The Basis of Morality

Noah (@hoodedu) linked me to his thoughts on morality.  Thanks, Noah. Twitter is indeed a very awkward platform for nuance.

This discussion started with reference to the loss of a Neil Gaiman script for Dr. Who.  Thousands of users posted on reddit to pressure the person who found it (or rather, their roommate) to “do the right thing,” and the subsequent trumpeting by some that this somehow “vindicated” the moral authority of the Internet was sickening.  Let me be clear – I do think that in this case returning the item happened to be the right thing to do. But that is a happy coincidence.  I in no way want to get comfortable with the suggestion that listening to what other people claim to think is “the right thing” on an Internet forum necessarily bears the slightest resemblance to the best course of action.  I find equating the right thing to do and the popular thing to do to be morally dangerous. (Cf. slavery, the oppression of minority religions and minority ethnicities, violent homophobia, the cutting of the rose, etc. – all popularly accepted by society for thousands of years, but to me, morally unacceptable.)

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. – Anatole France

Now, with respect to the comments at Noah’s site:

Peter is right in that my statement is not about the generation of moral principles but rather in the idea that one should not ascribe a higher moral authority to the government, to the state, to the corporation, to a board of directors, or indeed to any man-made amalgamation of individual moral actors. Having numbers does not make them automatically more morally correct than an individual making a moral decision. (The critique of modern law as judicial shamanism, for instance, is a structural observation based upon how the ritual of law is constructed around making it appear more impressive, as if that spectacle makes it more morally correct.)

If we say that the state does not properly have the authority to tell you which god to worship, then I take a half-step further and posit that neither does it have the right to dictate your ideals, to tell you good or evil. Of necessity, it makes purely practical judgements like, “People are not permitted to steal things or we will lock them up,” which are to some degree useful for the functioning of society, but we should not confuse them with moral judgements.

Peter also says,

We simply try to muddle through, creating the best world we can — deploying not principles, but what Charles Taylor called “inspired adhoccery.”

I would restate Peter’s “ad hoc” statements thus: there exists a moral axis and a pragmatic axis, and as moral agents we are perpetually brokering an uneasy peace between the two. To be perfectly moral would require infinite resources, or at least the ability to act as if there were infinite resources – a disregard for the pragmatic side of things. To be perfectly pragmatic would require infinite moral flexibility, or effectively an outright lack of morality.  (This level of abstraction, incidentally, derives from the “postmodern” half of my explanation of my stance as “postmodernist-existentialist.”  Peter notes correctly that I differ from Sartre in at least one significant place despite calling my reasoning existentialist.  I believe even Sartre used meta-level principles for moral reasoning in No Exit, but that is a discussion for another time.) I submit that to not perfectly cleave to abstract principles is a different order of things from never attempting to stick to principles in the first place.  That, I believe, is where the real danger of doing what is most comfortable rather than what is moral lies.  Call it a throwback to my days in science: that which is never measured is never properly observed, and that which is not observed, we cannot really make clear statements about. How can you monitor your own moral progress without having some kind of measure?

In the end I suspect my differences with Noah might be theological more than descriptive: is there such a thing as morality, independent of social feedback and pragmatic goals? I say yes, as long as we believe and set it apart; law, for instance, is not morality. Noah, if I read him correctly above, says no. If you don’t allow that morality exists as a separate conceptual thing, then perhaps the distinctions I am drawing become meaningless.

I believe they have meaning, though.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for responding! This makes things much clearer. Twitter really is kind of impossible for a conversation like this….

  2. Nice to find your site, via HU and Noah’s stuff!

    I have very little to add to your thoughtful post. But let me footnote it a bit. In my opinion, Sartre does not seem to say that we need to abandon the idea of abstract principles, but that the abstract principle (in itself) does little of the work for us, does not “tell” us what to do, does not even instruct us how and when it should be applied.

    Of course, the principle and how one uses it still persists — and can even become a thing to which one subscribes wholeheartedly, a rallying call for future action, individual and collective. But, at its core, the principle and its values seem to come from the action, not the other way around.

    BTW, I really like your image of the intersecting moral axes.

    Cheers, and Happy T-Day!


  3. […] this Reddit news item, wherein a bunch of people pushed their morality on […]

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