having established this proposition, the second proposition is that an action from duty derives its moral worth not from its aims nor even their actualisation but only from the principle on which it is performed. Put differently, its moral worth lies not in the material incentive [aim] realised a posteriori but in the in the formal principle of the will which is determined a priori.

The third proposition, adding the two together, is that duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law. That’s to say: to act out of duty requires that that act be performed out of respect for the law. Neither the object of the action (because the object is merely the effect and not the principle of the will) nor the inclination driving the action (for the same reason, i.e., inclination is not the principle of the will) can get respect.

This means that any action from duty derives nothing from [i.e., “is supposed entirely to abstract from”] inclination and its effects. Given this, what moves [causes (but bear in mind that the word ‘cause’ has tremendous philosophical baggage)] the action is, objectively, the mere law  and, subjectively, pure respect for this law. From this follows the maxim (the subjective principle of the will) that that law must be complied with even if compliance infringes one’s inclinations.

The moral worth of the action thus lies not in the effect to be expected from this expected effect. For all these effects (agreeableness of one's condition, indeed even the furthering of the happiness of others) could be brought about through other causes, and for them the will of a rational beings is therefore not needed; but in it the highest and unconditioned good can nevertheless be encountered. Nothing other than the representation of the law in itself, which obviously occurs only in the rational being insofar as it, and not the hoped-for effect, is the determining ground of the will, therefore constitutes that so pre-eminent good which we call ‘moral’.

What kind of law could this be?  Since the will cannot obey the law out of inclinations, what leads it to obey the law is its universalisability. This law derives its force from the fact that it can be willed to be/made universal. In other words, it ought to be possible for me to will that the maxim guiding my action become a universal law.

[I]t is mere lawfulness in general (without grounding it on any law determining certain actions) that serves the will as its principle, and also must so serve it, if duty is not to be everywhere and empty delusion and a chimerical concept. 

Consider this. Should you make a promise with no intention of keeping it if you are in an extremely difficult situation? This might be prudent sometimes but often, doing so will have worrisome consequences for you later on. Perhaps, it’d be prudent then to adopt it as a universal maxim to always keep promises. But realise that this maxim of prudence is grounded in the fear of worrisome consequences.

Now to be truthful from duty is something entirely different from being truthful out of worry over disadvantageous consequences; in the first case, the concept of the action in itself already contains a law for me, whereas in the second I must look around elsewhere to see which effects might be bound up with it for me.

To return to the question, you should ask yourself if a maxim of making a promise you have no intention of keeping could be valid as a universal law. It becomes immediately clear that one could not will that the maxim to be a universal law for in that case, i.e., if everyone made promises they had no intention of keeping, promises would become pointless: “the maxim, as soon as it were made into a universal law, would destroy itself”. Now, one need have no special shrewedness in order to realise this; in effect, then, we need no special training to will a good will. One need only ask the question: “can you will also that your maxim should become a universal law?”

The necessity of my actions from pure respect  for the practical law is what constitutes duty, before which every other motive must give way because it is the condition of a will that is good in itself, whose worth surpasses everything.

Common human reason [common rational cognition], without having to think abstractly, we’ve discovered, is capable of comfortably navigating its way around questions of good, evil and duty. In fact, common reason’s faculty for practical judgment displays its  potency especially when all incentives from perceptions of sense [or, inclinations] are excluded. It gets to determining the worth of actions and, whats more, actually has a better hope of success than any philosopher who is often confused by a plethora of quite irrelevant considerations that the man of common reason refuses to consider. As such, it is more appropriate to start moral enquiry with common reason and bring in philosophy only to make the enquiry more comprehensive, consistent and convenient (for use).

Even wisdom — which consists more in deeds and omissions than in knowledge —  also needs science, not in order to learn from it but in order to provide entry and durability for its precepts.

Yet, even after having established these commands of duty as worthy of esteem, we naturally feel drawn to our inclinations and needs. “Now reason commands its precepts unremittingly, without promising anything to inclinations, thus snubbing and disrespecting, as it were, those impetuous claims, which at the same time seem so reasonable (and will not be done away with by any command).” From this arises a natural dialectic, a discord if you will, between the injunctions of reason and the assertions of inclination.

“Thus common human reason is impelled, … to go outside its sphere and to take a step into the field of practical philosophy, in order to receive information and distinct directions about the source of its principle and its correct determination in opposition to the maxims based on need and inclination, so that it may escape from its embarrassment concerning the claims of both sides and not run the risk of being deprived, through the ambiguity into which it easily falls, of all genuine ethical principles.”



Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer — A Summary

Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (1972): 229–43.

For a fun take on the essay, see the summary at Philosophy Bro.

Assumption: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

[If you disagree with that assumption, stop reading.]

Principle: “[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

Principle in operation: “[I]f I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.”

1st Objection to P: What if the bad is very far from us?

Reply: That a person is physically near to us “may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be far away.” Perhaps, it can be contended that we will know better how to or if we should help a person if he near to us. However, in the globalised village of instant communication and swift transportation, discrimination on geographical grounds is untenable.

2nd O to P: If I am the only one who can do anything to alleviate the situation, the attachment of moral obligation appears justified. But what if I am just one among millions who can?

Reply: The view that numbers lessen obligation is simply an “ideal excuse for inactivity”. Would I be less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if there are other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing?

2nd O amended: If everyone in my position gave 5 dollars each, the plight of the suffering would be alleviated. Therefore, I have no obligation to give more than 5 dollars.

R: A hypothetical premise cannot be taken to give a concrete conclusion. The conclusion would be acceptable if indeed everyone gave 5 dollars. If not, then, giving more will prevent more suffering and, therefore, it ought to be done.

O to previous R: But wouldn’t there be the paradox of unnecessary contributions if everyone assumed that not all would give and therefore gave more than 5 dollars each i.e., did what they ought to do?

R: If such contributions from were expected from everyone, one would not be obliged to give more than 5 dollars. Also, if the contributions are not simultaneous, those giving later would know how much more is needed and would not be obliged to give more than that. The fact that others have given, or may be expected to give, is a relevant circumstance. However, the contributions by all are rarely expected and never simultaneous, therefore the paradox will not arise.

To sum up, neither our distance, nor the number of people who are in our position, lessens our obligation to do our bit in mitigating suffering.

What this does is to upset or revise the moral categories that we are familiar with. It becomes no longer a matter of “charity” — good if we do it but not wrong if we don’t — but a matter of moral obligation, a “duty” — good if we do it and wrong if we don’t — for us to give money to help remove suffering. To put it more precisely, it is wrong, and not simply uncharitable, for a man living at the level of affluence, which most people in the “developed nations” enjoy, to not give money to save someone else from starvation.

O: This revision is too drastic. People simply do not judge in the way that is being suggested. Moral attitudes are shaped by the needs of society. While it is a duty to condemn violation of moral norms like murder, for example, in order to organise a tolerable society, it is only an act of charity — i.e., it is quite inessential in that it doesn’t fulfil the needs of society — to help people from other societies.

R: That is an explanation, but not a justification for the distinction between duty and charity. And given the collapse of distances and the increasing interconnectedness in this globalised world, this explanation is becoming less applicable. Also, moral standards cannot be set at a certain level. While our society may view a wealthy man who gives 5% of his income to charity as most generous, there might be others that view that 5% as utterly inadequate. The thinking that making what we usually consider charity a duty would bring about a breakdown of moral behaviour is unfounded.

O: It appears to follow then that “we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters.” Can this be accepted?

R: This is not so much a criticism against the argument as it is against our prevailing moral standards. It is likely that most people would not work “full time to relieve great suffering”. However, it does not follow that, therefore, we ought not to work “full time to relieve great suffering”.

O: “[O]verseas aid should be a government responsibility, and that therefore one ought not to give to privately run charities. Giving privately … allows the government and the noncontributing members of society to escape their responsibilities.”

R: The assumption here seems to be that if more private individuals give, the government will abandon its responsibilities. The opposite is more likely. If private individuals do not give, the government will assume that its citizens are not interested in giving money for relief and will be encouraged to remain inactive. The onus of showing how not contributing for aid will bring about government action is on those who refuse to give.

O: But giving relief is only a temporary solution. In fact, it will exacerbate the situation. The millions starving today will translate into more millions in future needing aid.

R: The argument is sound and supported by evidence. But that cannot lead to the conclusion that to provide aid is not a duty. There are lots of organisations that work on the issue of population control. Aid can be directed to those organisations.

O: How much do we ought to give anyway?

R: One possibility is until we reach the level of marginal utility. This possibility, which follows from the principle established in the beginning — that nothing of “comparable moral importance” be sacrificed — seems to be the correct one. However, there must be a limit. And that limit, in the case of overseas aid, may be determined by considering if giving a certain percentage of the Gross National Product slows down the economy so much that a lower percentage would have turned out to be in absolute terms more than the initial amount.

“[T]aking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it. The philosopher will not find it any easier than anyone else to alter his attitudes and way of life to the extent that, if I am right, is involved in doing everything that we ought to be doing. At the very least, though, one can make a start. The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together.”

Moral Relativism Defended by Gilbert Harman — A Summary

Gilbert Harman, “Moral Relativism Defended,” The Philosophical Review 84, no. 1 (1975): 3–22.

See also his Moral Relativism Explained.

Morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement about their relations with one another. This agreement is made in the relevant sense when a group of people intend to adhere to a set of principles based on the understanding that the rest also similarly intend.

Most moral judgments make sense only in relation to such an agreement. ‘Most’ because this thesis is only about “inner judgments” which say that S ought to or ought not to have done D and not about judgments that say S is evil or unjust.

I. Inner Judgments

Inner judgements are relevant only within the relevant moral considerations of the agreement. To illustrate, it would be odd to make the judgement that a conquering alien race which does not harbour the slightest concern for human life should not attack us or to say that their actions are wrong. The same goes for a band of cannibals eating the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Or even a person, brought up in such a way as to have only contempt for people outside the family, who kills a non-family member.

It will be correct to say that the aliens are dreadful, that the cannibals are inhuman, and that the murderer is a criminal. But it would be inappropriate to judge their actions as wrong or to state that they ought not to have done what they did since our moral considerations are clearly not relevant to them.

The use of the moral ‘ought’ with the qualification ‘to do’ should be differentiated from it use in the form ‘ought to be’ to indicate expectation (“My girlfriend ought to be here soon”), rationality (“My girlfriend ought to be in the 2 PM train”) or normative judgment (“My girlfriend ought to be faithful”[1]). Similarly, for the word ‘should’.

Also, the use of ‘wrong’ in an evaluative sense (“My girlfriend’s infidelity was wrong”) should be differentiated from its use in a descriptive sense (“It was wrong for my girlfriend to be unfaithful”).

II. The Logical Form of Inner Judgments

Inner judgments have two important characteristics. First, they imply that the agent has reasons to do something. Second, the speaker in some sense endorses these reasons and supposes that the audience also endorses them.

If someone S says that another person A ought to do action D, S implies that A has reasons to do D and S endorses those reasons.[2] The reasons that A has and are endorsed by S are assumed to be “goals, desires, or intentions”.[3]

As such, there are certain motivating attitudes M which are shared by S, A, and S’s audience. These attitudes are intentions to keep the agreement. The argument is that inner judgments are relative to such an agreement. In other words, when S says that A ought to do D, S assumes A’s sincere intention to observe a certain agreement composed of motivating attitudes M that S, A, and S’s audience share.

Putting these together, the moral “ought” can be formulated as a four-place predicate, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” which relates an agent A, a type of act D, considerations C and motivating attitudes M. The relativity of this formulation lies with C and M.

Any action of course is relative to considerations.[4] This relativity does not make the thesis a version of moral relativism. Rather, it is the relativity to motivating attitudes that makes the thesis as such. This relativity to motivating attitudes is visible in moral “ought” statements where a speaker invokes attitudes that he does not share. For example, “As a Christian, you ought to turn the other cheek; I, however, propose to strike back.” Here, the moral judgment is explicitly relative to motivating attitudes.

Put differently, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” means that given considerations C, if A has motivating attitudes M, D is the best, or ‘moral’, course of action. Any such ‘ought’ statement necessarily has the first characteristic of inner judgments (see first paragraph in this section). If such an ‘ought’ statement makes an explicit or implicit reference to shared motivating attitudes, the statement satisfies the second characteristic too and is hence an inner judgment. But if reference is made to attitudes that are not shared, as in the example presented in the previous paragraph, the statement is not a full-fledged moral judgment.

III. Moral Bargaining

The further argument here is that motivating attitudes M derive from an agreement i.e., intentions[5] to adhere to a particular agreement on the understanding that others also intend do so.

Consider the following puzzle: even if we believe that doctors ought to help as many patients as he can, we would object to the suggestion that he should cut up a patient and use his organs to save five others. Helping others ranks lower than not harming others.

Now consider a second hypothetical case. This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, “Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no.” Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway? Everybody to whom I have put this second hypothetical case says, No, it would not be morally permissible for you to proceed.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Trolley Problem”.

A way of navigating this puzzle is to consider the hypothesis that morality derives from an agreement among people with varying powers and resources. Everyone would benefit if there is a rule against harming each other. But if there is a rule in favour of helping as much as one can, the rich would lose out. The compromise then would be a strong ‘no harm’ principle and a weak ‘help’ principle.

This compromise agreement is not and need not be explicit. It is reached through mutual adjustment and implicit bargaining i.e., some form certain conditional intentions while others with other interests form other conditional intentions which are then resolved into an agreement though bargaining.

Most of our moral views can be given a utilitarian explanation. And utilitarian explanations can also be accounted for using an implicit agreement.  The reverse is however not possible. Examples would be the one already cited, the distinction between harming and helping, and the feeling that everyone has an inalienable right to self-defence and self-preservation.

IV. Objections and Replies

O. It does not follow from having an agreement that we should therefore keep that agreement.

R. But we intend to keep it. Intention to keep it on the condition that others intend similarly too is what makes the agreement relevant.


O. What you think, or even agree, is right may not be actually what is right.

R. That’s true. But the thesis is not about what is right. It’s about how what we understand to be right can be made sense of in reference to agreement in intentions. It does not eliminate moral disputes or, otherwise, preclude inconsistencies.


O. Not all agreements are morally binding.

R. This would imply the existence of a prior principle to the effect that agreements made under compulsion are inadmissible. This objection assumes that the agreement is made through a ritual in which one indicates that he agrees. The agreement here is clearly an agreement in intentions. And the argument here is that it is only with reference to an existing agreement in intentions and not from “prior” principles that such a principle about compelled agreements makes sense.


O. When and how did we come to the agreement? What of those who don’t want to agree and what if they don’t?

R. As mentioned earlier, the agreement is not based on a ritual but on intentions. In this sense of ‘agreement’, the questions of when and how the agreement came to be (there is no given moment at which one agrees) and what to do with those who disagree (they will clearly be outside the agreement) are rendered idle.


O. People are often unable to give systematic and precise definition of their moral views. On what understanding then can they form the agreement?

R. Many understandings are of precisely this sort. For example, the understanding among members of an orchestra or a team of acrobats. Also, moral understandings are never absolute. The principles agreed to are generally vague. For example, that respect should be shown wherever possible.

Moral reasoning is a form of practical reasoning. It has to be coherent in the sense of generality and lack of arbitrariness. But it also involves the maintenance of conservatism and the satisfaction of basic needs and desires. One tries to make the least change that will best satisfy one’s desires while maximizing the overall coherence of one’s attitudes.

Someone can reach an agreement with himself i.e., the membership of the group is one. It is perfectly possible to make inner judgments about oneself. Consider the pacifist who judges that it would be wrong of him to participate in killing but is unwilling to hold the same judgment for others even though he is willing to say that it is bad that they participate. Individual morality of this sort is extremely common.

“My conclusion is that relativism can be formulated as an intelligible thesis, the thesis that morality derives from an implicit agreement and that moral judgments are in a logical sense made in relation to such an agreement. Such a theory helps to explain otherwise puzzling aspects of our own moral views, in particular why we think that it is more important to avoid harm to others than to help others. The theory is also partially confirmed by what is, as far as I can tell, a previously unnoticed distinction between inner and non-inner moral judgments. Furthermore, traditional objections to implicit agreement theories can be met”


[1] The use of ought in this normative sense is ambiguous. Is it the ought of expectation (that I expect her to be faithful), of rationality (that it is in her interest to be faithful), normative judgment (that it would be a bad thing for her to be unfaithful) or moral judgment (that it is wrong for her to be unfaithful)? In any case, Harman is concerned only with the last.

[2] But if S says that B is evil in what B did, S does not imply that S endorses the reasons that made B do whatever B did; rather, these reasons were not relevant to S.

[3] These “goals, desires, or intentions” are assumed to be Aristotelian or Humean as opposed to being Kantian. In other words, the source of these ‘relevant’ reasons is not ‘rationality’.

[4]Considering that you promised, you ought to go to the board meeting, but considering that you are the sole surviving relative, you ought to go to the funeral; all things considered, it is not clear what you ought to do.” Quoting Donald Davidson, “Weakness of Will, in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Moral Concepts (Oxford, 1969).

[5] “I will use the word “intention” in a somewhat extended sense to cover certain dispositions or habits. Someone may habitually act in accordance with the relevant understanding and therefore may be disposed to act in that way without having any more or less conscious intention. In such a case, it may sound odd to say that he intends to act in accordance with the moral understanding. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will count that as his having the relevant intention in a dispositional sense.”