Why I Don’t Argue Ethics or Morality Here

As a rule I rarely argue ethics or morality on this blog. It’s not that I don’t believe in them but more that I find it at best unsatisfying and at worst futile. In general the readers of this blog are Americans. My experience has been that most Americans:

  • Have very strong feelings on ethics and morality.
  • Feel that the wisdom that they learned at their mothers’ knees (or from movies and television) is sufficient to arrive at an understanding of ethical and moral issues.
  • Have very little education beyond that in ethics or morals.
  • Consistent with the above, reject more formalized notions of ethics and morality as unnecessary (or even immoral)

My experience has been that commenters frequently demand a masters thesis recapitulating the entirety of Western thought on ethics and morals over the last 2,000 years to which they will respond “So?”, “Oh, yeaH?”, “Who cares about old dead guys?”, or words to that effect. I have also had the experience of people immediately resorting to ad hominem arguments, mostly, I I believe, from ignorance rather than malice. Unfortunately, wearing ones ignorance as a badge of honor is a time hallowed American tradition.

In my view rejecting Kantian, utilitarian, Rawlsian or other approaches to systematic ethics out of hand is an error as is relying on personal feelings of what’s good or bad as your sole basis for moral and ethical judgements. I think it’s quite hazardous. Virtually anybody can justify virtually anything on that basis.

And, if those are the views of those with whom you are discussing, on what basis can discourse proceed? For example, I believe that moral ends must be pursued by moral means. If your interlocutors consider ends only, the discussion is over before it’s begun.

This is not to say that I think that people cannot behave ethically or morally without coherent or systematic views. I don’t believe that. However, I also don’t believe that there’s any common ground for discussing that with them.

So, although I’ll occasionally dip my toe in the waters of ethical debate here, I generally dash back to the more welcoming shores of evidence, logic, and pragmatism pretty quickly.

6 comments… add one
  • DaveC Link

    Hey whaddabout “The Virtue of Selfishness”?
    And where does that fit into a utilitarian system?

  • PD Shaw Link

    When I worked and volunteered at a death penalty defense organization, when I was asked in the field “why?,” I would say moral reasons. My intention was to cut off discussion, and usually it precipitated little more than a question about what sort of religion I held. But it was also true, I can do the pragmatic side of the debate, but that only takes one so far. (I’m embarrassed by the fiscal arguments)

    Anyway, I respect a strongly held moral view. I’m partly troubled and partly glad that there is that personal space.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I tend to be skeptical of moral systems for the same reason I’m skeptical of all systems: they reduce complexity to simplicity and then inevitably try to wedge the larger set into the smaller set, discarding whatever data doesn’t fit. This leads to distortion of facts in deference to theory.

    So my main objection is I suppose epistemological. I don’t like prisms.

    My second objection is practical.

    I am actually somewhat aware of the various ethical and moral systems, despite my regrettable lack of formal education. I just haven’t found that they accomplish much since I have yet to encounter a system that coud not be manipulated by its adherents to justify whatever they wished to justify.

    Show me a moral or ethical system that does not distort or exclude data, and can be seen to have a serious effect on real-world behavior such that it actually inhibits evil behavior, and I’d be grateful.

  • steve Link

    It is ok Dave. Some of us understand just war theory.


  • DaveC Link

    Self-interest, national self-interest, has been as much a deterrent to war as an incitement to war. Guns vs butter. Or go to war to save innocents vs keep out of it because it is expensive and the outcome is uncertain.

  • Dave,

    You might be interested in two-level utilitariansim. The basic idea: in everyday life, you follow a set of ethical principles that, if generally followed, lead to the best outcomes. In hard cases that aren’t intuitive, you then look at consequences more deeply.

Leave a Comment