–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

“Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” by H.A. Prichard (1912)

by | Jun 13, 2024

In this essay from 1912, H.A. Prichard argues that the aims of traditional, modern moral philosophy are similar to those of modern epistemology, in that they are an attempt to overcome skeptical doubts. Modern epistemology, which begins with Descartes, is a response to the fact that we can doubt many of the things that we think we know to be true, and the theorizing that follows is an effort to find a procedure by which we can demonstrate that we really do know what we think we know. And Prichard thinks that similarly, modern moral philosophy’s primary aim is to find a way by which to demonstrate that what we think is our duty, really is obligatory.

Just as the recognition that the doing of our duty often vitally interferes with the satisfaction of our inclinations leads us to wonder whether we really ought to do what we usually call our duty, so the recognition that we and others are liable to mistakes in knowledge generally leads us, as it did Descartes, to wonder whether hitherto we may not have been always mistaken. And just as we try to find a proof, based on the general consideration of action and of human life, that we ought to act in the ways usually called moral, so we, like Descartes, propose by a process of reflection on our thinking to find a test of knowledge, i.e. a principle by applying which we can show that a certain condition of mind was really knowledge, a condition which ex hypothesi existed independently of the process of reflection.

The question, then, is whether or not modern moral philosophy has succeeded in identifying such a procedure. Prichard says that there have been two broad strategies that correspond roughly to the consequentialist and the deontological approaches (though the latter can be articulated in non-deontological ways as well): (a) to demonstrate that something is a duty from the fact that it produces some good; (b) to demonstrate that something is a duty, because it is the product of good motives. Both strategies fail, but the consequentialist’s failure is the easiest to see so let’s examine it first.

Does the fact that some state of affairs is good demonstrate that I ought to do it? It would seem obviously not, for the following is not a valid inference:

(1)  x is G (good)

(2)  Therefore, x is O (obligatory)

In order for 1. to justify 2., one would have to presuppose that what is good is obligatory. With that added as a premise, the inference is valid, after all.

(1)  What is G is O

(2)  x is G

(3)  Therefore, x is O

The trouble, of course, is that I’ve grounded an obligation in what is good, only by invoking another obligation, for which I have no ground, which means that the consequentialist effort to ground obligation ultimately fails.

The deontological strategy is just as problematic, though the difficulty with it is more difficult to articulate, in part because the circle is tighter and in part because for Kant it is really willing that falls under the concept of obligation, rather than acts. (Kant maintains that one can do what duty requires, but if one does it for the wrong kind of reason, the action does not “count,” morally speaking.)  

What makes an action moral for Kant is that it be willed because it is obligatory – this is just his idea of acting from duty. And the idea is supposed to be that willing for this reason is inherently good and that this is what explains the obligatoriness of certain acts of will. But one should see that this is just as circular as the consequentialist’s account. One appeals to the goodness of a certain kind of motivation to explain why certain acts of will are obligatory, but what makes those motives good is that they are motives from obligation. Once again, then, rather than explaining what is obligatory in terms of what is good, all that one has done is explain what is obligatory in terms of…what is obligatory.

Prichard maintains that our feelings of obligation are basic and immediate – prima facie, to borrow an expression from W.D. Ross – and for anyone who has ever felt morally obligated, this seems pretty hard to deny. But it is important to understand what he is not saying. Prichard is not suggesting that nothing can get us to feel an obligation – for example, seeing someone’s or hearing or learning about something. What he is denied is that any description of such facts, no matter how complete, entails or otherwise implies any particular obligation. In this sense, our feelings of obligation are like our experience of aesthetic properties. It may be that getting you to attend to the pale colors, curved contours, and long, thin neck of a vase may help you to see that it is delicate, but it does not follow from the fact that something is pale colored, has curved contours, and is possessed of a long, thin neck that it is delicate.

What is even more interesting, however, is what Prichard says this all means with regard to our uncertainties. How do we know whether we really are obligated? How do we render those pre-theoretical, intuitive moral reactions reflectively and thus, rationally, respectable? The short answer is that we don’t and we can’t, but the details are fascinating and spread well beyond our feelings of moral obligation and into the realm of belief and of epistemology, proper.

Prichard observes that there was always something quite odd about the modern epistemological enterprise, and it is something that Descartes arguably saw himself: namely, that it is folly to search for procedures that will guarantee or even substantially increase certainty. Suppose that I am taking a math test, and I believe that the answer to ‘3+5’ is ‘8’. Surely, I can doubt this, because I have made arithmetic errors in the past and more fundamentally, because I know that I can reason incorrectly.  

But wouldn’t it be awfully strange to reach for a proof procedure, by which to ensure that my arithmetic is correct on any given occasion? For if recognizing that I can and sometimes do reason incorrectly is what led me to doubt whether 3+5=8, wouldn’t it also cause me to doubt whatever result I got from working through the proof procedure? More so, in fact, given how much more complex the proof procedure is than the initial sum? And isn’t it obvious that this will be true of any proof or procedure I might come up with to “check” any belief, whether it’s that 3+5=8 or that I am currently sitting here typing this essay? 

What do we actually do, if we doubt whether we added a series of numbers correctly? We do the sum again. And what do we do if we are not sure whether we really saw something? We look again. And what do we do, Prichard asks, if we doubt whether we really are obligated to do something? We put ourselves back in the situation – either really, or mentally – and see if we feel the obligation again. That’s all that we can do. And the level of confidence that arises as a result is all that we ever legitimately will have.