My Metaethics

Q — When people make moral judgments, what are they saying?

A — They are expressing a belief about whether the object of their judgment promotes or conflicts with some standard or goal.

Q — Which standard, or which goal?

A — It varies. Sometimes people make judgments based on harm, or fairness, or whether they feel disgust, or what their traditions require. Standards usually need to be inferred from the explanations and arguments given in favor of a judgment.

Q — Isn't there a standard which is just the moral standard?

A — No. Philosophers often claim that moral properties supervene on natural properties, which is to say there must be a difference in natural properties for there to be any difference in moral properties. A simple explanation for this is that there are no moral properties, per se. There are just natural properties which are relevant to the various standards used in moral judgments.

Q — If moral judgments don't share a common standard, what sets them apart from other kinds of judgments?

A — Unlike the rules of chess, or club rules, or laws, distinctively moral judgments are applied by those doing the judging to everyone capable of making choices.

Q — How could moral judgments apply to everyone? Does everyone have a reason to follow moral standards?

A — While there are interesting arguments that most human beings have some personal reason to follow the more commonly invoked standards, there are times when individuals have better personal reasons to act against standards embedded in moral judgments.

Moral judgments apply to everyone in two senses. First, when a person is — in fact — acting in line or out of line with any standard, that fact stands regardless of anyone's concern about it. Second, the person doing the judging holds a positive or negative attitude toward any person based on the latter's adherence to the standard.

I deny that there is any such thing as a combination of the previous two senses, i.e. an abstract positive or negative attitude which is a fact that stands regardless of anyone's concern about it.

Q — This sounds like moral relativism!

A — It is a form of moral relativism, yes. Judgments are made relative to different standards. "Right" is never simply right and "wrong" is never simply wrong, so there is no logical contradiction in a certain practice being, e.g. both right (with regard to fairness) and wrong (with regard to minimizing suffering).

Q — Doesn't this undermine our ability to condemn people for doing atrocious things?

A — That depends. Let's take genocide as an example. If you were condemning genocide precisely because it's genocide, you can still do that. If you were condemning genocide because it violates a standard about respecting human lives — or something along those lines — then you can still condemn it.

Now let's say you are ok with genocide in itself and all the effects of genocide, yet you believe it's just plain wrong. That sort of condemnation would be undermined. But would you actually think: "Sure, the totalitarian dictator is executing every man, woman, and child in a minority ethnicity, but what REALLY upsets me is that he's acting immorally!"

Q — If nothing is just plain right or just plain wrong, doesn't that make you a moral nihilist?

A — Again, it depends. If you insist morality is about what's just plain right or wrong, then I don't believe anything is — or could possibly be — right or wrong in that sense. On the other hand, if you want to know whether people successfully make true claims when they make what are commonly labeled "moral judgments," then I believe they often do. When a judgment lines up with its embedded standard, it is true...otherwise it is false or defective in some other way.

Q — Why would moral judgments tend to conceal rather than reveal the standards they rely on?

A — Because moral language is not just about saying, it's about doing. If I make it clear that my judgment is relative to a particular standard, people who don't care about that standard can more easily shrug off my condemnation.

An omnivore isn't going to be too concerned about a vegetarian condemning her just on the grounds that she eats meat (thanks, I'm aware!). But make it a vague moral condemnation and suddenly meat eating is being cast in the same light as standards-violations the omnivore does care deeply about. Influence by association. There's also the effect of causing the omnivore to reflect on whether eating meat violates any of those other associations, along with a social-branding effect as more people apply pressure through vague moral condemnations.

Q — Does it make sense to keep using concealing moral language once a person buys into this sort of metaethical view?

A — It would certainly make sense to keep taking advantage of the psychological impact vague moral language has on listeners, just as it makes sense for political campaigns to include effective mass psych tactics instead of limiting themselves to substantial arguments. However, I hope both political and moral arguments can advance beyond the sloganeering stage.