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My take on morality August 7, 2008

Posted by Ian in Miscellaneous.

There has been a bit of activity on this blog in the comments sections about the ever entertaining issue of morality.  I have posted on this issue in the past but in this post I want to describe my opinion on how morals work, where they came from, and why we don’t need an objective moral set to explain the values and moral conscience we see in people today.

There are three key aspects of moral behaviour that I want to explore.  The first is that there is a solid evolutionary explanation for some moral behaviour.  The second is the idea of the shifting moral zeitgeist.  The third is the idea that a moral agent acting with these two backgrounds would find many moral issues almost indistinguishable from objective morals from an external agent.

The lust to do good

Richard Dawkins was paraphrased in an interview with Evan Soloman as saying that we have a lust to do good.  I think this comes close to explaining some of the more innate moral features of humans today.  It seems clear that evolution has had the power to instill various behavioral patterns in animals which modify that animals decision making.  It makes sense that genes with a strong urge to mate would be more likely to be present in the gene pool over time. 

But what about altruistic behaviour?  Dawkins discusses this issue in an excellent documentary called Nice Guys Finish First which is based on a chapter in his book, The Selfish Gene.  This documentary explains through game theory how cooperative behaviour is an evolutionarily stable strategy (to use James Maynard Smith’s terminology).  The key message is that animals who were predisposed (meaning instinctively likely to) behave in certain ways would be selectively favoured by natural selection over time and would come to dominate the gene pool over a long period of time.  This could manifest itself in many ways including friendship to kin, or members of the tribe.  Given our ancestors most likely operated in fairly small nomadic tribes, they were unlikely to encounter many other tribes and as such a rule to be cooperative with every human they encountered on a day to day basis would be sensible and would favour the genes.

The problem is that as we developed larger civilisations and gathered in larger groups, we were left surrounded by people we knew not very well but felt were part of our tribe somehow.  In this sense our tendency to act cooperatively with other humans could produce effects utterly useless to our genes such as willing participation in wars, self sacrifice and the like.  So we still have this “lust” to behave cooperatively but we are now surrounding by much bigger influences.

The shifting moral zeitgeist

This term is one introduced by Dawkins which refers to the changing set of standards adopted by society to govern what is considered good or bad behaviour.  However it is not a conscious decision made by members of society to act a certain way but is rather more like fashion trends or speech trends.  Various societal influences combine as a complex system, from which the moral zeitgeist emerges as a unconscious consensus on certain issues.  It works via peer pressure, the influence of leaders, communication and various other ideals that work through society, and as these pressures shift and change, the moral zeitgeist reacts in tune.  Anyone growing up around other people will soon pick up their values, and will take on board their views of right and wrong.  People that stray too far from the zeitgeist are quickly pulled back into line or isolated by society and so that shifting equilibrium is maintained.  No individual will ever quite know exactly what the moral zeitgeist precisely says but will become more likely to recognise a breach the further from the value set an action gets.  Hence small changes over time can seem almost invisible but over a long period can create major change.  In the space of 100 years slavery went from a right to a crime in the moral zeitgeist yet few people make significant conscious change – just older generations giving way to new generations as social values shifted. 

This shifting moral consensus guides us and provides a test for how well we fit in with those around us.  Most of us feel uncomfortable moving too far away from the general moral consensus because we were brought up to respect it and to act by it.  This of course becomes an important decision making guide in adult life.

Indistinguishable from absolutes

Given a genetic predisposition towards certain behaviours and a social pressure towards other behaviours, it would seem inevitable that the average member of society would look around and only notice that, to them, certain things are simply wrong.  Killing another human is simply bad because it is bad – no further thought is needed because we have a genetic tendency to not kill other humans (doing so would be particularly bad in small cooperative tribes).  Further freedom from slavery is now considered a moral right yet when really pressed on why we think this, we can’t really say – it is just “good” that people be free – it just must be that way.  300 years ago we wouldn’t have thought this way yet we would have considered ourselves equally moral at the time. 

If the source of our moral conscience is a combination of genetic and social evolution, we would not necessarily easily recognise it for what it actually is.  In fact they would be far more effective if we didn’t really have to think about them.  We don’t naturally spend a lot of time consciously dwelling on our moral tendencies and for this reason they are often perceived absolutes.  This works well because we don’t have the time or capacity to make perfectly reasoned moral decisions all the time so convenient societally approved shortcuts (aka absolutes) make life much easier.  In fact communication of social values to children is often done as a set of laws and rules rather than any explanation why, most likely for this exact reason.


We can have a moral conscience without any recourse to the supernatural, and in fact I think it would be surprising if humans had evolved without one.  We can experience this moral conscience as a set of feelings that seem quite absolute and sourceless even if they are, in the bigger picture, quite fluid and directly obtained from society and genetics.  Thus it seems to me that those who wish to claim that there are absolute rules to the universe and that this supports the need for a creative deity have a lot of work to do before their supernatural explanation can offer the same explanatory power towards morals as efficiently as the combination of genetics and the moral zeitgeist does.

Obviously this post represents my current thinking and is open to change so I welcome all thoughts and ideas.



1. Dace - August 11, 2008

There’s much I agree with here, but the theist would probably think you had missed the point by stressing that an evolved morality is indistinguishable from the kind of absolute morality stemming from God. You may well be right, he would say, but what I am concerned with is the *justification* for my moral precepts – if our morals are the mere product of evolution, this means that I am not justified, since evolution is an entirely amoral process. I do think I’m justified, as do you, therefore I believe moral absolutism. The only fitting ground for moral absolutes is God.
Now, obviously I’m not a theist, and I don’t believe this junk. No one should reason from their own feelings of righteousness in this way, particularly if their is an alternative explanation for their intuitions. But the theist has a point – he isn’t really justified in his beliefs if an evolutionary explanation of morals is correct, and neither are atheists.
I think the appropriate response here is to point out that ‘absolute justification’ turns out to be a nonsense. What we do when we justify ourselves is to outlay the reasons for our beliefs which the other shares (a common ground), and show how these logically lead to the belief in question. Justification is a social practice, so outside of social practice, there is no such thing as justification. The theists demand simply cannot be met, unless we choose to reinterpret it as the demand for reasons which would convince every person of our rationality; once put this way, however, the demand seems silly.

Concerning your final comment, I agree entirely. Invoking God as the objective source of morals is not the wondrous solution it seems to be. If Hume was correct that you cannot derive an ought from an is, then I fail to see how any description of God or his qualities could serve as truthmaker for a moral statement.

2. Ken - August 12, 2008

Dace – I disagree with your comment “The only fitting ground for moral absolutes is God.” I think we can explain/understand objective morality. And, after all saying “god did it,” is never an explanation – as you agree. It’s like say god ‘explains’ arithmetic, logic or the underlying order in the universe.

Arithmetic has an objective basis in the discrete nature of object, numbers and relationships between these. Similarly geometry has an objective basis in spatial relationships between objects.

So, I think objective morals have a basis in the existence of independent humans, members of an evolved social species and the relationship between individuals and groups. It seems to me that some absolute moral conclusions (eg the sanctity of life, basic human rights) are natural. So is the development of a moral logic or grammar.

These moral conclusions may not always be as obvious as arithmetic absolutes and logic. After all, and inevitable result of the social evolution of our species have been the “them and us” situations and formation of exploitative societies. The resulting (relative?) moral overlay causes confusion. So we can see that at various times absolute moral principles have been violated by the acceptance of a relative morality like slavery or the subjection of women. Sometimes we can break through that confusion – as we can now look back and say slavery and the subjection of women were morally wrong in an absolute sense.

Religion has played a role in the codifying and teaching of human morality. But their teachings have never been about moral absolutes (although these do shine through at times). Religious morality has always been relative because religions have always been part of the organisation and control of society. They play far a less a role in out modern pluralistic societies – these tasks are distributed. And, religion has no justification in claiming a special role on moral questions.

So. I think there is an objective morality. It’s sometimes hard for most of us to dig beneath the relative morals of the times to reach this. The great moral leaders seem to have had this ability. Some of those leaders have been (at least nominally) theists, some have held non-theist beliefs but the source of their morality has been in the evolved social nature of our species.

3. Dace - August 13, 2008

Ken: I wasn’t actually expressing that opinion – the first paragraph details what I imagine an honest theist’s response would look like. What I’m arguing is that the theist’s avowal that ‘God is the only ground for moral absolutes’ does not stem from the thought that only God explains the strong moral intuitions we have, but rather from the theist’s thought that only God could make those moral intuitions *justified*. This seems the point of Lane-Craig asking, in the debate with Dr. Shook, “what could we say to the sociopath/Nazi/(whatever it was)?” – construed as a request for an argument to dissuade the immoral agent, it would be a silly question.

But I will take up the point, anyway. You say that arithmetic and geometry have objective bases. What I understand by that, is that statements of arithmetic and geometry are made true by virtue of real-world referrents, or the relationships between these referrents. But this is false, since (1) the series of natural numbers, since it includes numbers up to infinity, will easily and inevitably outstrip the amount of objects in the world to which they might apply, yet statements of arithmetic which employed them could yet be true – what matters for a statement of arithmetic to be true is that it satisfies the requirements of arithmetic rules, not that it resembles some real-world occurence or state of affairs; and (2) it may be that space is not Euclidean after all, so that Euclidean geometry does not express the relationships between real-world objects, yet it still forms a sub-field of geometry, along with Riemannian geometry, and geometries expressing various numbers of dimensions. What matters for a geometric statement to be true is that it can be modelled according to the axioms of the sub-field.

Moving on to morality, you say that morality has an objective basis in the existence of individual humans, evolved beings who enter into relationships with other humans and form groups. The problem with this view is that it has you saying that: ‘whatever is, is right’. This is sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy (though, confusingly, GE Moore’s original coinage of the term denotes a different fallacy).
A related problem, which I reffered to in my first post, is that moral statements are ‘ought’ statements, and these cannot be derived from descriptive ‘is’ statements. To take one of your examples, it may well be that “the sanctity of human life” is ubiquitous in human society, and that it is a prerequisite for the social order of civilization. But whatever does that have to do with my decision to take a life? The most that can be said is *if* I wish to conform to society’s norms, or to preserve the social order itself, *then* I should not take a life.
The postulation of God as a ground for morality will run into these same difficulties, so I agree with you that God could not be a ground for moral absolutism.

Finally, (sorry about the length), I disagree that religious morality has always been relative, in a sense which properly contrasts with moral absolutism. The religious claim their moral precepts are correct always and everywhere, to all individuals and societies, whether these agreed with the religion or not. That’s the very definition of moral absolutism. Certainly, religion is parochial, in that any particular religion you like assumes that what seems right to them is correct for everyone else, but this makes religion arrogant and presumptuous, not relative.

4. Dale - August 13, 2008

I just saw the commenting on this thread – your comments are excellent. I’d be delighted to hear how you personally understand how morality ‘works’ (for you, etc.).

For me, my understanding of morality is not ‘relative’, but ‘relational’ and value-based. It is informed (like all moralities are – knowingly or unknowingly) by my view about reality (including things like worth and purpose – which, for others, would be the lack of worth or lack of purpose).



5. Dace - August 13, 2008

Thanks Dale. I’m a bit unsure what question you are asking with how morality ‘works’ for me.
Philosophically, I don’t believe that moral statements are the kind of thing which can be true or false, since I think that true statements have ‘truth-makers’ – there are actual objects, or combinations of these, which ground a claim in truth. But there is nothing you could point to, even in principle, to show that a moral statement was true.
You are right that morality is value-based, but values require valuers, and this does mean that morality is relative. But I want to say that, though morality is relative in origin, this does not make it arbitrary, nor rob it of its universalizability – it is not arbitrary because our moral sense is the product of evolution, and it is universalizable because that’s what moral statements do. We need not assume that the relativity of morality is any more an argument against their broad application than the relativity of opinion on factual matters is an argument against advancing an opinion on fact with which others might not agree.
Practically, I have moral sentiments, and I act according to these. This does not require that I believe any particular moral statement to be true, merely that my moral anxiety will be relieved by some actions and heightened by others. Though the way I choose to think about morality is atypical (most people are moral realists by default), I don’t imagine that I stray too far from the norm in feeling or in action.

6. Dale - August 13, 2008

And thank you Dace.
(Based on your response, I think you’ve understood my question well enough.)
Your reasoning is consistent. Good. It’s tricky stuff.
How would you act/choose/decide/handle a situation in which two people had contradicting ‘moral anxieties’ (and therefore contradicting ways of ‘relieving’ them)??? To add to this, what if the situation was urgent?

7. Dace - August 14, 2008

Perhaps you could give me an example of what you mean, Dale?

8. Dale - August 14, 2008

It might be good for you propose your own concrete scenario (if that’s what you’re wanting?). What I’m asking (to clarify) is this: given that different people will (and do) have contradictory views/feelings/’anxieties’ concerning a moral situation, how would you act/choose/decide/distinguish in a scenario where two (or more?) people’s views/feelings/anxieties were in contradiction?

It occurs to me that this happens continually with any hotly debated issue – like abortion. There are (seemlingly!) strong and coherent arguments for various kinds of perspectives of the issue. The nature of that issue, however, may make it a difficult one to use for a concrete scenario – but feel free to use it or create your own?

9. Ian - August 14, 2008

Excellent thoughts Dace. In particular I like this statement:

But I want to say that, though morality is relative in origin, this does not make it arbitrary, nor rob it of its universalizability – it is not arbitrary because our moral sense is the product of evolution, and it is universalizable because that’s what moral statements do.

Absence of absolute morals does not mean “anything goes” and it doesn’t mean “everyone differs”. The sources of morality are the result of causes and therefore are rational and explainable, and likely to be consistent across broad groups for that reason.

What I’m asking (to clarify) is this: given that different people will (and do) have contradictory views/feelings/’anxieties’ concerning a moral situation, how would you act/choose/decide/distinguish in a scenario where two (or more?) people’s views/feelings/anxieties were in contradiction?

My view on this is that the answer is rational discourse. Morals and values are not arbitrary which means they have logic and rationalisations behind them. Like any area where there is disagreement you will debate the issue until one or the other is convinced or until you reach an impasse. That’s how all the other aspects of life work – why should moral decisions be any different?

10. Dace - August 14, 2008

Dale: what is confusing about your question is what role you would have me play – am I just giving conceptual advice on the sidelines, attempting to deescalate the dispute, or do I have power to impose what I think is the right solution for the benefit of all? What are my goals here?
In any case, I think that just because two parties have opposing moral feelings does not mean that they cannot come to an agreement. I don’t join Ian in saying that logic and rationalizations will underpin all moral feeling, since some will be basic, but moral feeling is often extended in application through logic/rationalization. Everyone might agree that killing innocent persons is wrong, but parties to an argument over abortion might differ in the extension they give to the notion of a person. Were I attempting to guide the parties to mutual agreement, I would then have them discuss what they thought a person was. Even if this strategy does not lead directly to a solution, it should illuminate where the differences lie, and show each party that the other is not merely evil, irrational, or giving provocation for its own sake.
Which opens the way to the ‘live and let live’ placation. If the parties continue to disagree over the notion of a person, or some other key term, they can at least see that the other party is rational, and that they share the same basic moral feelings. You get them to admit this, and you point out that, if one party would deny the other their moral choice, then that oppressive party cannot be doing so on the basis of reason, since they have conceded that the moral choices of the other party are rational. You also stress the contingency of one party being in power rather than the other (the tables might be turned) – most people are risk-averse. You might also point out that freedom is morally significant as well.
If all that fails, perhaps because the parties do differ in basic moral feelings, then reason fails also. Whether you’re a moral realist or not, whatever you try will fare no better.

Ian: The fact that morality is the result of naturalistic causes does not really supply us the kind of reason we can use in an ethical dispute. It may well be that the source of my (basic) moral feeling has evolutionary roots, but this does not mean that the feeling is therefore justified, nor that I will have a rationalization for it. It does mean, however, that justification is sometimes beside the point – whatever reasons that might be adduced in favour of my basic moral feeling, I feel the way I do because I can’t help it!

11. Ian - August 14, 2008

Oops, I might not have been clear enough there. My point was not that you can rationalise it in terms of “right or wrong” but that you can (in principle) rationalise it in terms how it got to be that way. The significance of that is that it does away with the need for an externally imposed supernatural morality.

As you seem to imply it may well be that some of our “lusts to be good” are actually on the whole not as beneficial as some other set of moral tendencies could be and thus are worth over-riding. In fact given how much our lifestyles have changed since our moral tendencies evolved, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the case.

12. Dale - August 14, 2008

Rational dialogue – agreed. Some (many?) moral situations, however, are immediate and require urgent action, so we sometimes have to do the best we can in a rush… Speaking of rushing, I’m going to rush to bed now… 🙂
p.s. – Dace, will be good to see if Ian has clarified properly for you…

13. Dace - August 15, 2008

Yes, I’m quite happy to agree with Ian’s last post. As for urgent moral situations, I can’t think of a morally relevant difference between these and moral situations generally. There is a practical difference certainly, but so far as practice goes, your question could apply equally well to non-moral situations.

14. Dale - August 15, 2008

non-moral situations??? Are there any?

15. Dace - August 15, 2008

Situations in which moral features are irrelevant to decision-making, either because all the choices have moral consequences, but the consequences are equivalent insofar as they are moral; or, because the choices have no moral consequences whatsoever.
Deciding what flavour of ice-cream to have, for example. Intuitively, there are no moral consequences to the decision. If you are a utilitarian, there are, but the options may be equally delicious.

16. Dale - August 16, 2008

Interesting Dace,
Rather than me trying to make a case that all situations are moral, I’ll just say this:
Some people (this may be the popular understanding?) understand morality in terms of ‘things’ (choices/actions/etc.) being either right or wrong; from this, the admission is made (again, popularly thinking here) that the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some things is determined by the context (or situation, etc.). Much conversing about morality takes place at this level. Some attempt to demonstrate either the existence or non-existence of an abstract or ‘detached’ or ‘objective’ or ‘unchanging’ moral code or grid or logic or something like that.
I’m quite interested in this kind of philosophical discussion. I think it has value. But there’s another layer to morality I think.
I think morality also has to do with ability/power/opportunity and how these are used. This is where the phrase ‘moral responsibility’ comes into play. We are responsible to use our abilities/power/opportunity (i.e. time, money, position, knowledge, words, actions, etc., etc.) in the right (‘righteous’) way.
Back to ice cream.
The question of which ice-cream flavour to have, then, is seemingly a good example of a ‘non moral situation’. But this question is restricted. First, it’s limited temporally. One occasion of ice-cream eating can hardly matter, right? But multiple ice-cream eatings, or the eating of certain amounts – or perhaps even flavours (ingredients one is allergic to?), may indeed matter a lot! Next, it’s limited in scope. For example (and this is key), people don’t eat ice-cream in a vacuum. (Right about now, someone is thinking of accusing me of being the author of confusion!) The ingredients are likely grown in a variety of places, a lot of people have been paid certain amounts of money to get it to you, and the process may well involve some immoral actions. Our modern globalised economy makes moral eating a very tricky thing. We just think the stuff comes off the shelves. Our purchasing and eating the ice-cream and supporting this process may well be supporting an immoral process – therefore, the eating can be (may actually be more often than we wish to consider?) immoral.
Yes, this is somewhat pedantic, but I’m quite serious. (in this case, the serious thing to think about is the questionable morality of the modern food production/shipping/distribution – let alone consumption – processes; of which we all take part, no doubt…)

Now I realise that your ice-cream scenario was restricted to ‘flavour’, but that’s my point really – morality (in its entirety; in its fullest and most – glaringly – real sense) cannot be restricted to ‘flavour’. The example assumes that you’re eating ice-cream at all (kinda like the classic example-question ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’, which assumes a person a) is married b) to a woman and c) has been beating her and d) is no longer doing so.) 🙂

The frustrating thing about morality (I reckon) is that events, choices and circumstances are all ‘sticky’ – they are all related (less or more directly at times).

Does any of this (rambling) make sense? Would appreciate your feedback – and sorry so long!

17. Damian - August 16, 2008

Right about now, someone is thinking of accusing me of being the author of confusion!

Hehe, damn right! Actually, it occurred to me at around about “Interesting Dace,”. 😉

18. Dace - August 16, 2008

Dale: I’m not sure I understand the import of the distinction you make in the first paragraph – it seems to me that ability/power/opportunity are not a seperate layer of moral thinking from choices/actions/etc., but are simply prerequisties for these, so that a discussion of the latter implies the former. Perhaps your point was that moral discussion should explicitly recognize this? I don’t disagree with that (‘ought implies can’).

Anyway, on to icecream. Certainly, choosing out a certain flavour of icecream can have moral consequences. This does not mean that they do, of course, so I think you would agree with me that there are *some* non-moral situations, even if the icecream example is not to your taste. I guess the question then is: what is the balance between moral and non-moral situations?, Or, are there many more moral situations than we think?
I don’t think your first two objections to the non-morality of icecream selection help us decide these questions, since neither of them would sway anyone to speak of icecream selection in general as a moral situation. Dairy allergies are uncommon, and multiple icecream eatings involve multiple choices – it would be a fallacy to treat one choice as if it bore the consequences of all the other ones.

The point about ethical consumerism is more serious, and I do think it shows that moral consequences append to consumer choices. But there are two points I want to make here: (1) just because some buying choices have moral consequences does not mean that all buying choices do; the choice of coffee I buy may have moral consequences, but the choice of fish I buy may not; and (2) just because a consumer bears moral responsibility for his good and bad buying decisions, does not mean that he bear moral culpability for these choices – he or she may simply be ignorant of the consequences. Ignorance does not automatically excuse the consumer, since one could argue that the consumer had a responsibility to find out what effects his actions would have if he was aware that moral consequences might follow, but it will do in some cases (like you say, ability to do this is an important consideration).
So yes, there are more moral situations than we think, but more moral culpability does not necessarily follow.

Finally, about the unfathomable complexity of moral consequence. You’ve probably guessed from the foregoing point that I’m going to distinguish between moral responsibility and moral culpability again. Though we may not be able to correctly ascertain all the moral consequences of our actions, we should only be thought blameworthy for those consequences which we foresee, or should have foreseen. The long and short of this is, we may be quite entitled to treat situations with moral consequences as though they did not have them, so long as we satisfy the expectations of others to find out – the icecream selection still strikes me as one of these situations. Utilitarians can breathe a sigh of relief at this point :).

19. Dale - August 16, 2008

Thanks Dace, not only for commenting, but for actually interacting with the detail inherent to such a topic. The attention to detail is immensely helpful.

For me, because we (moral agents) do not act/choose/consume/eat/etc. in a vacuum, I’d still question whether there truly are any situations that are utterly free of any possible moral implication. The fact that some actions/choices/etc. have more direct (or seemingly ‘greater’ – which is based on a value judgment, but we won’t go there!) implications than other actions/choices, doesn’t mean (to me) that there are some actions/choices which have no implications… The example of ‘buying choices’ is a good one – I’d suggest that (at least in some way) all ‘buying choices’ have moral implications. We don’t purchase in a vacuum. We purchase from, on behalf of and for people, etc.
The ‘culpability’ question is an interesting one. Again, in the buying example: I am (I think!) responsible for feeding myself and my wife, etc. – we have to eat, etc. So, I’m going to buy food from somewhere. I’m NOT responsible (at least directly!!) for the options of food that are presented to me (though I am responsible to use my voice, vote, time, money, etc. to persuade, demand, etc. that the food production, distribution, etc. processes are moral!). I’m told (one of my good friends is in ethics) that most of the grain-based products we eat (bread, cereals, pasta, etc.) is grown, produced and distributed via immoral processes – depressing… Now, I’m responsible to do what I can (again – voice, time, vote, money, product-selection, etc.) to support these processes being moral (which is why I strongly support fair-trade products), but (back to the grain-based products issue) if there are no ‘perfectly moral’ grain-based products available to me, then I am responsible to buy the least immoral product I can… (interesting that we consumers often look for the cheapest product, a mindset that drives the wages of -for example- the grain growers / harvesters ever-downward)

Now, yes, I don’t think that it matters at all whether I choose to buy ‘immorally produced spaghetti pasta noodles’ or ‘immorally produced penne pasta’, but my purchasing of pasta is still firmly within the domain of ‘moral consequence’ (i.e. my purchase is not in a [moral] vacuum)…

And (quickly) on culpability, I think we run from it (for obvious reasons). We know intuitively that we are responsible for what we know. ‘Ignorance is bliss’, goes the phrase… Yeah right. I would say that the modern systems of production and consumption are immoral – in addition to many other reasons – because they create/feed this kind of ignorance. When we buy our canned peaches, we are utterly ignorant of the process by which it came to that store…

Tea is ready at the Campbell home!

(I’m enjoying thinking about this! – well, except for the thinking about the potential that I’m about to eat somewhat immoral food???)

20. Dace - August 16, 2008

I agree with you that just because the consequences of one’s actions are indirect and minor this does not negate their being moral choices. But it doesn’t follow from this, nor from the complexity of consequences, that therefore all situations for decision are moral ones. As I said earlier, I consider situations in which moral outcomes are equivalent for each available choice to be non-moral, as well as those which lack moral consequence. Therefore, your choice between ‘immoral spaghetti’ or ‘immoral penne’ counts as a non-moral decision in my books (if you meant these as the only two choices).

But suppose that you are correct, and that there are always moral consequences, even if these are causally remote and very slight. In this case, it seems to me quite reasonable to adopt the habit of calling situations ‘moral’ only if the decisions to be made in those situations have sufficient moral consequences to demand our attention (and the agents praise or blame if they foresee them). If the adjective ‘moral’ is applied to every situation, then it becomes superfluous, even if it is correct. I suggest to you, then, that calling every situation and decision ‘moral’ is unhelpful, since it loses its power to draw our attention to what is really important. By analogy, you might deny anything is *really* flat, but if our use of ‘flat’ doesn’t distinguish between kinds of objects, then the predicate becomes worse than useless.

21. Dale - August 16, 2008

excellent response – loving it.

On the pasta; no, I wouldn’t see it as a matter of only two choices – you could not buy either (or buy both, etc.).

I see your point about how a choice with (seemingly) equivalent moral outcomes would be (seemingly) non-moral, but I don’t think that it follows. Indeed, the (seemingly) equivalent outcomes are (still) moral outcomes, even if they are (seemingly) equivalent.

And, further, (hope this help my view to be understand-able) what I’m trying to suggest is that it is the context of the decision which makes it a moral decision. Again, decisions aren’t made in a (contextual) vacuum. One (maybe helpful?) way to think about actions could be to think of them as the ‘use’ of something. As moral agents, we are responsible for how we use things that we ‘have’ – namely time, power, influence, knowledge, relationships to others, money, etc. All the time, we’re (to greater or lesser degrees and with greater or lesser capabilities) ‘using’ these things.

Now your last paragraph:
Not only would we be faced with the need to discern what ‘sufficient moral consequences’ worthy of our ‘attention’ (how do we know what’s sufficient or worthy of our concern?), but also I don’t think it follows that the adjective ‘moral’ becomes superfluous just from being applicable to every situation. For example, it would stand to reason (and this is my view) that whilst all decisions indeed have a moral element, this does not necessitate that all decisions are moral in the same, flat, tapioca-pudding kind of way. Every (moral) decision takes place not only by different people, but within vastly different contexts (times, places, etc.). Therefore, whilst, I do think ‘everything is moral’, I certainly think reality is varied enough for things to be ‘moral’ in vastly and richly varied ways. So – yes – I want to say at the same time that everything is important, and some things are more (morally) urgent or require a different kind of (moral) response than others…

Hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from – cheers.

22. Dale - August 16, 2008

random rant (about my former conservative ‘good republican’ political views – I’m from the USA if ya didn’t know!)…

I admit it – I voted for Bush in 04. Why? Because (and here’s the rub) he agreed with me on (wait for it…) ‘the (two) moral issues’… (which it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what those two issues were)

I’m so upset that I had such a narrow view of morality. Did I really think that only two of the issues related to the presidential election were moral? Were issues like the environment not moral? Foreign policy? National budget? Education? The Stance on the US Economy? Tax-policies?

Now, of course, that doesn’t demonstrate that everything is moral, but the example just came to mind… 🙂

23. Dace - August 17, 2008

Dale: The point about morally equivalent choices was not that they had no moral consequences, but that what differentiated one option from another was something other than their moral import. A choice is a choice insofar as the options available to the chooser are different from one another; when the consequent moral value of the choices does not serve to differentiate these options, then the description of the choice as ‘moral’ is a misnomer. To be particular, I’m still quite happy to call the outcomes ‘moral’, but not the choice/decision (nor situation here, since we have been using that to mean ‘the context for decision’).

I think I have understood your point about the importance of context in moral decisions. I never suggested that we should ignore it. I just don’t think you can use the bewildering complexity of situational details, which may or may not be important, to justify any conclusion so general as “all situations are moral”. Indeed, the complexity of moral outcomes construed in its broadest sense seems to me a good argument, conjoined with the view above about morally equivalent situations, *against* the presumption that “all situations are moral”. What possible evidence could be given that the moral value of two actions differ at all, if we allow the tallying process of consequences to continue into infinity? What kind of person could have the foresight to correctly predict the consequences of the action which was not taken? Not us, certainly.

Next, you ask how we might know what counts as ‘sufficient moral consequences’. My point here is to suggest that whereas some moral consequences are both severe and probable, others are minor and unlikely. The former are more deserving of our attention than the latter. But since we have a finite amount of time to plan our actions, energy, and interest, it seems certain that there will be moral consequences that we simply cannot give our attentions to – there is a practical constraint on moral reasoning. So, here is one way to clarify what that vague phrase means: a situation has sufficient moral consequences to demand our attention if and only if (1) we are able to attend to it, and (2) there is no other situation we could attend to in which we can make a greater moral difference than this one. There are probably more conditions you could add here, but regardless, ‘sufficient moral consequences’ need not be arbitrary.
As for whether we can know the relevant facts, well, I don’t think you can ask for moral knowledge if you are truly supporting a pure utilitarianism without practical boundary.

Lastly, (I think this will be my last long post on this topic), you suggest that we can still call every situation ‘moral’, but that morality comes in all sorts of flavours, so this does not make moral situations necessarily homogenous. Well, quite right – nothing about the world follows from our usage of words. My point was instead that the word ‘moral’ supplied no kind of information if it is understood that ‘everything is moral’ – it could therefore be dropped from usage as superfluous. Sure, we could pick up your suggestion, and qualify our use of the word ‘moral’ so as to distinguish between situations – an ‘urgently-moral’ situation for example – but then the qualifier serves to transform ‘moral’ into a new adjective, which will still gain no semantic contribution from ‘moral’ since this part is not informative. The word ‘moral’ would be an idle cog, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase; the appearance of it in the sentence would be mere window-dressing.
To the contrary, I think ‘moral’ is a useful word, therefore I don’t see its application as universal. I think your viewpoint reduces the word ‘moral’ to banality.

24. Dale - August 17, 2008

Thanks Dace,
(I’m with you on not being keen for further long posts)
I think we’re in much agreement. Not all situations are the same – morally speaking. They differ in severity (consequences), urgency and perceptibility (how well – or not – we may understand the full context and consequences/outcomes).
I think maybe we missed each other (or just me?) at points? Indeed, I’m not saying that the choice between penne or spaghetti is a moral choice – that would seem to be a style/preference choice (unless you knew your wife would HATE one of them, but did it anyway – that’s moral! 🙂 ). What I was wanting to suggest was that this choice takes place in a ‘moral situation’; in other words, it takes place within the moral context (and well short of infinite and/or excessive speculation) of the growing, producing, shipping, distributing, purchasing, consuming processes we all take part of.
As to the question of whether or not “all situations are ‘moral’ “, I’m not sure if it’s that we’re in fundamental disagreement or just different emphasis? You’re right, I think we don’t need the word ‘moral’ (in that we can be moral, without using the word), so if my usage makes it a ‘banal’ word, then I apologise! 🙂
I’ve enjoyed the exchange. Cheers again…

25. Dace - August 18, 2008

Ok, Dale. Clearly our differences are semantic in nature, but I do have reasons for pedantry with my use of words, since a semantic difference so readily muddies the waters of a discussion. It’s a general philosophical lesson, and one we would sometimes rather ignore, since it makes a fruitful discussion a demanding exercise.

Thanks yourself. 😀

p.s. You might find it an interesting thought experiment to consider how you would demonstrate the meaning of ‘moral’ to someone who did not know what it meant, and whether their understanding would match your own. Could you show them that ‘moral’ applied to every situation, or would you have to compare particular outcomes instead? In the latter case, wouldn’t they come to understand particular consequences as ‘moral’, rather than situations? Some food for thought, anyway.

26. Dale - August 18, 2008

Cheers Dace,
I too, have oft-been accused of being overly pedantic with words. 🙂
On the thought experiment: Hmm… Sounds like you’re trying to tempt me into doing a post on it!? I’d like to… But will have to wait at least a few days… Cheers.

27. fruitful faith.net » moral things - October 20, 2008

[…] been a bit of discussion amongst some of my blogging aquaintances about the nature and process of ‘morality’.  I simply offer some more thoughts to these […]

28. A naturalistic approach to human morality « Open Parachute - October 29, 2008

[…] lately on several New Zealand blogs (see moral things, What’s So Great About Objective Morality?, My take on morality, Thinking Matters and Where do our morals come from?. This has tended to be centred around a […]

29. fruitful faith » moral things - November 20, 2009

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