From The London Review of Books:
The philosopher Stuart Hampshire served in British military intelligence during the Second World War. When we were colleagues at Princeton he told me about the following incident, which must have taken place shortly after the Normandy landings. The French Resistance had captured an important collaborator, who was thought to have information that would be useful to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interrogate him. When he arrived, the head of the Resistance unit told Hampshire he could question the man, but that when he was through they were going to shoot him: that’s what they always did with these people. He then left Hampshire alone with the prisoner. The man said immediately that he would tell Hampshire nothing unless Hampshire guaranteed he would be turned over to the British. Hampshire replied that he could not give such a guarantee. So the man told him nothing before he was shot by the French.
Another philosopher, when I told him this story, commented drily that what it showed was that Hampshire was a very poor choice for the assignment. But I tell it here not in order to determine whether Hampshire did the right thing in failing to lie to the prisoner in these circumstances. I offer it as a real-life example of the force of a certain type of immediate moral reaction. Even those who think that Hampshire should, for powerful instrumental reasons, have made a false promise of life to this man facing certain death can feel the force of the barrier that presented itself to Hampshire. It is an example of the sort of moral gut reaction that figures prominently in the recent literature of empirical moral psychology. I assume that a scan of Hampshire’s brain at the time would have revealed heightened activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Much intellectual effort has gone into the delineation of the protective boundaries around people that ordinary morality says we must not cross. Usually the examples designed to call forth our intuitions are more artificial than this one – as in the famous trolley problem. But the phenomenon is real, and an inescapable part of human morality. I am interested in the question of how to decide what authority to give to these moral judgments, or perceptions, or intuitions – what kind of thinking can lead us either to affirm them as correct and fundamental, or to detach from them so that we come to regard them as mere appearances without practical validity – or alternatively perhaps to step back from them but nevertheless allow them some influence in our lives that is not fundamental but is derived from other values. This problem has been around for a long time, and much of what I say about it will be familiar. But recent discussion prompts another look.
It is a question of moral epistemology: not the kind of epistemological question posed when we consider how to respond to a general scepticism about morality, or about value, but an epistemological question internal to moral thought. There is a venerable tradition of scepticism about whether any moral judgments, or the intuitions that support them, can be regarded as correct or incorrect, rather than as mere feelings of a special kind that we express in the language of morality. I am not going to enter into that larger debate here. I will proceed on the assumption that it makes sense to try to discover what is really right and wrong, and that moral intuitions provide prima facie evidence in this inquiry. The problem I want to discuss arises because, for some of our most powerful intuitions, there are various possible explanations, both moral and causal, that would, if correct, undermine their claim to fundamental authority – the claim that those convictions should be taken at face value as perceptions of the moral truth. Challenges of this kind present us with the task of finding a way to conduct ourselves that is consistent with the best understanding of ourselves from outside – as biological, psychological, social or historical products.
The question has broad legal and political importance because in liberal constitutional regimes many of the rights and protections of the individual against the exercise of collective power appear initially as intuitive boundaries of this type. Freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association, sexual and reproductive freedoms, protections of privacy, prohibitions of torture and cruel punishment are all supported and in part identified by an immediate sense of what may and may not be done to people, a constraint that precedes cost-benefit calculations.
Even though it is possible to construct more or less plausible consequentialist justifications – justifications in terms of long-term costs and benefits – for strict legal rules embodying such protections, that is not the moral aspect under which they immediately present themselves. The violation of an individual right seems wrong in itself, and not merely as the transgression of a socially valuable strict general rule. The question is whether this is an illusion – a natural illusion built into our moral psychology. Though Hampshire’s uncrossable boundary arose in the context of an individual decision, it feels similar to the boundary which bars the state from employing torture to get information, even against its enemies and for reasons of national security. And as we have seen in our own time, the bar against torture is not uncontested.
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John Rawls gave the name ‘reflective equilibrium’ to the process of putting one’s moral thoughts in order by testing general principles against considered judgments about particular cases, and adjusting both until they fit more or less comfortably together. The process does not treat particular judgments as unrevisable givens, or general principles as self-evident axioms, so it need not be conservative: it can lead to radical revision of some of the considered judgments with which one begins. But it must take intuitive value judgments as starting points, and in order to dismiss some of those judgments as mistaken, it must rely on others – just as we must rely on perceptual evidence when dismissing some perceptual appearances as illusions. I think there is no alternative to this method for pursuing answers to moral questions in which we can maintain some confidence, even in the face of disagreement.
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Here are the familiar features of ordinary moral thought that give rise to our problem. We evaluate many different kinds of thing, but important among them are states of affairs or outcomes, on the one hand, and actions or policies, on the other. To evaluate states of affairs we use the concepts of good and bad, better and worse. To evaluate actions we use in addition the concepts of right and wrong. The classical problem is whether there is an independent aspect of morality governing the rightness and wrongness of acts and policies – either of individuals or of institutions – or whether the only truly fundamental values are good and bad, so that standards of right and wrong must be explained instrumentally, by identifying the types of actions and policies that lead to good and bad outcomes. The latter possibility was given the name ‘consequentialism’ by Elizabeth Anscombe, and its best-known version is utilitarianism. The opposite view, that the right is at least in some respects independent of the good, doesn’t have a name, but the principles that it identifies are usually called ‘deontological’ – an ugly word, but we seem to be stuck with it. Deontological principles say that whether an act is morally permitted, prohibited or required often depends not on the goodness or badness of its overall consequences but on intrinsic features of the act itself. In a case like Hampshire’s, the calculation of probable consequences is clearly in favour of lying to the prisoner, so if it would be wrong to do so, that would have to be for some other reason.
Link to the rest at The London Review of Books