31 December 2008

Jonathan Bennett on Revisable Morality

There is a difficulty about drawing from all this a moral for ourselves. I imagine that we agree in our rejection of slavery, eternal damnation, genocide, and uncritical patriotic self-abnegation; so we shall agree that Huck Finn, Jonathan Edwards, Heinrich Himmler, and the poet Horace would all have done well to bring certain of their principles under severe pressure from ordinary human sympathies. But then we can say this because we can say that all those are bad moralities, whereas we cannot look at our own moralities and declare them bad. This is not arrogance: it is obviously incoherent for someone to declare the system of moral principles that he accepts to be bad, just as one cannot coherently say of anything that one believes it but it is false.

Still, although I can't point to any of my beliefs and say 'That is false', I don't doubt that some of my beliefs are false; and so I should try to remain open to correction. Similarly, I accept every single item in my morality—that is inevitable—but I am sure that my morality could be improved, which is to say that it could undergo changes which I should be glad of once I had made them. So I must try to keep my morality open to revision, exposing it to whatever valid pressures there are—including pressures from my sympathies.

(Jonathan Bennett, "The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn," Philosophy 49 [April 1974]: 123-34, at 133 [italics in original])

Note from KBJ: I thought of animals when I read this. Many people exclude animals from moral consideration, even though they would never think to neglect, much less harm, a dog or a cat. It is natural to feel sympathy for animals who are suffering. This sympathy can be a basis for revising one's moral principles so as to take animals into account. Perhaps the sympathetic impulse would be activated if people saw how their meat is produced. Have you taken the time to investigate this? Have you visited a factory farm or a slaughterhouse? Have you looked at images or videotapes of slaughter? If you haven't, then you are suppressing your sympathies, thereby protecting your moral principles from revision. This is bad faith.