Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation July 6, 2009

In a previous post, I raised some remarks from psychologist of morality Jonathan Haidt, in which he discussed his theory that moral thinking appeals to 5 essential modules hardwired into our brains by evolution.  In the interview I cited from a couple of years ago he only referred to 4 of the 5 modules but his later work has developed his account of the fifth one.  Haidt argues that whereas Western academics and other liberals seem to consider only questions of justice/equality and care/harm as being morally relevant that most of the rest of humanity thinks about morality equally in terms of the purity/sanctity, authority/respect, and ingroup/loyalty foundations in the brain. Haidt argues that American conservatives are far more likely to think morally in terms of all 5 of the modules whereas liberals only think and argue in terms of justice and harm, with the result that the leftwing usually fails to make a full moral appeal to the brains of a sizable portion of the population with its proposals.

Haidt also argues that to dismiss foreign cultural practices which find their justification through reference to concern for these goods is to be chauvinistic about Western values.  We cannot assume that, for example, Muslim women who embrace the veil as part of the moral concern for purity are merely brainwashed victims of an oppressive, misogynist culture who would most certainly adopt Western attitudes towards women’s clothing were they able to think freely about the matter.

In reply to this, Tyler remarked as follows:

Just from reading this article, with little prior knowledge, I like Haidt’s approach. Questioning traditional moral cognition can lead to a fuller life experience by developing and sharpening the apparatus through which the world is perceived. But this desire only creates a sixth moral foundation (if it doesn’t fall under Ingroup/Loyalty already).

It seems moral systems are most often deemed “good” based on accepted moral practice (circular) or “good” as in “serving a desired end”, and ends, even in the case of Nietzsche and “maximizing our power as individuals”, require a moral judgment of what is best. Perhaps the only objective evaluation of moral systems requires they not be labeled “good” by either definition but “good” from their stand-alone power as systems; as in their ability to propagate, and defend against other systems. Haidt’s questioning of those living beneath these systems is a way of measuring control, devotion and the ability to combat the pull towards personal gain (why forced burqa should be evaluated differently from slavery).

I’m with the author in thinking moral systems dedicated to improvement, personal power, progress, and separate from the traditional moral foundation are best, but I’d hardly claim judging a society’s moral system based on its success at fulfilling these goals is objective.

To this I replied:

(1) I think we can escape the moral circle by referencing a non-moral standard of evaluation, say of human excellence as construed in categories that go beyond merely the moral ones.

(2) I am puzzled by what you mean by judging the moral systems by their abilities to “propagate and defend against other systems,” because these remarks sound like you are conceiving of the moral systems as entities unto themselves. There may be something to this in Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene”/Meme terms and it’s a provocative suggestion. But while moral systems may be in a de facto competition with each other for domination, our assessment of which ones we want to promote and which ones we want to discourage (or, more usually, which possible moral alternatives we are interested in) has everything to do with their use to us and not their own propagation. Or as William Frankena put it much more simply, “Morality was made for man, not man for morality.”

To which Tyler astutely replied:

By definition, morality involves the judgment of human character; aka: what is human excellence. It seems that even when nontraditional, any standard of evaluation remains circular unless stripped of its assumptions of what is beneficial.

In other words, I suggest that if a truly non-moral standard of evaluation can exist, it must be based on the scientific method and the semi-measurable qualities of devotion, longevity, propagation, and so on. All of which are things Haidt appears to evaluate in his research.

I think Tyler and I are quite close in our thinking here.  I think that when Tyler defiens morality as “the judgment of human character” and its identifies the key criterion by which to judge human character to be “what is human excellence,” he is agreeing more with me and with the traidtions of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and (most recently) Thomas Hurka and not necessarily with Jonathan Haidt.

Here’s why.  There is a difference between holding morality to be a good unto itself on the one hand and on the other hand to see it as inherently instrumental to our flourishing and as only partially constitutive of our fundamental ethical good.  In other words, you can define morality in such a way that its interests do not necessarily line up with our material success or our excellence in all our powers.  For example, one might conceive of morality as Kant does, whereby morality is narrowly defined as being concerned only with our autonomy, rationality, and our ability to have a dutiful will that does the good only because it is the good.   For Kant, we act morally as long as we sufficiently realize our rational nature.  And realizing our rational nature in actions means only that we act according to principles which we could consistently recommend that every other rational agent follow as well.

On this view morality is indifferent to whether we achieve supposedly morally neutral goods such as happiness, wealth, friendship, pleasure, aesthetic satisfaction, etc.  And there is no particular moral merit or demerit in whether we develop the allegedly non-moral excellences like those of intellectual, artistic, or physical prowess, for example.  While we have moral duties to seek such intrinsic goods and to cultivate our talents, we are not morally assessed by how successful we are in actually being happy or brilliant or physically powerful.  In other words, we do not judge your character by how excellent a specimen you are in terms of all your human powers.  Judging you morally is only a matter of judging you by how fair you are to others, whether you hold yourself to rules that you expect others to be held to, and whether you act out of a concern for duty, rather than out of various enticements to do the good from ulterior motives.

Many moral philosophers are similar in seeing morality as only being about whether you are fair to others and do not harm them without justification and they hold nearly the whole realm of skills and material successes in life to not be matters of ethical interest (except insofar as we must be constrained by concerns for fairness and harm.)  On such views, morality is completely not interested in whether you are successful but only in whether your success is tainted by injustice and/or unjustifiably increases the suffering of others.  If you’re a failure and don’t flourish excellently as a human being, morality will not judge you any worse and it will give you no credit for being intrinsically powerful.

So, when I contrast morality and ethics, I am defining morality as sets of rules concerned with acting from concern for being good itself, with justice for its own sake, with prevention of harms for its own sake, with obedience to authorities for their own sake, with “purity” for its own sake, with traditionalism for its own sake, and with “ingroup loyalty” for its own sake (to refer to Haidt’s modules and a couple other key moral priorities I think he should further incorporate).  I see “morality” as the tendency of the brain to fetishize these various goods as not only intrinsically good but as necessarily and absolutely overriding the importance of all competing goods that do not fall under their domain.

By ethics, I refer to questions of the overall good of a human life and the most excellent characters we can develop.  As far as I’m concerned, ethics should encompass both moral goods and many of the goods which morality (as I defined it) treats as irrelevant.  I think that ethics should rank the various priorities of our moral concerns and the non-moral goods, without a default preference for moral aims at the expense of non-moral aims at every turn.  In other words, I think we should assess people and peoples not only in terms of whether they actualize moral goods but whether they live overall flourishing lives in terms of all the human powers.

In that context, a culture that instantiates the mind’s concern for purity in such a way as to utterly stifle its people’s abilities to flourish in aesthetics or autonomy does more harm than good.  A culture which translates that natural obsession with purity into a practical hygienics that aids the larger life’s ability to flourish in aesthetics, autonomy, etc. by aiding our health does a far better job at encouraging our flourishing and is ethically better.  To use a more concrete example—the purity module should be more concerned with preventing the spread of STDs than with pronouncing everyone promiscuous as inherently “impure” in some sense of being mystically “tainted” (with often brutal socially-enforced emotional and physical consequences).

You can reconsider the quotes I selected from Haidt in my post or read him in his entirety to judge whether I’m adequately representing him, but my take is that he is saying we should not judge a culture for simply acting on its inherent psychological modules in ways that genuinely aim at the goals towards which those modules are directed and the culture’s practices are in turn felt as valuable by those who live according to them.  In many ways he is a psychologist saying that you cannot blame a people for instantiating our common, evolutionarily selected, moral tendencies in a different way than we do without being chauvinistic.

I, however, want to come in as a normative philosopher and figure out how to evaluate what we should do with more nuance than Haidt does—being as he is primarily concerned with expositing and understanding what we actually do and what motivates us to do it.  I want to say that, regardless of how natural and understandable our various moral modules are their justification comes in whether they help us live fully flourishing human lives and not whether they merely fulfill their own purposes.

In other words, the “in-group” module is interested only in our having strong ties to our own group and with our being willing and able to put concern for our group over outsiders and even over ourselves when necessary.  It is only interested in this goal and we can live satisfying lives when this inclination of ours feels fulfilled. Similarly we can feel like our world makes sense and our lives are meaningful when living in ways that satisfy our concerns for equality, harm avoidance, purity, authority, tradition, dutifulness, all according to our culture’s prescriptions for instantiation and having these psychological needs well-met feel content with life, and yet live worse intellectual, aesthetic, and physical lives than we could.

My point is that the moral modules are prejudiced towards their own fulfillment and will lose touch with the more fundamental goods that they should serve.  This is not to say that human flourishing does not intrinsically involve the powers to be fair, to be loyal, to be responsive to duty, to be well-motivated, to be caring and control violent impulses, etc.  Fulfilling certain moral goals involves certain intrinsic human excellences.  But if moral tendencies and moral goals turn oppressively against our other excellences and our other intrinsic goods and are systematically preferred to them, then morality becomes tyrannous and holds humanity back.

I don’t think in such a case it is simply chauvinism to criticize a given culture if it is more obsessed with fulfilling its moral inclinations for their own sakes and in instantiated forms that restrict all sorts of other possibilities for objective flourishing.  Such a culture may be following out natural psychological tendencies which are minimally necessary for maintaining unified cultures which survive.  But they may not be maximizing the possibilities for cultural or individual realization of powers and can be criticized on those grounds.

This is not to say that Western liberal societies are always better than more morally rigid ones at achieving human flourishing.  I leave it as an empirical question whether some more restrictive cultures throughout history or co-temporaneous with our own have been culturally richer and produced more wonderful instances of individual human lives than our own.   It is quite conceivable that the pressures of moralistically forceful cultures might produce harder and more glimmering diamonds than softer more laissez-faire societies whose moral laxity goes hand-in-hand with a general congeniality to mediocrity.

Nonetheless, even as I think that two very different cultures could prove comparably excellent means to human flourishing and even as I concede that cultures other than our own may very well outstrip us in creating one or more excellence—I want to argue more clearly than Haidt does that the criteria for judging a culture go beyond whether or not they are satisfying only moral interests (which seems to be the limit of Haidt’s willingness to judge).

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

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