An Argument from Authority for Deontology

It is often presumed as an axiom of moral reasoning that we have no clearer access to moral truths than we get through our moral intuitions developed in moral experience. Thus, thought experiments help us to test our ethical theories against our moral intuitions, and we have no better resource than this in the area of ethics. Many people’s intuitions, however, controvert Deontology. Since there are non-Kantian versions of Deontology let us say that the necessary and sufficient conditions for a view to qualify as Deontological include (i) that the science of morals can be discovered, (ii) that it can be discovered by reason, (iii) that there is a categorical imperative of reason which serves as the fundamental moral law and (iv) that this imperative can be illustrated by Kantian sentences such as that “every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” Now, there is plenty to be attracted to in this system of ethics. First, it provides a methodology for moral discovery and verification, second it preserves all intuitions of moral realism, and third it makes the study of morality into a science much like the science of geometry.

There are, of course, objections to it, and the clearest and most powerful come in the form of a popular thought experiment. Since the categorical imperative logically entails that we must always treat human beings as ends in themselves instead of merely as means to ends, that entails that we cannot torture people or lie to them. Both torture, and lying, are activities in which, by their very definitions, we are treating at least one human person merely as a means to an end, and precisely not treating them as an end in themselves. ‘However,’ the objector may say, ‘clearly torturing a terrorist to save the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people is right, and clearly lying to the Nazi who asks us if we are hiding Jews in the basement in order to save lives is also right!’ Here the Deontologist must dig her heels in and insist that ethics is hard, but that it is still never the right thing to do to lie to somebody or to torture somebody. No matter the reason, it is categorically wrong.

There are, of course, many arguments, proffered by Deontologists, which attempt to deal with this kind of objection. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I want to try to give a very uncommon response, as a Catholic Deontologist, to which I hope everyone can be sympathetic, or at least with which I do not see a problem in principle. First, we know that our moral intuitions, useful as they are in moral discourse, are often confused and conflict with each other. We are also aware that our moral intuitions do not always match up with those moral intuitions of others. For instance, one person may feel the same moral intuition about homosexuality as they feel about incest, that it is simply and obviously wrong, whereas another person’s moral intuitions are blind to any problem with homosexuality, but they share the same intuition about incest, and still a third person has no moral intuitions that either homosexuality or incest are wrong. Our moral intuitions, strong as they are, and however clear they are to us, are simply not always shared by others. That’s a tough fact of pluralism, and we all have to live with it. We also know that we have intuitions of other kinds, such as modal intuitions (intuitions about what is possible, necessary, impossible and so forth) and mathematical intuitions (that x+x≠x for any positive real numbers greater than zero). We also have experiences in which our mathematical intuitions have been wrong (when we make a mistake on a math exam, for instance). Bearing that in mind, consider the following passage from Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity:

So necessity has little or nothing to do with what people would in fact [give] up under various happy or unhappy circumstances. But it must also be distinguished from what cannot be rationally rejected. For clearly a proposition might be both necessary and such that on a given occasion the rational thing to do is to give up or deny it. Suppose I am a mathematical neophyte and have heard and accepted rumours to the effect that the Continuum Hypothesis has been shown to be independent of Zermelo-Frankel Set Theory. I relate this rumour to a habitually authoritative mathematician, who smiles indulgently and produces a subtly fallacious argument for the opposite conclusion—an argument I still find compelling after careful study. I need not be irrational in believing him and accepting his argument, despite the fact that in this instance his usual accuracy has deserted him and he has told me what is necessarily false.
~ Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity (1992): 4.

Taking a cue from Plantinga, suppose that you were a neophyte in mathematics and that you had a good friend named Bill, who just happened to be a world renowned mathematician. You’ve known Bill for quite some time, and in all that time you’ve learnt, among other things, that he is especially good at mathematics. For instance, whenever you and he both apply yourselves to the same mathematical problem, and come out with different solutions, you find that Bill has come to the right solution, and you’ve made some subtle mistake somewhere in your procedure. You have even experienced being quite sure of your answer, having reviewed it to your satisfaction, only to find, upon comparing your answer with Bill’s, that Bill’s answer differed from yours, and that he was able, subsequently, to make you see the error of your ways. Bill is thus, in your experience, a very trustworthy authority on mathematics. Now suppose on some particular occasion that you were working on some mathematical problem and asked Bill to review your work, only to find that Bill has identified an apparent mistake in your work yet again. However, on this occasion, it is Bill who has made the mistake. You may have carefully thought through each of your procedural steps, so that each step was self-evident to you and your solution happens to be a necessary truth. Nevertheless, you may think that Bill’s having a different answer from yours really does give you a defeater for your belief in this self-evident necessary truth. Even if you were right, and prima facie supremely confident in your answer about a self-evident necessary truth, you may have epistemic justification for giving up your belief on the basis of Bill’s much more reliable and trustworthy cognitive faculties, or at least his mathematical intuitions.

It seems obvious that our intuitions are generally clearer in the field of mathematics than they are in the field of ethics. It also seems clear that we can imagine a situation in which, even when we apprehend a mathematical proposition which is self-evidently true and which is a necessary truth in fact (and self-evidently necessary, et cetera), we can have an epistemic defeater from authority for the truth of that belief. Well then, how about in ethics? Suppose we know some people to be outstanding examples of morally good character, and we find that their intuitions about what is right or wrong differ from our own. Would we perhaps be justified in thinking, on the basis of their authority, that we have a defeater for our own moral intuitions? I don’t see why not. Perhaps this opens us up to receiving and constructing arguments in ethics which eschew our own intuitions and deffer instead to some authority on matters of morals.

One authority to which we could appeal may just be ‘reason,’ the suggestion being that our moral intuitions should be honed by, and directed according to, the contours of reason. This is, though, the method of the Natural Law theorists (and, of course, the Deontologists). So, if one thinks that reason can defeat brute moral intuitions, then one should at least be a Natural Law theorist, and plausibly one should be a Deontologist.

Another authority may be provided by ‘faith’, and not necessarily in any fideistic sense. Suppose, for instance, that somebody is a Catholic, and (thus) believes that the Catholic Church is the most trustworthy authority on matters of (faith and) morals. However, this Church stands in defense of human rights, even at the expense of proscribing the utilitarian imperative. A particular Catholic may search herself and find that she has strong intuitions about Nietzsche’s will to power, or Mill’s maximizing the pleasure to pain ratio, or intuitions in favor of a sophisticated form of ethical egoism. She may feel these intuitions remarkably strongly. However, insofar as she has justifying reasons for believing that the Catholic Church is the most trustworthy authority (or even, at least, much more trustworthy than herself), on matters of normative ethics, she plausibly has a defeater for her intuitions contra Deontology; she has good (i.e., justifying) reasons to believe in some form of Deontology contrary to her own personal moral mores and intuitions. I am, of course, also presuming that the Catholic Church does teach a form of Deontology, but I take it that this isn’t very controversial. Moreover, if the Church teaches some other model, the point I am making can still be made to go through if only appropriately amended.

Perhaps somebody could object that while moral intuitions aren’t indefeasible, they are properly basic, and it may take more than an authority like the Catholic Church to ‘defeat’ them. Here I can imagine somebody coming to an epistemic impasse I suppose, but I can also just as easily imagine that their faith might defeat their moral intuitions.

At this point my post could end, but I have another thought to place here, as a kind of post script.

This raises an interesting follow-up thought about moral epistemology. If I am right, then it seems like there can be no hard and fast distinction between ‘moral’ epistemology, and epistemology more generally. Consider for instance that A.J. Ayer, as a logical positivist, insisted that there was simply no way to translate normative statements (at least according to their normative senses) into straightforward indicative statements. G.E. Moore, by constrast, insisted on a form of intuitionism in this area, arguing that we could intuit that propositions such as “it is wrong, [ceteris paribus?] to kick a pregnant woman in the stomach” were true. A.J. Ayer is skeptical of this, since he holds that a statement is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic, or else empirically verifiable, but such a statement is not analytic, and thus should be synthetic and empirically verifiable! But the sentence is not empirically verifiable, and so, Ayer concludes, it is simply meaningless. On a charitable interpretation of Moore, though, he is simply proposing we do in ethics what Kurt Gödel proposed we do in logic. The law of excluded middle, or the principle of non-contradiction, or the principle of sufficient reason – these kinds of things, Gödel thinks, are and must be intuited! Our very standards of analyticity must be intuited, which is to say that they must be apprehended by the mind without the aid of, or appeal to, either experiences or (other) ideas. If we read Moore in this way, then his proposal gains plausibility; it seems at least as plausible as Gödel’s proposal about logic. This Moorean view of moral epistemology is called, not surprisingly, ‘intuitionism.’

As is often the case, Moore is on to something, even though he’s wrong. There is an obvious temptation to think that intuitionism about logic allows for no higher court of appeal than intuition – what could that higher court of appeal even be? – and that, therefore, the same goes for intuitionism about ethics. If I am right about the possibility of arguing about ethics from authority, however, then clearly this is wrong. I would rather say, instead, that our intuitions about ethics are properly basic beliefs, and that sometimes a sufficiently good argument from authority can act as a defeater of those beliefs acquired by intuition.


2 thoughts on “An Argument from Authority for Deontology

  1. Here’s something interesting (and so this isn’t a constructive/deconstructive comment). You write:

    “However, insofar as she has justifying reasons for believing that the Catholic Church is the most trustworthy authority (or even, at least, much more trustworthy than herself), on matters of normative ethics, she plausibly has a defeater for her intuitions contra Deontology; she has good (i.e., justifying) reasons to believe in some form of Deontology contrary to her own personal moral mores and intuitions.”

    Perhaps if the entailment was stronger an interesting logical principle would be at work here:

    Deductive closure principle: If S knows P, and P->Q, S knows that Q.


    If S knows that P [the Catholic Church is a reliable authority] and P->Q [Some form of deontology], then S knows that Q.

    (I suppose this is at work in axiological arguments where the metaethical implications entail normative ones). Maybe you think otherwise–I’d love to know.

    • That is only a problem because of human psychology. In fact, even if (i) subject S knew P, (ii) P⊃Q were true, and (iii) subject S knew P⊃Q, it would not follow that (iv) S knew Q. Why? Because people’s beliefs aren’t always consistent (in fact, they hardly ever are), and knowledge requires belief. So I think the best we can do is speak in terms of S’s justification or warrant for Q on the basis of her other justified/warranted beliefs.

      What you would need is stronger: (i) S knows P, (ii) if S knows P then S knows Q, (iii) ∴ S knows Q. However, if the argument is sound (in any particular case) then the conclusion won’t be a surprise to S, nor should it change S’s mind (unless the point of the argument was not to invite S to believe Q, but to invite S to believe that S knows that Q).

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