Why do we Punish War Criminals?

By Alexander Green

Lubanga: given fourteen years

The answer to this question might seem obvious, but in the wake of the Lubanga Sentencing Decision, which saw a sentence of just fourteen years for the organiser of a child army, it is important to reflect on where international criminal justice is going and why. This is all the more important when one considers that Lubanga will end up serving a maximum of only eight years due to time already spent in custody. Compare this to the United Kingdom, where a convicted burglar can receive up to fourteen years inside. Is sending unnumbered children to war really an equivalent crime to robbing a house by night? Surely it cannot be, so why are we even bothering to sentence war criminals to jail if the punishment is so lax?

Legal theory surrounding this issue is complex and controversial, but for present purposes we can make a rough distinction between three types of justificatory philosophy: rehabilitation, protection and retribution theories of punishment. Domestic sentencing practices tend towards a largely unexamined mixture of all three, with judges applying guidelines in line with mitigating and aggravating factors in order to find a balance that ‘feels right’. In this article I will briefly discuss the capacity of each of these three justifications to account for why we incarcerate convicts like Lubanga, before presenting a speculative conclusion and an even more tentative suggestion.

The most conceptually simple justification of punitive justice, rehabilitation, is also the most psychologically uncertain. Theories based on this foundation posit that taking away someone’s freedom is justified when it is done in order to reform their character. There are two usual objections to this, one empirical and the other moral. The empirical objection is simply that incarceration does not reform. The moral objection is that reformation of character is akin to indoctrination and is an affront to individual self-determination. This latter objection was made famous by the novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’, where the protagonist was subject to gruelling conditioning that forced him to feel violently ill at the mere suggestion of either sex or violence. This is of course quite an extreme example and rehabilitative theories of justice almost always fall far short of such torture. Nonetheless the question remains whether reforming someone’s character justifies not merely restricting but removing their liberty.

In the case of the war criminal it seems reasonably clear that the moral objection to rehabilitation can hold little force. It would be quite eccentric to claim that even the most well-defined personalities would not benefit from some behavioural adjustment if they are disposed to commit crimes of that magnitude. This might be one of the few situations in which dubbing an individual ‘inhuman’ is justified. The empirical objection is more difficult to answer however. Can eight years in prison hope to reform a man so hardened and callous that he was prepared to send young children to war? The answer to this question must surely be no. Indeed, so widely is incarceration’s inability to rehabilitate acknowledged, that it has been explicitly recognised by a number of criminal justice systems. It seems that rehabilitative theories of punitive justice cannot provide the basis for incarceration at the international level.

Protective theories of justice can be sub-divided into two strains: deterrent and incapacitory. Deterrent theories postulate that the threat of incarceration will operate as a disincentive for those considering criminal activity. Such disincentives can either be direct, that is to say aimed at the individual in question, or indirect, aimed at the population at large. They are the most widely criticised type of theory, infamously linked to the arguments over the legitimacy of capital punishment. Surely the question of whether a potential war criminal might be indirectly deterred from crimes of that enormity by the threat of a mere eight years in prison answers itself. The question of whether or not repeat offending might be avoided through specific deterrence is less clear, as many war criminals convicted at the international level have only just started to be released. We will have to wait and see.

Incapacitory justifications of punishment generally claim that prison is justified because for the duration of incarceration the convict is simply unable to re-offend. Such a conclusion can hardly be argued against, however in the international context it is dubious as to whether, given the magnitude of the crimes in question, the short prison terms handed down properly reflect the need for total incapacitation. The political reality helps to balance out this seeming iniquity. Many ex-convicts would find it difficult to return to the positions of political power they once held, given the amount of time that has passed and the stigma attached to conviction. Such a theory of justice seems to fit our current practices to at least some degree. However it cannot explain everything: judges continue to employ aggravating and mitigating factors to sentencing in order to reflect culpability. Incapacitory theories of justice only explain the extrinsic value of sending a war criminal to jail and cannot explain the widely held view that they deserve to be there.

This brings us on to our final group of justificatory theories, that of retributive punishment. Once more we can roughly subdivide such philosophies in two, distinguishing between creditor focused and debtor focused theories. Creditor focused theories hinge on the effects of the crime on the victim and society at large. They tend to centre on the harm caused, arguing that the punishment should be proportionate to it. Such theories include the famous Biblical maxim of ‘an eye for an eye’. Whatever the (in my opinion dubious) merits of such a view, it cannot aid us much in understanding our international sentencing practices. There is literally no way to exact a punishment even approaching proportionate to the harm caused by crimes of the magnitude with which we are concerned.

Debtor focused theories on the other hand centre on the effects of the crime for those actually committing it. Such theories can vary wildly from those of Michael Davis, who argued for a restitutive system that sought to reverse any benefit gained, to straightforward punishment for acts of ‘intrinsic evil’ (whatever that means). One interesting, if ultimately unconvincing, theory was posed by Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that pre-Christian theories of justice saw inflicting pain as a transactional equivalent of the pleasure given to the wrongdoer by the commission of the crime. Strange as it might sound, a debtor focused theory of punishment might actually aid us in our present endeavour. Because many war crimes are committed in order to gain or consolidate political power, incarcerating the individuals involved has the potential to effectively negate any intended benefits they might enjoy.

As a result of this brief glance at the various theories of punishment available, we might tentatively suggest that some combination of incapacitory and debtor focused retributive theories of punishment are behind current international sentencing practices. There is one other possibility that I would like to suggest however. Punishment might in fact play a very limited role in the current international criminal justice system. Consider this: since any and all possible justifications for incarceration will at best be an imperfect fit for crimes that exceed the imagination of most decent human beings, isn’t it conviction that really matters? Although the Preamble to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court does mention the importance of punishment and the ending of impunity, it begins:

Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time…

It may be that what international criminal justice should really be about is making sure that no matter where someone is in the world and what horrors they have faced, they will be able to take some small comfort in the simple but powerful sentiment: We will not just ignore this. You are not alone.

  1. One problem with/for international criminal justice is that it is trying to play a role that was previously played by something else altogether – namely, brute force. Historically, armed conflicts have tended to end when one side destroyed the other, exacting victor’s justice, or when some kind of (possibly temporary) peace treaty was reached.

    Evidently, it’s a good thing that we now are trying to use a tool other than destructive force to reach a solution. But there’s a question as to whether that tool is sufficiently refined for that task – or whether, in another sense of that word, it might be all too refined for what it is trying to achieve.

    I don’t think there’s much question that the end of the death penalty in national legal systems is a good thing: not least, because of the risk of miscarriages of justice, or its application in situations that might better be dealt with by other means.

    However, in the realm of international criminal justice, I think there might still be space for the question: should not those who live by the sword, also face the threat of dying by the sword? Whilst the manner in which the US carried out the assassination of bin Laden was probably very wrong – in particular perhaps, the murder of his wife (wives?) – I don’t feel as though there is much moral ambiguity about the death of a man with a professed pride in killing civilians.

    Similarly, if those who recruit, rape, and send to their deaths untold numbers of child soldiers were sentenced to death, I don’t think many people would find reason to complain.

    I’m slightly playing devil’s advocate here, as I realise that at the very least there are many practical difficulties involved in this suggestion – not to mention the fact that many (most?) liberals might find it a horrendous idea, and the difficulties in drawing the line. But…still, I think that in the clearest of circumstances, the question has merit.

    What do you think?

  2. Alex Green said:

    Thank you for your comment brightsam. I for one would find a reason to complain! The problem with the arguments you are forwarding for the death penalty in this context (“…should not those who live by the sword, also face the threat of dying by the sword?” in particular) are arguments of general application and are not really linked to the international character of the crimes. They seem primarily concerned with severity. This makes them open for extension to domestic murder on the basis that every human life is of incalculable value (in a deontic, rather than economic, sense – if we are even to entertain the notion that human lives can be valued economically).

    Practical considerations aside, I am afraid that I do not see the moral distinction between an international miscarriage of justice and the domestic parallel that you so deplore. Surely an injustice is an injustice whatever the context and equally as wrong thereby? On a purely practical note, international criminal cases tend to be so incredibly complex that the scope for error is perhaps even greater than in the domestic context. Furthermore, the absence of an established police force for international crimes can make investigation rather difficult; very shaky ground upon which to form a firing line or build an injection chamber.

    I am also not sure that you need to be a liberal, even in the broadest of enlightenment senses, in order to conclude that the destruction of human life as a punishment is axiomatically wrong. We might not regret Bin Laden’s death (the world is almost certainly better off without him) but we could quite consistently regret the fact that he was killed by an agent of the United States if the justification was punishment. A genuine conflict situation is more complex I think, but straight-forwards killing of a human by an authoritative body must always be something to be reviled. It demonstrates a complete lack of appreciation for the importance of that human’s live by an organisation that should rest upon the belief that all human life is equally valuable. The second authority starts thinking in terms of people not deserving to live we have started travelling down a very dark and dangerous slope.

    Having said that, and having disagreed with you so categorically, I would still agree that every question is worth asking!

  3. senex72 said:

    I am out of my depth here, but are you not leading towards the conclusion that the St.Helena solution is best? Permanent confinement with no possibility of escape in a situation of fretful powerlessness seems to meet the requirements of both debtor and retributive theories, at least for Napoleon, why not for the rest?

    • Alex Green said:

      Thank you for your comment senex72. It was not my intention to advocate the St. Helena solution, certainly current sentencing practices do not seem to be going that way. Just to clarify one thing though, a debtor based theory of punishment is a retributive theory. The idea is that the convict ( that is to say ‘the debtor’) should be the focus of the punishment, not the victim(s) (‘the creditor’).

      True life imprisonment would of course be an option that would fit an incapacitory theory of punishment and might arguably fit a debtor-focused retributive theory as well. The issue in this context is whether or not it would be necessary to satisfy either theory. Can the individual involved commit similar crimes or benefit from any ill-gotten gains if they have been removed from genuine political power by a sufficiently long prison sentence? I think the real question is (under these two theories in the way I have defined them at least) how long is long enough for those purposes? If we can achieve these aims with less than life imprisonment that should be enough.

      Now if we want to say that both the direct victims and international society needs to see a longer sentence for their own satisfaction, we are in the territory of creditor-focused retributive punishment. Personally I would resist such a move however, as I think that the justificatory basis for such a theory is a little shaky. For example, do we advocate people suffering for the benefit of others? Can we understand how the pain of one person can be ‘balanced out’ by the pain of another? This sort of thinking strikes me as suspect. It would be interesting to read a theory of punishment that convincingly linked the two however.

      • senex72 said:

        Thanks Alex Green, the matter is obviously complex. For Napoleon not to commit similar “offences” he needed life (or very long) incarceration, since he escaped once and immediately resumed his activities. and would have benefited (as indeed his nephew did). For others a shorter time might suffice I agree. St. Helena may not be in line with current judicial thought, but then you launch a strong attack on the triviality of current responses to these crimes, which prompted my thought that you might be seeking alternatives to execution – exile being a long-standing alternative right back to classical Athenian practice. But thanks. I agree the “pleasure/pain” utilitarian stuff wouldn’t make sense in attempts to balance pain with pain, because additive or interpersonal comparisons of utility/satisfaction are not possible, unless perhaps we measured only physical pain and adjusted for variable pain thresholds, if that could be done. A strange idea.

  4. Alex Green said:


    Thanks once again for your comment!

    Napoleon would be a very particular case then I assume. I would indeed like to see more consistent and thoughtful approaches to sentencing at the international criminal level. I am not sure that this would always result in a heavier sentence however. In Lubanga’s case however I agree and think that the length of the sentence was far too short.

    The scope of my article unfortunately does not run to alternatives. Perhaps it should. In particular the use of truth and reconciliation commissions instead of criminal procedure is an interesting debate within international law and global justice at the moment. I would be interested to discuss what the alternatives to prison were in this context though…

    • senex72 said:

      Alex thanks for your reply.
      I can only suggest we look at the classical origins of democracy. In Athens both imprisonment and the death penalty were very rare. Death could be by Hemlock -costly to import- or more cruelly by being chained to planks and left to die. Exile for life or various periods was taken as normal in the way we now seem to regard imprisonment. In addition, and quite normally, heavy fines, confiscation of assets (such as knocking down your house), loss of civil rights might be used’ and there were very strict procedures of scrutiny for office-holders.. In the Classical world prison seems to have been more of a holding-chamber (St.Paul chained between two soldiers on his way to Rome, Vercingetorix prior to death as a sacrifice to Jupiter etc).
      English courts banished convicts to South Africa or Australia, the French to Cayenne, or the galleys, or hulks, Russia to Siberia – and so the death penalty was avoided. Today I suppose we could try to contract with Russia or elsewhere to replace prison by sentencing convicts to labour-camps for agreed terms – by distancing them from their previous environmental background of criminal pressures this might be beneficial to them as well as cheaper. For egregious international crimes St Helens would offer Charles Taylor and his peers both salutary (and hopefully curative) frustration of their criminal ambitions as well as loss of gains therefrom, backed up by classical deprivation of property..

      As to Truth and Reconciliation that has echoes for me of the forcible conversion of Jews, or the fate of Juan Santos Atahualpa the last Inca.

      A question occurs to me: if a person is incurably criminally insane none of the beneficial remedies seem indicated: is not a peacefully-applied death penalty then better? (I mean without the US hoo-ha).

      Further guidance sought.

      • Alex Green said:

        Thanks senex72. When I said truth and reconciliation I meant more along these lines:


        As for looking to the classical origins of democracy, I agree that exile is too similar to incarceration within that context to be of much use to us. Indeed it seems less humane because at least prison guarantees continued existence in some form. For an Ancient Greek, to be exiled was as good as a death sentence in certain circumstances. I am not convinced that sending convicts to far away prisons gives us anything other than a logistic or economic alternative. Certainly if the conditions were appalling it would not be something we would want to commit to.

        The main objection that I have to such proposals is that they seem to be operating on an intuitional basis or through face-value analogies. Surely it is not enough in these circumstances to base our reasoning on conclusions that ‘feel harsh enough’? We must first decide what we want to accomplish by punishment and then find a solution that facilitates that end.

        On the question of the death penalty for those with ‘incurable criminality’, I remain totally opposed. Firstly, that is destroying someone for who they are, not what they have done. Such action seems totally antithetical to the idea that all human beings should be treated as of equal intrinsic value. Secondly, it assumes that death is better than certain modes of existence. I do not believe that this is a choice anyone has the right to make other than the person so existing. Apart from anything else it is a claim to know the unknowable. Thirdly, there is an important distinction between curability, treatability and manageability that such a policy completely overlooks. Certainly there seems to be a consensus that sociopathy cannot be cured but this does not mean that we should simply refuse to make adjustments for it.

        As a matter of personal reaction, I find the notion of death as punishment based on revenge a far easier to comprehend and less terrifying than a cold decision that certain modes of existence are not justified. Surely no person or collective should be encouraged to think about life along those lines?

  5. senex72 said:

    Thanks – I had in mind rather that a person using children as murderers might exhibit incurable mental traits that would perhaps nullify “well intentioned” regimes of sentencing, so making death the only option in the light of current knowledge.

    I don’t know the histories of many Athenian exiles in detail, but it was normal, and we have reports of them turning up in Sparta, Persia etc as well as other cities..Basically the expectation that wrong-doers would simply take themselves into exile was such that a defendant in a murder trial was given the chance, after his first speech in the trial, to leave the country if he wanted. Exile wasn’t the easiest burden to bear, for an exile might become “a beggar in a strange land, an old man without a city” But exiles could also re-establish themselves in another city and even, in some cases, gain citizenship in their new homes. The Athenian preference for exile over execution is the best evidence of their desire to use punishment to cure all parties to the wrongdoing. In leaving the community, the wrongdoer freed the victim and the prosecutor of the anger, and put an end to the social disruption plaguing the city. And he also himself gained the chance to start a new life in a context where he would not be the focus of anger and social conflict. Peace in the community was restored and the wrongdoer was also restored to life.

    For us prison does one of the jobs of exile by taking the offender out of the community,allowing the community to forget almost completely that particular wrongdoer, and so restoring a sense of good order.Community sentencing may deny that,for example youths strutting about with ASBO;’s and breaking restrictions with apparent impunity. Worse, prison denies the other, perhaps main, function of exile: the opportunity to re-establish oneself elsewhere, perhaps gain new recognition in a new life.

    I suggest Athenian practice gives us one answer to the question “what is punishment about, what are we trying to achieve?”.and that is to appease the collective anger and conflict and restore peace to the City. But this applied only to individuals who murdered or stole etc, where the people were prepared to accept exile and let the matter slide. Punishments of political crimes (such as you have raised) on the other hand were published and passed on as exemplary warning examples, to reassure the people of their protection against tyranny, impiety etc.This might suggest the use of severe methods against Lubanga in his home area, to reassure the victimised community and provide a legend to be handed down as to the fate of people who do that. The purpose was not reform or cure of the convict, but heal the divisive sense of grievance and anger. This function our judges often fail,

    • Alex Green said:

      Thanks senex72.

      Appeasing anger seems a little too close to the utilitarian notion of making people feel better at the expense of another for my taste. Whilst this does not entitle us to dismiss it outright as a theory of punishment, it seems to me that a very careful ellaboration would be required in order to avoid the slippery sloap that leads to sacrificing the good of the one to the whims of the many in a more general sense. To say that convicts are an exception to our general aversion to this idea is to pre-suppose a theory of punishment other than the appeasing of anger, based on some other kind of justification, perhaps based on the breach of some social contract. This is not a road I would want to go down, although others certainly have. Such a theory of justice tends towards revenge.

      On a more practical level, I do not think the notion of beginning a new life after crime is as simple as it once was (if it ever was). Communication and record keeping are such that even leaving the country does not guarantee a fresh start. There is also an element of ‘running away’ about such an idea; escaping what you have done rather than facing it. I’m not so sure that this would constitute a ‘cure’ in any meaningful sense. I also disagree that the main justification for exile is that it enables one to start a new life elsewhere, although admittedly the Atheneans might have thought it to be. To take the Australian example, to say that convicts had such an opportunity would be pure rhetorical subterfuge. They were stripped of their friends and relations, stripped of their property (such as they had) and sent to a land that was, at the time, ill suited to their form of life. In this sense, exile was more of a prison than prison. Prisons were at least visible within the societies that managed them and held some eventual prospect of release.

      As to whether exile would work in the context of our present discussion, where would one send an international criminal? Certainly one could keep them away from their own country but would this be effective within the age of modern communication? Would it be effective in robbing them of their illegally gained political benefits? I doubt that it would.

      • senex72 said:

        Thanks and I don’t want to weary you! The idea I gained from Athens was that the defensible purpose of punishment is to restore social peace, to end the community’s anger, so it is a healing process which in individual cases by exile gives a new chance of life.- after removing any ill-gotten gains.This would be utilitarian only in a medical sense. Fraud and malfeasance in public office were especially pursued with strict annual scrutiny.
        To try to adapt that (apart from negotiations with Siberia) I suggest internal exile to work-farms or public works projects would be useful, with any financial earnings used to recover costs and pay reparations. This seems to me morally better than using a private security and prison service, where as in USA the more numerous the crimes the higher the profits and the higher recorded GDP growth!

        But for political crimes such as attempted overthrow of democracy, impiety by violation of human entitlements, and for tyranny the punishments were condign, public and recorded widely as a public example, I suggest all possible action harms the convict for the good of others, even Truth and Justice commissions. Conversion, repentance in public and so on in the old Puritan “creepy stool” principle mean public humiliation which is as bad or worse than formal shunning by incarceration since it destroys respect and personal integrity of belief and practice.

        But for your murderous political criminals the Athenian lesson might be to adopt harsh treatment up to and including death (for some), but it must be in their home area . In that way this would be the “mark of Cain” idea. A jury drawn from the community concerned (not some foreign place) would decide on the community’s action: which might be ritual blinding (as in Constantinople), or being locked in a hut with a hyaena (as in witchcraft convictions) or whatever custom and practice made acceptable: the point is to restore the community’s faith in good order. Otherwise we risk the delays and ineffectual court actions that have (I read) followed the genocide in Ruanda, This has left a profound public fear there and so lead to prolonged war in the Congo, where the Huttu fled when their UN camps on the border were closed. Huge stockpiles of weapons were found in those camps I understand, probably purchased with US$aid refugee billions. And that war opened the way to resource seizure etc.:homo homini lupus est. – we are our only surviving predator..

  6. Alex Green said:

    Senex72, please do not worry about wearying me! I do not weary when it comes to legal theory; I just get belligerent.

    On the social peace point. I would imagine any incapacitory punishment achieves that aim. Prison, death or exile all strip the ability to act within the community and thereby protect it from any further wrongful action from that individual. If that is what you mean by social peace then I do not think that we need to be all that inventive when looking for alternatives. However, if by social peace you essentially mean that the community feels happier, which is to say no longer aggrieved by the crime, then we really are wandering into the realms of utilitarianism. The argument would be that punishment must make the community feel that the wrong has been righted. The difficulty with that is obvious: many would feel that torture or something similar would be required. Justice simply becomes revenge.

    Of course all punishments in some sense harm the convict. However it does not follow that all those harms are for the good of others. We might say that we are removing illegally gained property from a thief because it is wrong that anyone should benefit from theft, even if we do not have the facility to return it to the original owner (for example because they had died). Here the punishment could be called ‘harm’ but the benefit to others is not obvious. It would be too quick to explain this away by social satisfaction from the righting of a wrong. An equally plausible theory might be that certain wrongs just should be righted; that there is an axiomatic reason for doing so.

    Having said this I really like the idea of internal work projects, being in favour of them myself in principle. Not being an economist I do not know how viable such things are and whether we could justify them in a fuller context as a result. However, I do not follow how this excellent suggestion leads you to suppose that a local jury should have retributive sovereignty over the war criminal. Surely the suggestions you make (such as ritual blinding) are morally abhorrent? Giving people over to whatever custom or practice decrees seems to me an acceptance that morality is somehow relative to particular communities and that what they say goes. This surely must be wrong.

    • senex72 said:

      I am glad you like the idea of forging renewed community links for convicts by a shared social group work experience, and I think it sound as long as it is not short-term, like a spot of hut-painting under current restitution schemes, and is also well away from their old haunts (echoing the “exile” idea)..

      My rather extreme examples have at least brought to light what I suspect is your old euro-centric moral imperialism.. I suggest words get their meaning only from their use, which means their context. A “suitcase word” like “good” has to be unpacked in the light of the tradition in which it is used. It is beside the point to turn up in Uganda clutching your moral definitions which you claim are inscribed on the gold pates that fell at your feet from Heaven! Read the Song of Lawino – an epic poem written by Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek from N .Uganda: I found the sections on how Christian concepts were lost in translation thought provoking ( spinal deformity caused by TB was thought to be caused by the Spirit, so Christ reads as “son of the hunchback”). In our own A Saxon I believe there was no word for “righteousness” so “rightwiseness” was invented etc. In short if I want to get married or divorced I can only do so by asking the village or town I happen to be in what are the correct performative utterances. Quoting the book of Common Prayer just wouldn’t work..Didn’t our common law tradition arise because Norman investigators realised just that? Just as an English court would have had local assessors on the bench in Africa?

      I suggest if the punishment of crime or if dealing with wrongs does not satisfy judicial anger in the ancient manner then it has no point or purpose- we needn’t bother with it. Accept an abstract cheque and think it funny. Which is why it needs to be in the hands of a community jury.

      So I will press this further as a democrat wanting social justice now. We need to remove the domination of courts by “professionals ” skilled in making the worse appear better. (The current ‘Law and Order UK ‘ TV series illustrates that to my mind). Juries – who are the presence of the People in the court – are overawed and silenced by judges and law-operatives, who in fact are the ones who should have been silenced as they were in democratic Athens. We could do it here too: establish panels of 60 000 citizen volunteers in each judicial area from whom juries could be selected by lot for current cases, but allocated only at the last moment by lot to a particular case as they turn up for duty (to avoid rigging and threats). The juries would run each case – questioning and arguing – say at least 20 to each trial, more for important ones. Cases to be heard briefly (couple of days at best) and no appeals. Panels could be refreshed by reapplication. In that way skilled liars would not confuse the People’s sense of justice.

      So yes I would say the local people should have ultimate decision-making over their war-criminals, to produce socially effective (though sometimes to your taste cruel?) decisions; and indeed I suggest we spread that more generally.The deracination of society -let alone tribal societies – only creates rootless, bewildered, marginal people wallowing in a moral quagmire – as here in UK it has done, ushering in our Great Age of Indifference. Rational Abstract Justice has a lot to answer for.

      • Alex Green said:

        Thank you once more for your comment Senex72. Having said that…

        Oh dear. I thought we might avoid the cultural relativism debate here but it seems that this is impossible. The theory of morality you suggest is so deeply incoherent that it simply cannot be used to support any of the conclusions you present. The idea of verificationism or Wittgensteinian language-games dictating the moral force of a particular proposition is nonsense. I will attempt to show why in as little space as possible.

        Your arguement, as I understand it, goes something like this. Morality is a system of rules. These rules are dependent on understanding the meaning of certain words. Words only gain meaning through use. Convention determines use. Therefore convention determines morality. This is wrong because rational morality is not a system of rules but of reflective, holistic and interconnected principles of justification. I have not and would never claim that moral truth is ‘out there’ or as you rather uncharitibly put it ‘inscribed on gold plates’. That idea is senseless.

        Your mistake comes from supposing that knowledge of moral truth is caused by the object of proof in the same way as in natural science. The fire causes me to believe in it is hot because of its temperature. Morality doesn’t work in terms of causal proof. It is a matter of justification. I can know certain things are morally right or wrong because my justification of those things is better than all available alternatives. They are argumentatively impregnable. Thus what makes something moral is not the meaning of a word, on the basis that the word is exhaustive of morality, but rather the justification for attributing rightness or wrongness to something.

        If this does not convince you then consider the following point. You argue that as a democrat you want to see the power placed in the hands of local people to deal out justice as they see it. This is a normal moral belief about the way the world should be. If your belief about morality being purely conventional is true then that belief cannot be justified because it is purely a conventional belief. If I reject the convention I have no reason to listen to you.

        The reason that I do have to listen is that your belief is an attempt to justify a particular outcome: it is a moral justification in the normal sense for a particular state of affairs. So if you believe in the rightness of the course of action you advocate then you cannot believe in the theory of morality you posit. They contradict each other. In order to have a meaningful belief about the importance of convention you must believe that moral truth is non-conventional. Anything else leads to complete moral nihilism.

        Therefore my approach to morality is anything but euro-centric. It is universal in its most basic sense. We have to take this approach, otherwise we can simply not get anywhere. If my argument here is a little too dense (sorry if this is so – constraints of space!), might I suggest reading the first section of this paper: http://www.ejls.eu/8/103UK.pdf

      • senex72 said:

        Yes but I suggest morality is a sub-division of Practice: it is about what people do, about how they apply the “rules” if any. It is not about the justification of those rules as such: morality is about rules’ application, but politics is about changing rules.So if you argue that it is “wrong” to hand a child-soldier recruiter over to the jury of the Sovereign People, who will probably do nasty things to him, then you are seeking not to apply rules but to play Ugandan politics and change them in line with your own inherited coherencies, are you not? I suspect you are trying to use “law” to steer the ship of State towards some safe harbour in the endless sea of History: but there is no harbour, there is no goal, the aim if each society is simply to stay afloat, working the sails according to their own peculiar tradition.

        I disagree that conventions need some external, “higher?” law to justify them: what possible such justification could there be? How can I have access to some platform outside all the differing societies to judge them by? If you say “reason” then it is more rational that the whole world should perish rather than my little finger be cut off.There can be no “rational” morality outside the practice of existing communities, and you cannot escape that by refusing to believe this or that convention. I might well despise the UK legal system as a racket, but to win or use it I need to use its appropriate performative utterances within that practice or go under: saying “I do no recognise the authority of this court” is a political act, which is what you seem to be doling in your Ugandan anti-jury stance.

        I also suggest that morality as social practice is not some routine of convention. There may well be room for discussion and disagreement within the terms of any particular tradition, and getting to know a tradition is no easy thing: you need more than a book on estate management to function as local Squire! Dealing with discussions about the application of a tradition is not empty-headed and not nihilistic; just not universal.

        Every village in the jungle will have its codes, its definition of Man etc which it casts in terms of universality – it just happens that they are not universal, any more than the logic of tea-time discussions in the Inns of Court is..

    • Alex Green said:

      Then how are disagreements within traditions solved? How can you answer what constitutes appropriate behaviour within a particular practice without looking to the justification of that practice? Any argument that uses justification presupposes that justification is appropriate and thereby that morality is universal. In any event, I think you are simply conflating the mores of a particular culture with morality. I think almost every living moral philosopher and the vast majority of dead ones would agree that this is what you are doing. This is not a moral theory but a sociology of morals: both exercises are possible and neither is mutually exclusive.

      A sociological observation about what conventions or practices exist cannot give us insight into what should or should not be done. Apart from anything else there is a logical problem with what you are saying. Conventions and customs are facts in the world, moral propositions are normative: matters of what should and should not happen. You simply cannot derive what ought to be from what is. There is no basis for doing so in logic, be it formal or informal. ‘Hume’s Law’ as this is often called, is broadly accepted to illustrate that any claim about what ought to be must be separate from convention. If the argument is that convention ought to be followed, then that is a universal moral claim of the ordinary kind.

  7. senex72 said:

    Alex Green

    If you know what conventions or practices exist, you know what should or should not be done in this or that particular instance! I suspect you are stuck in what used to be called philosophy. A language is not a reflection if some prior metalanguage; you construct that fiction from actual practice upon which it must base its slender claims to consideration, and it will not be the same for all traditions, nor an independent guide (for example children learning to speak often form incorrect past tenses or plurals by assuming a language “rule” that is not in fact there, the rational moralist’s error)

    Traditions are far more flexible, the inheritors adapt and adjust them remarkably. They are not subject to your supervision except by conquest, or nihilism. Hume’s “no ought from is” conundrum led him, if I recall my reading properly, to the conclusion that “ought” is all a matter of “taste” – which seems to leave the universal rationalism theorists floundering more than ever. de gustibus non est disputandum How do you know, if you are setting out to “correct” a tradition, that your taste is better? What makes a rootless “moral theory” true or even possible? How would you know that you are not sincerely mistaken? How do you know that Hamlet was not bewitched by an enemy who sent deceptive spirits (since ghosts do not exist in our village), and that his uncle Claudius acted very properly in taking his deceased brother’;s wife under his wing? You can only say “that is not what the words in the play mean” and how do you know that? and how do you know they are right not to mean that, except from their Elizabethan context?

    Look at it another way: what is “marriage”? in our tradition the meaning is changing and developing according to circumstances , in other places it means something very different. What is your universal rational moral philosophical version of it? It is a question of sociological connoisseurship, knowing the correct performative utterances. For me it is a process that entails duties that arise from what is or has been done – an “ought from an is”, unless you choose to exclude social facts from the general class of facts – I don’t mind if you do.

    In short, I can see no basis for some set of meta-rules that could prescribe the conduct morally right for a sovereign Ugandan jury dealing with the organiser of a child army, simply by a decision of a European or International Court.: advice may be given, but prescription never.

    I would really like to know where this is wrong without just offering me deductions from premised truths simply assumed by an immaculate “rational mind”.. I do not exist because I think, I think because I exist, and “I am ” because “we are”…I feel justice and democracy require this sort if acceptance of human differences and rejection of your claims.

    • Alex Green said:

      Why do you feel that democracy and justice require acceptance of human differences? Why should we accept normative conclusions from the definitions of words? Why should we follow conventions and practices? Saying that a convention or definition provides a reason to act begs these questions. Sometimes conventions themselves are unclear. Should you stand up when a lady comes into the room out of respect? Doesn’t respect rather require that you not stand up? We need to know what is valuable about the idea of standing to show respect, what the true nature of respect requires, in order to answer this conventional conundrum. People who slavishly accept convention under the assumption that it is dispositive of morality were the sort of people who supported the continuation of slavery.

      My point is that it is impossible to escape from making universal moral arguments if you want to say anything at all meaningful about how the world should be organised. Wittgenstein, who pretty much founded the philosophy of language you seem to be assuming killed off rationalism, explicitly said that his work had nothing whatever to say on the subject of ethics, morality or religion. Also, the fact that Hume concluded that taste was important in not dispositive of the ought/is distinction. Kant came after Hume and set up the greatest rationalist moral system ever espoused on the basis of that distinction.

      I agree that moral truth cannot be assumed – which is what attributing it to sociological fact does by the way – and because of this I argue that the only way one can engage with moral problems is to justify propositions with rational arguments about the way the world should be.


      This is one of the most significant papers written in recent years within moral epistemology, supporting the position I have been defending here. It also provides an answer to your question about truth in interpretation, which is a highly complex matter. I would recommend reading Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Justice for Hedgehogs’ on this question. It is certainly more up to date than verificationism on the question of moral truth! As I said before, morality is not a system of rules. Your criticism of ‘meta-rules’, whatever you mean by that, is not a criticism of my position because I never defended them. We never reason about morality, only ever within it.


      The above paper is a useful supplement to the above more complex work, explaining why moral relativism is, to paraphrase the words of Bernard Williams, the silliest theory to ever be presented in moral philosophy.

      Your example about marriage conflates disagreement with indeterminacy. Certainly we can disagree in good faith about what makes marriage valuable and therefore what should and should not be recognised as appropriate moral actions in respect of marriage. These can include who should marry, when and how they should behave. None of this is proof of moral indeterminacy: it does not address the fact that some moral beliefs about marriage are more or less defensible than others. We argue about the correct interpretation of the physical universe all the time. That theories such as quantum gravity and string theory conflict has never been argued to disprove our ability to enquire into empirical truth.

      This is completely beside the point as far as morality goes, but: To say you think because you exist assumes, whereas I think therefore I am is a statement of (supposed) knowledge. (Not to say that I am a Cartesian.) Your assumption that you think before you exist holds a collection of other assumptions about ‘you’, ‘exist’ and ‘think’. The rationalist project is designed to show the logical necessity (and thereby the knowledge of) certain beliefs.

      • senex72 said:

        To clear one point: I don’;t think I said that I think before I exist? (though a foetus may have thoughts, I don’;t know): I was suggesting “I am, therefore I think” as a reversal:: perhaps not relevant but at the back of mind were discussions as to how essence might precede existence, or how existence might determine consciousness (Existentialism or Marxism) as to wider explanations as to why I feel something is “right”..

        That apart I suspect the answers to your queries lie in the material you have presented e.g. whether it is right to stand up for a lady, or that moral arguments have to be universal to be meaningful. People don’t “slavishly” accept convention even when they defend it ( e.g. “a slave is better off in Athens than in his own squalid encampment”) , and I suggest that to argue that we never reason about morality but only within it is the favourite rationalist trick of writing your conclusion into the premise.

        Now, having briefly ploughed through some of your references, Dworkin seems to exhibit to perfection how a man reasons within his tradition, how traditions can be examined and modified, how his tradition (US air-strike democracy) has been shown to be eminently not “universal reason of mankind” and incapable of exportation, indeed to be very much a localised phenomenon. (Perhaps If he wants to make the world more as he thinks it should be, then an analysis of the fissures in US multi-cultural society and the opportunity for revolutionary change might have been more a propos, since his moral commitments seem very much at variance with the actual practices of US Government) In short, this type of disquisition is an example of how conventions- morality, folk-ways, customs, ascriptions) can undergo a process of adaptation through discussion and experience, in US just as in my Ugandan village – where we don’t believe that contradictions resolve by taking sides on an “either/or” basis but by accepting “both/and”: because we reject your “logic” without being insane.

        Moreover, I suggest W.Pareto (in ‘General Sociology’) clearly argued that classifying the sentiments that promote action in men as a series of six sentiments, a given disposition (say a sentiment of solidarity) will lead to an action (A); and the same sentiment will lead to defensive arguments (B). There will be a purported relationship between A and B, but (outside experimental science) neither is in fact the cause of the other, they are simply two aspects of one drive( to oversimplify). Academics always want to explain themselves, but it is more useful to watch out for what it is that they want to explain:in the case of Dworkin you referenced it is perhaps a humanitarian dislike of a universe profoundly indifferent to our fate and morality,
        He writes”The only form of scepticism that counts, anyway,is the really disturbing kind, that chilling internal scepticism that grips us in a dark night,.(that).human lives signify nothing, nothing we do can matter when we and our whole world will perish in a cosmic instant or two That scepticism.. takes hold as a terrifying, overwhelming, substantive fact..” So I take it the root of his argument is an attempt to cheer us on our way, so to speak. I suggest his construction of a value-field embracing all values and underlying our moral truths (to abbreviate crudely) is still part of “our irrepressible disposition to deceive ourselves that we have discovered out there a timeless world we have actually invented for ourselves”.

        Except that we do not invent it for ourselves as individuals, we inherit it. This is not moral indeterminacy: if I go through the proper performative procedures, I am married in fact, not because I invent it; there are patterned expectations about me and my conduct (such as a duty to look after my nephews) within which I act, reason, feel, misbehave and criticise or am criticised. with regard to making the world a better place..We could set up a Weberian Ideal Type of “marriage” across which we account for a series of variations from loose association to death-penalty commitment, or compulsory marriage to cousins or sisters etc. The range is complex, but each form is not arbitrary and it is bedrock moral fact to anyone involved. I suggest to you societies do not work on “moral relativism” just because they are often different in their forms: anthropologists have found many societies with different moral codes, and religions, but none with none..There are in principle always right answers, but those answers are not always the same.

        As for Kant, I believe he claimed to have found Categorical (and rational) Imperatives in statements the reversal of which (if they are not tautologies?) will be self-contradictory: such as “promises must always be kept”. But thiis could apply to an endless number of such assertions: “men must never eat mussels in Mondays in months beginning with M” and so on. Anyway this seems to exhibit the limits of “introspective rational thought” because promises come in a range of forms and circumstances properly breakable under a range of conditions, as a matter of descriptive fact.- if you can explore the logic of the use of the word “promise” in every-day language.

        (Please allow for the necessary crudeness of abbreviation in the above)

      • Alex Green said:

        Thank you for your answer senex72, it is nice to have a proper philosophical discussion in connection with these problems. I think I should clear up two things about Kant and Dworkin before replying however. Dworkin explicitly rejects theories of moral objectivity that rely on metaphysical notions such as ‘value-fields’. His position is rather that moral epistemology and moral ontology are coextensive. The argument is the same as the thing that it proves. This is quite different from the presupposition that moral truth is ‘out there’ to be ‘found’. It is a theory of truth through interpretation rather than knowledge via observation. If you want to criticize both him and me for trying to defend a metaphysical theory of morality then by all means do so, unfortunately you will be tilting at a windmill. As for Kant, the categorical imperative is more complex than you have given him credit for. Certainly there are principles of non-contradiction within his theory but there are also substantive moral propositions that operate broadly in the way that I have described. In any event, my point in bringing up Kant was to illustrate that it is possible to have a meaningful stab at moral objectivity because of Hume’s law, rather than in spite of it. I am not so concerned with whether Kant was completely right or not.

        I find your characterization of my argument about rationalizing within morality as ‘a trick’ to be most unfair and unbecoming. Certainly denigration is not disproof! It is a common argument now, which is to say since theories of morality such as yours lapsed in popularity; however that does not make it wrong. In fact, where it comes from and what motivates it does not concern me as much as whether it is correct. You cannot dismiss an argument because of the motivation behind it, only if you have disproved it. I feel that I need to ask you the question once again, since you really haven’t answered it: if you are right and morality is conventional as opposed to justificatory all the way down, why should I obey convention? If you can show me why I should obey my society’s norms rather than simply rejecting them in favor of what a moral argument suggests is correct, then you will have convinced me. However I have serious difficulty seeing how you could do so. Your points concerning the psychological motivations of philosophers and descriptions of social concepts such as marriage are well phrased repetitions of your original assertion that morality is conventional. To that extent your conclusion is also assumed in your proof. The difference between your model and my own is that mine provides a means to reason morally that accounts for morality’s normative force. Yours does not.

        Having answered you, I feel that I can now go on to ask some questions. Firstly, what is the moral position if my society’s conventions require me to enforce them on other societies? Am I being moral if I follow these clear conventional principles? If not, what makes these conventions different from conventions that do not require such behavior? If we do not slavishly accept convention when we obey it, what manner of judgment do we make about conventions? Is the judgment empirical, psychological, sociological or conceptual? How do we decide how much weight to give conventions that we do not slavishly obey? What do we base this on if not a moral argument?

        In relation to your assertion that in principle many right answers exist, I would ask the following: is it not possible that this is explicable in terms of different contexts rather than different moralities? It is no refutation of objective and universal morality to say that, for example, I should obey a different set of table manners when I am in a different country. This is because it is the moral values of courtesy and respect that require me to be sensible to cultural difference. However, the same could not be said if I was asked to participate in a female genital mutilation ceremony. In the same way that I have a universal reason to be sensitive to difference, I have a universal reason not to promote senseless suffering. If you agree with my observations then I think you should also agree that the diversity of appropriate responses to different cultures stems from there being many different moral questions to which there is only ever one answer, rather than there being a smaller group of questions to which many answers are possible.

      • senex72 said:

        Thanks and very interesting – though I never thought “synthetic a priori” in Kant was much cop! But that aside, perhaps I should avoid my scatter-gun approach and ask one initial question: in what sense, if you were asked to participate in clitoridectomy ( I avoid ‘mutilation’ as I suspect this would smuggle in a hostile value decision on the quiet) would that be participation in senseless suffering, far beyond the normal courtesy of a ;polite belch at the end of a meal, and so one that you then have a moral duty to condemn ?

        (a) yes: if performed with a rusty razor blade, no anaesthetic and no antiseptic. In other words you could justify objection on procedural grounds, matters of technique and training; provided you allowed fairly for resource-availability in your objection
        (b) yes: if you were compelled to use your skills in the operation against your personal prejudices, or participate supposing you alone had a good razor and styptic pencil in your shaving set at that time, and time was pressing, so efforts were made to prevail upon you.
        (c)no: if you are not compelled to participate or to watch (and watching as the child stretches her hands to you pleading for help is indeed harrowing), and the perpetrators advance sound arguments for their operation; that is they are not merely acting cruelly, for pleasure, or carrying out the husband’s wishes for his wife now that he is going overseas for five years, even though such a procedure is not customary for women in this tribe.
        They may offer you explanations that this unnecessary female part occasions much agitation in teenage girls and renders them unsuitable for stable and happy family duties in life, and so is essential for the survival and contentment of the group – by among other good results avoiding killings through jealousy over unfaithful women, since every man is needed alive to cope with the economic and political position if the village. They argue it is better to save the girl greater pain in the future.
        (d) no: if you are facing the (for you) insoluble problem of suffering. Do we leave our wounded comrade on the field with a revolver and a cigarette? Knowing that the Afghan women will come out to cut up what remains do we shoot him there and then? Do we try to help and arrive at the dressing station with his newly- dead body over our shoulders and our trusty friend killed by a sniper’;s bullet on the way? In your own moral milieu you will have procedures for hard decisions like that which I suggest you will feel (you would say”argue”) are morally correct as ell as expedient; but in my village you are outside those guidelines, you are I suggest outside your moral depth: you are in a new learning situation. You are literally a child morally speaking. We all know that to be so, because you ask questions (like why corpses are buried standing up) that everyone knows the answer to.. So we do our best to explain to you why these things happen, why girls are cut and tattooed, etc. Your parents have obviously been worried about you and your inability to learn and understand and have sent you to us;and we will send you back better-educated, so that they know you have not been among wild men and savages, have not been wasting your time, but have at last been brought to see things properly, and they will be grateful to us and to the wisdom of their decision..

      • Alex Green said:

        Thanks for those questions about FGM senex72. I think all of them are important precisely because they are first order moral questions about whether or not particular responses to the problem are appropriate. My own take on why FGM is wrong is essentially this: Firstly, it is an unnecessary procedure in that it does not accomplish the goals it purports to. Now if, in a counter factual scenario, this were the case then we would be dealing with a different problem. Secondly, it is a means by which women are subjugated to the demands of a socially dominant male paradigm by virtue of their gender. It therefore treats women as unequal. Thirdly, in addition to this baseless foundation and endemic inequality, it tends to be excruciatingly painful. Pain is not always something to be avoided but compassion is something to be taken into consideration when making a moral decision. Obviously this is a very brief answer and setting out the entire argument would take far longer and involve me providing arguments for all of these conclusions that ultimately link back to arguments such as why it is morally good that morality is universal. I think this should give you the gist however. I could answer your questions about the soldier in the same way but doubt that it would prove anything or get my point across. There are so many difficult moral problems that I cannot answer them all for you. That does not make me wrong about moral reasoning and objectivity however.

        Now, I completely agree that I will often fall back on what I have been taught is moral in certain situations, often without realizing it. This is a psychological or historical explanation of how I came to hold the views I hold. Such an explanation is not what leads me to conclude that these views are appropriate however. How could a fact about culture help me to decide what is right and what is wrong? If there is a moral dilemma or I realize that my inherited beliefs are flawed, the reasoning I will engage in is the sort of moral reasoning I have been describing: looking to see what justifies the various available responses to the moral problem and judging which of those is right answer based on the strength of the justificatory arguments. When I am placed in a novel moral situation, to use your example when I am ‘in your village’ and not amongst people who accept my beliefs as true, I must do exactly the same thing. How could I not look to the arguments justifying various options? To do otherwise would be to abdicate my moral responsibility for my actions. Now, I do not dispute that I can learn more about morality from experiencing other cultures: I can examine new arguments, encounter new problems and perspectives, as well as simply learning more about the diversity of human life. Nonetheless, when it comes down to it I still have to make a judgment about what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes that will require me to not get involved. For example, I believe that belief in God is an immoral belief because it presupposes that human beings can be owned by a divine autocrat. I would never seek to stop someone believing through coercion however, because that would abrogate the values of respect and equality. There might be circumstances where I would interfere however, for example human sacrifice.

        As I see it, this all boils down to the following essential difference in our approaches: You have advanced an explanation of morality that links it to socially accepted behavior. I have advanced one linked to individual responsibility for making moral choices. In actual fact I think that both of these have something interesting to say. I would characterize yours as a sociological theory about morals however, as it does not account for how I simply have to reason when dilemmas occur. You might answer that when I am faced with a difficult situation like those you describe the appropriate thing to do is not make a judgment, or to go along with the crowd. That is still a moral argument of the sort I am describing however, as it purports to justify a response of some kind. It is impossible to have no response to a moral dilemma: that is what makes it a dilemma. As it happens I think that these two responses would be poor responses and I hope that you would agree with me. All I am saying is that one cannot escape making moral judgments when faced with questions about morality.

        Your example of corpses standing up is an interesting one. I do not see why not knowing why people bury their dead that way renders me ignorant or childlike morally speaking. Certainly I do not know the cultural background and history that this practice rests on but I do not see how that requires me to make any moral judgments whatsoever. If I was asked whether the dead should be buried that way, an appropriate moral response would probably be, “Er…I don’t really care. If you want to do things like this, then by all means do so.” There is nothing morally salient in the example itself.

        I suspect that the same is true concerning your earlier example of marriage. At the time I understood you to be asking something along the lines of ‘what are the appropriate components of a good marriage’ or ‘who should be allowed to marry’. I have to provide universal moral answers to both of those questions. My answers will almost certainly include some non-culture specific arguments, such as ‘because men and women should be treated with equal respect, X should happen’ but they might also include some culture specific ones, such as ‘because you do A this way, B should happen’. These are both universal statements; it is merely that in one the factual context is more specific. It is the fact that marriage is a social convention that makes me look to social norms, not the fact that moral reasoning requires me to do so. I would want a society to treat people equally within their own traditions, hence the culture specific arguments, but I would also want those traditions themselves to be egalitarian, hence the more abstract ones. Both are sorts of argument are universal however because they purport to be exhaustive of the circumstances to which they relate. If planet A has a tradition identical to planet B (light-years away and never connected in any respect), I would expect to be able to extrapolate from appropriate moral behavior on planet A to that on planet B. For my judgment to render different results, some salient factual consideration would have to have changed.

        Having considered your burying the dead example however, I now believe that what you were saying about marriage was something more along the lines of ‘what do I have to do be recognized as married here’ or ‘if I want to get married in culture X what steps should I take’. If this is so then I would say that these aren’t moral questions but instrumental ones. So if I am faced with the question ‘how should I bury this person of community X’ I should of course find out how they usually bury people and follow suit. This is precisely because I have already made a separate moral conclusion however, possibly something like ‘people should be buried the way that they would have wanted to be’.

        Once again, as I said a few posts back, yours is a theory of mores and not of morality. This is does not mean that it is wrong but that it is ill suited for helping us with how we should respond to moral questions. I hope I am doing you justice by so concluding; certainly I am doing my best to understand what you are saying.

  8. senex72 said:

    Thanks and that helps me clarify the ideas.
    The point about burial practices was that my village is saying you are childlike because you do not yet know the universally accepted way of burying people.which logically all the world should adopt.

    Because you come from somewhere else you know of other ways, and/or may not regard them as morally significant although they are different practices.So I think I am suggesting that both sides are giving what they understand to be universally valid moral reasons in terms of respect for the dead (or not) or in treatment of women, If challenged both will step back and consider the individual responsibility their view entails,.And each will offer a different and contrasting conclusion as an example or result of their moral rationality. So there is no independent, universal (if that is the right word) in the moral field or in morality which can adjudicate. There simply is no “correct answer” between the two sides and the search for one is profoundly mistaken; we are asking a question that functionally ought not to be asked,. We have pushed our language to beyond what it can be used for, seeking a universal or general moral solution that can promote or cause us to arrive at an agreed solution. It is like observing that Saturday causes congestion in the High and asking, how we can penetrate the mysteries of Saturday further;:but there are none, we have mistaken the category,we have taken an abstract classification of days as an independent causal factor. So the classification of some area of discourse as “morality” does not; give us a basic causal morality that is reflected somehow or causes somehow this or that tradition of practice. In the end perhaps I am committed to saying:an evolutionary struggle will result in the survival if the fittest? But that does not mean that the different answers are to be discarded by their practitioners in a fit of pique because they are not sired by a generalised rational morality., We should not abandon the answers any more than we have to give up shopping on Saturday or stop playing the flute because it is not an oboe, even though they are both instruments and can be compared, unlike say oranges and cement.

  9. senex72 said:

    Looking at your thoughtful last paragraph we may have a meeting of minds here. You ask me how we should respond to moral questions,on the basis of mere sociology or anthropology, and I want to say we do so by exploring the tradition into which we were born or brought up, just as we speak using our native tongue., So we look at the situation and we ask: how did they deal with this before? what have our wise men said? what challenges are we meeting? like the Incas or Aztecs faced with a Spanish invasion, we may conclude that we need to treble the rate of human sacrifice. So we look at the actual social practices and conduct of the group we regard as ours, and we patch it up and muddle along as best we may.This may not sound very exciting in terms of ideal rational independent moral righteousness,, it may be pretty work-a-day and lacking in some species-wide referent, but it is all we have got to go on. And as human beings that is what we have done – and perished sometimes in the attempt..- that is all there is for us..

  10. Alex Green said:

    Thank you for your answers senex72, it is nice to be progressing in this debate in such a constructive way.

    I think that you are right in as much as I am concerned with how to answer moral questions but I think where we differ is that I do not give any particular weight to tradition by virtue of its being traditional. If I judge it right to follow tradition it will be because there is some argumentative justification for doing this. On the burying the dead point, I would agree that there is no universally correct way to bury the dead in terms of pure logistics. I would say though that we could discuss burying the dead in a universally moral way: this would not be a question of logistics but one of considering the demands of respect and empathy with the mourning. Following a particular tradition might be required in the circumstances but that is only because of what universal values such as respect and compassion require. So there is one right moral answer here but it is not that one set of traditions is better than the other. Universal and objective morality makes room for certain traditions being morally neutral: if there is nothing to compare between them morally then the choice being posed is not a moral choice. Perhaps it is an aesthetic choice or some less complex one of taste. For instance, I might want to be buried at sea because my Grandparents were but at the same time recognise that this does not stem from the fact that being buried at sea was morally required or even morally ‘better’ than anything else. My relatives might however justifiably feel that it was morally required that my wishes be respected, which would morally require me to be buried at sea.

    In short, it all depends what questions you ask. Your examples of choosing between different burial rites, different traditions of marriage or the life of an oboe player over that of a flute player are all instances in which I would likely conclude that the correct moral position was ‘either choice is fine’. Now, the correct moral position in each of these cases is also probably ‘everyone should be able to determine which option they settle for without being coerced by others’. Both of these are substantive moral positions of the kind I am describing that allow for a great degree of variance in outcome. This is very different from the answer to the question ‘is capital punishment justified’, which I believe can be answered negatively no matter what preferences people may have. This is so because the latter question is different from the other three: it is not a choice between morally neutral cultural traditions but a choice regarding a punitive practice with direct moral implications. Morality has something to say about both and operates in the same way in respect of both but it is directly involved in one choice in a way that it is not in the other three. My concern is that our theory of moral reasoning needs to account consistently for both the way we chose between things of no intrinsic moral importance and things that are themselves highly morally significant. Accepting a universal, rational and objective morality is the only way I can see to do so without having to answer the impossible question of what is morally significant about convention’s conventionality.

  11. senex72 said:

    Thanks Alex. I suspect I owe an apology for falling into the error of “doing philosophy” and using ‘tradition’ as a ‘technical term’ outside its everyday usage. I perhaps should have written “culture” used in its broadest and all-embracing sense (not as ‘being cultured’ e.g. “enjoying modern atonal music”). It is something that surrounds us like air,we breath, that gives us or eth-class – our special niche defined for us by our ethnic group and level of social class – where we can stretch out our legs and feel at home, where people share our backgrounds and understand our jokes.You cannot choose to have it. you live and reason and moralise within it.
    I am not being determinist – a person can aculturate into a different moral milieu, but must then operate out of that one instead; it is like your native tongue – you can learn another, and sometimes very well,, and people will say “her English is very good, you would hardly guess she comes from Finland”, but you are then always on guard for those give-away slip-ups, you do become in a sense more “slavish” to conventions and adhere dutifully in a way you would not do at home. Intellectuals who want to claim ‘equality’ by down-playing their class, religious or ethnic origins often end up like that,and find themselves trying to reduce their roots to attendance at folk-music festivals or home-team matches, unlike most of us.

    Different things will have “moral importance^ in different cultures, and that itself will evolve., For example, burying not burning the dead emerged out of a shift in sentiments regarding respect for them at the end of Classical times. When it became important to venerate a death, it was later felt the whereabouts of the head was the vital matter (e.g. after a dismembering martyrdom and you wanted to build a church “on the blood”.) Or I have seen churches where the heads of all their bishops down the years are displayed in boxes along an aisle. Or perhaps we should eat at least part of the dead to acquire their strength and their soul and so allow them continued life? Or should we only eat part of our slain enemies to subdue and overcome them totally?

    So perhaps we don’t have to answer the question as to what is morally significant about a convention;’s morality since the culture is the morality itself. There is no rational moral helicopter that you buzz about in over my village and other villages round about, and from which you can suddenly parachute down crying “behold”. If you did that you would probably be worshipped or killed (or both). You could not,in the nature of things so to speak, offer an inter-cultural neutral “critique of reason.”. So the Romans built the Pantheon – the largest unsupported concrete dome ever built, until recent times, if you get my drift.

    • Alex Green said:

      Thanks senex72. I do get what you are saying but I don’t agree that this is what morality is, for the reasons I have put forward. The bottom line is that we can and do reflect upon the morality of various traditional and cultural practices all the time. At the very most what you are describing might pose a psychological limitation on my ability or willingness to engage with unfamiliar or contrary ideas.

      As to the idea pointing out the moral flaws of a tradition from a new moral position, I think that this has happened innumerable times throughout history. Rosa Parks is one good example, as are the suffragettes. These social revolutionaries were often treated with either the hero worship or animosity that you describe. Questioning the status quo is the very point and purpose of moral theory and practice. I think it would be just plain wrong to say that slavery was morally justified in ancient Athens purely on the basis that it was viewed as such. Just because moral views change does not mean that what is right and wrong has changed: morality is in this limited respect analogous to science, in that our beliefs about the universe do not cause it to change, they cause our understanding to improve.

      On a personal level, I completely disagree that my morality and my culture are the same and I think that pointing out key divergences is actually very simple. One example would be my Christian upbringing and its belief in the wrongfulness of suicide against my more recent rationally adopted belief that human autonomy requires that people be allowed to make that choice. I have abandoned Christian culture because I found it morally wanting. Now, if you suggest that this abandonment was itself a cultural decision then I am not sure what you mean when you talk of culture: what I mean is a set of received values, conventions, beliefs and rules as opposed to the genuine values and principles that comprise argumentative morality. For me the former is characterised by the obedience it demands in spite of its baselessness or flaws (such as conventions about burying the dead) and the latter by the rational necessity of its conclusions (such as the idea that humans must be treated as autonomous individuals of equal intrinsic value). For this reason I would never claim to know what is morally required in every situation. I would have to think about it in an avowedly critical way. As far as I can see this different from the sort of practical judgements I make when deciding how to best fit in with contemporary practices in a particular cultural tradition.

      Because of this distinction and the fact that I can question tradition at all, I think that we must answer the question of what is morally significant about convention if we are to be justified in following it. To say that morality is culture and culture is expressed through convention is to avoid the question and thereby act without justification. That would be morally irresponsible and not even something that we do in everyday life.

      Following on from this, I feel that you really need to drop this aversion to ‘doing philosophy’ as you put it. There is nothing mystical or elitist about moral philosophy. The strict separation between moral theory and moral practice is not one that my position endorses anyway. If we should use concepts in an everyday way then moral concepts should be viewed in the way that I suggest; that is the way we employ them in everyday reasoning. I certainly have never tried to think like someone with different moral beliefs in order to solve a problem and frequently disagree on fundamental moral issues with people from exactly the same cultural background as myself. To the extent that your view explains moral reasoning in terms other than this it is as much of a philosophical one as mine is. Indeed I would say that it is more so, as it seems to be very much in line with a particular set of philosophical systems popular around the middle of the last century (and which forms the foundation of most modern anthropology and sociology). Our disagreement, if disagreement it is, is certainly a philosophical one.

      • senex72 said:

        Thanks Alex: OK: perhaps this will help.

        Please: How would you justify the rules of cricket? I don’t mean the internal technical questions within those rules,such as defining ball abuse, but that set of rules as a whole? I won’t accept writing this off as “mere convention” etc, I am asking how you would seek justification for this set of rules as a whole, as a subset of justifications (if necessary) within your procedures for justifying or querying rules, customs,and cultural practices in general?

        My worry about “philosophy” is its tendency to use words in a specially-defined way that turns out to contain within itself the conclusions the practitioner wants to reach, but perhaps we could set that aside for the moment.

      • Alex Green said:

        Ok, as I understand it you are asking why cricket has rules from a moral point of view. I am not really sure why, since a game is by definition a frivolous pastime and not one that is likely to lead to serious moral questions of the type that have concerned us hitherto. I will do my best however, because you presumably know where you are going with this. My answer is that I simply do not see anything of moral significance in the rules of cricket: they are the rules of a game, not moral rules. (As I have already said I am sceptical of moral systems based on rules anyway. This is one reason I do not see convention as the basis of morality.)

        I will try to do as you ask anyway, as long as this caveat is understood. In order to justify the rules of cricket as morally good I would have to conclude one of two things: the rules are intrinsically valuable or extrinsically valuable. They clearly aren’t of intrinsic value, as that would imply that outside the context of cricket it is a bad thing to throw a ball underarm etc. They might be of extrinsic value. The salient question is extrinsic to what. It would seem reasonable that they are of extrinsic value for extracting enjoyment from a game of that form. To justify the rules of cricket is therefore to justify the game of cricket. To justify the game is to avow its capacity to provide enjoyment. Cricket therefore needs to be enjoyable as a matter of fact. Any judgement related to whether or not cricket is enjoyable is not really a moral judgement of the sort I am talking about. It is a question of taste. Does one find cricket enjoyable? If yes, then go and play cricket. True, if I could work out a way to make cricket more enjoyable, for example by replacing the bat and ball with a lightsabre and blaster bolt, then that might be a reasonable amendment. It would still be a matter of taste however, as it is contingent upon what is in fact fun. This is a judgement of a different kind from asking whether cricket itself is just. Such a question is nonsensical.

        I am prepared to make room for the possibility that cricket could be of aesthetic value: the game might be a beautiful one. I would not call this a moral judgement either, as I think that this type of judgements have more in common with taste than morality. This is a tangent to the question you asked however, so I will leave it be.

        However, if you were to ask whether cricket should be banned then I would say no because of the moral arguments in favour of people being able to extract harmless fun from pastimes that amuse them. These would be rooted in autonomy, the same value that justifies the right to commit suicide. The same values would lead me to conclude that there is no reason to make someone play cricket because of the facts of how cricket is. We might want to make schoolchildren play in order to educate them about English culture and gain an insight but this is again an instance of the game’s extrinsic value to some other end. These questions about cricket are not matters of taste but matters of moral justification. So in that sense I can justify the rules of cricket; I can justify the permissibility of the game’s existence and certain instances of when people should play. I am not really sure where this gets us however; it certainly does not impact upon my arguments in any way.

        This would change if the rules in question threw up important moral issues. If we were asking whether ritual torture was acceptable, then we could have a much more interesting moral discussion about the nature of torture, why it was wrong and whether those reasons justified the abandonment of the practice. I hope this in some way answers you.

      • senex72 said:

        Thanks Alex for your prompt, courteous and thorough reply. I hope we can now resolve matters or dig me out of the moral hole I have fallen into!
        So far I think I have advanced a number of propositions:
        that morality is about applying “rules” or value-judgements, principles and so on and politics is about changing them, so challenging the rules (etc.) politically takes us beyond agreed mora lanswers
        that our culture has all-embracing norms and we make our judgements within it in each case
        that cultural traditions contain within themselves prescribes reactions to change and failures, and methods of trying to deal with those: it is not a matter of mechanical subservience, but may offer reasoned (on its own terms) justifications for repetitive conduct (such as the systematic destruction and three-times rebuilding if unique flat-topped pyramids in N. Peru).
        that attempts to construct independent and systematic rational systems of moral justification have failed to find solid ground for that enterprise to base itself upon.if it operates from mere “rationality”
        that cultures express their moral judgements as universals because abstract language works like that. but those judgements are in fact only locally applicable in other people’s eyes: Herodotus’ conclusion “custom is king of all”.
        that (what seems to you) your rational and universal morality is in fact nihilistic in its impact on unrelated cultures: it is the moral and intellectual counterpart of the impact of the Spanish conquistadores.
        that human conduct is based on a classifiable number of sentiments, so that justifications (outside experimental science strictly defined) are in effect rationalisations merely
        that a general anthropology studying mankind’s available variations of conduct-patterns is a more hopeful path to a correct moral opinion than rationality per se.

        So my eyes light up when you write “the rules of cricket clearly aren’t of intrinsic value, as that would imply that outside the context of cricket it is a bad thing to throw a ball underarm etc ”
        Let the paradigm of cricket stand as a proxy for a “culture” and you want a justification for its rules beyond that offered within cricket itself, and you downplay it as game with no intrinsic values and so on. My suggestion is that that is what you do to all culture, and that is why such rationalism is nihilistic.
        Accepting the paradigm as a culture, cricket would condemn bowling underarm generally just as cultures do with non-compliance outside their own sphere – by ridicule, revulsion and so on.
        Moreover cricket like any culture contains within itself means of conflict resolution. Underarm bowling was experienced as a moral crisis in the great underarm bowling incident between Australia and New Zealand 1st February 1981. The Australian Captain ordered an underarm delivery on the last bowl to prevent N Z from scoring the six they needed to win. This was condemned as unsportsmanlike (ie unjust), perhaps technically was inside the rules, pperhaps was a no ball, and perhaps the umpire should have been notified or the captains agreed first etc etc, The issue has been partly resolved by adjusting the rules allowing underarm bowling in specified situations., The incident created moral furore and there are You Tube videos of heated debate, and my bet is it is still a worrisome issue like many moral problems..

        So I suggest your arguments seem to demand something more, a non-cricketing solution to a cricket problem so to speak You are asking cultures to give grounds for their judgements beyond the exploration of their conduct and resolution processes within their cultural tradition. In looking for some ultimate ground beyond the history of their practice you are asking for the humanely impossible. Perhaps more like a missionary, and like the missionaries likely to create bewilderment and misunderstanding as a result; which takes me nicely back to the Lords Resistance Army (that religious movement of community defence in the North?),and the child soldiers where we began..

      • Alex Green said:

        Thank you for your reply senex72, once again you have given my answer a good deal of thought and I am grateful for it. I will begin by answering your specific criticisms of my approach.

        You begin by equating my argument that conventions have no necessary normative force by the fact of their conventionality with the conclusion that there is nothing of intrinsic value in culture. The latter statement is not what I argued above (I was talking about cricket) and in any event this does not matter. The important relationship is that between the convention, rule or value concept and its alleged normative force. The position I have advanced is that only argumentative moral justification can provide genuine normative force within the context of our debate. Therefore arguments with universal moral roots can compel me to behave a certain way. As I did with cricket, I am quite prepared to make room for the fact that a particular culture is of aesthetic value in some way, perhaps even intrinsically so, so long as that does not get confused with the normative force of its precepts.

        You then go on to say that cricket should stand as an analogy to culture in so far as the latter deals with moral questions. Such an analogy is inapt. That aspect of culture that deals with moral right and wrong can only be understood as claims to what is right and wrong in fact, rather than right and wrong for the purposes of a game. A culture is a worldview, a way of approaching life. Cricket is a game. The only analogous merit here is that they both make use of rules. A direct comparison overlooks what the rules are used for. In cricket they are used in order to facilitate a good time. In a moral tradition or moral culture, various rules are employed on the understanding that they embody justice. You simply cannot understand morality by examining a game. They are not analogous.

        Your most fundamental error is in suggesting that I am wrong in arguing that a further justification for conventional norms can exist outside the convention itself. This assertion amounts to a declaration that convention has normative force because the convention dictates that it does. That is no justification at all: it is not even an explanation. You base this conclusion on two points: that cricket and culture provide their own internal justifications for particular practices and secondly that it is humanly impossible to look beyond those reasons.

        Your first point is mistaken as a result of your conflation between the rules of a game and the rules of a culture. Cricket provides no internal justification for its rules other than the idea that you are not playing cricket unless you play it this way. By contrast conventional morality, which is an aspect of culture, claims to provide reasons for what is just, right or good. Conventional morality thereby assumes objective morality by arguing that its own rules both reflect and define it. What would be the point of a cultural norm or tradition that held that outcome X was just for its own purposes but not just in fact? To what end would that get us? If there is some other end, how can that end be anything other than a universal moral one? Indeed I struggle to think of a single example of a culture that claims relativism in any situation in which it is not merely hoping to deflect an argument as to why it is wrong to make the moral conclusions that it does. Cultural relativism is a modern and wholly reactionary philosophy. So cricket’s rules provide no justifications at all and cultural traditions, in so far as they address moral questions, allege universal moral justifications for why they exist. Therefore neither of them provides non-universal moral reasons for doing anything.

        Your second point is mistaken precisely because your first is: since neither games nor cultures employ non-universal moral reasons they must be examined in respect of them. You are doing exactly this when you impute value upon cultures by virtue of their conventionality. Your claim that my view is nihilistic is a universal moral claim about the value and normative force of culture. Such an argument amounts to a claim that ‘no moral arguments are universal, except this one’. That is a self-contradictory and therefore illogical position.

        Moving on from my reply, I will try my best to ‘dig you up’. It is very true that we reason morally within cultural contexts all the time. Our cultures emphasise certain values and certain solutions to moral problems. However they do so because of the necessity of rational morality, not in spite of it. To say that my moral culture is just or that this other moral culture is just is to make a universal moral claim of exactly the same nature as the contrary position that all cultures are equally just because morality is culturally relative. You simply cannot escape universal morality. We can argue within cultural traditions but we are arguing morally about them whether or not we are criticising, supporting or following them. I might believe that my traditions are correct because of my cultural background but the reasons I employ to justify them will be universal reasons, not culturally relative ones. To attempt the latter justification would be simply repeat the convention over and over again, which as I have already argued is no justification at all. The same is true of solving problems within dispute resolution systems. We assume the appropriateness of the resolution system because of universalist moral beliefs about what makes for a just and fair resolution.

        Language mirrors this necessity, which is why moral claims are commonly expressed in universal terms. If this is not the case then why does language not express justifications in relative terms? I see no basis for arguing that language simply fails to allow for us to describe what is really going on. Why do we have no words for ‘just for us but not for you’? Once again, cultural relativism is a new idea that came into fashion (and went out of it again) long after various cultures began interacting. If morality was really relative then language would have developed to reflect that. The claim you make of language simply does not seem to be a good interpretation of reality. In any event, the fact that we can create phrases that allow us to communicate both universalist and relativist beliefs means that we are not faced with a linguistic problem: we can speak of both so the question is what view of morality is better justified. Since there is no way to justify relativism without making a universalist claim, then the latter thesis simply must be true.

        You are quite correct to remind us of the moral appropriateness of treating other cultures with respect and being mindful of our own intellectual limitations. I think however that you could do this as easily from a universalist perspective. The position you have adopted commits you to the rather bizarre logical contradiction I have highlighted above, as well as the rather eccentric claim that you have to make about the content and structure of language. I can see why this has happened but think that you could avoid it by simply viewing the values of cultural tolerance and respect as components of universal morality. The substantive, and far more useful, argument we could then have is how far these values require us to tolerate particular types of conduct in various cultural traditions (including our own). This would be an argument of political morality and I believe a better characterisation of our original discussion regarding the appropriateness of different forms of punishment in the international context.

      • senex72 said:

        I asked you not to treat the paradigm of cricket as a game merely, but as a proxy for a culture. It contains practices – such as judging a man’;s reliability for captaincy,, the order if bowling and batting, its moral view (sportsman-like conduct) and methods of conflict resolution etc. I fail to see what benefit is gained from some “universal” moral cricket view – such as suggesting weaker players should have wider bats in the interests of fairness, except destruction of the game or culture concerned.
        One sees this when we meet a universal claim in Islam with its destruction of venerated shrines and human life,etc because it knows (and would claim knows rationally, by profound scholarship etc) what is right in the face of traditional cultural opposition.

        Nor is the concept “man”(and his duties) universal: even we talk about a British man, a Frenchman, a German to characterise differences. and there is no universal human language. Conduct varies for the in-group against the out-group I suggest because there is no working concept of “man” as such (let alone man and his duties). It is widely recognised that we are born (or adopted) into society and others are not (Masai, Luo,, Kikuyu. etc).or that we are more or less impure (Hindu castes) or that some are ineluctably saved (Calvinists), or that it is a wife’s duty to sleep with her husband’s visitors as an act of hospitality, and so on.In the face of this it seems to me that talking of some logical, universal moral fact or rational discussion is simply bizarre.When what we actually have is a lot of people all talking at once. People clearly recognise that what is right for them is not so for others, and then we either assimilate, make room, or drive them out (Jews provide a good example of that fate for thousands of years)

        If we downgrade all this social reality to “mere” customs and games, that are somehow non-moral, not fundamental,and instead claim some vast all-embracing rational order of goodness, with its own logical compulsion, what is that built on? How can you sustain that claim?What good does it do? We might become good citizens of the Heavenly City, but pretty out of touch with neighbourhood ethnic conflicts like the arrival of the Vandals.The idea that there is some ultimate moral rightness or logical morality is as much for me a fantasy as the suggestion that the cricket we play is a reflection of the Perfect Game found in the sky somewhere – but may be that is not what you are saying?

        I suspect that as a generally well-disposed member of the urban trading classes who does not deal in fisticuffs, were I placed in a situation of ethnic or class conflict I can not be certain that i would not commit to murderous courses of conduct: ineluctable rightness through reason not withstanding. Subjects chosen at random to administer electric shocks to a learner as an experimental aid to learning (so they were told) continued to raise the voltage as instructed even when the unseen actor’s pleas became desperate and the voltage fatal- in all but about 4% of cases., Students separated into two groups – prisoners and guards – had to be separated after a week before the prisoners came to real harm Those seem to be moral facts about us. (Us = the ape whose culture has turned him from prey to hunter;.and who is surviving by his culture of weapons against which nothing can stand; and who by doing so has placed himself at odds with his original role as the hunted thereby experiencing radical spiritual division..We have a fundamentally divided nature that rational morality ideas fail to “cure”.)

        All that said I can agree with you that we can enter a rational., Socratic discourse of (moral) inquiry; because it is fundamental to my Western civilisation to do so. But I also reckon it will lead to a confession of ignorance. and doubt, not moral certainty.Being uncertain is the great achievement? Perhaps that is universal morality?

  12. senex72 said:

    One point that might help me at least? I can’t see why my view prevents me from joining with you and in making what are in logical form universally-applicable moral assertions, just like all the others do. So I could agree with you that Islam ought not to knock other cultures about (I am not committing you, just as an example), and it is totally wrong for them to buy children to use as child soldiers in Mali, or to enslave women there etc. If we act on this agreed moral imperative, we try to stop them. And as in Afghanistan do the same to them, ie knock them about, metaphorically or actually… And then someone says “what about the Elgin Marbles”? and we are are suddenly on a crooked road with endless charges and counter charges as we search for that elusive logically refined universal agreed solution.

    So could I say that I do not dispute the formal structure of moral assertions (cast always as they must be in the universal manner you defend when they arise), only I dispute your claims about the general applicability of any one version of them in the grubby world of localised existence. In effect., my view is a therapeutic praxis aimed at relieving you of needless moral anxiety. that arises on account of the formal implications oif abstract nouns like man, good, duty, slavery..

    • Alex Green said:

      Thank you for your replies senex72, excellent food for thought once again.

      The problem with your insistence that cricket should not be treated as a mere game and culture as mere convention is that my position is exactly that. To understand my position properly you must let me characterise them in that way. Having said this, in my reply on cricket above, I tried to indicate how one might morally engage with cricket even though this is the position I take. I think that it is just common sense that the rules of cricket are not moral rules and so they are disanalogous to the moral rules of a particular culture. I provided more detailed reasons for why that was in my last post. Let me briefly look at the individual examples of ‘the morality of cricket’ that you cite however.

      On judging a man’s competency for captaincy: I was not aware, I must confess, that this was part of the rules of the game. In any event, it seems to me that this process could be purely one of practical reason (in a straightforward instrumental sense) and not a moral question at all. A person might be good for captain in the same way that a certain body type would be good at running or lifting weights. We would just need to find the correct physical, social and mental traits to maximise the success of the team. Such an instrumental judgment does not say that we should do this: it rests upon the assumption that we will because we want to make the team better at winning under the rules. Choosing the captain is not a moral choice, it is the assumption that we want to win that is (you can quite easily play without caring about the score I believe). The only moral issues that might come into it are ones of fairness if, for example, our captaincy had been promised to one individual and we decided at the last minute to change our minds. That would not be an internal consideration to cricket however. It would be a consideration of fairness and promising analogous to any other circumstances in which the same problem might arise: jobs, other games or taking a girl out for a date. I am not seeking a ‘universal cricket morality’, simply universal morality and the rules of cricket. I would never suggest that cricket’s rules should be altered to make them more just: I believe that I stated in my last post that the main reason to play the rules of cricket is that you are not playing cricket if you do not. Whether you should be playing cricket or not is an ancillary question.

      On ‘cricket’s moral view’ or sportsman like conduct: I understand sportsmanship to be playing a game without trying to exploit or avoid the rules and whilst refraining from rude or otherwise socially inappropriate behaviour. Certainly these are contextual judgements (because we will need to know the rules, as well as something about commonly accepted social conduct in those circumstances) but the virtue seems to be one that we could apply to the games of any culture and to various games within any particular culture. It would therefore be a moral claim about how people should behave in sports in general: a universal moral claim.

      On methods of conflict resolution: general considerations of justice and fairness contribute to these systems. How would we feel if all the rules of cricket were written down and they omitted a rule against bribing umpires? Would we still allow it? Personally, I think not.

      Moving on from cricket, you say that there is no concept of ‘man’ but instead concepts of ‘Englishman’, ‘Frenchman’ and the rest. This is simply not true. We do have concepts of human being and a great deal of ink has been spilled on the question of what makes a good or a great one. Both general concepts about people and nationalities exist and are used in our everyday thought all the time. Indeed, we are often encouraged (rightly I think) not to think along national or ethnic lines, because this leads to prejudice. The notion that we are incapable of dealing with people outside our culture as equal partners because we have no concept of human is also clearly false. The most powerful country in the world was built on an immigrant population from various different places. Further divisions, like the Hindu caste system or the British class system, are plainly offensive to the extent that they enforce a lack of social mobility, because of the universal moral arguments we can deploy in favour of such mobility and the human equality that it rests upon. The idea that a wife should sleep with her husband’s visitors whether she wants to or not is so repugnant that I don’t even know where to begin. Certainly I accept the diversity of belief and culture that you cite but I simply do not see that argumentative force attaches to the mere fact of its existence. There is nothing bizarre about universal morality in the face of diversity: diversity is a fact in the world, not a moral proposition, and as such does nothing to unseat universal morality. Any approach to diversity, whether total and unscrutinising tolerance or meticulous and judgmental homogenisation, will need to be based on universal moral arguments if it is to be justified. The fact of moral disagreement is not evidence that there is no right answer, just as the fact of scientific disagreement is not. To jump from uncertainty to indeterminacy is illogical. Our default position should be the former, not the latter. Uncertainty is a good thing, because it stops us from jumping to conclusions too quickly. Unlike indeterminacy it is not immutable however, and we can advance arguments that lead us away from uncertainty and towards the truth.

      As to there being no universal human language, bizarrely and fascinatingly enough, that seems to be a matter of genuine debate in linguistics. Nonetheless, it is not necessary that there be one. I understood your point to be that languages (plural) prevent us from arguing relativistically about morality. My counter argument was that this common facet reflects the universal(ish) belief and moreover the logical necessity that morality is universal rather than relative. We do not need a universal language for this to be so, just means of understanding each other when we argue. The multiplicity of languages might make this more difficult but it is scarcely impossible.

      I also don’t see why universal claims have to be abstract, which is what you then seem to go on to imply (sorry if this is not so). I can make a global claim about the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment but that is an eminently practical judgment, related to what to do here and now. Universal arguments need not be general: I might make a claim that in the particular social context of such and such a time and place it is appropriate to do something that I might not do in other circumstances. This would require me to provide argumentative justification for the significance of that particular social context. This would still be a universal moral argument however because I would be making universal claims about the relevance of these particular instances. I am not a Platonist and have never suggested that we should be seeking perfect forms of all our things. Moral judgments are both practical and universal: the point is that their justifications come in the form of universal moral arguments about the significance of particular facts. Morality can therefore address both general and specific questions.

      You then go on to suggest that human beings are not perfectly moral; I agree. That is why we engage in moral argument in the first place: to address our individual and collective fallibility. The fact of that fallibility is not a ‘moral fact’ but an empirical fact in respect of which we must take a moral position. I think that the appropriate one is trying the best we can to reach a self-reflective, consciously moral and thereby rational perspective. I do not believe that this is contingent upon my coming from a Western culture, although this might explain how I came to hold the view. Plenty of people outside the Western cultural paradigm accept this position because they are convinced by the moral arguments in favour of it. This gives me hope for the future.

      I am pleased if you now feel that you can engage in universalist moral reasoning, however I am not sure what you mean when you say that one set of conclusions cannot be correct. I could read you here as saying either: i) no existing moral theory or set of beliefs is completely correct and thereby we should not simply proceed to enforce it without question, or ii) that the very possibility of one view being correct does not exist. I would agree with the former and disagree with the latter. The question of whether a right answer exists is separate from the question of whether or not we have it. I think that the structure of argument, the idea of choosing between alternatives due to varying qualities of justification, implies that there must be right answers to moral questions (even if some answers are that out of options A-Z, both A and B are permissible). I would however accept that finding them is sometimes (although not always) an incredibly complex task. I do not see this complexity as an excuse not to try however: it is a matter of moral responsibility that we engage with any moral problem that presents itself to us. This is, I accept, rather austere but I see no other defensible way to approach the problem.

      As to the question of what universal morality is based on, the simple answer is the one I have been giving all along: that it can only be based on the force of argumentative justification. There is nothing outside this that gives it normative force. The full philosophical answer for this is very complex of course and I can only suggest reading some of the papers that I have cited above (including my own: http://www.ejls.eu/8/103UK.pdf #shamelessplug) but the best account I think is Ronald Dworkin’s most recent book ‘Justice for Hedgehogs’, until of course I publish something at length about this. 😉

  13. senex72 said:

    Thanks for making me think again about my stance. I contend that you are selling the typical errors of rationalism. You downplay cultures, games etc as mere rules – your opening sentence above is to me a damning indictment of your arguments. In choosing a captain we look for character, leadership, courage, and skill that we judge will enable him to meet the qualities ascribed to the role – he need not even be the best opening bat or bowler. None of these can be specified in your “rules of the game” and you are missing access to the moral world by ignoring that.
    In the same way we do not speak by using language according to rules (what a lot of them we would need to have in our head) which is why a universal language is a rationalist fantasy and would be impoverishing were it achieved. Just think about what you would learn about me, the judgements you would make, if you heard me speak – caught the intonations, the harsh consonant in “us” if I said “uz” etc When we shift our language we do far more than simply convey the same data. by a different way – most of what we say, our gestures, intonations, simply do not compute. Compare a business letter from New York to one from France.
    No. Rules are about explaining to beginners, about inductions, or about sorting out confusions when, by exploring what we in a sense already know.we go about unfolding the tradition further.To participate you have to have got inside the tradition concerned,a tricky thing,like seeing gymnastics as an art form and so instantly feeling that a move i flawed. You are like a person struggling with a book of colloquial phrases in a foreign land, or a well-educated Indian disembarking at Heathrow for the first time, seeing the dandelions and exclaiming “Ah! a host of golden daffodils”.

    Look at the learning-curve:: trial and error,trial and error, we keep making mistakes, but fewer, until suddenly the curve levels out; no more mistakes – we have understood. That is how traditions, comprehension, resolve moral questions, and not by grasping mere logical rules.

    Basically rationalism as you present it flounders in the face of indeterminacy:because you misrepresent it as uncertainty and so start a hunt for the missed truth, the unicorn in the stable. It is the same mistake as the “argument from design” that is offered by people who cannot accept the indeterminacy of evolution: “there must be a purpose” , there just must be a convincing logical structure to moral conduct that resolves queries. We feel the “design” of something is somehow “in” it; but having been the subject of an intriguing test I don’;t believe that. Given an unfamiliar simple human artifact we were asked its purpose or use, and no on in the group got it right’ the design was not just “in” it for us to fathom. Similarly we all feel there ought to be a logic in moral questions, an ultimate argumentation,from a framework of human intentions to which we can appeal: but there isn’t. And as with my strange artifact we cannot ever know, If we “misapplied it” in the maker’s eyes, would that be a “real” mistake? And just because different answers are given as solutions to the same problem that does not mean they invalidate each other, any more than the fact that bats navigate by sound and birds by sight mean one of them has got it wrong; or that hammerheads detect prey by electricity and other sharks by scent or sound means these are mutually invalidating solutions.
    So I say kindly and politely again: please look at Pareto in his “General Sociology” on sentiments, look at Michael Oakeshott on tradition, look at current thought on the social survival of man; and stop imagining that your logical argumentation is anything more than a classificatory game played in a world where people are struggling with actual bloody and difficult solutions in the face of intractable indeterminacy. Case study: how would you rationally resolve the “problem” of a law made to protect the rights of children and end mutilations by forbidding circumcision (male and female) below the age of consent in Germany? Except by illogically allowing different answers to the same question at the same time?

    • Alex Green said:

      Thank you once again senex72, it was interesting to revisit this argument after such a long time and with so eloquent an interlocutor. It seems we have reached an intractable disagreement. Perhaps it is better to agree to disagree than simply begin repeating ourselves. A few final comments on my part before I do so however:

      I must say that your characterisation of my understanding of captaincy is unfair, as the traits you list are easily included in the social and mental traits that I mention in my answer above. A particular personality type could be selected to increase the chances of the team’s success and is done all the time. The fact that such traits are not predicated by the rules of cricket supports my position rather than detracts from it: notions like courage that sit across various games and traditions enable us to make such judgments about the suitability of people for various roles. Courage is after all a virtue; a moral concept argued about within the universalist tradition. Selecting someone for a role in a game on that basis has no direct moral implications however, which was really my point. The selection is wholly instrumental to the assumption that we want to win the game, which is why games are different from cultures: the latter aims at justice through its traditions, the former exists in the form that it does entirely for its own sake.

      I agree with you up to a point about language and the way it develops but fail to see how this impacts on my arguments relating to morality. (I leave aside the fact that languages demonstrably do have rules, which is why people always harp on about split infinitives and the like.) As I said above, morality is about the justifications of particular outcomes or behaviours through argument. There are many linguistic forms in many languages we could give the same argument. It is the content of the argument that matters, not the form in which it is presented. It is the content of relativistic arguments about morality that refute themselves, not the form in which those are presented. The only impact reformulation has is that it makes this contradiction easier to detect. It is to this end that I did so above.

      Your disagreement with my belief that uncertainty should be the default position rather than indeterminacy is very eloquent, but I cannot see anything in it that amounts to an argument; it is rather a restatement of your belief in indeterminacy arranged in a variety of metaphors. I apologise if this is simply the result of my limited intelligence. One thing I would say is that there is no analogy between evolution and moral truth. One is a large scale mechanical or biological process and the other, in the form that I have cast it, is an individual intellectual activity. If this is an error, you need an argument to show me why, not merely a list of various beliefs and metaphors addressing the way morality works without any adjoining justification. This would be as much for my benefit as anything else: given that I do not agree with you I would need to be persuaded, not ‘intuition pumped’ away from a position that I hold by virtue of a set of rational justifications. I suspect that we won’t get much further in this endeavour though, as the content of your position has already been made clear in your earlier comments.

      As I have said before, I accept the utility of sociological studies of mores and what they can tell us about the role of conventional moralities in different cultural systems. That is not the question my arguments about morality address. Sociological descriptions and models of mores and moral questions about right and wrong are separate intellectual enquiries. I do not have to reject one because I accept the other, as I result of the logical propositions I have stated above.

      Your example of the German law would be addressed in the ways I have already indicated: supplying arguments for and against the proposition and looking to the consistency and force of each. Arguing about that example in any way would involve considering universal moral arguments, as I believe you have already accepted. The correct moral position would be the solution justified by those arguments and against which no other argument operates as genuine refutation. I could attempt to provide you an answer myself, but it would only be a sketch due to the constraints of space and thereby not get us very far. In any event, since the only way you could attack it would be to attack the content of my arguments, which would imply the superiority of some alternative position, the idea of a best answer would be supported rather than refuted by the exercise.

      Your last paragraph is as telling to me as my first sentence is to you. The view you offer cannot provide anything other than moral nihilism: indeterminacy where people cannot tell right from wrong and can only hope to muddle along with the commonly accepted norms of the place and time in which they live. I would need to have such an extreme position proved to me before I moved away from the more moderate position of uncertainty that I currently occupy. Simply pointing to disagreement cannot do this, because it is disagreement that supports my belief in uncertainty. Given that fact and unless you have a hitherto undisclosed killer argument up your sleeve, I think we must let the matter rest. It certainly has been interesting to investigate this question with you.

  14. senex72 said:

    Thanks you and I am sorry not to have been oif greater clarity.

    I suppose working out of “social constructivism”(categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions) and haunted since my teenage years by Karl Mannheim (consciousness is determined by life,as in: Ideology and Utopia) and all that followed in postmodernism etc (truth is made not discovered) -all old hat no doubt) I was not likely to be able to come to terms.
    I am acutely aware that to claim that all knowledge and beliefs are the products of socio-political forces is self-defeating (if it is true, then it too is merely a product of socio-political forces and has no claim to truth and no persuasive force)..So however clumsily I pursued it I am on guard against what appears to be your claim to the role of an apparently privileged outsider.I think KM himself tried to arrive at a PlatonIc claim by proposing a class of “free floating intellectuals” only loosely tied to the class structure who could value and synthesize the ideas of other groups – a flattering role I seized upon as a student, of course., but which I have drifted away from into accepting indeterminacy.

    I am obviously now out of touch, but economic sociology seems more open these days; Middleman minority theory has been very revealing, especially as a scapegoat theory. Simple as is the underlying theoretical idea, middleman minority theory clarified the commonalties that underlie some of the ugliest hatreds in human history, rendering them amenable to sociological analysis.Indians in Uganda, Jews in Europe etc experience bloody outcomes as a result; so I asked how you would solve a single moral rule for Jews, Islamists and Germans when circumcision is outlawed, without preaching separation, special exceptions and so on: which is to say giving up on a single moral rule of “mutilations are bad” simply because the meaning ascribed is indeterminate. Are we going to say that intentions are the determining factors? If so are we not back to relativism and local significances etc? If not, can all eusocial species (ie species living in multi-generational groups which contain individuals capable of altruistic acts) be judged according to objective rationality without regard to their (unknown) intentions? (I’;ve forgotten: is intention necessary for intentional action?) Are social ants, for example, guilty of genocide? Or is the slaughter of opponents and risking of punishment an act of heroic self-sacrifice (like Milosevic).

    Anyway I am sorry we have to give up: I suppose it could be pistols at dawn to see what God thinks? Good luck with the book! right or wrong it will at least be lucid judging from your kind notes to me., (even if I fear perverse !!). From my own experience unless you are lucky there is not much money in it though, and lots of trouble..

    • Alex Green said:

      Thanks senex72 but please don’t apologise, you were quite clear in your arguments above. The sociological side of things is indeed very interesting and I will do my best over the coming years to immerse myself in it more thoroughly. It has been excellent discussing this with you and a genuine novelty to end a debate so amicably: a real pleasure!

      • senex72 said:

        Thank you again for the opportunity to review my own thoughts. I believe that History has emerged as the fundamental method we now use to apprehend reality and its changes and developments; truth in one era (or even culture?) can be different in another, so in that way truth is “made not discovered”; I think history has removed the classical idea of universal and.timeless moral truth in the same way entropy destroyed the certainties of 19th century physics: and how except through history and filiation of ideas could we understand the emergence of the Higgs bosun and the replacement of certainty by probabilities in our exploration of matter?

        So a cheeky request. If you produce a new paper (or even a book!) that trenches on this as a problem in moral judgement would you be kind enough to send me a reference for it please?

        Anyway signing off at last…..

      • Alex Green said:

        I certainly will; give SJF an email and ask them for my private email address, I will send you the draft of something I have been writing recently, if that will be of any interest…

      • senex72 said:

        Alex: Very much so – academic journals are often out of my reach these days – thanks.

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