The Scope of Morality

by Daniel Tippens

Every decision is a moral decision. Every dollar you spend on yourself is a dollar that could instead be donated to a good cause. Every minute you spend is a minute you could have done something more kind or helpful than what you actually did. Every person you see, you could greet warmly or grumpily, give them a kind word or not bother. Of course, it’s exhausting to think this way! But still, there is I believe no such thing as a morally innocent choice.

-Eric Schwitzgebel, The Splintered Mind

Eric Schwitzgebel  is explicitly voicing what I take to be an increasingly popular and little discussed view in moral philosophy — that all actions have some moral status or another. In this sense, then, there is no “morally innocent choice,” for if every action has a moral status, then every decision that someone makes, so long as they care about morality, will have to be sensitive to what the status of their action will be. Call this the Universal Moral Status view (UMS).

Some moral theories even have UMS built into them, the most obvious of which is Utilitarianism, according to which one is morally obligated to perform the action that brings about the greatest utility (or happiness, best consequences, etc.), a principle clearly applies to all actions.

Philosophers aren’t ignorant of this, and their sensitivity is manifested in the well-known “over-demandingness” objection to Utilitarianism. If Utilitarianism is true, then all sorts of actions that we consider to be quotidian and intuitively permissible, like going to the movies with my friends, will be morally impermissible since they don’t bring about the most happiness.  Consequently, Utilitarianism is over-demanding.

Notice, however, that this objection is compatible with UMS, since it maintains that many of our quotidian actions are morally permissible and that Utilitarianism delivers the wrong verdict on the status of these actions. They still have a moral status, the disagreement lies with what that status is.

Virtue ethics is a little more tricky, first because it uses a different sort of moral vocabulary and focal point for moral evaluation, and second because I suspect that some virtue ethicists wouldn’t endorse UMS. The language of virtue ethics is that of a virtuous or vicious character, not that of permissible or impermissible action. Still, one might think that virtue ethicists could endorse their own version of the idea that all actions have some moral status or another, in the sense that all actions either do or do not reflect a virtuous character. In Dan Kaufman’s recent essay discussing the matter, he says, “Aristotle’s ethics is probably most associated with the famous “doctrine of the mean,” according to which the virtuous temperament is the moderate or “reasonable” one, and the right thing to do in any given situation, consequently, is whatever lies between extremes of excess and deficiency (my emphasis added).” Virtue ethics, then, is at least compatible with a version of UMS, though, again, some virtue ethicists might (and probably would) reject it.

Kant may have explicitly disagreed with UMS, for he famously held that “an action, to have moral worth, must be done from duty.” If ‘moral worth’, here, simply means moral status, then Kant is committed to the idea that only actions done from certain intentions have any moral status  However, some scholars might reject this interpretation, as does Michael Slote whom I asked in conversation.

I think that UMS is false; that some actions have no moral status at all. I also hope to show that once we accept the idea that not all actions have a moral status, a new picture of moral disagreement or moral progress/change emerges, one that is particularly prevalent in our society today.

Not All Actions Have a Moral Status 

My view is that all actions have the capacity to have a moral status, but don’t always have one, as a matter of fact. One way to illustrate this is to consider the section of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding titled “Of Justice.”  Hume discusses the origins of distributive justice and property. Specifically, he is concerned with the conditions under which questions of distributive justice arise. He invites us to consider a world in which there is no scarcity of resources. In such a world, questions of distributive justice would never come up. Take air, for example. Since air is not scarce, we wouldn’t think about justice and injustice when we take a breath, and if all of the world’s resources were similarly abundant, then as Hume puts it, “It seems evident that…the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of.”

Hume also observes that if “every man [felt] no more concern for his own interest than for that of his fellows,” questions of justice wouldn’t arise. For Hume, family-dynamics approach this kind of situation, where food, for example, isn’t considered one person’s property or another’s. Rather, it belongs to the whole family, and concerns regarding the just distribution of food typically don’t come up.

His last remark on this point involves how justice is suspended in circumstances in which society has broken down, and self-preservation becomes the utmost concern.  Hume asks, “Is it any crime, after a shipwreck, to seize whatever means or instrument of safety one can lay hold of, without regard to former limitations of property?”

Hume is suggesting that it would be wrong to say that actions have the status of being just or unjust, under such circumstances. Justice doesn’t enter into the picture. It’s not that we have a justice-related intuition that it is permissible to take in the air that isn’t in scarce supply. Rather, we don’t have any intuition about the justice of this act at all.

I think that something similar is true about morality, more generally. There are cases in which considerations of morality simply don’t arise. Whether I roll out of bed on the right or left side in the morning, hum to the radio while I drive or greet someone with “hello” as opposed to “hey.” It’s not that such actions are permissible, but rather, that the question of their morality is simply inapt.

There is a difference between lacking an intuition about the moral status of an action and having the intuition that an action is permissible. The latter involves an overt moral sentiment directed at an action. When I consider the trolley problem and decide that it is permissible to throw the switch, I have a detectable intuition on the matter. When pondering whether to eat with my right or left hand, I lack any moral feeling at all. My claim is that lacking a moral intuition about the status of an action suggests that it doesn’t have one.

I said earlier that on my view, all actions have the capacity to have a moral status, but don’t always have one. Think again about Hume’s example of breathing. The reason why taking a breath doesn’t raise questions of justice is because it isn’t a scarce resource. However, one could certainly imagine air coming into short supply, such that we have to regulate its distribution, and quarrels would begin about the just way to do so. Correspondingly, any action could come to have a moral status, under the right conditions.

Moral Progress and Moral Change

That not all actions have a moral status also helps to explain certain kinds of disagreement that are prevalent today. Ordinary moral disagreement involves debates about what the status of an action is, where everyone agrees that the action in question has a status. But sometimes, the relevant debate is about the status itself; that something which didn’t have a moral status before should be taken as having one, now. The idea is to bring morality into the picture where it wasn’t before. Call this kind of change one of moral production. 

To see this, compare two ongoing debates, regarding, respectively, the ethics of comedy and abortion. The former represents a case of moral production, while the latter represents a very standard type of moral dispute.

A common belief among many comedy fans is that morality should be — and typically has been in the past — left at the door; “suspended,” in Hume’s words. All one needs to do is consider the careers and success of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, or Sam Kinison to see the extent to which this idea has governed our thinking on comedy.

Today, however, some are attempting to challenge this, morally reprimanding comedians for making socially insensitive jokes of one kind or another.  Indeed, this development has reached a point at which many comedians are refusing to play on college campuses, where this sort of moral condemnation has been the most intense. The response that one frequently hears is that moral critics of comedy need to learn to “take a joke,” “quit being a snowflake,” “stop being so sensitive,” or some other phrase indicating that they think that the action in question is “trivial” in some sense or another – like rolling out of bed on the right side – and shouldn’t be beholden to moral considerations.

Contrastingly, in debates over abortion, no one says that one needs to learn to just “take an abortion” or “stop being so sensitive.” They do not suggest that pro-life advocates are trying to moralize a trivial issue. They recognize that abortion has a moral status, but disagree about what that status is.

That being “overly-sensitive” is emphasized in the comedy debate and not in the abortion debate is particularly revealing to me, for what it means to be overly-sensitive is to be disposed to feel something that others wouldn’t and shouldn’t. Being allergic to chocolate means that one has a reaction to it where there shouldn’t be one. Being an overly-sensitive person is to have moral feelings where people ordinarily wouldn’t and shouldn’t — to have moral sentiments where they should be lacking — like having feelings regarding justice and injustice, with regard to breathing air that is in abundant supply.

Anyone who has been keeping up with political issues knows that this accusation of over-sensitivity is widespread, arising in debates over proper gender pronoun use, gendered language, cultural appropriation, the ethics of eating, and more. Dan Kaufman recently gave a brief list, in which he points to

…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.

In all of these cases, the relevant moral concerns regard moral production and not ordinary moral disagreement. Activists try to make the case that an action that has traditionally been taken as morally empty should be seen as having a moral status, while their opponents maintain that such actions’ traditional, morally neutral status should be retained.

Whence Morality? 

If UMS is indeed false, then the question arises as to the conditions under which actions legitimately obtain a moral status.

Outside of formal disciplines like mathematics and logic, the search for necessary and sufficient conditions is almost always a fool’s errand, so the best I can do is identify some heuristics for determining whether an action has a moral status. The first was already suggested by Dan Kaufman, when he wrote:

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.

Dan is suggesting that a good heuristic for deciding whether an action has a moral status is whether it is something that everybody does; if it is mundane. The moral significance of ubiquity is something that has been recognized by others, though not necessarily for the same purpose. Michael Slote argues that if an action is universal it places constraints on the kinds of attitudes toward the behavior that we can reasonably ascribe to the people who perform such actions, and thus, constrains how we can evaluate the moral characters of such individuals.

I think that another good heuristic for the merits of a particular case for moral production is whether making it requires courage; whether a person is willing to make a personal sacrifice on behalf of something; accept a degree of moral uncertainty; and have the capacity for moral regret. In an earlier essay, I gave the following example with Spider Man:

The Green Goblin held a train full of children in one hand and Mary Jane (the woman Spider Man loved) in the other. Both the train and Mary Jane were suspended over hundreds of feet of open air. Peter knew all of the relevant physical facts about gravity and biological creatures to know that if the Green Goblin were to release the kids or Mary Jane, all of the released parties would surely die. When the Green Goblin dropped both parties, Peter was uncertain about what to do. Was it better for him to save the woman he loves over saving the train full of kids? Or was it better for him to save the train full of kids over saving Mary Jane? Peter was morally uncertain.

If one genuinely embraces the idea of moral uncertainty, then regardless of the choice one makes, one will feel moral regret afterward, wishing that one could have done more, and questioning the choice one has made.

Moral courage involves all of these elements. Suppose a soldier on the battlefield sees that the only way to successfully advance is to put an innocent bystander at risk. If he proceeds to do so easily and happily, he lacks moral uncertainty, and if afterwards, he believes that the decision was obvious and has no trouble sleeping that night, he lacks moral regret, and it would be odd to describe him as courageous.

I contend that we typically take legitimate instances of moral production to involve courage on the part of its advocates, and this makes sense, for it suggests that while the action that previously had no moral status was ubiquitous and mundane, it is no longer trivial in some relevant sense. If the response to your moral production advocacy forces you to have courage, then the thing you are advocating for is likely important.

This is why I don’t take many of the prevalent moral production debates in public discourse today to be legitimate instances of moral production. The advocates do not exhibit courage, in the sense just described.  They are happy to accuse people of racism, sexism, or any form of bigotry, without any hint of moral uncertainty, despite the damage that this can do to the person accused, and they seem to feel no moral regret in having done so. Their actions also fail to involve any real sacrifice, as they often involve little more than sitting in front of a computer screen, Tweeting their accusations under the protection of anonymity. This, of course, isn’t true of all people in these moral production debates, but it is certainly noticeable in many of them.

Philosophical Implications 

As I noted at the beginning of this essay, the main targets of a critique like this are consequentialist moral theories like Utilitarianism, and if I am correct that not all actions have a moral status, then these theories are false as they currently stand. They could be amended such that they only operate over actions that have a moral status, and I would be interested in seeing consequentialists consider this. A more general point is that any theory that holds that all actions have a moral status would be, in my view, wrong.

That not all actions have a moral status also carries implications for moral psychology. Many experiments in this field involve presenting people with a moral dilemma of one kind of another, and asking them whether the action is obligatory, permissible, wrong, etc. But on my view their list of options is incomplete, for some people might lack an intuition on the matter, but fail to have the option of “morality doesn’t apply.” Moral psychology, as it is currently practiced, involves experimental designs that presume too much.

Finally, my view has implications for the philosophical topic of moral progress. I contend that a significant amount of moral progress, if there is any, involves debates and battles over moral production, not just moral disagreement. Societies collectively realize, through painstaking movements and civil upheaval, that the conditions of our world are such that an action that previously had no moral status now has one, recognizing that the scope of morality has expanded.

28 Comments »

  1. Really interesting! I wonder: are there cases of a phenomenon’s LOSING moral status? All I can think of right now are cases in which something with a negative moral status has gained a positive one, or vice versa. Like Professor Kaufman, I worry about the ever-widening sphere of morality.

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  2. [Corrected version; please ignore previous.]

    Dan

    I see the underlying phenomenon you are dealing with here in terms of power and politics rather than in terms of morality. The people who are pushing for these changes in how other people act (and think) are not moral theorists and I think that to analyse the situation in terms of traditional moral theory could serve to obscure the fact that we are looking at an attempt to impose a form of totalitarian control similar in spirit to that imposed in the old Soviet Union and other Communist countries where even deviations in *thinking* were liable to be punished. You see this kind of thing occurring from time to time in Western history (the Inquisition also comes to mind).

    So far, of course, these would-be totalitarians have very little power and so comparisons with Communism and the Inquisition are a bit strained. But I still think it makes sense to see what is going on in these general terms.

    Of course, philosophers, theologians and others concerned with theorizing about prescriptive morality could well provide theoretical (and so ideological) *support* for the activists. Some consciously do this. But using moral theory to *question* what is being done – which is what (in part) I take you to be doing here – seems to me to miss the main point concerning this phenomenon and it may even implicitly play into the hands of those who are seeking the changes by presenting the proposed changes in essentially moral rather than political terms.

    However, you make it clear that your main targets are certain moral theories. “[T]he main targets of a critique like this are consequentialist moral theories like Utilitarianism, and if I am correct that not all actions have a moral status, then these theories are false as they currently stand.”

    I haven’t thought this through, but it seems to me that whether or not all actions are deemed to have a moral status will depend on how individuals see the world in a general sense. Certain religious types, for example, tend to the view that everything we do is morally relevant, an opportunity for self-improvement or whatever. Even Buddhist mindfulness is all-encompassing in this way.

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  3. Hi Dan,

    “In all of these cases, the relevant moral concerns regard moral production and not ordinary moral disagreement. Activists try to make the case that an action that has traditionally been taken as morally empty should be seen as having a moral status, while their opponents maintain that such actions’ traditional, morally neutral status should be retained.”

    I noticed that you invoked (accurately, I think) the word “traditionally” to describe the activist view. I think this is really a key word and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on it.

    As Mark noted above, the activist view seems more concerned with power and control rather than engaging with human intuitions about what is and is not an appropriate application of moral language. By portraying morality as “merely” tradition – a social convention – they implicitly position themselves as being anti-reactionary. Morality is whatever the dead white males of the past decided it was in order to perpetuate their own power. Over-turning the “old” morality of the past then becomes a revolutionary act.

    Applying morality to everything has, to my mind, two fairly obvious disadvantages. The first is that it dilutes the power of moral language. Morality can be usefully seen as a special class of justifications; and if everything is special then nothing is. Secondly human beings do share powerful intuitions that are grounded in our nature. Telling people that they should feel bad because somewhere someone they have never met is suffering, and that we should sacrifice our own happiness to help them, runs counter to our natural preference to look after ourselves and our loved ones first. We simply aren’t wired with the kind of universal concern that some moral theorists insist we should have. But if morality is nothing more than tradition, as the activists seem to believe, then our moral intuitions can be rewritten however we choose.

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  4. Everything can have a universal moral status even though in most cases this is a trivially small amount. Many religions regard every event in one’s life as contributing to one’s moral scorecard, but there are still venial and mortal sins in most such systems.

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  5. I am not sure it is worthwhile critiquing the moral theories of anonymous twitter users.

    There are three hundred million active twitter users on any given month and it takes no special.intelligence to get connected.

    However there are some non anonymous people who complain about racism and sexism on twitter and elsewhere who are subjected to constant death and rape threats. There could be said to be courage there but if course that does not in itself give import to their moralisms.

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  6. Some very weird reactions to what strikes me as a strong and compelling essay.

    1. To suggest that activists are not influenced by thinkers working on animal welfare, gender identity, feminism and the like simply demonstrates that one has no idea what is actually going on. Peter Singer has been enormously influential with regard to animal welfare and effective altruism activism, and the same is true for thinkers across the areas widely categorized as “social justice.”

    2. Twitter is being used to inflict serious harm upon peoples careers and livelihoods, as the important book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by Jon Ronson shows in devastating detail. Dismissing this similarly evinces that a person has no idea what’s going on.

    Ronson did a talk on this important topic:

    3. I don’t think talk of “wiring” gets us anywhere with regard to ethics. Unfortunately, the toxic behavior of those who seek to moralize to everyone about every damned thing they do is a cultural problem and will require a complicated and painful cultural solution.

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  7. Hi animal,

    I’m unfortunately not sure about whether certain things have lost a moral status, but I’d bet that some have. I only focus on actions gaining a moral status because that is a particularly prevalent phenomenon today.

    Hi Mark,

    I think the kinds of people I am criticizing do believe they have moral reasons for doing the things they do. So no, I don’t think it is *just* about power and politics, and I think its worthwhile to critique the moral dimension of their activism. But there is still philosophical meat in this discussion even if you abstract away from the details of current events in society.

    Hi David,

    I can’t tell if you’re disagreeing with me in your comment; it sounds like you are. Are you claiming that all actions do have a moral status, its just that some have only a teeny bit of status? Are you claiming those actions with a teeny bit of status are just permissible actions?

    Hi Robin,

    “I am not sure it is worthwhile critiquing the moral theories of anonymous twitter users”

    I never said I was critiquing moral theories. I also never said I was *just* targeting twitter users.

    “However there are some non anonymous people who complain about racism and sexism on twitter and elsewhere who are subjected to constant death and rape threats. There could be said to be courage there but if course that does not in itself give import to their moralisms.”

    The view of courage I outline doesn’t just involve putting yourself in danger in some way or another. It also involves another moral elements — moral uncertainty and regret.

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  8. Dan K

    Twitter is being used to inflict serious harm upon peoples careers and livelihoods, as the important book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by Jon Ronson shows in devastating detail. Dismissing this similarly evinces that a person has no idea what’s going on.

    Who is it that you say dismisses the harm twitter attacks can do. I certainly didn’t and if you think I did then you didn’t read what I said.

    Indeed the harm that twitter does stems from just the effect I am talking about. 300 million active users in any given month means that 0.001% of users seems like a massive mob (and most twitter mobs are *much* smaller than that). So a career or reputation can be destroyed because 0.001% of people who happen to be online at a given point made an anonymous cowardly attack? We should learn to put them into context.

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  9. Dan

    “I think the kinds of people I am criticizing do believe they have moral reasons for doing the things they do. So no, I don’t think it is *just* about power and politics, and I think its worthwhile to critique the moral dimension of their activism. But there is still philosophical meat in this discussion even if you abstract away from the details of current events in society.”

    You miss (and misstate) my point. Of course they believe they have right on their side! So did the Inquisitors, so did the Communists. You can “critique the moral dimension of their activism” if you like but I am saying that doing such a critique only serves to obscure the real nature of the problem. It is not a moral-theoretical problem.

    And saying that there is still philosophical meat in the problem even if you “abstract away from the details of current events in society” seems to suggest that you are really more interested in this supposed philosophical meat than in analysing social and political matters. This is your prerogative, of course.

    The second part of my comment was, in fact, focused on this broader question of the scope of morality. From the way you framed the issue it seemed that you were assuming that there was a fact of the matter concerning morality’s scope. I don’t think there is. Though there *is* a fact of the matter about how individuals *see* morality’s scope and nature (whether or not it is all-encompassing, etc).

    I take the line that it is not all-encompassing but this is a personal choice driven by a general outlook on how the world is. When I was religious I saw things in an entirely different way.

    People have different views in these matters based on many factors. And philosophical argument (as normally understood and practised) barely touches on most of them.

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  10. And I have been saying for some time that Jon Ronson adds to the problem he is describing by getting it wrong. There is no point in saying all the stupid people in the world should stop being stupid because we have social media now. The real lesson is that we shouldn’t start buckling to the stupid people because we turned this big open microphone on them.

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  11. I know you’ve been saying it for some time. That doesn’t mean you are right and Robson is wrong. And given the way his book has resonated and this is now understood to be a serious problem, I think it’s you who has it wrong not him.

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  12. I don’t think he missed your point at all. He disagrees with it. As do I. Your disdain for philosophy is well known and longstanding, going back to the days of Scientia. What I don’t understand is why you keep expressing it to philosophers who obviously are not going to share it and will inevitably be put off by it as anyone would if it was expressed towards their life’s work.

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  13. “I don’t think he missed your point at all. He disagrees with it. As do I. Your disdain for philosophy is well known and longstanding, going back to the days of Scientia. What I don’t understand is why you keep expressing it to philosophers who obviously are not going to share it and will inevitably be put off by it as anyone would if it was expressed towards their life’s work.”

    How you could read “disdain for philosophy” into my two comments escapes me.

    I do not ‘disdain’ philosophy or philosophical thinking at all. I just have a different view of what it is (at its best).

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  14. Thou doth protest too much, methinks.

    I’m not going to argue whether your views of philosophy are disdainful or not. You think they aren’t, I think they are.

    Instead, I intend to focus on the substance of this very interesting and in my view, important essay.

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  15. If you are waiting for stupid people to stop being stupid you are going to be waiting a long, long time.

    Time to stop letting stupid people set the agenda. Time to stop sacking people because 0.0001% of currently active twitter users whined about them.

    Thankfully there are signs it is starting to happen already, no thanks to people like Robson.

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  16. As I noted at the beginning of this essay, the main targets of a critique like this are consequentialist moral theories like Utilitarianism, and if I am correct that not all actions have a moral status, then these theories are false as they currently stand. They could be amended such that they only operate over actions that have a moral status, and I would be interested in seeing consequentialists consider this. A more general point is that any theory that holds that all actions have a moral status would be, in my view, wrong.

    I don’t see how Utilitarian/Consequentialist theories require all actions have a moral status

    How would it contradict any of these theories to say there are actions with no moral status?.

    As I understand it they say that mundane everyday actions *can* have a moral status if there is an opportunity cost in an area which would bring greater happiness or relieve suffering.

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  17. I also think this a strong essay; but I admit leaning to Mark’s view here, because the problem has to do with politics; and both the left and the right oft think (or at least speak) as though politics should be held accountable to moralal interests.

    Technically, the resolution here should be in courts of law. However, the status of the law in America is not clear; and the status of the law applicable to twittering has not even been addressed properly. The fact is, tweeters violate libel laws left and right’ because the courts have no law to govern their decisions in such matters.

    The Blow Hard In Chief in the White House has long threatened toughening libel laws so as to shut down journalists; unfortunately, such laws would shut down his twitter account, given his proclivity for attacking celebrities who don’t like him any more.

    But that raises the point: Twitter trolls engage in all sorts of effectively illegal behavior (death threats, rape threats, libel, defamatio, etc., etc.) but are cloaked behind he anonymity Twitter allows the, And that’s part of the real problem – a ‘social media’ that has no accountability.

    That’s what’s disgusting, in my opinion.

    I’m not part of any ‘social media’ except the blogs I post at. I don’t have any Facebook site, and I don’t twitter. Hopefully, I never will..

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  18. Hi Dan,

    I like your argument and I find myself nodding along with most of it. I might suggest one slight amendment. You write:

    “The language of virtue ethics is that of a virtuous or vicious character, not that of permissible or impermissible action. Still, one might think that virtue ethicists could endorse their own version of the idea that all actions have some moral status or another, in the sense that all actions either do or do not reflect a virtuous character…Virtue ethics, then, is at least compatible with a version of UMS, though, again, some virtue ethicists might (and probably would) reject it.”

    This is true enough, as far as it goes, but I think this way of characterizing “virtue ethics” is misleading with regard to your thesis for a couple of reasons:

    1. It doesn’t distinguish between the different varieties of virtue ethics. Slote, Driver, Hursthouse, and Swanton can all be lumped under this heading, despite holding markedly different views about what a virtue ethics amounts to, how such an ethics differs from deontological and utilitarian theories. This difference extends to the moral status of actions as well as the role of theories of rational action in the guidance and evaluation of actions.

    2. The Aristotelian strand of virtue ethics, whose most well-known advocates include Hursthouse, Foot, Anscombe (at least in MMP though she tends to be more of a natural law theorist elsewhere) and McDowell, can agree with the spirit of your thesis while also affirming UMS.

    3. One reason for (2) is that, as you say, Aristotelian ethicists, especially of the “neo” variety who are writing in the wake of Wittgenstein, use a wholly different moral language. For instance, when you use the term “moral” you are not necessarily using it as the Aristotelian would use the term. In your usage, “moral” seems to refer expressly to obligations, permissions, duties, and other action-guiding “ought” words. The Aristotelian view is more concerned with “thick” concepts; instead of “moral” we do better to speak of “just”, “kind”, “courageous”, and the like, words that have a greater descriptive heft to them than the thin concepts of “good” and “right”.

    While I think it is possible to make too much of the turn away from “ought” langauge thanks to e.g., Anscombe’s MMP, Foot’s “Moral Beliefs”, Murdoch’s “Vision and Choice in Morality” — Hursthouse and Foot are quite happy to speak of one’s duties and obligations and rights, for example — it’s also true that “moral” is not defined by them as obligatory or permissible action. It isn’t just that they have a *different* standard of action-guidance and action-evaluation, but that the prescription and evaluation of action is no longer the primary aim of ethical thought. The first three chapters of Hursthouse’s ON VIRTUE ETHICS is taken up with just this question: can a virtue ethics talk about right actions? The answer is “of course it can”, and it does so because whatever sense there is to make of a “right action” depends on a prior concept of virtue.

    This isn’t a trivial difference in terminology. I think it is the point at which most contemporary discussions of VE approaches to ethics entirely miss the mark. As far as they are concerned, moral philosophy’s aim isn’t to come up with a theory of obligations (etc.) at all. Talk of virtue, using the vocabularies of thick concepts, just is talk of morality. Moral philosophers always try to bring the question back around to right action, but doing that misses the most important thing about VE approaches to ethics.

    4. What falls out of this is, firstly, that the widely held distinction between “moral” and “prudential” considerations, “the good” per se and *my own good* qua individual, collapses. Prudence is one part of morality; at the same time, what is good for you qua individual is not entirely up to your desires, interests, preferences, or whatever other states of persons the noncognitivists think can stand in as “good from a neutral point of view”.

    5. Secondly, in a parallel with (4), there is no such thing as a “morally neutral” action, if only because human agents act for the good that they see. This is a recurring theme in Anscombe’s writings on intentions and actions, and it appears in several places in Foot’s and Hursthouse’s writings. This is, again, because there is no distinction to draw between i) a prior sense of “wanting” originating in a non-rational “will” and ii) a posterior action which follows causally from it. But note again that “the good that they see” is not cashed out by a concept of obligation or permission — “good” here means all the many and various ways we employ evaluative concepts. One can “act well” by acting justly, of course, but also in many other ways: one can act well by being courageous, or kind, or even taking care of one’s own health.

    6. In one way this affirms UMS. There is no “non moral” action because all actions are expressions of one’s enculturated and habituated characteristics. Character is revealed in action, as Aristotle put it. To that extent, every action is already “moral”.

    7. At the same time, this interpretation also rules out the gloss on the UMS thesis that this article (rightly) attacks. The Aristotelian view on the ubiquity of evaluation with respect to action could not differ more from Schwitzgebel’s view, which decidedly *is* concerned with the appraisal of action with respect to a system of oblgiations and permissions. The neo-Aristotelian is not unconcerned with these matters; but the NA ethicist also considers friendship, one’s role as a parent, child, sibling (etc.), one’s promises, and even one’s own prudent self-care and, yes, even desires and personal projects not just as actions for appraisal but as *part of what morality itself consists in*.

    Apologies for the longer-than-intended comment, but I always feel like Aristotelian ethics is given a short straw by being forced into the mold of an agreed-upon set of concerns and problems, when the approach is more radical than all that.

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  19. Hi Dan. I guess I have a quantitative but vague concept of what is good, which allows some concept of opportunity cost, and a large uncertainty about outcomes from any given action, especially when the outcomes are more distant. It further allows that the good arising from any act of a single individual such as myself may be completely trivial in the objective scheme of things viz stuff like lottery or voting “paradoxes”. However, like a lot of people I would prefer things to go well for everyone.

    “We always have most reason to do whatever would be impartially best, unless some other act would be best for ourselves.
    In such cases, we would have sufficient reasons to act in either way. If we knew the relevant facts, either act would be rational.”

    I would recast that as: people act benevolently, providing it is cheap or not much work, and our thresholds for cheap in this context vary randomly. So in answer to your question about getting out of bed left or right, both are equal morally, but there will always be alternatives that that are better according to various moral codes eg you might have arisen at 6 instead of 7 and spent that time doing good deeds. And we’re back to asking where the thresholds for supererogation come from.

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  20. Utilitarianism says that it is our duty always to maximize utility. Which means that we are always obligated to do something that does that, over something that does not.

    Hence the very common, much-discussed “over-demandingness” problem that Dan T. mentioned in the essay.

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  21. The U.S. has always been a puritanical society. When I was growing up in the 50’s, all forms of sexual behavior outside of monogamous heterosexual matrimony were morally condemned. Genders roles were strictly defined and deviance from them was considered morally wrong.

    Now a puritanical leftwing moralism has replaced the puritanical conservative moralism of the 1950’s. The children or grandchildren of the 1950’s conservative puritans have become leftwing moralistic puritans, eager to condemn all those who deviate from leftwing political correctness and puffed up with their sense of moral superiority. Maybe there’s a genetic component for self-righteousness, and today’s leftwing puritans have inherited their puritanism from yesterday’s rightwing puritans.

    Whether or not there is a genetic component, it is clear that many people derive an important part of their self of identity from feeling morally superior to others and from their sanctimonious condemnation of those whom they consider to be sinner, the category of sinners varying whether cultural hegemony is leftwing or rightwing.

    Although self-righteousness is not one of the most endearing human traits, it seems to be something we all have to learn to live with in others. Good advice comes from Jesus: let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone.

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  22. ‘Social media’ – have I not pissed on it enough? Will it not go away? can we talk as humans, face to face?> is that not the real problem here? FACEBOOK, Twitter, Google This or That – Fuck it all. That’s not ‘social media,’ that’s the heatdeatth of Modernism. And you wonder why we’re all Post-Moderns.

    Oh, come on. give me a break.

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  23. Dan,
    I’m sorry, I recognize that I just toss comments out there myself. Also, sorry for the sudden outburst about social media. Yesterday I was reading here and elsewhere, and even in hard-copy magazines about social media and its now evident impositions on our communications. I’m growing concerned about the way these impositions have seriously altered our ways of looking at the world or talking about it. This essay would itself be considerably different in a world without social media. There was a time when if one wanted to protest someone or their actions one would need to confront them personally or write a reasoned argument. Now just blurt it out (much in the way I occasionally blurt out here, I confess. There is just something so tempting about the “post comment” button….)

    The editor of Esquire recently wrote a brief note about how he found himself stranded at a hotel without his I-phone and actually found himself reading books he had brought with him. He suggested Shakespeare as an antidote to the ‘sky is falling’ immediacy of the instant-access information of the internet. Something to bear in mind.

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  24. No social media won’t go away. Nor will stupid people stop being stupid.

    But that doesn’t matter because it is not social media nor atupid people who are the real problem.

    Think of it this way. The Nobel laureates heading up an august scientific body sacked an experienced and important scientist because some stupid people on twitter told them to.

    And everyone says “what can we do about the people on social media?”

    Nobody asked why an intelligent group of people would sack someone because stupid people told them to.

    I will never be a Nobel laureate but here’s an idea that apparently didn’t occur ti them:

    Don’t sack people just because some stupid people tell you to.

    In Australia the stupid people on social media told IBM to sack one of their execs because he was an office bearer in an organidation which had campaigned against same sex marriage. And IBM didn’t sack him.

    And whar happened? Nothing. Because it was only some stupid people on twitter who wanted him sacked and if you ignore them nothing happens.

    So the problem isn’t the stupid people on social media. The problem is handing power to them.

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  25. Dan K,

    “1. To suggest that activists are not influenced by thinkers working on animal welfare, gender identity, feminism and the like simply demonstrates that one has no idea what is actually going on. Peter Singer has been enormously influential with regard to animal welfare and effective altruism activism, and the same is true for thinkers across the areas widely categorized as “social justice.” ”

    How far do you think that influence really goes though? Because it seems to me to be little more than lip service. I don’t see huge swaths of activists giving up every spare cent to charity, or acting as though animals have the same rights as human beings. What I do see is hypocritical soap-boxing from people desperate to attach themselves to some “meaningful” cause because it makes them feel important.

    I’ve run Singer’s general thesis about charity past a few people I know and the typical response isn’t “yes, I’m a bad person for buying my kids toys instead of donating that money to charity” – it’s more “Singer sounds like a bit of an arsehole”. I don’t think people are all that susceptible to universalist moralising; it clangs against their perception of themselves as basically good people trying to get by in life.

    I agree with you that there is a lot of this toxic behaviour in our cultures, and we need to find effective ways of dealing with it. Perhaps a good start would be encouraging ordinary people to stand up to the universalist puritans with a firm “No, I’m not a bad person – you’re just an arsehole”.

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  26. Dan T,

    Interesting essay, I like the overall picture of moral concerns and their cultural instantiation (or not), conceptually and in practice.

    “This is why I don’t take many of the prevalent moral production debates in public discourse today to be legitimate instances of moral production. The advocates do not exhibit courage, in the sense just described. They are happy to accuse people of racism, sexism, or any form of bigotry, without any hint of moral uncertainty, despite the damage that this can do to the person accused, and they seem to feel no moral regret in having done so.”

    I believe there are some people involved with what you call legitimate instances of moral production concerning this topic, in other words I don’t think all of them are illegitimate (though it could be most of them depending on how one decides to measure it), but I also don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a reliable distinction between what’s illegitimate and what’s not.

    I think a source of the problem and the current rising turmoil is the ongoing interaction between the following groups:

    The people who you refer to as those ‘happy to accuse people of racism, sexism …’ who take on the cause of people involved with a legitimate instance of moral production.

    The people who are, against the people who have taken on the cause of people involved with legitimate instances of moral production, or against the people with legitimate instances of moral production.

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