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, isn’t a conversation about outcomes in a situation (such as this) a conversation about morality? I don’t think it’s so much that Cameron hasn’t made a reference to moral notions, if I have a discussion about the ethics of a situation with someone I don’t begin by saying ‘Kant says that X is wrong and I believe him’, but his reference to aims is the idea that he wants to find common ‘moral’ ground with Putin.
Politicians often seem to refer to aims and outcomes without reference to right and wrong particularly, but it’s the tacit point that what we aim for and hope to achieve is what our moral framework deems appropriate. I.e. the common ground between the parties is what we can both agree is morally right.
I don’t think Cameron has deliberately ignored moral terms to make a point, but rather it is a feature of our modern moral language to refer to outcomes and targets rather than traditional concepts of good and bad (of which these are implicit)
With the point about the minimum wage, you may be correct in saying that it was the outcome that motivated the change, but doesn’t a more framework underpin a parties goals or motivations so in order for all the parties to agree they must have thought that the introduction of the minimum wage fitted their parties moral views.
Thanks for the comment, Edward. I think one can discuss whether (and to what extent) the possible outcomes of a situation satisfy one’s goals or aims without employing moral notions. We might use talk of “good for” here (e.g. “Hester’s resignation is good for the shareholders”) but it is not a moral sense of “good”, it just means something like “promotes the desires/interests of such-and-such a group”.
It might also be that what Cameron is alluding to is common “moral” ground shared by him and Putin (e.g. that killing is bad, peace good) but it need not be. For example, perhaps they just agreed that they both want stability in the region (to help with trade, perhaps).
I think you are right that when deciding and articulating our fundamental aims, we are more likely employ moral notions (for example, almost all politicians agree that they want a “fair deal” for citizens, they disagree over what that amounts to in practice!). But what is interesting is that (public) political debate doesn’t seem to do anything other than take these aims for granted and work towards compromises that satisfy everyone’s aims – there is no (or little) attempt to change the fundamental aims. So perhaps the more considered view is that moral notions may be useful in deciding aims, but not in resolving disputes in light of those.
It is really interesting though, and something I’ve noted before, that there seems to be a reluctance to (explicitly) employ moral notions in certain political debates (although that trend might be changing – it would be interested to get some statistics here). I don’t know why that is, but it could partly be due to the success of the arguments of the error theorists and others that seek to show that moral notions are bunk. (Perhaps that’s an optimistic view of the role of philosophy, though!).
I was reminded of Toulmin’s Tyranny of Principles. No doubt you’ve read it.
Thanks for that, Nathan. I have (now) read the excellent Toulmin article. His main point, as I see it, is that the search for general moral principles that apply to all cases may be one particular aspect of moralising that is unhelpful in resolving actual disputes. (I liked his description of the concensus he witnessed about the issue of Human Subjects Research: “They could agree; they could agree what they were agreeing about; but, apparently, they could not agree why they agreed about it.”)
Toumlin seems to be arguing for a different (non-absolutist, non-principle-driven) type of ethical debate, rather than a complete abandonment of ethical notions altogether. But one could argue that there is an inevitable drift towards unhelpful principles inherent in moral notions, and because of this we should do without them altogether. I don’t think that’s Toumlin’s view, though.
Finally, Toumlin’s argument relates to an ongoing issue of our research at Nottingham – which concerns what is required to explain our moral verdicts. Toumlin is sceptical that we need to explain moral facts by reference to general principles, favouring the ‘particularist’ line that what comes first are the particular facts of the situation. In this, his argument resembles a paper which is a favourite of a colleague of mine, William Gass’ “The Case of the obliging Stranger”.
And also this article: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-change-moralising-movement