The best moral judgment is not absolutist. It does not blindly apply simplistic, overly broad rules in every circumstance regardless of the consequences. When necessary, the best moral judgment in fact takes into account a whole host of relevant, situational nuances. It assesses each nuance according to any of a range of important formal moral principles. It also assesses the actual and potential consequences of the action to the happiness, suffering, well-being, harm, and overall flourishing of all people involved or effected by whatever is being judged. It weighs the consequences of various kinds of responses to the action too. What happens if we reward this action or do so it in this way rather than that? What happens if we punish it or do so it in this way rather than that?
So in practicing our moral reasoning, thought experiments about hypothetical situations are invaluable. And it is absolutely crucial that our thinking about morality be informed by our best observations and inferences into how interactions among people actually go. We must learn constantly from psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, politics, and countless everyday interactions in order to reason through what kinds of rules, and what kinds of deviations from them, are, in practice, going to be the most conducive to creating happiness, well-being, flourishing in human power, flourishing society, etc. And of course we also need to know what is detrimental to all of this and how to stop it. Only with a good grasp of the dynamics among people can our moral philosophies be true and lead to good actions and worthwhile moral codes and systems.
Now, ultimately, we can never devise an absolutely perfect set of moral rules that would replace the need for the rationally, emotionally, and morally careful judgments of particular moral agents. Situations which are extremely similar could have one difference between them that makes all the difference morally. And sensitive moral reasoners are patient and careful and work out every nuance to make sure they catch everything morally salient and weigh it all together before making important moral decisions or before making consequential judgments about other people’s moral decisions or their moral characters.
This is a big part of why interpersonally it is so bad to be a morally judgmental person. Now, I believe that in the abstract we can have a great deal of objectively defensible moral principles and priorities that it would be outright irrational for anyone who properly understood them to eschew. I will argue vigorously that there really are right answers about these things, at least in principle. And I think that we should be unabashed about vigorously arguing out our moral hypotheticals and pouring over the data from science and the trends we can informally observe in our observations of people in order to figure out more and more about what is usually best or what makes for the best rules of thumb in difficult circumstances.
But consistent with that, I think we must nonetheless recognize that every given person is enmeshed in a life that has countless variables to it. That they act on partial information and under a myriad number of personal, biological, psychological, sociological, political, and historical influences that determine what looks best to them and, in turn, determines their choices. Ascribing a morally condemnable evil will to them can be fairly tricky under such circumstances. People can go wrong for any number of reasons that we can morally have any number of sympathies for.
And, again, as much as I think we should not be shy about promulgating general moral principles as generally for the best, there can be any number of situational factors in a particular person’s life that makes their particular choices either morally recommendable, acceptable, or, at least, morally forgivable given the very particular and unusual matrix of circumstances they happen to find themselves in.
And since the consequences of public moral castigation can sometimes be excessive, I am increasingly averse to morally judging particular people with my platform as a blogger read by thousands of people. This is consistent with me also being a moral philosopher to whom it matters a lot to engage in, host, and encourage vigorous, rational, thoughtful, empirically informed, and self-critical conversation about general issues in ethics and social justice.
There are a fair number of cases where I do feel fairly comfortable making negative moral judgments. Sometimes people do things that I think are quite wrong and I can rationally and fairly show why and the likelihood of there being a relevant mitigating factor obscured from view is very small. Or sometimes I can observe a pattern of behavior and fairly well judge that there is a real character flaw at work. I can make these moral judgments in a way that does not go to unbalanced extremes. I can make these moral judgments without ignoring that these people in most cases also have understandable motivations. I can judge them to be flawed or do flawed things without thinking they mean to do evil for evil’s sake. There are some conscience-deprived sociopaths out there who are indifferent to moral standards, of course. But I can acknowledge a great deal of wrongdoing is done by ordinary, basically well-meaning people with more ordinary moral and intellectual flaws accounting for their ethical failures.
But even in these cases where I feel comfortable making a moral judgment, I rarely want to tear into people publicly. For one thing, I keep myself sensitized to the fact that that’s another real life human being I would be attacking; one with real emotions and potential threats to their social well being that could come from a public thrashing. Secondly, once I make it about that person, I fear that people–and especially the person I directly attacked by name–are going to have a far more terrible time thinking rationally and clearly about the moral issue that concerns me.
This is because there are any number of issues that you and I could sit down and abstractly think over and come to a completely obvious conclusion about, but which we would much more prejudicially assess were we or those we felt close to the interested parties. If we threw out a hypothetical, “What if A does x and B gets offended and does y? Who is right?” Completely hypothetically, knowing all relevant information about A and B, you and I in many cases could very well come to the same conclusion in the abstract. But if in real life it arose that I was A and you were B, or vice versa, we would be strongly inclined to have a judgment that assessed everything in our own favor, regardless of which side we were on.
This is extremely frustrating, because we need to make situational moral judgments all the time, in order to get our moral judgments correct. And yet in real life situations, people are notoriously prejudicial towards themselves. And, like I mentioned above, particular people in very particular judgments might indeed have a number of factors related to their own particular personal situation or their own particular ongoing conflict with a particular person which might completely complicate an otherwise straightforward judgment. In the case of feuds between individuals, families, peoples, etc., you are looking at arguments that compound weeks’, months’, years’, decades’, or even centuries’ worth of moral disagreements, built up over the course of an enormous number of particular conflicts, each with a high number of moral variables that need to get factored in to get the moral judgment right.
This is why when whole peoples or simple individuals feud both can often have a great number of reasons to feel justified in their anger and frustration with the other side. They both can read all they’ve done in the best possible light and all the other has done in the worst.
Now, that’s not to say that someone apprised of all the facts and exquisitely careful rational powers and beholden of an ability to empathize deeply with all sides and weigh everything fairly could not come to some justifiable moral conclusions. But what it means is that wandering into the middle of such a fight and trying to adjudicate it by giving your opinion on just one exchange in an ongoing war is just fraught. Because inevitably both sides will rush in and bring to your attention all the preceding context that complicates this one particular event. And they’re right to do so. So, if you can’t exhaustively treat the event, stage by stage, and with in-depth summations of all that’s going on, then inevitably what you’re going to do is going to be limited.
And what’s really the worth of even attempting this? The more people who get involved in an interpersonal feud the worse the whole conflict gets. When people have been multiplying their grievances against each other and expanding the circles of those aggrieved in the process, the problems just escalate and escalate.
Now for the people in an interpersonal feud, I can understand why it’s so important to them. But the best I can do in such circumstances is assess what sorts of moral principles, priorities, and values we need to ramp up promulgating to prevent such kinds of conflicts in the future or to prevent future conflicts of that form from being ambiguous. In other words, with better principles more widely accepted, some matters that presently are morally difficult to get agreement on can be settled far more easily and quickly. But in the meantime, while people’s values are divided, if they fight over a dicey situation that gives people incentives because of their personal investments to side the one way or the other, some really bad general ethical principles can result as people start rationalizing to protect themselves or their friends.
This is why I would rather keep my writings abstract. People can change their views much more easily when they’re not under personal attack or when the principles argued for are not in their minds obstacles to their goals or their friends winning important a conflict they’re deeply, personally staked in.
So, while in our personal lives we inevitably must make particular, fallible, situationally sensitive moral judgments the best we can despite imperfect information, and while we should constantly be nuancing our general principles in light of new discoveries about how things go all haywire in reality, nonetheless, as much as possible it is better to vigorously debate our values in ways that do not activate people’s prejudicial, team-picking brains, related to specific people in specific conflicts.
So, this sort of reasoning process, among other things, is why I avoid publicly commenting on much of the specifics of the interpersonal conflicts in the blogosphere and instead discuss many of the same ethical issues that are currently contentious in the atheist community on an abstract level. What is important is that we get figure out right from wrong, not that we go around shaming those particular people that are wrong. Focusing on particular people makes it personal, activates sympathy for the person and resistance to the principle that would condemn them, it fetishizes the shamed person as a special monster when often they’re all too ordinary, and it can do disproportionate damage to one individual who is taking the brunt of public anger for wrongs that are actually widespread with plenty of blame to go around. On an individual level, by all means, we must morally oppose the bad people we encounter and even have the criminal ones arrested. But publicly, I think our focus should be on root and branch change from the deepest philosophical levels about how we think to the most tangible systemic levels about how we routinely punish and reward in society.
Now, all this said, some people have thought that various postings on my blog and Facebook in the last couple days were me publicly adjudicating the dispute between JT Eberhard and Bria Crutchfield. I did not at all intend them to be that. But since people thought I was passive aggressively commenting on them, let me break with my general policy against taking interpersonal feuds public or risking escalating already public ones, and say a quick word about what I actually think.
For the reasons spelled out in this post, I would not have done what JT did going to the internet with this conflict. It’s unclear to me the activity on Twitter was going to force this to be a public issue. While I oppose the routinized incivility that is endemic to the blogosphere and certainly would not like to see it spread to conferences, I am deeply sympathetic to the fact that people who deal with a lot of culturally engrained prejudice are inevitably going to lose their cool and that this should not be something they are publicly shamed over. I don’t leap from that to a general principle that all marginalized people are always entitled to berate other people with impunity. I am willing to argue about principles like that. But I would need far far more evidence that Bria was a poisonously belligerent person before I would publicly make a big deal out of what she did. And I am hardly going to assume that on account of witnessing just one argument she was in.
For the record, I loathe intensely the stereotype of the mad black woman. The last 13 years I have lived and tauhgt in Manhattan and the Bronx. This means I have interacted with countless black women, including dating a few and teaching a number I couldn’t even estimate. I’m still waiting to meet my first mythical mad black woman. I haven’t even met the one who errs justifiably on the side of confrontation instead of overwhelmingly on the side of understanding in dicey, racially fraught, interpersonal issues. So the trope of the mad black woman infuriates me personally and I want to repudiate it and disassociate myself from it however I can. And so I understand crystal clear the optics of this situation where people see a paternalistic white man condescending to an angry black woman.
So, I would never have assumed Bria was somehow trying to kick off a trend of conference floor call outs that needed to be stopped. Considering Bria ended with tears especially, I would have seen this as a sincere and raw human moment very much worth affirming, regardless of any concerns about formal incivility. I would have been more cautious than JT about even broaching the subject with Bria. If I even did so, I would have done so only after genuine rapport was established and I would ask her questions about her reasoning process rather than just come out with any alternate perception of events I might have had. And I would only have done that after hearing out and learning from Bria’s anger and affirming her emotions. And even as I gave my alternate perceptions, I would have been artful about posing them as questions to see what Bria thought of them.
While I wasn’t there, I can very well imagine that the woman who asked the offensive question was clueless that it was offensive. I can’t say with any certainty, but I don’t think my automatic assumption given the context would have been that it was hostile. I have run the question by a couple of very liberal white people who seemed to vaguely grasp it might be offensive but still thought it legitimate. That’s not to say they’re right or the black people complaining about the question are wrong. It’s to say that this is probably an issue on which many more white people, even progressives trying not to be racist, need some serious remedial education. I agree with JT that to a serious extent, intent does matter morally and must be taken into account in assessing what people do and in meting out penalties, even if it is not “magic”. I have gone into many ins and outs of the moral relevance and irrelevance of intent here.
Without saying, “my friend cannot possibly be racist”–something I’d never say since I have depressingly many racist friends and family members, I would say that from all indications JT seems to me to be looking at the issue very formally as an issue of “you don’t take someone else’s Q&A to harshly chastise someone who made an honest mistake”. Had that formal scenario been hypothetically raised, in that abstract form, a week ago, everyone would say, yes, that’s a fine principle.
I think JT wants to say that’s a good principle to uphold, even for marginalized people, and I generally agree with that too, even if I can allow for exceptions when we’re dealing with something unplanned and human and sincere as Bria’s remarks sound to me like they were, from reports. I think JT is picking the wrong situation to fight for that principle. And by tying it to this particular dispute so closely he may hurt the cause of creating an ethics that prioritizes the value of civility and ending interpersonal acrimony in the community. I want civility principles and I supported privately JT’s writing to clarify that that’s all he was concerned about here. But I absolutely think it’s better to do it by not making this about this rare, specific, and idiosyncratic situation with Bria.
And I think that it’s unfair to infer that JT does not care about racial justice or women’s rights or any other cause simply because he makes arguments about civility. Yes, JT has a terrible record on civility towards believers. I think he may need to rethink that given what he’s realizing about the problems with incivility in other contexts.
My post the other day defending JT’s ability to have his own anger criticized was not to say that he was blameless in this case but that he was not being a formal hypocrite by pulling someone aside to critique how they express their otherwise justifiable anger. I just made the point that he takes such “pull asides” well when he thinks they’re coming from someone honest and someone who doesn’t invalidate his anger. So, in his mind he wasn’t doing to Bria anything he wouldn’t accept himself on that very specific level. I also wanted to stress that I think JT is admirable in being willing to be friends with people he has serious moral conflicts with.
I do this too, all the time, and so it pains me to see people disowning him as beyond the pale over their disagreement with him here. I have been supportive of him because of that concern, not because I would have done what he did. I think in his mind the question has become about civility and about how we treat those we disagree with in general, and on that, I’m philosophically closer to him.
Now, I can also qualify my remarks by noting the situations between how I criticize JT and how he criticized Bria that make the situations importantly different. I criticize JT abstractly, not when he is hot over a specific situation. While we became friends with me criticizing him regularly along the way, our first personal encounters were not as intense as his with Bria. We’re also two white guys and Bria has every right to not be as automatically open to a “talking to” from a white guy about her anger over race issues. So, all of this is complicated and I probably should have brought it up for nuance the other day. I was just trying to make a plea for not disowning people over mistakes and relay a positive observation about JT amidst an onslaught of criticism coming to him.
Finally, I don’t think JT at all wants to invalidate black anger or women’s anger. I certainly don’t. While I certainly don’t feel racial or gender-based injustice nearly as poignantly on a personal level as people directly impacted by them do, my passion for justice does create a great deal of personal investment in these issues. And it does for JT too. And it is possible for people to burn for justice and yet still have strong, rationally developed, and emotionally bolstered moral views about treating those who we think are morally and intellectually wrong with compassion and civility, at least under certain kinds of conditions.
I don’t want to go back and forth about this interpersonal issue. I sincerely hope this post does not antagonize people and escalate the whole conflict. I want to go back to sticking to my rule against weighing in on these things. But this should give you a sense of the kinds of ways I’m trying to privately balance and assess the things I don’t publicly talk about with specifics.
For much more on my views on civility, see my links here.