02 October 2007

Gods, Rights, and Values

More on Anaximander later. But for today, I wished to notice Catherine Osborne's book, Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers, through drawing attention to this paragraph from a recent review:

In Chapter Seven ('On the Notion of Natural Rights: Defending the
Voiceless and Oppressed in the Tragedies of Sophocles') O. addresses
the connected questions of the appropriateness of speaking of rights in
general, and of using this language in speaking about animals. Through
a reading of Sophocles O. develops the argument that where in our own
time we tend to employ rights language to express moral outrage, other
forms of language were employed for the same purpose in antiquity, in
particular that of religion (182). Following this analysis, O. gives a
'Possible Historical Sketch' of how the vocabulary of rights developed.
O. concludes that what has occurred is the replacement of 'one set of
imaginary entities, the gods, with another set of imaginary entities,
rights', neither of which makes clear 'the real source of the
constraint . . . absolute moral value' (193). On this replacement of
imaginary entities, O. is very convincing, but the invocation of
'absolute moral value' here and elsewhere in the book is more
problematic. The existence of an absolute standard is asserted on
several occasions, but not really argued, raising the objection that
replacing both the gods and rights with absolute moral values appears
to be simply the introduction of a third imaginary entity or group of
entities to replace the previous two. The questions of the sense in
which these absolute values can be said to exist, how we can know about
them and how we can be sure that we perceive them and are not
perceiving something which is merely culturally constructed are also
not directly addressed.
Now suppose that by 'absolute moral value' Osborne means something like 'starting point' (or 'first principle of practical reason'). It seems right to say that the appeal to gods, and the appeal to rights, both play the role of a starting point or first principle in practical thought. It also seems right to say that roughly the same sort of starting point might be affirmed, either in the language of gods or in the language of rights.

If we grant this, then does Osborne really need to tell us 'how absolute values can be said to exist' and 'how we can know them' and 'how we can be sure we perceive them'?

One wonders: Can't those questions ever be put aside? Must they always be answered first? Is it inevitably a deficiency when they are not?

Or: Shouldn't the reviewer, then, first explain, before he raises his criticism, why he ultimately thinks that Osborne must do this, and how he can know that she must, and how he can be certain that he isn't simply going along with constructed cultural norms in insisting that she should?


Anonymous said...

I took the gist to be that IF you characterize gods and rights, as O does, as "imaginary entities," THEN you invite the question that maybe "absolute moral value" is only so much more of the same. (It is true that the reviewer appears to endorse O's characterization of gods and rights; but the (or an) underlying point seems to be that one wants some account of why O's criticism of gods and rights can't be turned against her.)

Anonymous said...

I agree. Yes! The reviewer is right. Osborne should clarify (in main lines, at least) what is her take on the "absolute moral value"
And yes! You are right when you say, that doubts expressed by the reviewer are most likely is part of our culture.

Catherine Rowett said...

I suppose what I really meant was that appealing to gods or rights does not improve the structure of our moral explanation, because we are just positing some imaginary entities that are supposed to explain the rightness of some truths ("because the gods said so", or "because there are rights"). These add nothing, they are just metaphysical props. What they are doing in my account is (opaquely) asserting a commitment to a moral outlook that has no further explanation or foundation. So why not just recognise that at once and stop the demand for explanation at the moral outlook and say it has no further explanation other than that it is right. End of story.

The reviewer seems to have fallen into just the error I was alluding to, of supposing that some further explanation of this is required and could be explanatory. This is a model we've acquired from science, but we're talking here about the first principles of a science. Asking us to explain those is a different exercise from asking us to explain and justify what follows from them, and if we confuse the two we fall into a lot of metaphysical entity-multiplication and regress.

Thanks for raising this, Michael!

Anonymous said...

Michael's first comment seems to misread the critic's comment on Osbourne, which Osbourne clarifies above. *Osbourne* has critized appeals to "rights" and "gods" on the grounds that they don't clarify "the real grounds of moral constraint." So the reviewer is simply exploiting Osbourne's own criterion. That is, Osbourne's claim seems to be that appeals to gods and rights don't give us (contra Michael's first paragraph)the right sort of appeal to first principles, and an explanation of how they fail would seem to entail at least some characterization of what should count as success.

Anonymous said...

The claim that appeals to rights and appeals to gods are equally "just metaphysical props" seems extremely hasty. Certainly there are degrees of explanatory sufficiency and transparency with both sorts of appeal.

And the problem with the further claim that these claims really just "[assert] a commitment to a moral outlook that has no further explanation or foundation" is that it's, at face value, both uninformative and unconvincing, which is just the reason that we often reject *mere* appeals to rights or gods.

Somewhat more problematically, Osbourne seems to suppose that all accounts of rights and gods are, at some level, accounts of transcendent facts called in to ground normative claims. Certainly there are a number of very sophisticated accounts of rights that appeal directly to sociological and psychological facts about people and their various institutions, including their attitudes toward and expectations of one another. Such explanations, unlike appeals to a "moral outlook," can at least forestall objections about the extent to which these attitudes and expectations are somehow morally grounded, if only because they don't make the initial transcendent appeal.

Catherine Rowett said...

The name's "Osborne"