Empowerment Ethics: “How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?”

The post below is part of a series of posts and originally appeared on Secularite.

My personal journey to developing an ethical theory began with my rejection of my religious faith. I committed then to an unsparing skepticism about morality’s truth and authority that was willing to patiently remain a moral skeptic until I could find or figure out for myself arguments on behalf of morality that simply compelled me to accept it as true or authoritative. I was not going to accept anything dogmatically again, not even the validity of morality.

I would, as a practical matter, continue to adhere to values that I was emotionally committed to, regardless of whether they had foundations. But I would not claim foundations for them unless the best arguments supported them. And I would subject all proposed ethical values and rules to the most vigorous scrutiny I could. And, to help me, I would study one of morality’s most ruthless and searching critics, Friedrich Nietzsche, as my primary academic focus (including the subject of my dissertation).

And were there rational standards for adjudicating competing values or principles in ethics that would convince me of themselves, then I would use them to determine my views on such matters, rather than merely make ethical thinking the kind of lazy and conservative exercise in rationalizing my (and my culture’s) existing commitments and prejudices that Nietzsche castigates so much cowardly, false, and stagnant moral philosophy for being.

With this mindset, I have never resonated with those moral philosophers who are willing to uncritically take so-called ”moral common sense” or “our moral intuitions” as the starting point for thinking about ethics.  Just assuming one’s own moral beliefs or values or norms as true and authoritative would be begging the hardest of philosophical questions right up front. Don’t such philosophers realize how extraordinarily psychologically, socially, culturally, and historically conditioned their common sense and “our” moral intuitions are? They are not primary, basic, cross-culturally undisputable “data” which we can unproblematically assume are true when doing philosophy. We need to vigorously interrogate them for their truth and worth. This is not to say that a good many of our moral ideas cannot prove themselves. It is to say that nothing can be assumed or taken as foundational and exempt from rigorous philosophical doubt by thorough moral philosophers.

Of course the layperson with respect to philosophy may assume a fair bit about morality for practical reasons (while I hope many laypeople take a robust interest in philosophy, I understand that not everyone can do the due diligence themselves about every area of inquiry important to humans–I certainly entrust most knowledge acquisition to experts in countless other fields). But moral philosophers must take seriously the task of rationally deriving and defending the reasons, if there be any, to think morality in general, or a particular morality, to be authoritative. And I think it’s important that laypeople who want to debate about philosophical and religious issues be serious about understanding these issues.

But then the question arises–what exactly must morality prove about itself? What kinds of skepticism should it be subjected to? What sorts of successes would “prove” it and what sorts of failures might “debunk” it? And even if morality could in principle be shown to be a legitimate enterprise, then many other questions arise about what kind of an enterprise it is and what kind of legitimacy it might have. Is it something about which there can be truth? Or can it be authoritative without being true? And what kind of an endeavor is morality anyway? Might we need to re-understand it in order to fairly assess its truth and authority at all? Should we even be talking about it as a monolithic thing, as though it were a single set of prescriptions or judgments? Or should we be talking in a pluralistic way about a variety of moralities that are to one degree or another defensibly true and authoritative, relative to objective situational factors?

These are the tip of the iceberg of questions that have obsessed me for the last ten years and which I’m going to discuss in the coming weeks and months. For now let me take a start towards answering these many questions by arguing that there are rational criteria for assessing morality as a general ideal or moralities in particular. There are ways to philosophically suspend our commitment to morality and not simply assume that either our own morality or even any morality that’s ever existed is necessarily true and valid. There are ways to rationally analyze morality from outside our commitments to it. And I actually think these analyses can objectively vindicate the general endeavor of having moralities and help guide us in making them better.

There are several kinds of test to subject morality to. First, ethics is a normative practice–i.e., it is to one extent or another about guiding actions according to either hard rules, principles, rules of thumb, imitation of role models, etc. And there are many more kinds of normative practices than just ethics. Essentially any time that we implicitly or explicitly adopt rules or follow norms we are engaged in normative activity. And normative practicesin general can be assessed by criteria that are not themselves narrowly “ethical” in nature. Normative practices have basic rational dimensions built into them. Normative thinking is unavoidable for rational beings like us since even reasoning itself is a normative endeavor. 

There are empirical tests for normative systems. The primary empirical test is, “Do they accomplish the purposes for which we adopt them?”

There are also formal tests for systems of norms: Are they coherent? Do they make for a workable system or an irrational and self-undermining one?

With respect to morality we can ask, when people are inclined to create or sustain or participate in normative practices as distinctly moral ones, what are the fundamental concerns driving them? Can the normative moral practices derived be judged rationally for how they serve these purposes? How well or poorly do these moral systems hang together as internally coherent and consistent? Are they inherently logical?

Ethics is about more than norms, it’s also about values. But the domain of values questions is not limited to morality. There are lots of non-moral values we can talk about. And so a broader understanding about the nature of values can illumine the nature of moral values as a subset. We can learn about criteria for assessing distinctively ethical values by thinking about criteria for understanding values generally.

I am going to boldly argue that we can talk meaningfully and naturalistically about the factual existence of “value relationships” in nature. To the extent that moral practices are themselves contributory to realizing natural value relationships that can be shown to be objectively valuable for humans, they would themselves be valuable. To the extent that some or all humans were objectively in an any natural value relationships served better by one moral practice rather than another, that moral practice would be more objectively valuable to those humans. And I think this would justify normative judgments that it is more rational for those humans to engage in those practices.

If I can show these things then I think I can show I have a basis for saying that at least some moral statements express truths about real value relationships and that some moral prescriptions have rationally binding normative force to them, then acknowledging these things would rationally be a basis for compelling someone who understood them to acknowledge they had reasons to do what was moral over other things they might otherwise feel pulled towards. That would enough for me to say that at least those moral statements would be objectively true and objectively authoritative.

Finally, a key external basis for understanding and testing our moralities is increasing knowledge of moral psychology, moral history, and other factors in morality’s constitution. Figuring out how different moralities serve different values better or worse involves empirical sensitivity to a high degree.

Your Thoughts?

Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours:

What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?

How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?

Empowerment Ethics Permanent Page, Regularly Updated With Answers To More Challenges and Questions

I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.

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