Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Demarcating the Moral

We make various kinds of evaluations. Some of these qualify as specifically moral evaluations, rather than some other kind, but what makes this so? What's the essential difference? Haidt and Bjorklund define the moral as that which is "about the character or actions of a person" (p.188), but that seems too broad. I might have a positive aesthetic response to an evil character and his actions. He might do mean but funny things. Or if his wrongdoing happens to benefit those I care about (at others' expense), I might have some pro-attitude towards those actions, even as I admit them to be morally wrong. So the object of the evaluative judgment does not decide the nature of the judgment. What does?

Presumably, what matters here are the reasons guiding the evaluation, or the standard against which the object is measured. But this simply shifts the question back a step: in virtue of what (we may ask) does a standard count as a peculiarly moral standard, rather than (say) an aesthetic one or an arbitrary personal choice? It is easiest to distinguish the latter; personal preferences make no claim to speak for a perspective larger than our own, whereas moral (and arguably aesthetic) judgments do claim this broader authority. Sidgwick puts it nicely in his Methods of Ethics:
The peculiar emotion of moral approbation is, in my experience, inseparably bound up with the conviction, implicit or explicit, that the conduct approved is 'really' right -- i.e. that it cannot, without error, be disapproved by any other mind. (I.iii.1)

If... I judge any action to be right for myself, I implicitly judge it to be right for any other person whose nature and circumstances do not differ from my own in some important respects. (III.i.3)

Precisely distinguishing the moral and the aesthetic (in a non-circular fashion) seems more difficult. We might say that morality is abstract and impartial,* essentially tied up with notions of universalizability, whereas judgments of beauty aren't beholden to anyone else's perspective, even as they exert a suggestive force (since everyone should appreciate what's truly beautiful). I'm not sure that's entirely adequate though. Any better ideas?

[* Disclaimer: the linked post is from 2005, and I would no longer endorse many of the assumptions found there. I just like the Railton quote.]


  1. You got me. The distinction between practical reasons and moral reasons is a twisted and difficult debate right now. Some (Roger Crisp comes to mind) suggest that moral reasons, if there are any, are distinct from practical reasons because they provide no ultimate reasons for action, where "ultimate reason" is understood as some sort of intuitively grasped reason requiring no further support. (Not sure I buy that line necessarily, but that's approximately what he thinks.)

    I don't think, though, that the interesting debate is aesthetics vs. ethics. The interesting debate is practical reasons vs. moral reasons. What makes a practical reason moral? Are moral reasons a species of practical reason, or a separate genus? I admit to not having a story one way or the other, but I suspect an understanding would have to follow from an account of explanations of actions (i.e., what reasons are used for).

  2. Those are interesting questions (I was just thinking of writing a post on a related topic), but I think they may be a different matter from what I have in mind here. For note that here I am merely asking about the classification of human judgments, without any presupposition on my part that they correspond to anything (e.g. reasons) in reality. Hopefully, this more limited question will be easier to answer!

  3. Oh, sorry, I just noticed that I actually did use the word 'reasons' in my post. That's a little misleading, since I didn't mean to imply that one's chosen "reasons" have any real normative force. My subsequent talk of assessment against some 'standard' is probably a better way for me to put it.

  4. I'm not sure I see the distinction. Are you suggesting that the question of whether there are any specifically moral judgements differs from the question of whether there are any specifically moral reasons? That would seem to imply that we can make moral judgements for non-moral reasons (and non-moral judgements for non-moral reasons, for that matter).

  5. Right. The moral reasons* determine which moral judgments (if any) are correct. But even if nihilism is true, and there are no moral reasons at all, people still make moral judgments.

    * I assume we're talking about normative reasons here. If you mean something more descriptive -- such that a "moral reason" is simply any proposition a person appeals to as the basis for their moral judgment -- then I guess that's a (confusing) way of talking about the same thing as me after all.

  6. I'm not sure aesthetic and moral judgments can always be disentangled. The good can be good in part because it's beautiful, and the beautiful can be beautiful in part because it's good. Thus a judgment can be at once aesthetic and moral.

  7. Actually, I don't think it's true that moral judgements are made if nihilism is true. I think what happens is people believe that they are making moral judgements, but they're actually making something like shmoral or moral* judgements. If it isn't the nature of the reasons that determines the nature of the judgement, what else could?

    Or was that the original question?

  8. Terminological. I'll just restate my question, how do we demarcate specifically moral* judgments from other kinds of judgments?

  9. Putting aside the question of whether one should be a realist about beauty...

    On the assumption that one should be a realist, what is the aesthetic "should" you have in mind in the claim that "everyone should appreciate what's truly beautiful"? What sort of demand is it supposed to involve? I'm always puzzled by how "should" claims have purchase in the realm of the aesthetic.

    A few possibilities:

    1. Sometimes appreciation is thought to consist in a judgment about something's aesthetic merits--a judgment after one is exposed to it, or while one is exposed to it. Appreciating it as beautiful is judging it to be beautiful. (I think this is wrong, but it is a widely-held view). Given that something is beautiful, then, on this view, I should rightly judge it to be beautiful and not wrongly judge it is not beautiful. Likewise, when something is not beautiful, I should not wrongly judge it to be beautiful, but rather should rightly judge it is not beautiful. This seems to be a quasi-epistemic claim about the accuracy of aesthetic judgment.

    2. If something is beautiful, I am wrong if, in looking at it, I then fail to appreciate it. I /should/ be appreciating it, after all, or so the thought is. (I am a Philistine bewildered by the truly beautiful). If something is not beautiful, I am wrong if I appreciate it. I /should not/ be appreciating it. (I am a philistine taken in by kitsch, say.) Here it seems a claim about whether my appreciation is warranted at all by the objective aesthetic merits of the object.

    3. Faced with two works, and the time to appreciate only one of them, I should appreciate the one that's more beautiful. (Is this claim obviously true?)

    4. "True" aesthetic experience (with "truth" being underwritten by condition 2) is a important human good. In the same way that one might set out to maximize epistemic value, utility, or welfare, one should set out to maximize aesthetic experience, insofar as possible.

    Maybe there are more possibilities as well, but here is a first stab. I'm not sure if I would endorse any of these, but just to put them out there...

  10. Richard,

    Hardly terminological. If you're talking about moral judgements, then nihilism must be false; if you're talking about moral* judgements, then nihlism can still be true.

    In any event, I would tend to argue that if there are no moral reasons, then there is no basis for distinguishing moral* judgements from aesthetic ones. (And run that down the line -- if there are no aesthetic reasons, whatever such creatures might be, then there is no basis for distinguishing aesthetic* judgements.) After all, what could the basis be except some feature of the reasons which could justify the judgement?

    I think this view is implied by Andrew's comment, too. The four views he expresses all seem to assume that there is a thing we might call an "aesthetic reason", analogous to a moral reason. But if there are no such creatures, it seems that there are no aesthetic judgements -- aesthetic* judgements are just some arbitrary subset of some other kind of judgement.

  11. ADHR - it's not obvious that any such distinction must be arbitrary. Our intuitions seem able to track the difference reliably enough; so my question is just what it is that we're tracking here. Our ability to extrapolate suggests some natural pattern may be in play here. Note that even little kids have a conventional/moral distinction, which shows up in judgments of whether (e.g.) an authority figure could change the norm. And 'universalizability' is another suggestion for an important difference in form here.

    Andrew - interesting questions! I guess I was thinking of the aesthetic 'should' as analogous to the epistemic; i.e. as indicating a kind of warrant or aptness condition for the mental state in question. I wouldn't take it to entail any strong conclusions (e.g. your #3 and 4) about practical reasons, or what we really ought to decide and do. More like: someone who fails to appreciate beauty is in this respect a defective agent; they've made a kind of mistake. Whether that matters is, I guess, a further question!

  12. I'm not persuaded that intuition does any useful work here. Surely it's an empirical question whether there is any useful feature being tracked, and (similarly) whether there is any universal (i.e., not culturally-bound) feature being tracked.

  13. Well, my question here is the conceptual one: in virtue of what would we classify a judgment as a "moral" one? Once we have an answer to that, we can judge for ourselves whether the demarcation is interesting or arbitrary. No need for fieldwork that I can see.

  14. ADHR, if atheism is true people can still make theological judgments, though typically these judgments will fall short of truth. So I fail to see why nihilism would lead to the conclusion that no one makes moral judgments. To claim otherwise just doesn't make any sense to me. Can you please explain?

  15. Oops! "To claim otherwise" should be "That claim".

  16. To the question: "how do we demarcate specifically moral* judgments from other kinds of judgments?"

    I posted an answer. Short version: moral judgments may be distinguished in their indispensability for living a good life. I'm thinking of the example where a great artist is responsible for heinous crimes; the art is valuable to society but the life is not.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)