Three ethical questions

In my last post I referred to the confusion between the cause of someone’s moral judgement and its justification.  That lead me to realise that there are three different meta-ethics questions that get confused

(1) What do we mean when we use moral language? What do ethical words such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, and “ought” mean?

(2) What is the justification for our moral judgements?  Is there some universal objective moral standard or is it a matter of our own culture?  And if there is a universal objective moral standard – what is it and how is it justified?

(3) What causes us to adopt our moral positions? What causes us to condemn or accept abortion,  private property, homosexuality etc.  Is it preferences arising from our culture, or our genes, or is it simply that some of us are better at working out moral truths than others through innate ability or better education?

All of these questions have been the subject of much learned debate over many millennia.  Clearly I am not going to answer them in a blog post. I just want to comment on the relationship between them.

The answers to each question are not necessarily independent of each other.  For example, it may be that the meaning of moral language entails that there is an objective moral standard.  Nevertheless they are different questions and it seems like that the order above is a good order for tackling them.  If we have not settled what moral language means we are going to have a hard time making progress on the other questions.

(1) What do we mean when we use moral language?

In one sense it is remarkable that there should be an issue over the meaning of moral language.  The vast majority of people use it every day without any doubts about what they mean. We argue vehemently about what is the right and wrong thing to do – but we rarely doubt that we know what we mean by “right” and “wrong”.  Moral language is translated, is integrated into  law, is used to fight elections and wars.  Do we do all this without knowing what we mean?  Is there a serious risk that different people mean different things by moral language? When I assert abortion is morally acceptable and someone else disagrees  – might we be talking about different things?  Might it is be just a matter of semantics?  No more important than a misunderstanding over the meaning of say “enervated” and easily cleared up by reference to a good dictionary.

Nevertheless there has been a long tradition of very clever and educated people arguing about just this issue.  It is less fashionable now, but 50 years ago, in the heyday of linguistic philosophy, this was considered to be the question of moral philosophy.  Philosophers such as R.M. Hare dedicated much of their career to trying to clear up the meaning of moral language (see, for example, his book The Language of Morals.).

The reason is that it is one thing to use words correctly, it is another thing to describe their use.  Just as we may be proficient at riding a bicycle but find it hard to describe how we do it, we use are own language instinctively and fluently but we may find it hard to describe what we are doing when use it.  Linguistic philosophy was (and is) largely an attempt to solve philosophical problems by careful attention to how we use language.  One of the big lessons to come out of linguistic philosophy was that the meaning of words is not always captured by trying to identify what those words refer to.  Not every word has a referent. It is more productive to look at how words are used. For example, when I say “I promise to come back tomorrow” this is not a description of some object – a promise – it is an action performed with language.   Famously Wittgenstein, in his later work, particularly The Philosophical Investigations, was the leading proponent of this revelation that “meaning is use” (although he did not apply the idea to ethical language).  As he put it “the speaking of language is  part of an activity, or of a form life” (PI p.23).

So the investigation of the meaning of moral language is also be an investigation of a form of life – the moral form of life. And this is an activity that anyone who makes moral judgements or decisions is concerned with.  It is something virtually all of us do.  We just need to describe it accurately.  We should be able to answer to question by accurate observation of our use of language.

(2) What is the justification for our moral judgements?

Whatever the answer to the first question there is little doubt that part of the activity of making moral judgements is justifying our judgements.  We do it all the time.  When someone asserts that abortion is wrong they will use strategies such as comparing it other things that we all agree to be wrong (e.g. infanticide), or describing the details of the abortion process on the assumption we will find it unacceptable, or appealing to a religious text which forbids abortion.  However, it would appear obvious that we should be clear about the nature of moral activity before we seek to discover the justification of our moral judgements.  We need to sort out the rules of the game before we can investigate the strategy.

The debate here breaks into two major areas:

(2.1) Does there have to be a universally recognised objective justification?

Positive answers have ranged from religious statements, through Kant’s attempt at establishing a logical basis for what is the right thing to do, to consequentialist views such as utilitarianism.  But others have argued that in the end there is no objective justification and therefore no objective way for one person or society to prove that their view how we ought to behave is correct.  Nevertheless there is such a lot of common ground in humanity’s view of right and wrong that is we behave as through there is an objective justification and even have the illusion that there is an objective justification.

(2.2) What justifications are acceptable or valid?

Whether the justification be objective, or based on commonly held opinions, there are many disputes about justifications – for example can we justify punishment because the criminal deserves it or can it only be justified in terms of benefits to society – deterring other criminals or teaching the criminal to mend their ways or simply keeping criminals off the streets?  We all have strong views on this – but we will have difficulty answering this question if we have not settled 2.1 first.  If there is some universal objective justification then we can settle the issue of punishment by logical deduction from those standards.  If not, we need to persuade others by appealing to common emotions and feelings about moral matters.

(3) What causes us to adopt our moral positions?

The answer to (2) will have a big influence on the answer (3).  If there is objective moral standard then making a moral decisions is essentially a matter of trying to deduce the objective truth, somewhat analogous to working out the answer to a mathematical problem.  It may be interesting psychologically to understand what causes us to be better or worse at determining that truth and what common mistakes we make – but it is a psychological/sociological question and nothing else.  Rather similar to conducting a survey on common mistakes in solving  mathematical problems and investigating as to why we make them.

On the other hand if there is no objective standard then the causes of our commonly held moral opinions become crucial to understanding what is right or wrong, what causes right and wrong to differ under different circumstances, and how right and wrong are likely to change in the future.  It is this assumption which guides the work of scientists such as Marc Hauser.


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