Hew, Drew, Lou, and Sue all promised their mother they would regularly write and let her know how they were getting on during their round-the-world trip.
Hew wrote his letters, but gave them to the other people to post, none of whom bothered. So his mother never received any letters from him.
Drew wrote her letters and posted them herself, but she carelessly put them in disused boxes, attached too few stamps and made other mistakes which meant none of them ever arrived.
Lou wrote and posted all her letters properly, but the postal system let her down every time. Mother didn't hear from her.
Sue wrote and posted all her letters properly, and made brief phone calls to check they had arrived. Alas, none did.
Did any of the children keep their promise to their mother?
Source: The moral philosophy of H.A. Prichard, as critiqued by Mary Warnock in What Philosophers Think, edited by J. Baggini and J. Stanghroom (Continuum, 2003)
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 79.
The rhyming scheme doesn't help this from sounding a bit silly, but as Baggini writes in his brief discussion of this, "The problem of the holiday letter touches on one of the most fundamental issues in moral philosophy: the link between agents, actions, and their consequences. What this thought experiment suggests is that ethical reasoning cannot focus on just one of these aspects."
As always, extreme positions get us into trouble. If you try to say actions are all that count, then all four of the children met their promise to write their mother regularly. If you only care about consequences though, then all four children failed to meet their promise to use letters to let their mother know how they were getting on. Either lens yields a uniform result, but clearly there are some differences in how "good" each child was at living up to their obligations. Does this really matter? As Baggini also points out:
The context may be mundane, but the issue in moral theory is important. Do not be misled by the genteel scenario. The question is: at what point can we say we have discharged our moral responsibilities? It applies not only to sending news to parents, but to cancelling orders for nuclear attack. The idea of what is reasonable to expect is crucial here. If we were talking about an order to cancel a nuclear attack, then our expectation of the checks and extra measures that should be taken would be much higher. The extent to which we are required to make sure the desired outcome actually happens thus varies according to the seriousness of the outcome. It's OK to just forget to set the video recorder. Just forgetting to call off the troops is inexcusable.
This makes sense. In my own writing on justice, I made the point that:
Intention and causation are not necessary for an action to be judged good or evil. Those judgments are based on objective reality and whether or not the actions promote or hinder the long-term survival of life. Praise or blame for these actions is tied to intention or neglect of intention. The magnitude of reward or punishment doled out from society should be proportional to the intention or the neglect.
Based on these criteria, we see that Hew and Drew get very faint praise for their halfhearted attempts to achieve their goal, while Lou and Sue cannot really be blamed for the poor consequences of their undelivered letters. If news of the children's travels were as important to their mother as the calling off of a nuclear bomb, then only Sue would be judged as diligent enough to have found another means to convey this information—she alone called her mother, and presumably discussed more than just the state of her letters. Sue alone gets praise for going beyond the letter of her promise to uphold the spirit of it as well. Since we all know that mothers sometimes worry excessively though (hi Mom!), Sue's extra efforts may not be such a big deal. They may not even be laudable if those efforts served to enable a mother who's too neurotic to let her children live their lives (definitely not talking about you now Mom!).
This is all simple enough, but this first discussion touches on a much deeper issue: where do these obligations come from and how do we judge whether they are good or not? It's this second point that makes this thought experiment interesting to me.
Harold Arthur Prichard, whose philosophy was the inspiration for this thought experiment, wrote an influential paper in 1912 called "Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?" In it, Prichard "contended that moral philosophy rested chiefly on the desire to provide arguments for the principles of obligation that we pre-philosophically accept, such as the principle that one ought to keep one's promises or that one ought not steal. This is a mistake, he argued, both because it is impossible to derive any statement about what one ought to do from statements not concerning obligation (even statements about what is good), and because there is no need to do so since common sense principles of moral obligation are self-evident. The essay laid a groundwork for ethical intuitionism and provided inspiration for some of the most influential moral philosophers, such as John Rawls."
This is incredibly lazy thinking. Common sense principles of moral obligation are self-evident? To whom? And just how commonly held are these? How would Prichard resolve a moral dispute between an American evangelical Christian and an Afghani fundamental member of the Taliban? Both of those people uphold moral traditions from centuries of family and religious obligations and are certain that their common sense principles are self-evident. Does Prichard have any suggestions for what we should do in this case?
[Prichard] "explains how people should guarantee the accuracy of their moral intuitions. Clearly, observations can be misleading. For instance, if someone sees a pencil in water, he may conclude that the object in the water is bent. However, when he pulls the pencil from the water, he sees that it is straight. The same can occur with moral intuition. If one begins to doubt one's intuition, one should try to imagine oneself in the moral dilemma related to the decision. If the intuition persists, then the intuition is accurate."
Well that settles it, doesn't it? (Of course not.) At least Prichard is leaning on a type of Golden Rule thinking, which often proves effective, but since human emotions are motivated by underlying wants / desires, moral intuitions can be felt in very different directions once people become convinced they want a certain thing, whether that's 40 virgins in heaven, a higher form of reincarnation, or to wield power like a Neitzschean Superman. I appreciate that in the early 20th century Prichard is searching for something non-religious to rest his moral beliefs upon, but he ends up on such a non-existent foundation that he might as well just declare himself a relativist. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong elaborates:
"The deepest challenge in moral epistemology, as in general epistemology, is raised by a skeptical regress argument: Someone is justified in believing something only if the believer has a reason that is expressible in an inference with premises that the believer is already justified in believing. This requires a chain of inferences that must continue infinitely, close into a circle, or stop arbitrarily. Academic skeptics reject all three options and conclude that there is no way for anyone to be justified in believing anything. The same regress arises for moral beliefs . . . The simplest way to stop this regress is simply to stop. If a believer can work back to a premise that the believer is justified in believing without being able to infer that premise from anything else, then there is no new premise to justify, so the regress goes no further."
For Prichard, that stopping point is one's obligation. "While he believes that moral obligations are justified by reasons, he does not believe that the reasons are external to the obligation itself. For instance, if a person is asked why he ought not torture chipmunks, the only satisfying answer that could be given is that he ought not torture chipmunks. ... Prichard concludes that just as observation of other people necessitates that other people exist, the observation of a moral obligation necessitates that the obligation exists."
Nonsense. You shouldn't torture a chipmunk because that is not an action that leads to the long-term survival of life in general (my definition of good from an evolutionary philosophy point of view). Torturing a chipmunk obviously hurts that singular chipmunk's survival, and the action degrades the value of chipmunks in general in the mind of the torturer who is then more likely in the future to disregard the interests of this valuable species in support of its ecosystem, which we and many other forms of life share. I think that's a satisfying answer, and one that avoids an infinite regress or random stopping point. As I said in my published article on Bridging the Is-Ought Divide:
Existence is the ultimate end, and survival is the thing that must be desired on its own account. Prior to existence – or after it is extinguished – there are no human desires. If the state of existence is not satisfied, then there is no one to answer any further inquiries. There would be no more passions to drive our reason. Even if our ontological questions about the universe have no regressive end to them at the moment, our moral questions about our place in this universe do have an end. They end with whether or not we will continue to exist. The fundamental nature of being implied by the use of the word is, is the very thing that helps us get from is to ought. We are alive. We want to remain alive. We ought to act to remain so.
That is how I derive my duties and obligation, and hopefully I've met mine now for this ongoing blog project in my rather recently chosen career as an evolutionary philosopher and writer. But what do you think? How do you determine the obligations you try to live up to in your own life?