People who act dishonorably in one context are likely to act dishonorably in another. People who use force improperly in one context are likely to use force improperly in another. This is both obviously true, and easily verified from everyday life.
We judge deeds in order to judge men. Since our judgments of men can be wise or unwise, plainly then our judgments of deeds can be correct or incorrect.
It is often difficult to judge a deed. This does not mean that such judgments are merely matters of taste.
Suppose we wish to enter into a contract with one of two men, either Bob or Dave. Both Bob and Dave have in the past broken a major promise, though under very different circumstances, both Bob and Dave have killed a man, though under very different circumstances. We need to decide which one is most likely to keep his word and least likely to harm us.
Bob promised to do certain things in return for a large sum of money. He failed to do the things he promised, and he later killed the person who gave him the money in a surprise attack.
Dave promised to do certain things, in return for not having his arms and legs broken. He failed to do the things he promised, and he later killed the person who threatened him in a surprise attack.
Obviously we should contract with Dave, not with Bob. But why is it obvious? How do we know this? How can we know it? How are we capable of knowing it?
Dave's actions were different from Bob's actions because Dave's actions were morally different from Bob's actions.
Consciously or unconsciously we evaluated the actions of Bob and Dave, and concluded that Bob's actions were gravely evil, and therefore were a sign that he was likely to do similarly evil things in future. Dave's actions were not gravely evil. The issue was not killing or breaking promises, but wrongful killing and breaking of promises. We concluded that Dave's actions were different from Bob's actions because they were morally different. We concluded that our intended relationship with Dave would be different from the relationship he had with the person he killed because it would be morally different, and that if we were to have that relationship with Bob it would be morally similar to the relationship Bob had with the person that he killed.
Someone who came to a different conclusion would not merely have different arbitrary subjective values about what constituted evil, as one person might like chocolate ice-cream and another person vanilla ice-cream. A person who came to a different conclusion, who thought that Dave and Bob's deeds were similar, would not merely have different subjective tastes, he would be deluded or foolish. He would be wrong. He would make incorrect and unwise decisions about who to deal with, who to associate with, who to contract with, and what contracts should be about.
In correctly concluding that Bob's actions were morally different from Dave's actions and that therefore we should contract with Dave, we consciously or unconsciously used various principles of natural law
(I am using the phrase “natural law” in the sense that Thomas Aquinas and John Locke used it natural rights and obligations — that law which is rightly enforceable in a state of nature, not in the sense of physical law — for a discussion of natural law see Natural Law and Natural Rights). The same phrase has two meanings that are now understood as being very different. This causes much confusion, which we usually avoid by using the phrase “natural rights and obligations” instead of the phrase “natural law”. Unfortunately that phrase cuts us off from the past discussions of this question, which was invariably phrased in terms of law rather than rights. It also makes an artificially great distinction between natural law and customary law. In avoiding one confusion, we foster another.)
Among the principles of natural law that we used, consciously or unconsciously, were that contracts should be honored, but that a contract should be for value or it is no contract - that coercion is wrong, but that self defense is right. If someone arbitrarily assumed different principles of natural law, he would make incorrect predictions about people's behavior; he would be less accurate when he attempted to predict the future behavior of Bob and Dave. If someone arbitrarily assumed incorrect principles of natural law, he would be making incorrect assumptions about the nature of man.
For example if he falsely assumed that self defense was merely another form of coercion, as has been claimed in debates on the right to keep and bear arms, he would falsely conclude that Dave was as inclined to violence as Bob. If he also falsely assumed that a contract need not be for value, as has often been asserted in debates on the social contract, then he would falsely conclude that a relationship of trust existed between Dave and the extortionist, and would therefore falsely conclude that Dave was untrustworthy.
We can easily and correctly infer moral truths from facts about the world, and can easily and correctly infer facts about the world from moral truths. Everyone does this all the time, and those who claim it is impossible to do this, do it as much as anyone else.
To predict the behavior of inanimate objects we use, consciously or subconsciously, a theory of such objects. To predict the behavior of other men, we use, consciously or subconsciously, a theory of mind.
Such a theory must contain the categories of good and evil. A theory without these categories will fail to predict other people's behavior in precisely those cases where it is most important to us to predict their behavior.
Because any reasonably accurate theory of mind needs to employ these categories, and because deeds need to be attributed to these categories reasonably accurately, good and evil are true universals, just as “man” or “tiger” are true universals. It is possible to be wrong in our judgments. We need to make our judgments objectively correct. We can achieve judgments that are mostly accurate, though there is no simple mechanical rule for doing so. The fact that it is sometimes difficult to determine what is the true judgment is no reason to think that such judgments cannot be true or false.
To predict men's future conduct from their past conduct, we need to categorize their deeds, in order to say that one deed is like another and one deed is unlike another, to say that one person is like another and one person is unlike another. The most important category is moral.
In order to predict that conduct that is most important and most difficult to predict, we need to judge men and deeds as just or unjust, fair or unfair, good or bad.
Plainly therefore there exist correct and incorrect categorizations. The categories are not arbitrary. Arbitrary categories are not useful in predicting conduct. Correct categories are plainly useful in predicting conduct, and must be based on sound theories of men and the world, rather than arbitrarily created from nothing.
Hume's argument presupposes that normative concepts are based on “ought”. This does not seem to be how people use such words in practice.
Approximately half the uses of “ought” in everyday speech are clearly non normative (“you ought to bottle the beer when the fermentation starts to slow”), and we have no way of telling a normative use of “ought” from a non normative use of “ought” except by appeal to our already existent intuitive knowledge of what is normative. Thus a definition of “normative” in terms of “ought” is simply false, and thus will lead to false conclusions.
In practice people mostly use normative words not to command, but to justify fearing someone, to justify taking some unpleasant action against someone, or to argue that they themselves should not be feared, to present someone else's conduct as part of a pattern that predicts a likelihood of causing harm, or to present their own conduct as part of a pattern that predicts the opposite.
The argument presented here assumes that normative concepts are not based on “ought” but on “evil”. “Evil” in the sense of “suffering harm” is uncontroversially objective, in the case of the more extreme, obvious, and direct forms of harm, such as the violent death of Bob's creditor. This proof takes us from the uncontroversial objectivity of “suffering evil”, as Bob's creditor and Dave's extortionist suffered, to the controversial objectivity of “doing evil”, as Bob did to his creditor, and Dave did not do to his extortionist. It shows us why some deeds, though far from all deeds, that objectively inflict evil are objectively evil deeds.
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