Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Is Morality, Anyway? (Pt. 3)

...Part 1
...Part 2

The first post in this series began:
When people say "Genocide is wrong" or "Good folks donate to the needy," what are they claiming and what are they doing?
I asked this question to introduce metaethics, but even asking a question which focuses on language acts shows bias toward the answer I already had in mind. Instead, I could have asked a question focused on the nature of goodness, the force of obligation, the process of gaining moral knowledge, etc. These are all valid approaches to metaethics, and all of them quietly set up an advantage for certain kinds of answers. I should also mention that I didn't come up with any of the following ideas. In future posts, I do plan to discuss individual papers which struck me as on-target and shaped my thinking. Now, with disclaimers out of the way, it's high time I answer my own questions.

What is morality?

Morality is the social practice of using a particular set of linguistic expressions to make goal-relative truth claims and influence others to put their attitudes and behavior in line with those goals.

When people say "Genocide is wrong" what are they claiming?

They are claiming it is the case that genocide hinders moral goals.

Is this a true claim? Without some goal specification, it can't be evaluated as true or false. If I phone you to say I'm moving at 60 mph, then — strictly speaking — you can't know what I'm claiming without first knowing that I'm moving 60 mph relative to the highway I'm driving on (since velocity is always relative). Of course we usually quickly (and correctly) gather from context that 60 mph is speed relative to the road.

Same for moral claims. Strictly speaking, "Genocide is wrong" can't be evaluated without specifying the goal. This might sound impractical and stilted. What would you think if you asked someone, "Is it wrong to kill and eat babies?" and she replied, "Hold on! I can't answer that yet. Can you specify a moral goal first?" You'd probably feel less comfortable hiring her as a babysitter! But it would also sound impractical and stilted to constantly ask people "velocity relative to what?" when they mention their speed. Most of the time, we have a good enough idea from context and we can answer accordingly. We know a person who claims genocide is wrong probably means something along these lines:
  • Genocide hurts people without a justifying reason.
  • Genocide treats one group unfairly for the convenience of another.
  • Genocide involves disgusting actions.
  • Genocide is just plain wrong, or involves things which are just plain wrong.
  • Any combination of the above.
These all imply corresponding moral goals like harm avoidance, fairness, disgust avoidance, and doing moral good. Most people would probably say genocide conflicts with all of these goals, which makes its moral wrongness very clear.

When people say "Good folks donate to the needy" what are they claiming?

If we look behind the obvious social prodding, there's definitely a claim in there that donating to the needy promotes moral goals. Which goals? Ones like alleviating harm, reducing deep inequality, obeying God, or doing moral good. Again, many people would probably say donating to the needy promotes all of these goals, which makes its moral goodness very clear.


Moral dilemmas occur when an action will advance some moral goals at the expense of other moral goals. It's conceivable for a claim like "Genocide is wrong" to be true relative to the goal of social equality, but false relative to the goal of maximizing happiness. "Child sacrifice is wrong" might be true relative to the goal of preserving human life, but false relative to the goal of keeping oaths.1 "War is wrong" may be true for the goal of minimizing harm, but false for the goal of reducing deep inequality.

Terms like 'good,' 'bad,' 'right,' and 'wrong' are incoherent because they've been overloaded with implied goals which sometimes conflict with each other. This is why philosophers have had such a hard time coming up with a single, intuitively-satisfying procedure for evaluating moral claims.


One effective method for drawing out the moral goals someone has in mind is to challenge their claim by saying something like, "Genocide is not wrong!" and see how they respond. (Just be careful with this tactic if you ever plan to run for office.)

But what if the moral goal they have in mind really is just: promoting moral good? This would be the "brute moral facts" approach of non-naturalism, as discussed in part two of this series. My answer is simple: there's no such thing as just plain moral good for anyone to promote. It's a mistaken idea with nothing behind it, like the once-widespread idea of absolute velocity. This is an element of error theory in my view.2

Nothing Personal

Let me emphasize: these are all impersonal goals. I could correctly state that fighting a war is wrongharm-avoidance or rightequality, even if neither you nor I care about avoiding harm or improving equality in the world.

I'm not sure if facts about whether an action promotes or hinders an impersonal goal counts as a form of moral realism, but I am leaning toward "yes" since such facts would still hold in a world in which everyone's attitudes are completely different from our own. On the other hand, their moral language would most likely be hooked up to much different impersonal goals. So my goal-relative view of morality does seem to be perched on the fence between realism and anti-realism.

...Part 4

1. I have in mind the story of Jephthah in Judges 11.
2. See part two of this series for an explanation of "error theory."

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