Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Structures of Mutual Promise: A Phenomenology of Moral Experience

Argument Stage 1: The Entity

Fred’s attitude gives at least the appearance of his awareness of an ‘outside’ cognitive force, that is; someone external to him that knows what he did. His ‘guilt’ before this cognitive force weighs upon his conscience. To speak loosely, it knows what he did, he knows it knows, and this gives rise to his guilt in some way. So, that outside entity’s cognizance of Fred’s deed does seem necessary for his moral emotion of guilt.

Is it sufficient? Is it only in virtue of this entity’s knowledge, that Fred feels guilt?

I’ll argue for a “no” to these two questions, and in the process begin to answer the complex question: “What is the entity we are talking about here, and what is the ‘appropriate’ relationship to the said entity?”

Before we proceed, we have to deal with an objection. One might ask why this cognitive force needs be something ‘outside’ Fred. Why couldn’t we envision Fred as being a complex psychological creature, having, along Platonic or Freudian lines, conflicting aspects of personality, one of which is the cognizant force or ‘entity’ before which he feels guilt. The short answer is that we can indeed envision things in this way, and not be in basic conflict with what will unfold in the immediately succeeding parts of this investigation. The Platonic “charioteer,” the Freudian “super-ego” indeed, conscience itself, is essentially the product of our social nature, and develops along with and because of our social nature. Human beings who grow in isolation would have no such psychological component. This component is, in a sense, a proxy for our society, for other human beings with which we have entered into implicit commitments. That’s the thesis here. But, we jump the gun a bit. How do we get to this point? Backing up, we look at this notion of a cognitive force:

Any answer that attempts to make use of the notion of a cognitive force to explain Fred’s guilt, and which does not make use of God as that force, will have to make use of the thesis that Fred grasps a counterfactual truth to the effect that had the owner of the wallet or any other member of society known what he did, that person would have counted him as wronging the victim, would have blamed him, etc. Fred’s guilt comes from the fact that he recognizes that his action hurts the wallet owner, and he is guilty even when the individual does not know that Fred personally did the deed. So, given that it is actually the case that the person does not know Fred harmed him, and we are applying the ‘cognitive force’ model, while not making use of the notion of God, it follows that the counterfactual must figure in, on the social theory here being attempted.

According the social theory of moral obligation here being developed, it seems we have to say this: In any case where an agent (x) is morally obliged, the agent is in some sort of appropriate relationship with an entity (A) that allows for something like requirements that flow from that entity (A) to the agent (x), and obligates the agent to abide by the requirements despite personal inclinations to do otherwise.

We see examples of such obligations in voluntary military organizations. Within limits, having volunteered for service is a promise to obey orders of superiors. Having consented to serve amounts to a promise to ones nation, its constitution, and the military organization of which one is a part. That promise brings into being an obligation.

If you ask why a promise should be kept, one can only say, because it was made. There is nothing further to be said. One may site prudential reasons to keep promises, but these are motivators logically external to the basic fact that freely given promises obligate. If someone genuinely doesn’t see this, he is indeed very strange.

Notice here, that the entity in question, the military does not cause the obligations of members to be merely because it is cognizant of the actions of its members, but because it is an entity with which those members, have entered into relationship based upon promise or contract. Actions of members can now take on moral significance in relation to the mutual promise and its terms.

Now, prima facie, we have noted a difficulty when trying to apply this contract-theoretic account to general moral requirements. It would seem to be the case that agents would have to consent to some sort of arrangement with some entity (A) analogous to the military organization, in order to be morally obliged in the more general sense, if we are to make the claim that promises are ontologically essential to all moral obligations.

So, pressing on with the argument it seems we have to say this, as our next step:
In the general case, this entity (A) would have to be at least one of two possible (and not mutually exclusive) candidates: God or other human beings.

But, dutifully applying the paradigm by reasoning analogically from the military case, it seems we have to say: It is only by previously having had entered into an agreement with God or society to act in certain ways that we can truly be said to have a moral obligation.

Wait a minute here. Back the train up. To put a point on it; how can we possibly make a claim to that effect with a straight face?

This brings us to Argument Stage 2: The Relationship

To answer that question, it might pay to look at a simplified abstraction based upon our analog (the volunteer military.) The ultimate purpose here is to see how a society can generate obligations for members who find themselves “thrown” into membership. First we look at societies where people are not “thrown.” We look at some artificial simple examples:

Promises as Ground of Obligation in One-person and Two-person Scenarios

First tentative step; One-Person Scenario: I think we can see how (for lack of a better term) a ‘quasi-objective’ obligation is possible when we consider what I will term ‘personal valuations’ and actions in light of those valuations. A person may value something (x) to a higher degree than some other things (y, z, etc.). That person may value (x) to such an extent that he will do things to preserve that value regardless of circumstance, or transient inclinations to do otherwise, that is regardless of other things he desires or wants. In essence, he promises himself to maintain (x).

Because it is he that makes this valuation, the connection between what is the case with regard to a subset of his intentions, and obligation is tight in this individual’s case. Because he does value (x) above the other things, he has made up his mind to do what is necessary for the preservation or promotion of (x), no matter what. So, he has in effect brought about a personal or first person quasi-obligation. It seems odd, but not that odd, to speak of a personal promise, a promise-to-self. We do these sorts of things. (A person puts career before pleasure, or family before self, for instance.) Notice, here logical space has been created that allows for the possibility of something like a categorical imperative for this person. There is now something he or she must do, a rule that is quite binding or stringent, and runs counter to particular inclinations. True, it comes from within the fabric of this person’s own valuations, and does not impose itself from the ‘outside’ as some sort of objectively existing requirement. But, it seems we are part of the way there with this example (hence the qualifier “quasi.”)

Next tentative step; Two-Person Scenario: The obvious way to attempt this is in terms of a collective intention. We need to get explicit about that notion by simplifying it: A first step, extending the notion of a promise to self, to include multiple agents. Agent (a) values (x), and believes that agent (b) also values (x). He believes that only through cooperative effort will value (x) be maintained or promoted. He believes anyone interested in maintaining (x) will have to agree to stick to a strict regimen in regard to (x) or (x) will not be maintained. Assume (b) holds similar beliefs. So, (a) and (b) enter into a contract (mutual promise) in the interests of preserving (x). They, in effect form a society (A).

If (x) can only be maintained cooperatively in the way described, both agents have good reason to keep their promises, even if in particular circumstances they may be tempted to break the promise for some lesser valued thing (one of the (y), (x), etc..) The promise has as much pull as would a personal or first person promise for each of our hypothetical agents, but now, there is not only a logical space between personal inclinations and desires in regard to things other than (x) and the personal desire to maintain (x), which allows room for something like an objective obligation, there is now a space that allows one or the other to hold his partner responsible for not abiding by the promise or requirement. There is now a space that allows these agents to describe situations as being cases where the partner should do something because it maintains (x) even though that person would like to do something else. Because this is the case, each can describe things as being examples of external entities (his partner or indeed the society (A) or ‘the agreement’) requiring things of him, obliging him, for which he can feel guilt if he has failed to do so. We now have something much more like an objective obligation. This is much more like the military case. It has resemblance to the Case of Fred’s guilt for his deeds. He too feels a force from the outside.

But note here, as we pass along to the next phase of argument 2, this is all still quite conscious and deliberate. The military case (or at any rate, the case of an all volunteer force) is a case of conscious and deliberate mutual promise. We still have the open question: can such an approach really help us understand moral obligation generally conceived? If there ever was anything like a mutual promise that got the ball rolling, so to speak, it would have been far in the past of human society, so how comes it to be that we are now bound by agreements made that long ago? As is much more likely to be the case, there probably was no originary agreement such as we have been describing. So, how can this sort of contract-theoretic account do any work toward answering our question as to the basis of general moral obligation? It looks like we are run up on shoals as we begin the voyage.

Eudaimonia, Essential Sociality, Structures of Mutual Promise and Moral Rules

To review earlier material: There are several things of value such that it is highly unlikely that they can be attained or maintained individually. What is more, they are goods that human beings generally do want, and want fiercely. Humans generally find these things necessary for a tolerable existence, or a life worth living, and will go to great lengths to preserve or attain them, if they do not already possess them. These are things that we tend to take for granted, and notice only when they are threatened or we lose them. They are things that we regard as so important that people who do not have them are objects of great pity or sympathy. They are things that are essential to our humanity.

To abuse my example, a thing of this sort is communication. Consider the accounts of U.S. prisoners of war in isolation during the Viet Nam war. Communications took on a tremendous significance for these men, due to the extensive efforts of the North Vietnamese captors to truly isolate the men. Ways were found to communicate.

Now, communications, like other goods essential to our humanity, depends for its existence on what I call “presumptive rules.” It depends for its existence on the basic practice of ‘honesty’ discussed earlier. Honesty underlies language. Honesty is a presupposition or ‘presumptive rule’ that underlies and provides foundation for communication, it is an essential social rule, analogous to essential rules of games also discussed earlier. Just as one cannot play ice-hockey without sticks, one cannot communicate without presumption of honesty.

Language would not be able to function unless at the heart of the activity, was a fundamental promise to consistently use phonemes and graphemes in ways determined by convention. To depart from this practice would be to make communication impossible. We place high premium on this practice of honesty. Indeed we take it for granted, we presuppose it. We hold each other responsible for abiding by this foundational presupposition of language. (That is something very like a description of a moral rule and a promise.) We act in accord with this rule every day and don’t normally notice it. We become aware of it only when structure that rests upon it quakes enough for us to feel the tremors. Such quakes happen when that foundational ‘rule’ is not respected in some ‘big’ way.

When someone does not abide by the honesty presupposition, our first thought is that he is either joking, unfamiliar with the words he uses, or mentally sick. Which of these options we believe most credible will depend on the context, and the severity of the departure from the norm. Only after we have exhausted those possibilities do we deem the person dishonest. We then blame him, censure, banish or punish. We act as if there is a hard and fast rule requiring honesty, to which that person had earlier agreed. The presumption of honesty runs deep, as this evidence indicates.

Other valuable items of this sort, (things seen to be impossible or very difficult to maintain individually, and which are generally highly valued by humans), are security, opportunity, freedom, material well-being, pursuit of knowledge or education, love, community, creative activity, sense of accomplishment, and play; (in short, the constituents of happiness or eudaimonia in the full Aristotelian or Natural-Law sense of that term). All of these valued items are best (or only) attained maintained or enjoyed cooperatively, or in society, according to some more or less clearly specifiable presumptive rules of behavior. We recognize the strong dependency of these items of value on the presumptive rules of behavior, and, when the norms are broken, act in ways that show this is the case.

There is a way to explain and justify general moral obligations as presumptive rules, in a contract-theoretic construct. We as a matter of fact live our lives in structures of mutual promise. The presumptive rules derive their “oughtness” from something like explicit agreements made between members of society with fundamental eudaimonic values in mind. We do this promising in day-to-day practice, and also recognize the import of this practice of implied mutual promise with regard to human institutions. That is the claim baldly stated. The argument will, in effect, provide society as (A) in the schema, as the entity that requires things of us ‘come what may’ and (hopefully) will provide a plausible account of how that (A) can require things of us even without having our explicit consent. It will give an account of implicit consent.

Anticipating an objection we can say this: Now look, it just is not the case that individuals explicitly and with great fanfare enter into such cooperative enterprises, or make mutual promises with these values in mind. Our situation with regard to our societies is not anything like entering into a contract to buy a car or a piece of land. So, how on Earth can this account be used to make the case that individuals have obligations to maintain these (x) by behaving in particular ways when it is just obvious that no one has made explicit promises to do so? Human beings never actually make promises in so many of these areas. We are born into a society that makes possible or offers these things, but we don’t ever agree to be a part of that society. We just grow up in and around and making use of these things and abiding by these so called ‘presumptive rules.’ So, this account is a non-starter. As long as there is no explicit agreement, there is no real obligation. There is simply no way around it. What say you?

The answer to this is to in a sense deny its premise, but not in a straightforward way. We do make promises to abide by these rules. We do, in a sense, consent. Standard social contract theory has offered the answer before. It goes something like this:

Implicit Agreements-in-Action: Grounds of General Moral Obligation:

If (1) you partake of socially generated benefits that you recognize as being possible only if there is a cooperative enterprise which essentially depends, for its existence, on the continued acquiescence of agents in that scheme, and

(2) Other agents are aware of your awareness of this fact, and

(3) It is also the case that their acquiescence to the scheme was essential to your receipt of those benefits, then

(4) The other agents can rightly expect that you too will behave as a person that had actually given a verbal promise to behave in ways that maintain that cooperative enterprise, so that they too can partake or continue to partake of the benefits.

In short,

The other agents can require you to reciprocate. They have in effect, made a promise by making it possible for you to knowingly accept the socially generated benefit. They have in effect made a promise, by acting in such a way as to make it possible for you to derive the benefit. So now you should do something similar, for their sakes.

The situation is very like two kids cooperating on the playground and evenly splitting the results of their work. They know the rules of the game, so to speak, and for one kid to act as if he is ignorant doesn’t come close to cutting the mustard. The other knows better, and he knows that his partner knows better.

We do not consider children below a certain age as being developmentally able to cognize this complicated fact of a mutual recognition and implicit promise, so we do not hold them responsible. Neither would we hold animals responsible. They simply are not in an intellectual position to grasp this fact.

We see such basic moral insight in children cross-culturally. Beyond a certain age, irrespective of culture, kids become upset if playmates take all the fruits of cooperative effort, and then refuse recompense in some way. There is a sense of unfairness and outrage in such circumstances. At age 4 or 5 they begin to form nuanced notions of adequate recompense for levels of contribution toward the production of some divisible good.

Normal human beings become cognizant of this sort of thing early in life. At first, they will apply this thinking to situations in family life, or peer relationships. Over time, they expand the circle, and behavior indicates that they become cognizant of the ubiquitous nature of mutuality with regard to all the major values of human life, and the institutions that make them possible.

Sometime in our teen years if not before, we come to fully recognize the cooperative essence of human institutions which make possible, preserve and promote the eudaimonic values, and we come to see our individual responsibilities in maintaining them, the basic rules we have to follow if they are to persist.

We come to see these things well after we have begun to reap the benefits, but that is of no matter. For instance: The normal person does not feel he has no reason to render thanks to his parents simply because he did not elect to be born, but had life “foisted” upon him. No, a normal person renders thanks and respect to parents as reciprocation, as if he had consented to being born. This is at heart a sort of recompense, a return for benefits rendered. If a person claims to simply not ‘see it’, in matters like this, we have good reason to believe he is joking, not being honest, (or perhaps in thrall of a philosophical theory.)

Now, a great many moral rules can be seen as specified instances of such reciprocal implicit promises to limit behavior, linked to specific areas of tolerable or worthwhile human existence, or (otherwise put) specific essential and eudaimonic values (values that humans evidently hold universally.)

It might help to further illustrate how it is we recognize these things on an institutional level or, more accurately put, how it is that our explicit behavior evidences our recognitions of moral obligations as implicit promises to act in certain ways with regard to a human institution that maintains eudaimonic values:

Suppose there is someone who made use of some human institution designed around protection of life (he calls the police because his life was threatened) but the next day attempts a murder himself. The same police officer stops him. Suppose he justifies the attempted murder by saying that he had never promised to refrain from actions that would take away innocent life. This defense would not fly, and not merely because allowing it to fly would have bad utilitarian consequences.

His knowing utilization of police is in fact a utilization of an institution with a clearly understood telos, a component of which is the protection of any innocent life threatened. For him to turn around and claim that its functioning should have no bearing on the innocent life he threatens is arbitrary, and irrationally so. In a way, it is a contradiction, or a pragmatic equivalent; a self-stultifying action.

But suppose he presses the point, saying it is not arbitrary and irrational for him to make exceptions for himself, precisely because it is himself that is involved, not some other person. He says: “Obviously, I am the most important person in the world to myself, just as you are the most important person to yourself. So, why shouldn’t I exempt myself from these alleged implicit promises if I need to?” What can be said in response?

If the policeman is exceedingly patient he won’t just throw the miscreant in the paddy-wagon. He might say something like this:

“When you first called us, you made use of and acquiesced in an institution with the telos above described. Now, look you are an adult, and know what a police force is, what its raison d'etre is. Thus, you knowingly relied upon an institution basic to civil society that carries with it a presupposition more or less consciously held, by the police, by others in society, and by you, that you had agreed, and would continue to agree to the institution (with its function) as something legitimately available to all agents in circumstances like yours. That is an essential, public and objective feature of police forces as institutions. Now, you are claiming that institution, with its function has no bearing on you in this second case, even though you do agree that you too have attempted a murder. This is incoherent. You both agree and disagree with the function of that institution. You both accept and reject it. You cannot expect that we would believe this. Now shuddup youz’ an’ get in da’ wagon.” Officer O’Leary starts to muscle the miscreant into the wagon.

He resists: “But, you make assumptions about me. I don’t conceptualize things in this way. My basic world view does allow me to make an exception of myself, and I therefore have no obligation. I do both accept and reject the institution, but, if you’re careful in looking at things, you’ll see I accept it in one aspect, reject it in another. I accept it as regards the murderous behavior of others, reject it as regards my own murderous behavior.”

Ever-patient Officer O’Leary answers: “Oh, come on. You expect me to believe that?”

“I do.”

“Well, then, if you are not lying, you are sociopathic. We have no more reason to take you and your view seriously than we would someone who insists on communicating while using no extant language, or someone who insists on misusing any extant language he happens to take up for the purpose. We should no more let you off than we should dispense with the requirement of honesty because some one person wants to use language in fluid and ever-changing ways at all times. We’ll do what we need to do to ensure you don’t harm others. Now get in da’ damn wagon!” Officer O’Leary pushes the sheepish miscreant into the wagon, and takes him downtown.

As should be apparent, this is a form of social contract theory. We form implicit contracts by our actions, acquiescing in practices/institutions and thereby promising to behave in certain ways in the interests of maintaining eudaimonic values. The presumptive rules to which we acquiesce when we enter into cooperative action are the basic or ‘moral’ rules that underlie human society, and the acquiescence provides analog to an explicit agreement or promise, and forms the basis of, and explains the force of, the obligatory status of the basic or moral rules.

Does This Account Amount to a Form of Cultural Relativism?

It is not at all clear that it does, for at least some of the sorts of behavior that can be seen as implicitly required or “approved” in cultures are not specific to any culture, nor merely generic (shared by happenstance) but behaviors that are, to use Kantian terminology again, (more now from the Critique than the Metaphysics of Morals) conditions necessary for the possibility of eudaimonic social existence, and as such, common to healthy cultures and individuals. This is not to say that cultures cannot exist, for a time, that flout one or more of these requirements, but they do not last.

In fact, cultural mortality is a sort of empirical demonstration of the fundamental (and hence ‘moral’) status of some subset of all the social rules, vis-à-vis healthy society. Cultural mortality is demonstration that cultures can make mistakes with regard to these, can correct themselves, or perish.

It makes no sense to talk about mistakes and correcting course unless there are some paths that are better than others. In fact, historians anthropologists and sociologists could probably draw up a list of basic or necessary rules from examining cases of failed societies, or rather, societies that failed due to internal problems. These basic rules would probably closely resemble lists of rules labeled ‘moral’ across cultures.

The same professionals could carry out a similar research program on societies that thrive, or attract large amount of immigrants. There too, we should not be surprised to find consistencies in the basic values and rules which the scientists could extrapolate from the rules that actually govern social interaction in those societies. These fundamental rules which underlie all healthy societies are the best candidates for rules that are universally binding, or categorical in Kant’s sense.

Be that as it may, when these basic rules are under extreme threat, or come into conflict one with another, there may have to be allowable exceptions. Hopefully the structure of mutual promise (civil society) will behave more like Quine’s web than Descartes’ building in that sort of case. But, too much stress will cause the structure to crumble.

So, to answer the cultural relativism charge: it is not by virtue of the fact that nearly every culture approves of these basic requirements that they gain their status as moral rules, but rather, it is their unique status as conditions necessary for the possibility of eudaimonic social existence that accounts for not only their status as moral rules, but for their near universal approbation.

This gives a basis for cross-cultural moral judgments:

For any candidate set of values, and any set of rules concerning its maintenance, we have a right to claim universality for that set and a binding nature for the attendant rules if we can (1) show that most humans, or a good representative sample of them are such that when that set of values is satisfied, they claim, admit or otherwise exhibit that they are at their most fulfilled state, and are otherwise not as happy or fulfilled, and (2) if we can show that they are also describable as recognizing the binding nature of the attendant rules as implicit mutual promises, that is, they are describable as recognizing the value sets’ dependence on structures of mutual promise, and they display a propensity to ‘enforcement’ of those promises (by great efforts being put toward formulation of explicit versions of these rules and toward punitive action in the case of transgressions.)

The more robust the cross-cultural data is, the more confidently we can make such claims. If representative samples of people are not only found to say certain things, but act in certain ways that are best explained by their not only holding to that particular set of values/rules, but also holding themselves and others responsible for the maintenance of these institutional facts come what may, we have good evidence that they in fact do hold to those values and rules, think others do, and should. We can then find room for moral argument, judgment, and justifiable punitive action when necessary. We have room to accuse persons of moral inconsistency.

Humans can hold to these values even if they do not think there is a purpose for which the human species exists. They can hold to these values when they do believe such imposed purposes exist. These sorts of judgments and actions make sense, and have force if there is a God, and if there is not. This foundation of obligation may exist along with and beside other sorts of foundation, in particular the unique relationship with God, the paternal/creator relationship, which may also ground moral obligations. This secular view is compatible with either theism or atheism.

Spielberg/Hanks "The Pacific" Due out March 2010