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Part II: Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action 
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Post Part II: Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action
Part II: Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action
by Christine M. Korsgaard

Please use this thread for discussing Part II: Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action, by Christine M. Korsgaard, found on pages 98 through 119.



Sat May 02, 2009 12:55 am
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I thought a key passage from Christine Korsgaard's excellent reply to de Waal was the following:

"If someone asked me whether I personally believe that the other animals are more like human beings than most people suppose, or whether I believe there is some deep discontinuity between humans and the other animals, I would have to say yes to both alternatives" (p. 103).

She is probably aware of what a conundrum this presents. In actuality, I think we are probably only able to place ourselves on one side or the other, at least emotionally. De Waal seems clearly to think that relatedness between us and the other animals--especially the apes--is more salient than our differences when it comes to the question of morality. He tells us that, while only humans have morality, the apes have the "building blocks" of morality and come close to qualifying as animals capable of morality. Korsgaard, on the other hand, believes that de Waal understimates the space remaining between the abilities the apes may show (some are disputed) and our moral actions. She doesn't think that these differences can be explained as just a matter of degree; there is a difference in kind, or discontinuity, between the primates and humans. She doesn't know exactly how the discontinuity came about, but the distinctiveness of human moral actions can be detailed accurately, which is what she does in the rest of her chapter.

Interestingly, she speculates that the differences are the result of "psychological damage" in humans, a break with nature that is unique to us. Freud and Nietzsche originated the idea, she says (though we might see something similar in religious ideas of a fall). At any rate, it required a keen self-consciousness before we ever became capable of morality. Reciprocal altruism, perspective-taking, theory of mind, and empathy--abilities de Waal considers necessary for morality--nevertheless are not morality. Morality is "the capacity for normative self-government and the deeper level of intentional control that goes with it," abilities that are "probably unique to human beings. And it is in the proper use of this capacity--the ability to form and act on judgments of what we ought to do--that the essence of morality lies, not in altruism or the pursuit of the greater good" (p. 118).

She doesn't necessarily "brag on" humans for their moral ability, as the remark about psychological damage shows. Furthermore, she tells us that the "distinctiveness of human action is as much a source of our capacity for evil as of our capacity for good."

Basic difference between animals and humans: animals are "beyond moral judgment." An animal cannot "be held responsible for following its strongest impulse," whereas people, with the known ability to choose a different action than their strongest impulse might dictate, can be held responsible. Therefore, Korsgaard disagrees with de Waal and says there is substance in the statement that a person who acts badly "acts like an animal."



Fri Jul 10, 2009 8:40 pm
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Korgaard wrote:
…an agent who is capable of rejecting an action along with its purpose, not because there is something he or she wants (or fears)even more, but simple because she judges that doing that sort of act for that purpose is wrong. (111)


I think that this line sums up Korgaard’s argument against de Waal. Intentionality is the key to morality for her. A chimp cannot provide building blocks for morality because

Korgaard wrote:
At the level of intentionality I have just been describing, the animal is aware of his purposes, and thinks about how to pursue them. But he does not choose to pursue those pursuits. The animal’s purposes are given to him by his affective states: his emotions and his instinctual or learned desires.


I disagree with Korgaard’s argument that Freud and Nietzsche’s break with nature is what led to our moral nature. The animal is driven by “instinctual or learned desires.” The animal and man are both driven towards moral behavior because these group behaviors have led to survival within the species.


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Sat Jul 11, 2009 2:31 am
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A good thought experiment is to consider the current state of human morality as a speck of land that hasn't been eroded away. All the other land that has eroded away are various types of group behavior that were inferior to what we have currently. I mean this in the same sense that natural selection allows weaker mutations to die off, thereby "selecting" the stronger ones. It's an analogy.

If you were to brainstorm, what other types of group behavior do you envision could have evolved? Perhaps absolute morality, but further reasoning leads us to conclude that evolution couldn't develop an absolute morality, since variation is an integral part of evolution. A society without morality could have evolved, perhaps. The problem with this path is that as soon as there is a group that has evolved morality, they are stronger than all other groups, so the moral trends will spread.

I've tried taking this thought experiment further, but as deep as I go it all still only fits within what I already know. The best thought experiment is one that highlights incorrect knowledge, or something that should be untangled. Sorry, it's late and I'm rambling.


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Sat Jul 11, 2009 2:51 am
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Krysondra wrote:
Korgaard wrote:
…an agent who is capable of rejecting an action along with its purpose, not because there is something he or she wants (or fears)even more, but simple because she judges that doing that sort of act for that purpose is wrong. (111)


Quote:
I think that this line sums up Korgaard’s argument against de Waal. Intentionality is the key to morality for her. A chimp cannot provide building blocks for morality because


Korgaard wrote:
At the level of intentionality I have just been describing, the animal is aware of his purposes, and thinks about how to pursue them. But he does not choose to pursue those pursuits. The animal’s purposes are given to him by his affective states: his emotions and his instinctual or learned desires.

Quote:
I disagree with Korgaard’s argument that Freud and Nietzsche’s break with nature is what led to our moral nature. The animal is driven by “instinctual or learned desires.” The animal and man are both driven towards moral behavior because these group behaviors have led to survival within the species.

She does grant that other animals can have intentions, but humans are farther along the contunuum of intention than other animals. I wonder if there is a problem here with her argument that moraltiy is discontinuous with other animals. If there is a contiuum of intentionality, couldn't de Waal be basically right in seeing a contunuum of morality itself? Korsgaard wants to see a radical break with other animals corresponding to the break with nature idea.

It's not clear to me exactly what the connection is with psychological damage, but it's an interesting idea. I also wonder whether our morality really gave us an extra survival boost over the social instincts that developed in higher animals. We can assume it did, but how do we know? Not every aspect of ourselves exists because it directly contributed to our ability to reproduce. Some parts of our physical and mental selves exist because they presented no serious impediment to reproduction, not because they are of ideal efficiency. Look at the bad design features of our bodies. Our mental lives could be influenced similarly by features that stuck with us just because there was no selective pressure against them.

Back to the psychological damage remark: Korsgaard mentions this again later in the chapter, and here I can see more clearly what she means. She says that our ability to have "self-evaluations" is key to morality, with which I would agree. But "We also suffer deeply from our self-evaluations and act in sick and evil ways as a result. This is what I had in mind earlier when I said that human beings seem psychologically damaged in a way that suggests a break with nature." (117)



Sat Jul 11, 2009 9:54 pm
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