Friday, March 24, 2023

Moral fetishism and intentional aiming

For a long time I’ve had an odd fascination with cases where you have to intentionally aim at something that is neither your end nor a means to your end. The first case to come to my mind was something like this: Let’s say you want to send a nerve signal from your brain to your forearm (e.g., maybe you are hooked up to a device that detects these nerve signals and dispenses chocolate covered almonds). What do you? You wiggle your fingers! Wiggling your fingers, however, is not your end. But neither is it a means to the sending of the nerve signals. On the contrary, the nerve signals are the cause of the finger motions. But you can’t directly aim at the nerve signals, so you have to aim at finger wiggling instead.

A more ordinary kind of case I’ve found is follow-through in racquet sports, where you continue racquet motion after hitting the ball (or shuttle), because your brain will make the swing weaker at the time of contact unless you’re trying to continue the movement after the swing. But there is no point to the movement after the time of contact—the ball isn’t somehow magically steered by the racquet once it no longer touches it. So the movement of the racquet after impact is neither means nor end.

Outside weird laboratory setups and some sports cases, it is hard to think of cases of this odd phenomenon where one takes aim at an action that one neither instrumentally or finally cares about. But I’ve just realized a very interesting application. There is a philosophical literature about what people call “moral fetishism”. Those who push this line of thought think that there is something wrong with aiming your actions specifically at rightness of action, instead of at the thick reasons (your friend’s need, your promise, etc.) that make the action right.

Now, I think there are cases where you need to aim at rightness. The cases that come to mind are ones where you need to rely on a moral expert to figure out what is the right thing to do and why. One family of cases is where you are a small child and are relying on parental authority. Another is when you are a medical professional, are dealing with a morally complex case, and are relying on the advice of an ethics committee. And probably the most common case is when you are a religious believer and you are relying on what you take to be divine revelation about what is right (a different case is where you are a believer and are relying on supposed revelation about what is commanded by God). One may take these cases to be a refutation of the objections to moral fetishism, since in these cases one may be driven to pursue rightness by genuine conscientiousness rather than by any fetishism.

However, over the last couple of days I’ve realized that there may be a way of acting in these cases in a way that gives the objectors to moral fetishism what they want—and that I actually rather like this way of acting in the cases. When an action is right, there are reasons why it is right. In straightforward cases, we can easily say what these are: it helps a friend in need, it fulfills a promise, etc. But the cases in the previous paragraph are ones where the agent cannot give these reasons. Nonetheless, these reasons exist, and the adviser is thought to have them.

We can now imagine that the agent aims at rightness not because the agent values rightness in and of itself, but because the agent values the thick but unknown reasons for which the action is right. This could be rather like the finger-wiggling and racquet-sport cases. For it could be that just as the agent doesn’t care about the finger-wiggling and follow-through as an end, and neither is a means to what the agent cares about, similarly the agent doesn’t care about the rightness, and the rightness is not a means to what the agent cares about, by aiming at rightness the agent gets what they do care about, which is acting in accordance with thick (but unknown) reasons. Furthermore, like in the finger-wiggling case, the thing one really cares about—the nerve signal or the satisfaction of thick reasons—is explanatorily prior to the thing one aims at. (The follow-through case is a bit more complicated; probably what aims at is a whole swing, of which the good hit is a part, so the good hit is a part of the whole swing and in that way prior to it.)

It may help to think about a specific moral theory. Suppose utilitarianism is correct, and one has a moral oracle that tells one what the right action is, and one acts on the deliverances of this oracle. One need not care about the rightness of these actions—but they are right if and only if they maximize utility, and it is the utility maximization one cares about.

Thus in the case where one relies on testimony to do what is right, but one cares about rightness because one cares about the values that rightness yields, one is no more and no less a rightness fetishist than the typical racquet-sport coach is a follow-through fetishist. But in any case, what is going on is not problematic.

All that said, I think caring about rightness as such to some degree is also appropriate. That’s because one should care about oneself, and acting rightly is good for one.

1 comment:

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is a literature on uncertainty and moral fetishism. E.g.:

There is a nice paper by Howard which offers a similar account to the one in this post, but in terms of desire rather than intention.