Morality Everywhere?

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Lately, I’ve been having a certain kind of argument, over and over again.  I feel compelled to defend something that I really like – and which I would have thought it quite normal to like – against rather emphatic moral criticisms from various quarters.  Eating food, for instance (well, food that includes meat or dairy), and going on nice vacations and having nice cars (we don’t have particularly nice cars, but we go on nice vacations) and even something as seemingly benevolent as supporting museums. (1) Common things. The sorts of things that millions upon millions of people around the world do and enjoy, many of them multiple times a day.

Joan Didion worried about excessive moral appeals, back in the morally heady 1960’s, when she wrote:

The most disturbing aspect of ‘morality’ seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation… There is something quite facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. (2)

Little did she know what was coming.  An intense, aggressive moral scrutiny directed at the minutiae of everyday life – what one eats and drinks and wears and watches and listens to; what sort of car one drives to work (or even that one drives to work); what sort of job one has; how one spends one’s spending money; what sort of apartment or house or neighborhood one lives in; whether one uses gendered pronouns or words like ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘uncle’, and the like in one’s ordinary conversations; even what one thinks to oneself, entirely separate from one’s behavior. (3) The sorts of things that would never have received even a moment’s moral notice just several decades ago are now at the front and center of much of our public moral conversation and increasingly, our philosophical one as well.

I find myself wondering if this development in the broader culture simply represents a popularization (and vulgarization) of a slightly earlier trend in philosophy, beginning in the early 1970’s with Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” which, if not the first, certainly was the first to have the effect of rendering the more humdrum dimensions of our lives morally charged in the way I’ve described, something that would only increase with his subsequent work, especially Animal Liberation (1975) and Practical Ethics (1979).  (In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer argues that we are morally obligated to give away our money to the point that we are living just above the standard of a Bengali refugee, which means, of course, that spending money on and possessing nice things is to be morally condemned.)  But Singer is hardly the only one.  In Living High and Letting Die (1996), Peter Unger extended this sort of hyper-critical attention to those who send their kids to private schools or take jobs that they actually enjoy (as opposed to those that pay the most, so that one can give more to charity), things, again, that it would be almost impossible to imagine someone morally criticizing not very long ago. (4)  Indeed, it would seem that there is no element of our daily lives, today, no matter how mundane or common or routine, that is not receiving intense moral scrutiny.  And all that one need do is stick one’s head outside for a few moments to see that our public discourse, especially online, has become awash in this sort of thing – “callout” culture, Twitter-mobs, hashtag campaigns – all devoted to expressions of moral outrage, assignments of moral blame, calls for people to be fired from their jobs, social ostracism, and worse.

Of course, this is terribly irritating, not to mention socially and culturally polarizing and alienating and thus, potentially quite dangerous (I’ve argued that it is a good part of what got us the wretched Trump presidency (5)) As a practical matter, I’m not sure what should be done about it or even how one goes about resisting it, intellectually.  After all, an important, serious question is buried underneath all the annoying stuff, namely:  What determines whether something is an appropriate object of moral scrutiny?  Clearly, in principle, anything could be morally scrutable, but that is a far cry from saying that everything or anything should be examined through a moral lens on any particular occasion.

Perhaps the only things I’m sure of at this point are the following: (a) that this moral hyper-vigilance cannot possibly be a good or sensible way of approaching social and cultural life and (b) that we aren’t going to be able to come up with some theory or principle that will tell a person when something should be morally scrutinized or not. Beyond that, I can think of two boundary conditions or limits that I would apply to the question of the proper scope of the moral.

First, it can’t be the case that one ought to be moral all the time or even that one should try to be.  Moral considerations cannot and should not always be overriding.  My reason is essentially the same as that given by Susan Wolf, in her landmark essay, “Moral Saints”:  to act solely on moral considerations means that one will fail to cultivate any number of other virtues. (6)  Not only is this undesirable at the individual level – people whose only virtues are moral tend to be pedants and scolds and unpleasant bores – but at the societal level as well.  A society which included nothing but moral saints would be worse than one in which people have cultivated different types of virtues.  Consequently, we should resist the following, depressingly common sort of line: “You shouldn’t be doing (non-moral) X, because you could be doing (moral) Y instead,” which applies directly to Singerisms like “You shouldn’t be spending your money on (non-moral) X, because you could be spending it on (moral) Y instead” and can also be extended to the ethical vegan’s “You shouldn’t eat (immoral) X, because you could be eating (moral) Y instead.”

Second,  it can’t be the case that too many people are too immoral too often.  If your moral outlook entails that too many people are bad, too much of the time, then something is wrong.  This is, of course, vaguely put and deliberately so.  “How many are too many?” is the kind of question that can only be answered by way of a practical judgment, not a formula.

At some level, immorality – badness – has to be understood as a deviation from a norm and thus, it should be somewhat rare.  I am inclined to say the same thing about moral virtue.  It strikes me as unlikely that most of our mundane, daily business should have any moral valence whatsoever, even when it involves the little kindnesses and slight cruelties, with which our ordinary lives are filled.  Our moral meters should not be such sensitive instruments, and moral praise and blame should be infrequent; saved, as it were, for “special occasions.” For one thing, there’s something absurd about suggesting that every kid’s bologna sandwich or family barbecue  or utterance of “Thank you, sir” constitutes a moral offense.  For another, there is a real futility in targeting basic, common activities for moral condemnation.  The point of moral praise and blame is to get people to behave better, and not only are most people not going to stop fishing or eating bologna sandwiches or saying “Excuse me, ma’am,” regardless of how often they are condemned for doing so, but one runs the real risk of affecting a general moral exhaustion amongst the public that will make it more difficult to persuade people, when the important issues come along.  Put another way, “choose your battles” seems like generally good advice.

Finally, to treat so much of what we do as morally obligatory or prohibited encourages a kind of concept creep that threatens to undermine the relevant concepts themselves.  Just as it is a mistake to suggest that what is supererogatory is obligatory, it is a mistake to suggest that what has no real moral significance falls under either a positive or negative obligation.  If everything one does is morally charged than what does the claim that something is a “moral issue” really mean?  If everything is moral, how special can the moral be?  The irony, then, is that those who have done the most to moralize every activity and every minute of every day, may have only succeeded in making everyone else think that the moral isn’t anything of which to take much notice.


  1. In this dialogue with Robert Wright, Singer argues against financially supporting museums.

Also relevant is the following op-ed that appeared in the NYT not long ago.

Holland Cotter, “Making Museums Moral Again,” The New York Times, March 17, 2016.

  1. Joan Didion, “On Morality,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), pp. 162-163.
  1. My colleague, Elizabeth Foreman has developed a moral philosophy in which what having an “inappropriate attitude” about something or someone is morally wrong, even if no bad behavior follows. See her “An Agent-Centered Account of Rightness: The Importance of a Good Attitude.”  Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17: 941-954.  (2014)

Also see my discussion of the IAT.

  1. Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). For his claim that we are morally obligated to only take jobs that pay a lot of money, so that we can give most of it to the poor, see, esp. pp. 134 & 151.  For his claim that we are morally obligated not to send our kids to private schools, even if it means that one has to move to another district, see p. 150




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52 responses to “Morality Everywhere?”

  1. alandtapper1950

    Dan: I once had a philosophy of religion textbook with the running header in one section: “The immorality of the soul”. You’ve got the reverse case: “immortality — badness”.


  2. ” … one runs the real risk of affecting a general moral exhaustion amongst the public that will make it more difficult to persuade people, when the important issues come along.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    A lot of people are currently giving morality a bad name/bad vibe. The churches always did this to some extent; now the main culprits are elsewhere.

    As you suggest, set the standards too high and people will just start to see themselves as non-moral, to see moral codes as something alien. (Whereas I see moral codes of one type or another as an inescapable part of life.)

    There is an historical issue here also, about the way a basically Christian or Judeo-Christian ethic and/or approach to ethics and morality has been secularized (and mangled in the process) and applied politically.

  3. TheDudeDiogenes

    Just FYI, #s 7 and 8 are not noted in the text. (As for the content, I quite agree.)

  4. Thanks for the heads up. I will fix the problem tomorrow.

  5. Anonymous Poster

    At least one part of the trouble with this excessive moralization of the mundane, contradictory as it might sound, has to be the ghettoization of the moral in modern thought. For all the Platonists and Aristotelians were/are concerned with the whole gamut of individual character traits, and even in spite of their affirmation of a unitary concept of “good”, they also recognized that human beings are capable excellence and defect in many ways. Being just and being kind are generally good traits, but so is taking care of one’s health and one’s family, not being a sucker, and above all else being wise in matters of conduct.

    Fast-forward to the present day and it’s nothing but “the greatest number” or “brining our intutions into reflective equilibrium”. Even virtue ethics is too easily pressed into the mold of “normative theory”. There’s no space there for deviation in the particular; goodness becomes, in fact if not in principle, a binary condition. You (your action) either are or you (your action) aren’t. The space of morality shrinks as far as what it can consider as the good and the right, and yet the scope of application grows out of hand.

    I always come back to Anscombe’s remarks on this at the end of MMP. Once you’ve identified the good with the right and made the right a matter of the will’s own principles, you’ve strayed into the ground that was once the purview of divine law. Only now there’s no lawgiver, only the deliverances of a judging will that issues its own “thou shalts”.

    That good old Prostetant desire to remake the world never quite seems to die out, and the Americans are as good at it as anyone ever has been.

    One thing about Singer and his Effective Altruists: they’ve been quite keen on marketing themselves. These are some of the few contemporary ethicists that I can count on someone outside of a philosophy department having actually heard of, which is no small feat. That’s not a great thing in my estimation, but good for him for at least having some success with crowd-pleasing.

  6. Thank you. Fixed.

  7. Arthur

    Some of my thoughts on this:

    There is an eagerness to hijack moral concepts and principles. One reason for this seems to be the politicisation of academics and the general public, that can be traced at least to the first half of the 20th century, and then further to 19th century.

    To understand how this came about it would be interesting to find out about regional trends. Several trends seem to add to one another. The moralising mentioned here seems to have strong roots in UK and North America, but spreads globally. (For a continental European the moralising in American and British media often is quite special, not easy to grasp.) Then there is the new French moralising since 1968, and German “Critical Theory”, which compete for the Morality Cup. Etc.

    Moralising comes with the risk of easy association with mob psychology.

  8. Parallax

    I am very sympathetic to the issues raised here but the article misunderstands those who do the moralizing.

    Everyone can think of one or two secular religion that are practiced today, the moralizers are essentially the fundamentalists of the particular secular religion they believe in. They don’t want to argue or justify the principle they think everyone should believe in, it is obviously right and if you don’t agree, shame on you. This means the fact that their moralizing violates the two boundary conditions is a feature not a bug.

    However the real problem is that the cause is not really important, the fundamentalism is. Imagine someone who thinks eating meat is immoral, suppose a year from now nobody ate meat anymore, what do you think the person in question would do? I am fairly certain they would find a new cause to champion (it could be something entirely new or just ratcheting up what they were doing).

    What to do? Their entire enterprise is based on a Christian logic: “you are guilty, I know how to wash it away, just follow my lead”, it can easily evolve into a form of passive-aggressive emotional blackmail. The only way out is not to play the game at all. Reject any notion of being guilty or responsible for their supposed cause.

  9. labnut

    Little did she know what was coming. An intense, aggressive moral scrutiny directed at the minutiae of everyday life – what one eats and drinks and wears and watches and listens to; what sort of car one drives to work (or even that one drives to work); what sort of job one has; how one spends one’s spending money; what sort of apartment or house or neighborhood one lives in; whether one uses gendered pronouns or words like ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘uncle’, and the like in one’s ordinary conversations; even what one thinks to oneself, entirely separate from one’s behavior. (3) The sorts of things that would never have received even a moment’s moral notice just several decades ago are now at the front and center of much of our public moral conversation and increasingly, our philosophical one as well.

    While I agree with some of your criticisms, what I find lacking are useful insights. You have described outcomes but leave unanswered the questions – what is really going on, what has changed, what are the causes?

    To begin to understand the problem instead of just describing it we must first ask the question – what has changed in such a deep and pervasive way during the last 60 years that it has produced the outcomes you describe?

    To put it all at the door of Singer and Unger is much too flattering to them. Noah Harari, in his book, Homo Deus, gives some important pointers, though I think it is only half the story.

  10. davidlduffy

    “It strikes me as unlikely that most of our mundane, daily business should have any moral valence whatsoever”. I see a conflation between the sociological concept of a norm and philosophical normativity. It has always been deviant to oppose a society’s norms, whether slavery, sexuality, sexism, racism. It is much easier to think of obvious injustices as not our business, practically too difficult to change, or having a metaphysical explanation eg karma, original sin.

    As to consequentalism and EA, I think this reflects a more modern understanding of causation. Moral responsibility can be diffuse, fractional.

  11. I see this as one more example of our culture’s obsession with judging (in its many forms and pathways). My own little obsession has been examining our fixation with ordinary justifying and measuring, but I can easily see how the “general moral exhaustion” you bring up is really a special case of what comes as our temptation to measure anything and everything to ‘find its value’. The similarity isn’t so much in the subject matter but in our need, our *compulsion*, to ask and come up with answers to these questions.

    And the difference between a culture that tries to measure everything and one that resists the temptation is simply a difference in practices. As you put it, “we aren’t going to be able to come up with some theory or principle that will tell a person when something should be morally scrutinized or not.” That is, we cannot base the difference on differences in the subject matter we are scrutinizing. We don’t need a theory of the particular ‘things’ in question. Instead, as Wittgenstein might caution us, the real question is “What are these humans doing?”

    I have made these same observations in comments over the last few months, but I should perhaps restate them here. The main issue seems to be how we make sense of things, whether they have certain specific roles within the practices of our daily life. My guess is that our culture has simply become very comfortable in taking measurements (blame scientists?), in making certain kinds of judgment (blame Peter Singer?), and in asking for and receiving justification (blame bureaucrats?). We almost accept this as the natural state of affairs. Everything can be investigated and everything *should* be investigated. There are no natural limits. We treat the world as an open question. (Think of it as like an infant that has learned to put things in its mouth indiscriminately.)

    The distinction that makes most sense to me is that we generally assume this when we go out into the unfamiliar world and explore. This is *not* our attitude toward our own values, to our own measures. But we don’t see that. Our own measures are simply assumed. They are not questioned. They are not brought up on trial. And we don’t feel they need to be justified. From the inside of our lives they are what we use to make sense of the world. They are almost too familiar to us to be seen as things requiring measurement. They don’t fit that particular default. Something only performs *as* a measure when it is itself NOT being measured.

    But the truth is that everything seemingly *can* be measured. When we look at other people’s values and fail to see their sense our first recourse is to find the justification, to find the best way of measuring and judging. Unfortunately two things go wrong in that attempt. Other people’s values as much as our own are not always *BASED* on justification. Sometimes, yes (of course), but in general, no. As Wittgenstein would tell you, at bedrock this is simply what we do.

    But the other misstep is that attempting to measure the things that are *themselves* measures inevitably fails to embrace its role AS a measure. The fact that it can be measured is not a sign we are closer to understanding the value of its use as a measure. Subjecting-to-measurement is the *wrong* way to understand measures. You might say that we understand measures *BY* *using* *them* as measures (It is, after all, what we learned). Somehow we fail to see that. We also fail to see why that might just be important……

    I get the feeling that in our culture we are prone to looking at the world as outsiders in some sense. With the eyes of science, as it were. The attitude that anything and everything can and should be measured is a stance we take regarding the world. It is also a form of blindness. It looks outward as though provisional agnosticism were our natural state. This says more about US and our cultural practices than it does necessarily about the world we are investigating. It specifically fails to capture the human practices involved in navigating the world. We are so focused on the measurable world that we fail to see our own selves doing the investigating. We ignore all the other normal daily activities, the-human-form-of-life, in which any of it comes to make sense in the first place…..

    You’ve heard all of this from me before, but maybe cast in this light it actually makes more sense than the other framing I have given it.

    Good questions as always, Dan!

  12. […] good questions about our obsession with finding “morality everywhere” in one of his blog posts yesterday. He makes some good observations, so it is worth reading. The point he is making is that […]

  13. Hi Dan, an enjoyable read that I am in basic agreement with.

    You, however, seem to say that we should be in greater tolerance of lesser immoral behaviors.
    “Second, it can’t be the case that too many people are too immoral too often.” This is a good practical rule because, as I see it, there is a moral element discernible in just about everything we do since most of our actions affect the interests of other people. This could be as trivial as depriving others by eating too much. But what about the buying of cheap products that were produced through slave labor?.

    I also think that there is very little comfort to be found when one’s behavior is in step with the majority of apparently well-meaning human beings. Slavery and racism are the best examples of immoral behavior that were almost universally accepted in the past. These evils have not been completely extirpated yet, however, most ‘right’ thinking people believe they are immoral and should be vigorously sanctioned.

    Every day I see prejudice, discrimination and exploitation around me and do very little about it. But I can certainly see where the Social Justice Warriors come from. They just seem to be so naïve.

  14. slavery was always controversial in the US, from the country’s inception. It never had the kind of universal acceptance as meat eating has today.

    Notice that in the piece I did not specify how much is too much or too little, in terms of how many people are viewed as immoral how often and how much. But there *is* a too many, too often and too much, and I would argue that we are at that point now.

  15. 1970scholar

    I of course love this post, and agree with all of its content as well as the way it is expressed. I would love to see a whole bloggingheads on the topic, maybe even a longer essay?

  16. Sorry this wasn’t for you. In truth, however, the aim of the essay was not to provide “useful insights” or investigate the origins of the phenomenon. It was to identify the phenomenon as unambiguously negative and to explain why.

  17. labnut

    Dan-K, fair enough, and you did it very well!

  18. I think there’s a link to explore between excessive moralization and indignation. I once read somewhere “indignation endows the idiot with dignity”. Mean as that phrase is, there’s some truth in it. For reasons I don’t understand, indignation gives opinions a moral weight they shouldn’t have on second thought. It also strikes me how often moralization goes hand in hand with indignation.

    SJW, vegetarians etc. are quite good at it, but the phenomenon is not limited to them. Quite the opposite. When “common, upright folk” and your Average Joe show indignation … it’s time to take shelter.

  19. labnut

    An intense, aggressive moral scrutiny directed at the minutiae of everyday life – … even what one thinks to oneself, entirely separate from one’s behavior.

    We have had this discussion before when you asked the question if heinous thoughts were acceptable(I can’t find the reference). At that time I think I was the lone voice that opposed heinous thoughts. That of course has always been the Christian position – “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.“, Matthew 5:28.

    But why should be that so. The obvious reason is that the intent is always a necessary(though not sufficient) prelude to the action. Stifle the intent and the action will not follow. But what if I do entertain the thought? What prevents me from carrying it out?

    1) Internal motivation(guilt).
    I recognise that the act is wrong and so restrain myself. But there is a problem. If I continue to entertain the thought I normalise it and begin to rationalise the resulting action. I have taken the first step onto the slippery slope, making the action far more likely.

    2) External motivation(shame).
    I restrain myself for fear of exposure, shame, humiliation and retribution. But there is also a problem here. If all that restrains me is shame then I begin to entertain means of satisfying my desires in such a way that I will not be exposed. We are all sufficiently arrogant that we think we can avoid exposure.

    The strongest form of motivation that makes wrongful action least likely is internal motivation(guilt) that recognises that even entertaining the thought is wrong. In this sense Christian teaching is good psychology.

  20. I reject the idea of thought-crimes. And this, indeed, is one of the significant differences between Judaism and Christianity. Jewish law is concerned with conduct, not states of consciousness, and I think that is a good thing.

    Indeed, I would argue that without negative thoughts there are no virtues. I am more impressed by a person who has negative thoughts and can recognize them as such and choose not to act on them, then someone who never has them at all.

  21. labnut

    There is another way to look at this problem, and this is the argument I raised in the original post. That is to look at it from the point of view of the third party. I gave this example. Imagine that you are fantasising sodomising your boss’s 10 year old son. This certainly is a heinous thought. Would you tell your boss? If you did you would lose your job instantly and probably never find another job. Now imagine you were fantasising raping your neighbour’s 10 year old daughter. Would you tell him? If you did he would black your eye, break your jaw and have you put on the paedophile register.

    What I am saying here is the test for the acceptability of heinous thoughts is to imagine how the people around you would react if you made them public. Their common sense reaction is your best guide to the acceptability of these thoughts. If you can’t make them public there is a good chance you should not entertain these thoughts.

    Now turn the problem around. What if your best friend was fantasising about seducing your wife and having a sexual affair with her? He has written his fantasies down in a diary and you have discovered the diary.Would you ever invite him around again? Could you ever trust him again?

  22. labnut

    I am more impressed by a person who has negative thoughts and can recognize them as such and choose not to act on them

    Then you and I are in agreement. But that is not the case I am talking about. I am talking about actively entertaining the thoughts and that is a very different matter.

  23. labnut

    I reject the idea of thought-crimes.

    Here you have unfortunately used a contentious phrase that broadens the argument to criminal behaviour and not moral behaviour. Crimes involve the state and, for good reasons, we reject the intrusion of the state into our thoughts. So please let us not use such a tendentious phrase as thought-crimes.

  24. labnut

    I am more impressed by a person who has negative thoughts

    No Christian claims he has no negative thoughts. He recognises his ‘negative’ thoughts, endeavours to restrain them in the sense of preventing their realisation and tries to prevent their recurrence. This is a difficult process that requires guidance, training and reinforcement and even then we fail often.

  25. labnut

    Let me try to clarify the matter.
    Wrongful thoughts may
    1) spontaneously enter the mind, sparked by circumstance or environment
    2) be wilfully recalled.

    In either case we need to
    1) recognise their wrongfulness (moral sensitivity)
    2) resolve not to realise them (moral character)
    3) resolve to dismiss the wrongful thoughts(with perhaps varying degrees of success). (moral determination)

    But what if we do not resolve to dismiss the thoughts but rather continue to actively entertain them? This is the case that I am talking about and this is the case discussed in your original post. My position is that the decision to continue to actively entertain wrongful thoughts, or heinous thoughts as you called them in your original post, is unequivocally wrong.

    Of course you might not recognise them as being wrongful and this is where my third party tests are so useful.

    A moral person has moral sensitivity, moral character and moral determination.

  26. I’m sorry, but I reject the idea of God intruding into our thoughts as much as the State. More so, in fact.

  27. alandtapper1950

    The potential problem of “concept creep”, as you put it Dan, was already apparent to Mill back in 1863, but his attempt to prevent it is remarkably weak:

    “The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights, that is, the legitimate and authorised expectations, of any one else. The multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethics, the object of virtue: the occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do this on an extended scale, in other words to be a public benefactor, are but exceptional; and on these occasions alone is he called on to consider public utility; in every other case, private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to. Those alone the influence of whose actions extends to society in general, need concern themselves habitually about so large an object.” (Utilitarianism, chapter 2)

    The argument is begging the question already in the first sentence. Clearly, even in Mill’s time, any well-off person could be a public benefactor in many ways. On Mill’s account, if a beneficial action is within one’s power, then it is obligatory. Moral hyper-vigilance is a direct consequence. You wonder what the author of “On Liberty” would have thought about this development.

  28. 1970scholar

    Carrying the thread even further, the notion that thoughts or internal states are practically identical to a form of action is absurd. Indeed the whole point of having internal states is the fact that you are not acting upon them. They exist so that you may try things out, in much the same way that works of artistic representations are forms of imaginative and hypothetical scenarios and a means to avoid them being direct, real life. That people act out on bad or sinister inner ideas or thoughts does not mean that those inner states stand condemned from the outset. All societies, and ours is as far from an exception as can be imagined, attempt to regulate, control, or prevent the behaviors of its unethical or sociopathic members. Along the way a lot of danger can ensue from this attempt, unintended consequences, or “revenge effects.”

  29. labnut

    I’m sorry, but I reject the idea of God intruding into our thoughts as much as the State. More so, in fact.

    You introduced the idea of concept creep and now you are extending it further with debate creep 🙂

    No, I did not use any argument based on the idea of God intruding into our thoughts, so I do not see why you should use that as an objection to my arguments. In fact I have laid out a clear non-religious argument and you have not replied to any of it.

  30. labnut

    This is becoming a creepy debate. Concept creep I understand and resist. Debate creep is a wrong that should not be practised. And then to cap it all we have moral creep which comprises the clever arguments we use to rationalise our amoral desires. The end result will finally be our common or garden creep. Phew, so much has crept into the discussion. I will leave the last word to Macbeth:

    Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Macbeth was a creep of note.

  31. You wrote:

    “Here you have unfortunately used a contentious phrase that broadens the argument to criminal behaviour and not moral behaviour. Crimes involve the state and, for good reasons, we reject the intrusion of the state into our thoughts. So please let us not use such a tendentious phrase as thought-crimes.”

    = = =

    And that’s what I was replying to. Your point was that my objection to the idea of a thoughtcrime was inapt when applied to moral questions. You had earlier quoted Matthew regarding adultering in one’s heart. I observed that this represents a basic difference between Judaism and Christianity; that Judaism applies judgment only to behavior, not thoughts. My comment was perfectly apt in that context, and I stand by it.

  32. labnut

    Carrying the thread even further, the notion that thoughts or internal states are practically identical to a form of action is absurd.

    Except for the small detail that is not what I am claiming(practically identical). It is a good idea to quote my words. It avoids absurd misattributions, more politely called debate creep :).

    Indeed the whole point of having internal states is the fact that you are not acting upon them.
    If that is their point, then what is their purpose. If internal states do not result in action then we will spend our lives, Buddha like, gazing at our navels.

    They exist so that you may try things out
    They exist as a necessary prelude to action. Of course not all states result in action. An idea may occur to us and we reject its realisation. We form an intent, examine it and then either dismiss it or realise it. If it is a wrongful intent and we dismiss it for that reason then we are acting in a moral way.

    I think we can agree on that. But what if, having formed a wrongful intent and having resolved not to act on it, we continue to engage with the thought, fantasising about it? This is the case I am talking about. If you go back and read my comments you will see that this is what I am arguing against. And I gave clear examples which illustrate how the people would react to such fantasies. I see no reply to my arguments or to my examples. Labelling them as ‘absurd’ is not a reply and is also not a desired practice.

  33. Dan,
    I think this phenomena is an inevitable bi-product of a loss of a real sense of having a shared cultural core to our experiences. Post-modern relativism is one such bi-product, this is another. I was an on-again-off again lapsed Catholic for some 30 years before I became a Buddhist. I can’t remember if it was Joyce, Waugh, or maybe Woody Allen, who once said, “a lapsed Catholic is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but suspects there’s a hell, and so doesn’t eat meat on Fridays.” Anyway, I began my life as a Catholic ten years before Vatican II, the meaning of which took some 5-10 years to understand among those raised Catholic (including many clergy); I was still hearing Latin Mass when I was 15 years old.

    My point is that, after 27 years as a Buddhist, having taken in Catholic culture in my infancy, I still feel somewhat like a cultural Catholic. I don’t believe that wine really turns into the ‘Blood of Christ,’ but I do have inordinate respect, even admiration, for wine as somehow sacred in communion with others. Jesus shared wine at the last supper, not grape juice. I don’t believe in Jesus, but I have a sense of the tradition where this presumed event has importance.

    Cultural Catholicism is now pretty much passe in the US; Vatican II was a part of its withering away, but so was the long history of having to maneuver in Protestant and then secular societies. The Catholic Church is now – in the US and Europe – little more than a peculiar institution with an important history, whatever it might mean in other parts of the world.

    When cultural Catholicism was still viable, those of us raised in that tradition shared certain values – including ethical values – that we didn’t need to explain or theorize – it came to with our mother’s milk, so to speak.

    But in a society increasingly fragmented, with the cultural core lost, these values have also gotten lost.

    When people experience that kind of loss of core values within their inherited communities, one response is to look for other communities with equally rigorous values. And then to insist on the rightness of these values as somehow universal to all.

    This strikes me as also complimentary to the Modernist tendency to totalitarianism, inherited as the Post-modern tendency to authoritarianism. If, as H.L. Menken wrote, a puritan is one worried that somewhere, someone is having fun, then an authoritarian personality is one who worries that somewhere someone has not yet been told not to have fun. Tell them, and the reason will blind them into submission, and all will be well.

    Of course that’s not the case. But the *hope* itself satisfies the condition for having core cultural values. It seems to justify commitment to an artificial community of the like-minded.

    But it *is* artificial – that’s the problem. We can’t enforce Vegan diets on hundreds of millions who have family histories of eating meat across hundreds of generations, any more than we can impose creationism on three hundred years of scientific inquiry. That tells us that history is the key. It unravels every imposed morality; it reveals the unraveling of any morality unable to adapt to present conditions. It is what philosophy oft ignores, what science pays no heed to, what ideology cannot accept. It is the tidal waves that often cleanses, but more frequently just sweeps away.

  34. labnut

    I reject the idea of thought-crimes
    So do I.

    I reject the idea of God intruding into our thoughts
    So do I.

    My comment was perfectly apt in that context, and I stand by it.

    You used heavily loaded and tendentious phrases that do not fairly represent my thoughts. They were not necessary to the development of the argument but are merely a rhetorical device to dismissively wave away arguments that you disagree with.

    You may stand by them but I still feel your comments are inaccurate and not useful.

  35. labnut,” then we will spend our lives, Buddha like, gazing at our navels.” – the Buddha did not stare at his navel. That would be the yogis of Hinduism the Buddha opposed – Hinduism being a religion so much more conservative, it makes Catholicism look like anarchy by comparison.

    It would help if you actually investigated the moral theories and philosophies, especially of the East, that you sometimes rail against. (And no, Eastern cultures do not value life any less than Western cultures, as you suggested in a comment some weeks ago. An appalling suggestion, frankly Do you really think Chinese mothers grieve less than Westerns do when their children are lost? “If you cut us, do we not bleed?”)

    I won’t comment much on your argument with Dan here, except to note, 1. If you’re right, then Judaism is wrong (since you’re arguing core values here), then you have to explain why Judaism provided a workable morality in its communities these past 4000 years or so.

    2. You’re whole argument rests on the assumption of continuous whole self.identified with its presumed soul, and not only do we Buddhists reject such a notion (‘anatman’) but there is evidence that while Judaism has a notion of the individual and individuality, it is – very subtly, but substantially – different from that inherited through various Christian traditions.

    Basically, your argument reduces to ‘you’re all wrong who disagree!’ Unfortunately, that ‘all’ includes the majority of the earth’s population. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t right; but speaking as a democratic inheritor of the Enlightenment, I know what I would vote. I’ll take my chances. I don’t even believe in hell anymore.

  36. labnut

    EJ, when you enter the debate I leave the debate, Cheers

  37. labnut

    In fact EJ, you have persuaded me to get out for good.

  38. Hi Dan, great post. I’ve noticed this same over-moralising just listening to my friends and co-workers, and particularly on social media. It seems to me to sit within a larger tendency which if there is a name for it, I haven’t heard it yet. This is the tendency to jump immediately to what one considers the “most powerful” expression of an opinion, out of the belief that anything else just won’t do.

    For example instead of of referring to one’s “desires” a person will instead frame their expression in terms of “rights”. Saying “I want such and such to be the case” sounds much less impressive than “I have a right to such and such”, and if you can frame it as a “human right” (of which there now seem to be an inexhaustible list) then even better. Couple that with the presumed superiority which accompanies talk of rights and morality and you end up with a proposition which a) skips neatly over other kinds of propositions, such as those grounded in practicality or common sense; and b) gives the proposer a nice, fuzzy feeling.

    I’ve started to wonder if this behaviour isn’t explicable by two observations. The first is that everyone wants to feel important. The second is that almost nobody is, at least not beyond a small group of family, friends and dependants. There just aren’t many people whose sudden disappearance from the face of the earth would have far-reaching consequences… and yet I suspect each of us secretly harbours the desire (if the not the belief) that we are one of them. Over-moralising and over-rightsing could be seen as attempts to inflate our own sense of self-importance; a sock stuffed down the front of our ego jocks.

    To that end, and in the spirit of your Provocations, I would like to propose a remedy – the establishment of The Society For Reminding People That You Aren’t All That Special (But It’s Okay Because Neither Am I). Its aim would be to promote the idea that it is perfectly okay to be ordinary; to live one’s life in a generally decent fashion without expectations of building a ladder to heaven out of social media posts; and to generally settle down a bit. The Society would try to actively dissuade people from seeing themselves as valiant knights engaged in a life-or-death struggle with evil doers in a grand culture war for the fate of existence.

  39. davidlduffy

    Like EJ, I had a Catholic upbringing (though am a strong atheist). The idea that I have some duty of benevolence that I can never fully meet seems extremely straightforward, as is the recognition there are plenty of people of good will who do far more than I do. I think similarly about politics, the practice of medicine and of science, and so on. The nice thing about being born into Catholicism is the recognition that most people won’t meet these ideals: so that is actually the norm and is OK. Those like Labnut have the misfortune of feeling they have to work harder 😉

    May I recommend Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye?

  40. 1970scholar


    Internal states exist so that you may “try things out” in one’s own interiority alone, without real life consequence. You are emphasizing the person who fixates on an internal fantasy that has a causal relationship to that person’s (inevitable) acting out on the negative fantasy in the fullness of time. You are quite right that there is no clear societal answer or solution to this. But should there be and is it even necessary? The main question before us is: is it worth policing, controlling and monitoring internal states, if these can be found in a transparent way, so that we may prevent those negative instances from occurring? Critics of civil libertarianism and a bill of rights tradition answer this question in the affirmative. They feel is it a worthy price to pay to protect society. The problem with this stance however is who gets to decide which or what internal states are unwelcome and what authority will interrogate them? Another problem is: when will such policing end? It is very easy to see a peculiar and specific branch of totalitarianism coming out of such a practice once it gets going.

  41. You are acting like a 6 year old.

  42. When “morality” becomes a method for imposing values on another, then ethics becomes politics.

    But weakness is evident in any argument that proceeds from “is not.” What “is” it?

    For example, in a moral world, why would we wish to go on vacation? To see things created by dead people? Is that any method for filling the void within that leads us to argue “You should behave differently?”

  43. labnut,
    I hope you don’t mean that, or are willing to rethink it along the way.

    But even if you are not reading this, I do need to clarify a point I expressed poorly: :”Basically, your argument reduces to ‘you’re all wrong who disagree!’” ” This is not fair to your argument, because it was not really what I wanted to say. It is (poor) shorthand for recognition that there is a problem with any moral-realist argument, in that it is made on the assumption that any opposing argument must be poorly reasoned.

    The trouble is, this doesn’t explain why different ethical reasoning, even different forms of ethical reasoning, actually successfully produce ethical behavior. If the given moral-realist position is true (which it must be, if it is morally realistic) then it follows that non-adherence to its reasoning is a flaw that leads to misbehavior – so why doesn’t it? The moral-realist fall back position is, I think, to hold that people actually do accept the moral realism but aren’t aware of it, they do so, let us say, unconsciously, and the moral-realist theorist is simply bringing out how we all reason anyway, so that we can better clarify its principles and structure. (This is precisely Bentham’s position, although Kant’s was more complicated because of the place of judgment in the Critical philosophy.)

    But this argument is really only persuasive within a given culture, where shared beliefs function as the bases of moral-realist arguments. Once we begin serious investigation of ethical thought in different cultures (and in our own culture across history), this presumption falls apart. And this is where ethical discussions get tendentious. The moral-realist position must either adapt to the values, ethical thought, and behaviors of quite different cultures, or it must posit that they are wrong or wrongheaded.

    This is to a large extent a problem faced by any ethical position, it must be said – Divine Command moralists have the worst time of it, since they have no allowance for adaptation, beyond letting the Divinity make the final call. But even relativists will have a hard time allowing for the values , ethical thought, and behaviors of the rigidly realist or Divine Command governed communities.

    This makes for an extremely difficult ethical landscape, requiring nuance and subtlety , and in the last analysis, tolerance for wide variations of behavior.

    PS, I regret not making that comment about your remark on the Chinese seeming to value life less than Westerners do, when you made that remark some time ago. I should not have let pass then, and obviously it gnawed at me without my thinking about it. But it seemed apropos to remark it here, because humans may value the same things but in different ways in different cultures. It is misguided to assume that because the behavior seems different, the values are themselves profoundly different. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they simply express much the same values in very different ways.

  44. ombhurbhuva

    E.J. & David:
    From your Catholic pasts you may remember the distinction between Commandments and Counsels of Perfection. The former are what is given as Ten and they go back even before Judaism. Counsels of Perfection are supererogatory and are therefore not obligatory. You can gain heaven without them. You don’t have to sell all your goods and give to the poor, and become a monk. All religions have those counsels – upon the age of 50 leave the householder life and become a wandering monk, meditate in a cave and so on. You can be a decent human being without doing any of this but those practices may speed your enlightenment.

    Interestingly Martin Luther disputed this distinction and found it sophistic. Could this plea for morally obligatory supererogation be a relic of the Protestant mind? Prohibition was a clear demonstration of the Puritan taking it to the limit.

  45. For example, in a moral world, why would we wish to go on vacation?

    = = =

    I find this question bizarre to the point of near-incomprehensibility. What on earth does one thing have to do with the other? One doesn’t go on vacation to escape evil. One goes on vacation to get a break from work.

  46. Tangential. But: If one loves what one does and those it is done with, why would one need to “get a break?”

    “Morality is found in any ethical system that expands the social domain in which love is expressed.” It is not concerned with conventional truth, it is not parsed with logic. It generates consensus that allows us to transform the conventional by realizing what is possible.

    And in that context, our thoughts are public.

  47. But: If one loves what one does and those it is done with, why would one need to “get a break?”

    = = =

    I love what I do and still enjoy a break.

    It also has nothing to do with whether the world is moral.

    As for your second paragraph, I’m afraid I don’t get it either.

  48. Have you read “Three Philosophical Poets” by George Santayana? He considers the work of Lucretius, Dante and Goethe as testimony on the efficacy of Reason, Faith and Will. His hope was for a fourth poet that will synthesize the three.

    I think that in our intellectual era it is popular to believe that Reason and Will suffice. That manifests in the polarity of our politics: the Democrats seek to organize a technocracy that balances social needs, the Republicans celebrate the action of assertive men. Both impulses fail if there is no basis for trust – which is why Santayana included Dante in his writing. Though I believe that when we choose to love (as an act of both reason and will) we cannot avoid the discovery of Unconditional Love as a being, I offer it here as a secular solution to the problem of trust. We must ask our leaders who they love, and then consider whether their actions actually empower their claimed constituency.

  49. Singer’s claims were always absurd, but now he wants to make us feel guilty for having the luxury of two kidneys he has entered the realm of self parody.

  50. Do you have a cite for that, Robin? I’d love to use it.

  51. Possibly a duplication of Robin’s source. I found this:

    Peter Singer interviewed on Journal of Practical Ethics

    I’m not sure that the cost to me of donating a kidney would be “very little” but I agree that it would harm me much less than it would benefit someone who is on dialysis. I also agree that for that reason my failure to donate a kidney is not ethically defensible. But I don’t agree with Frances that this case is parallel to the drowning child case—that is, the case I described in which the rescuer runs no risk at all of serious harm. Donating a kidney does involve a small risk of serious complications. Zell Kravinsky suggests that the risk is 1 in 4000. I don’t think I’m weak-willed, but I do give greater weight to my own interests, and to those of my family and others close to me, than I should. Most people do that, in fact they do it to a greater extent than I do (because they do not give as much money to good causes as I do). That fact makes me feel less bad about my failure to give a kidney than I otherwise would. But I know that I am not doing what I ought to do.

  52. Hi Dan

    I will try to find it again, he talks approvingly about one of his fans who, inspired by Singer, donated a kidney to a stranger.