Thursday, July 31, 2008

Kaebnick on Leon Kass's Humean Morality

I have often expressed my frustration with Leon Kass's failure to lay out a plausible line of reasoning for his positions on science, religion, and morality. Some of my comments can be found here, here, here, and here.

A big part of my frustration is that while much of Kass's writing points to the sort of moral naturalism that I have adopted in defending "Darwinian natural right," he almost never develops his arguments in any clear way, and he often expresses a scorn for modern natural science that is unwarranted.

Kass's famous--if not infamous--article "The Wisdom of Repugnance" illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of his writing. In defending the importance of moral emotion for moral judgment, he rightly invokes a tradition of naturalistic moral philosophy that stretches from Aristotle to David Hume to Adam Smith to Charles Darwin, and it is this tradition that I build upon in my writing. But Kass's article doesn't develop the reasoning behind this tradition. And thus he leaves many readers with the thought that Kass thinks moral judgments are nothing more than irrational expressions of feeling--the "yuck factor" as its derisively identified among bioethicists.

But now in the July-August 2008 issue of The Hastings Center Report, Gregory Kaebnick has an excellent article--"Reasons of the Heart: Emotion, Rationality, and the 'Wisdom of Repugnance'"--that develops an interpretation of Kass's article as implicitly grounded in the same view of moral judgment as that defended by David Hume.

Near the end of his article, Kaebnick notes that my Darwinian Natural Right follows closely the same line of thought that he defends. In fact, I would say that Kaebnick's article is a remarkably clear and concise statement of the main ideas in my naturalistic view of morality as rooted in moral emotions, moral reasoning, and the natural desires of the human species.

In defense of Kass's appeal to natural moral emotions, Kaebnick says: "I am interested only in the thought that there might be aspects of human nature that we do, in fact, value without being able to prove that we should. My goal will be to show that considering emotions integral to moral judgments is philosophically respectable." He does this by defending Hume's account of moral judgments as expressions of a natural moral sense. "Hume's point," Kaebnick rightly explains, "is not that morality is silly or unimportant, but only that logic and empirical investigation alone cannot generate moral judgments. In effect, morality is itself, for Hume, a matter of human nature."

Kaebnick shows that there are four major advantages to Hume's position. First, it is modest, in that it does not require extravagant metaphysical or logical constructions. Second, it shows completeness and unity in accounting for moral experience in an intelligible way. Third, it fits easily with modern natural science, and particularly Darwinian biology. Of course, this is a point that I have stressed. Finally, it fits easily with ordinary moral language.

Kaebnick then seeks to allay the two major fears about the Humean view of morality. To the fears that it promotes moral relativism and has no room for moral argument, he responds by showing how Hume's account of morality is open to moral debate between different moral views that can lead to moral reform and progress. Our moral sentiments are responses to how we see the world, and so we can examine and sometimes change our moral sentiments by scrutinizing our view of the world.

Kaebnick writes: "the Humean position can admit that moral judgments are formed, evaluated, and coordinated cognitively. Not only are they not whims, but they are not merely attitudinal. What the Humean position denies is that we can compel a person solely through force of reason to accept a given moral judgment. Further, the Humean position strongly suggests not only that reason is of limited use, but that much effective moral argument will consist in trying to get a person to share one's basic attitudes. We may rely on tone of voice, on stories, on imagery, even on the bonds of friendship, to try to win a person over. But this is just how moral argument actually is. Fortunately, discrepancies in attitudes are rarely chasms; differences are often a matter of emphasis."

Hume was a moral critic of slavery. And as I have often argued on this blog and elsewhere, studying the debate over slavery and Abraham Lincoln's statesmanship in handling the slavery issue supports Hume's account of moral experience as open to moral reform. Kaebnik mentions the emancipation of slaves as one example of how moral argument can lead to moral progress, but he doesn't elaborate.

The moral progress in abolishing slavery is so evident that even cultural moral relativists must recognize it. For example, Jesse Prinz--in his recent book The Emotional Construction of Morals--takes an emotivist and relativist view of Hume's moral philosophy, and from this, Prinz concludes that the cultural variation in morality shows that morality is so relative to each cultural group that there are no universal moral standards. Every moral system is a cultural construction, and none can claim to be morally better than any other. He recognizes, however, that such a radical moral relativism is implausible if it denies the very possibility of moral progress, as in the obvious moral progress that came with the abolition of slavery. In response to this problem, Prinz affirms that moral progress is possible, and he takes the abolition of slavery as a clear illustration of such moral progress. He surveys many of the arguments against slavery made in the United States and elsewhere as examples of how "standards of assessment" can persuade people to "moral conversion" leading to adoption of new moral systems. But, then, in order to show that such moral progress is compatible with his moral relativism, he asserts that "the standards by which moral progress is judged are not themselves moral standards," because they are actually "extramoral standards." So, for example, to judge slavery as bad because it subverts the norms of reciprocity that sustain social cooperation is an appeal to an "extramoral" standard. But this works only as a sophistical twisting of language in which standards of good and bad that lead to "moral conversion" and "moral progress" are not really moral!

Kaebnick's Humean interpretation of Kass helps to illuminate his writing and the writing of the President's Council on Bioethics. Kaebnick observes: "Much of the writing of the President's Council that has frustrated professional philosophers consists of rhetorical moves that seek to persuade rather than prove. To employ these moves is to admit that one's conclusion cannot be obtained solely by means of inferences. But so it is with morality."

The reader of Kaebnick's article should notice that his philosophical defense of Kass's writing does not depend upon agreeing with Kass's particular conclusions about restricting biotechnology. On the contrary, Kaebnick indicates how a Humean view of the "wisdom of repugnance" leaves us open to questioning and perhaps correcting our initial repugnance towards some biotechnological technique when we discover that our repugnance is not warranted.

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