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 twists 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. Choosing and following a moral code cannot guarantee our happiness. Life is too capricious to think so. But not choosing or not following 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. But that disturbing thought may be in part countered by recognizing the roadblocks that history has thrown in our way, and these have little to do with the possibility of moral consistency. Because of peculiar historical developments, 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 private moral choice founders upon our reluctance to cede authority to those whom we love, this reluctance also a product of historical failures. Even if that were easy, though, we would still bang against the iron curtain that divides public from private life.
This disharmony is more than a social problem, though. At least in part because no personalized moral system has achieved public consensus, persons find themselves thrown upon their own resources for direction, absorbing as persons always have a sense of perspective from their many cultures to guide their efforts to systematize their private morality but receiving no consistent guidance (see “Cultural Consensus“). On the contrary, 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 (see “Knowledge, Trust, and 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 trust to an authoritarian culture, and that ship has long sailed (see “My Argument in Brief”).
When belief concerns absolutist morality, it finds moral guidance in private belief or public 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”). Or at least she thinks she is, though the desire inherent in belief resists the surrender of agency that authority requires. When successful, the effort has proved a very strong means of resolving moral conflict in univocal cultures wherein the authority is fully embraced. After all, every dogma begins with revelation. But as it relies only on trust, what appears strong is easily broken once competing authority or individual moral agency is considered as alternative (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). 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 moral agency cannot be split, the rational agent typically views allegiance to authority as an entirely provisional surrender always subject to revocation. So authority of any stripe is unlikely to provide cultural unanimity or more than superficial private guidance to persons in our culture who accept it.
Most persons swim through these various cultures without too much attention, absorbing values by osmosis or contagion. But so variable are these cultures — defined as influences on identity — that no consistency is open to the moral agent beyond choosing some and rejecting others by some standard of value. Because morality definitionally must backstop not one preference but all, personal variance and cultural vacuum both conspire to assault our moral health. A community in the modernist view establishes a symbiotic relationship with citizens: they strengthen it as it does them by mutually constructive behaviors. In that kind of a community, interactions with institutional authorities are informative, meaning persons bring their own rational agency to activities that strengthen institutions and their members alike. But a dysfunctional community necessarily nourishes a moral pathology. Its viral influence is not irresistible —it is still theoretically possible to engage in informative relationships with institutions— but the effort still faces formidable obstacles. The relation of individuals to the institutions that power cultural continuity and change may take on the pre-Reformation mode of formative relations best seen in traditional societies. In this schema, persons are molded by their institutions in a largely one-way process. But because institutional authority has failed so spectacularly, most persons reflexively reject both the informative and formative possibilities of interaction for the postmodern one modeled on the pervasive exemplar of the antihero. Their relations with institutions take on a performative role: they view interactions as an opportunity to demonstrate their independence from — and implicitly their superiority to — the institutions with which they interact. They seek to show themselves as literal free agents.
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 warranted 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 power is kept fiercely in the grip of the agent who regards her recognition of authority as a conditional and critical endowment rather than a moral indenture. Traditional authority seeking a true surrender of rational and moral 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 resisting its blandishments. 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”). It is further weakened by the identity politics that regards personality as the passive bequest of race, gender, economic class or other conformist pressure. Less doubt attends the clear enticements of a consumerist, materialistic, secular, capitalist culture that permeates most persons’ value systems. Even calling their morality a “value system” is a neutralizing and conformist effort both inaccurate and dishonest. To regard preferences as “appropriate” is to hold them against a standard that is as arbitrary as it is value-neutral.
It would be erroneous to call this kind of thinking either “moral” or “systematic” since its essence is an agile negotiation with 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 until the agent surrenders or triumphs in what all sides see as a power struggle.
To put it bluntly, this approach to morality insults human dignity, treating persons as consumers or interest groups picking brands, lifestyles, and products rather than as moral agents shaping their own life by the consistency of their long-term and systematic self-construction. While a pragmatic morality does nothing constructive to 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 has not given us much to work with since they produce contention as clouds do shade. But so comprehensive has been the pragmatic conquest that even devout believers feel entirely free to flout the authority that in theory forms their moral nature in favor of their own private interpretations and circumstance.
How do we move forward in an era of moral stalemate?
A broad pragmatism must be our starting point because it is most persons’ default personal moral position and therefore it must form the consensual basis 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 (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?“). 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 good 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 was that each forms her own moral universe (“See Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). 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 their outcomes. But such a system is impossible to implement, for one cannot be held morally culpable for consequences she has not intended. But fault differs from responsibility. Though one may not be at fault for such outcomes, she will still be morally responsible for repairing undesired 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. Consequences lurk out in the darkness, and their effects on the moral agent cannot be avoided. Pragmatism required some amendments.
These were delayed. 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 consideration.
But clearly in our public relationships, we need to reconcile reason with public morality: 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 felt preferential freedom that is the universal property of every person. Indeed, it is the capacity that makes us 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 competing wills contend, where false authority challenges sincere belief. These are inevitable results of belief wrongly applied, of belief elevated above reason.
It is the essence of belief to be a profession of truth 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 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 the chaos of a culture that fails to discourage a premature or inaccurate employment of belief over judgment! But imagination isn’t really necessary.
Restoring a true 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 (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). In the parlance of political theory, we share the pursuit of contributive laws that benefit all of us, that have always sanctioned the enlargement of civilizations from tribe to community. A second corrective involves extending 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.
It is necessary to clarify when intentionality ought to be employed. A simple pragmatism views every experience as being open to the “cash value” of our desires. We structure the experience so as to procure what we desire it to produce. This makes every preference hypothetical, structured as an if/then sentence. If I desire this, I ought to do that. But when this hypotheticality dominates not only the goods I seek but even the situation I face, it distorts the structuring of options that natural freedom presents to preference, aligning the reality with my desires in the moment. Or at least it makes me think it has. But for me to find the possible goods an experience might offer, my first duty is to have the experience, to see it clearly, and to allow the truths I find in it to determine the possible goods I might draw from it. To determine the truth of an experience before mining it for its goods is an act of severance that is essential to preferential freedom, for only seeing the true conditions of preference allows preferential freedom to operate capably (see “Our Freedom Fetish”).
But if that is the case, you might wonder what morality has to do with it, for it is certain that “morality” by definition involves choosing goods. If we don’t act hypothetically, how can we accomplish the choosing that morality mandates? The missing ingredient traces to the proper definition of “morality” (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). Moral choosing is not hypothetical. It is categorical, being a systematic process governing the ends of preference. To function, moral reasoning must be engaged prior to any situation that requires it so that the act of severance that allows dispassionate reasoning can be allowed to operate. We determine the end goals of our choosing without regard to any one situation. To do otherwise would be to reduce our ends to means to some other end or, more likely, to allow our preferences to bounce like lottery balls through the tempests of our own desires. So temporally, we decide upon moral goals, then mine our experiences for the truths they present for our ordering of preference, then apply moral ends to context to find how best to suit them to the unique contexts we face. We do all of this before engaging preference to make a choice.
This is not to argue for an infinitely deferred preferential freedom in the style of the post-structuralists who saw language and experience to be so fluid as to compel indecision but rather to argue for a deferral appropriate to the end being sought. It would be foolish to take a tape measure as I measure out my three-mile running route, and equally mistaken to attempt to measure it by satellite map. The deferral of judgment must match the quality of our knowledge of the experience to the importance of the consequences under consideration. “Furthest ends” means those that intentionality can judge in advance as moral goals that are germane to the decision. These kinds of judgments are categorical rather than hypothetical and so should be made prior to engaging them in experience. But once involved, as we parse out context and contingency, we apply our categorical morality to the moment. And that requires that our reasoning be neither unduly protracted nor impulsive. The proper term for the reasoning that finds that median point is prudence.
Now prudence as a concept has a curious kind of hypotheticality and categoricality about it. Its relies on considerations that are conceptual and abstract but that must be then applied to experience that can only be contextual and concrete. For instance, the files of “love” and “justice” are the categorical contexts by which judgments about friendships and civic duty are decided (See “The Moral Bullseye“). They limit the range of considerations in advance of the undistilled experience that must be unique and hypothetical and, significantly, they are applied in advance of those specific hypothetical considerations, narrowing the possibile preferences. The archetype of this kind of judgment takes place in courtrooms, wherein categories of transgression are first clarified and to which all the vagaries of human experience that might involve them are examined. Civil and criminal law, contracts and torts, misdemeanors and felonies: each file contains a seeming infinity of private circumstance. The circus is only organized into intelligible rings of activity by the categorical divisions that allow them to be examined. This kind of thinking systematizes and end-stops the vagaries of undistilled experience into something reason can deal with and is the very definition of a utility of furthest ends.
I have defined what that looks like in other efforts (see “Toward a Public Morality”). I think virtue ethics and functional natural law perfectly capture its essence (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”). Of course, the end that distinguishes a truly moral system from one founded upon utility must ultimately pass a final systems check: it must prove an end worthy in itself that allows no further regress and answers all questions of “why.” A truly moral utility of furthest ends by that measure ought to produce a single goal: human flourishing.