On Moralizing

By Dan Tippens

Should we ever moralize to others? An interesting question, if you consider how many people seem to think so. Indeed, beyond the question of whether this sort of behavior is permissible in some way, people increasingly speak as if it is their duty to tell others what they ought to do. This is evident from the fact that they moralize despite what would seem like obvious overriding factors, such as potentially damaging their relationships or even just flat out annoying people. It’s certainly plausible to me that the reason why they are not sensitive to consequences like these is that they think they are acting on an overriding obligation. (If you don’t find this immediately persuasive, I invite you to think about the times people have moralized to you, and decide for yourself.)

What could motivate the idea that one has an obligation to moralize? The following line of thought comes to mind: People have moral obligations; when they fail to meet their moral obligations, they become blameworthy; if someone is blameworthy, one ought to blame them; consequently, one ought to moralize to others.

The trouble is that from the fact that a person deserves to be moralized to, it doesn’t follow that you should be the one to do it. Consider an analogous – though somewhat extreme – case. Herbert is someone you’ve never met and is a mass-murderer, whom we’ll stipulate deserves to die. Does it follow that you should drive to his house and kill him? It doesn’t seem so – the situation is not one of, say, self-defense, in which you are faced with an imminent threat to your life – and the same would seem to be true with regard to moralizing. Should you moralize to a stranger for tossing a cigarette butt onto the street or failing to recycle a can? Even if we stipulate that such a person is blameworthy, does it follow that you ought to be the one to take it up with him, despite the fact that he has done nothing to harm or even affect you at all (except for maybe causing you to bristle). Moralizing would only seem obligatory, then, when the moralizer and the moralized to are in certain kinds of relationships with one another.

Perhaps one might say that while we are not always obligated to moralize to someone who is blameworthy, we are always justified in doing so; that moralizing in such circumstances is at least permissible. But as I suggested earlier, even if I am justified in moralizing to someone, I might really want to think twice about it.  That something is permissible does not in itself recommend it or render it prudent or wise. Perhaps I shouldn’t moralize to my friend, because it would damage our relationship.  Moralizing may even undermine my desired end, by annoying the other person so much that he decides to do the opposite of what I’d hoped he’d do.

(Very) loose thoughts on an alternative approach to moralizing

My girlfriend recently suggested that she and I refrain from using plastic bags and instead purchase our own grocery bags, which we could reuse. In a less tactful moment, I turned this into an opportunity to debate the topic of moralizing and our moral obligations to the environment. As we descended into the weeds of the discussion, I noticed that we were talking about what our obligations are, what failing to re-use bags indicated about our character, as well as the relevant consequences. After we parted, I thought a lot about how we had ended up in a fight … over plastic bags!

I eventually realized that when she had first proposed the idea, her reasons really weren’t moral at all. The conversation had ended up in that territory because I had steered it there. She wasn’t trying to turn me into a better person or make me sensitive to the moral reasons for re-using plastic bags. Rather, I think she was trying to pick a simple activity for us to engage in together, as a couple, like taking yoga classes, rock climbing, or traveling. Friends and couples like to do things together, and this is in large part because shared activities strengthen relationships in different ways, by creating new bonds. Maybe moral projects should be thought of in this way,  alongside rock climbing or ballroom dancing.  Instead of seeing moral projects as things people have to do for morality’s sake, we should instead see them as a way for us to bond as people.

I actually suspect that moralizing today is already a somewhat distorted version of this. We create moral fads and clubs, and in order to gain membership, one must perform the relevant moral duties. Vegans, vegetarians, and recyclers frequently bond more with other members of these groups, but where they go wrong is to focus too strongly on the moral dimension of their preferred activity, which leads to chauvinism about their club, and thus, motivates them to moralize to others for not trying to “gain membership.”

If we dropped this obsession with morality and focused more on the social dimension of moral projects, we wouldn’t have so much of the rancor that moralizing induces. People may recommend rock climbing as something that is good for couples to do, but it would be weird to suggest that you ought to do it or to try to make you feel guilty for deciding not to or to pose as being somehow superior, because one does it oneself. Of course there are those who are recreationally snobby, and might behave this way nonetheless, but our fixation on the moral dimension of these activities would seem to breed this kind of snobbery, as opposed to just providing an outlet for it.

When we view moral projects like other shared activities, we focus on the people around us and on how we can tighten our bonds with them.  In doing so, we affirm the greater significance of people over abstract principles, and this, it seems to me, can only be a good thing. It is worth noting that when I thought about what my girlfriend had proposed in this way, I found myself, for the first time, actually moved to do it.  Though we had tossed around every possible moral reason, in the end, it turned out that the most compelling reason to act was so that we might get a little bit closer, as a couple.

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  1. This has brought to mind one of my recent post.
    While I think that in certain circumstances, moralizing is essential, I also think that we tend to impose moralizing on others because it is a reflection of what we believe yet often fail to follow up successfully ourselves. Psychologically, some people do it because it is an inherent need to do so in order to be fulfilled-such as a parent does to a child when they are in need of teaching. In some ways this validates a parents form of purpose.

    On to my entry which perhaps, sheds a little light on how we can justify the decline at times to moralize.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the reasons i stopped following Jerry Coyne’s sometimes undeniably interesting wb log, Why evolution is True, is because, being a scientistic reductionist and a strict determinist, he would often rail about how intellectuals should give up any hope in compatibilism, and defer questions concerning justice to scientific reasoning predicated on the assumption that all behaviors were pre-determined. The self-contradition here should be obvious; but what concerns us here is that, despite Coyne’s denial of morality as part of the philosophic delusion of agency,, this railing was itself obviously a form of moralizing.

    Moralizing can often occur when one is convinced – intensely, passionately – that one holds the intellectual, moral or ‘spiritual’ high-ground, in a community too diverse to permit easy assumption of one’s moral premises. Coyne moralizes on determinism because most of us assume agency in some form or other, and there actually many more forms of agency-presumption than there are of determinism. In other words, he assumes a moral, if scientistic, high ground, but finds himself in a society with diverse presumptions of agency that where determinism is not taken for granted.

    We can also see this among the moralistic Vegans you remark. There are plenty of vegetarians who are comfortable living in a society with diverse dietary protocols, from the all-beef diets of red-neck Texans to the restrictions against pork among certain religious believers, not to mention the fascination for fast-foods among certain communities, especially in the inner-city. Moralizing Vegans, on the other hand, are uncomfortable with this diversity; it’s not simply that they’re convinced that the world would be a better place if we we’re all Vegans, they are convinced that we all would be vegans if we just had the proper facts and reasoned them through correctly, governed by the proper principles. But more to the point, this conviction, fueled by their own perceptions of themselves and others, leads them to develop suspicions concerning others who are not interested in their facts or who (more likely) know their facts and premises, and who still reject the premises or follow the guidance of a different line of reasoning. (This means that we will not all become Vegans, and the world will not become a better place; how frustrating.)

    The clear resonance here with certain religious beliefs tells us that moralizing does not originate in religion but in a psychological attitude toward the world. This sounds like the beginning of a discussion on pathology. But while moralizing can become pathological – it can even prove toxic if it leads to violence (and we have all too many cases of it doing so), we should remain clear that the fundamental psychological attitude here can not only be normal but normative. “Birds of a feather flock together” certainly remarks how this attitude can express itself in binding together communities. On the other hand, adverse realizations of this attitude can actually produce reasonable arguments and persuasive rhetoric that does finally change people’s hearts and minds.

    After reading through recent discussions here (as well as “counter-factual” comments about ethics on another web-log), I’m becoming more and more convinced that ethics is less a matter of what an individual chooses, and much more a matter of negotiations within a community. The kinds of moralizing you’re discussing here seem to arise among those unhappy with such negotiations.

    (But of course, there is a position even less attractive than excessive moralizing (at least if kept within limits of non-violent debate), and that’s narcissistic amorality wedded to the power needed for self-realization – like we see in the Republican nominee for President this year.)

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  3. The very word ‘moralize’ has negative connotations. People generally don’t like others to preach at them or take the high moral ground. Fair enough too – most of the time.

    But obviously in some circumstances it is appropriate to show disapproval or to correct someone (especially children in one’s care). As Dan suggests, the details of the social situation (and your place in it) need to be carefully taken into account.

    Recently I saw a man stealing (in broad daylight) newly-planted seedlings from a public park famous for its displays of flowers. I wanted to confront him but didn’t – and in the end just exchanged glances with another non-intervening passer-by.

    More generally I think it’s a pity that the focus of moral talk and concern has shifted to contentious (and often political or politicized) areas while straightforward issues relating to consideration for others and so on are neglected.

    Dan makes a similar point, I think, when he talks about affirming “the greater significance of people over abstract principles.”

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  4. EJ wrote:

    Moralizing can often occur when one is convinced – intensely, passionately – that one holds the intellectual, moral or ‘spiritual’ high-ground, in a community too diverse to permit easy assumption of one’s moral premises.


    This is absolutely spot-on.


  5. In response to EJ’s comment, I agree as well. And the person who was just moralized ask, no one ask me what I thought?


  6. I don’t think this quite works. The British (antislavery) sugar boycott was moralizing pure and simple, and mocked as such at the time. But the point wasn’t social solidarity – it was an attempt to stop an obvious wrong and convince enough people to change public policy. We can think of many other moral crusades that haven’t been quite as successful, because the moral argument is not as clearcut or attractive. Those in favour of same sex marriage are moralizing too, and convincing enough supporters.


  7. Hi Dan, I like the direction you are heading in this piece. And it has generated some good commentary.

    As it happens my gf and I also debated getting re-usable bags. In our case there was no argument, we got the bags, and neither of us considered it a moral issue at all. So when reading your story I was sort of surprised (at first) to see it characterized as a moral issue.

    In our case it is a practical and aesthetic issue. Regardless of moral concerns, plastics do and are building up in the environment and having negative health effects on wildlife (objective) as well as just plain looking bad (subjective). It is not like there is an obligation to correct either, instead we share a personal motivation in not wanting to add to those effects with the easiest solution (at our level) being not to add more plastic to the thrash pile ourselves.

    And in the appropriate situation (as you point out) we’d suggest that option to others with similar practical/aesthetic motivations.

    I think the same approach works for what I do consider moral issues. For example, I would not say “this is unjust and so you have a duty to do this or that”… but instead “does this seem like it is just or the kind of justice you would want to promote?”

    In a sense then I also view it (as you argue) as community building, or (as EJ rightly identified) an ongoing negotiation among diverse moral actors.

    In the immediacy of the moment, I understand people might be more direct in their “negotiating” and resort to “moralizing” style or commentary (you shouldn’t do that! that’s wrong!). Sometimes that is useful and it is a valid technique even if not logically sound. For example if you see someone about to attack someone else, opening a discussion on justice and cruelty to “tighten our bonds” is simply not going to cut it.

    But when there is time for actual discussion or debate about ethical issues those kinds of simplistic appeals are unimpressive. It is assuming the role of being above another, basically parental, in order to dominate discussion. Perhaps, as I usually suspect, because they lack the means to direct discussion otherwise.

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  8. Hi David, I’m not sure I agree with your argument.

    You said “to stop an obvious wrong” but it was clearly not obvious if it was being practiced. The second half of your sentence “and convince enough people to change public policy” would (to my mind) fit in with what had been argued for here.

    In any case you seem to be equating moral and legal issues. This is made clear with your discussion of gay marriage. That is a (equal) rights issue not a moral issue. I mean people can argue there is a moral component, but that isn’t necessary or sufficient to make one’s case.


  9. Have any of you ever heard someone wax nostalgic for the days when, if a child was obviously misbehaving, any adult felt compelled to try their hand at putting them to shame?

    Whether we should or not, regardless of the meta-ethical connotation of “should”, in pre-state situations (and since young children hardly ever interacted with the law, my example somewhat illustrates the pre-legal situation of pre-state humans), shaming and the possibility of earning a bad reputation, signaled by people telling you are acting in the wrong way, and understanding of consequences of a bad reputation — were the main enforcer of social norms, it is not surprising that people often feel and act on this urge.

    From http://www.eva.mpg.de/psycho/staff/tomas/pdf/Tomasello_EJSP_2014.pdf (which summarize some of IMO a body of work that is large and extremely impressive and closely argued from dozens (at least) of well designed studies, especially those showing there are tendencies found in barely socialized children, but not in great apes):

    “[children] from around 3 years of age–begin enforcing social norms on others. In this case, it is difficult to find prudential reasons for their actions, as enforcing social norms can be risky if the person whose behavior is being corrected objects or retaliates. Nevertheless, from around 3 years of age, when young children observe someone, for example, preparing to destroy another person’s piece of artwork, they object and intervene (Vaish, Missana, & Tomasello, 2011). They do this as well when someone threatens to steal someone’s property (Rossano, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2012). Perhaps surprisingly, they even object and intervene when someone begins playing a novel game in a way that does not conform to the rules as the child knows them (Rakoczy, Warneken, & Tomasello, 2008). In this case, no harm is being done (the game is an individual game), but children still want to make sure that others play the game correctly.

    … Following the theoretical ideas of Turiel (1998), Schmidt, Rakoczy, and Tomasello (2012) had children observe violations of both conventional norms (game rules) and moral norms (harm producing), and these were perpetrated by both ingroup and outgroup members. Perhaps surprisingly, young children enforced moral norms on both ingroup and outgroup individuals equally, but they enforced conventional norms on ingroup members only.

    Apparently if this observation can be extended, self-righteous vegans consider theirs a moral, not a conventional, norm.

    Perhaps even more surprising, Schmidt, Rakoczy, and Tomasello (2013) found that 3-year-olds even engaged in defending the entitlements of others. That is to say, when one individual was authorized to do something, and a second individual objected that she could not do that, the child intervened against that second person’s objection. This is a kind of second-order norm enforcement in which the child objects to an illegitimate objection so as to stand up for the rights of another person. One of the most noteworthy characteristics of social norms is that they are even applied to the self, especially as they are internalized into feelings of guilt and shame.

    If great apes do not intervene in situations from a third-party perspective, then they are not observing social norms, which apply in an agent-neutral manner to all. Combined with the fact that they do not seem to care about how others are evaluating them (Engelmann et al., 2012), they could not be expected to feel the pressure of social norms or to feel guilty about breaking them. Social norms, guilt, and shame are uniquely human phenomena

    I totally reject the idea of Coyne and his tribe that evo-psych, or any other branch of science can tell us objectively how we “should” act.

    However, I am looking for ways to think about it, and to me that is a very interesting one, more so than what often seems to me to be philosophical hair-splitting.

    I doubt that any attempt to show a philosophical reality to morals can ever work, so IMO what there is to do is to look for common ground in what our intuition tells us is moral, and try to find enough common ground among a large enough group, acting collectively in some way, to set standards and provide consequences for violating them. Even if it exists, a philosopher’s or scientist’s proof of real-ness of morals isn’t likely to have any significant impact on the world.

    But if you want to have some influence on the world (i.e. on human minds generally), the more we understand about what we’re dealing with, the better. And so I find things like Gardner’s multiple intelligences, or Goleman’s emotional intelligence, or anything that can be convincingly argued scientifically to be potentially useful.


  10. Hi all,

    Thanks for the great comments. Just some remarks on some themes that have come up…

    1. Initially, this essay was much longer. I ended up cutting out a lot of it, which would have addressed a few concerns that people have brought up. If nothing else these other sections would have been clarificatory. Now I wish I would have kept some more of them in, but oh well.

    2. I think there is a distinction between moralizing institutions (e.g the government) and moralizing individuals. I was focusing on the latter, in this piece.

    3. I do not think that moralizing is never justified, necessary, or obligatory. However, I do suspect it is none of these things when we consider a particular class of actions that I call “moral pooling,” which others I think have called “collective action.” These are cases where the action 1) does not achieve a morally relevant effect on its own but 2) will have some causal contribution to a morally relevant effect if many other people perform the same action and 3) takes very little felt effort or sacrifice to perform.

    Examples of moral pooling would be things such as recycling, turning off one’s appliances when they leave, refraining from taking joy rides in one’s car, donating a dollar per day to help somebody around the world, etc.

    This essay was really intended to target moralizing about that class of actions, but alas, I ended up cutting out those specifications, which seems really unfortunate, now.


  11. Hi Dan, this may be getting a bit off topic but I’m not sure if I agree with (or perhaps understand) the concept of “morally relevant effect”. The examples you gave are all things where an individual action may not contribute to a practical effect (because it treats large scale phenomena) but how does that equate to a morally “relevant effect”?

    This would seem to link moral relevance with achieved results rather than personal action or intentions, which seems counterintuitive. Assuming there are moral necessities and obligations, isn’t it more about doing what you can regardless of the practical effect (barring having the opposite effect)?

    An example that springs to mind is opposing violence. For the Amish it doesn’t matter if their pacifism results in others not fighting, but it is their duty to oppose violent action by not being violent. Or for example helping the poor by taking in (or directly assisting) someone who is poor. Clearly you won’t end poverty but you have treated what aspect of it you can.

    The same would go for global environmental issues. My actions may not end the buildup of plastic in the ocean (for example), but I have ended my contribution to the buildup of plastic in the ocean. In certain moral frameworks I am acting in a way that is “environmentally sound”, and so they appear to be morally relevant. It makes me an environmentally positive moral actor.


  12. Hi DBholmes,

    Yeah this is actually a whole different paper topic that Dan K and I are planning to explore together.

    Yes, certainly intentions matter, but draw a distinction between the moral status of an action, and the moral status of an intention. Someone can do something very good, for bad reasons, and vice versa. So, an action can be bad (cause harm) and an intention good (the person is good), and vice versa.I’m simply thinking that, bracketing people’s intentions, many cases of moral pooling actions are causally inert by themselves. You essentially don’t make any real difference (you don’t by yourself causally prevent harm), even if you have the best of intentions, such as when you turn off your A.C before you leave for the day. I can send you a paper by Walter Sinnott Armstrong on whether or not you have any real impact in cases of moral pooling, if you want. I think you will get a better understanding of what I mean by “morally relevant effect.” Basically, you, by yourself, do not prevent any harm from coming about to persons or animals.

    Your case of helping the poor is one that simply isn’t one of moral pooling, on my definition, given that it takes both felt effort to engage in that activity, and it has a direct tangible moral affect independent of other people performing the same action (taking in a poor person). That’s the thing, in the case of moral pooling, it is typically *in virtue* of the fact that the actions are easy that you have no morally relevant effect.

    Did you want to elaborate this and use it to challenge my understanding of moral pooling? Sorry if I overlooked what you were really getting at with this case.


  13. Hi Dan, thanks, I would be interested in the paper by Armstrong and suppose I can wait until you guys put something together on the topic before moving further.

    I definitely get the distinction between action and intent, where they sometimes hold opposing moral “value”. That’s why I added “barring having the opposite effect”.

    An emphasis on an action’s being easy to (in part) reduce its moral relevance is something I’ll have to think about. It does make me wonder though… if it is so easy, doesn’t that make it “worse” (morally lazy) not to do it, rather than arguing it is morally negligible?

    For example, it would be easy for me to place trash in a garbage can, and my using one would not prevent trash from building up to create a public health and safety hazard, so it has no moral relevant effect (for me as a moral actor) if I never use a garbage can?

    That seems off but then again I don’t like using general good/bad terms and rather see this in personal moral terms of being lazy and inconsiderate, so on those points it seems to have very relevant moral effects. And my replying to critics “yeah well that would be easy” would likely not help my case. 🙂

    “Basically, you, by yourself, do not prevent any harm from coming about to persons or animals.”

    This might work for turning off AC (since power production happened regardless of your usage), but I’m not sure that case can be made for all the examples you gave. Putting plastic into the environment can hurt something at some point. You could almost analogize it to laying mines. So each time you use something other than plastic you actually do prevent (or potentially prevent) harm coming to an animal from your own hands.

    Sorry, I guess I did end up elaborating.


  14. Hi DB,

    This is quite amusing to me, since the OP was literally an outgrowth of a different paper I was writing about what I was calling “the principle of ease” (which had to do with our moral relation to particularly easy actions). It’s even more amusing that you mention “moral laziness,” as I was arguing that moral pooling tends to breed moral laziness (a complacency with engaging exclusively in easy moral actions)! 🙂

    All of this, I think, we will have to bracket for now, as it is a whole subject in itself!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Oxford dictionary offers [emphasis added]:

    moralizing – comment on issues of right and wrong, typically with an unfounded air of superiority

    Does this fit your conception here? If not, some clarification would be helpful.

    I agree that allocation of fault (“blaming”) is always contentious. A pool life guard once shared this discovery: asking the kids to “please walk” had better effect than commanding “don’t run.”


  16. Hi DB: “clearly not obvious [ly wrong] if it was being practiced”. Come on, there have been lots of obviously wrong actions widely spread in every society. Either one follows Ayer and thinks there can never be disputes about value, or thinks it is possible to change attitudes by appeals to the better nature of one’s listener. There are a few posts by Joshua Knobe over at Flickers at the moment on the idea of the true self. Moralising often assumes there is a better true self whose actualisation will lead to better behaviour on everyone’s part. A classical such move is the accusation of hypocrisy. This is at once “cognitivist”, in assuming your beliefs and acts are logically consistent with one another as far as they can be given your human fallibility (yes there are some minimal epistemological norms in there, but they are norms that have arisen for practical reasons), and “noncognitivist” in that to be outed as inconsistent is embarrassing.

    As to laws, many are explicit codification of moral beliefs. In New South Wales, the government has just decided to ban greyhound racing (apparently following many US states), affecting ~10000 jobs. The industry had “lost its social licence” following moral pressure from people who are completely unaffected by the presence or absence of this industry, except by the fact it engages in cruelty to animals.

    As to moral pooling/collective action, much of everything we do at the individual level is pretty ineffectual, leading us to the Economics 101 arguments against voting etc. Moral suasion is one social mechanism that gets efficacious coordinated action going. I know I am stating the obvious again.


  17. David Duffy wrote:

    “As to moral pooling/collective action, much of everything we do at the individual level is pretty ineffectual…”


    This just seems flat-out false. I can help the person right in front of me in a specific and concrete way. Indeed this is the only sort of charitable service I engage in.

    I actually think there’s quite a lot to this moral pooling issue and how proud people are of themselves for doing things that only have an impact if millions of others do too. Of course, these also tend to be the things that are easiest to do, so…


  18. Dan,
    with the surge of that awful breed, Social Justice Warriors, yours is a timely post.

    The example of a mass murderer is a bad one. We make a clear distinction between public morality, punishable by due process of the law, and private morality, subject to social pressures.

    Why do we engage in private moralizing? We need the group, or the tribe, whatever you call it. The group is held together by shared values that make harmonious coexistence in the group possible. So we moralize to promote and maintain strong shared values. Which is why you said:

    Instead of seeing moral projects as things people have to do for morality’s sake, we should instead see them as a way for us to bond as people.


    in the end, it turned out that the most compelling reason to act was so that we might get a little bit closer, as a couple.

    I agree completely. But that ignores the possibility that some things are innately wrong and are not just “…convinced that ethics is less a matter of what an individual chooses, and much more a matter of negotiations within a community.” as EJ says. Consider these true examples from my life:

    1. A friend was stealing articles from the company where I worked. Within my community of friends and colleagues the community negotiation suggested that friends don’t snitch on friends, a deeply held belief. I did not. Did I act correctly? I still feel guilty of enabling theft by my silence. He was never caught.

    2. The girlfriend of a good friend made a serious attempt at seducing me. I (reluctantly) rebuffed her advances(she was seriously hot). Should I have rebuked her? I did not. Should I have told her boyfriend? I did not. Did my silence enable more of the same behaviour from her?

    3. During one of my management incarnations, as Communications/Network Manager, I was instructed to spy on our trade unions during a heated conflict. Was that right? Should I have done that? I did because that was the result of “negotiations within a community.“, our management community which highly valued management solidarity.

    4. As a foundry metallurgist I was instructed to falsify test certificates for rail chairs destined to our railways system. Should I have complied or fought against the instruction or perhaps even have squealed to the authorities? Our internal management and company negotiations dictated that I act in solidarity with our team and company

    Are deceit, betrayal and theft, merely decided by negotiation within communities or are these deeper wrongs that are not decided by moral negotiation?

    I am sorry, but to reduce deep seated moral issues like these to merely “a matter of negotiations within a community” is to make a travesty of our strong moral intuitions and opens the door to the most iniquitous forms of moral relativism.

    After all, which community negotiations are right? A goodly section of the Islamic community believes that unrestricted violence should be visited on Western society. I can easily list the quite persuasive reasons they act as they do and you will vehemently reject this because your community negotiations have a different outcome. Who is right? The answer is that morality is much deeper than community negotiations. You make a plausible argument because many of the shallow issues are indeed the outcome of community negotiations. But to extend that to the deeper issues is a catastrophic failure in generalisation.


  19. And now a meta comment. Is it possible that we leave commenting open for a much longer period, or even indefinitely, as Massimo has done? After all, the tenacious, never give up, argue every little detail to death, pests from the old days are no longer with us(I need not name them). For personal reasons I simply could not find the time to comment on Dan-K’s last discussion with Robert Wright about purpose and moral progress. I thought that was a hugely important discussion, but sadly, I have missed the boat.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi David, I think there are more options than simply Ayer and moral realism. Your example of hypocrisy was nice, but hardly requires belief that avoiding hypocrisy is “better” in some objective sense. Regarding things that are “obviously wrong”, again I have to say it seems a counterfactual claim when that thing is believed to be right by many and enjoys widespread practice. It may be obviously wrong within a certain moral framework, but the problem remains that there are many moral frameworks and no “obvious” choice between them.

    I have lived to watch homosexuality go from an obvious wrong to homophobia being an obvious wrong. But those practicing the former existed and did not find their “wrongness” so obvious while the homophobes reigned, and I am quite certain those practicing the latter still exist and don’t find their “wrongness” so obvious at this point in time. To me these terms are overly simplistic and act to bully, embarrass, and discredit one’s moral counterparts rather than approaching the issues seriously (or at least accurately).

    On laws, I agree they can be based on morals, but they don’t have to be. The idea that there is a wall between church and state in US law suggests a break from using morals as a basis for law (at that time religion was the basis of morals).


  21. Hi Labnut, given Dan T’s comments in the thread I suspect your arguments land more heavily on EJ and myself. In a way I see your reply as raising similar issues as davidlduffy, both in connecting morality with law and (more importantly) arguing some sense of an objective right and wrong. I will ignore the legal issue and concentrate on the idea things are “innately wrong”.

    The examples you gave were compelling with consistent themes of loyalty, honesty, justice, and courage standing in conflict with each other.

    While I can see what I would have done and what I would have argued for you to do in some cases (not all!), your examples (and the fact you provided no answers) seem to me to point to the very idea you are rejecting: there is no innate answer. Real moral issues (especially if they are dilemmas) involve contradicting intuitions. There may be no obvious, winning solutions.

    I didn’t take EJ’s use of the term “negotiation” to be a dismissal of the importance of what is happening, nor the strong emotions involved. Rather it characterizes the nature of how moral discourse works. It is not a logical calculation or analysis that leads to truths, but a (sometimes bitter) negotiation between opposing intuitions on the same set of facts.

    If anything your interesting examples show that the negotiation is not just “within a community”, but occurs just as frequently “within ourselves”.


  22. Hi Labnut,

    Before a more substantial reply later on…

    “The girlfriend of a good friend made a serious attempt at seducing me. I (reluctantly) rebuffed her advances(she was seriously hot). Should I have rebuked her? I did not. Should I have told her boyfriend? I did not. Did my silence enable more of the same behaviour from her?”

    Perhaps this is the start of an a new magazine we can call “The Electric Penthouse” – All stories in this magazine would be both erotic and philosophically stimulating.

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  23. Hi Dan,

    My feeling is that a society is (or once was) just such a moral project that you are proposing. The problem is that it is all very well as long as the participants agree upon the course of action (be they society as a whole, or just a couple). But let them disagree upon the aims and/or means of the moral project then we are right back to moralising.

    For me, moralising is not a problem as long as you can make it clear that you are asserting the superiority of a point of view, not of those who hold that point of view. If people do not see the superiority of the point of view straight away then there is little point continuing to press the point. They may come round to the idea after a while, they may not.


  24. Just some random remarks on this piece: The increase in public moralizing is heavily due to the powerful reach of anonymity plus the diminished courtesy inherent in web culture and dialogue. It’s almost like this… if some fabulously intelligent manipulators wanted to systematically increase the level of vitriol and moralistic diatribery (wordcoin) globally, they would invent the internet. You cannot ignore this factor in any sort of analysis.

    Also, I’m not 100% buying the tie-in with obligation and moralizing as you seem to have worded it… who or what is imposing the obligatoriness? Again, I’d more likely point to the shift in cultural temperament, mitigated by the internet (even if the fallout has now spilled beyond the confines of the web) — basically, the ‘desire’ to moralize, not the obligation to, is what is operant here, however we might wish to conceal this from ourselves.

    I agree about your notion to drop or ease off on the obsession with morality, especially others’ morality… this is usually motivated at least partly by some sort of narrowness in one’s range of social comfort. I can’t help but notice, though, how closely this parallels the obsession with disputational commentary (of a non-moral character) which is also run amok now. Another kind of moralizing sport?


  25. In the simplest of terms, how would you define morally the position of a legal mediator either in a corporate dispute or a divorce dispute? I am not trying to trick anyone in this circle of discussion. I am merely citing an example which I think could be a challenge and am interested in what someones perspective might be.


  26. I don’t think we have increased the level of vitriol and moral diatribery globally. We have only lowered a microphone over the vitriol and diatribery that was always there. We had to create our login to listen to that microphone. We can put that microphone down any time we want.


  27. Hi DB. The rise of the secular state was to some extent due to the damage done by disagreements between religions and moral frameworks – as a minimal morality that most can agree upon. Regarding the shift regarding acceptance of homosexuality, it is a logical (or perhaps reasonable is the better word) extension of principles that many accept, and that many other cultures had practised without social breakdown. For me, the emotions that drive homophobia are obviously irrational, and the various justifications people give for actions arising from such emotion, obviously specious. At a practical level, these types of social changes don’t seem to have led to bad outcomes.

    I quite like the thinking in Korsgaard’s Realism and Constructivism in Moral Philosophy that all ethics arises from practice:
    “Practical philosophy, as conceived by Kant and Rawls, is not a matter of finding knowledge to apply in practice. It is it is rather the use of reason to solve practical problems. The concepts of moral and political philosophy are the names of those problems, or more precisely of their solutions.” I’m not sure if I am happy with constructivism in mathematics, but for ethics it might be OK. I did have some thoughts about how the mathematical models in economics relate to models in ethics in this way of thinking.

    Labnut’s examples of practical ethical dilemmas reminded me of the travails whistleblowers experience – individuals who put the good of many people they don’t know above the good of fewer people they do know, and get punished for this socially, financially, physically.


  28. Hi,

    “For me, the emotions that drive homophobia are obviously irrational, and the various justifications people give for actions arising from such emotion, obviously specious.”

    Yes, but strictly speaking the emotions that drive ensuring that children are happy and safe are also irrational. I would wish everybody to want children to be happy and safe and I would wish everybody to reject homophobia. Like everyone else I choose one irrational emotion over another.

    “I quite like the thinking in Korsgaard’s Realism and Constructivism in Moral Philosophy that all ethics arises from practice:
    “Practical philosophy, as conceived by Kant and Rawls, is not a matter of finding knowledge to apply in practice. It is it is rather the use of reason to solve practical problems. The concepts of moral and political philosophy are the names of those problems, or more precisely of their solutions.”

    But the use of reason to solve practical problems is the part you do once you have completed the moral philosophy. Any time you have a practical problem to solve you must have have isolated that which you wish to achieve. If you have decided to alleviate suffering where possible then the business of completing this task will concern mathematics,science, engineering, organisational thinking and so on.

    The question is, how did one come to the conclusion that we should alleviate suffering where possible? After all, most people are not that bothered by the suffering of others unless it happens in proximity to them.

    If we simply put off the question of why we want a particular moral end then we are simply skipping the moral philosophy and going on to the business of how to implement an arbitrarily chosen decision.


  29. It has always seemed to me that moral philosophy is really very simple – it boils down to:

    1. Respect everyone’s freedom where they are following the same rule
    2. Do not inflict net suffering if it can possibly be helped
    3. Alleviate suffering where ever possible
    4. Assist each other, where it is welcome, to seek out fulfilment, whatever that might individually mean to each of us

    We might have to unpack a little, for example fill out what 1. means, for example it applies to adults and not entirely to children. We might have to make it clear that there is no perfect way of implementing this, it is all on a best effort basis. It is no use, for example, quibbling about trolleys and point switches. Not every situation will be neatly resolvable.

    But these seem to sum up what most people mean by moral, ethical behaviour, even if we do not follow this in practice. Any moral philosophy which does not boil down to these would not seem to me to be particularly moral or ethical.

    If we agree on these (or something like them) and admit that there is no real rational basis for them then we could close off the specification phase and start on the purely practical business of how to apply the considerable intelligence and creativity of the human race to implementing them.


  30. And, no, I am not disrespecting any of the considerable expertise that exists in the field of moral philosophy – on the contrary I am pointing out that it has led to something that is of use to us. Like most simple things, this would not have been simple without a long and complex process of discovering that simplicity.


  31. Hi Robin: “no real rational basis for them”. We are drifting off topic wrt the OP, but Kant (in “Perpetual Peace”) puts forward an “evolutionary” or population level proposal for why these are rational – that increasing population density will always force humans to get along with one another in the long run. In the absence of humans, there will be no-one to have the argument (Kant does not explicitly discuss this absorber state). Those who think that action to preserve their own lives and secure a future for humanity is unreasonable are a fairly small proportion of the population at any time, and there’s no point in discussing anything with them (ditto solipsists etc). So yes, let’s skip directly to your four principles…


  32. I am guessing that the proportion of the population who came about their concern about the safety and happiness of children through a rational deliberation on how to best secure the future of humanity is rather smaller even that the proportion who believe themselves the Solipsist.

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