June 17, 2013, by Neil Sinclair

Morality: What is it good for?

At his press conference concerning the current crisis in Syria yesterday, David Cameron said: ‘It is no secret that President Putin and I have had our disagreements on some of these issues, but what I take from our conversation today is that we can overcome these differences if we recognise that we share some fundamental aims’.

What is striking (at least to me) about this approach to political consensus is the absence of any explicit moral notions. That is, the issue is not framed as a dispute about the rightness or wrongness of proposed courses of action, but as one where all parties agree on a common set of goals, and all that needs to be ironed out is the best way to achieve these shared aims. The debate is (in an uncommon sense of the term) ‘de-moralised’.

If practical debates in high-stakes contexts can proceed without moral notions, we might wonder what use moral notions have at all. What (like the Romans) has morality ever done for us? To bolster the sceptical argument, it is easy to point to people (Prime Ministers, even) who in acting under the guise of the good have caused great human suffering. If we can do without them and they are often abused, are we better off without moral notions altogether?

On the other hand, it can be hard to conceive what it would be like to do without morality. I just raised the question whether we would be better off without moral concepts, but better off is itself one such concept.

These questions are particularly pressing for adherents of the so-called ‘error theory’ in ethics (such as the philosophers Mackie, Hinkfuss and Garner). Error theorists hold that all moral statements (such as ‘Murder is wrong’) are false, because they involve a tacit commitment to moral entities that do not exist. Just like talk about ghosts, error theorists argue, talk about rightness and wrongness has been writing linguistic cheques that the world cannot cash.

If error theory is right, what should we do? There are at least two options. Some people hold that although moral talk is, strictly speaking, false, it can be useful. For example, thinking in moral terms might help us co-ordinate our actions with others (to the mutual advantage of all), or strengthen our own wills so that we are more likely to act in our long-term self-interest.  Others hold that rightness and wrongness should join ghost and phlogiston on the scrap-heap of discarded concepts.

Who is right? That returns us to the Python-esque question. It is worth noting, first of all, that co-ordination in practical matters may be possible without employing moral terms. One sort of case is exemplified by the Prime Minister’s approach to Syria. Another case common in politics is when two initially opposed parties do not share common goals, but can agree on a path of action that equally promotes their divergent goals. For example, a recent survey of the Political Studies Association identified the National Minimum Wage legislation of 1998 as one of the most successful government policies of the last 30 years. As this Institute for Government report emphasises, the policy only became politically feasible once all parties were convinced that it was at least consistent with their pre-existing and divergent goals. In this case then, it was non-moral arguments of the form “We want different things, but this policy helps us all get what we want” and not moral arguments of the form “This policy is right, you ought to want it” that ultimately won the day.

So, is there anything left for morality? One common claim is that moral talk allows us to question our fundamental ends. It helps us move beyond the issue “What would best satisfy our goals?” to the issue “What is the best thing to aim for?”. For example, there are many interests that cannot be explicitly represented at the negotiating table (those of non-human animals and future generations being two obvious examples) and moral debate can seem essential to determining how much the consideration of these interests ought to be included in our fundamental goals. But the broader question that arises here is how useful the questioning of ultimate goals is for the co-ordination of our actions: in the political cases mentioned already, the answer is: ‘Not very’.

Finally, even granting that moral discourse plays some role in co-ordinating action, it is not always successful – as our prison population testifies. Putting people in prison is a (coercive) way of co-ordinating our actions with others, and one that needn’t rely on moral language. The really hard question remaining for the defenders of the usefulness of morality is whether, somewhere between purely instrumental economic-style deliberation and mere coercive force, there is a role for a distinctively moral mode of persuasion.


J.L. Mackie. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin.

I. Hinkfuss. 1987. The Moral Society.

R. Garner, 2007. Abolishing Morality. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10(5):499 – 513.

(With thanks to Mark Dimmock and Chris Woodard for discussion.  The picture is of J.J. Becher, proposer of phlogiston theory.)

You can find out more about the error theory, in a minute, on our YouTube channel here.


Neil Sinclair



Posted in Ethics