How I Think About Morality

Note: This is an extremely simplistic rumination, and probably idiotically ignores a large amount of philosophy that has said roughly the same thing with greater depth and coherence. For this I apologize. I am only trying to work out my own ideas in order to guide myself through a universe I find confusing.  

Almost nothing bothers me more than casual relativism. What I mean by this is the everyday perspective, which I commonly hear, that “Morality is a private matter, no morality is better than any other, so we cannot/should not judge one another’s moralities.” Now, wait: before you deem me tiresome (since nearly everybody who grouses about this is a crotchety white man), note that this does not bother me for the usual set of (conservative) reasons: I am not some fusty Allan Bloom type lamenting the decline of the civilized virtues. I am not in a state of scandalized horror at our children’s anything-goes multiculturalism. Rather, this outlook bothers me largely because it is not relativistic enough. This is because the statement “We should not judge others’ moralities” is itself a normative, universal judgment. According to whom can we not judge? Only according to a subjective principle. If we make the claim “Morality is necessarily subjective, and we should not impose our beliefs on others” the second half of the statement abandons the relativist framework completely, by positing a moral principle that all people are supposed to adhere to. The same applies to the variant “We cannot judge others’ moralities.” Of course I can; I can judge them by my own private, subjective morality. It’s very easy!

“Alright,” comes the reply. “Of course you can. But why should anyone treat your perspective as carrying weight? Isn’t your claim just as legitimate as the claim of ISIS or Sarah Palin?” First, it’s important to note that, if made, this is a huge concession. If I’m entitled to my morality, then I’m entitled to regard ISIS and Sarah Palin as monstrous. You’re equally entitled to disagree, but you don’t have any grounds for saying my subjective morality shouldn’t judge, other than by appealing to your own subjective morality, which I have no reason to give weight to, because it is no less subjective than my own morality.

But okay, say I’d like to persuade people; I want not only to be able to hold a subjective moral code, but to find some way to discuss whether it is best. Surely, if we are complete relativists, moral argument is impossible, because in arguing with people who do not share my values, I have nothing to appeal to.

I don’t think this is the case. I think even if we grant that our moralities are personal and conflicting, we need not abandon moral argumentation. Let me illustrate why I think this with an analogy:

A series of friends are on a meandering hike through the forest. They don’t have anywhere they’re particularly trying to go, but they would like to have the best time possible (with differing notions about what that means). At various points, they come to forking paths and have to make a decision as to where to go. There are signs as to what might lie down each path (some have apples, some have thorns and snakes, some have pleasing floral scents), but obviously there is no “best” path. There are just a series of possibilities, and a group of people who each have varied preferences.

Granting that there is no “right” path, just a series of preferences, must we believe that this group of people is incapable of debating which path to go down, or that the idea of “better” and “worse” paths is meaningless? I don’t think so. If some people prefer scented paths, and some people prefer ones with delicious fruit, they can nevertheless negotiate among their subjective values in order to reach some kind of consensus. They might even decide to split up. Nothing mandates that they stay together, other than those same individual preferences. Of course it would be silly for someone to say “No, I have found the objectively correct path,” but it would be equally silly for someone to say “There is no such thing as a better or worse path, all paths are equal, discussion is impossible.” After all, some paths are probably going to be universally agreed to be undesirable, such as the path filled with venomous snakes. There are points at which all preferences are held in common (universal morality), points at which they can be debated (relative but negotiable morality), and points where debate is futile (irreconcilable relative morality).

But what of the points where we are irreconcilable? What of the person who disagrees about the path of snakes? What about Todd, the boy who loves snakes?

“Todd,” we say. “These are venomous snakes.”

“I don’t care. I love venom.”

“Todd, come on. We’re not going to choose the path where we just get bitten over and over by venomous snakes.”

The debate is going nowhere. So what do we do about Todd? Well, we might decide to drag Todd with us, because he’s obviously either joking or ill. Or we might decide to let Todd go and get bitten by snakes. Fuck him.

There’s no right answer, obviously. How could there possibly be? But it’s very easy to see how we might debate the question and arrive at a resolution, with no need for right answers. And so, are there better and worse moralities? Not from a cosmic perspective. But there are better and worse moralities in the same sense that there are better and worse paths we could take in the forest, paths that would make more versus less people feel as if they’ve had a good time. “But how do we decide on that metric, the more versus fewer people? Isn’t that some kind of universal standard that precedes the debate?” No, because the standard, too, is up for debate. “But what of debate itself? Surely rational collective inquiry into how to harmonize the moral good is itself a normative universal preference?” No, it’s not. It’s my preference, and I’m trying to show you why it should be your preference, too. If you reject it, you’re not worse, I just believe that my way would make both of us happier according to our own preexisting preferences.

There’s a similar analogy in health, both mental and physical. The idea of health is not handed down from the stars, it is something we work on developing together. There is an almost universal sense that developing a notion of health is important, though people might differ one what constitutes it. But health is not thereby meaningless. For some reason it is easy to accept this in other realms, but many people get completely hung up on it where it comes to morality.

This kind of universal relativism contains a value formulation that goes something like: “I am not saying my belief is better than yours, I am just saying I hate yours. Yours is incompatible with my instincts, and I feel as if you should like mine instead, because it would make us all better off and even you would end up thinking so.” I am entitled to hate ISIS, and ISIS is entitled to hate me. I am not saying that my ideas are cosmically “better” than those of ISIS. I am just saying that their ideas horrify me and I want to do everything possible to prevent their introduction into my life. ISIS are trying to drag us into the forest of venomous snakes. And they can try to do so. But we can also resist, and try to convince them to lay down their arms and embrace international brotherly love. I am not saying that beheadings are transcendentally wrong, I am just saying that I do not want to be beheaded, and I think most other people feel similarly. Those biological instincts and social sensibilities we lump together under the name of morality do not lose their legitimacy by the fact that they are biological instincts and social sensibilities.

My perspective gives a reason why religious philosophers such as William Lane Craig and the Duck Dynasty guy are completely wrong to say atheists have no way to exercise moral judgment. Of course they do. All they have to say is “According to my moral code, I am horrified by your act.” Now, the person committing the act can say “Well, I don’t care. My code is different.” But that doesn’t in any way inhibit my ability to judge. I can’t persuade the person, but I couldn’t really do that even if I had a religiously-derived morality. (Nevertheless, I do believe many atheists underestimate how large the project of creating a coherent moral framework is. Nobody has to create a coherent moral framework. But if you want to claim you have one, in order to be more persuasive to others and give more coherent guidance for living, it takes a lot more work than simple instinct. Moral questions are difficult for the areligious to answer, and they are insane not to give them more consideration. Instead, often they just hand-wave and say “Oh, yes, well of course we have a strong sense of morality.”)

I agree with the basic relativist framework: there are no transcendental values handed down from without, values are personal and subjective. Where I completely disagree with it is in thinking that this precludes moral arguments, or the development of common principles. When I make a moral claim, I do not say “My claim is right, and your claim is wrong.” Rather, I say something like “I like to do it this way. And quite frankly, I think if you gave my way a chance, you would like it, too. You would find that it satisfies your own subjective preferences. And I suspect (as an empirical fact) that most other people, if we had the argument, would sign up as well. Oh, but if you don’t, I’m not going to abandon my perspective, and I’m still going to claim it’s best. Not best in a transcendental sense, but best in the sense that it’s the one I like the most and think other people ought to try.”

As a result of this, I am a relativist, but with very strong moral values that I think ought to be held universally. And I don’t see why those two things are contradictory.

[I suspect this little essay might as well be called How I Think in a Fallacious and Irrational Manner About Morality. But there it is.]