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The Harman’s Theories and Idea of Morality: Hitler's Activity

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Gilbert Harman makes a claim that it would be illogical to make an inner judgment about Adolf Hitler because he was beyond any motivating considerations that anyone might have, therefore it would be ‘odd’ to say that he should not have ordered the extermination of the Jews. Harman’s theory of moral relativism would then suggest that relative to Hitler’s own moral framework and his point of view, he did not do anything morally wrong, which exposes an inconsistency with his theory of moral relativism. He explains that the reason why people perform certain actions is because right or wrong actions are relative to their own moral framework. Additionally, implicit agreement between two different groups is what allows for morality to exist. Therefore, inner judgments regarding people’s actions can be insufficient if their moral framework does not match with the other, as morality only arises if judgments are made relative to ones own moral framework.

In Harman’s reading “Moral Relativism Defended”, morality is based on implicit moral agreement, where such agreements can be determined through Inner Judgments that concerns the actions of others. This theory has two relevant characteristics. First, inner judgments are only plausible when an agent of moral relativism is assumed to have reasons behind their actions. The second characteristic only applies when the person who is judging the agent approves of their actions, assuming both agents have a similar moral framework guided by their society/group (Harman, pg. 266). This idea of what he presents as a “soberly logical thesis” has a specific use of the word “ought” when making moral judgments, where the use of the statement “ought to do” is relative to an agent and the type of act that he or she may perform. When making an inner judgment, Harman disassembles his thesis into a four-place operator, where “ought” consists of (A, D, C, M). A being a person/agent, D as a type of action (stealing, murder, helping), C for sets of considerations and M as an agent’s motivational attitude (Harman, pg. 266). For example, inner judgments about someone’s actions might say something like “An ought not have done D” or “given that A has certain motivating attitudes M, and given certain considerations C, he ought not have done D”.

Morality, in Harman’s terms, is constituted by people’s beliefs and considerations through implicit social agreement or understanding. The motivational attitudes that are considered through the predicate ought (A, D, C, M), are intentions to adhere to a particular agreement on the understanding that others also intend to do so (Harman, pg. 267). In this case, agreements can also be achieved by ‘moral bargaining’ among people of varying powers and resources (Harman, pg. 267). People have different beliefs and will promote their own interests; through moral bargaining, people can make compromises and establish sets of principles they can all agree to. The account of ‘agreement’ can therefore be understood as an agreement of their intentions relative to their moral principles. This explains Harman’s reason for why the duty to not harm others has greater weight than to help those in need (i.e. the poor). The rich, the poor, the strong and the weak would all benefit from the principle of avoiding harm, but the rich and the strong would not benefit at all from the principle of helping others (Harman, pg. 268).

When an agent makes an inner judgment about someone, he is assuming that this person has reasons for performing an action, and that the agent endorses those actions, meaning they have similarities within their moral frameworks. This is the reason why Harman claims that it would be ‘odd’ to say that ‘Hitler ought not have exterminated the Jews’. People can say that Hitler was evil for what he did to the Jews, but we cannot properly make an inner judgment about him because we would not be able to comprehend his reasons for acting that way considering his own moral framework. As Harman states, Hitler is ‘beyond the pale’ for making an inner judgment and that it would be a ‘misuse of language’ to say that he ought not have done what he did (Harman, pg. 264).

The idea that morality rests on agreement through individual’s moral framework means that peoples beliefs can be subject to change of views within different societies. Peoples beliefs and morals provide them the reason to act; by being part of an agreement and everyone adheres to it. This explains why it would be ‘odd’ to judge someone with an entirely different moral framework for how they ought to act by claiming that moral judgments must have a shared morality, as it would be the same for Hitler. Harman makes this distinction between Hitler and Stalin. In contrast, it would be more logical for us to make a moral judgment regarding Stalin’s actions, since we can observe that he was moved by the same sets of considerations that others might also have (Harman, pg. 265).

Harman’s theory would imply that Hitler was motivated by the desire to make the world a better place by exterminating the Jews, as he believed that they were inhuman and evil. If we can assume that Hitler carried out his actions as a moral relativist, then we can we cannot deny that he was part of the community. It would then be illogical to view Hitler as an ‘alien’ merely because of his crimes. Harman fails to adequately explain why we can confidently claim Stalin as immoral, but not Hitler. The contradiction here lies in the fact that if we cannot make an inner judgment about Hitler, then it should be the same case for Stalin, seeing as how they are known for mass murder.

This would expose that Hitler did not do anything that is morally wrong because relative to his moral framework, motivational attitudes and considerations, he was right for doing his actions. Hitler’s actions led to the suffering of millions of people and nearly wiping out an entire race. Harman states that we cannot say that Hitler ought not have exterminated the Jews as it would be ‘odd’ to make that inner judgment, but we can claim that what he did was evil, such as killing and the suffering of the Jews. Therefore, if moral judgments regarding Hitler’s actions can be declared valid and true by other people as being ‘evil’ and ‘wrong’, how can killing and carrying out various wrong actions, be appraised to be right?

Another weakness is that If people can rationally believe Hitler to be evil for the things he did, it would imply that there are some objective moral principles that exists, and that it applies to everyone regardless of their respective beliefs. In addition, the incoherence in making an inner judgment would allow for people to think that performing an act which is wrong cannot necessarily be wrong. The claim that Hitler was evil rests on an innate belief that there are some objective moral principles that carries a weight on everyone. No matter what the reason is behind a person’s actions, there seems to be some form of objective principles that make it possible to judge, whether or not the action is moral or immoral.

Harman’s response might be that when an agent makes a moral judgment, it only involves his respective moral framework and comprehension, which is why people can validly make an inner judgment. When inner judgments take place, agents must consider the motivating attitudes and their reasons for acting. When an agent who performs an act is involved, his or her actions are right or wrong relative to their moral understanding, not in the perspective of the person making a judgment. Inner judgments about someone involves one’s own beliefs and values to those who may or may not the same shared intentions. Certain cases where agents are judged as immoral can mean that their actions do not adhere to another person’s morality, therefore they cannot be part of any agreement. Thus, concluding Hitler as a man ‘beyond the pale’.

In conclusion, the notion that everybody can agree Hitler to be evil, means that there are objective principles that exist and that it has some values that people carry. The inconsistency of Harman’s relativism shows that people can judge Hitler and validate the wrongness of his actions, but this can imply that wrong actions can be regarded as right. Since moral observations arise from the moral ‘ought’, they contain the motivational intentions for acting in such a way. These reasons stem from the principles that a group of people accept, in other words, their own respective beliefs. Harman’s theory would thus show that Hitler didn’t do anything morally wrong, because relative to his moral framework, he was right in doing those actions.  

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