What are the Criteria for a True Morality or a True Moral Judgment?

A lot of people talk about whether or not morality is real and whether it is binding on people. Many of these discussions are more obscure and less productive than they should be because one of the most fundamental semantic questions gets unaddressed. Even to properly pose this question, I am finding one needs to break it down into component questions that need to be answered roughly in a certain order before one can get to it clearly. Also, not to prejudice the substantive answers to these questions, I feel the need to pose them at a fairly high level of abstraction. So please bear with me. I think that if you can get a hold of the questions I am asking and chew them over for yourself and with other commenters here, this can be an unusually valuable exercise for creating clarity about an often confused topic.

1. Which phenomena in our experience are it valid to call “moralities” from a descriptive historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, biological, or computational perspective?

1A. There are (and have throughout history been) a wide range of social arrangements. Which ones should we call attempts at “moralities” and which ones not? Which ones should we say are descriptively “moralities” regardless of whether we personally endorse the codes or believe them “genuinely moral”, if we even believe in such things as “genuine morality”? By what normative standards and using what empirical techniques can we draw such lines?

1B. There are a lot of psychological states of mind. Which ones are characteristically “moral” in nature and which not? How do we make such discriminations rigorously, accurately, and as matters of “truth”? Is it a scientific truth whether a given psychological state of mind is one related to “morality” or “moralities”, or not? If it is not a scientific truth, can philosophy at least clarify the issue? What conceptual distinctions should be brought to bear here?

1C. Do our judgments about whether a given psychological disposition, behavior, attitude, or belief is one related to “morality” vary when we consider its sociological context? Or are patterns of behavior and thought which are worth seeing as related to morality in ways significantly distinguishable and independent from such behavior and thought as socially determined?

1D. What psychological and/or social capabilities are or are not necessary in determining which beings morality relates to? Can any being, including ones that are apparently non-conscious like autonomous military drones, be engaged in morality for as long as there is a decision procedure? Or is sentience requisite? Is the ability to feel pain sine qua non to morality? Is the ability to make consciously recognized decisions or to understand responsibility necessary? Might different moral beings be engaged with morally relevant factors in distinct and non-overlapping ways even?

1E. A major part of how we come to understand the idea of morality in the first place is that our brains engage in moral reasoning–which, with moral feelings employs distinctively moral categories of thought, follows moral rules, and/or expresses moral habits that are psychologically and/or socially engrained in us. Some broad, basic tendencies for moral reasoning seem to be innate and a product of biological influences. Those basic tendencies obviously interact with cultural influences to make for greatly divergent specific moral categories, theories, practices, habits, attitudes, particular judgments, etc.  So we not only reason about moralities but inevitably we reason in moral categories. And we not only reason about cultures’ moralities but inevitably reason through our own culture’s morality.

So, in light of this, how much should we let our morally shaped beliefs about what moralities are determine which of the various intertwined sociological, anthropological, psychological, historical, and biological phenomena that we observe, in our own culture or in others, should properly be classified as phenomena of “moralities”? How much do particularities of form and matter that constitute our own moral thinking within expressly moral categories have to be present in other institutions, minds, or behaviors, for them to be what we would call “moralities”? And is it okay (or how, why, or to what extent is it okay) that our normative judgments about morality should influence our semantic judgments about what even counts as “a morality phenomenon” within the natural world? Can we (or should we even want to) ignore the internal logic of our internally experienced moral reasoning in trying to explain what moralities are as a broader category of naturally arising bio-psycho-social phenomena?

2. What criteria would a morality (or a specific moral judgment) need to meet in order to be called “true”?

2A. People frequently make both the judgments (a) that particular moral propositions are true or false, and (b) that particular existing or proposed moral systems, practices, attitudes, behaviors, ideas, etc. are or are not “truly” moral. These are normative judgments. By this I mean that they make a claim about what should or should not be called moral if we (or others) are to get morality correct. This judgment seems to say that at least some social institutions, psychological judgments, behaviors, ideas etc. that have effective moral functions and characteristics from the perspectives of history and social science, are not in fact properly what they (or maybe all of us) should consider moral.

Some people say that such judgments about a true or a false moral judgment, practice, system, institution, idea, theory, etc. are utterly mistaken because there is no true or false with respect to moralities. Rather there are just existing institutions, practices, and psychological tendencies with shared characteristics that we call a person (or a people’s) “moral” life, “moral” psychology, “moral” practices, etc.

For the purposes of this discussion, I do not want us to debate whether or not any morality is true or could be true. What I want to know is, “What criteria would a morality or moralities have to meet such that you could say true or false statements about morality were possible?” These are the criteria we need to be justified in holding before we can judge that a particular morality or all of morality is not in fact possibly a matter of truth and falsity. So these are the criteria I would like to see us debate in the comments section.

2B. You may not think any morality meets the criteria for being capable of providing moral judgments that are “true”. On that account, you may judge that one cannot say a moral system, idea, institution, judgment, practice etc., is truly moral or not truly moral, or that a given moral proposition is either “true” or “false”. I am not as interested at the moment in the reasons you think morality is incapable of true or false statements. I am interested in your criteria for “true” and “false” statements itself, and I am interested in your account of what something would have to be in order to count as a morality that could have “true” and “false” statements. Whether or not such a morality exists is a separate question. I want to know what it would be.

2C. Regardless of whether you believe true morality is in fact possible, another question arises. Is your criteria for assessing whether moral judgments can be “true” or “false” the same as your criteria for assessing whether other kinds of judgments can be “true” or “false”? Should those criteria be the same or should they not? In what ways should they overlap and in what ways shouldn’t they? Do you think that moral judgments have a distinctive form such that, were they to be capable of truth and falsity, they nonetheless would be capable of it only in a different way than how other kinds of judgments are? Or maybe is moral reasoning like some other forms of reasoning that yield possible good judgments of true and false, while yet still being different from, say, matters of fact? Or would moral judgments be true or false in a comparable or identical way to how more uncontroversial fact statements are?

2D. In everyday reasoning, ethics is thought to be concerned with a rather wide range of features of experience. These range from social structures to intimate feelings and relationships to rule-adherence, and countless other things in between. Attempts to explain the reality of morality typically have to give some account of at least some of these phenomena that explains their natures and their ideal interactions. Sometimes these accounts of the reality of morality try to defend the legitimacy of truth statements about morality by saying that received institutions, practices, ideas, and judgments which are often thought to fundamentally characterize morality are either mistaken altogether or badly misconceived, and as such need to be modified in order for the possibility of moral truth statements to become clarified.

For the record, I reason in such a “revisionist” way about morality myself. Sometimes when I have explained my moral philosophy, people have said to me something like the following (below is my own phrasing of their objections, not a direct quote of anyone else–though in a future post I will reprint a previous post’s comments section exchange in which I received and answered these sorts of objections in a preliminary and extemporaneous way, a while back):

Well, yes, there can be truth statements about the things you are talking about–but those things are different than “morality”.  So you are being deceptive when you say there can be moral truth statements. You are illicitly substituting something different than what normal people mean when you say ‘there are moral truth statements’. So when you tell people you believe in ‘moral truth statements’ they think you mean what they have in mind, whereas you actually think that what they have in mind is confused and technically false. So you should stop using the word ‘morality’ and use another one. You are trying to deceptively advertise what you do believe in by using a word with meanings you do not believe in but which people are attached to, while knowing ordinary people would reject what you mean if they only understood it.

Now, without getting into the specifics of my moral philosophy or its defense, let me spell out in formal terms how I formally defend my revisionism against this charge. There are many phenomena that, prior to learning, we have words for and only crude understandings of. When natural scientists or social scientists or philosophers investigate these phenomena and come up with good discoveries about them, they tell people “this is what the natures of these things are really like”. In many ways the natures of things, understood with sophisticated expert clarity, are quite different than everyday experiences of them indicate. Sometimes how things really function is extraordinarily counter-intuitive to everyday thinking.

So when a scientist refers to a commonly experienced phenomenon about which she has an expert’s understanding, she may really mean all sorts of things that never cross the layperson’s mind when using the same word. And her understanding of the phenomenon might very well disqualify the muddled concept in the layperson’s mind as even really being at all a substantively true representation of the phenomenon in question. In other words, the untutored, lay understanding of the phenomenon might be so fundamentally mistaken about the true essence of the phenomenon at play, as scientifically understood, that he almost might not be legitimately entitled to use the word at all.

But, if communication is to be clear, the expert needs to bridge the gap between technical knowledge and everyday knowledge. So she must make clear that even though the formal, expert understanding she has in mind wildly revises common sense assumptions, it is still rooted in the same basic reality the layperson is also engaged with in at least some comparable way. She can seek to make the layperson’s understanding increasingly sophisticated by gradually correcting conceptual errors and creating new models of understanding by which to process information about the phenomenon.

But she would also in many cases be unhelpfully misleading to imply to the layperson that she was talking about a wholly different phenomenon than the one he has in mind and to say that he has no true access to the thing at all just because his conception was muddled and backwards in many ways. He is engaged with this reality in some common sense, workable way, that has a real relationship to the fundamental workings that the expert can explicate more adequately, even if a lot of work needs to be done to reconcile the two conceptions.

Now, in some cases, the disconnect between reality and common sense is just too great. The layperson’s concept so insufficiently maps the reality it aims at that the concept itself should have to be thoroughly abandoned rather than corrected. In such a case, the layperson needs to be told that a feature he thought to be part of common sense reality is just illusory and has no place in our understanding of reality once we look at it sufficiently critically.

Now some opponents of the idea of true morality want to say that revisionistic philosophical accounts of morality (or at least that my own such account) are not just like the case of the expert who understands a common phenomenon in a truer way that happens to be counter-intuitive to laypeople. They think that, rather, morality is a concept which inherently is false because what it conceptually means at its core is false or illogical or does not map to reality in any analogously true way.

They think the situation between the expert and the layperson is like the situation I described where the layperson has in mind a concept so confused and so unfounded in reality that the concept should be admitted to be utterly untrue–at least when we are being philosophical. They may recommend we carry on with ordinary moral language and reasoning and not try to disabuse laypeople out of their errors. They may even recommend not trying to opt out of our own senses of moral responsibility or moral obligation (or think such a thing impossible to try anyway). They may recommend participating in moral communities and  debates as before, letting their beliefs about morality’s irreality make no practical difference–if this is possible.

So the two part question this has all been building up to is this:

2D1. What features must a morality have to be truly a morality such that any revision that did away with them would make the resulting theory “not sufficiently like what laypeople call morality to be honestly called ‘true morality’”?

2D2.What kinds of “moral truths” must a morality be minimally capable of generating for it itself to be worthy of being called “a true morality” and not just a “fictional” one? 

Now, notice, your answers may allow that more kinds of possible theories of morality might work than your favorite. This is about criteria of what a true morality would incorporate or what kinds of justification standards it would meet. This is not about what theory incorporates the minimally necessary criteria in the best ways or about how to determine such a thing. This is also not what justification there is or is not for thinking there is any “true morality”. It’s about the criteria by which we settle the question. People with allegiances to opposing moral theories may agree at minimum about what a “true morality” should account for or how it would have to be justified, even if they disagree about the particulars of what theory or what means of justification best satisfy the criteria. Both those who believe in true morality and those who do not may agree on what must be true for it to exist but not agree on whether those factors exist.

Finally, it is worth noting that criteria need not be conceived of in essentialistic or “all or nothing” terms. It may not be some simple one property that is utterly decisive apart from all others. It may be that any combination of a range of possible criteria would be sufficient, such that two different “true moralities” could even both be true while not even meeting the same exact criteria but each meeting a valid subset sufficiently. The question about how to weigh criteria is open for debate in a lot of ways.

Your Thoughts?

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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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