Politics as Moral Philosophy

Politics as Moral Philosophy November 6, 2018

Generally, the study of morality is split into three components: descriptive morality, meta-ethics and normative morality. Normally philosophers replace the term ‘morality’ with ‘ethics’. Descriptive ethics is concerned with what people empirically believe, morally speaking. Normative ethics (which can be called prescriptive ethics) investigates questions of what people should believe. Meta-ethics is more philosophical still in attempting to define what moral theories and ethical terms actually refer to. Or,

  • What do different cultures actually think is right? (descriptive)
  • How should people act, morally speaking? (normative)
  • What do right and ought actually mean? (meta-ethics)

Morality, as the term will be used here, will generally be understood as: “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.”[i]

The second important term to attempt to unravel is objective. This is a more difficult term to define than one may think. Usually it means something that is independent of an agent’s mind, or mind-independent. This is the understanding I will use here for the sake of argument. Thus objective morality refers to facts about what constitutes moral behavior, and these facts lie in the nature of the agent’s action, regardless of cultural and individual opinion.

One hugely important question at this point concerns the existence of properties such as “is an abstract idea.” This is important because theists end up arguing at only skin depth, at the veneer of philosophy. Whether an atheist has the right to make moral judgments is a question that has as its basis much more fundamental meta-ethical and metaphysical philosophy. What theism and theists rely on is some form of (Platonic) realism such that there is a realm where abstract ideas and forms exist. This is not immediately, or even after some critical analysis, apparent. What are rights, moral laws or morality actually made of? What is their ontology? What are the properties of these abstract ideas? The conceptualist (a form of nominalism, the position that denies the existence of universal abstract ideas in some way) claims, for example, that abstract ideas like morality are concepts in each individual conceiver’s head. Thus objective morality is potentially a non-starter or requires a more befitting definition. Now the philosophy gets very in-depth here, but is actually critically important. It is easy to say atheists have no ground for objective morality and that theists do. It is a lot harder to show how objective morality exists in some kind of mind-independent reality. Even God can be argued to be an abstraction (since he apparently has infinite qualities, a concept that has no actual reality).

Now, all of my regular readers will know this very well; or, at least, they will know that this is my approach to abstracts and thus morality.

So, for me, morality is an abstract concept or framework of concepts that exist(s) in our minds. Usually, we consider morality to be about individual actions and how they might impact on others.

Politics is, I argue, this individual approach merely on a societal level. When we talk about morality in a generalised sense, we are invariably talking about normative ethics – what one (as an individual) should do. When we talk about politics, we talk about what one (a politician or a country) should do in the context of policy. This policy then has an outcome or consequence in affecting others.

This seems as clear as day to me, but I have had some push back before in claiming that politics is morality and moral philosophy.

What should a politician do? What policies should a government enact in a given scenario?  This is obviously moral philosophy, writ large.

Given this, then, it seems incumbent upon those discussing politics and policies and governance to have a working knowledge of moral philosophy. More than that, I think it is necessary for those people, and necessary for politicians, to set out their moral philosophy first. Because their moral philosophy will define their political and policy choices.

I remember watching The Big Questions on the BBC (upon which I have featured myself), the philosophy, religion and politics discussion programme, when it topic was torture. The whole panel were discussing torture on the veneer, discussing whether it worked in a given context. The discussion was, in all honesty, utterly pointless because no one had set out their moral philosophy. One’s approach to whether torture is acceptable or good is based on two things: what your moral philosophy is and what the empirical evidence is concerning the efficacy of torture. That two-pronged approach is fundamental to worthwhile discussions on, say, torture.

In the good old days (!), UK politicians used to go to university and learn PEP – politics, economics and philosophy – and for good reason.

With regard to politics, the same is true. What is your moral philosophy, and what are the empirical evidences and outcomes of a given policy?

Morality is, I would argue, a goal-oriented philosophy. You need to set out what your goals are before setting out your moral propositions or frameworks. This is doubly important for politics. What sort of country or world do we want to live in?

Do we want to live in a sort of dystopian future with little of no biodiversity (a la Total Recall or similar), or do we want to live in harmony with a biodiverse nature? Sorting this basic goal out will then massively inform policy-making. This, in turn, will bring about discussions of the moral value of humans against other animals, and whether securing the health of other ecosystems itself secures the long-term health and future of humanity, etc. etc.

To conclude, politics is a subcategory of moral philosophy, but not enough people know their moral philosophy and end up doing politics without firm foundations. They build castles in the air.

[i] Bernard  Gert. “The Definition of Morality,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/ (accessed July 20, 2013)


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