Thursday, July 9, 2009

Moral Properties as Relational Properties

We can ask how to categorize moral properties with regard to some standard philosophical terminology; Locke’s notions of primary, secondary and tertiary properties; and Russell’s 20th century equivalents; one-place and n-place predicates.

Starting with Locke, he calls a property primary if it is a property possessed by (x) independently of its relationship with anything else. His paradigmatic examples come from the world of physical objects. A coin, for instance, has mass independently of its relationship to any other physical object in the universe.

On the other hand, the coin has weight by virtue of the interaction of its mass with Earth. This makes weight a tertiary property. Properties like gravitation are ‘powers’ that objects have, by virtue of their primary properties, to affect other objects.

Secondary properties are similar. They are objects’ powers to effect human sensation, and, like tertiary properties, relational. Locke’s primary example here is color. By virtue of the fact that I have eyes which contain not only cones, but rods, and by virtue of the fact that a Morgan Dollar is made largely of silver, which has a certain atomic structure, when I look at the coin in normal lighting it will cause me to have certain sensations I can point out by use of the word “silver.”

The reason Locke distinguishes between secondary and tertiary properties is primarily because secondary properties involve one type of interacting object (perceivers) that has mental properties that are affected. His examples of tertiary properties are always examples of interactions between inanimate objects.

Russell introduced a neat way to graphically illustrate the difference between these two basic sorts of properties. To use our coin: The mass of the dollar (d) is represented simply by [Md]. The ‘relational’ fact that it has weight is represented by [dWe], where “e” stands for Earth. You can read this as saying, ‘the dollar coin has weight when related to Earth in the appropriate way.’ Obviously, one cannot have a weight unless one is within range of Earth’s gravitational field, something Earth has thanks to its mass.

Now, one can algebraically represent ‘weight in itself’ in a way that shows it is in essence a relational property by simply substituting placeholders


and further abstracting, we can show all relational properties have a basic logical structure:


The basic idea concerning moral properties is similar: Moral properties are relational properties possessed by acts of a particular sort; i.e., knowing intentional acts. What differentiates morally relevant intentional-acts-of-the knowing-sort from intentional-acts-of-the-knowing-sort that do not have moral properties is that the former have as their object something importantly related to the eudaimonia of sentient beings.

Expanding into definitional form: For any act x, any knowing entity A, any sentient entity B, and any eudaimonic value v, if x is knowingly and intentionally undertaken by A with regard to B, with knowledge that x effects v as regards B, then that act has moral status.

(x) (v) (A) (B) { [Ax &(xKb & xIb & xKvb) -> xM]}

So moral properties are really rather complex, requiring the existence of sentient beings at a high level of development, that can act intentionally, and have empathetic abilities (this latter allowing for the truth of the second and last conjuncts of the antecedent).

Notice, that this notion of moral properties as relational properties is not tantamount to some sort of moral relativism, for whether or not an act has an impact on eudaimonia is not simply up to convention. To take a simple example, an act of killing extinguishes life, even if the killer or his culture attempts to decree that it does not. What is more, a person can knowingly kill, while attempting to claim that he is not!

Neither is this notion of moral properties as relational identical to Hume’s similar notion. On his view, an impartial observer, when witnessing or thinking about certain acts will have certain emotional reactions (“approbation” is one such) if they see that the act has utilitarian value or disvalue. This causes the observer to label the act as morally good or bad. There is a sort of projection that occurs, and the observer tends to reify the emotion, place it out there in the act, as an objective property of the act, a moral property.

On our view, the fact that the act supports or hinders eudaimonia is an objective fact, given the natures of the act and the creatures affected. What gives moral import to the act is that the agent knowingly affects eudaimonia through his acts. It is still open to Hume to say we make an illicit jump from this complex psychological fact, an ‘is’ to an ‘ought,’ something else entirely, but, that is a criticism he can aim at any moral theory. We offer as a sort of bridge from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ the empirically grounded judgments we can make as to the set of universal eudaimonic values, knowing there is still room for the Humean objection to this approach, despite its empiricism.

This view, not surprisingly, shares features with major ethical theories: With virtue ethics and natural law theory, it shares the central notion of eudaimonia, and specific excellence, the general idea that there is a way of life that humans are suited for, and to which they give considered preference, if not something akin to ‘instinctual’ preference, these preferences allowing us to in some way ground morality as a rational enterprise, centering on objective matters. The view allows room for morally judging not only acts, but persons, and their habits and character traits, things over which they have a good measure of control. Persons can obviously have moral properties, as can their acts. This view allows us to expand such judgments to ideologies, both political and religious, and societies and cultures. It avoids the charge of relativism by way of the notion of considered cross-cultural preference (not only dialogically, but in the comparative sense of the historical sciences). It is not cultural acceptance that makes right, but right tends to bring about cross-cultural horizontal and vertical uniformities of valuation, over time.

We have seen that there is some room for coincidence with Kant’s notion of categorical imperative, yet we do not go the full distance with his claims. Exceptions to rules can and should occur, when disruption of the fabric of eudaimonic values is too violent. With Kant, we also see that human freedom/autonomy, reason and historical sense (both individual and collective) grounds an obligation on the part of all of us, for respect to persons, which is indeed ingredient and integral to soundness and stability of the eudaimonic ‘fabric.’

There is agreement with Kant as to the essentially rule based nature of morality, and thereby a recognition of the value of his ‘universalizing-postulation’ thought experiments , as useful tools to discovery of the set or sets of rules that support the best ways of human life, vis-à-vis eudaimonia. The results of thought experiments, such as those presented in the Metaphysics of Morals, give rational credence for claims to universal status for the subset of rules we’ve called ‘basic’ or ‘moral’, (and an empirical grounding exists in cases where such experiments or their contraries are actually implemented and results noted.) We can say with some justification they are truly binding rules for all human societies, in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Kant's notion of the legislating actions of a kingdom of ends also agrees with, and highlights the centrality of a notion of freely given consent as being crucial in deliniating moral behavior

With utilitarians we share the goal of maximizing attainment of eudaimonic values for all human beings, but given the constraint that we do so in a way consistent with the highest possible level of access to such attainments for all human beings. Except in the direst of circumstances, we do not sacrifice, and will not tolerate sacrifice of some as mere means to these ends for some larger but distinct class. This last stricture harkens not only to Kant, but to Rawls, and traditional social contract theory.