Follow up to: The Is-Ought Gap
I’m currently on a quest to understand normativity. So far, I’ve discussed Finlay’s end-relational theory which outlines the descriptive content of “ought” and “good” (and their linguistic cousins) as expressing how something relates to an end. (Saying “this cup is good” means, descriptively, that “this cup is good for drinking” and saying “I ought to use this cup instead of that one” means “Using this cup instead of that one is more likely to lead to me enjoying my drink“.)
However, the end relation isn’t often perfectly clear. Ends can just be contextually assumed, either implied by the conversation and/or implied by the setting (taking place in a society where etiquette is valued). Furthermore, people may even leave out the end relation completely for rhetorical effect to appeal to as many potential ends as possible.
But of course, normative statements aren’t just descriptive. However, As I mentioned later, normative statements can also function as illocutionary assertive statements (“Enjoying my drink is a worthy thing for me to do”), illoctuionary expressive statements (“I like enjoying my drink”), and/or perlocutionary directive statements (“Self, use the good cup!”).
Lastly, looking to end-relational oughts also explains what makes them persuasive — we care about the ought statement if we care about the end in question, either directly or indirectly. This also gives us grounding for deriving an “ought” from an “is” and thus passing over Hume’s is-ought gap — if we know the end in question and we know what is likely to satisfy that end, we can automatically deduce what we ought (in order we satisfy that end) to do.
Now I want to focus in a bit more on moral ends. Specifically, it’s moral ends plural. What do we make of that? What makes an end moral? And are there better moral ends than others?
Debating Moral Definitions
What do we mean when we say “morality”? I think it’s safe to say that different people can mean different things. To do this, For example, I bring you back to a previous discussion I’ve had about debating the definition of sound:
One person says “a tree falling in a forest that we do not hear makes a sound” and the other says “a tree falling in the forest that we do not hear does not make a sound”.
Ostensibly we have a contradiction because one person says “Yes, it makes sound” and the other says “No, it does not make sound”. However, look what happens when we take away the word sound and replace it by what we mean by the word sound:
“A tree falling in a forest that we do not hear makes a sound (generates an acoustic vibration)”
“A tree falling in a forest that we do not hear does not make a sound (generates an auditory experience)”
Here, we have two people using two different, yet perfectly usable definitions, and fighting over which definition best captures the word “sound”, but the debate is not resolvable because the two are talking about fundamentally different things. The only way the argument can be solved is for the two people to pick one of the two definitions at random and stick with it, or to ditch the word “sound” and just argue about “acoustic vibrations” and “auditory experiences”.
In fact, the idea of “good” may be the mother of all applause lights we have to unscrew — a vague word that has no commonly accepted or acceptable definition, yet is seen by everyone as something overwhelmingly desirable. Who doesn’t like things that are considered to be good?
Therefore, when faced with the question “Is abortion good?” or “Is abortion right?” we must first request the definition of “good”/”right”. Only when they say “Oh, I meant does abortion maximize the happiness of sentient creatures?” or “Oh, I meant would abortion be approved of by an ideally rational and fully informed person?” can we actually attempt an answer at the question.
We can’t just use the word good without knowing what it means, and it’s very easy to reduce it just like we did to the ideas of sound and free will. We can talk about “maximizing happiness” or “approved of by fully informed people” without needing to muck it up with the word good.
While I would like to say I thought of this myself, this idea is Luke Muelhauser’s “Pluralistic Moral Reductionism”, also known as “Austere Meta-ethics”.
Could Anything Be Moral?
However, if “morality” can refer to more than one standard, could anything be moral? Could I say that my moral standard is “that which benefits me”, or “that which maximizes sadness”, or “that which ensures spaghetti is eaten by everyone in Japan”? I wouldn’t go that far.
As I argue in “Birds Are Dinosaurs, But Pluto Isn’t a Planet, I think definitions are arrived by social consensus, and like driving on either the left or the right side of the road — it doesn’t matter how we use a word, as long as we all agree to use it the same way.
For this purpose, I want language to be practical and useful for describing reality. I want definitions to be sensical, non-circular, specific, and match up with existing social consensus unless that consensus needs to be ditched for an important and overriding reason for the sake of clarity.
The Moral and The Not
So when I say “moral ends”, what am I specifically referring to, if not every end ever? Mainly those that made me interested in looking at normativity in the first place — in “The Meaning of Morality”, the essay that started this series, I outline a lot of different standards of evaluation that have been called “morality” by at least one philosopher.
Here, I think the useful distinction is looking at whether an “end” holds as its goal acting not with regard to only the self, but rather with regard to the direct or indirect benefit of others. If does, it counts as “morality”, and if it doesn’t, it does not. This would include things like Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, “Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Bentham’s Utilitarianism, Locke’s Social Contract, Nozick’s Negative Rights, and others.
But more importantly, what I would call “not morality” would be things like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, because it expressly tells you to focus on your self-interest. I also wouldn’t count Railton’s Ideal Observer Theory, because you only end up acting morally if the observer is already moral by a different standard. I also think of Adams’s Divine Command Theory as not moral for a very similar reason. Lastly, I also don’t count notions of social or cultural relativism, because they are purely descriptive, not normative.
Where To Carve Reality
I do recognize that the distinction I’ve drawn is more or less arbitrary, though I try to stay as true to the broad intent of moral standards as I could. I invite you to draw a different distinction, as long as we are both clear on which standards are moral ones and which are not.
But recognize that we aren’t directly changing reality with our words — it’s not like calling something “morality” automatically makes it significant, praiseworthy, or worth doing; that’s just your connotation talking. I just placed the dividing line of moral/not-moral in the place I find most useful for conversation, not to make some normative point.
The One True Morality?
So now that we have a family of moralities, can we crown one king, and declare that to be the One True Morality by which all else is judged? Unfortunately, I think not. As far as an end-relational meta-ethics goes, as long as something can be used to evaluate, it is a legitimate standard that can ground normative statements. Likewise, these statements can be in genuine conflict, and still be individually correct without meta-ethical contradiction.
Why might I insist this to be the case? Mainly because of a genuine puzzle about how a king or queen of morality may be crowned. In order to choose the One True Morality, you would need a standard of evaluation to figure out what makes for one morality contender better than that. And the only way to do that is by basis of an already existing One True Morality to play supermorality and judge the competition. But to do so would be to beg the question.
However, one may still throw out proposed moralities that aren’t actually suited to evaluate things — it might be too vague to come to a conclusion (negative rights?), too hard to calculate (utilitarianism? social contract?), or internally contradictory.
For instance, you can’t ground morality in what God wants if God doesn’t exist, because therefore his wants would be nonexistent. Thus if atheism is true (and I think it is), then we have to throw out the Divine Command Theory.
Another standard I’d definitely throw out is the commonsense “folk morality” of the everyday person. The common protestor who shouts “The Iraq War is wrong!” at a rally is probably not actually taking a moral philosophy like utilitarianism and applying it.
Instead, I think people have a lot of intuitions about what morality entails that aren’t neatly organized, and try to apply their unorganized moral intuitions to these problems as their moral end. In fact, these intuitions often express internal contradiction and change from a day-to-day basis and situation-to-situation basis, and thus are unsuitable for any systematic evaluation.
Thus, when we encounter the word “moral”, we may see it refer to a handful of different moral standards. And yes, these standards may be contradictory — it might be that we utilitarian ought to torture a terrorist for information about where she planted a bomb, but we deontologically ought not to.
Furthermore, we can’t, on an end-relational view, find a One True Morality — utilitarianism and deontology will have to co-exist as potential moral standards, and which one we mean to invoke with “morally ought” will have to be a matter of context.
So there really are too many moralities — there’s multiple standards of morality, and no One True Morality to go off of. What might lead us to invoke one standard of morality instead of the other? The answer is personal and/or social preference. I don’t think this delegitimizes morality at all — the moral ought statements are still just as true if you don’t care about them, and you’re still just as morally defective for not following them. Heck, it could be that your deonotologically defective but not utilitarian defective.
From the end-relational meta-ethical view, we can’t even privelege morality over non-morality in any way other than preference. Indeed, there is no true “ought” at all, no “ought simplicter” or “ought, all things considered”. In the next essay, I’ll seek to explore that in further detail.
Followed up in: We Ought Not Have an Ought Simpliciter
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