Breaking the Morality Habit

The last issue of Philosophy Now had a nice forum about the death of morality, with articles supporting relativism (Jesse Prinz, David Wong), moral fictionalism (Richard Joyce), and moral abolitionism (Richard Garner).  Both Joyce and Garner say all moral claims are false, or at least not true, but Joyce thinks morality is still a useful fiction.  We should let it have an "active role" in our lives.  Garner, on the other hand, says he wants to see morality abandoned.  No, that wouldn't be a huge problem, he maintains. He suggests we do an experiment, observing our own moralizing for a while.  Some of it is just otiose--get rid of it!  Some moral judgments, on the other hand, can be replaced by equally serviceable non-moral judgments.  Never fear, he says--
If we try this experiment in good faith and relatively calm circumstances, we may find that cutting back on moral pronouncements will be no more difficult than cutting back on swearing, and not nearly as difficult as getting rid of an accent.  As (and if) we move in the direction of moral abolitionism, we will see that we are in no way limited in our ability to express and communicate our attitudes, feelings, and requirements.  Instead of telling others about their moral obligations, we can tell them what we want them to do, and then we can explain why.  We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations. The moral abolitionist is equipped, as we all are, with habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses that can easily play the role usually assigned to moral beliefs and thoughts.
OK, let's do it.  In the past week I've been doing just what Garner suggests--I've been observing my own moralizing.  When is it best thrown out altogether, when is it replaceable with something that "does the job" equally well? Is it ever genuinely indispensable?

What the hell, someone else will make up for it

Actually, I cheated.  I thought about other weeks of my life, weeks when other things happened.  Take this situation, which happened more than once when I was in graduate school back in the 20th century.  You go out to dinner with a bunch of people and it's time to split the bill.  Of course, you have to split the total bill, with tax and tip included.  But some people don't do that.  They put in less than their fraction of the total bill. Then, invariably, a couple of people say "oh well" and throw in a few more dollars.  The low-payers, I think, anticipate the reaction of the high-payers, and the bill gets paid.

The moral judgment I make in that situation is: NOT FAIR!  I think the low-payer is taking advantage of others. Now, is that the sort of judgment I ought to abandon...period?  I should think not--I'm not, after all, going to extremes and judging the person evil. I'm just thinking...what I said.  So let's try the other possibility.  Can we replace the moral thoughts here with non-moral thoughts?  Instead of thinking "not fair" and "taking advantage" and "that was wrong," what might I think?

Garner says I could think about what I want the person to do, and why.  I'm allowed to be annoyed.  But what is it that I want?  I want the low-payers to pay their fair share.  But isn't fairness an irreducibly moral concept?    What am I going to replace it with?  Pondering my own moralizing, in this instance, doesn't take me in the direction of moral abolitionism--just the opposite.

Dad didn't insist

There are cases in which Garner's point has more merit.  Suppose a mother and father disagree about whether to make the kids use their seatbelts on short drives around town. (Note: I'm making this up.  There's no disagreement about this in my household.) Mother is angry because father doesn't insist.  She can say "I want you to make them use seat belts, because they'll be safer, and it's no great burden to buckle up."  She can add "You ought to make them buckle up. How irresponsible of you to slack off like this!"  In that case, does moral talk really add anything?

It certainly adds emphasis, but it adds more than that. Moral talk conveys that the matter is especially serious--it's the kind of thing that merits careful attention.  It says, basically, "this really, really matters!"  If this couple has loud arguments about movies, the woman might say "I want you to appreciate Jim Carrey's movies, because he really is amazingly funny and fantastic," but she isn't going to add "You ought to appreciate Jim Carrey's movies."  Morality talk is used to separate some topics from others, and establish heightened significance.

Can we establish that heightened significance in some other way?  The mother who wants the kids in seat belts can talk very seriously and quietly (or loudly), looking intently into Dad's eyes, and just  say "I want you to make them use seat belts, because they'll be safer, and it's no great burden to buckle up."   No moral talk needed.  But why bother?  Why not just say "You ought to make them buckle up"?

Little Sally
Moral talk is sometimes valuable and irreplaceable (the restaurant case), sometimes valuable but has viable substitutes (the seatbelt case).  Is ever completely unneeded?  Of course.  Garner says we should "take some time to observe ourselves in the act of making moral judgments and to notice what happens when the thought that someone is evil or deserves to suffer arises."   But wait...the reason that kind of judgment is unneeded is because (nine times out of ten) it shows bad judgment.   If you're thinking little Sally is evil and deserves to suffer, that's no sign that moral talk should be abolished. It's a sign that you're being too hard on little Sally!

So--my week of self-observation was interesting.  I'm prepared to agree that a little less moralizing in some circumstances would be both possible and valuable.  I didn't come to Garner's abolitonist conclusion, though.


s. wallerstein said...

I've always been uncomfortable using words like "moral", "immoral", "right" and "wrong", perhaps because people whom I did not believe in used those concepts to manipulate or control me when I was younger.

Instead, I prefer to use thick ethical concepts. In the first situation, I would say that those who do not pay their share are "selfishly calculating".

In the second situation, I agree with you that the parent who does not emphasize seat-belt use is "irresponsible" and, I would say, "demagogic", in that he
is playing at being "nicer" with the children, at not appearing to be "strict" or "authoritarian".

Thick concepts, like "selfishly calculating", unlike concepts like "moral", appeal to a shared sense of values. Now, if someone does not share the value that we all pay our part of the bill, there is nothing I can say to him, although I well may not go out to dinner with him again.

If two parents do not share a world of thick ethical values, the marriage cannot be saved.

Unfortunately, most of the articles in Philosohy Now are not available to non-subscribers.

Faust said...

Based just on your quote of Garner:

We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations. The moral abolitionist is equipped, as we all are, with habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses that can easily play the role usually assigned to moral beliefs and thoughts.

I don't see how the restaraunt case helps you. Why can't "fairness" be reduced to a tissue of "habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses?" When you say that fairness is an "irreducably" moral concept, what does that mean exactly?

Protesting my free-riding at the dinner table, you could say to me, hey Faust, you devilish fellow, you ought to pay your fair share. When I ask you why, you will say that I ought to because of some reasons. Some of them might be:

1. Because it will make for better cooperation in the future, and that will benefit me in the future (appeal to my own interests).
2. Because you don't like free-riders (yuck!).
3. We have an obligation to share burdens equally (why?)
4. I only got away with free-riding because I decieved others (people though I paid my fair share but I didn't).

3. and 4. just invite more disussion, but I don't see how they lead to "objective" obligations. They will just lead to more (subjective) "habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses."

Now the persistence of the notion that there is an objective layer that undergirds morality seems very very hard to get rid of so it seems important to understand why it persists. But I suspect that it persists for purely utilitarian reasons, an "as if it were so" rather than actually being so.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm assuming that "fair share" is a moral notion. So when I say to you "I want you to pay your fair share," that word has special clout. It's got "oughtness" written all over it. If I didn't use the word "fair," I'd just have to say I want you to pay your share of the bill--the cost of what you ate. But why do I want that so badly? What's the big deal about your letting someone else pay a little bit of your bill? You say free-riding is an indication of future cooperation, but can I say that for sure? I think if I drop the concept of fairness, I'm probably also going to have to stop being so annoyed by free-riders (which I don't want to do!).

s. wallerstein said...

Since I continue to believe that something which can be called
"character" exists, when someone
does not pay their share of the bill, I see it as a window into their character, into who they really are behind the smiles and everyday "niceness".

I agree that so-called character traits are not invariable and do not always function, but some people, although they may lie at times, tell fewer lies than others, and I call them "trustworthy", and some people, while they may not always do or pay their share, almost
always do so.

Faust said...

My guess is that "fairness" here is just pumping intuitions, but that it doesn't really have much "analytical" content.

Seeking out synnonyms we find "just" and "impartial," even "objective"(no wonder it's appealing)!

But if we actually look at specific concrete instances we struggle to draw lines on what constitutes "fairness." What if one person at the dinner table makes minimum wage, and another makes six figures? Does "fairness" neccessarily exclude capability.

To my mind the dinner table is really just a microcosm of our general societal debate about flat vs progressive taxation. Flat tax advocates justifiably can say that their tax is "fair" in a certain sense (and frequently claim that progressive taxation produces forms of free-riding) while progressive taxation adovcates have different arguments and different conceptions of what constitutes "fairness."

In my view in every case we will discover that there is indeed reducibility of concepts like fairness to "habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses," and that what we are all doing is scurrying about trying to convince each other to adopt our tribes vision of which habits, preferences, policies and aims we OUGHT to be adopting. And that's the only place the "ought" comes from, however irritating that might be.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I certainly think that's a non-dismissible possibility. It's an uphill battle saying fairness is definitely (in reality) this and not that. Yet (don't hit me over the head!) I still believe it. Those scoundrels who underpay and calmly watch others overpay are really, truly, objectively screwing up. Surely! (Note: "Surely" is a philosophical last resort. You must say it with the right tone of voice.)

faust said...


For the record. When I speak among friends, I talk just like everyone else: with intimations that my moral recommendations are "absolute."

I think the fact that even "technical" relativists talk this way, with implicit (or explicit) claims of "objective" rules, tells us something important about how "morality" works at a deep structural level.

I really do wonder how realistic it is to try to spread the notion that morallity is not, in fact, objective, or even if it's desirable to "break the morality habit."

It's like the struggle of the Buddha:

If a Buddha would not speak, then people would have no hope of liberation; but if a Buddha speaks, then people pursue the words and create interpretations, so there would be little advantage and much disadvantage. That is why the Buddha said, "I would rather not explain the truth, but enter into extinction right away."

But then afterwards he thought back on all the Buddhas of the past, who had all taught the doctrine of three vehicles. After that he made temporary use of verses to explain, and porvisionally established names and terms. Originally it is not Buddha but he told people "This is Buddha." Originally it is not enlightenment, but he told people, "This is enlightenment, peace, liberation," and so on. He knew people couldn't bear a burden of ten thousand pounds, so for the time being he taught them the incomplete teaching. And he realized the spread of good ways, which was still better than evil ways.

But when the limits of good results are fulfilled, then bad consequences ensue. Once you have "Buddha," then there are "sentitent beings." Once you have "nirvana," then there is "birth and death." Once you have light, then there is drakness. As long as cause and efect with attachment continue to operate, ther is nothing that does not have consequences.