Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Purpose of Morality?

I recently came across a book called Morality and Purpose by an interesting British moral philosopher, J.L. Stocks (1889-1937), via a reference to his work in Peter Winch's "Moral Integrity" (in his (1972) Ethics and Action). I was re-reading Winch as I plan to incorporate some of his ideas into a paper I'm now working on on moral conviction and integrity.

Stocks is an interesting figure for me because the general drift of his ideas resembles what some would now call "anti-theory" in ethics--often (though not exclusively) associated with "Wittgensteinian" moral philosophers, such as Winch (and also including Rush Rhees, D.Z. Phillips, and Cora Diamond). The value of Stocks' thought is that it predates the Wittgensteinian turn, as it were, and Stocks has some striking arguments to the effect that morality is not properly conceived as "purposive." Reading his essays "The Limits of Purpose" and "Is There a Moral End?" have helped me better understand what Winch is after in claiming that morality is not properly conceived of as a guide to action (in "Moral Integrity"). Winch does not deny that morality provides guidance, but what he does deny--which is expressed quite lucidly by Stocks--is the thought that morality has some grand, unified purpose, such as the greatest happiness for the greatest number, self-realization (human flourishing), or even the achievement of moral purity or perfection (to the extent that we might distinguish these from flourishing, as a Kantian might).

For Stocks, the problem with conceiving of morality as aiming at a purpose is that this divides action into means and end. That is, there is the goal of action, and if the goal is the purpose of morality, then the most efficient means to that end will be thereby justified. Most students of ethics will be familiar with the objections to the utilitarian conception of morality as purposive: if the only thing that matters is the greatest happiness, then we would be justified in doing terrible things to individuals if that turned out to produce the greatest overall happiness. Slightly more opaque is the objection to the Kantian conception of morality as guiding the production of a good will. The problem here is that overmuch concern for "doing one's duty" can itself lead to moral corruption; the person who visits a sick friend for the sake of duty itself is a less good friend than the person who visits because he cares about the welfare of his friend and wants to cheer him up! In that case, the proper end of the action (the visit) is the friend's welfare, not one's own moral perfection (by upholding one's duty). What about self-realization, or human flourishing? Same sort of problem. If the moral purpose of all action is the ultimate realization of one's "true self" (say), this end can pervert the nature of specific actions. Consider again the visit to the sick friend. It seems silly to say that the moral goodness of this action ultimately reduces to how it conduces to one's own flourishing.

There is no one purpose of morality. But what's interesting is that Stocks does not say there are many purposes. Rather, morality, like art, subjects purposive action to a different sort of evaluation, and seeks to assess the whole particular action--both its means and its end--to determine whether the whole thing is "in all its stages a fit expression of the human will" ("Is There a Moral End?" p. 80). So, the particular purpose of a particular action is an important part of moral evaluation, but moral evaluation is not a matter of determining whether the action properly serves some (or the) moral end because there is no moral end.

In "The Limits of Purpose" Stocks draws a careful comparison between art and morality and argues that the distinctive concerns of both involve something beyond mere concern with purpose. Art is not simply representation; the manner of style, intention, process, and so on are integral to an artistic evaluation of a work. Similarly, morality is not simply a matter of achieving some end. It is tempting to gloss Stocks' ideas by suggesting that morality is a concern with the human decency of one's actions. But either "human decency" is just a synonym for "morality" or human decency is set up as yet another end of human action, and one could provide a counterexample which shows that someone's obsessive concern with acting decently led them into a form of moral corruption. At the same time, I don't think this synonym is completely unhelpful, because it draws attention to the kind of concern Stocks thinks is distinctive of the moral attitude. A person refuses to take some profitable course of action on the perhaps hard to articulate grounds that it just seems indecent (or worse) to go down that road. (Think of the Father and Son in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or the recent film adaptation. No pun intended.) The point of such a judgment, however, wouldn't be that taking that route would taint one's moral purity, or make one less happy, or conduce to less overall happiness, but rather, and simply, that it would be wrong to do it. This isn't to make morality out to be merely prohibitive, insofar as we might also judge that certain things ought to be done simply because it's the right thing to do (say, helping another person).

Stocks seems to be something of an intuitionist about moral judgments, insofar as he argues that there can be no arguing about the judgments themselves. But Stocks also acknowledges the essential role of our conceptions of ideal interpersonal relations and "spiritual" ideals in our conceptions of right action (in addition to our views about productive action and social development). (So, I don't see him as suggesting that our intuitive judgments necessarily reflect universal ideals or truths.) Any particular one of those conceptions and ideals may of course be subjected to philosophical scrutiny, but taken as a whole, the balance of our moral conceptions and ideals comprise our moral field and are (as the Wittgensteinians would say) our bedrock. What all of this comes to is an interesting response to the question, "Why be moral?" which is often interpreted as a demand that morality have a purpose. For Stocks, morality (like art) has no purpose; it is rather a texture embroidered into the many purposes we set out with in life, and to reject the significance of that texture is simply to reject (again, to put it in a Wittgensteinian idiom) our form of life. If that seems opaque, consider again the comparison to art: why care about art? Does anyone challenge art by asking, why be artistic (or, why seek to imbue one's activities with a certain artfulness)? Perhaps, but so much the worse for them!


  1. Does Stocks ever mention Schopenhauer, who regards morality as having a transcendental value as a step on the way towards living in the light of the metaphysical truth (as he conceives it), i.e. self-negation of the will, resignation, recognition of the complete lack of value in living as an individual, etc.?

  2. Not in the essays I read. Stocks seems to put metaphysics as far aside as possible. "Living as an individual." Well, Stocks does say in one of the above essays that certain ethics based on self-realization (he gives Spinoza as an example) get the furthest away from the grossest errors of "purposive" conceptions of ethics. As with art, he seems to think the moral action and person does achieve something describable as "individuality"--but I don't think this is the same as what you meant by "living as an individual" (if the latter is a kind of authenticity-ethic).

  3. No, as I understand him, Schopenhauer disparages our sense of individuality -- of separateness from both other people and other sentient creatures -- as a pernicious illusion from which it the mark of the genuinely moral to find redemption in actively compassionate concern for the woe of others. (I still can't make much coherent sense of his metaphysics, though I'm not sure it really matters to the powerful, and enormously influential, ambiance in which it is enshrouded.)

  4. Dividing actions into means and ends seems OK in itself. One might do so as part of a conceptual investigation or analysis, say. The problem, I take it, is when someone thinks they can identify the end and that any means to that end will be all right. But is that not just the same thing as consequentialism? I suppose Aristotle and Kant could be read as non-utilitarian kinds of consequentialists, but that seems like a bad idea. Perhaps that, in a way, is Stocks' point, or at least a point we might take from his work.

    One problem with the question "Why be moral?" is that it is so broad. If you give a specific example the answer, I would think, would often be obvious. "Why should I give to charity?" might not be very easy to answer, perhaps, but "Why should I give to a charity that provides food for starving children?" is a stupid question (or a joke). It is hard to say what morality is, which makes it hard to say why one should be moral, but there isn't the same kind of mystery about why we shouldn't murder our neighbors, sell drugs to children, etc.

    As for challenging art by asking why be artistic, I think many artists do this. There is such a thing as anti-art. But I doubt this is an important point for your purposes.

    (I don't take any of this to contradict what you are trying to say, by the way.)

  5. DR: what you say about means and ends is surely right. I can't remember if Stocks actually suggests reading Aristotelian and Kantian ethics as "non-utilitarian kinds of consequentialism," but he does suggest that the idea that morality (as he sees it) is a rejection of the thought that the ends justify the means can, as I suggest in the post, reveal problems for those moral theories, too. Or perhaps--as you suggest Stocks' point might be--it would be a perversion of such theories to employ the cultivation of good will or the realization of human flourishing as the sort of ends that can justify particular actions. (Because if those were our explicit reasons for acting, at least in many cases that would show that our moral concern is misplaced.)