Monday, December 01, 2003

The Fine Art of Self-Indulgent Moralising

There's a well known ethical theory which holds that words like "right", "wrong", "good", "bad" and "evil" have no objective meaning; generally speaking, when people describe the behaviour of others as "good" or "bad", they're expressing no more than a personal opinion or attitude. Favourable moral judgements are merely elaborate compliments and adverse ones genteel forms of personal insult. It's going to be convenient later to have a name for this theory; subjectivism will do as well as any, If my copy of Morality, An Introduction to Ethics by Bernard Williams is any guide, it looks to be the standard one (When I say my copy, I mean the one which is currently in my possession, which has an old friend's name written on the fly leaf - I'd like to think it's a hand-me-down, but I'm not certain).

Subjectivism is at least as old as logical positivism. Hard-line logical positivism allegedly starts from the premise that there are two basic types of true statements: conclusions drawn deductively by applying the laws of mathematics and logic and empirical propositions derived from observation and experiment. Members of the logical positivist school put years of work into developing a philosophy on this foundation; anyone who has taken Philosophy 103 will be familiar with the standard 30-second refutation of the entire Logical Positivist enterprise.

There are a few commonplace empirical facts which can be advanced to support the subjectivist position: there are people who use the langauge of morality mostly as a surrogate for the language of insult; moral judgements are inherently statements of personal values; moral language is inevitably emotive; moral language is used by self-serving hypocrites with the same facility as the genuinely virtuous and so on. From examples such as these it is possible to arrive at the subjectivist position by two equally erroneous routes:

The Quick Way: the typical use of moral language is to express personal attitudes to the behaviour of others. This is all it is for.

The Pretty Way: people use moral language in ways which are typically self-serving, hypocritical and dishonest. We'd all be better off if we had the sense to recognise that and use more honest forms of language like simple compliments and direct insults.

I don't think I need to explain what's wrong with taking the pretty way in any great detail. So let's identify the error in taking the quick way. It's an error of omission.

What quick way arguments omit, or ignore, is the over-determination of most of our language use. Here's an example from real life. A few years ago, I was sitting in a cafe with interrupted a conversation with a friend whose knickers I had designs on. The conversation was fitful until, apropos nothing at all, I announced "I've got a killer toothache" or something like that. Not the world's greatest pick-up line, but I did have a killer toothache and it was pointless to continue pretending that I was having a normal day.

Philosophical analysis of this statement, in the analytical tradition, would probably focus on whether I had stated a fact (I had) and whether it would be objectively verifiable (the response "I thought you were looking a bit unwell" would tend to indicate that it was). Socially inept as it was, my remark had at least one other identifiable purpose: it explained to my companion why I wasn't exactly scintillating company that way. Cynics might suggest that it also served to evoke sympathy and gave me a pretext to demonstrate a manly stoicism (sooner or later I might get the hang of the idea that the things blokes do to impress themselves and other blokes don't impress women that much).

In the same way that telling someone you have toothache can serve personal and social purposes, as well as declaring a simple fact (similarly every blackmailer or windschuttler worth his salt knows that statements of objectively provable fact can serve other purposes), a moral judgement can serve the purpose of expressing a personal attitude and other social purposes as well. One of those purposes may well be to influence the opinions and attitudes of others - and usually is. That is, in the language of the cynic, moral language is used to express personal attitudes and manipulate others. However the pejorative use of the word "manipulate" takes us off the quick way onto the pretty way.

Subjectivism in its various forms seeks to discredit moral judgements; it's a convenient position to take if you can't be bothered with moral reasoning. It has obvious attractions as a debating tactic, if you can get away with it. But moral subjectivism involves the same fundamental contradiction as that involved in dashing off a paper denying the (provable) existence of an external world to make up the publications quota for your next tenure review. When push comes to shove, no-one consistently holds the subjectivist position.

What would be required of a consistent moral subjectivist? Obviously we can't impute any moral obligations to a subjectivist; subjectivists are Teflon coated when it comes to admonition and chastisement. Tell subjectivists what they ought to do, and their response will be obvious, particularly if they disagree with your admonition. Of course this may place them in an awkward position when they are moved to express moral disapproval of others; if we were all subjectivists, moral language would be useless.

At best, moral language would be a form of nonsense, useful for teaching children acceptable forms of behaviour and very little else. One purpose it wouldn't serve very well, for example, is adult discussion on the best way to educate children. It's not difficult to imagine how such discussions would go, in a community where everyone shares the belief that statements about how parents "should" raise their kids do no more than express the speaker's own preferences when it comes to child-rearing.

The various empirical facts which might be advanced to discredit the use of moral language actually identify difficulties that the moraliser has to deal with. They are obstacles to be overcome if we want to convince others that they should share our judgements on a matter of right and wrong. They are by no means insuperable. As for moral subjectivism, it is either folly or a blanket permission for hypocrisy. Both of these judgements may slide off the subjectivist's Teflon coating, but that's beside the point; that judgement isn't stated for the edification of the subjectivists, but for the amusement of those who believe that moral language is useful and that moral judgements can be made.

Update: via Virulent Memes again, this fine post from Orcinus to which this one is tangentially relevant.

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