Moralism in Panayot Butchvarov's Skepticism in Ethics

Teleological ethical theories are moralistic by definition, requiring that we maximize some, or all, non-moral goods in every one of our actions. A version of this may be seen in G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica [Cambridge University Press, 1903, 1971]:

All moral laws, I wish to shew, are merely statements that certain kinds of actions will have good effects. The very opposite of this view has been generally prevalent in Ethics. 'The right' and 'the useful' have been supposed to be at least capable of conflicting with one another, and, at all events, to be essentially distinct. It has been characteristic of a certain school of moralists, as of moral common sense, to declare that the end will never justify the means. What I wish first to point out is that 'right' does and can mean nothing but 'cause of a good result,' and is thus identical with 'useful'; whence it follows that the end always will justify the means, and that no action which is not justified by its results can be right. That there may be a true proposition, meant to be conveyed by the assertion 'The end will not justify the means,' I fully admit: but that, in another sense, and a sense far more fundamental for ethical theory, it is utterly false, must first be shewn.

That the assertion 'I am morally bound to perform this action' is identical with the assertion 'This action will produce the greatest possible amount of good in the Universe' has already been briefly shewn in Chap. I. (§ 17); but it is important to insist that this fundamental point is demonstrably certain. [pp. 146-147]

"This action will produce the greatest possible amount of good in the Universe" is perhaps an appropriate maxim for God surveying all of Creation, but is a ridiculous principle for people deciding what color socks to wear in the morning. Such an impossible inflation of perspective is characteristic of moralism. And Moore's bald statement, "it follows that the end always will justify the means," has frightening overtones.

What comes of this kind of foundation may be seen in Panayot Butchvarov's Skepticism in Ethics [Indiana University Press, 1989]. While Butchvarov allows that some actions may themselves be intrinsically good, which means that the goodness of an action may outweigh the goodness of the consequences, and so avoids the worst implications of a straight teleological theory, he does adopt a fundamental principle much like Moore's:

By an action that ought to be performed, I shall mean an action that is optimizing and is also such that none of its alternatives is optimizing. [p. 19]

"Optimizing" meaning, of course, that it will produce a better result. Once Butchvarov introduces the idea of a "duty" that is "an action that is good in itself, even if not optimizing" [p. 25], it then becomes possible to have "duties" that conflict with what we "ought to do" according to the fundamental principle. This produces some peculiar claims, as in the following:

But the distinction I have made between what we ought to do and what is our duty must be made. It does not disguise, or leave insufficiently acknowledged, the fact that in everyday life we are more often governed by what we take to be our duties, in my sense of "duty," than by what we think we ought to do, in my sense of "ought." This fact may be morally deplorable, but it is a fact we have conceptually provided for fully. [p. 26]

To say that it "may be morally deplorable" for people to do what they "take" to be their duties rather than what "ought" to be done on Butchvarov's principle is bizarre. And since Butchvarov's principle might seem to call for divine omniscience to be properly implemented, it is clear that following rules that specify duties certainly optimizes knowledge costs. While Butchvarov eschews intuitionistic justifications in ethics, he does say that in his "basic concepts" he will "be guided by the ordinary uses of the corresponding ethical terms" [p. 11]. But this division between "ought" and "duty" does not reflect ordinary usage; and if the ordinary sense of people following their duties is "morally deplorable," a very strange and artificial construction has been effected.

Another example of a peculiar result is the following:

An example of an action that would be a duty according to our definition but would not ordinarily be called a duty is telling someone who asks you the time of the day, in ordinary circumstances and quite independently of considerations of consequences or of the virtue (if any) such an action characteristically exemplifies. It would not ordinarily be called a duty but calling it such would not be unintelligible. [p. 27]

No, it would not ordinarily be called a duty to give someone the time of day, at least where there is no desperate necessity at stake. It might be called impolite, boorish, or hostile; but those terms exist precisely because it is not a moral duty to do that sort of, polite, thing. If Butchvarov now decides that this is a duty (and presumably also something that "ought to be done," since it will produce greater good than otherwise), he has strayed far from both usage and common sense, and to defend it as "not...unintelligible" is neither compelling nor persuasive.

As with all moralistic theories, there can be no supererogatory actions. Butchvarov qualifies this somewhat, especially since there may be good actions that will exceed what some "duties," by his definition, require; but in the end it is plainly stated:

So there can be no absolutely supererogatory actions; there can be no such things as doing more good than duty requires, even in our sense of "duty." [p. 28]

The final example of a moralistic result of Butchvarov's theory rises from the peculiar to the incredible:

The concept of duty that I have introduced allows us also to understand better what is involved in a case described by Michael Stocker. "Imagine that Joe is taking a walk on a hot day and that, while not suffering from heat, he would enjoy some ice cream; and further imagine that of all the acts then open to him, eating ice cream would produce the most pleasure, or more generally the most good." Stocker argues convincingly that it would be absurd to say that it is obligatory for Joe to eat the ice cream. Indeed, we may agree, it would be absurd to say that he has a duty to do so, if we mean a duty other than that of doing the optimizing action. But (especially if we add, as we must, that he wants to eat the ice cream) it is not absurd to say that he ought to eat the ice cream. [p. 28]

So somehow it is absurd to say that Joe has "duty" to eat the ice cream, even while it is presumably not absurd to say that he does have a duty if we mean that he ought to do it because it is an optimizing action. But at the same time it is clearly absurd to say, "he ought to eat the ice cream," if the "ought" in that sentence is taken to mean "moral duty" or "moral obligation" or "required by the meaning of 'ought'." "He ought to eat the ice cream" is a hortative, not an imperative. If Joe does not eat the ice cream, he has committed no moral wrong. Indeed, if Joe does not eat the ice cream, it may turn out that he has done so because of a moralistic and anhedonic desire to deny himself such pleasure, or because of a counsel of prudence that it would be bad for him (and so not optimizing to his own interest). But Joe's eating or not eating the ice cream is simply not a moral issue, not unless some moral issue arises in connection to it: Was the ice cream made with slave labor? Do the profits of the sale go to the Nazi Party? Is Joe endangering his health when he is the sole means of support for his family and widowed mother? Those are moral issues. An ordinary person eating ice cream on a hot day is not.

The basis of these misconceptions may come in the following passage:

Indeed, the basis of my defense of our definition of "right action" is summed up in Thomas Aquinas's assertion that the first principle of natural law is "Good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided." He held, in my view correctly, that this principle is self-evident, knowable by unaided reason. [p. 33]

Indeed, it is certainly true that "Good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided"; but there is an assumption hidden in this principle, probably for St. Thomas as well as for Butchvarov. We deny it by saying that the proposition is not necessarily a moral imperative. Instead, stated so generally, it is a non-moral exhortation, a hortative. It would be different in the form "The moral good must be done out of moral duty, and moral evil is to be avoided out of moral duty." What is missed by Butchvarov is that moral goods are certain kinds of goods. It is not a moral duty to produce or respect goods in general, but only moral goods. This means that his denial of "right and wrong" as an independent category from "good and bad" [pp 21-22] does not establish its conclusion, that right action is therefore that which produces the good; for it is clearly ridiculous that ice cream, as a good, is as such produced out of moral obligation. Ice cream produced in the fulfillment of a contract is produced out of a moral obligation, but that is because of the obligations of contracts, not because of the goodness of the ice cream.

Moore's original maxim that moral action "will produce the greatest possible amount of good in the Universe" betrays another oversight. Often the issue is not producing, but preserving, goods. Respecting the dignity and autonomy of persons is a moral good because rational beings are goods-in-themselves of a sort that impose moral duties of respect on other rational beings. Sentient beings or natural objects may impose lesser sorts of duties of respect. Duties are therefore derivative of the nature of the good, which is the kind of thing Moore and Butchvarov agree upon; but they fail to recognize that moral duty is only derivative of certain kinds of goods: the good-in-itself of personhood, not the good-in-itself of ice cream. This breaks the teleological link between the right and wrong of morality with the nature of the good in general. Just as correct assembly produces the good of a good engine, so does the morally right produce the good of morally good actions.

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