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On Morality

November 1, 2009

Deane Galbraith over at The Dunedin School is reading what looks like a very interesting book on morality: Jesse Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals. One of the recent posts about it has provoked a response in me.

At one point Deane quotes from the book, where the author is discussing the fact that morality, like taste, need not be grounded in some transcendent or absolute foundation to work:

Suppose that someone is a taste absolutist. She believes that chocolate is objectively, universally, and absolutely wonderful. Now imagine that her belief is corrected. She comes to recognize that taste is relative to the taster, and that, for some people, chocolate is dreadful. Trivially, this person will certainly lose her conviction that chocolate is absolutely wonderful, but she needn’t give up the conviction that chocolate is wonderful to her. Likewise, if we discover that our morals do not apply in other cultures, we can continue to be pleased that they apply to us.

What this seems to miss is that if this chocolate lover were trying to get me to love chocolate as much as she did, she would have nothing to stand on, so to speak, if she took the view that her taste is relative to her and her alone.  If the analogy holds, then someone supporting gay rights would have nothing to stand on (i.e., no substantial legitimation for her position) if she took the view that her morals are relative to her and her alone. Why should I take her moral claims seriously if moral actions are like preferences for flavors of ice cream? You like vanilla, I like oppressing gays: to each his own.

That is, taking the view that morality is relative to the “taster,” as the author puts it, takes away all the means one might use to get people with other tastes to adopt one’s morality. I take it that the author of this book wants to point out something like the following: “we haven’t lost anything by recognizing the relativity of morals,” but I think we have—we’ve lost most of the means to justify or legitimate our morality before people who dissent.

To repeat: I’ve got no means of convincing someone who doesn’t like chocolate that they should like chocolate, and if morality works exactly the same way, I’ve got no means of convincing my homophobic friends that they should support gay rights.

More on this soon …

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Deane Galbraith permalink
    November 1, 2009 3:19 pm

    Good point, Miss.

    In his final chapter, Prinz asks the question of whether it is possible to defend moral progress, having rejected any objective or transcendental site of evaluation. He gives a qualified yes to the question, saying it is possible within a fluid system to attain greater consistency in a society’s moral stance. I kind of agree. And I may post on this chapter, later on.

    So the analogy with chocolate is good for knocking down transcendental theories of morality, but as you might be suggesting, it has its significant shortfalls when we consider the complexity of the process of moral reasoning (relatively; within a developing system of ethics).

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 1, 2009 3:25 pm

    I’ll look forward to your post. I want to read the book; it looks interesting and valuable, despite this point I’m trying to make.

    I’ll be saying more on objective morality in the next few days; I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    November 1, 2009 4:54 pm

    *Nods vigorously*
    In a word, the point of tastes is that they’re largely self-regarding. I like chocolate, so *I* eat chocolate. The point of moral principles is that they’re largely other-regarding. I endorse militarism, so *other people* get bombed.


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