Moral Theory and Moral Life

by Daniel A. Kaufman


A venerable strategy in arguing against theism involves the observation that the world looks exactly as you’d expect it to, if there is no God and not at all like it should if there is one.  I want to say the same thing here about moral life and traditional moral theories.  Moral life looks nothing like you’d expect it to if traditional moral theories like Utilitarianism or Kantian Deontology were true and exactly like you’d think it would, if they were not.

By “traditional moral theories,” I mean theories that purport to identify general, defining characteristics of moral rightness and wrongness, for the purpose of developing moral principles, from which specific moral obligations can be derived.  Thus, the Utilitarian identifies positive or negative effects on the general welfare as the general, defining moral characteristics, from which comes the principle of utility that is then deployed to instruct us on how to act, in particular cases.  And we can tell a similar story about the Kantian deontologist, one that will differ only with respect to what is taken to be the relevant defining moral characteristic, which, for Kant, was whether or not the principle or “maxim” on which one is acting satisfies the condition of rational universalizability.

Now, it seems to me that if any such theory was true – by which I mean any theory that has this general form – one would expect that the moral life would look like the following:

(1) Once one has determined which of the competing moral theories is true, the only real epistemic challenge one faces in the conduct of one’s moral life is that of determining which actions conform to the defining principle laid out in that moral theory – i.e. whether or not this action will maximize utility or whether or not that principle conforms to the Categorical Imperative.

(2) The only real personal challenges one faces in the conduct of one’s moral life are akratic.  That is, they revolve entirely around self-control related difficulties in making one’s behavior conform to one’s duty, as defined by the relevant moral theory.

(3) Coming to the right moral view on any particular occasion is an entirely intellectual affair, as it involves nothing more than determining (a) which moral theory is correct – i.e. whether Kant or Mill or whomever is right about the defining moral characteristic – and (b) which actions conform or fail to conform to it.

(4) There isn’t much (if any) need for practical reason.  In order to live a moral life, all that one needs to do is (a) hold the right moral theory; (b) identify which actions conform to it; and (c) have sufficient control over oneself to act accordingly.  There literally is nothing to figure out, beyond the matters indicated in (1), so the role that practical reason is supposed to play in moral life is obscure.

(5)  Moral life, in light of 1-4, should be relatively easy.  I don’t mean to suggest that self-control may not be difficult or that determining which moral theory is true may not constitute an intellectual challenge, but rather, that moral decision making itself should not be a particularly wracking process since, according to traditional moral philosophy, it is simply a matter of following instructions; of sticking to the recipe for moral life.

The trouble, of course, is that any serious, honest reflection on moral life reveals that it is profoundly difficult; that beyond the challenge of conforming one’s behavior to what one deems right or wrong on any particular occasion, the very determination of what one’s obligations are in the various, varying circumstances of one’s life is itself often fraught and even sometimes, tormenting.  This is because moral life is not aptly characterized in the manner just described, but rather, as follows:

(6)  The general characteristics by which traditional moral theories define obligation may all be morally significant and compete for one’s consideration, in morally charged situations.  There is no one who has not faced circumstances in which considerations of utility and considerations of principle imply contradictory courses of action, and in such situations, the moral theories themselves provide no guidance.  Whether in this particular instance the general welfare is more pressing than acting on right principles is something that I will have to decide, and moral philosophy is of no help in doing so.

(7)  Not only is practical reason absolutely central to the successful navigation of moral life, but so is what can only be deemed a kind of moral perception – reasoning, after all, never gets a person down to the truly particular, but must always, at some level deal in generalities.  What the most pressing element in the current situation is and thus, where my obligations lie, ultimately is something that can only be seen and not deduced.

(8)  Beyond sound moral reasoning and perception there is the further point that all the force of an obligation lies in the extent to which it is actually felt by the obligated party.  When the work of the intellect and the perceptual faculty is done, the emotional work still remains, in that one also must be moved, if the obligation is not to remain inert and impotent; nothing more than an expressed or unexpressed imperative.

(9) Moral life, then, is one for which there are no recipes for success; no instructions that if followed will ensure that one’s behavior will be moral rather than immoral.  Because our practical reasoning can be faulty; because we can misread a situation; because we can misidentify what is most pressing in a particular case; because sometimes, regardless of how carefully one has considered things, clarity only can be found in hindsight; and because even with all of this going perfectly, one may still find oneself unmoved; for all these reasons, real moral life, as opposed to the simplistic, rationalistic version of it imagined by moral philosophy, is characterized by the persistent, perennial, and very real possibility of getting things wrong and sometimes terribly so.  Contra (5), then, moral life is not easy but extremely difficult and a source of constant and appropriate anxiety and concern.

Readers will remember that in the past I have singled out for praise the ethical works of both Aristotle and W.D. Ross, and it is because their approach to moral questions is anti-theoretical, (largely) non-rationalist, and strongly cognizant of the fact that moral life is difficult and marked by the constant possibility of failure, even when we have been as conscientious in the pursuit of our duty as we could possibly be.  Our actual experience of our own moral lives confirms the picture they paint, and contradicts that painted by traditional moral philosophies.






11 responses to “Moral Theory and Moral Life”

  1. s. wallerstein

    If traditional moral theories don’t work, how do I make ethical decisions?

    Now it’s clear that it’s wrong to torture babies or to rape children, but in daily life I face hundreds of less clear situations where ethical decisions are called for. By the way, if the traditional moral theories are not enough, how do I even know what is a situation where an ethical decision rather than a non-ethical decision is called for, leaving aside the obvious cases such as not raping children or adults?

    I know from your very interesting conversation in Sophia (thank you for them, by the way) that you rely on moral intuitions, but my intuitions are totally confusing. My intuitions depend on what my parents taught me, but when I reach a complicated situation I realize that my mother and my father didn’t always teach me the same way to deal with it and that what both of them taught me and showed me (one learns from the moral example as well as from the verbal lesson) often contradicts what respected childhood teachers taught and showed me as well as what I learned from peers and from reading, all of which are imputs to my often rather confused and contradictory moral intuitions.

  2. I considered writing a comment. But it would be so long, that I decided to make it a post on my own blog. “Morality and Quantum Mechanics.”

  3. alandtapper1950

    Hi Dan:

    I agree with your critique of the standard moral theories, but I find moral intuitionism equally unhelpful. To my mind, there is a large middle ground between these two monoliths. It is the ground of moral reasons.

    The big difference between having moral intuitions and having moral reasons is that the second is interpersonal whereas the first is not. If A says she has an intuition that B should do X, that can have no force for B unless B happens to share the intuition. But if A has a moral reason why B should do X, that reason has force for B, assuming that it really is a reason. Reasons have interpersonal force, in morality as in any other scenario.

    As in other matters, moral reasons can be complex and contested, so morality is not the cookie-cutter exercise of applying a moral theory. But neither is it a matter of merely consulting with one’s inner self — other people can have a say in helping me figure out what I ought to do by giving me reasons I might have overlooked.


  4. My whole view tends to be sociological and legalistic, which may be surprising given some things I’ve posted here and elsewhere. But that’s because I understand that an impulse to the moral has been/ can be useful in political efforts to change bad law.

    Moral philosophy is pretty well pointless without discussion of how societies inculcate ethics, and is mooted by actual legislation and the political maneuverings that get them into law.

  5. davidlduffy

    Korsgaard in her 2003 paper on moral constructivism makes much of the fact that practical rationality is central to Kantian ethics: “where does this leave theories like Aristotle’s and Kant’s, according to which moral judgments are the conclusions
    of practical reasoning?” The conclusion that autonomy is the sole moral value is forced by the practical problem of finding a rational decision rule applicable to all moral quandaries, given that we are free agents and that reason is so effective in other domains . Similarly, movements like Effective Altruism attempt to use practical reason to choose the best policies given a rather general maxim or goal. Korsgaard does not extend her approach to consequentalism, but I can see that “a normative concept refer[ring] schematically to the solution to a practical problem” fits broadly there too. Given our bounded rationality and ignorance, things like classical chaos or the Arrow Impossibility Theorem (which has been applied to scientific theorizing in the absence of full information) imply that there it can be insurmountable practical difficulties in the face of a relatively simple “correct” principle of how to optimally arrange human affairs.

  6. Though the essay is thought-provoking, I don’t think the approach used here is as applicable for moral life as it is for the existence of God. It is easy to understand why “If God exists, we should observe Y”. A entity such as God stands in causal relationship to the world, and thus it is reasonable to have expectations that the world would look different depending on God’s existence.

    Without an account of the causal power of moral theories, however, it is not clear how our observations would be different depending on whether any particular moral theory is true. To illustrate the point, one can contend that “the good” is an abstract object, and a moral theory is true to the extent it reflects this object. If this is the case, then there would be no reason to believe that our observations would be different, depending on the truth of a moral theory, because abstract objects do not stand in causal relation to the world. People behave how they behave regardless of the nature of abstract objects. Without a causal account, the same could be said for moral theories.

  7. Victor: I thought the point was quite clear. If traditional moral theories are correct, then moral life should be easy in the ways mentioned, but instead it is profoundly difficult.

  8. I’m not saying your thesis is not clear. What wasn’t clear (to me) is why it would be the case that if traditional moral theories are correct, moral life would be easy in the sense described. The point I tried to make was that, unlike God and the world, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward causal relationship between “moral truths” and human behavior (which constitutes moral life).

    Upon further deliberation (and a re-reading of point (6)), I see the logic of your argument more clearly, but I think my original point still holds. What you’re saying is that traditional moral theories, which contend that a single characteristic is morally overriding, cannot explain the fact that a multitude of characteristics, depending on the situation, can give rise to a sense of obligation.

    Though the argument does have force, given the fact that our moral intuitions are the “data” of moral philosophy, there is a straightforward objection relating to my original point on causal relations. One could contend that the causes of our senses of obligation don’t have much to do with moral “truths”. The causes of these senses can be traced to cultural or evolutionary factors.

    This is a big reason why I’m inclined to sympathize with the utilitarian and Kantian, who aim to ground our moral beliefs on a firmer footing than our senses of obligation that arise in any particular situation. Moreover, I would like to make judgments on those acting on obligations I believe to be invalid. An alternative here, for example, would be Sidgwick’s formulation of utilitarianism on “self-evident” axioms. The logic following these axioms could allow us to accept or reject any particular sense of obligation and provide a firmer foundation than our multi-faceted sense of obligations.

  9. Victor: I thought I also was quite clear on why moral life should be easy, if any of the traditional moral theories is true. If one is, then there are instructions for life, and one’s only real problem is akrasia.

  10. I have a simple question: I have no Christian religious creed (I’m a materialist), but if I said my moral code is “basically the Sermon on the Mount”, is there anything wrong with that?