Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

In reply to a recent post, Tyler writes:

Your definition of ethics and morality is well taken and allows for further interesting debate on culture and moral systems but it still requires assumption of benefit. Defining phrases like “fully flourishing life” and “most excellent characters we can develop” require a standard of evaluation which I think can only be based on our own morality.

I see moral systems as tools– let’s say ladders. Of course you can evaluate a ladder based on its ability to achieve a certain goal, to get an apple out of an apple tree, for example. You simply look at which ladder is most stable or reaches the correct height for the job. But who is to say that the ladder should be used to get this apple? If you can’t prove why people should be choosing a ladder that gets the apple as opposed to something else, outside of your premise you can’t say one ladder is better than another. There are people out there arguing that we should be getting bananas and oranges. There are people that want to use the ladders as monkey bars because they think the higher you go the harder you’ll fall or that the apple is rotten. There are people that want to scrap ladders, who think “self improvement is masturbation”. It is possible to evaluate the ladders by questioning the people that are using them. How content are they, is it meeting their needs and goals, do they think it is the right material? It seems this is what Haidt’s research could be used for.

But the discussion I’d really like to read defends the apple and goes beyond where Haidt is willing to go. It answers why we should go for the apple or tell people to scrap their ladders for another. It’s the discussion you’ve started here “Toward a non-moral standard of ethical evaluation” but have yet to finish. I support going for the apple and convincing others to come along, but the logical argument for the morality or ethics of it has yet to be made here. If meaningful justification for the apple and your standard of ethics is to be made I think it has to be tied to measurable qualities not a vague “fully flourishing life”. I still hold that Haidt’s work, or similar, if not his opinion, may be helpful in building this non-moral standard.

I don’t think that the phrases “fully flourishing life” and “most excellent characters we can develop” need to be worked out only according to our own morality.  I disagree first that the standard of excellent flourishing character has to be a moral standard and I disagree that the standards of excellence must reflect those of the West or America in particular or some subset of Americans, etc.

To the first point, as I argued before, the “moral” domain usually is taken to entail the sorts of things Haidt associates with morality—concerns for justice and fairness, restraint from harming each other, respect for authority, loyalty to the cultural in-group, and purity—plus at least two other things Haidt does not specifically address—good motive and some degree of deference to tradition.   If the moral domain is limited primarily these sorts of spheres of life, then my view of the fully good life as requiring artistic, intellectual, physical, spiritual, and technological achievements, material prosperity, and a range of pleasures from the aesthetic to the sensual to the inellectual to the sexual, is not even a moral standard—let alone one derived from the particular’s of only my own culture’s morality.

I do not think the list I made just now of spheres of achievements and satisfactions is at all foreign to the lives of humans the world over.  These are goods that all extend out of universal human capacities and desires. Different cultures pursue these various goods (and many others we could delineate) through particular practices, some of which are better at attaining these goods and some worse.

Since I grant that you could at least theoretically have an illiberal culture which outstripped our own in terms of each of the achievements and satisfactions I listed above, or that they could outstrip us in some greater combination of them while we had a combination of fewer or qualitatively inferior ones, I do not see any inherent prejudice towards Western culture in these criteria.

One further reminder, I do not think that the moral spheres of life are at all irrelevant to our flourishing.  My point is that they are important but that they cannot come at the total expense of the other spheres of achievement and satisfaction.  A culture that is content within its moral concerns (the people are dutiful, fair, harmless, loyal, obedient, and pure) but is nonetheless intellectually regressive, artistically stifled, materially impoverished, and sexually frustrated is a failed culture.  If some more latitude about moral domains of life is necessary in order to improve the overall flourishing of the people, then the moral reins need to be loosened however much is necessary to raise the overall achievements and satisfactions of the people.

Let me address your fruits and ladders analogies.  First, we need to recognize that morality is not just about climbing the ladders in order to get fruits but it’s about becoming good climbers.  It is about being excellent people in how we pursue the other goods in life.  Moralities do not just differ in the fruits they pursue but in which climbing techniques they think are best.  I think that it’s perfectly legitimate to argue that “climbing styles” can vary in ways that are different but comparably impressive and good.  But that does not preclude calling some climbing styles inefficient, inartful, unproductive, and/or unproductive to getting any fruits.  And it also does not mean that every fruit picker has to employ ladders.  Maybe some develop the arts of tree-climbing and others are tree-swingers who get a boost up and then fling themselves from branch to branch picking.  And within these different techniques there can also be interesting, valuable style variations.

I take it as obvious that the sorts of achievements and satisfactions I defined are good for all humans based both on the natures of our biology and psychology.  I think also that there are virtues in which moralities train us which are themselves intrinsically good for us to develop.  Just like the differences in “climbing styles” the particular ways in which two cultures realize the same basic virtue may differ while still both being excellent, while another culture’s way of doing that same virtue may be paltry—unimpressive as a technique and bad at attaining the other goods of life.

Because virtues are hard to do well, given cultures and individuals rarely attain all of them in an admirable way.  And, as I will argue at another time, I think that training oneself in certain virtues involves shaping yourself in such a way that makes other virtues harder to attain.  And, again as I will argue elsewhere, I think that sometimes the goals that certain virtues concern themselves with will conflict with those of others on some occasions.

So, because cultures instantiate the same virtues in different ways and because different cultures rank different virtues as higher priorities and account for the virtues they take as lesser priorities in different ways, there can be times when we are assessing two cultures and we have to judge one culture that is great with, say, honor, courage, patience, and politeness but poor with virtues of reasonableness, love, and honesty.  And there may be another culture that is the inverse of that one.

When comparing these cultures’ moralities, therefore I think we need to ask questions like: what quantity of virtues do they inculcate?  How impressive is each virtue?  Maybe one culture develops 10 virtues but only 1 very impressively, whereas another develops only 7 but 4 are impressive.  Comparing such cultures is tricky, they may be roughly equal overall.  But another culture that just develops 6 virtues and only 1 very impressively is clearly worse than those other two—when we assess them in terms of moral strengths.

And then we need to assess their other nonmoral excellences (intellectual, artistic, physical, technological, etc.) and satisfactions (in food, sex, aesthetics, pleasures of friendship, etc.)

So, when we assess individuals or cultures, we have a number of possible moral excellences and non-moral excellences to assess and a number of satisfactions we have to count.  And we can weigh each excellence and each satisfaction in terms of quantities and qualities.

This is a really messy process, which would require a great deal of empirical analysis and a lot of judgment calls—how many moral excellences are worth how many nonmoral excellences and how many life-satisfactions?  How minimally do we need to meet minimum goals of moral character development, nonmoral skills, and passive satisfactions before we can start pushing for further achievement of the others types of goods?  For example, how minimally morally good and nonmorally skilled must we be before we try to pile on more pleasures at the expense of moral and nonmoral skill development?  Or how minimally must people experience passive satisfactions before we demand more of them morally or in terms of skills?

And those are just quantities, then come comparisons of qualities, and hardest of all, comparisons of qualities of goods vs. quantities of goods both within spheres of goods and across spheres of goods.  Are more passive satisfactions better than more intense ones?  Are more intense passive satisfactions worth having a couple less moral virtues?

All of these are questions which require empirical measurements and then intuitions of judgment in particular cases.  And they may exceed our capacities for judgment in most or all such particular cases.

But, abstractly we can say that in general, greater quantities of moral excellences, nonmoral excellences, and passive satisfactions are better than lesser.  Greater intensities are better than lesser.  Sometimes greater intensities might trump greater quantities but at a certain number of greater quantities, greater intensities are simply not worth it anymore.

And while we may generally privilege the moral over the nonmoral excellences and passive satisfactions as the first priority for social cohesion, the latter spheres have minimal thresholds which must be met before moral achievements become counterproductive to human flourishing.

And, it’s conceivable that the nonmoral excellences and the passive satisfactions could make us excellent and our lives worthwhile to us to such extents that the moral winds up relatively less important than Haidt’s “moral modules” would ever tolerate.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

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