Morality as a Mental State

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Moral values, rules, principles, and judgements are often thought of as beliefs or as true beliefs. Those who hold them to be true beliefs also annex to them a warrant or a justification (from the "real world"). Yet, it is far more reasonable to conceive of morality (ethics) as a state of mind, a mental state. It entails belief, but not necessarily true belief, or justification. As a mental state, morality cannot admit the "world" (right and wrong, evidence, goals, or results) into its logical formal definition. The world is never part of the definition of a mental state.

Another way of looking at it, though, is that morality cannot be defined in terms of goals and results - because these goals and results ARE morality itself. Such a definition would be tautological.

There is no guarantee that we know when we are in a certain mental state. Morality is no exception.

An analysis based on the schemata and arguments proposed by Timothy Williamson follows.

Moral Mental State - A Synopsis

Morality is the mental state that comprises a series of attitudes to propositions. There are four classes of moral propositions: "It is wrong to...", "It is right to...", (You should) do this...", "(You should) not do this...". The most common moral state of mind is: one adheres to p. Adhering to p has a non-trivial analysis in the more basic terms of (a component of) believing and (a component of) knowing, to be conceptually and metaphysically analysed later. Its conceptual status is questionable because we need to decompose it to obtain the necessary and sufficient conditions for its possession (Peacocke, 1992). It may be a complex (secondary) concept.

See here for a more detailed analysis.

Adhering to proposition p is not merely believing that p and knowing that p but also that something should be so, if and only if p (moral law).

Morality is not a factive attitude. One believes p to be true - but knows p to be contingently true (dependent on epoch, place, and culture). Since knowing is a factive attitude, the truth it relates to is the contingently true nature of moral propositions.

Morality relates objects to moral propositions and it is a mental state (for every p, having a moral mental relation to p is a mental state).

Adhering to p entails believing p (involves the mental state of belief). In other words, one cannot adhere without believing. Being in a moral mental state is both necessary and sufficient for adhering to p. Since no "truth" is involved - there is no non-mental component of adhering to p.

Adhering to p is a conjunction with each of the conjuncts (believing p and knowing p) a necessary condition - and the conjunction is necessary and sufficient for adhering to p.

One doesn't always know if one adheres to p. Many moral rules are generated "on the fly", as a reaction to circumstances and moral dilemmas. It is possible to adhere to p falsely (and behave differently when faced with the harsh test of reality). A sceptic would say that for any moral proposition p - one is in the position to know that one doesn't believe p. Admittedly, it is possible for a moral agent to adhere to p without being in the position to know that one adheres to p, as we illustrated above. One can also fail to adhere to p without knowing that one fails to adhere to p. As Williamson says "transparency (to be in the position to know one's mental state) is false". Naturally, one knows one's mental state better than one knows other people's. There is an observational asymmetry involved. We have non-observational (privileged) access to our mental state and observational access to other people's mental states. Thus, we can say that we know our morality non-observationally (directly) - while we are only able to observe other people's morality.

One believes moral propositions and knows moral propositions. Whether the belief itself is rational or not, is debatable. But the moral mental state strongly imitates rational belief (which relies on reasoning). In other words, the moral mental state masquerades as a factive attitude, though it is not. The confusion arises from the normative nature of knowing and being rational. Normative elements exist in belief attributions, too, but, for some reason, are considered "outside the realm of belief". Belief, for instance, entails the grasping of mental content, its rational processing and manipulation, defeasible reaction to new information.

We will not go here into the distinction offered by Williamson between "believing truly" (not a mental state, according to him) and "believing". Suffice it to say that adhering to p is a mental state, metaphysically speaking - and that "adheres to p" is a (complex or secondary) mental concept. The structure of adheres to p is such that the non-mental concepts are the content clause of the attitude ascription and, thus do not render the concept thus expressed non-mental: adheres to (right and wrong, evidence, goals, or results).

Williamson's Mental State Operator calculus is applied.

Origin is essential when we strive to fully understand the relations between adhering that p and other moral concepts (right, wrong, justified, etc.). To be in the moral state requires the adoption of specific paths, causes, and behaviour modes. Moral justification and moral judgement are such paths.

Knowing, Believing and Their Conjunction

We said above that:

"Adhering to p is a conjunction with each of the conjuncts (believing p and knowing p) a necessary condition - and the conjunction is necessary and sufficient for adhering to p."

Williamson suggests that one believes p if and only if one has an attitude to proposition p indiscriminable from knowing p. Another idea is that to believe p is to treat p as if one knew p. Thus, knowing is central to believing though by no means does it account for the entire spectrum of belief (example: someone who chooses to believe in God even though he doesn't know if God exists). Knowledge does determine what is and is not appropriate to believe, though ("standard of appropriateness"). Evidence helps justify belief.

But knowing as a mental state is possible without having a concept of knowing. One can treat propositions in the same way one treats propositions that one knows - even if one lacks concept of knowing. It is possible (and practical) to rely on a proposition as a premise if one has a factive propositional attitude to it. In other words, to treat the proposition as though it is known and then to believe in it.

As Williamson says, "believing is a kind of a botched knowing". Knowledge is the aim of belief, its goal.

Morality: Desire and Reason

Traditional (Humean or neo-Humean) philosophers insist that the motivations of rational agents (their "reasons" to act) must always be commensurate with - indeed emanate from or correlate with - their desires and pro attitudes. Yet, the ostensibly ineluctable causal pathway between desire and reason may be spurious. As Kant and Searle observed, morality (normative attitudes), for instance, is (and ought to be) driven by reasons, not fostered by desires (“inclinations”.)

Searle's suggestion that desire-less reasons give rise to reasonable desires is unnecessary: we often act reluctantly (without pleasure-driven desire) merely because we have a good reason to do so (e.g. the social contract or covenant.) Even psychopaths have been known to act without desire. Equally, being rational and/or moral “intentional systems” (Dennett), we often desire without acting on our desires, frequently because of the immoral or socially-unacceptable nature of our desires and the adverse consequences to us if we were to pursue them. Moral behavior, therefore, renders problematic a postulated invariable causal tie between desire and reason.

Arguably, some moral or altruistic conduct is, indeed, motivated by one’s egotistical (self-interested, but not necessarily selfish) desire to feel good and kind, or to do good, or to be rewarded, or to avoid punishment and opprobrium. But, most acts of altruism are driven by the wish or need to satisfy one’s desire to bring benefits to others and to enhance their well-being. Altruistic and empathic behaviours (or even mere sentiments), therefore, render dubious the claim that all desire-satisfaction is self-interested, or selfish (though it may well be pleasurable as a by-product.)

Morality is irrational. It requires us to suspend reflexes, emotions, and self-interest. It is not an appeal to our "higher nature" - it is simply not natural.

Consider one's behavioral options in a sexless and loveless marriage: to divorce the withholding partner (the ethical and right thing to do) - or to engage in serial adultery and cheat on him repeatedly (the rational thing to do). Divorce carries enormous personal costs: financial, social, in reduced access to one's children, in terms of the lost companionship and friendship of the partner. Important psychological functions are disrupted: one's intimate partner often fulfills the roles of parent, child, guru, rock, and the object of one's pity. The fabric of togetherness woven out of calendared rituals and rites is torn asunder.

It is much easier and cost effective to stray and promiscuously seek love, intimacy, sex, and adrenaline pumping excitement, lust, and adventures with others while preserving the emotionally dead bond for practical reasons.

That so many people choose honesty, openness, and morality over deception and elect to divorce their spouses is notable and amazing. Counterintuitive, really - if not outright miraculous. It is a testament to how far we have come as a species that we adhere to abstract principles - good and bad - never mind how steep the price we have to pay.


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