What is Morality?: What Morality Isn’t

In a previous post, David Deutsch explained why he felt utility was not a good basis for moral justification. I’m going to now give my own thoughts on this, as well as exploring several other possible explanations for morality that ultimately fail.  Warning: this is a long post.

I think the problem with a utilitarian approach to morality is that once we boil down morality to utility we’ve effectively created a basis for when we should and shouldn’t follow morality. But this would fly in the face of our moral intuitions which, as I pointed out in this post, by definition we see as applying at all times to all people. 

As always, the best way to dismiss an argument isn’t to argue against it, but to follow it to its logical conclusions and see if we can accept them. So let’s follow this through logically and see what plays out.

The Utilitarian Argument 

At first, the utilitarian argument seems to function quite well. The idea is that one should be moral because it’s useful to one’s own self to be moral. For example, if you are honest then people will trust you. This will benefit you in business and will (perhaps) make you rich. Being rich is a benefit, therefore being honest is a benefit.

Or another argument I’ve heard is that we should all strive to create a compassionate society because we may ourselves be in need of compassion some day. So we go out and show compassion to others (perhaps by voting for welfare laws — no politicial threadjacks please — or giving to charity) so that such programs will be in place if we ever need them.

We could make up a multitude of such examples. It’s hard to come up with anything of a ‘moral’ nature that doesn’t actually translate into actual utility in some way. So I’ve always found this argument at least in part compelling. 

But Only in Part

The problem is that all of these arguments rely on a sort of indirection. You should be honest because it will make you rich. But can’t dishonesty also make you rich? Well, actually, yes. And being rich is a benefit, therefore dishonesty is a benefit. Are you really ready to challenge that? We all know it’s true, don’t we?

And, sure, if I am down on my luck I want to live in a compassionate society. But wouldn’t there be an even bigger benefit to me personally if I choose to not be compassionate but pretended to and encouraged others to? Then I can both benefit from not being compassionate while also benefiting from the compassion of others should the need arise. This would actually be the most prudent strategy.

Threat of Law

Okay, so maybe the real utilitarian value of morality is that if you don’t break the law you won’t be put in jail. Now being put in jail at (if necessary) gun point definitely has negative utilitarian value. So maybe this is generally a pretty good argument in favor of morality.

But this argument has two limitations that need to be addressed. The first is that this isn’t what we mean by ‘moral’ in the conventional sense. A moral person is not perceived as merely ‘law abiding.’ A moral person is one that goes beyond the mere demands of the law. So at a minimum we’ll have to admit that there is a gap between what we think we mean when we speak of ‘morality’ and what it actually is.

But the problem goes deeper than this. For what this really means is that morality is a simple cost benefit analysis. If you have a chance to embezzle you should do your cost benefit analysis. If it comes up that the risk of getting caught it too high then you shouldn’t emezzle. But if the analysis comes up that the risk is very low compared to the benefits achieved, then the ‘morally right’ thing to do is to go ahead and embezzle.

Is this really what morality is? 

The utilitarian approach to morality simply will never be able to explain what we mean by morality. When we speak of morality, we don’t merely mean ‘do a cost benefit analysis’ and we don’t merely mean ‘pretend to be moral so that you can benefit from a compassionate society.’ We at least believe we mean something much deeper than this. Therefore utility is not enough to explain nor justify morality on its own.

Is Morality About Well Being?

Sam Harris, in this post, suggested that we view morality as ‘facts about the well being of conscious beings.’ David Deutsch did a good job of explaining the short comings of this approach. Let me now express my own additional concerns.

First, let me say that in some absolute sense, I do believe morality actually is facts about the well being of conscious beings. So at one level I agree with Sam Harris. On the other hand, I am not at all convinced that this approach explains what we mean by ‘morality’ without some needed additional criteria; criteria that is somewhat vague at best.

One problem I see with this approach is that ‘well being’ is so vague as to be almost meaningless by itself. (And I suspect that is why Sam Harris choose that word, actually. Never underestimate the power of vague words that you know have emotional impact and so won’t be challenged.)

Morality and Happiness

Normally, people try to use ‘happiness’ in this argument. They claim that moral choices are about happiness. So if we have two choices, we calculate how it will affect our own and others happiness. Say owning a slave would make you happy. But it probably makes the slave unhappy. Therefore you wouldn’t do it because it’s immoral.

As I mentioned in my previous post on this, Sam Harris is still basically starting with an unproven largely Theistic assumption: that there is a moral law that has claim upon us. He never even tries to argue why, even if facts about the well-being of conscious beings exist, that we should personally care. 

Now maybe he doesn’t need to. Belief in morality is ubiquitous after all. But that makes Harris’ explanation circular, doesn’t it? Morality is ‘facts about the well-being of conscious beings’ and we should care about it because it’s the moral thing to do. 

Circular logic aside, there is another problem with this approach. What if me owning a slave hurt one person but made several people (my whole family?) really really happy? If morality is nothing more than facts about conscious beings then just exactly how many personal and family happiness points can be used to balance against the unhappiness (or non-well being) of that slave?

Yet we all know this is just silliness. Slavery isn’t wrong only if I can’t make enough people happy enough to offset the slave’s unhappiness, it’s wrong because no amount of happiness can offset one person’s suffering. But wait! I just had to appeal to morality to explain morality! Gosh dang! That keeps happening.

Morality and Suffering

Okay, so maybe morality is really about not causing suffering. (Popper suggested this approach instead of happiness on the grounds it was more objective.) This works better for me. But is this really what I believe morality is? We can easily imagine some pretty horrific conditions where we are no longer comparing happiness to suffering but suffering to suffering. One person or other must suffer.

For example, if you are about to starve to death, is it morally okay to, say, eat your neighbors? Why or why not from within our proposed ‘suffering’ view point?

Other Moral Considerations

Plus, this just doesn’t seem to get to the bottom of many moral questions. I think of the legal question of what if someone buys a stolen car? Who ends up with the car? The person that it was stolen from or the person that bought it unaware it was stolen?

Who is the victim now? Neither is, yet we still have to make a moral decision about who is going to suffer.

It’s interesting how the law resolves this moral dilemma. It asks, “who is more innocent?”

Let’s say that our stolen car was stolen out of my garage. In that case, the person who bought the car is – while not guilty of any crime – less innocent than me. They should have checked to be sure that the seller was legitimate. So I get the car back and they just lose out.

But what if the person that stole my car was selling on consignment? That is, I gave the thief my car, they sold it, then they skipped town without paying me. Now I’m considered the least innocent. I should have done my homework to be sure this was a legitimate seller. So I’m the one that loses out now.

In this case, morality has nothing to do with ‘suffering’ there is equally suffering either way. It’s something outside of that whole formula.

Cheating On Your Spouse

On Mormon Matters, I remember one commenter — still active in the Church — saying that she had decided to cheat on her husband. She morally justified this by saying that morality was about happiness. Her husband didn’t know she was cheating, and he was happier now because she was happier. And of course she was happier because she was having sex with two men — the one she wanted as a husband and the one she wanted to cheat with. So she saw nothing immoral in her actions. So everyone benefited from her cheating on him.

I hope you just squinched. I sure did. Yet, this is a solid argument if we start with the assumption that morality is nothing more than ‘facts about happiness’ or even ‘facts about well-being.’ So this explanation will not do on its own either.

One possible counter argument here might be that she might get caught, therefore destroying her husband’s happiness. Therefore she is doing something immoral. But rationally speaking, we’re now back to the cost benefit analysis approach to morality, which clearly isn’t what we mean by ‘morality.’ (See above.) This woman may well be justified in believing that her husband will go to his grave not knowing what she is doing. Or she might be deluded, of course. But the point is that we don’t have enough facts to ‘morally judge her’ if we are assuming solely a ‘facts about well-being’ approach to morality.’ She may well be doing the most moral thing. We just can’t tell.

I don’t buy it, and I hope no one does. Or moral intuitions tell us that this is immoral regardless of whether or not her husbands well-being is ever impacted. Why? Because it’s morally wrong. Doh! Just appealled to morality to explain morality again.

I still feel that the ‘facts about well-being’ approach to morality is a good place to start. I don’t want to discount it entirely. But it does seem to come up short. At a minimum, we’ll have to admit that our moral intuitions do not match the reality of what morality really is.

Is Morality Societal Rules? 

Another thing you often hear is that morality is just societal rules that allows societies to operate. Again, I think there is something to this argument. Surely societies could not operate if everyone was immoral. But somehow this approach to morality again comes up short.

For example, was Gandhi being immoral when he decided to passively resist the societal rules of his (then British rule) country? Was Harriet Tubman being immoral for breaking the laws of her land?

Tubman is an interesting example because even most abolitionists of her day felt she was being immoral by breaking the law. Yet today, we herald her as a moral hero. How can we explain this in a non-circular way?

And, again, how much sense does it make for us to pass moral judgment on the 19th Century South’s practice of slavery when that was the societal rules of those states? 

So again we have to admit that the ‘societal rules’ approach to morality does not match what we mean when we speak of ‘morality.’

13 thoughts on “What is Morality?: What Morality Isn’t

  1. I am enjoying this series immensely! Thank you for posting. You touched a bit on some moral dilemmas. Can looking at some moral dilemmas shed some light on what morality is and isn’t? I love studying moral dilemmas. It shows that morality isn’t always simple and straight forward. It requires some thought and sometimes compromise.

  2. The ultimate version of the societal rules argument morality is where society includes the hosts of heaven, the divine concert, under the very conditions that allow them to remain one. That is clearly inadequate as a complete explanation, but if you want to be serious about the approach one must frame the argument in terms of the largest possible society, what gives it legitimacy, and under what conditions it continues to exist everlastingly.

    It ought to be relatively obvious that voluntary interchange symmetry, i.e. loving ones neighbor as oneself, is the only thing that can make a divine society divine. We love our Father in heaven in part because he wants to make us like him. We honor Christ because he takes upon us all our pains. He steps into our shoes so that we may step into his.

    For reasons such as these, it seems apparent that an adequate account of morality must include natural, social, and consequentialist elements. It is not the rule that makes the violation immoral, but rather the everlasting consequences of violations of the rules, whether those consequences are social (discord, disunion, disruption) or natural (suffering, death) or both. That is the way I see it.

  3. You do a good job of pointing out that utilitarianism cannot be a complete explanation for morality because it doesn’t capture our moral intuitions.

    It also doesn’t work because it isn’t at all clear that utilitarian thinking makes people happier. Thus utilitarianism likely fails its own test.

    Finally, utilitarianism can’t fully *explain* morality because it still requires a unique moral premise that simply has to be assumed, which you could variously state as “you ought to desire the greatest good for the greatest number,” or “the greatest good for the greatest number is good” or “the greatst good for the greatest number is right.” Any attempt to explain that premise in utilitarian terms will be circular or lead you to non-utilitarian moral premises.

  4. Every coherent version of consequentialism must start with the proposition, taken axiomatically, that there are some things that are naturally wrong. Otherwise it is not possible to rank the relative consequences of an action even in principle.

    And in practice, everyone knows that they are incapable of ranking the relative consequences, so we establish synthetic rules on the very basis of promoting them in the main. It is called rule consequentialism. It is disappointing to see major ethical theories knocked down using sophomoric strawmen. Try sophisticated versions for a change, and one will see that things are not quite as open and shut as they might appear from a superficial perspective.

  5. A couple of random thoughts.

    I was struck once by a description of the Egyptian religious concept of the weighing of the soul, in which the heart (thought to contain the soul) was weighted against the feather of Maat, representing “things as they ought to be.” Morality thus becomes a striving to make things as they ought to be.

    Of course, that in itself doesn’t tell us how things ought to be. But it does suggest a Platonic ideal of which this imperfect world is a poor reflection.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that morality may not be so much a destination as a process oriented in a certain direction, namely, one pointing to the divine.

  6. @#1: Mark D,

    Brilliant! This is (sort of) where I am going with this in my own head.

    @Adam: Yes. Exactly. And good job (as always) of analyzing my analysis so that I can learn from your constructive criticisms.

    @Vader: “Morality thus becomes a striving to make things as they ought to be.”

    That’s exactly how we intuit and treat morality. That was why C.S. Lewis’ argument (in my first post) was valid so long as we think of morality in this way.

  7. @Mark D #3 – Mark, I can’t understand what you are saying here. What strawman are you refering to?

  8. Mark D. says, “if you want to be serious about the approach one must frame the argument in terms of the largest possible society, what gives it legitimacy, and under what conditions it continues to exist everlastingly.”

    Bruce, I think all of the “exceptions” you find to the utilitarian nature of morality would vanish if you consider it on the eternal scale that Mark D. advocates.

    But of course this is not helpful to secularists like Deutcher and Harris who view behavior both collectively and individually in Darwinian terms. Maybe this is where you are going with this.

  9. Eternal scale utilitarianism can probably explain much or most of the contents of morality, but it can’t explain morality itself, which is quintessentially the sense of obligation.

  10. I think what eternal scale utilitarianism really does is connect up our sense or morality with reality in a way that non-eternal scale utilitarianism does not and cannot.

    As Adam points out, I’m not sure it’s necessarily that Eternal Scale Utilitarianism = Morality per se. Morality is the sense of obligation. Eternal Scale Utilitarianism explains why that sense of obligation is always both in our own and all others interest.

  11. I believe that perhaps the greatest limitation of analytical philosophy is that at some point you reach a level where things can no longer be broken down. There are some things that are so fundamental that they simply are.

    Willam of Ockham referred to things known per se nota, i.e. by very acquaintance with the terms themselves. What mode of analysis would one apply to determine that gratuitous suffering is to be minimized, for example?

    Gratuitous suffering or something like it, must be naturally wrong, or there is no morality. And how can you establish the nature of anything fundamental by rational analysis alone? We can only know that gratuitous suffering is to be avoided through our own experience or through our understanding, perception, or participation of/in the experience of others, no?

    On that basis it seems that consequentialism reduces to deontology at the micro-level, i.e. without a duty to avoid unanalyzable natural wrongs, there can be no metric to rank relative consequences, even in principle.

    It is where deontology starts insisting on the natural and independent existence of macro scale rules that it becomes untenable. What about rules that conflict? Two rules that conflict with each other do little more than establish the fact that one or both are not fundamental at all. They make about as much sense as fundamental obligations as two laws of physics that cannot be mutually satisfied in all times and all places. That is what I am trying to say here.

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