Saturday, July 09, 2005

Society and Morality

Many people claim that morality is defined in terms of the beliefs that are widely accepted in a society. Thus Melbourne Philosopher, for example, suggests that "it cannot, by definition, be a moral act to do something immoral in the eyes of the wider populace." Now, I think this claim is quite easy to refute. Simply approach any competant speaker of the English language, and ask them whether the sentence: "My society approves of slavery, but slavery is wrong." is a self-contradiction. It clearly isn't. So morality must not be defined in terms of societal approval after all.

Why do so many people believe a theory that's so clearly mistaken? It could arise from the failure to distinguish between descriptive and normative "morals". The former concerns those norms that happen to be accepted within a society, as a matter of descriptive fact. Normative ethics, by contrast, concerns how people ought to act, or what norms ought to be accepted by society. Hopefully you can see that these are two very different concepts. And note that moral philosophers are interested only in the latter. (The former is a subject for anthropologists.)

Another important distinction is between moral beliefs and the "truthmaker" for those beliefs. Moral facts concern not what people believe, but rather, what makes those beliefs true (if indeed they are true). It seems clear to me, given what we mean when talking about normative ethics, that moral facts are independent of what anyone happens to believe about them.* Again, this linguistic intuition is supported by the "slavery" example above.

I suspect that what really motivates many relativists is their skepticism about moral realism. They do not believe that there are any mind-independent "moral facts" existing out there in the world. Fair enough. But relativism is not the most plausible form of anti-realism. There are other, better, options. The Ethical Werewolf offers a good introduction to two of them: error theory, and simple non-cognitivism. (According to the former, moral beliefs are simply all mistaken, like religious beliefs are if God does not exist. On the latter account, moral attitudes are not beliefs at all, but rather serve to express an individual's emotive attitudes, or such like.) Better yet, one might opt for a meta-ethical theory that's closer to the borderline between realism and anti-realism, such as constructivist non-cognitivism, or reductive ethical naturalism. These provide plausible truth-makers for our moral beliefs (rather than the patently absurd** "whatever society approves of"), without committing us to the bizarre metaphysical entities of non-reductive moral realism. Follow the links for more detail.

* (At least, people's actual beliefs are irrelevant. Perhaps some particular "ideal"/hypothetical beliefs could be relevant - see here.)
** (Again, it's just clearly false on linguistic grounds. The folk concept of "morality" does not involve agent- or cultural-relativity. Any analysis which suggests otherwise is simply changing the subject.)

P.S. Don't miss Hilzoy's excellent post on why people often think that they are moral relativists when really they're not. Relatedly, David Velleman explores some reasons why people claim to be attacking "moral relativism" when their real target lies elsewhere.

12 comments:

  1. "Simply approach any competant speaker of the English language, and ask them whether the sentence: "My society approves of slavery, but slavery is wrong." is a self-contradiction. It clearly isn't. So morality must not be defined in terms of societal approval after all."

    Well, if that's true, then I'm clearly refuted. My response would be "Yes, it is!" :)

    But I agree most people would answer that it wasn't a self-contradiction, because I *also* think that most people believe that morality isn't relative.

    Plenty would suggest that morality comes from a religious authority, or maybe it is defined by human nature, or perhaps there is a kind of virtue ethics that we could work out.

    I would say that there is almost no moral virtue which has not at one time or another been held to be either good or evil by some society. Including slavery.

    Here is a question for you : what is it that allows our society to rightfully condemn slavery, and prevents another from rightfully upholding it?

    In this artificial example, let us suppose that the slaves also subscribe to societal norms about slavery. This is not a question about morally diverse societies, but about relativism.

    My answer: simply evolution and practicality. It is impractical to believe some things (like having the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound), but other than that I see no issue.

    Your example works because so many people regard slavery as wrong. But what about if you asked in feudal India whether their caste system was morally wrong? Or what about medaevil nobility? That was a form of slavery - but can we really judge it as being wrong in its context?

    Cheers,
    -MP

    Cheers,
    -MP

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  2. > but can we really judge it as being wrong

    why not? We could even do so with a societal definition of right and wrong by claiming htat the society in question is hte global society or the community of all present and future humans. Or posssibly the society of internet users where one just happens to be enslaving someone.

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  3. "I would say that there is almost no moral virtue which has not at one time or another been held to be either good or evil by some society. Including slavery."

    Sure. But once we note the distinctions between descriptive vs. normative "morals", and beliefs vs. facts, I'm not sure what relevance this has. People used to think the world was flat too. That doesn't mean the truth is "relative". It means that their beliefs (or else ours) were in error. For a more comprehensive argument, see my post: Moral Diversity and Skepticism.

    "Here is a question for you : what is it that allows our society to rightfully condemn slavery, and prevents another from rightfully upholding it?"

    Human welfare. I assume that slavery is generally bad for people (as it involves exploitation, etc), and autonomy contributes towards the well-lived life.

    I guess we could imagine some possible circumstances where slavery would have the best consequences for all involved. In which case, it would be objectively right in that situation. But either way, it's nothing to do with society's beliefs. If everyone in this situation nevertheless believed it was wrong, then they would be mistaken.

    "let us suppose that the slaves also subscribe to societal norms about slavery."

    Okay, that's another factor to plug into our calculations (if the slaves are happy with their position, their welfare might not be damaged quite so much as in other situations). But, again, whether it is right or wrong will ultimately depend on facts about human welfare, not something so arbitrary as what they merely happen to believe.

    "Your example works because so many people regard slavery as wrong."

    Not at all. It depends on the analytic meanings of the words. We could just as well ask about the sentence: "My society approves of showering, but showering is wrong." This claim is also not self-contradictory. (It is mistaken, of course. But it is not logically self-contradictory. It is not like saying "My society approves of showering, but my society does not approve of showering", as your definition implies.) As a claim about the meaning of the word "morality", the relativist's definition is simply mistaken. That's just not what the English word "morality" means.

    "My answer: simply evolution and practicality."

    But that contradicts your own definition, because those are objective matters. It's either true or false that some belief is "practical", and the truth of this is independent of what anybody else believes. All of society might falsely believe that rain dances are practical, and a good way to achieve their desired goal of, er, rain. That wouldn't make it true.

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  4. Now, I certainly don't feel much sympathy for defining morality in terms of societal approval - in fact the whole idea seems deeply fishy to me. For example, we'd first need some sort of account of what sort of approval we're talking about - and that account would strike me as, prima facie, being a separate account of morality above and beyond societal approval. (We could, say, adopt a Humean story about passions - but then it's not society but the passions that's doing the heavy lifting, society is just a useful means to figuring it out.) Otherwise we'd have to just grant that things society approves of generally are automatically morally good, which isn't quite right as there are plenty of things society approves of which aren't really important morally at all. (For example, 'society' seems to have a fascination with two women kissing each other. I don't know that we need to bring morality into
    this at all.)

    However - I really don't know that this argument(below) is workable in its present form:
    "Simply approach any competant speaker of the English language, and ask them whether the sentence: "My society approves of slavery, but slavery is wrong." is a self-contradiction. It clearly isn't. So morality must not be defined in terms of societal approval after all."

    Well, first off there's the trouble that some people (freshmen, say, in intro ethics) may very well say that it is a contradiction. But I think generally people will say that it isn't a self-contradiction. However, I don't see that without a further argument this isn't simply repeating the problem with defining morality as social approval. (We just seem to be making social approval do our meta-ethics, instead of our normative ethics.)

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  5. Firstly, I have a whole essay on the evolutionary origins of morality, which also expresses many other things which I think are true about morality. If you really want to work off the same page as me, go here .

    Sure. But once we note the distinctions between descriptive vs. normative "morals", and beliefs vs. facts, I'm not sure what relevance this has.

    Well, I don't think you can do anything with morality other than describe it. Otherwise you're telling people what they "should" believe, because, er, they "should" believe it! I agree that not being mistaken about facts or argument is important to having a correct morality, but that's not so much a moral statement as something self-obvious about trying to hold any reasoned position. I'm *not* trying to argue that anyone can believe, well, anything, no matter how inconsistent or rambling it may be, but that anything that's valid is equally so.

    I assume that slavery is generally bad for people (as it involves exploitation, etc), and autonomy contributes towards the well-lived life.

    So what's bad -- the slavery, or the lack of welfare? Okay, that's just silly quibbling. But you keep bringing up the distinction between logical arguments and their meanings. For me, a semantic contradiction makes and argument just as bad as a syntactic one.

    But, again, whether it is right or wrong will ultimately depend on facts about human welfare, not something so arbitrary as what they merely happen to believe.

    I have been quite careful, or so I thought, to make clear that unreasoned belief is not what defines morality. Consider a statement like : "My society approved of slavery, but disapproves of human suffering. They are mistaken in dehumanising slaves, and are thus mistaken to approve of slavery. Slavery is in fact wrong". I would support this as a valid claim. Why? Because if society were not mistaken about their facts and arguments, they would take a different moral position. In a real sense, the argument is not about a moral position, but about a merely factual one.

    You seem to me to be deliberately introducing examples which break one moral principle (such as human welfare), and exalt another (such as slavery) and trying to use that to refute the position that morality is relative. To me, it just seems like you are trying to introduce a contradictory example into evidence.

    Let's look at this further example you bring up, showing the structure of the sentence "My society approves of showering, but showering is wrong."

    This *is* logically self-contradictory if we can agree on a meaning of "morality" (which obviously we can't!

    The two FACTS
    approves(showering, society)
    and
    wrong(showering) are just facts.

    But if we try to capture the meaning of morality, I would argue that

    approves(X, society) -> right(showering).

    That's just my definition of morality, and it's perfectly acceptable. !(right(showering)) -> !approves(showering, society).

    Just because you are introducing an alternative definition of morality, which is still in some way different (apparently you subscribe to virtue ethics) doesn't mean that it's either the only one or the right one.

    "

    "My answer: simply evolution and practicality."

    But that contradicts your own definition, because those are objective matters. It's either true or false that some belief is "practical", and the truth of this is independent of what anybody else believes. All of society might falsely believe that rain dances are practical, and a good way to achieve their desired goal of, er, rain. That wouldn't make it true."


    They are facts, but they are not moral facts. Evolution, unless you're a determinist, is a kind of accident. The success of a particular morality occurs not because of the correctness of its moral judgement on an objective scale, but by its success in an environment, which includes many factors which are not morally weighted, or may even seem immoral.

    I think that it's the easiest thing in the world to move from evolution and pluralistic societies, to a kind of bounded relative morality, to the argument I have been putting forward.

    Introduce examples of mistaken beliefs are not challenging this position. I would agree that it is silly to give moral weight to a wholly mistaken position.

    I would suppose it to be uncontroversial that morality is an acceptance of society's goals as your own. I'm happy to agree that these should be rejected if they are mistaken about something.

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  6. er, approves(X, society) -> right(X). Sorry, I didn't mean that for-all X, the rightness of showering was proven!! :)

    Cheers,
    -MP

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  7. Hmm, it does sound like you are merely talking about the descriptive "morals" of anthropology, not the distinctively normative subject with which philosophers are concerned. Normative morality involves reasons. 'X is wrong' implies 'you should not X'. By contrast, "Society disapproves of X" does not necessarily offer any reason not to X. (It may instrumentally, of course, if you wish to avoid social disapproval, or whatever.)

    So, while you may of course redefine the word "morality" to mean whatever you please, and in this sense your definition is "perfectly acceptable", it is not so good in the sense that you are simply changing the subject. If you're not talking about normative ethics, then you're not talking about the same concept as the rest of us. You're merely using the same words.

    (Analogously: suppose I define the word "people" to mean rocks. I could then say that "people are not conscious". Of course, in doing so I have not made any startling breakthroughs in the philosophy of mind. Rather, I'm talking about something else entirely.)

    "This *is* logically self-contradictory if we can agree on [MP's definition] of 'morality'"

    Sure. Your definition implies that the sentence is self-contradictory. But it is a self-evident fact that the sentence is not self-contradictory. You must (and apparently do) deny this fact. That's a huge bullet to bite, since the fact is obviously true, or so it seems to me! :)

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  8. "I'm *not* trying to argue that anyone can believe, well, anything, no matter how inconsistent or rambling it may be, but that anything that's valid is equally so."

    Glad to hear it! :-)

    If you pursue this line of thought, you will end up with a more sophisticated (and plausible!) variety of non-cognitivism. Again, I recommend my post on consistency and utilitarianism, in addition to the "constructivist non-cognitivism" link offered in the main post. I think the latter essay especially might contain much that you would agree with. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts, anyway.

    "I would suppose it to be uncontroversial that morality is an acceptance of society's goals as your own."

    That depends what you mean by "society's goals". If you mean the aggregated interests / well-being of all persons, then I would entirely agree with you. (That's simply what utilitarianism is!)

    On the other hand, if you mean "whatever the majority believes", then you run into all the problems already discussed.

    A quick thought experiment: Suppose that the majority of people really did believe (due to religious scripture, say) that showering was wrong. Further suppose that you think it is a load of religious nonsense. Would it nevertheless be true that you ought not to shower? Would it be wrong of you to stay clean?

    Surely not. Surely the majority is simply wrong. Right? (After all, why is your opinion here any less "valid" than theirs?)

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  9. People used to think the world was flat too. That doesn't mean the truth is "relative". It means that their beliefs (or else ours) were in error.

    I agree. It doesn't entail the relativism of truth is just undermines the certainty of our ability to ascertain the truth. (eg. If people lacked the technology to know about germs and atoms, why should we think our current technology yields an accurate portrayal of reality.)

    We look at societies of the past and wonder at how they could believe with total conviction ethical and empirical truths we think are ludicrous. Relativists draw from this that everyone must be right; whereas other anti-realists think that this lends weight to the idea that everyone is wrong.

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  10. Admittedly, the idea of an invariable "moral facts" can assure people of such an existence of stability and steadiness, and in this semse I plaud this idea od reassurance (like the function of some peudoscience such as astrology and alchemy, which can actually greatly mollify the stress we face today--although a little inappropriate).

    Nevertheless, I consider from a pragmatic prospective that such "invariance" is not essential as a matter of fact, if we just want to query what is most appropriate for us to do, because we cannot actually "know" the absolute fact. The absoluteness is more like a placebo or the conceived "ultimate goal" of phyasical sciences and social sciences which serves merely as an imagianry criterion for the queries.

    We say something is immoral just because we are in the era of "ours". No guarantee can be provided to ensure that what we perceive as the "truth" can be the unchangeable truth in the future. None in Japan before WWII would question the absolute status and the deity of Tennou, before the Tennou's abdication of the dity after the defeat of Japan. Do not assume that we are more enlightened than the Japanese before the WWII from our own intuition. They might have thought that their opinion are absolutely true or at least free of morality flaws, just as we think of our moral codes. No informed man in a normal society would feel uncomfortable with the moral standards in his society.

    Therefore I contend that there are still merits in relativism. Also, in analogy, I argue that although the final end of science is to find the truth, there can no end of such inqury, thereby no reason to admit the existence of an ultimate truth. All science can do is to depict the way things operate and try to figure out the mechanism and make plausible predictions to serve us, and that is all--whether there is claimed "facts".

    Further discussion welcomed.

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  11. "it cannot, by definition, be a moral act to do something immoral in the eyes of the wider populace."

    "Simply approach any competant speaker of the English language, and ask them whether the sentence: "My society approves of slavery, but slavery is wrong." is a self-contradiction. It clearly isn't. So morality must not be defined in terms of societal approval after all."

    Slavery is seen as immoral or 'wrong' because the wider poplace teaches it to be wrong. Our society doesn't approve of slavery, so it is "wrong". If morality isn't defined by societal approval - then who writes the morals?

    It is also noticeable that morals have changed over time, how could this be possible if the morals were not defined by societal approval? Did they change by themselves?

    Have you considered the origins of these ethics and morals (well of course you have they just aren't clear, or I've misread it)where did they come from? The society itself.

    If you approached any competent speaker of the English language in South America in the time of slavery, and asked them if Slavery was approved, of course they would say it was, with the exception of those involved in the underground railway.

    In that society slavery did not breach any moral codes because that society did not have an ethical problem with slavery, though we believe it to be morally wrong now.

    So of course morality is defined in terms of societal approval.

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  12. Jake - read the second paragraph of my original post. You are failing to distinguish normative ethics from descriptive/sociological "morals". Only the latter (i.e. people's beliefs about morality) has changed. Note that the same is true of people's beliefs about any other topic -- e.g. mathematics -- and few would be so myopic as to thereby conclude that logic is "defined in terms of societal approval".

    (Note that the linguistic test is not to ask people what they think is "approved", but what they think is self-contradictory.)

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