What Do We Mean by “Morality”?

We may use the term “goodness” to refer to utility, quality, or morality (for a treatment of the first two meanings, see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“).

To my mind, the real importance of the truth of our declarations concerns questions of goodness, for all of our knowledge of truth only serves as the means to choose what we consider to be good. In that sense, goodness is the essential truth issue that governs all others (see “Truth and Beauty Do a Dance”).  Now some goodness issues are easily settled, for instance, those of simple utility. A hammer is a better tool to drive a nail than a sponge. And some seem endlessly contentious, for instance, opinions on the quality of national cuisines or the artistic genius of Kandinsky. So let us first clarify how issues of utility and quality differ from those of morality, the most generic definition of which is “a system of principles of conduct to guide preference to desired ends.” One may order this system by whatever values she chooses, but the necessity of systematizing choice hints at the need for rational consistency. A casual preference for utility would not qualify as moral, but a consistent utilitarianism would.  Standards of quality in themselves could never be moral, for they are used to judge individual elements according to some standard of value determined by moral ends. One of those elements might be the moral system itself, though that would then require a meta-standard by which to judge the quality of particular systems, but since such a standard would itself constitute a moral value superior to all others, it would form the summum bonum of the system rather than stand outside its norms.  At the other end of morality, we might find some standard to evaluate one’s success in applying her moral system from within its own rules, but again such a standard must be subsumed to the larger morality of which it is a part. Because its focus on ends must go beyond simple utility and even broad standards of quality, morality must be separated from the other species of goodness. A final distinction concerns what might be thought a kind of compulsion characteristic of morality lacking in the other aspects of goodness. We think of utility and quality as being hypothetical. They are applied conditionally, concluding sentences that set up the conditions for their application. “If you want to drive a nail, use a hammer.” “If you want a good accountant, hire Stanley.” But we think of morality’s truth to compel preference rather than defer to it. One may prefer the useful or appreciate Kandinsky. But one should prefer the moral.  The great question is this: is moral goodness a correspondence or a coherence issue (see “What Counts as Justification?”)?

It is tempting to see this as a coherence problem. Cultures determine values. Or individuals do. We choose what we think good in a moral sense based on our experience, our family, or our culture. We freight it with pragmatic importance. After all, we must agree to rules of traffic or we will have chaos on the highways (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). Or we lay a social contract veneer over our mores and laws to see them as arbitrary choices rooted in cultural history or some dim historical past that produced some social covenant that now binds us to moral principles not of our own choosing (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?“). All of this is coherentist even if it wears the guise of universalism. No one thinks justifying moral rules this way has any fixed basis in reality. All agree these bases are essentially cultural conventions, no different from the agreements businesses invent, identical in essence to the kinds of protocols we all embrace to keep the peace, to get along, to avoid conflict. Should other moral codes provide more utility or poll more highly, we should abandon our present moral stance and embrace them. Should other practices conduce to greater happiness for greater numbers, we would surely adopt them. I should point out that this expedient view of our moral stance is seldom acknowledged by those who embrace it. Who wishes to lay her moral foundations on the squishy marsh of relativism?

Or the even softer ground of subjectivism? If relativism privileges culture as the maker of individual moral outlooks, subjectivism reverses the direction of influence, seeing the individual resisting conformist pressures of culture in favor of a thoroughly original and private moral system. Nearly all defenders of this method consider morality a deeply personalized part of identity, some defiantly arguing in favor of a fully emotivist ethos that equates moral imperatives with interjections. That outlook sees “thou shalt” as having all the directive force of an “ouch” or a “wow.” Alternatively, a subjectivist might equate “you should” with “I like.” Such an approach serves to equate morality with utility, for it allows our own preferences to be the categorical imperative that reduces moral choosing to the hypothetical. To say something is good is merely another way of saying that I like or desire it.

Not exactly Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, or Mohandas Gandhi, is it? The idea that morality is fixed and available to all persons is a correspondence notion rooted in one of two principles. Public morality is either absolutist or universalist, meaning its principles are either justified by ceding moral agency to authority or by retaining it subject to one’s reasoning. I hope I have made clear in earlier posts about religion that I consider authority a  false choice in our own era, for all correspondence choices rooted in authority in multivocal cultures must be subject to a prior logical analysis that arbitrates the commitment to authority; therefore, absolutist moral claims must always bow to universalist analysis (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). That is certainly not a consensualist view, and it must be admitted that far more support for correspondentist morality derives from religion than from other sources. Religionists go so far as to insist that without absolutist standards, morality would cease to exist, a position that shows a disturbing level of ignorance of the last five hundred years but perhaps explains the fear a secularized society instills in religionists (see “Belief in the Public Square”). So any attempt to claim a universalist basis for morality faces opposition from both flanks: relativists take the postmodern view that all morality is coherentist, meaning sourced in either culture or contract,  and religionists that all morality is absolutist. Both flanks suffer from the same problem: an inability to arbitrate dispute. Religiously-based moral systems suffer from perils of justification by authority that render them helpless in the face of dissent—the greatest proof of which is the Protestant Reformation that produced the first crisis of justification in Western culture—which leaves universalist systems as the default correspondentist moral systems. Religionists might consider this a premature closure, so my effort in this analysis opposes them directly. But it also must struggle against what I consider an overcorrection in the other direction. Why should any correspondentist system hold sway in the face of powerful postmodern arguments that favor coherence or pragmatic moral systems? There is, unfortunately for the postmodernists who make this argument, the uncomfortable problem of disagreement. Simply put, the coherentist or pragmatist must exercise tolerance as a condition of her belief system. Championing personalized or cultural moral systems justified only by non-contradiction or logical entailment or convention provides no means of choosing one moral choice over any other in the face of conflict, provided the choices are not contradictory. Therefore, the adherents of coherentist moral systems, which include utilitarian and legal positivist systems, must exercise a consistent toleration for disagreement that utterly fails to resolve essential disagreements about the goods that persons and societies should seek (see “Needs and Rights”).

At this juncture, it is also wise to remember that the entire purpose of morality is to direct free will in the face of contending choices, so we must assume that arbitrating competing claims is the entire reason to have a workable moral system. One doesn’t have to search hard to find competing claims. Examples permeate the news. To what extent should the general will trump individual choice (see When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?“)?  By what moral justification can the state tax the wealth produced by its citizens (see “Economic Justice“)? To what degree should justice be tempered by mercy in the law? When one nation’s interests clash with another’s , whose value system should arbitrate the dispute (see “Natural and Political Rights”)? How do governments resolve disagreements among citizens or protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”)? The obligation of the state to negotiate these kinds of conflicts inevitably lead to these kinds of questions and conflicts, and since political systems require a hierarchy or monopoly of power, coherentist systems must violate their sole means of determining truth, the principle of non-contradiction, if they are to exercise either a hierarchy or monopoly of power. The violation consists of making a universalist moral argument (“ order should trump tolerance”) to justify the monopoly and exercise of power, thus entailing others to one’s personalized or cultural values. Of course, any support for human rights over cultural values or for any particular cultural value as a universal produces the same contradiction for coherentists.

Slice the exercise of power another way and you have the same issue in microcosm. If morality is based on pragmatism and convention, what privileges one culture’s mores over another? By culture here, I do not mean national borders. My locality has a culture. My family has another. Religion, ethnicity, age, gender: all the influences postmodernism celebrates as determinative of our identity are distinct cultures. On what moral basis are conflicts resolved among these disparate inputs to a larger culture? In the absence of a means of determining moral superiority, what gives any culture the right to impose its values on any other? This is, of course, the root of the existentialist celebration of the antihero, a dissident culture of one so celebrated in film and fiction since World War I (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“). One can embrace a social contract or utilitarian moral argument, but if I as a coherentist refuse to incorporate the moral argument implicit in such pragmatist systems, by what superior moral injunction can you force me to? Force in this case is not only the key word but the only recourse for the postmodernist, which is why power and its effective use are cultural obsessions today. It is curious, though, that their use is so often invested with moral gravity, considering postmodernists must operate in a moral vacuum (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). I have argued against the view that the exercise of power itself is proof of the postmodern point of view, for every preference persons exercise in disputes marks the use of power simply the means of settling conflict (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation“). Subtract any actual justification for that use of power and you are left only with power itself as indicative of moral preference, something postmodernist theory regards as arbitrary and self-seeking yet also its only means of reconciling moral conflict. Such a view cannot fail to induce the cynicism and suspicion that so characterize the postmodern outlook.

One might also observe that absolutist correspondence moral systems, most clearly exemplified by religious systems, face similar issues in the face of dispute. Authority, the means of correspondence justification for such moral systems, must collapse in the face of dissent, rendering such moral systems impotent. One need only examine European history during the era from 1517 through 1688 to see how this process operates (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Or one can examine current sectarian violence for confirmation that absolute moral authority and what theorists call positivist legal justifications fail when they are most needed: as arbiters of dispute (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). I find it fascinating that the most rigid and the most flaccid modes of justifying social order suffer from the same failing, one because it hands down infallible but conflicting judgments from above and the other because it bubbles up opinion from innumerable and equal virtual circles from below (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“).

As individuals seek what they consider good and political systems attempt that same effort in regard to the goods that polities seek to secure on behalf of their constituents, and since all pragmatic and coherentist systems fail to offer resolution of conflict within the parameters of their own value systems, it seems at least reasonable to seek resolution in correspondentist moral systems. And since absolutist systems rooted in authority also self-destruct in the face of dissent, the correspondentist moral systems that remain open are entirely universalist. Remember that this term relies on a prior acceptance of universal reasoning for its specification (see “The Tyranny of Rationality“). When we say “this moral principal is good” in this instance, we are appealing to the warrant of our common rationality, essentially saying that if you understand the exigency to which the principle is applied, you will agree that its application is good provided you are applying reasoning correctly. I apologize for teasing out this meaning of “reasoning.” I only do it because postmodern theories see reason as personalized rather than universalized. To a postmodern thinker, reasoning derives from experience and therefore is formed by it. I am using “universal reasoning” in a different sense, arguing for its use in a manner suggested by mathematical reasoning. In this sense a correct logical analysis would acknowledge circumstantial factors but argue that varied experiences, if taken into account, would produce similar conceptions of good choices because we share a common reasoning faculty. This is the same standard that legal systems employ to apportion culpability in criminal and civil cases. Its application is also reflected in efforts to determine truth and goodness open to  expertise and the natural sciences (see “Expertise“). Of course, the conclusions of universal moral reasoning are less certain and more situational than expertise or empiricism can deal with, though that has hardly kept the human sciences from taking a swing at them, with consequences we still are suffering through (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). No science can draw the good from even the most convincing theory of the true. The same tools that produce its most successful efforts also limit them to the perceptual and the evidential.  The best we can hope for in seeking universal validation for morality is to use our reasoning to judge the preponderance of the evidence, always remaining open to anomalies in our analyses and the conclusions we draw from them.

Though three universalist moral systems—utilitarianism, duty ethics, and natural rights theory-– open in this pursuit, it is not necessary to engage in deep analysis of their differences  until another time (see “Three Moral Systems”). But it is worth noting that the differences in these systems is itself a warning, for two millennia of efforts have failed to demonstrate conclusively or convincingly that any of them is irrefutable. Yet resolution of conflict demands that whatever axioms disputants bring to the disagreement be in rough agreement (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). In an age in which only empirical science can provide that unanimity, we face a vacuum of consensual justifications. The next-most-powerful weapon available is logical analysis, and universalist moral systems must be successfully justified on these grounds if they are to be justified at all.

Ah, there’s the rub. The argument for a universalist morality seems self-contradictory on its face. If the same reasoning system operates in each of us, why is it not our natural recourse to appeal to it to resolve conflict? And why do we find three universalist systems contending for our approval if all we need to do to confirm truth is to think the matter through to its proper conclusions? After all, that works in mathematics, which is universal, and in science, which is nearly so. And persons seem able to submit to the authority of the law whose purpose is to regulate their conduct and resolve their conflicts. If morality is universal and its precepts available to the reasoning mind, why all the disagreement?

I offer two reasons. The first is  historical. We are sorting through the effects of two great disruptions of warrant whose effects are still playing out in our culture. Until very recently, the dominant justification for morality was absolutist, rooted in religion. In many persons’ minds, indeed in many cultures’ view, that warrant still holds and fights a rearguard action against the other axioms for moral behavior that violate its premises. No moral system can compete with its sense of certainty, though that same sense has produced as its product the intractable resistance of its adherents to challenges they cannot resolve. In essence, its greatest strength has produced in this age of diversity its greatest and most obdurate weakness. Those who uncritically embrace  the postmodern culture that permeates the culture are particularly hostile to any prescription for behavior that is not personal or cultural, a product of a second great thought revolution (see “The Victorian Rift“). The presumptions of the culture are by their nature irreconcilable because they were proposed as antitheses for systems that contemporaries thought had failed.. But these are only the historical half of the issue. The other half involves the inherent difficulty of working through a consistent moral outlook. Experience is unique even if practical  reasoning is common. The problem of specification is an all but disqualifying obstacle to unanimity in morality. Empirical science, the uncrowned king of truth-telling, must always concern the perceptual,  the measurable, and the experimental. None of this is available to the moralist. And the human sciences, upon which thinkers have placed their bets since the Enlightenment, have foundered on the rock of human free will. Their failures have produced their own disillusionment and cynicism about the possibilities of universal reason and moral progress. Most of the twentieth century was sacrificed to this misdirection, which produced postmodernism as its  product. That failure has only worsened the inherent difficulty of drawing from differing experience some common moral goods (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). We have failed to develop a science of moral health, and that failure is now evident.

But acknowledging this failure in itself is a good sign. When you reach a dead end, it is wise to return to the more promising path. Thanks to neurological science, the mysteries of free will are now the provenance of natural rather than human science. Though it has suffered its own demons, particularly the hubris of scientism over the past two centuries, the professionalization of the hard sciences has pruned the worst of its excesses and given all of us a better understanding of its limits. One is an inability to structure human society or resolve moral disagreements. Since the end of World War II, a consensus has formed in favor of inalienable human rights that transcend cultural values. This emergence has signaled the need for a working moral theory to validate them. Though I realize that the justification should precede the practice, this is not in truth how it has transpired. We are far from agreement about what that justification should look like, but as cultures defend the sanctity or at least the authority to abuse minorities or women or the powerless, we have no choice but to warrant a response in terms that appeal to their rationality. I’ll close out this little ray of sunshine on a sour note. Postmodernism can provide no such warrant because its axioms of value reject such a universality (though inexplicably defending human rights), so we are unlikely to see any systematic academic pursuit of moral philosophy in the current climate, at least not one that is accessible to nonspecialists (see “One Postmodern Sentence”).

This has been a fairly painstaking attempt to explain why the only moral system that could function effectively would be a correspondence one, but the need for such system does not magically provide a solution. What would a consistent correspondence moral system look like? That will be the subject of a fuller treatment of the three universalist moral systems that have stood the test of time.

One cannot speak of truth issues without also considering goodness, for as choice-making machines, humans always act to choose the good based on their knowledge of the truth. That is the timeless quandary of human nature. But at this time in human history, we face the deep chasm dividing the coherence virtual circle and the correspondence proofs of judgment as we face our choices. We owe it to ourselves to derive the most reliable combination of truth and goodness claims and the justifications that support them, proved true by reasoning about a preponderance of the evidence. Rather than committing the very common error of having our coherence and correspondence claims frustrate each other, which seems to be the tenor of our times, I think it is possible to use their strengths to increase the reliability of our warrants (see “Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge“). When an individual’s desires conflict, she must arbitrate their demands. Should she act with consistency, we say she acts with integrity. The same may be said for conflicts within and between cultures. Only universalist moral systems can deliver that.


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