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On Morality, Part 2

November 2, 2009

What motivates people to act morally? I propose 3 reasons:

  1. some people buy into a legitimation for particular moral or ethical codes
  2. some people, as a result of their process of socialization, abide by certain moral or ethical codes as a matter of habit
  3. some people have sympathy for other human beings, and as such avoid or prevent behaviors that harm others

Most of the debates about whether or not we can be ethical without absolutes—or without morality being built into the nature of the universe—are focused only on #1. On the one hand, some people offer absolute legitimations and suggest that without absolute legitimations there would be chaos. On the other hand, some people deconstruct those absolute legitimations and suggest that we never needed them in the first place—although the explanations as to why we never needed them are amazingly diverse.

It seems like most ethical philosophers today largely ignore #2 and #3. #2 isn’t of much use to us unless we have kids to train or unless we’re elementary school teachers, but #3 is pretty damn important.

In the middle of Huck Finn, Huck is trying to decide between his provincial Christianity—which tells him that he’ll go to hell for theft if he doesn’t return the slave Jim to his rightful owners—and his concern for Jim’s welfare. He chooses Jim’s welfare because he has sympathy for him. #3 trumped both #1 and #2 at the same time.

Female Genital Mutilation is a classic weird case for philosophers debating ethical relativism: if ethics lack absolute foundations, then is it okay for them to do this practice, even though we don’t think it’s okay? should our ethical norms apply to them even if they don’t agree with them? how could they apply universally if they’re not universally grounded?

But it gets a lot less complicated if we turn to #3 and think about whether or not the practice is harmful, and whether or not we give a shit about the people it harms. #3 will motivate when #1 and #2 won’t.

I also prioritize the usefulness of #3 because #1 often won’t work without #3. If I’m talking to a psychopath who is incapable of sympathy, no amount of “absolute” legitimation will convince him of anything.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    November 2, 2009 12:38 pm

    I think some more items might need to be added to the list. Empathy, clearly, is a ‘spontaneous’ impulse, which can arise independently of reflectively-accepted legitimation. But there are plenty of others. Feelings of disgust are one obvious example. Arguably, feelings of insecurity or identification with authority. Perhaps anger and resentment spontaneously generate retributive actions of the sort that a retributive morality would legitimate.

    In short, if we accept that moral codes exhibit the elaboration and legitimation of a range of emotional impulses, shouldn’t we include all of them under item 3, or else extend the list to 4, 5, 6, etc.

    This, I think, makes the picture you present somewhat less optimistic. If ‘we’ (whoever exactly that is) can appeal to empathy of whatever variety to justify not cutting bits off babies, or not massacring pigs, or overthrowing the bourgeoisie, then ‘they’ can appeal to the disgusting slatternly uncleanliness of uncircumcised infants, or to the rarefied sense of awe at the dignity that attaches to all and only humans (and perhaps neanderthals) and not one whit to pigs, etc. etc.

    In short, if there’s no question of right or wrong, then moral discourse becomes entirely a matter of rhetorical persuasion, of which exciting empathy is one variety. But it’s not at all obvious that it will always win out.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    November 2, 2009 12:45 pm

    On that note, I just looked back and saw that your specification of empathy was ‘for other human beings’. Obviously we can feel empathy with other animals, and hopefully with aliens and AI once we’ve made contact. But then, we can also feel empathy with inanimate objects if they look sufficiently cute. My dad sometimes claims to feel ’empathy’ with the suffering of crumpled bedsheets that want to be straight. So you always come back to the need for some sort of principle by which to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 2, 2009 2:47 pm

    Hi Alderson! First, yes, sympathy or empathy often goes beyond humans. I can’t believe I wrote “human beings” there—I’m a vegetarian precisely because of sympathies I have for animals suffering in factory farms.

    Second, yes, we can complicate the list of sentiments that generate “ethical” behavior—it goes beyond mere sympathy.

    Third, I think part of where you’re pressing me is on this issue: we can’t completely separate out sentiments and legitimations—they’re all mixed and inter-mingled. Absolutely. Some of the sympathies I have are connected to legitimations, and vice versa.

    Fourth, I don’t think I’m actually that optimistic. You’re right—people can rhetorically persuade others (by appealing to their sympathies or whatever) to do things I would consider unethical. I accept that as a matter of course. There’s no guarantee that appeals to sympathy will do the work I want them to do.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    November 2, 2009 6:36 pm

    Ok, I think I may have over-read your intent here – I thought you were saying ‘it’s fine!’ rather than ‘it’s not as bad as people sometimes suggest!’

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 2, 2009 7:41 pm

    As will become clear in upcoming posts, I’m partly interested in attacking apparent assumption that getting meta-ethics right will be a magic bullet …

  6. November 3, 2009 9:42 am

    Sympathy… implies from the outset that right and wrong are issues of “pain caused”.
    I don’t think that assumption is justified.

    But then I think that female circumcision/clitorectomy/labiaectomy is an acceptable practice even if I find it icky. In my culture we have a dangerous rite of passage where people repeatedly become blindingly drunk week in week out for several years of their life doing untold damage to their nervous systems and producing alcoholism in sensitive individuals. A one off operation to remove parts of the female genitalia can’t be that much worse. I’m especially convinced of this after watching a video in which some girls who’d had it done talked about how little it affected them.

    I’m less sure about the whole infibulation thing though…

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 3, 2009 9:47 am

    Any ethics or morality worth its salt is consequentialist, so I won’t back away from the centrality of happiness and suffering.

    I wouldn’t trust 1st hand accounts of clitoridectomy. People almost always romanticize stuff like that when talking to TV crews—if they don’t then their family will get on their case then the TV crews leave …

  8. November 3, 2009 11:49 pm

    I am kind of baffled by your claims about the apparent leanings of moral philosophers today. Have you looked at anything in the Humean tradition? (If not, you can start here!) Hume was a proponent of your #3 position, and many of his intellectual heirs continue that tradition.

    You could argue that Aristotelian moral philosophy is like your #2, and although I think you’d be mistaken, I think the reason is that #2 is not a genuinely distinct category. It collapses into a version of either #1 or #3 (in Aristotle’s case, into #1). But you’ll find tons of philosophical thought about moral habit if you read contemporary Aristotelian moral philosophers.

    The only way you could think that moral philosophy focuses only on #1 is if all you’ve read in moral philosophy is from the deontological and consequentialist traditions. So I was surprised that you also say “any ethics or morality worth its salt is consequentialist.” That seemed to completely contradict your post. Consequentialism is not a sympathy-based theory.

  9. November 4, 2009 7:32 am

    “Any ethics or morality worth its salt is consequentialist”

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 4, 2009 12:54 pm

    Hi Duckrabbit! Yes, I am familiar with the Humean tradition, and—despite what how the categories traditionally work—I would consider that group broadly consequentialist: people have sympathies for the consequences of certain actions on others, with whom they have sympathy. That is, if I care enough about animal welfare to stop eating them, that’s because I’m concerned with the consequences of my eating habits—even if I’m not strictly a utilitarian.

    It was through reading Humeans like Mackie and Blackburn that I came to these conclusions. That is, while I was reading Blackburn I realized he was trying to offer a meta-ethical justification for making moral claims—he wants a way around relativism.

    His argument kind of looks like this: we, as individuals, have sympathies. As groups, we formalize these into moral codes. Those moral codes REALLY ARE ethical. He uses that “really are ethical” to stop the slide into relativism and to ground ethical claims—i.e., to give them authority. But in doing so he’s still playing the game that assumes meta-ethics is necessary or chaos will reign.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 4, 2009 12:56 pm

    Also, the Aristotelian virtue theory is crap, in my opinion. It’s mostly used in league with some form of natural law to legitimate a conservative Christian heteronormative habitus. But there are some cool pragmatists who talk about habit in ways that are similar, yet without the crap thrown in …

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 4, 2009 12:57 pm

    But you were right to point out that #2 does often collapse into #1 or #3, as I think it should. I think habits are relevant for the consequences they have (i.e., the consequences for those with whom I have sympathy).

  13. November 25, 2009 12:10 pm

    My question with regard to #3 is, is there some universal definition of “harm” under which this motivation operates, or is that notion itself culturally / situationally / individually dependent? I think I would argue the latter, in the which case I’m not clear on how #3 makes things at all less complicated than #1.

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 25, 2009 12:22 pm

    No doubt—I’ve actually published on how “harm” is practically an empty concept, waiting to be loaded up with different content by different social actors.

    What I was trying to get at—and which I didn’t do very well in these posts on “morality”—was the fact that writing a meta-ethics (which I see as a type of abstract legitimation) that establishes once and for all what “objective” morality is won’t automatically make people moral. I think I said it most clearly in the third post on morality; if I’m right there, the narrow focus of moral philosophers on writing abstract legitimations for particular moral codes turns out to be sort of silly.

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