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Demoralizing Ethics

by Roger Crisp

This may be an odd thing for a moral philosopher to say, but I think that morality is not fundamentally important. In fact, I think it would be helpful if we stopped using, or at least drastically cut the use of, moral language in philosophical ethics, unless we are engaged in some non-normative enterprise, such as describing a particular morality, that of common sense, for example, or of some particular group or individual. This is not because I am some kind of normative nihilist, or rational egoist. I accept that we should do many things that morality requires us to do, such as not to inflict pointless suffering on non-human animals, but not that we should do them because morality says we should. Morality is a social phenomenon analogous to law, and in the case of law also I see no reason to do anything merely because the law requires it.

Another reason to avoid moral terminology in philosophical ethics is that morality functions through the emotions, especially that of anger, of which the primary moral species is blame. The emotions, though they may have some cognitive content, are passions, and in most areas of philosophy it is rightly thought that arguments should be assessed in the light not of emotion, but of calm rational reflection. Blame is not entirely irrational, of course, but as Aristotle says, ‘it seems to listen to reason to some extent, but to hear it incorrectly; it is like hasty servants who rush off before they have heard everything that is being asked of them and then fail to do it, and dogs that bark at a mere noise, before looking to see whether it is a friend. In the same way, spirit, because of its heated and hasty nature, does hear, but does not hear the command, and so rushes into taking revenge’ (EN 1149a).

This is not to say that there could not be fundamental moral reasons. That is to say, morality could be more than a social phenomenon, constituting a set of independent norms which must be characterized in moral terminology. (This picture of morality is analogous to the picture of law in natural law theory, according to which positive law – the social phenomenon – can be assessed in the light of natural laws independent of positive law.) But we should not begin, as so many philosophers have done and continue to do, with the assumption that there are fundamental or ultimate reasons for action the content of which can be captured only by using moral terminology. We should introduce such reasons into our account only if they are independently justified and required to answer our ultimate practical question: what does one have reason to do? One can say, for example, that each of us has an ultimate reason not to inflict pointless suffering on a non-human animal without using any moral terminology. Someone might wish to add: ‘It is wrong to do so, and hence this reason is a moral one’. But since this introduces a whole set of moral notions, and raises many questions about the nature and status of moral properties, the onus is on this person to explain the value of their suggested addition.

Moral language, then, including the notions of right and wrong, duty, rights, justice, the virtues, and so on, is best avoided as far as possible in fundamental normative ethics. If someone claims that f-ing is wrong, for example, we should translate that as the claim that there is a reason, perhaps an overriding reason, not to f, and then ask why. If the answer comes in moral terminology, that will need to be translated as well. By ‘demoralizing’ such language we may arrive at what really matter – our reasons for action and what grounds them – and we will also be less likely to be misled by emotion.

What, then, does ground reasons? Nothing other, I suggest, than the welfare or well-being of individual sentient beings. This is not a commitment to utilitarianism, since welfarism does not imply that the only grounding relation is that of impartial maximization, though I suggest that any plausible form of welfarism will allow that this is one way in which well-being can ground a reason. But there may be others; it may be, for example, that we should give some priority to those who are badly off, or that we should be especially concerned about the well-being of those affected by our own agency. Nor are the only issues here purely ‘ethical’: matters involving, for example, the metaphysics of personhood or the theory of decision are bound also to arise.

The paragraphs above come from the beginning of a paper I recently published on religious pluralism in health care, in an excellent special issue of Bioethics, edited by Justin Oakley, C.A.J. Coady, and Lauren Notini. In that paper, I go on to explain why the case for welfarist demoralizing seems especially strong when dealing with issues such as that of religion in health care, where emotions run high. I also point out that, though I’m primarily recommending demoralization in philosophical ethics, I recognize the instrumental value of a good deal of morality (as I do that of law), and believe that there may be a place for (careful) demoralizing in thought, discussion, and action more generally.

(Thanks to the editors for publishing my paper. Further discussion of demoralizing can be found in the first chapter of my book Reasons and the Good (2006) and in another (excellent!) special issue — of the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice — edited by Tyler Paytas, Richard Rowland, and me.)

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Well. Whether others are with us or against us, this is, fundamentally, what I have said for about five years. The level of complexity in the world has risen dramatically. And though morality remains a concern among conservatives, prima facie, even that bastion of pulcritude is showing signs of decay. Or, possibly more troubling, misuse from disuse. There are other factors that are moving us towards moral complacency. But this is only comment—not dissertation.

  2. Something arose on a network news show this afternoon. A candidate for the nomination (republican) for president in 2024 said she would 0 propose mental competency tests for people over seventy-five (75) years of age. Several things were not clear: 1. Was she referring to current politicians, already of that age or older, 2. Would her proposition provide such older persons be excluded, experience, or lack thereof, notwithstanding? 3. Does she have any knowledge or understanding of prohibitions against unlawful discrimination against Americans on the basis of age, disability and/or both? From what I have been following in just the past week, age has nothing to do with the performance of responsible individuals in high-level positions. Idiocy is of far greater significance. And, far more dangerous. Complexity is collapsing under its’ own mass. It is a figurative black hole—subsuming everything else. Common sense exited the stage, awhile back. How far back? I was just a kid. And, according to the aforereferenced presidential wannabe, I am too old to be trusted. Ain’t that quaint?

  3. Have been writing a short essay on the title: Genius and the Public Intellectual. A first draft of the paper ends with: …As purveyors of truth, justice and the public good, they (public intellectuals) have less flexibility than fiction writers: you can’t just make it up as you go. Well-heeled creative educators do not need genius to successfully ply their trade. All they need do is keep the story straight. And interesting.

  4. A quip, from my journal, circa soon: if, as I have proposed,reality is context based, it is then by association also temporal.

  5. The demoralisation of ethics becomes an interesting topic.
    The article and comments reminded me of some books I read many years ago now, quotes from one of which are particularly and interestingly pertinent [when not interpreted in a strongly pejorative way]. Guha, Ranajit. Dominance Without Hegemony : History and Power in Colonial India. Harvard University Press, 1997.
    “In a polity devoid of any notion of citizenship, they have no rights but only duties.”
    “The army could therefore be said to epitomize what an ideal society, governed by discipline, should be; for “discipline in the army is nothing but discipline in private life–that is, sense of duty, obedience to appointed superiors, respect for the principles of authority and established institutions.””
    Smiles, Duty, pp. 3, 48, 209, 295.”
    “It [education] stood not only for enlightenment but also authority – a fact which it has been the function of ideology in all its forms, including historiography, to hide from the educators and the educated alike. In other words, it was an ideological effect that made both the propagators and the beneficiaries of education look upon it as a purely cultural transaction and ignore that aspect which related it directly to power. Taking the transactional metaphor one step further, one could say that if propagating and benefiting, given and receiving were to be regarded as a semiosis, education would not figure in it as a denotative code of culture at all. On the contrary, it would be found, on a closer look, to have functioned at two different, though related, levels of expression, each with a different content assigned to it. At one level that content was culture, and at another, power. British rule, made thus for a connotative structure of the kind in which, as Louis Hjelmsleve has argued, expression and content were asymmetrically superimposed on each other to constitue a layered text. Or, one could say (following Umberto Eco’s adaptation of the same structure) that education was a text whose content was a multi-levelled discourse formed by the coupling of a code of culture and a code of power.16
    16. For the concepts used in this paragraph, see Louis Hjelmslev, Language, An Introduction (Madison: University of Wisconsin. Press, 1970), pp 97-114, and Umberto Eco. A Theory of Semiotics (London: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 48-58.”

    For this next quote think of the East India Company as individuals within the above described educational system.
    “One has only to look up the Board of Revenue records of the 1770s and 1780s to realize how a good deal of the sentiment and at least some of the language which go with the sport of Paki-bashing in parts of Britain today[middle of the 20th century], had already been anticipated by the East India Company’s administrators in their desperation to make up for the hurt they felt on being denied access to a body of indigenous knowledge they believed they had a right to use as “official intelligence.” By blaming such inaccessibility on native cunning, secrecy, and deception, they merely acknowledged defeat and accepted that, as aliens, they would never qualify for initiates.”
    “A nation is only world-historical in so far as its fundamental element and basic aim have embodied a universal principle; only then is its spirit capable of producing an ethical and political organisation … In this way, the Greeks speak of the rule of Chronos or Time, who devours his own children (i.e. the deeds he has himself produced); … Only Zeus, the political god … was able to check the power of time; he did so by creating a conscious ethical institution, i.e. by producing the state”

    It seems to me that both morality and ethics may be leveraged by purveyors of power. If morality becomes perceived as a universal mechanism, and ethics as a logical stratification of morality fitting local requirements politics and culture/ethics/morality as described by Guha appear to become more obviously visible. Clearly that universal mechanism could be reversed, which would entail ethical (rather than moral) struggles mainly only betweeen nations (social groups), taking the situation described in the last quote. An assumption arises though that ethical codes do not exist alone and that mixed moralities become humanities ethical learning cycle rather than merely being aimed.

    As a final comment: if responsibility is a response, in all social groups as well as within ethical/moral discourse, where does responsibility sit to be truly and actively open minded and reflective?

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