Moral theory isn’t as helpful as many people think

I actually have some nice things to say about moral theory, but I’m saving them for another post because I’ve been kept up late doing other things, and a purely negative post is easier to dash off late at night. Let me begin by quoting a great bit from Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Once upon a time, I met someone who proclaimed himself to be purely selfish, and told me that I should be purely selfish as well.  I was feeling mischievous(*) that day, so I said, “I’ve observed that with most religious people, at least the ones I meet, it doesn’t matter much what their religion says, because whatever they want to do, they can find a religious reason for it.  Their religion says they should stone unbelievers, but they want to be nice to people, so they find a religious justification for that instead.  It looks to me like when people espouse a philosophy of selfishness, it has no effect on their behavior, because whenever they want to be nice to people, they can rationalize it in selfish terms.”

Eliezer doesn’t say this, but I suspect you could replace “selfishness” and “selfish” with equivalent terms for any other moral philosophy anyone has actually devised, and it would be just as true. Very few philosophers really get their morals from their moral theory. Peter Singer is as good a candidate as anyone for an exception to this rule, but he admits he doesn’t perfectly follow his own consequentialist philosophy, sometimes other factors override his actual actions. And what I’ve just said isn’t terribly controversial. Many ethicists today would say they’re not trying to derive their morals from a moral theory, rather they get their moral theory by reflecting on and trying to refine the morals they had before they ever did philosophy.

When I first read The God Delusion I was annoyed that Dawkins didn’t do more in the way of moral philosophy, like what famous dead and living professional philosophers do, and instead talks vaguely about the moral zeitgeist. Now, though I suspect Dawkins was closer to the truth about morality than most ethicists. Progress in ethics is real, but how we make it is somewhat mysterious. So far, I think Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature may have come the closest to getting the explanation right, though I suspect even Pinker gives philosophers too much credit.

When passing a law is the easy route
Avoiding divorce doesn’t make you a traditionalist
Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
Analogies for animal rights: civil rights vs. the antiwar movement
  • jamessweet

    Heh, I was already thinking “Peter Singer” as a counter-example before you mentioned him. But yeah, he’s… quite an exception. Does he have a spouse? I frankly cannot conceive of someone strictly following their moral theory and surviving a marriage…! :D

    Many ethicists today would say they’re not trying to derive their morals from a moral theory, rather they get their moral theory by reflecting on and trying to refine the morals they had before they ever did philosophy.

    For me, I go one further than this in that I recognize and acknowledge there are blatant contradictions between my moral theory and some of my actions, but that for other reasons (whether selfish, practical, whatever) I am not choosing to live up to the standard. A good example for me is meat-eating. Now, my position on eating meat at all is a little vague, but I generally think it can probably be done ethically. But, although I have gone through phases where I try to avoid it, I do eat factory-farmed meat pretty often. This doesn’t fit with my ethics. But…I’m hungry, more ethical meat is often ridiculously expensive, and also the tragedy of the commons and all that. So I do it anyway. I don’t feel the need to adjust my moral theory to make it okay; I just acknowledge I’m failing a bit in this regard.

    • Chris Hallquist

      This page says he’s married, with three daughters and three grandchildren.

  • life is like a pitbull with lipstick ॐ
  • Jordan
    • Chris Hallquist

      I’ve been meaning to read that one. Maybe I finally will.

  • Kevin

    Isn’t it only a problem if one wants to live a moral life? If not, you could easily form a moral theory and then conclude that oneself is acting immorally. Of course, this is contrary to what we would want to believe about ourselves, which invokes cognitive dissonance in many people forcing them to try and form a coherent moral theory that makes what they are doing consistent with being moral, but that’s besides the point.

    Also, this shows that morality is not normative, no matter how much or how many people want it to be. The only way to derive your morals from a moral theory is if you actually want to live a moral life, which includes less people than you think. Since living a moral life is hard, its much easier to convince oneself that they are living a moral life through self-deception than actually following through. As it has been pointed out, Singer is probably the best example of this and I suspect that most people would not want to take the steps he has taken (iirc, becoming a vegetarian, donating large percent of earnings to charity, living modestly, etc.).

    • mnb0

      Then the question rises what it does mean to lead an amoral or immoral life.

      • Kevin

        I’ve always taken it to mean considering the welfare of others when acting (i.e. utilitarianism). I never really got what all the fuss is about over the meaning of a word. We created a word and ascribed a meaning to it, people should stop bickering over semantics.

        • leftwingfox

          It’s because the definition changes the boundaries of the discussion. If morals are defined in an authoritarian manner (i.e. divine commandments) then what is or is not moral is very different from a self-maximizing system like objectivism, or a group-maximizing system like Marxism.

          This happens a lot when trying to come up with any social system. If you claim the goal of your system is to maximize freedom, then the next thing that always happens is trying to define freedom as something that should always be maximized and never restrained.

          • Kevin

            I agree. However, if someone defined morality as following someone’s orders and they ordered something harmful to other people, then I would not follow such commands. I would be ‘immoral’ and I wouldn’t hesitate at accepting the label. We gladly accept other words for this: heretic, sinner, blasphemer, “Hi, I’m an atheist”, etc. This begs the question, “why should we care whether or not we follow such commands?”

            For any system, we should ask, “why should we care about that?” A system that focuses on freedom would not be good for us since it is not our only value. At a certain point, a system based on freedom would eliminate possessions/private property, eliminate privacy, etc. These eliminations negatively effect well-being so it would be detrimental within a utilitarian framework and it loses its normative value since we don’t value freedom to that extent. I don’t think anyone would be in favor of such a system so it becomes irrelevant in the discussion. Also, you don’t get to define that something should be followed; calling something normative when its not is just factually incorrect.

            However if someone defined morality in a utilitarian way and you act immorally, then you have basically acted like a selfish psychopathic jerk. If this label fits you well, then wear it. This is because in a utilitarian system, empathy/compassion is the indicator of a moral person (an empathic/compassionate person is concerned with increasing the well-being of others). I doubt that many people would want to identity as being immoral under a utilitarian framework whereas many people would proudly claim to be ‘immoral’ under an authoritarian framework.

  • mnb0

    According to psychology moral arguments are mainly used as justifications a posteriori. So I think a benefit of moral theory is to enable us to reflect on our actions and decisions. Perhaps we will do better next time.
    If moral theory makes us a bit more skeptical on our own motivations it’s already useful. Too much skepticism is not healthy either though; that’s bad for our self-esteem.

    “Very few philosophers really get their morals from their moral theory.”
    People are very good at self-deceiving. I don’t see why philosophers should be a major exception.

  • Annatar

    Talk of moral theory always reminds me of something Albert Camus (should I be embarrassed that he is my favorite philosopher?) said:

    I don’t do good because of some moral code; I do good because of personal integrity.*

    *Not an actual quote, but the idea of morality expressed in The Myth of Sisyphus.

    That idea seems (to me) to be much more sensible and easy to justify than “I do good because I believe in Rawls’ contractarianism which says blahblahblah…”