When we slice goodness into utility, quality, and morality, we find the going easy until our efforts reach morality. At that point, the path forward forks into so many routes that twist upon each other that one would need an expert to sort them out. But that is a blow to good sense, for following some systematic mode of moral choosing honors the uniquely human capacity for preference that marks our days like the ticking of a clock. It cannot guarantee our happiness. Life is too capricious to think so. But lacking it guarantees frustration and confusion that tend to dissatisfaction. Since forming preference seems to be the universal human condition, we might begin by seeking a universal moral system.
That will prove challenging, though many have tried. History is littered with brilliant efforts to yoke preference to some universal rule, their very existence testifying to the difficulty of the task, for if any single moral outlook could succeed, it seems natural to think it already would have. Instead, we face a culture of diverse and often contending moral outlooks whose assumptions clash rancorously, foreclosing any consistent implementation in public life (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Even on the most fundamental requirements for social consensus, the role of positive law, we face impossible obstacles not only for justifying individual laws, but even for warranting the theoretical existence of law in general (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). Most persons presume their public moral outlook should reflect a private one, though that presumption has entirely broken down as well as private beliefs clash repeatedly in public life (see “Belief in the Public Square”).
This disharmony is more than a social problem, though. At least in part because no personalized moral system has achieved public consensus for complex historical reasons, persons find themselves thrown upon their own resources for direction, absorbing as persons always have a sense of direction from the culture to guide their efforts to systematize their private morality but receiving no consistent guidance. On the contrary, a public disarray only encourages a private one, and persons respond with either unconscious agreement or active resistance depending on their level of awareness. Though social media allows at least the illusion of living in a community of like minds, the reality of private moral choice seems to fork into choices that privilege belief. That may be a sustainable choice in private life, depending on the quality of the belief, but it must fail in public life unless exercised in an authoritarian culture, and that ship has long sailed (see “My Argument in Brief”).
When belief concerns absolutist morality, it finds moral guidance in religious revelation or religious authority. A private morality cannot resolve conflicts with other persons who operate from other beliefs or other axioms of morality that do not privilege belief. For that reason, revelation is almost invariably transmuted into a trust in authority as a public warrant for belief, trust being an appeal to public confidence (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). The believer surrenders her moral agency, her capacity to rationally arbitrate preference, to the authority who conveys moral truth as a categorical certainty not open to question or dispute (see “Religion and Truth”). This has proved a very strong means of resolving moral conflict in univocal cultures wherein the authority is fully embraced. But as it relies only on trust, what appears strong is easily broken once competing authority or no authority is offered as alternative (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). Such is now the case, so the act of moral transference that gives authority its power in homogeneous religious cultures is only half-heartedly granted in diverse ones such as we now see in Western polities. Since only one source can steer moral choosing, the rational agent typically views allegiance to authority as an entirely provisional act subject to revocation. So authority of any stripe is unlikely to provide moral unanimity or more than superficial private guidance to persons in our culture who accept it.
Most persons swim happily through the culture without being aware of it, absorbing its values by osmosis. A healthy or consensual community establishes a symbiotic relationship with citizens: they strengthen it as it does them. But a dysfunctional community necessarily nourishes a moral pathology, not irresistible —the existence of diverse moral outlooks demonstrates that— but still formidable. The world view most popular in Western societies today is the postmodernist virtual circle, a web of highly personalized claims to truth, goodness, and beauty merited only by the principle of non-contradiction (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). Candidates for inclusion include an entire range of beliefs: about oneself, the world, its goods, and its beauties. Authority may be venerated in this schema, but moral agency is kept fiercely in the grip of the moral agent who regards her recognition as endowment rather than forfeiture. Traditional authority seeking what it would consider an expected surrender of agency is fiercely resisted as coercive. The virtual circle values its own making and maker and so will prove resistant to compromise. Even believers who pay lip service to cultural power think themselves selective in accepting it or resistant to its power. Their case is necessarily weak since the pragmatic accommodations adherents make with themselves and others seem drearily similar, though still held as self-produced (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). The blandishments of a consumerist, materialistic, secular, capitalist culture permeate most persons’ value systems. Even calling their morality a “value system” is a neutralizing and conformist effort. To regard preferences as “appropriate” is to hold them against a standard that is as arbitrary as it is value-neutral.
It would be slanderous to call this kind of thinking either “moral” or a “system” since its essence is a agile negotiation of day-to-day demands rather than a reasoning effort at self-direction. Its means of resolving conflict is by an appeal to what is appropriate, meaning what the culture approves, though “culture” can be sliced and diced in so many ways that “resolving conflict” often involves postponing it until the agent either enters or exits the conflicting subculture.
To put it bluntly, this approach to morality insults human dignity, making moral agents consumers or interest groups picking brands, lifestyles, and products rather than persons shaping their own life by the consistency of their long-term moral outlook. While a pragmatic morality does nothing to constructively shape private choosing, it does even less to smooth our choppy civil waters. On the other hand, the failure of absolutist and universalist moral systems have not given us much to work on since it produces contention as clouds do rain. How do we move forward in an era of moral stalemate?
A broad pragmatism must be our starting point both because it is most persons’ default personal moral position and therefore it must be the consensual starting point for any effort at moral consensus. That pragmatism is a simplification of an older and slightly more rigorous moral effort popularized in Britain the nineteenth century, utilitarianism. It is worthwhile to see their differences.
Utilitarianism was a modernist effort to prescribe a universalist moral system built upon the axioms of modernism: universal reason and closely examined experience. Unfortunately, because it was developed in an era deeply affected by an ongoing crisis of authority that begin with the religious nightmare of the Reformation, its founders thought that the natural condition of individuals in cultures is one of constant contention that could only be settled by the will of the majority. This view is reflected in the development of constitutional democracies. But this broad moral democratism never sat well upon the brows of utilitarianism’s founders, who could in theory bow to the notion that pushpins were as valuable as poetry but could never quite accept it in ordinary practice. Their deep respect for universal reasoning remained their only hope for consensus in the face of differing experience, but the moral outlook of Western democracies was so tainted by hypocrisy that even that hope faded as the nineteenth century withered into the twentieth (see “The Victorian Rift”). The postmodern outlook that replaced it assumed that reasoning must be formed by experience and therefore be relative to culture or personal life, and so a theory whose only demand had been the application of universal reasoning to experience was replaced by one whose frank appraisal that each person must form her own moral universe. The virtual circle was born and pragmatism became the default moral outlook of Western cultures. The twentieth century has shown that not to have gone so well either.
As they say, mistakes were made. First, utilitarianism was a frankly consequentialist system, judging the goodness of moral choices strictly by the consequences they produced. But such a system is impossible to implement, for one cannot be held morally culpable for consequences she has not intended, yet though one may deny guilt for such outcomes, she may still be morally responsible in the sense of having to repair or improve undesirable outcomes. Neither consequentialism nor a competing moral system stressing only intentionality, duty ethics, seems to get that equation just right (see Three Moral Systems”). One way to solve the problem of unintended consequences is to shorten the horizon of expectations, which is the solution pragmatism offers. If I only concern myself with immediate outcomes, I cannot consider myself responsible for longer-term ones. But that is like driving at night with your lights off so you can better see your dashboard. Another adaptation was longer in arriving. World War I and the failures of modernist axioms called into question the universality of reason, leading to a pessimism about ordinary reasoning and an elevation of all the mechanisms of belief that came to inform the virtuous circle. If reason was formed by experience instead of forming it, then we cannot depend on our reasoning to either organize our own moral existence or resolve conflicts with others who organize theirs differently. What followed was a century-long obsession with power in all of its manifestations and with will as the determinant of value. And as night follows day, the century saw the full flowering of theories of moral identity rooted in class, culture, race, gender, or some other determinant, culminating in the pragmatism of emotivism: an ethic of pure desire divorced from rational considerations.
But clearly in our public relationships, we need to reconcile reason with public morality and not the private reasoning of the virtual circle but the universal reasoning now emerging from neuroscience and genetics as a species-specific and universal functionality of the human person. The issue of “whose reason” and “whose order” is dying, for it is increasingly clear that no formative power is as directive of human experience as the preferential freedom that is the universal property of human persons. To steer private preference by universal reason need not plunge us into hopeless disagreement. The most devout believer in either absolutist or pragmatic morality must temper her rush to preference with some restraint when facing those of a differing moral standard. That happens today. But the culture tells us that such forbearance is a surrender to arbitrary power: an inevitable outcome of a zero-sum game in which your will trumps mine or vice versa or where I see it as an imposition of false religious claims upon true ones. These are inevitable results of belief wrongly applied, of belief elevated above reason.
It is the essence of belief to be conclusions of truth or goodness tinged with desire. I believe what I want to believe. Put another way, I believe because I want to believe. Preference enters the ring before truth is determined. Our natural freedom is a human inheritance that interprets reality in terms of options presented to preference. To comprehend an experience is also to open it to preference that then decides upon one above other options the comprehension has presented to reason. This happens countless times daily to each of us and to every person who has ever lived. In ordinary experience, we try to separate judging the truth of a situation from the subsequent judgment of preference that natural freedom presents to our mind. To see a situation clearly is to filter out the prejudices that bend our judgment toward some preference, that distorts it into a belief in which reality itself is distorted so as to make preferences simpler or more conclusive. Imagine a culture that fails to discourage a premature or inaccurate employment of belief over judgment! Of course, imagination isn’t really necessary.
Restoring utility to our morality means favoring judgments over beliefs, which translates into a raised threshold of patience in our moral thinking. To imagine others not imposing their values but pursuing their interests in ways equitable with our own is to instill greater commonality to not just one culture but to all. A second corrective involves extended our consequential horizon beyond the “cash value” of immediate choice and to assume responsibility for consequences that do not align with our intentions even when we also acknowledge them to be not our fault. Rather than view each act as yoked to intention and trailing consequence, we might find it more useful to see them as chains of intentionality and consequence and to see our own moral system as bending to our critical inspection not one-by-one in an endless calculus of individual options but as points on a line stretching back as far as memory carries and forward to whatever moral horizon reason can discern. Throw two rocks in a pond and watch their ripples cross and affect the waves that radiate outward. Our choices are made individually but should be intentioned cumulatively, and only a longer focus than pragmatism offers will make that clear while also giving us a sense of agency rather than urgency. And just as geometric reasoning requires us to see the broader shapes and relations of things, so too does moral reasoning open to a longer view.
I do not here define what a utility of furthest ends would reveal. But I think it would encourage a sense of equity as we see others pursuing moral goals similar to our own and respect as we see their reasoning and fallibility to also be similar. We differ of course in some of our values and beliefs, but the commonality of our needs will, I think, drive us to common cause and common consent.