What is [interpersonal] moral legitimacy, and do we need it?

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This topic contains 134 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Davis 3 weeks, 2 days ago.

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    Simon Paynton

    So the duty is to be just?  Apart from role-based duties, I think there are two categories, which go with the two categories of cooperation:

    1)  helping in response to need;  [altruism]

    2)  fairness.  [collaboration]

    I’ve been going through Tomasello’s history of morality, and this would appear to be his scheme for the evolution of fairness:  if there is anything people want explained, I should be able to explain it.  I think it basically rests on obligate interdependence and self-other equivalence.



    Threshold deontology is a series of theoretical approaches to moral conflicts. It is not a theory. The Stanford article tries to discuss the many approaches to deontological ethics, but don’t confuse that with a long article of authors who are known, read, discussed or taken seriously. I cannot find a single book with an author who directly posits this approach. Instead it is discussed abstractly in several other works (mostly introductory books to ethics). Amongst commentary on threshold deontological moral systems, is the frequent comment, my position included, is that they are no longer deontological once normative tools are jamed into the deontological moral system. But neo-deontological.

    Of all the names mentioned in that article, Nagel is the only one who I am even remotely familiar. It is hard to get your hands on his work. He has only two books available in the philosophy library of Leuven (an enormous library of philosophy books at the Leuven institute of Philosophy) of which none are directly on ethics. I got hold of his article “Agent-Relativity and Deontology”. In it he discusses:

    agent-relative and agent-neutral values

    through the question of:

    the central problem of ethics: how the lives, interests, and welfare of others make claims on us and how these claims, of various forms, are to be reconciled with the
    aim of living our own lives

    We have completely left the theatre of deontological ethics here. It’s true, he was deeply influenced by Kant, and you could call him a neo-deontologist, but his attempt to insert cultural moral norms and relativity, utterly undermine the idea of duty to moral principles. Eventually I find it impossible to make sense of how one can not only rationally, but even subjectively make sense of his approach. The following paragraph illustrates it where he turns to the practically post modernesque:

    On the other hand, the more a desire has as its object the quality of the subject’s experience, and the more immediate and independent of his other values it is, the more it will tend to generate impersonal as well as personal reasons. But to the extent that it transcends his own experience, the achievement of a typical personal project or ambition has no value except from the perspective of its subject — at least none in any way comparable to the value reasonably placed on it by the person whose ambition it is. (I am assuming here that we can abstract from any intrinsic value the achievement may have which does not depend on his interest at all — or else that we are dealing with projects whose actual value, whatever it is, derives entirely from the interest of the subject.) Whereas one clearly can find value in the occurrence/nonoccurrence of a sensory experience that is strongly liked/disliked for itself, whether or not one has or even empathizes with the reaction. To put it in a way that sounds paradoxical: the more subjective the object of the desire, the more impersonal the value of its satisfaction.

    Don’t get me wrong. I liked his book on the possibility of altruism. But good luck finding more than a scattering of people who call his theory anything other than neo-deontological if not really a confusing mess. I think from just one article that what he was written is an utter mess.

    Moore is also mentioned a few times in that stanford article. The only books I can find of his are on jurisprudence. His books that directly deal with deontological ethics are also not available in the library, I cannot get access to any of his papers online. The only article I can find is by John Oberdiek in “Culpability and the Definition of Deontological Constraints” in which he heavily criticizes Moore for trying to introduce consequentialism into deontological ethics. Next time I’m in Leuven I’ll try and find some of the works by the others mentioned in that article though it will be difficult because in a couple cases only the last name is given and their full name or work isn’t mentioned at the end of the article.


    • Thanks Davis for your detailed and interesting reply.

    • If you get more stuff let the people on this topic know so we can hopefully discuss it.


    Given that ethical arguments are not arguments over a set of facts, but are essentially over conflicting attitudes or values, can there ultimately be a solution to ethical disputes? a “proof”?


    Simon Paynton

    @unseen – there are solutions but no “proof”.  I think solutions could include:

    • what the judge and jury rules in a court.
    • what all parties are happy with (the best possible outcome for each individual).
    • public opinion for or against.

    Facts are (we hope) not in dispute.  Political Left and Right (for example) argue about what to do about the facts.


    Simon Paynton

    In morality-speak, there are values (things we value: goals) and virtues (“policies for achieving one’s goals”) and these are different from facts.



    Really Good points from unseen & Simon Payton.

    Even public intellectuals like Sam Harris in his book ” the moral landscape” could not  appreciate this concept. As he tried to argue for a scientific facts based (as you say) proofs to these types of moral questions. Which I don’t think is possible. In the way that you can find say proofs for example in science particle physics. Where you can find universal objective, publicly demonstrable Truth. Like the existence of electrons etc.

    ” what does it even mean to say that one ethical theory is more true than another one?” In the scientific sense.

    I read some stuff by David Hume who has similar ideas as you guys his fact and value distinction.



    • This reply was modified 1 month ago by  Brightsky.

    Simon Paynton

    ” what does it even mean to say that one ethical theory is more true than another one?” In the scientific sense.

    I think we can say that one ethical theory is more true than another one – or at least, system of moral theories.  We are looking for something that describes what people do on the ground, rather than in Kant’s armchair, and within that, there are “the good” and “duties” among other things.  So, a bottom-up evolutionary approach is what works to describe reality in my opinion.

    Can anyone fill me in on why the Categorical Imperative isn’t a waste of time?  Apart from what we learn by pulling it to pieces.


    Can anyone fill me in on why the Categorical Imperative isn’t a waste of time? Apart from what we learn by pulling it to pieces..

    Think of how much you needed to learn and understand in order to be able to do that. 🙂


    Simon Paynton

    I think it is fairly straightforward to work out a hierarchy of imperatives, and justify it.

    Assume that an action fails the universalisation test: if the whole world did thing X, then general harm or even social breakdown would result.

    The cases of stealing, lying, or breaking promises (for example) contradict the Categorical Imperative formula in that they are ethically permissable in some circumstances.  Since stealing, lying, or breaking promises may all be considered “crimes”, we may say that they are only permissable if they would prevent a worse crime from being committed (a crime being an action that selfishly or wantonly causes harm).

    This is where things get manageable: when they are reduced to binary size options: more, less.  We are talking about more or less harm as available options, which brings us to the formula of Perfect Compassion – the maximum benefit and minimum harm available to somebody/each person, including oneself, all things considered or taken into account.

    Is it possible to think of something that is considered a crime, but would not harm the world if it was widespread?

    Some people would say, having funny hair.


    I don’t really see the Categorical Imperative as a set of rules or laws. Rather it is just a method for deciding how moral a particular action is to be considered in the sense that is deemed universal. If we consider the “Golden Rule” to be applicable to all of humankind then the CI helps to informs us how we should evaluate any action that we can consider moral rather than telling us how we must act. (The CI is not the same as the Golden Rule).

    To reach that understanding we must use our Reason and hopefully we would all (where ever in the world we are) decide on the right course of action. It then becomes our Duty and for Kant the intention to do the right thing (or a good action) that is important rather than just the consequence of the action. We would want or expect other people, wherever they may be, to have the same sense of duty and therefore act in the same way under similar circumstances…assuming that they are also rational people.

    Not quite sure if I have explained my thoughts correctly here as I am “multitasking” so I will revisit later.


    Simon Paynton

    I believe that the intention is important because “no good comes of no good”.  In Buddhism the “three unwholesome roots” are greed, hatred and ignorance.

    Without a sense of duty, there is strategic action, without concern to what is moral, but just what works for the individual.



    @Reg re:CI

    That’s a fairly reasonable summary. The CI is a tool in deontological ethics. Without it, your own moral laws that you devise would be fairly meaningless. But you can easily form your moral laws well before the CI comes into it. And in any case, despite it being called “categorical” and an “imperative”, it is just a tool, not an absolute. It informs you about the moral law, how you really see the moral law in practice and how well you apply that moral law.



    I think it is fairly straightforward to work out a hierarchy of imperatives

    First of all. Please stop referring to imperatives as a set of moral laws. The CI is independent of moral laws, to put it very briefly: it is a tool used to understand, test, apply and make sense of moral laws. It is not a moral law nor a generator of laws nor a set of laws and most certainly NOT part of a hierarchy of laws. The very nature of the CI excludes hierarchy. You’ll have to invent your own tool or your own hybrid CI and your own hybrid ethics if you want to do that, and give it your own name. I also highly recommend thoroughly reading the wikipedia article on Kant’s ethics. It’s fairly reliable and a reasonable presentation of the main principles.

    …and justify it.

    Simon I’m going to give you a list of 15 moral laws and I’d like you to place them into a hierarchy of no less than 3 levels and no more than 5. I’d like you to explain each level in the hierarchy, why it deserves a more categorical observation of moral laws, why the next level down deserves less stringent observation of moral laws, please use logical arguments and not cultural norms. Then you can explain why each moral law belongs in each category (again try to use systematic and logical explanations…not ad hoc arguments or appeal to culture/emotion.

    Here is the list:

    • Jumping ahead of your turn (entering a bus and grabbing a seat ahead of someone who was clearly waiting at the bus stop well before you arrived)
    • Wasting water or electricity (leaving the lights on in your hotel room while you’re gone for some time)
    • Ignoring traffic or pedestrian laws (Not stopping at a stop sign.
    • Chatting with an old friend you ran into instead of picking up you children on time.
    • Ignoring someone of need you can easily help (not giving 10 cents to beggars for example who clearly seem beyond the ability to take care of themselves anymore)
    • Participating in the abuse and slaughter of animals (Eating eggs that come from a battery farm)
    • Using physical and psychological pressure to get information thats life or death (Waterboarding someone)
    • Embellishing the truth (Lightly exaggerating the quality of a used car you’re selling=
    • Not informing someone of a detail that is clearly important to them (Failing to tell your spouse you text messaged with an old boyfriend/girlfriend)
    • Receiving too much of a petty thing and not giving it back (you get back too much change at the supemaket and dont  botherto point out the error.
    • Telling someone you don’t like a new thing they bought (new shoes/clothes/car/house they bought)
    • Taking an essential service you really need knowing you cannot pay the bill.
    • Taking and not contributing (smoking your friends marijuana without ever bringing your own or offering to pitch in for it)
    • Choosing an important opportunity over an emergency (missing the interview for the job of a lifetime to not help someone in need of medical attention).
    • Ruining a social event with unnecessary antagonism (ruining Christmas dinner by bringing up contentious topics)




    Thanks Davis. I have committed just about everything on your list at least one time except for waterboarding of course. The last one was my favorite. I needed stuff for the confessional you know.


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