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NOTES AND
STUDY GUIDE


FINAL PAPER TOPIC           HUMAN RIGHTS            PHILOSOPHY 19A

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3. Is Morality Rational?

III. It is Sometimes Said That Morality Itself is Rational, But What Does That Mean? For Instance, Henry Shue Says "Basic Rights" Are, Among Other Things, "Rational Demands." Should I Worry About Whether My Sense That I Should Save the Child from Drowning is Rational or Not? And What About "Truth"? Are Moral Judgments True and Objective? And What if They are Not? Won't All Hell Break Loose? Aren't We Free Then to Do as We Darn Well Please?

"It's useful to put aside several large matters that, in moments of confusion, might be thought greatly to affect an answer to the Final Paper Topic, but on closer examination really do not affect the way we might answer the question one way or the other. By focusing on two of the very largest of those matters, the relationship between morality and rationality and morality and truth (or objectivity), I'll try to show how usefully and safely, this may be done.

"The first concerns the relation between morality and rationality. For millennia, philosophers have been concerned to show a strong connection between these two normative conceptions. In some instances, their belief has been that, unless morality has the backing of rationality, reasonable people, like you and me, won't engage in morally decent behavior. But, since there's nothing to this thought, I needn't here inquire into the relation between morality and rationality.

"Consider the following case, a case closely based on one from James Rachels:

The Shallow Pond Revisited

You and your four-year-old cousin, Sylvie, a distant relation whom you've previously seen only twice, are the only heirs of a bachelor uncle, very old and very rich, to whom you're both related. Now, the old man has only a few months left. And, as his will states, if both of you are alive when he dies, then you'll inherit only one million dollars and your cousin Sylvie, to whom the uncle's much more closely related, will inherit fully nine; but, if the order of deaths is first your cousin Sylvie, and then your uncle, you'll inherit all of ten million dollars. Right now, you see that it's this cousin Sylvie of yours who, even as she's the only other person anywhere about, is on the verge of drowning in the shallow ornamental pond. As it happens, you can easily arrange for things to look like you were then elsewhere, at the Human Rights Class or grabbing something to eat in USDAN; so, if you let the child drown, you can get away with it completely. And, since you'd take a drug that would leave you with no memories of the incident at all, you'll never feel even the slightest guilt. So, in a short time, you'll be able to enjoy ten million dollars, not just a measly million.

"As is very clear, your letting the child drown is extremely immoral behavior. But, it might be asked, is it irrational behavior? Now, some philosophers will hold that it's also irrational. By contrast, others will hold that, on at least one sense of 'rationality,' your conduct isn't irrational: You care for this very distant cousin Sylvie little more than for a perfect stranger; largely owing to the 'wonder' drug, there won't be any significantly bad effects on your life; and, 'hey, nine million ain't nothing to sneeze at,' and so on.

"For the sake of the exposition, let's suppose that, as a recent number of arguments from rational choice theory and cost-benefit analysis all conspire to show, the second group of philosophers is completely correct. On the understanding of rational behavior put forward by this second group, your saving the child must be highly irrational. For good measure, let's suppose, too, that you've become quite convinced of this yourself. With these strong suppositions firmly in mind, how many of us would let our four-year old cousin Sylvie drown?

"Very few will be even so much as strongly disposed to behave in such an immoral manner and fewer still would actually do it. So, fas far as being a potent guide for our conduct, morality certainly doesn't need any help from whatever authority we may accord to rationality. For the Final Paper Topic, it's quite enough to learn a lot about which conduct is really morally all right and, in contrast, which is immoral. If the former also has rationality's backing, that's fine; but, if not, it's no big deal.

"Properly placing to the side the very interesting question of how rationality relates to morality, I'll turn to the equally interesting question of how truth relates to morality. Now, various philosophers have been concerned to show that there are many significant moral truths and that, far from reducible to even the wisest people's most basic moral commitments, they're as fully objective as any truths. Again, given the purpose and significance of the Final Paper Topic, it's a distracting digression to investigate this issue.

"Why do objectivists offer arguments for our meta-ethical positions? Ranging from sheer intellectual impulses to religious convictions, the motivation behind these endeavors is very varied. But, it's just this worrisome one that perhaps stands in need of discussion here and now: What would happen if we believed there weren't any meaningful moral truths; wouldn't all hell break loose? Rather than feeling constrained by our deepest moral commitments, won't even decent folks like you and me be free to do whatever we please, or whatever is to our advantage? For, if our moral values don't point to some reality beyond themselves, then there's nothing to adhere any more than our most selfish desires. And, then, too, there won't be much point to trying to figure out what our moral values may be trying to tell us any more than trying to figure our preferences for Super Fudge Chunk or Cherry Garcia.

"Though those thoughts have a certain appeal, they're deeply confused. Recall the Rival Heirs and, this time, suppose you've come to think there aren't any objective moral truths. Will that free you up to let your four-year old cousin Sylvie drown? Not a chance. None of this is to deny the philosophical importance of investigating the relations between morality and truth or morality and rationality; it's just to say that, whatever holds for these metaphysical matters, investigating our moral values directly may lead us to engage in more decent behavior, quite apart from the answers we may give to these larger issues of moralitys rationality and truth." (Adapted from Unger)

Woman at Rice Mill, Bangladesh




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February 14, 1998
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