I greatly admire the work of Harry Frankfurt. More recently, he has argued that love and caring, in the form of volitional necessities, are the sole source of our practical reasons. One corollary of this is that moral requirements are not important independently of our attitudes of love and caring. The argument to this conclusion is interesting. I have constructed it below from quotes from his 2006 book Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting it Right (pp. 22-3). I have some idea about where the argument goes wrong but this time I’m more interested in what others make of the argument.

The Argument:

P1. ‘Nothing is important if everything would be exactly the same with it as without it.’

P2. ‘Things are important only if they make a difference.’

P3. ‘The fact that they do make a difference is not enough to show that they are important… [because] [s]ome differences are trivial.’

P4. ‘A thing is important only if makes an important difference.’

C1. ‘Therefore, we cannot know whether something is important until we already know how to tell whether the difference it makes is important.’

P5. ‘It is possible to ground judgments of importance only in judgments concerning what people care about.’

C2. ‘[Therefore,] unless a person knows what he already cares about, … he cannot determine what he has reason to care about.’

C3. ‘Nothing is truly important to a person unless it makes a difference to what the person actually cares about. Importance is never inherent.’

C4. ‘Moral requirements are not genuinely important in themselves regardless of anyone’s beliefs or feelings or inclinations.’

Any thoughts?

12 Replies to “Frankfurt and Moral Requirements

  1. Well, for one thing, C1 does not follow logically from P1-4. C1 makes a claim about the temporal order in which we know things, whereas P1-4 make claims about material implication. Trivially enough, if there is some psychologically salient property that is coextensive with the property of making-a-difference, then someone might use that property to diagnose the importance of a thing.
    Let’s say that candidates for the property of importance happen to be BRIGHT RED if and only if they make-an-important-difference. Let’s also say that I know P1*-P4*:
    P1*. ‘Nothing is important if it is not red.’
    P2*. ‘Things are important only if they are red.’
    P3*. ‘The fact that are red is not enough to show that they are important… [because] [s]ome reds are dull.’
    P4*. ‘A thing is important only if it is BRIGHT RED.’
    In this case, I am justified in concluding that a BRIGHT RED thing is important, even if I do not know anything about how big a difference it makes. So the falsity of C1 is consistent with the truth of P1-P4.
    This is noteworthy because the rest of the argument seems to pivot on that whole time thing, but when it comes to anything we love or care about, we get lots of loud-and-bright psychological signals that are (at least plausibly) coextensive with properties like Importance and Making a Difference, of which we may have no reflective awareness.
    (Anyway, I think the argument goes haywire after C1, because it starts making a difference what “making-a-difference” is supposed to amount to.)

  2. I have a couple of thoughts. One is that he needs an argument for P5, which is what is doing the real work for him. Of course moral requirements are not objectively important, if you assume subjectivism about value. The other, smaller point is that it almost sounds like he is saying that things that have significant causal effects on things that we care about are important, but not necessarily the things that we care about themselves.

  3. Yes, P5 seems like the kicker. I’d also like a general account of “importance” as a property of moral requirements. What would a true, but unimportant, moral requirement be? It seems like we’d still be obligated to obey such a thing, so what work does “importance” do?

  4. Duckrabbit,
    that’s interesting. I wonder if your argument is analogical. Your premise P4* already states what is an important difference (assumed earlier). Of course if P4 was allowed to make a similar statement at this point, then C1 would not follow. But, at the point of P4 and P4* it is still supposed to be open what the important differences are.
    Dale and Paul,
    I have a similar worry. But, then I worry that someone who rejects P5 will have to be able to provide an alternative epistemological access to importance. This reminds me of Mill’s argument in the fourth chapter of Utilitarianism where he says that what people desire is the only evidence we have of what is desirable. What would be an alternative against which Frankfurt would need to argue?
    I’ve played around with an idea that we could subject appearances of importance to certain general epistemic procedures. If they pass these procedures (described for instance by Sidgwick), then this counts as evidence for importance even when we lack the relevant attitudes of loving.

  5. Jussi,
    Could you say a little more about how P5 is to be understood? I haven’t read the relevant Frankfurt, obviously. Is the claim that what is important depends upon what people care about, or only that our fallible judgments about what is important depend upon judgments about what we people care about?

  6. I think the step from P5 to C2 is also questionable. It should instead read:
    C2*: ‘[Therefore,] unless a person knows what people already care about, … he cannot determine what he has reason to care about.’
    After all, if ‘what people care about’ is evidence of ‘importance’, what are the grounds for ignoring all those important things that other people, besides ourselves, care about?
    P.S. Should ‘C3’ be renamed ‘P6’? (It looks like a premise to me.)

  7. Dale,
    I wish I could. I don’t have the relevant books with me now either and it is few months since I last read the material. But, here is what Frankfurt might have thought (I’ll have to check this tomorrow…).
    As far as I can remember, the quote in P5 is slightly misleading. We start from ourselves. We cannot judge the importance of things without grounding these judgments on our fundamental carings and lovings. Or perhaps better still, our judgments about the importance of things inevitably express what we care about.
    Of course, this gets us only as far as what is important for us. Can we get this wrong? I think for him only as far as we can be wrong about what we fundamentally care about (no easy matter at all, I think some kind of Neurath’s boat type of scenario is relevant here). Does this make what is important dependent on what we care about? He probably would accept this even though I’m not sure he needs to – I think he could say similar things as Blackburn here.
    I think the interesting thing about the view is the judgments about what is important for others. There is a temptation to ground these judgments on what we care about (cannot remember if he discusses this). But, I think Frankfurt wants to say that we can only ground our judgments about what is important for others on what they really care about. I think he sometimes bites the bullets about people caring about strange things.
    Sorry. This might be completely off the track. I need to check the text again tomorrow.

  8. Richard,
    I think there is a confusion in the argument as it is taken out of the quotes about the persons. I think it is supposed to run all the way with either ‘I’, ‘one’, ‘person’, ‘we’, or ‘people’ throughout without changes in the persons or perspectives. I think C3 is supposed to follow from the previous premises and conclusions. I think that’s one point of pressure too. It seems that C3 is either a normative or a metaphysical claim which is now taken to follow from epistemic premisses.

  9. If you’re interested in more of the argument that morality is not necessary if one is loving, check out Raymond Smullyan’s “Taosim versus Morality” from his book “The Tao is Silent”, published in the 1970s (or early 80s). He goes further to argue that morality is actually detrimental to being loving. I wasn’t completely persuaded, when I first read it in my late teens, but it did have a big impact on me.

  10. “There is a temptation to ground these judgments on what we care about (cannot remember if he discusses this). But, I think Frankfurt wants to say that we can only ground our judgments about what is important for others on what they really care about.”
    I think this may be a little misleading in the implied version of the opposing view. If I judge what’s important for others in a way at odds with what they care about, it’s not simply or directly based in what I care about: I presumably do so in the belief that what I care about coincides with what is important as such. So the opposing view is that we should not base judgments of importance merely on the fact that someone (either I or the other) cares about something, but because it ought to be cared about.
    “This reminds me of Mill’s argument in the fourth chapter of Utilitarianism where he says that what people desire is the only evidence we have of what is desirable. What would be an alternative against which Frankfurt would need to argue?”
    This is an interesting comparison, but I think it reveals the weakness of Frankfurt’s approach. He seems to be equating “importance” with “important to someone,” which is much less plausible than Mill’s equation of “desirable” with “desirable to someone.” I think the better comparison is that Frankfurt is questionably conflating “important” with “cared about” just as Mill questionably conflates “desirable” with “good.”

  11. Dan,
    I think that’s right in some way. Of course this is controversial but one plausible understanding of morality is that it requires strict impartiality. Any such demand would be catastrophic for being a loving person (unless one can love everyone which I much doubt).
    CK, that’s good points.
    For anyone interested, Frankfurt’s Tanner lectures which were published as the 2006 book from which the quotes are from is online at:
    The argument I put above is in section 15 on page 183 (17 in the document). Reading this again, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. There is a section that tries to explain how it is possible to get willings and actions wrong if our reasons are based on our love and care (of which he has many interesting things to say). In this cases, the person wills or does what it would be inconceivable for us to will or do given our fundamental volitional necessities we identify with. This really makes me wonder why he also thinks that in order to know what someone else has a reason to do we should know what she cares about.

  12. I think Smullyan’s concern was more along the lines of – if you keep beating yourself over the head with commands to behave decently, it kills the part of you that would spontaneously behave decently. I think there’s a lot to be said for this argument, but one problem with it is there are many situations where the victim of a an immorality is not clear/salient (shoplifting from Wal-Mart, say) so being loving wouldn’t prevent the immorality.

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