Once upon a time, I went to a gathering of liberals and conservatives that was intended to promote dialogue and understanding between the two groups; and I was struck by the fact that whenever someone learned that I was an ethicist, they immediately assumed that I was a conservative. This seemed odd to me: it was
several decades over a decade* ago, before 'moral values' had emerged as a political term, and at that point I couldn't imagine why anyone would suppose that conservatives had a lock on moral values.
(This was not just partisanship, or a reflection of the fact that my moral beliefs underwrite my political views. It was also due to my having spent several decades being lectured by conservatives about my "excessively idealistic" views -- e.g., about how it was silly to think that we shouldn't support, say, Guatemala in the early '80s "just" because it was murderous and repressive. It was genuinely surprising to discover that the very people who had made these arguments were regarded as champions of morality.)
These days it's more obvious why someone might think that. But it's deeply regrettable. There is a straightforward moral case to be made not just against the current crop of Republican politicians, but also, I think, for liberal values. But as long as we cede moral language to conservatives, we will not be able to make this case effectively. Nor will we be able to speak to the legitimate fears of people who (correctly) think that morality is extremely important, who are worried that it's under seige, and who (mistakenly) suppose that only conservatives are willing to speak up for them, or that defending morality involves an obsession with preventing gay marriage, or something like that.
If we want to reclaim moral language, however, we need to get comfortable with the idea of making moral judgments. Some of you already are, of course, but some of the reactions to my Evil post made me think that some of you are not. Therefore, I have written a short primer. It's meant for those who are not fully comfortable making moral judgments, or using the language of morality. Many of you probably don't need it. It also contains only the issues that happened to occur to me. I'll write about others on request.
1) What is the point of thinking about morality?
I'll consider two possible reasons for thinking about morality, which I will tendentiously refer to as "the right view" and "the wrong view."
The right way: We all perform actions. And whether or not we reflect on the kinds of actions we think we should perform, the kinds of principles we think we should live by, or the kinds of persons we think we should be, we will end up performing some actions and not others, living in accordance with certain principles, and developing a particular character. It will be true of one person that she ruthlessly pursues her own interests; of another that she drifts along, allowing her actions to be determined by the preferences of those around her; of another that she tries to preserve her image of herself as 'virtuous' only as long as it is not too inconvenient to do so; and of another that she tries to respond to others with generosity and honesty and respect, even when this is difficult. Even someone who tries to live by no principles at all -- say, by flipping coins instead of making choices -- still lives by the principle of allowing her actions to be determined by chance.
This being the case, it makes sense to try to figure out which principles we think should try to live by and which sorts of persons we think we should try to be, just as the fact that we will probably have to earn our living by doing something gives us reason to try to figure out which job we want and to try to get it. If we don't think about which job we would like to end up with, we might find ourselves spending eight hours a day doing something we hate, when a little forethought would have prevented this. Similarly, if we do not try to figure out which principles should guide our actions, we could wind up needlessly living by principles we find odious.
On the right view, the ultimate object of moral reasoning is always to give us guidance in leading our lives; and (in so doing) to lead us to greater self-knowledge. And on this view, we make moral judgments about other people for two reasons. First, having developed moral concepts for use in our own lives, we can apply them to others. If, for instance, we are talking with another person about morality, we may have occasion to make such judgments. Second, we make them in order to clarify our own views about right and wrong, and to see more clearly how we can achieve the former and avoid the latter.
This might not seem to give us much of a reason to judge, say, torturers: on the one hand, torture seems clearly wrong, so our attitudes are not in need of clarification; on the other, with any luck none of us will be faced with the possibility of becoming a torturer, so why bother trying to figure out how to avoid doing so? But it does. Thinking about other people, and trying to understand why they act as they do, can lead us to see connections between what they did and attitudes or character traits which we might have, even when the possibility of our performing the very same act which they performed is remote. For example, consider this quote from Primo Levi's Survival In Auschwitz:
"Many people -- many nations -- can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy'. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about ... then, at the end, there is the lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal."
One can make moral judgments, and engage in moral reasoning, in order to become aware of such 'alarm signals', and to understand more clearly what they warn of. Analogously, thinking about people or actions we regard as good can lead us to understand more clearly what goodness is, and how we might try to achieve it, even if the person we are thinking about seems to us to have a kind of heroic virtue which we doubt we could ever attain.
The wrong view: if we say that someone acted wrongly, we may do so in order to demonstrate, to ourselves and to others, how marvelously virtuous we are, and how morally perceptive. We shudder in horror at the thought that awful they did ghastly that, and in so doing remind ourselves of how very different wonderful we are. To judge another's actions in this spirit is to indulge in a sneaky sort of self-congratulation.
The right view and the wrong view are deeply opposed to one another. For one thing, only the right view requires us to try to understand other people and their actions accurately. We can learn from others only to the extent that our ideas about what led them to act as they did are correct. The wrong view, on the other hand, uses morality for the purpose of self-congratulation; and self-congratulation requires only that we believe that we are virtuous. Whether or not this belief is correct is irrelevant. The wrong view is therefore compatible with self-deception and hypocrisy; the right view is not.
The two views also favor different views of the people we judge. The wrong view leads us to view the people we disapprove of as very different from ourselves. Ideally, they should have horns; if this cannot be arranged, we should at least view their actions as revealing some appalling inner corruption which is not so much as a possibility for us. The right view, by contrast, will lead us to try to understand these people as recognizably human beings who behave in more or less comprehensible ways; as, in some broad sense, like us. Otherwise their actions will have no lessons for our lives. Because the right view involves a commitment to accuracy, it will not insist on viewing an action as humanly comprehensible even when it really doesn't seem to be; if the person who performed it really does seem to have horns, moral reasoning undertaken for this motive can recognize this fact. But, unlike self-congratulatory moral reasoning, it will accept such explanations only as a last resort, and with bewilderment.
I probably don't need to say that I do not think that self-congratulation is a good motive for making moral judgments. People sometimes seem to assume that it is the only motive for engaging in moral reasoning; that whenever anyone reaches any conclusion about the morality of someone else's actions, they must be putting themselves on a pedestal, claiming that they would never do such a horrible thing, etc. I do not think that when one concludes that some act is wrong one must believe that one would not perform it, or that that conclusion is incompatible with a vivid appreciation of one's own fallibility. Such an appreciation can motivate moral reasoning: those who set out to sea in tiny fragile boats have every reason to note precisely where, and why, others were shipwrecked; and not because they want to laugh at the misfortunes of others.
Moreover, a genuine commitment to morality leads to the right view, and away from the wrong one. Each of us is responsible for making one person as good as possible: him- or herself. Our own failings, not those of others, should always be our primary concern. For this reason, a preoccupation with (as opposed to an ability to recognize) the sins of other people is likely to be a distraction from the task at hand: oneself. Besides, on most accounts of morality, a desire to prop up one's own conception of oneself by vilifying others is not high on the list of desirable motivations; and self-deception and hypocrisy are not among the characteristics we ought to tolerate, let alone cultivate.
(You can often tell a lot about someone's view of morality by asking: does this person seem to focus more on her own failings, or on those of of others? Is her primary concern making herself a better person, or distancing herself from those she regards as bad? Morality generally requires the first answer to each question.)
Does thinking about morality make you self-righteous?
It will if you think about it in the wrong way, as described above. Self-righteousness is practically the wrong way's middle name. But thinking about morality in the right way generally precludes self-righteousness, for several reasons. First, and most obviously, the harder you try to live a decent life, the more likely it is that you will discover that you have flaws. Some of them may be familiar to you, but some of them may be ones you didn't know you had. And the more important you think morality is, the more serious these flaws will seem. (Samuel Johnson once wrote: "I have now begun the sixtieth year of my life. How the last year has passed I am unwilling to terrify myself with thinking." Only the thought that it really matters whether you're a good person or not can make could one find the thought of how one spent one's last year not just disheartening or disappointing, but terrifying.) This will help to undermine any temptation to self-righteousness that you might have had.
Second, if you think that there is such a thing as the right thing to do, and that it matters to do that thing, an obvious question to ask is: do I know what exactly the right thing to do is? For most people, the answer will be, roughly: there are some things I feel confident about, some things I believe but am not really sure of, and some things I just don't know.
The more important you think morality is, the more important actually being right about these questions will seem to be, and the less tolerable the idea of just convincing yourself that you're right to make yourself seem good will be to you. For this reason, I have always thought that a real commitment to morality ought to lead us to seek out people who disagree with us and try to learn from them, since it's in that way that we're most likely to see things we might have overlooked, or to reconsider things we have hitherto taken for granted. I say more about this here.
In general, though, if you make a real effort to actually live a decent life, that effort will directly work against self-righteousness, both by providing you with vivid proof of your own faults and by making the idea of convincing yourself that you're a wonderful person with a complete grasp of the truth about morality seem both absurd and intolerable. (Unless, of course, you are a wonderful person with a complete grasp of the truth about morality. One would have to be very wary about accepting any such conclusion -- the possibility of self-deception is presumably obvious -- but if, after long and careful reflection, it really does seem to you true, then morality will not require that you lie to yourself, though it will counsel against resting on your laurels.)
Isn't making moral judgments, well, kind of mean?
No, for several reasons. For one thing, not all moral judgments are negative. However, let's restrict ourselves to negative moral judgments for the moment. Here it's important to separate three things: (a) how you express a moral judgment; (b) how you form it (e.g., how careful you are, where you take the burden of proof to lie, etc.), and third, the judgment itself.
(a) There are times when expressing a given moral judgment is wrong, even if that judgment is true. An example I sometimes use in class: suppose that you walk out in front of a bus without looking, and get run over. As you lie there bleeding in the street, I come up to you and start to lecture you on how dumb you were. Here it's not the judgment that's at fault. What I say is true: it is dumb to walk out into the street without looking. The problem is what I do with that judgment: it is heartless of me to stand there lecturing you instead of calling an ambulance, or trying to stop the bleeding, or in some other way trying to help.
(b) There are ways of making moral judgments that are themselves wrong. Making any negative judgment about a person is something that we should be careful about. Holding any false belief involves a mistake; but thinking ill of someone when it's not true is in addition unfair, and possibly deeply insulting, to that person. As a result, a decent person will want to be especially sure that she's right before making such a judgment.
Consider, for example, concluding that someone is a rapist. A rapist is a terrible thing to be, and the judgment that some particular person is a rapist is a terrible thing to conclude about that person. Because it's a terrible thing to think about someone, any decent person will think long and hard before reaching the conclusion that someone is a rapist. And if (for instance) I saw a woman come out of a man's apartment in tears and leapt to the conclusion that the man raped her, without considering any of the other possible explanations for what I saw, I would be wrong.
There is, however, a difference between recognizing that you have to think hard before concluding that someone is a rapist and thinking that concluding that someone is a rapist just shows that you're mean and ungenerous. After all, some people are rapists, and while no one should ever leap to the conclusion that a particular person is one of them, arriving at that conclusion when you're presented with compelling evidence that it's true is not an inherently mean thing to do.
Most negative moral judgments are a lot less damning than concluding that someone is a rapist. Just as there's a difference between getting one problem on a math exam wrong and getting a failing grade, there's a difference between having some flaw, or doing one wrong action, and being a miserable failure as a person. Here again, it helps to use morality primarily on oneself: in one's own case, it's generally obvious that there's a fair amount of room between some negative moral judgment being true (which is true of all of us) and being a horrible person (which is not.)
Still, we should always be reluctant to think the worst of someone, both because it's insulting to them and because morality requires generosity of us.
I think that people who believe that there's something mean about making moral judgments tend to focus either on the possibility that those who make them might be uncharitable -- leaping to bad conclusions about people rather than asking whether what they did might be explained in some non-damning way -- or on how that judgment is expressed. In either case, what's wrong is not that the person forms moral judgments; it's how those judgments are formed and/or expressed. If you form negative moral judgments only reluctantly, and if you try to subject your own impulse to express them (or not to) to the same moral scrutiny as the rest of your actions, then you will be a lot less likely to be mean about it.
Some of the temptation to think that negative moral judgments are mean might also come from unclarity about what point they might serve, other than allowing us to tot up other people's failings and pass judgment on them. I tried to answer this above (see "the right way"). Trying to understand why other people do what they do, and whether what they do is right or wrong, is immensely useful in trying to become a decent person oneself.
Moreover, it's worth noting that if the other person wants to become a decent person herself, then you might find yourself needing to talk about what you think of her conduct with her. If you think she's doing something wrong, this might be unpleasant, the way saying you don't like someone's writing is. But it can be very much worth saying nonetheless, and for many of the same reasons.
In my family, we all read one another's written work, and we all took it for granted that while it was never fun to be critical of one another, it was much, much better to find out about the problems with your written work before rather than after publication, and from someone you know loves you and has your best interests at heart, rather than from some critic who might or might not be thoughtful or kind. (This got me into trouble later: it had never crossed my mind that I should not be honest, though as kind as possible, in assessing other people's work, and so naturally the discovery that some people give out their work for entirely different reasons was as much a shock to me as I imagine my comments were to them. Oops.) Moral criticism, when it's called for and when you are not hasty or uncharitable in making your judgments, can be just as useful.
In order to make moral judgments about others, do I have to understand why they acted as they did?
Of course, to some extent. In order to make any statement about anything, we have to have some idea what we're talking about. Specifically, we have to know what that person did, and whatever facts we take to be relevant to a moral assessment of actions of that kind. For instance, I think that it is OK to steal food to feed one's starving children if there are no other ways of getting food, and if the person one steals from is not herself starving. In order to say that someone who stole food acted wrongly, I would have to know that she did not do so for this reason.
In some cases, things that I cannot understand seem to me clearly relevant to moral judgment. This is especially true when one considers people who have survived torture, concentration camps, or some other form of hell: I think that in order to judge actions performed in these situations I would have to understand fairly clearly what the experience of systematic and sustained brutality is like, and since I do not, I hesitate to judge. But in other cases I do not feel that my inability to understand another person does not prevent me from judging, since I do not think that what I do not understand is relevant to my judgment.
For instance, I do not understand the motives of those who rape children. Presumably, some child rapists are insane, and I do not judge them. But since people are various and human nature is multiform, there is probably at least one sane person somewhere who has raped a child; and I do not feel that my inability to understand that person's motives prevents me from saying that his actions are wrong, and that he is a horrible person. I said above that I need to understand only those facts about a person's motives which are relevant to moral assessment; in the case of sane child rapists, I do not think that there are any such facts, or that anything the rapist could tell me about his motives or decision would alter my opinion of him and his actions.
(Here I am concerned only with the question: what is the minimum level of understanding which we must have in order to judge another person? For reasons given earlier, I think that we should always try to understand others as fully as possible; and that the fact that we have achieved this minimum is no reason not to try to understand them more fully.)
Can we ever understand what someone else does if we have not been in the same situation ourselves?
Yes. First of all, notice that no one has ever been in exactly the same situation as anyone else. This weekend, I was tempted to put off some work I needed to do. You might have experienced a similar temptation at some point. But I'll bet that no one reading this blog has been in an exactly similar situation, with my precise background, temperament, childhood experiences, etc. You may think that these differences aren't important; but since you haven't experienced them for yourself, and therefore (if you can't understand what you haven't experienced) can't understand them, how would you know? If we cannot understand what we haven't experienced ourselves, then we cannot understand anyone except ourselves at all.
Notice also that this assumption would make the study of history and other cultures pointless, psychology a lost cause, and the existence of non-autobiographical novels which seem to depict people accurately inexplicable.
It is hard to understand other people, and the difficulty increases as their experiences become more remote from one's own. And it is easy to wander around blithely passing judgment on people whom one has not made the slightest effort to understand. Such judgments are usually glib, shallow, and disrespectful. But this shows only that we should try to understand other people, to develop the capacities of empathy and imagination which this requires, to realize that understanding other people takes effort and hard work, and to be aware of the possibility that our views about other people are not always right. To throw up one's hands and decide that understanding other people is just impossible is, I think, just a way of avoiding this task. It also lets people who don't bother to try to understand others off the hook, by taking their failures to be inevitable, not the result of insufficient effort or imagination.
But you're ignoring the elephant in the room: moral claims can't be true or false, so it makes no sense to talk about them.
In this post I will not consider the question whether moral judgments can be true or false in any detail. (If anyone wants, I can do that later.) For now, I'll just say two things, and then consider a few bad reasons for thinking that moral claims can't be true or false, arguments that I think need to be gotten out of the way before serious consideration of this question can begin.
The two things: first, there are a lot of terms we feel quite comfortable using that are not found in science. We say, for instance, that some poems or paintings are beautiful and some are not, that some jokes are funny while others fall flat, and so forth. We have long arguments about why this is so: about questions like: why is this painting so dreadful? We may even develop whole theories to answer these questions. And in so doing, we are often quite untroubled by the fact that neither beauty nor funniness are terms found in science. Anyone who finds arguments about beauty or humor unproblematic should ask him- or herself why morality is different.
Second, one possible answer to the question whether moral judgments can be true or false is to say: some of them have determinate answers, and others do not. One might think, for instance, that Gandhi is a better person than Jeffrey Dahmer, or that torture is wrong, but also that there is no determinate answer to the question whether Gandhi or Nelson Mandela was right about the legitimacy of armed resistance to a profoundly unjust regime. It's worth bearing in mind that the fact (if it is one) that some moral questions do not have determinate answers does not imply that no moral questions do.
(Literary criticism is like this. There are some interpretations of, say, Hamlet that are plainly wrong: for instance, the view that everything turns on its sixth act, or that the key to understanding Hamlet is to count the frequency of various punctuation marks in each scene. But it's not at all clear that any particular interpretation is right, or that different interpretations should be assessed based on how closely they approximate to the One True Interpretation. Likewise, it's clear that Middlemarch is a better novel than a Harlequin romance, but that doesn't commit you to thinking that there is one absolutely best novel that Middlemarch approximates more closely than the Harlequin romance, or even that there is a determinate answer to questions like: is Middlemarch better than The Brothers Karamazov?)
The bad arguments:
a) Different people hold different moral views. This disagreement shows that there are no objective moral truths.
-- No it doesn't. There are lots of cases in which the existence of disagreement shows only that some people are wrong. If one of those depressing surveys of people's geographical knowledge showed that 25% of Americans believed that Botswana was in South America, this would not imply that there was no objective truth about which continent Botswana was in, or that its location depends on one's point of view. It would show that those 25% are mistaken. If one wants to argue from the existence of disagreement about moral claims to the conclusion that no moral claim can be true, one must explain how that disagreement differs from (for instance) disagreement about the location of Botswana, and why the existence of that difference implies that there are no objective moral truths.
b) Objective truths are true because they report or reflect our observations of the world. If you go to the right part of Africa you will in fact find Botswana; you could spend your life combing South America and never find it there. We can check the answer to the question about Botswana; if we do, we will all find the same thing; and therefore we have a way of resolving that disagreement. But moral claims do not reflect our observations, and we cannot use our observations to check them. Therefore they are not objectively true.
-- Not all objective truths report observations. The justification of mathematical claims, for example, involves proof, not observation.
To say that some claim is objectively true is to say that there is some justification of that claim which no one could rationally reject. (The fact that people can irrationally reject any claim at all does not count against the truth of those claims. I could, if I wanted to, insist that President Bush is twenty feet tall. Maybe I am insane; maybe I just like watching you try to convince me that he isn't when I know that I have made up my mind to reject any evidence to the contrary. But that doesn't show that there is no objective truth about his height, or that claims about how tall he is cannot be objectively justified.) The argument under consideration only implies that moral claims cannot be objectively true if all such justifications appeal to observable facts; and the existence of truths like 2+2=4, which do not depend on observation, seems to show that this assumption is false.
c) Moral claims are neither dependent on observation nor mathematical, nor do they follow from pure logic. There are no other valid forms of objective justification. Therefore moral claims cannot be objectively justified.
-- The key sentence in this argument is "There are no other valid forms of objective justification." This claim needs to be argued for. And it is very hard to prove that something doesn't exist, especially when that something is as hard to pin down as a form of objective justification. One can show that something cannot exist if it would be self-contradictory. This is how we know that there are no five-sided squares or ninety year old infants. If any of you can show that the idea of a non-mathematical, non-logical, observation-independent objective justification is self-contradictory in this way, publish your arguments immediately and you will become a famous philosopher.
Another reason for thinking that something doesn't exist is that numerous attempts to find it have failed. This failure does not prove that the thing in question doesn't exist -- people might not have looked hard enough, or they might have looked in the wrong places. It is not clear to me that philosophers have failed in their attempts to justify moral principles. Should you wish to evaluate their attempts yourselves, contact me and I'll give you a reading list. Heh heh heh.
That's all I can think of at the moment. Hope it's helpful to someone.
* UPDATE: I thought more about the date; on reflection, I think it was the early 90s.