Why is that wrong?

Anyone who has been a parent or dealt with young children or remembers their own childhood will be familiar with this type of question.  You try to explain that you shouldn’t leave little Sam out of your games and and your little darling responds “Why is that wrong?”.  He is asking for a moral justification.

In an earlier post I listed three different questions about meta-ethics which I think are often confused.  In a subsequent post I aired a few  thoughts about the first question:

What do we mean when we use moral language?

In this post I will say a few things about the second question:

What is the justification for our moral judgements?

I believe it is this question which lies at the root of majority of debates about metaethics, particularly when religion is involved.

There is no doubt that we do justify our moral judgements.  If I claim that Nick Clegg was wrong to support raising university tuition fees, and someone challenges me, it would be inadequate to respond “it’s just wrong”.  Anyone making this claim has to offer some kind of justification to be credible.  I might say for example “he was wrong because he and his party said they would not raise them before the election”.

It is also clear that this justification can be pushed further and further.  An interlocutor can keep on asking the question “why is that wrong?”. For example:

“Nick Clegg was wrong to support raising university tuition fees”

Why is that wrong?

“He  said he would not raise them before the election”

Why is that wrong?

“It is wrong to deceive people”

Why is that wrong?

“It contravenes the 9th commandment  Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Why is that wrong?

“The commandments are God’s will and we should never go against God’s will”

and so on

However, there also comes a point when no further explanation seems to be feasible or required. In this case it is hard to know how a theist would proceed if asked yet again “why is that wrong?”.  In another discussion about a different issue – maybe on climate change – this stopping point might be “because it would lead to the deaths of millions of people”.  If someone were to ask why is that wrong? Most people would find it hard to know where to go next.  This is what I mean by an ultimate justification.

Philosophers through the ages have come up with many different theories of ethics and many of them can be thought of as different ultimate justifications. So Aristotle’s eudaimonia might lead to  a justification such as “Nick Clegg was failing to fulfil his potential as a human being”. Kant’s Categorical Imperative might lead to “If everyone broke their promises then there would be no such things as promising”. John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism might lead to “Raising tuition fees will lower educational standards, slow economic growth and make the whole country more miserable in the long run”.  A religious philosopher might lead to the justification in terms of God’s Will.

Although philosophers have presented many ultimate moral justifications there is, of course, a deep problem. There is no ultimate criterion for deciding between the systems. We can point to inconsistencies in one system or another (example?), we can point to practical problems in implementing a system (what value does a utilitarian place on the happiness of animals), we can point to consequences that we intuitively find morally unacceptable (it would appear that a utilitarian is morally bound to kill a baby or indeed anyone whom they believe is on balance likely to be unhappy for the rest of their life).

For me the most interesting form of argument is the last.  However, convinced someone may be of their ultimate moral justification in practice they will almost always defend their system using the standard of commonly held moral intuitions.  Someone who believes that the ultimate justification is the Word of God as given in the Christian Bible may find a justification for pronouncing homosexuality to be wrong.  But when it comes to slavery, which famously is also condoned in the Bible, they do not deduce that slavery is actually morally acceptable.  Instead they seek to reinterpret the Bible to accommodate this is unacceptable consequence.  But what makes this consequence unacceptable?  Why should they even hesitate to pronounce slavery acceptable if it is in the Bible?  Where ever you turn the moral theorist will prove their point by comparing their system to our intuitions.

A favourite theme of mine is the difference between bottom-up and top-down approaches to morals. It is the difference between Hume and Kant’s approaches as described in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

Hume’s method of moral philosophy is experimental and empirical; Kant emphasizes the necessity of grounding morality in a priori principles.

While Kant had an ultimate justification and a corresponding system, Hume did not.  Hume traced morality back to our passions and intuitions as to what is the right and wrong thing to do.  For Hume a moral principle is descriptive, for Kant it is normative.  In practice almost everyone is a Humean, although it may be distorted by beliefs in some higher principle.  And those that are extremely top-down can become very dangerous to the rest of us.  It is the ultimate in to-down ethics to fly a passenger plane into a building to fulfil God’s will.


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