Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Phenomenology of Moral Experience Part the Second

What sort of rules are moral rules? We should start by first describing rules more generally. Maybe then we can find the specifying features of moral rules.


By ‘rules’ we do not here mean to point out the regularities described in natural laws, which are called ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ only in analogy with this primary sense of these words. The primary sense of ‘rule’ involves the free creation of strictures of behavior, typically for pragmatic reasons, although some rules are less specific in intent than the word “pragmatic” connotes:

Rules, prescribe certain forms of behavior in certain circumstances. In order to be rule creating and following agents, we obviously have to be able to understand rules, and tell that we, in our situations, are covered by rules, and are required by them to do, or refrain from doing certain things. But we’ve covered this already. Let’s talk about the rules themselves.

Rules are not concrete particulars, like rocks or cars or human beings. Rules are universals in that they apply to indefinite classes of like cases. The rules of chess, for instance apply to all chess games. Now the things or situations to which rules apply may themselves be complexes of concrete things, but the rules themselves, though true they are concerned with these things, are not concrete items themselves. Rules concern themselves with agents, and actions, and manipulations and relations of physical items, be they other agents, or inanimate objects.

Some rules, if not all, are also clearly human creations. They would not exist unless humans cooked them up.

Following rules allows agents to achieve certain things. Think of repair manuals, rules of sports and games, legal rules, standard operating procedures in the medical realm, the military realm, algebraic rules, and computer programs. Each of these sets of rules allows humans to achieve or maintain some state, participate in some ‘way of life,’ or satisfy some pragmatic concern.

What is the ontological status of rules?

There is no sense in which the rules of chess existed before human beings created them. The origin of this body of rules required the activity of human beings. Its continued existence requires human ‘cooperation’ in the sense that chess players have to take part in an ongoing collective intention to continue to abide by that set of rules in order for the game to continue to exist. In order to assure the continued existence of the game, in order to give it an objective existence, the game is taught. But it is also codified.

Once a set of rules was created and the collective intention is undertaken to abide by them (i.e., the rules become accepted and codified) the game of chess possesses an objective existence, and there is a limitation on what human beings can call “playing chess.” Because of the historical fact of this collective intention, I cannot simply move a pawn three spaces to the left and declare I am playing chess. I am moving chess pieces by doing this, but certainly am not playing chess. Whether I am playing chess is not simply “up to me.” There is no subjective relativism in chess. Indeed, there is not even a cultural relativism. For, if a group decided that they would introduce that lateral move for pawns, and even went so far as to codify it, they would not thereby have changed the game of chess, but would have created a variant, a new game. It might even be called by the name “chess,” but it would not thereby be the game chess. It fails to have the identical set of rules as does the game now called “chess.” Therefore it isn’t chess. The conditions for identity of games are that the set of rules are identical

[This does raise the worrisome issue that many games do change component rules. For example, recently, the NHL introduced shoot-outs to decide regular season games after one five minute overtime session. So, according to the view I take here, was a new game introduced by this change? Do I really want to say that the 2009 Red Wings are not really playing hockey because the rules of the game they are playing are not the same as the rules of the game as they existed in 1997?

One could say that we are indeed talking about two closely related games, and that we do also formulate a collective intention to call that 2009 era game by the same name, and treat the teams playing that game as playing the same game as did the 1997 era teams, so for all intents and purposes, they are playing the same game, even though “strictly speaking” they are not.

Another way to look at this would be to draw a distinction between essential rules of a game and (for lack of a better term) ‘accidental’ rules, or perhaps less obscurely ‘non-essential’ rules. We can make a case for counting 1997 hockey as being ‘the same game as’ 2009 hockey because no essential rule was changed. If, for instance, the hard rubber puck was done away with, and a football substituted, or sticks were eliminated, to be replaced by lacrosse equipment, then I think we would say that a new game has been invented. Ice Lacrosse?? J]

The take-away here is that the rules of chess or the rules of ice hockey are now objective matters of fact, even though they had their origin in human activity, and they owe their continued existence to human intentions. There is an ongoing collective intention to accept or use certain things as objects for use in these games, and certain moves in a defined ‘space’ (to include temporal dimensions) as constitutive of these games. As long as there are language using, game playing, instruction following humans around, accepting these rules, these games enjoy an objective existence.

In order to assure that the rules stay put as the rules of chess, and can function as things against which we can check individual moves (and indeed entire games), we codify. That is, we create physical objects (or events), having semantic content, which turn those rules into intersubjectively verifiable objects available for inspection. We then use these to check moves and games. That is; we create rule books, or use spoken word to transmit and sustain said collective intentions. This collective intention constitutes a sort of objective fact which is just as objective as the human-constructed physical object we call the “Empire State Building.” What constitutes a move of chess is collectively decided, codified, and this objective fabric of intention delimits what individual people can do in playing chess. This objective, but abstract fact delimits what I or anyone can do if I want to count myself as playing chess. This objective fact is something that is logically distinct from other objective facts about the objects that ‘house’ ‘maintain’ or ‘transmit’ the rules (the auditory, visual, or physical phenomena that we use for transmission of the semantic content). That the printed word is constituted of ink is something true regardless of that semantic content. That the spoken word “hockey” has a specific wave form is something that is true regardless of its semantic content.

What's next? A discussion of other sorts of rules, comparison and contrast with rules of games. Eventually I'll find my way back around to moral rules!