When we slice goodness into utility, quality, and morality, we find the going easy until our efforts reach morality (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). At that point, the path forward forks into so many twists that one would need an expert to sort them out, only the variety of contexts to which morality responds- precludes a true expertise (see “Expertise“). So we are left on our own on such matters. We might wonder what special problem morality poses, why it seems a more difficult option than our hypothetical determinations of utility or of quality. It is certainly the case that “morality” by definition involves choosing goods, and we do that a thousand times a day. Every preference, from when to turn on the bedside lamp to when to turn it off, means choosing something we value, so we are hip deep in those. With all that experience, why is moral choosing so hard? It is because most of us make very few of those and some of us make none at all. Nearly all of our manifold choices are properly called judgments of utility. Each involves assessing context for the goods it offers us and then choosing the thing we think will serve our interests best. But deciding upon the meaning of “best” is the problem. We nearly always mine our immediate context for its possible goods. What do I most want in this moment? This kind of preference is all about what I find useful to my immediate goals. Such judgments are categorized as hypothetical ones: they are always structured as an if/then sentence. If I want to impress my boss, then I will get to work early. So common are these experiences that we can be pardoned if we think them the only kind of preference we might engage. But morality offers a different calculus to our reason. 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. The major difference between judgments of morality and those of utility is chronological: it involves when the preference is engaged. Hypothetical reason always acts in context, for we cannot choose what is useful until we know what we are facing. But moral reasoning must be engaged prior to the situation that will require it. The nature of moral reasoning involves systematic ends. Moral goals structure the goods to be pursued in advance of any particular situation. They cannot be hypothetical because they transcend context.This prior decision satisfies the “systematic” nature of morality because it frees us from bouncing from choice to choice by directing some of them to long-term goals. This far-sightedness serves to lessen our very common tendency to favor what is immediately desired over what is truly desirable.
Capable judgments of utility call for an act of severance . We determine the truth of context before considering the goods it might offer. It does us little good to frame such preferences in terms of what we desire in the instant, for we cannot see its possible goods before seeing what faces us, and desire being so potent an influence, we are likely to distort the situation, seeing it in terms of satisfying that tug of desire before even seeing what is going on. But if the act of severance must starve desire in preferences of utility, it must nourish it in preferences of morality. What desire do we wish for all those future choices to serve? What is the end all those judgments of utility ought to serve? What desire is sufficient to override all momentary desires and direct them? What terminal end backstops all those momentary end, bends them to its service? What goal is momentous enough to satiate all of our desires or replace them with something better than all their cumulative satisfactions? If this sounds intimidating enough to drive us back to our instant and easy pleasures, to our practical daily grind, such is the price of our freedom. Only by pinning moral ends to our future can our choices accumulate to some greater good than present satisfaction. To see it otherwise would be to reduce our ends to means to some other end or, more likely, to allow our preferences to bounce and ricochet like lottery balls through the tempests of our own desires.
That thought is a blow to freedom these days, though why it is might not survive even a moment’s thought. Following some systematic mode of moral choosing honors the uniquely human capacity for preference that marks our days like the ticking of a clock, but we don’t have to live too long to realize how difficult that task is. That same level of experience will also reveal the unpleasant truth that 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 honors it .
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 requirement 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 their private values, though that presumption has entirely broken down as private moral choice founders upon our reluctance to cede authority even to those whom we love, this reluctance also a product of historical failures (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge). 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. Though we treasure our personal freedoms, in practice we must admit that we absorb our perspective from our culture in a very traditional manner. The difference today is that cultures themselves have fractured into all the shards of mini-cultures, so that even if persons wished to discover some more inclusive and consistent guidance, they are unlikely to find it (see “Cultural Consensus“). On the contrary, our public disarray makes a private morality even more necessary, and persons respond with either easy agreement or active resistance depending on their level of awareness (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“). Though social media allows at least the illusion of living in a community of like minds, the reality of private moral choice today holds personal freedom as sacrosanct and the beliefs it professes as prized personal possessions (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). This may be a sustainable choice in private life, depending on the quality of the beliefs, but it must fail in public life unless it can be transformed into an authoritarian trust and thereby surrendered. But that ship sailed out of view over the course of the miserable twentieth century (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return“).
Most persons today will ask their private beliefs to validate whatever values they pursue. But beliefs are not up to the task. When belief attempts to profess an absolutist morality, generally taken to mean a religious faith, it finds its moral guidance in private choosing from among hypothetical options it derives from sacred texts. They are hypothetical because the require the believer to pick and choose among possible goods that are all framed as categorical divine commands. This freedom to choose the intent and duty of faith is both inconsistent for the believer and impossible to reconcile with the values chosen by other believers (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts“). A private morality cannot resolve conflicts with other persons who operate from other beliefs or faiths or from other axioms of morality that do not privilege belief (see “My Argument in Brief“). For that reason, private religious belief was until World War I almost invariably transmuted into a trust in institutional authority as a public warrant, trust being an appeal to public confidence. The believer surrenders her moral agency, her capacity to arbitrate her own preferences, to the authority who conveys moral duties as a categorical certainty not open to question or dispute (see “Religion and Truth”). Or at least that is the traditional view of authority, though today 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, today’s rational agent typically views allegiance to authority as an entirely provisional sanction always subject to revocation. She is likely to engage in a cycle of surrender and mistrust so that she can inspect her authority for bad faith, but she likely will not fully engage the total trust that makes medieval societies seem so disconnected to our experience. So authority of any stripe is unlikely to provide cultural unanimity or more than hypothetical utility to persons in our culture who accept it. Its failures in public life has liberated private life to profess private belief in public contexts.
Most persons navigate various cultures without too much attention, absorbing values by osmosis or contagion in a fairly random process depending on which cultures they find themselves exposed to. But so variable are cultures — defined as influences on identity — that no consistency is open to the moral agent beyond choosing some and rejecting others by some private standard of value as a best case. For most of us, the navigation is on autopilot and we are hardly aware either of the many cultures we are exposed to or of the values they happen to impart or we happen to ingest. Because morality definitionally must backstop not one but a train of preferences accumulating to some end goal, personal variance and cultural variety both conspire to assault our moral health.
A community in the modernist view establishes a symbiotic relationship with its members: they strengthen it as it strengthens them by mutually constructive behaviors. In that kind of a community, interactions with institutional authorities are informative, meaning persons bring their own rational agency and common sanction to activities that mutually strengthen institutions and their members. Trust is not necessary because agency is not surrendered but even so, constructive interactions are sanctioned. Why is that so difficult today? It can only happen when community members’ reasoning is replicable, meaning when community members think they are thinking alike even if drawing a differing conclusion. No one at a New England town meeting, a corporate conference, or a graduate seminar is riding on the relaxing cushion of trust and surrender. All participants in each community are mentally leaning in, concurring or questioning or disputing. Universal reason is the core axiom of modernity. It is the energizer of constructive communities. With rare exceptions today, its operation is no longer assumed. Modernism is now only one more option, along with a premodern effort at surrender to institutional authority and a postmodern disengagement and suspicion of the same. Both of these positions question the replicability of reason, trust surrenders agency while distrust jealously retains it in suspicion of abuse of power. In any gathering, we are likely to see all three positions represented, and in this common scenario, interactions are likely to be tainted by a suspicion of bad faith if only because all three axioms of moral commitment are rarely examined or expressed as they shape all considerations of preference. This suspicion now characterizes our public interactions, causing downstream effects as complex as the historical events that inspired it.
A dysfunctional community necessarily nourishes a moral chaos. Its viral influence is not irresistible — it is still theoretically possible to engage in informative relationships with institutions — but the effort faces formidable obstacles, not least of which is its subterranean nature. The absolute collapse of institutional authority upon which all complex societies rely has spawned a reactionary response that favors a return to the pre-Reformation mode of formative interactions best seen in traditional societies. In this schema, persons are molded by their institutions in a largely one-way process wherein the trust they grant forecloses on their capacity to judge. Their moral lives are directed by the authority they have surrendered their agency to, or at least they wish to see it that way. Because institutional authority has failed so spectacularly over the last century, 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.
This splintering of axioms of commitment directly affects public morality. 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 stimulated by a desire for unrestricted free agency and warranted only by the principle of non-contradiction (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). Since even the nature of reason itself is thought to be imparted by environment or open to choice, non-contradiction becomes a private standard to the postmodernist. This one truth test available to the postmodernist is as malleable as the preferences it directs (though hypocrisy is the single thought crime everyone thinks to be worthy of condemnation since it is by definition an intentional contradiction). Candidates for inclusion into the virtual circle are not limited to the products of thought, however. These are merely one possible choice among many that 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. It is invariably seen as bad faith. The postmodernist is obsessed with power as the only means to resolve social conflict. Given the radical equality of all moral outlooks, dispute can be settled in no other way. Any application of power, especially by institutions, is likely to be regarded as inherently abusive and restrictive of the total freedom persons think their due (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). And since the application of power is essential for any accomplishment whatsoever, postmodernists are sure to see the bad faith they expect to find. Besides that obstacle to collaboration, it is in the nature of the virtual circle to overvalue its own making and maker, and so it will prove resistant to compromise on grounds of creativity and ego alone. Even believers who pay lip service to cultural power as formative manage to think themselves selective in accepting or resisting its blandishments, though they rarely grant others the same exemption. 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”).
Less doubt attends the clear enticements of a consumerist, materialistic, secular, capitalist culture that permeates most persons’ value systems. Even calling this stab at morality a “value system” is a neutralizing and conformist effort both inaccurate and dishonest. Persons today wish to “make a difference” and “tell their own story.” They critique others’ choices as “inappropriate.” Everything about such expressions is an effort at wriggling away from actually claiming any particular end as admirable or contemptible. It would be erroneous to call this vague and stunted thinking either “moral” or “systematic” since its essence is an agile negotiation with day-to-day demands rather than a reasoning effort at disciplined self-direction guided by some end value. 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 “speaking truth to power” requires preemptive surrenders or triumphs in what all sides see as undeclared war of each against all .
To put it bluntly, this approach to morality insults human dignity, treating persons as consumers or interest groups or competitors picking brands, lifestyles, and products rather than as moral agents shaping their own life by the consistency of their systematic self-construction. While a pragmatic morality does nothing constructive to shape private choosing, it does even less to smooth our choppy civil waters. At the other extreme, 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 hypothetical interests.
This moral vacuum can be filled. A broad pragmatism must be our starting point in any analysis because it is most persons’ default position, and therefore it must form the consensual basis for any effort at moral repair. It respects persons hypothetical interests to exercise preference in experience. The issue to begin with involves the consequential horizon: the intentional time limit of our consideration of value. Will it be immediate and tied to present context? If so, it cannot support a public morality, for experience is lived privately as our perceptions and reflections are filtered through our understandings. Psychology has fully legitimized the view that our values resemble icebergs, with nine-tenths of their real nature hiding below the surface of consciousness (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). In consequence and in league with the absolute freedom they value, most persons opt for maximal room to maneuver in their hypothetical choices. This 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 level of freedom 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 the hypocrisy of institutional authority demanding that citizens surrender their sanction that trust faded completely away 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 experiential 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 this judgment is impossible to implement, for one cannot be held morally culpable for consequences she has not anticipated and one certainly cannot anticipate them all (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, and one’s responsibility for addressing them cannot be foisted off indefinitely. So over the course of the twentieth century pragmatism also required some amendments, but the private influences of the unconscious in psychology and the other human sciences called human preferential freedom into doubt. Certainly, World War I and the spectacular success of empirical science combined to similarly cause doubt the existence of some universal common sense, producing 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 either to 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 author 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 collapse of pragmatism into a simple emotivism: an ethic of pure desire divorced from rational calculus. It was the perfect partner to capitalist materialism.
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 the 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 our species. Empirical science is forging this path as it forces the human sciences into the same twilight existence that religious authority has suffered for over a century. Indeed, it is preferential freedom that makes us persons, gives us moral responsibility, and endows us with natural rights (see “Natural and Political Rights“). 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 abusive 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 (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance“). To see a situation clearly is to filter out the prejudices that bend our judgment toward some preference before we understand it. These are the prejudices that characterize all beliefs 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 morality requires a raised threshold of patience in our moral thinking appropriate to choosing systematic ends. 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 common interests of citizens. A second corrective involves extending our consequential horizon beyond the “cash value” of immediate choice and assuming responsibility for consequences that do not align with our intentions even when we also acknowledge them to be not our fault. This is also a requirement of a longer consequential horizon, for we may not be at fault for outcomes we could not foresee and did not intend, but we are nonetheless responsible for repairing them. 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 range 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. 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.
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 and a bow to the desires of the moment. But when this hypotheticality dominates all the goods I seek and even distorts the situation I face by simplifying the accompanying choices that natural freedom presents to preference, everything is simplified as I align the reality with my desires in the moment. Or at least I think it has. But then there are those pesky unforeseen consequences to repair. To find the possible goods an experience might offer, my first duty is to know what I want, not just from this experience but from all of them. This entails having a systematic moral goal in advance of the experiences that provide options to choice. The second duty is to have the experience, to see it clearly, and to allow the truths I find in it to determine how and whether the goods it offers will further my moral ends (see “Our Freedom Fetish”).
Two questions remain. First, are all preferences morally charged? And second, what horizon of consequences is best suited to moral ends?
The question of whether every preference has a moral component can only be answered within the context of a particular moral system. Religious absolutism does not think so, for it recognizes neutral options that are neither blessed nor sinful. This is a boon to premodernists who structure their entire moral life around the commands of a deity. They see a strict demarcation between moral choices, which must always be categorically commanded, and those judgments of utility that are amoral. This simplifies their moral existence at the expense of those operating from a less religious standpoint, for congregants naturally think everyone to be subject to these same commands even if others do not acknowledge their authority. Religionists are likely to be intransigent on those moral rules their dogma decrees and dismissive of those it does not decree. They think only their own divine commands moral. Others’ value systems are likely to be dismissed as immoral or amoral. Non-religious categorical systems do think all commands moral, though they differ on the reasons why. Utilitarianism considers the “greatest good for the greatest number” the essential moral question to which every preference must reply. Duty ethics advises moral agents to try to universalize every preference by a categorical imperative that asks whether the world would be improved or degraded if everyone made the same decision. Virtue ethics regards every preference as the opportunity to nourish good or bad habits that accrue to simplifying moral choices in total. As mentioned, the virtual circle regards every preference as a private one moved by private values, limited only by libertarian considerations of others’ freedom. So in sum we may say that premodernists and postmodernists agree that not every preference is a moral one, though their different perspectives on authority ensure that they will not agree on much else. And modernists do regard every preference as moral, though they differ on the reasons why.
The answer to the second question concerning the consequential horizon of preference in a utility of furthest ends is, however, situation-dependent. “Furthest ends” 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. It is 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 on a globe. 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 public moral goals that are germane to the situation. 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. It 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 possible preferences. The archetype of this kind of judgment takes place in courtrooms, wherein categories of transgression are first clarified and through 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. This 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.