The Basics: A Socratic Dialogue
By Bryan Caplan
Glaucon: Guess what? I’m writing a book about moral philosophy!
Socrates: Cool. What do you say?
Glaucon: I’m a pragmatist. We should do whatever maximizes human welfare.
Socrates: So the main point of the book is to advocate open borders?
Glaucon: No, no, no, Socrates. I said I’m a pragmatist.
Socrates: You don’t think allowing low-skilled immigrants to get jobs in the First World would sharply raise human welfare, on balance?
Glaucon: I suppose it would. But voters wouldn’t accept it.
Socrates: But if your thesis is correct, they are morally obliged to do so, no?
Glaucon: Well, who’s to say? You think you’ve got a hotline to moral certainty?
Socrates: I’m struggling to understand your thesis. You begin by asserting we should maximize human welfare. But when maximizing human welfare is unpopular, you back off. Then when I point out the inconsistency, you accuse me of unwarranted confidence in my moral judgments.
Glaucon: I bet you’re one of those deontologists, who thinks we should follow moral rules regardless of the consequences.
Glaucon: Look, we just have to start with popular moral intuitions, and weigh them against each other. You may not care what other people think, but I do.
Socrates: Glaucon, I’ve listened to you long enough. Frankly, you need to stop writing, learn the basics of moral philosophy, and start over.
Glaucon: [stunned] There’s no need to get personal.
Socrates: It is nothing personal. But you’re conflating an array of moral distinctions. Almost any philosophy professor who teaches ethics would be appalled.
Glaucon: [laughs] Why don’t you tell me what you really think, Socrates?
Socrates: [laughs] Happily. Let’s start with the first distinction: moral realism (also known as moral objectivism) versus moral relativism (also known as moral anti-realism). Moral realism holds that at least some moral claims are literally true. Moral relativism holds that all moral claims are literally false.
Glaucon: Then no one’s a moral relativist, because everyone makes moral claims.
Socrates: Not exactly. The smart moral relativist will reply, “Relativism is a meta-ethical claim, not an ethical claim. Sure, I concede that murder is wrong. But that claim is still literally false.”
Glaucon: I don’t know anyone who says such things.
Socrates: Look in a mirror. When I asked you if you favored open borders, you objected that voters wouldn’t accept it.
Socrates: Well, if we really should do whatever maximizes human welfare, and open borders genuinely maximize human welfare, then what moral difference does it make if voters disagree?
Socrates: Right. None. Unless, perhaps, moral claims are never literally true in the first place.
Glaucon: Not sure if I follow.
Socrates: Well, suppose I say, “There are no unicorns, but here’s what I think about unicorns.”
Glaucon: Kind of silly.
Socrates: Indeed. But once I say that, you shouldn’t be surprised if my claims about unicorns are internally inconsistent, even senseless. After all, my whole position is internally inconsistent – or, to be more charitable, “poetic.” So is your book on moral philosophy actually a thinly-veiled work of poetry?
Glaucon: God no!
Socrates: Then you’re a moral realist. That means you need to strive for logical consistency, even if most people don’t.
Socrates: Once you say (a) we should maximize human welfare, and (b) open borders accomplishes this, you are logically bound to either revise your moral principle or embrace open borders. What people accept is irrelevant.
Glaucon: Oh, now I see where I went wrong. I don’t actually think we should maximize human welfare to the exclusion of all other goods.
Socrates: But you think we’re morally obliged to maximize some weighted average of goods?
Glaucon: Right. That makes me…?
Socrates: … a consequentialist, but not a utilitarian. A utilitarian says we should maximize human welfare. A consequentialist says we should maximize some richer function.
Glaucon: Isn’t that just a tautology?
Socrates: Probably not. Suppose two actions’ consequences have equally valuable overall moral consequences. But one requires you to tell a lie. Should you tell that lie?
Glaucon: Uh… no.
Socrates: Then you’re not a consequentialist. You’re a deontologist.
Glaucon: Aren’t deontologists those crazy people who think consequences are morally irrelevant? We shouldn’t tell a lie even if it will save the world?
Socrates: Nope. Consequentialism is the polar position that NOTHING BUT consequences are morally relevant. Deontology is the rest of logical space. This is just standard usage among philosophers. Most deontologists hold that consequences are morally relevant, but aren’t the whole story.
Glaucon: So where does my pragmatism fit in?
Socrates: Unclear. Some people treat “pragmatism” as a synonym for utilitarianism. Others treat “pragmatism” as deference to popular moral views. Sometimes “pragmatism” is a sugar-coated word for moral relativism.
Still, I suppose you could equate “pragmatism” with the moderate view that consequences and other stuff morally matters. But when a word is this muddled, it’s probably best to avoid it.
Glaucon: [sigh] So you’ve got absolute moral truth?
Socrates: I wish! Sadly, noting that the word “pragmatism” is confusing fails to make me morally infallible.
Glaucon: I’ve listened to you, but I feel less able to write my book than before our conversation started.
Socrates: That’s because you see the state of your knowledge more clearly. Now you know that you’re not ready to write your book.
Glaucon: You’re a piece of work, Socrates. What would your great treatise on moral philosophy say?
Socrates: It’s complicated. But let me tell you what my book on moral philosophy would not say. It wouldn’t equate moral realism, moral certainty, and moral indifference to consequences. It wouldn’t equate utilitarianism, social acceptability, “pragmatism,” and open-mindedness. And before proposing any general moral theory, I would test it against a wide range of hypotheticals.
Glaucon: Doesn’t sound very pragmatic.
Socrates: If “pragmatic” means “appealing to intellectually lazy readers,” you’re right. You’re a talented writer. If you just kick a bunch of half-baked claims toward the goalie of public opinion, you’ll score. But Glaucon, you’re better than that.
If you were writing a book about pool, you’d start by getting a clear grip on the basic concepts. You wouldn’t equivocate between pocket billiards and swimming pools. You wouldn’t assume that people who don’t play 8-ball don’t play pool at all. You’d be open to the possibility that shooting hard is a bad strategy, even though almost every novice does it. Moral philosophy isn’t easy, dear Glaucon. But if you don’t take the time to get a clear grip on its basic concepts, it’s impossible.