Even though for the podcast we read only the equivalent of three short papers by Anscombe, there was an awful lot of ground that we didn’t cover, because Anscombe had so much to say about such a variety of topics. One thing we didn’t cover was her dismissals of moral philosophers from Butler through Mill, which she presents very, very cursorily at the beginning of “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Those dismissals are varying levels of fair and accurate, but they’re worth understanding despite their haste. Also, they’re hilariously rude and I just wanted to summarize them, so fuck you. Here we go.]
Butler’s all “Guys, don’t worry, we know what is right and what is wrong. We can argue all day about how or why something is wrong, but we all seem to get that things are, in fact, right and wrong, right? Maybe it’s enough that our conscience tells us so.” That sounds really nice, but people do awful shit all the time and then go, “Someone had to teach that six year old a harsh lesson. It was the right thing to do.” And we’re like, “Was it, though? Because that was pretty fucked up.” So conscience isn’t any good.
Hume says, “Oh, by ‘truth’ I don’t mean statements about what you ought to do, I just mean statements about how the world is. Look, I’ve shown that ‘ought’ statements aren’t true!” No you didn’t, you asshole; you just said, “Hey, if you assume that I’m right, then I’m totally right.” And if he’s right, then we also can’t go from “I haven’t eaten today and I’ll die if I don’t” to “I need to eat,” which seems dumb but happened for historical reasons we’ll get to. So Hume is wrong but at least he has a good excuse, kind of. But he also says that our passions determine what is right or wrong, but his definition of “passion” is so broad, it’s really just anything you really, really want to happen. Which, obviously. I think we’ve all passionately wanted some dirty, dirty things, amirite? That doesn’t make them right. Otherwise, what fun would they be?
Kant says, “You have to come up with a law for yourself, a law that you would want everyone to always follow. If your laws allow lying, then you can’t be upset when everyone lies all the time, right? But that would be awful. So don’t lie.” But if you can just fucking make up your own laws, then where does the force come from? You can always unmake them, too, or write convenient laws that don’t require any special behavior, like “No stealing from red backpacks except by people with blue backpacks and a green shirt on. There, I can totally get down with universalizing that law, since I will never have a red backpack.” He totally misses how easy it is to make up convenient descriptions of an act, even though somehow, I swear to God, every sweatpanted, self-satisfied smug-fuck in Philosophy 101 manages to come up with that objection, even if he can’t think in conditionals to save his life or wear a hat forward like an adult.
Bentham and Mill are convinced “pleasure” is the highest good, but if you say, “Hey, having sex and reading a book are enjoyable for pretty much entirely different reasons, so I’m not sure how I can, like, compare the two. Can you maybe clarify what you mean by ‘pleasure’?” all they have to say back is, “Uhâ€¦ you knowâ€¦ feeling good? Do the one that makes you feel best.” “Right but –” “FEEL MOST GOOD BEST FEELINGS.” This is obviously bullshit, but for some reason they’ve gotten away with it for centuries. What asshole builds a theory of morality on such a vague concept? Plus, if pleasure were just a private, internal feeling, then how could it tell us how we’re supposed to treat other people? How could we expect to share it across persons in any relevant way? “How much pleasure are you feeling?” “Like a thousand units.” “Well, I’m only feeling five units, but maybe my units are bigger than yours?” Fuck that. If pleasure were going to be the basis of morality, there would have to be more to it than an internal feeling, but good luck explaining that. Aristotle couldn’t do it, Mill couldn’t do it, but hey, maybe you’re the hero we need.
Finally, Mill also makes the same rookie mistake Kant does: he overlooks the insane number of ways you can describe an act. It’s almost impossible to accurately assess all the outcomes of an act, which Mill understands, but his solution is to say, “Oh, well then just follow rules that produce the best outcomes in general.” So let’s say your ex invites you to a party. Should you go? I don’t fucking know; it depends on who is going to be there, what kind of party it is, how long you stay, what you do, and a whole bunch of stuff you can’t possibly assess with any accuracy.
That’s why we use rules — to smooth out the peaks and valleys generated by uncertainty. You only look at particlars when the rules conflict. As I think we can all agree, “Go to parties” is a rule that in general maximizes pleasure, even if you end up at the occasional boner of a dorm party or some shit. But here’s the thing: there are tons of rules that going to this party falls under, rules like “don’t hang out with your ex,” another real fucking smart rule. So one rule says “go,” and the other says “stay.” Now what? Now we’re back to square one, trying to figure out who is going, and if there will be good beer or just pisswater, and a bunch of other stuff about this particular party that we can’t possibly know. That’s exhausting and inefficient and what the fuck, right? But given how many ways there are to describe any action, that’s pretty much always going to happen: there will always be conflicting rules and we’ll never know what the right thing to do is.
In conclusion, pretty much fuck everyone who isn’t Aristotle, who was totally on the right track, or G. E. Moore, whom I will tell to fuck off later in the paper.
[Thanks again to the gentlemen of PEL for having me on! It’s never a bad time and I can’t wait to come back. –PB]