On our Use of the Moral Idiom

by Daniel A. Kaufman


1. An unpopular, overweight teen – call her “V” – is in her high school cafeteria, eating alone. Several other girls taunt and humiliate her, to the point that she bursts into tears and begs them to cease their torments, crying, “You’re hurting my feelings, please stop!”

2. What would be different if she [or someone else] had told them, instead, that they ought to stop what they are doing, because it is morally wrong? Why might one say this, rather than what V actually said?

3. One might think that statements and requests like those made by V are not enough; that the language of joy and sorrow, love and hatred, sympathy and callousness is inadequate for the purpose of addressing the dramas that characterize so much of human life; and that we need the language of morality in order to do so.

4. But why isn’t it enough to say that something is horrible and that one hates it and wants it to stop? Or that something is wonderful and that one loves it and wants it to continue? What does the moral language add that is missing from the language of emotion and sensibility?

5. One place we might look for an answer is Kant’s philosophy: I make a moral appeal rather than an emotional one, because in the absence of a moral reason, what I say or do will fail to be moral [in the sense that I will fail to adhere to the Categorical Imperative]. [1] But, while this explains why we will make moral appeals, if we want to be moral, it doesn’t say anything about why we would want to be moral, a question for which, notoriously, Kant has no compelling answer. For Kant — as for Locke before him — moral agency is constitutive of being a person, so to fail to be moral means suffering a kind of diminished personhood, but this simply begs the question of why anyone should care about that.

6. By “Why do you want to be moral?” I do not mean “Why would you want to be moral, rather than immoral?” which is the way that philosophers typically frame the question. [2] My question is “Why would you want to be moral, as opposed to simply [merely] being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc.?”

7. A Utilitarian might say: “Being moral just is being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc. It is not some extra quality.” But while I can imagine a Utilitarian saying this — and I don’t need to imagine it; one self-described Utilitarian has said something very much like this to me — I wonder whether she can really mean it.

8. Certainly, what she says is true to some extent. When we act under the impetus of positive feelings, we sometimes do things that the Utilitarian would deem good, and when we act under the pressure of negative feelings, we sometimes do things that the Utilitarian would deem bad. In short, acting out of sympathy sometimes serves the cause of utility, while acting on the basis of antipathy sometimes undermines it.

9. Remember what ‘utility’ means, though. For an action to be the sort of which the Utilitarian approves, it must not only give pleasure to one’s immediate object, it must serve the cause of pleasure generally. [3] This means that there will be any number of cases in which intention and outcome come apart and the nice, sympathetic, sensitive thing won’t be the moral thing,  as the Utilitarian understands it. Thus, my initial question regarding moral vs emotive language remains.

10. Another reason for using moral language rather than the language of positive and negative sentiment might be that we don’t believe people care enough about what others want or don’t want to be moved by the mere voicing of a desire. By characterizing what we want as a moral obligation, we imbue it with an air of urgency that may make it more likely that the person will comply with our wishes. After all, if the bullies don’t care about the feelings of the girl whom they are making miserable, then why would they care that she wants them to stop? The moral imperative, on the other hand, its authority bolstered by a near-universal, almost racial memory of divine punishment and consequence, may carry a force that a plea for sympathy or mercy lacks.

11. I can imagine someone protesting that there is no need to be so suspicious about morality; that our use of the moral vocabulary is simply a matter of being truthful. One might point to the common admonition that we should not “trivialize” the things that have happened to others, as in, “How dare you trivialize what those bullies did to that poor girl in the cafeteria!” and suggest that the offense of trivialization is an offense against the truth; the misdeed of having failed to adequately characterize a situation or event; specifically, of having underestimated its significance. The thought, then, is that engaging with the moral framework of concepts is necessary, if we are to sufficiently respect the truth, in the sense of honoring the full significance of something that has happened to someone.

12. But why we are so offended by what we perceive as a failure to adequately represent this particular reality? Certainly, it seems odd, at least as described thus far. The mere fact of misrepresentation — of getting something wrong — taken separately from its tangible effects, is a purely aesthetic offense, and while there undoubtedly are those who are gripped with the idea of truthfulness for truthfulness’s sake, they are a rare and obsessive breed.

13. I would suggest that the offense of trivialization is not an offense against the truth but is rather one of insufficient sympathy. When I am upset by what I perceive as your trivializing description of something that has happened to me, the reason isn’t because this particular misrepresentation offends the truth, but because it offends me, for it suggests that you don’t care about me enough.

Lest we think that this brand of offense is egoistic, people can get angry over what they perceive as trivializations, even if they don’t know the trivializer or if the thing that is allegedly being trivialized happened to someone else, even if it is someone they don’t know. A common refrain that one hears when someone tries to compare the Holocaust to some other mass murder or genocide, is that such comparisons trivialize it, and the people saying this need not have survived the Holocaust themselves or even know anyone personally who did. They are saying, in effect, “How can you care so little about those people to make such comparisons?!”

14. The point, then, is that we care about people caring about each other, and when we invoke morality and employ the moral conceptual framework, it is because we think that the people we are dealing with don’t care about each other enough. That we invoke it so frequently and in so many different contexts and have done so for such a long time suggests that this perception of a failure of human sympathy is both general and longstanding.

15. Two final thoughts on the matter:

First, all of this suggests that we would be better served by attending to the cultivation of human sympathy than by the seemingly endless proliferation of moral philosophies and moral discourse in which we are currently engaged. With respect to the formal curriculum, this might suggest a diminished place for philosophy, in comparison with subjects like literature and the fine arts, which directly engage us at the level of the affective sensibility, or like cultural anthropology, which confronts us with the actual practices and sensibilities of those who belong to civilizations other than our own.

Second, as philosophers, we must face the fact that the “moral image” that we have embraced since antiquity, is based in a fundamental misconception or, if you read the history of ideas a bit more cynically, a fundamental dishonesty. Philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, and others have all taken our moral frameworks and practices as indicative of our essential nobility; as something that speaks highly of us. They take it as constitutive of our personhood; as that which distinguishes us from beasts; as the thing about us wherein our dignity lies. But if the points raised here are correct, exactly the opposite is the case. Our moral framework and language, rather than demonstrate our elevation, point towards our debasement, for we invoke and engage in them, not because of belief in our fellow men and women, but because of a profound lack of belief in them; specifically, a lack of belief that they are sufficiently sympathetic and charitable.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 4: 397-8.

[2] Callicles poses it this way to Socrates in the Gorgias (Plato, Gorgias 481b-527e), and Thrasymachus and Glaucon put it to him in the same way, in the Republic (Plato, Republic 336b-354c; 357a-367e).

[3] Mill refers to the principle of utility as the “greatest happiness principle,” in Utilitarianism, and Jeremy Bentham maintains that an action satisfies the utilitarian standard when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it,“ in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.


55 responses to “On our Use of the Moral Idiom”

  1. Alex Sager

    As a teacher and scholar of literature, I really want to believe that literature and the arts help cultivate human sympathy. I’ve lost faith in the proposition over the years. You get mad at Bob Wright when he claims that mindfulness helps develop cognitive empathy and say there is no actual evidence this is the case. Do you have better evidence that literature and the arts, for all they engage us at the level of affective sensibility, really do instill human sympathy?

  2. Charles Justice

    Lots of food for thought here. I appreciate the way you have outlined the problem. Morality is like society. They are both artificial systems that are largely invisible, except on a very local level. We can conceive of a society as a whole, but we don’t experience it. We experience the consequences of social organizations that make up society – the way we live, dress, work, play, become adults – these depend on the kind of society we live in. We extrapolate from these experiences to the concept of a society. Morality is like this. We are all part of a moral system. We grow up learning to adhere to and enforce moral rules. By three years old we know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. By six we are able to internalize moral rules, sometimes acting against our own desires in order to do the right thing. By thirteen we can justify and critique individual moral rules. Caring, empathy, concern, are all psychological tools that have been appropriated by moral systems in order to guide behaviour. They all exist naturally, but in a moral system they are artificially generalized beyond the natural limits of self, family, and friends. The idea that God ultimately enforces justice has proven to be very effective at generating compliance, but this effectiveness has diminished with growing knowledge of cultural differences and the increasingly powerful philosophical critiques of theological systems. The psychopath or sociopath is a person who has not internalized morality. He knows how to fake empathy and honesty, but he sees moral rules as equivalent to conventional rules. If he wants to fit in he won’t break conventional rules, but if he thinks no one else is looking, and it benefits him to break a moral rule, he won’t hesitate to act immorally. This is where morality is essential and where it obviously transcends being nice and caring. A moral system works to prevent people from getting away with breaking the moral rules. Socialization and childhood development takes care of internalizing morality for most of us most of the time, but the whole system would break down if people were allowed to “get away with murder”, so to speak.

  3. I simply mentioned formal curricular considerations that might be suggested, if what I’ve said is correct. I haven’t made any strong claims about the causes of increased sympathy.

  4. s. wallerstein

    Excellent and thought-provoking essay!!

    Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has a book, Against Empathy, where he points out that empathy (which I take as a pre-condition for sympathy) is selective, subjective, that we empathize (and hence sympathize) more with people whom we perceive as being like us, that it gets turned off when we’re in a hurry or very tired, etc. Bloom advocates for a more developed sense of justice, for an ethical code, although he’s not really “against empathy”.

    For example, a few days ago I passed by the public health clinic near my home and I saw a long line outside waiting to see a doctor, on a cold early morning. I noticed a neighbor (I don’t know his name, but I’ve seen him on my block) who is decrepit and walks with a cane, must be around 80. I immediately said “good morning” and offered to ring the bell of the clinic and demand a chair for him so that he could wait more comfortably. He asked me not to and I didn’t press the point because I didn’t want to suggest that I perceived him as too old, weak and unmanly to be able to wait his turn on line with the others.

    I pass by the same clinic several times a week, notice the people waiting, feel a little sorry for them, but never offer to help. I only offered to help because I saw someone whom I identity as a neighbor.

    So after reading your essay and thinking of the incident, I decided that I should adopt an ethical rule of always offering to help when I see an elderly person in a such a situation.

    However, I then realized that in the real world I wasn’t going to go out of my way to help all and every elderly person and that you’re right, sympathy (based on empathy) is enough. I’m not Sir Galahad, I don’t have to right every wrong, but caring about others, sympathy, is a wonderful thing. Maybe I’ll even amplify my sympathy a little.

    There’s no point having ethical codes that have nothing to do with human nature or with how we act in the real world.

  5. Gray

    Interesting post. Here are some points where I’d push back:

    “But why isn’t it enough to say that something is horrible and that one hates it and wants it to stop? Or that something is wonderful and that one loves it and wants it to continue? What does the moral language add that is missing from the language of emotion and sensibility?”

    Normative nihilism seems at least conceivable to me. That is, I can conceive of a state of affairs in which, however much things might *seem* to matter, or to give me reasons for acting–things like happiness, kindness, and so on–such an appearance is simply deceptive, and nothing in fact matters. But I don’t think our world is indeed like that. And the difference between that world and our own seems to me to consist simply in this: things like happiness and kindness do in fact have moral value.

    One could concede that the moral language might not make much (if any) of a difference to motivating people to act differently. But if it nevertheless allows us to capture the way in which our world differs from a normative nihilist world, that strikes me as something that is philosophically interesting and worth capturing.

    Here’s another way of approaching the point: If someone were to value traits like cruelty and laziness, I would want to say that his preferences are not simply different from normal people’s, but are in some important sense bad or incorrect. And it seems to me that appealing to morality here allows us to make sense of the way in which such preferences would be bad or incorrect. I think that views to the contrary tend to have the undesirable consequence of making it arbitrary whether we value (e.g.) kindness or cruelty–that, in the end, it’s simply a matter of having different preferences, where ultimately we have no more reason for preferring the way we do than for preferring in some other, very much alien way.

  6. Charles Justice

    Re: (5.) Kant was right to strictly separate morality from nature, but he tried to do too much by deriving it solely from Reason. Hence his inability to deal with doing good because it feels good. Hume’s moral sentiments and Mill’s Utilitarianism are forms of ethical naturalism, which assume that ethics is based on nature. So they stumble around free will, and obligations. Kant was right, the moral law is something different but just as awesome as the laws of nature. Humans aren’t fully out of nature, we can’t be, because we are biological organisms, but we transcend nature in part, because we have created a super cooperative system that mitigates Darwinian natural selection. We have a name for this: it’s called Morality.

  7. I don’t see how the last point is supposed to work. If enough people valued cruelty and laziness, these *would be* good and correct. However, most people — a sufficient number — do not. I don’t see what the moral framework adds.

  8. I reject any conception of transcendence, especially when invoked to address questions of human social and “normative” forms of life. That’s what my Prolegomena were all about. And obviously the entire thrust of the essay is opposed to any account of morality that implies or presupposes that.

  9. Gray

    “If enough people valued cruelty and laziness, these *would be* good and correct.”

    This is where I get off the boat. My intuition here is that cruelty and laziness would be bad no matter how many people valued them. (My unease with the alternative is parallel to my unease with the divine command theorist who bites the bullet in a certain way. Suppose the divine command theorist said, “Sure, if God had made cruelty morally right, then cruelty would be morally right. But God didn’t, so cruelty is still wrong.” The sense of arbitrariness that would introduce seems to me and many others to be fundamentally incompatible with the kind of thing morality is. I worry that the view you’re expressing is ultimately subject to the same concern [though replacing “morality” with something like “goodness,” “correctness,” “what’s worth preferring,” etc. for your view].)

  10. Yeah, I just don’t see any basis for that. I mean, you could *say* it, but in the world I am describing it would have no efficacy.

    That was part of the point of the discussion of “truth for truthfulness sake” and is why I constantly emphasize that ethics is an entirely practical subject.

  11. In the absence of divine command or purpose in nature on which to build an objective conception of value, all that value involves is something mattering to someone. Post scientific revolution, “matter” is a two-placed predicate, as in “X matters to Y.” “X matters, period” is ill-formed.

  12. Gray

    “Yeah, I just don’t see any basis for that. I mean, you could *say* it, but in the world I am describing it would have no efficacy.”

    Perhaps. But I’d say that the point of using moral discourse need not be “efficacy” (in the sense of motivating people to act differently), but can simply be to allow us to reach a satisfying answer to the question “Does anything really matter?” That seems to me to be one of central questions, if not *the* central question, of ethics. If viewing ethics as an “entirely practical discipline” makes us unable to give a satisfying answer to such a question (by, e.g., forcing us to reject the question as confused, or to concede that ultimately our preferences are indeed all arbitrary), then I’d say that that’s as good an argument as any that ethics shouldn’t be viewed as an entirely practical discipline.

  13. I enjoyed this essay.

    I do share the Utilitarian’s feeling that to be nice, all other things equal, just is to be moral, at least in the scenario described. But I do not share their methodology, so I too would look askance at a Utilitarian providing this answer too confidently.

    As for our moral frameworks and language pointing to our debasement, I can see that, especially since you laid the argument out for me.

    But I also see it as a glass half full/half empty sort of thing. Surely moral frameworks and language serve a kind of coercive, manipulative purpose at times. But they can also be informative or illuminating of nascent or inchoate moral feelings. If kept in perspective as used as guides or tools in a toolbox with other available tools, they can be helpful. But admittedly, in the academic or political realms, the myopic and excessively formalized side of moral frameworks often shines through.

  14. Gray

    I was writing my other comment while your above one posted and didn’t see it till just now. Anyway, I’m not sure how much more there is to be said, since we seem to be hitting bedrock. To me, saying “X matters, period” seems to make perfect sense.

  15. I think people “moralize” because they believe there’s something universal about morality, while the claim “you’re hurting my feelings” is personal. They feel that morality is on a higher, more universal level than sympathy or empathy.

    It’s not a crazy idea. After all, morality demands that we act morally towards people we don’t sympathize with.

    It’s also absurd. Morality is not universal, people continuously disagree about what is morally correct.

    The paradox is that universality – although it doesn’t exist – is a constitutive aspect of morality. If I follow the corona-rules in my country because it is, for me, the morally correct thing to do, I can’t say to myself “Oh well, he just has another morality” if my neighbor flouts the rules all the time. That would pull the rug from under my own moral views. I may understand the reasons why he doesn’t follow the rules, I may even sympathize with his situation, but he still is morally wrong.

    When people moralize, they’re chasing a universality that doesn’t exist in reality.

  16. It only makes sense if you can identify a basis or ground for it. This is the entire basis of Williams’ argument in The Human Prejudice.

  17. “What does the moral language add that is missing from the language of emotion and sensibility?”

    My answer is that moral language lets us use the language of obligation, which you note but question the value of. The value is that the language of obligation lets us use the language of accounting, which is mankind’s imperfect solution to the problem of holding people accountable for their obligations.

    Moral language is not very useful in the contexts you emphasize–if you want to persuade someone to do something, telling them they are obligated to do so is rarely the most effective approach. Emotion and sensibility are a better bet. But usually, we hold people accountable for their obligations through accountability systems, which weave together informative reports, motiving incentives, and controls that make it easy to do what one should and hard to do what one shouldn’t (e.g., automatic payments and locks on doors). Moral language is thus helpful in talking about these obligations and how to hold people accountable, and does so in a way that is more expansive than talking merely about financial or legal obligations.

    I’m not sure how important it is that philosophers use moral frameworks to argue for human exceptionalism, or that we don’t trust people to live up to their obligations. Societies impose all sorts of obligations on their citizens, not always in moral ways, and not always supported by good accountability systems. Those are problems accountants have been addressing for at least 10,000 years (the first hard evidence of accounting predates writing by thousands of years, and led directly to it), and we still have a long way to go. But at least moral language lets us talk about our aspirations to hold people accountable for their obligations to society, and to hold them accountable in a way that is itself moral, which means (among other things) not holding them accountable for obligations to behave immorally. These aspirations seem both noble and uniquely human to me.

    If anyone is interested, I’ve been writing about these aspirations in a project I call “moral accounting”. If you are interested, clicking my name will take you to an introductory post for philosophers.

  18. s. wallerstein

    Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t feel any moral obligations at all towards others. I obviously have legal obligations.

    I care about people and that motivates me to harm them. When I walk down the street, I see a lot of women whom I like to grab and I don’t grab them first because I care enough about women whom I don’t know not to want to assault them sexually, second, because I care about my reputation as a good citizen and as a non-sexist male and third, because grabbing women is against the law and I don’t want to be arrested.

  19. Gray

    By “basis or ground for it,” I take it that you’re referring to something metaphysical; the question it’s getting at might be put as “What (if anything) makes it the case that a given thing matters, period?” But here the realist could just respond, “Why does there need to be a ground, in this sense? Couldn’t it simply be a brute feature of the world that, say, happiness matters, period?” Now, for all I’ve said, such a view might turn out to be implausible in the end. But I don’t see anything (whether in the Williams paper or elsewhere) that shows such a view to be outright incoherent.

  20. 1970scholar

    I am in the middle; I do accept, spiritually, some reality of transcendence. It is simply that i think the moral system, in Williams’ formulation is an arbitrary conceptualization of it, though masked as a logical necessity. The older I get the more attracted I am to something like Dan Kaufman’s conception, in part because it is entirely rooted in human and quotidian reality. It seems to me that moralists do a disservice by asking that there be something higher or better than human sentiment; it has the effect of disparaging such sentiment and making it lesser than it really is.

  21. What is ‘brute’ is always only so relative to a framework. What is brute in one framework may be up for dispute in others.

    Look, you can *say* whatever you want. Say, “Happiness matters, period.” The trouble is when someone is “No it doesn’t” there’s no answer.

  22. I got your email with the link to the video. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

  23. That unfashionable thing: an intuition.

    Have any of you ever met a good person? A partial aspect of such a one would be their spontaneity. In fact we might be disinclined to grant that accolade if they had to think through options.

  24. I think “V” has other resources, beyond merely pleading for the other girls to play nice. Morality as I understand it permits her to weigh up the option of revenge. She can consider ways of hurting the girls in response to the hurt they have caused her.

    Let’s assume there is such a way. Then “V” has two ways of responding. One is to say to herself that she doesn’t want to risk becoming like those other girls, so she will refrain from the revenge option. This involves a price, the price of having to toughen up or else limit her life by avoiding the girls.

    Alternatively, she might choose the revenge option. She can think to herself that they acted without provocation by her, therefore it would not be unjust to get her own back. And then the only points to weigh up are whether the revenge will be effective and whether she will be doing herself any harm in going down that path. What she doesn’t have to consider is whether she will hurt the feelings of the other girls.

    All this is within the scope of morality, as I understand it. Neither Kantian, nor utilitarian, nor Humean moralities allow space for this kind of morality, which is why they fail when put to the test.


  25. Gray

    I know that the discussion’s been going on for a while now, and I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so this might be my last post in this thread. I appreciate all the responses you’ve left.

    “What is ‘brute’ is always only so relative to a framework. What is brute in one framework may be up for dispute in others.”

    For any feature one posits as brute, one could indeed posit an alternative framework according to which such a feature isn’t brute (or doesn’t exist at all). That seems more or less trivially true. I had thought that the question at hand was whether, when a given framework posits a feature of the world (e.g., mattering) as brute, it’s claiming something coherent. That there are always alternative frameworks that disagree with the claim in question doesn’t suggest that the claim is incoherent.

    “Look, you can *say* whatever you want. Say, ‘Happiness matters, period.’ The trouble is when someone is ‘No it doesn’t’ there’s no answer.”

    If by “there’s no answer,” you mean that we *can’t know* what the answer is, or that there’s no way of rationally resolving what the answer is, etc., then that might or might not be true. (Personally, I’d push back on it, but I also realize that this isn’t the place for an extended discussion on that matter.) But more importantly, all that would be merely an epistemological issue, not a metaphysical or conceptual one. I had thought that the issue here wasn’t “How can we know whether a given thing matters, period?” but “Is it coherent to claim that a given thing matters, period?” Even if it turned out that we couldn’t know whether a given thing matters, period, that wouldn’t entail that the claim that it does is incoherent.

    On the other hand, if by “there’s no answer,” you mean that there’s no fact of the matter as to who’s right in the dispute over whether happiness matters, period, then that indeed brings us to a more metaphysical or conceptual point and away from a merely epistemic one. But the claim would also seem rather question-begging here. The only reason I can think of for holding that there’s no fact of the matter as to who’s right in the above kind of dispute is if one already believes that claims about mattering, period, are incoherent. So my immediate question would be just why we should accept that there’s no fact of the matter as to who’s right in the above kind of dispute. And whatever argument you gave here, presumably it would be *that* argument that’s doing all the work in motivating the conclusion that claims about mattering, period, are incoherent.

  26. Charles Justice

    Thanks for clarifying that. My position is that morality is partially and not wholly transcendent. It’s transcendent in that it deliberately replaces something in nature, but it is not fully transcendent because ultimately we are biological organisms. It’s like we have one foot in the world of nature and one foot in an artificial world we created. I believe that as humans we can’t completely sever our connection to nature, nor can we revert back to nature without ceasing to be human. My motivation is to clearly see the difference between humans and other animals. I believe the key is the human agreement to enforce moral rules. And I notice that your piece doesn’t touch on this point. There is no difference between normativity and moral sentiments without it. Hobbes said it best: “Covenants without the sword, are but words, with nothing to support a man.” This is why it is a red herring to concentrate on the language of morals. Moral sentiments help guide our actions into socially productive frameworks, but the whole system falls apart without enforcement. In nature the dominant male must waste huge amounts of time and energy to repel challengers. In human societies we all participate in following and enforcing moral rules, freeing us up to be productive and creative.

  27. Charles Justice

    The point is, it’s we humans that construct the universality. It doesn’t exist without the framework we impose on reality. And it’s a collective imposition.

  28. Oh, if by ‘transcendent’ you mean something like “irreducibly social,” then I entirely agree.

  29. Charles Justice

    A moral obligation is self-regulation, and that’s exactly what you are doing.

  30. Charles Justice

    The thing about vengeance and vendettas is they tend to escalate. They are not rule-governed, in the sense of both parties agreeing to the same rules, so they are not morality.

  31. Charles Justice

    Interesting. I’ll have to think about that equivalence. Thanks for that.

  32. Yes, the tendency to escalate is one thing that “V” should take into account. But the issue is whether she has a right to retaliate even in a manner that won’t escalate.

    I think in Dan’s story there are rules. It is the other girls who have broken the rules. Morality enters to give “V” a right to respond that she didn’t have before.

  33. The problem is ever, seeing others as human even as we are, even despite any dissimilarities (in language, culture, color, etc.). With this, sympathy and empathy have a resource in our thinking and perceiving and in our emotional responses – no moral code does more than systematize this.. Without it, all manner of barbarism is possible, and no moral code can prevent that..

  34. I’m uncomfortable with this, because basically you’re implying (strongly) that Dan’s interpretation of his own story is simply wrong. I would need a more direct confrontation with stronger argument to be persuaded to this.

    Also, it seems that all you’re doing to rectify the weakness of moral realism is adding the principle that there is a right to revenge that can be used to address lapses, and I’m uncomfortable with that as well. “She can think to herself that they acted without provocation by her, therefore it would not be unjust to get her own back.” When I think of revenge, the notion of justice hardly seems relevant to it.

  35. EJ: I take it that Dan offered us the story for us to comment on how we see it. I like that way of doing moral philosophy. I’m responding with how I see the case. But it is also how I think many others cases of this sort.

    “Revenge” can of course be misused, perhaps quite horribly. But it can be reframed as “retaliation” or as “standing up to bullies” or as “sticking up for yourself” or as “meeting force with force” and many other ways. I did put some limits on its proper use.

  36. I think people often moralize statements because the assumed – but not really existing – universality permits a certain laziness. When I say “Don’t bully that girl”, I’m actually saying “Don’t bully that girl (even if you don’t feel empathy or sympathy for her)”. Moralizing goes to a higher level and removes empathy, sympathy etc. from the equation. That is, in a certain sense, liberating.

    It also is the way I behave morally most of the time. It’s usually much easier on the mind to just follow “the law” and assume it’s universal. I can’t imagine spending energy on asking myself all the time “Hey, do I feel empathy, sympathy for that person and her situation? What would happen if I did X or Y? What would a utilitarian think of my actions? How would I feel if I did X or Y?” Etc.

    Neither can I imagine living in a world in which my morality is continuously in doubt, having to negotiate endlessly with others to find out how to behave, respecting their feelings etc. That would be mentally and emotionally very exhausting. Universality makes acting morally much easier in many circumstances.

    Of course, following “the law” has its own costs. I once found a wallet on the street on a Saturday evening around 23.00 h. I had a few drinks and didn’t feel like going to the police station, giving a statement etc. But I did it nevertheless. “The law”, you know. I was too lazy to ask myself if the owner of the wallet deserved my trip to the police station. I just did what I had to do and it was very liberating.

  37. Ira Glazer

    > By characterizing what we want as a moral obligation, we imbue it with an air of urgency that may make it more likely that the person will comply with our wishes.

    Precisely. I would perhaps replace the term ‘urgency’ with (the pretentious sounding :-)) ‘metaphysical absolutism’, ie ‘it’s not because I say so, but because this is how ‘the world works’ (or, at the very least, should work).

  38. I agree that ethics is an entirely practical subject.

    “What does the moral language add that is missing from the language of emotion and sensibility?”

    The (ordinary) language of fairness and justification adds something.

    Alan wrote regarding the story of the girl in the cafeteria: “She can think to herself that they acted without provocation by her, therefore it would not be unjust to get her own back… What she doesn’t have to consider is whether she will hurt the feelings of the other girls.”

    Quite so. And I found myself in a similar situation not long ago.

    Quite unprovoked, a stranger made a joke at my expense as we waited for the doors to close inside a crowded lift (elevator). His girlfriend giggled. I felt humiliated and angry. The lift went up and stopped at level 5 for him and his friend to exit. I was continuing to a higher floor, but as he walked past me I moved forward and “accidentally” tripped him up as he left the lift. His girlfriend laughed as he stumbled out.

    Was I justified in doing what I did? I think so. Some imaginary ledger was balanced. (I did it deliberately here but sometimes similar things happen by chance and we call it “poetic justice”.)

    Note that I am not talking about moral exhortation or debate, just practical judgments and choices.

  39. s. wallerstein

    Good for you!!

  40. Good story, Mark.

    The issue is not entirely non-theoretical. Amongst writings by philosophers, Jeffrie G. Murphy’s book “Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits” is an excellent discussion.

    (Murphy died recently. https://news.asu.edu/20200917-asu-honors-passing-professor-jeffrie-g-murphy-notable-philosopher-and-author-forgiveness)

  41. I can’t resist adding a story from a novel I am reading. The passage concerns Ojibwe Indian views on rights, obligations and revenge.

    “[Sam Winter Moon] was hunting once near the edge of the reservation. A duck fell right out of the sky at his feet. As he picked it up, a white hunter appeared and claimed the duck was his because he’d shot it. Sam Winter Moon pointed out that the duck was on reservation land, and so the hunter had no right to it. The hunter claimed it was his because the duck was not on reservation land when he shot it. Sam Winter Moon looked at the man who was angry and at his rifle and suggested a way to decide. ‘We will have a contest,’ he said. ‘We will kick one another in the nuts and whoever is still standing will get the duck.’ The white hunter, who was a very big, mean-looking man, agreed. Sam said he would go first. The white hunter braced himself and Sam Winter Moon gave him a good kick. The man turned red then blue then white. He staggered around holding himself in great pain. After a few minutes he drew himself up and said to Sam Winter Moon, ‘Now it is my turn.’ But Sam Winter Moon said, ‘You win,’ handed him the duck, and walked away.”

    William Kent Krueger, “Iron Lake”.

  42. Martin Mellish

    “all of this suggests that we would be better served by attending to the cultivation of human sympathy than by the seemingly endless proliferation of moral philosophies and moral discourse in which we are currently engaged.”

    Suppose some monstrous serial rapist, torturer, and murderer is being anally raped in jail. Is his right not to be so raped dependent on our being able to feel sympathy for him? I don’t think so. He may be impossible to sympathize with, he may ‘deserve’ to be raped or much worse. Yet it is still morally wrong to rape him.

  43. s. wallerstein

    I live in Chile and here in jail “regular” criminals, thieves, drug dealers, gang members, etc. are said to gang rape child molestors when they arrive in jail. I can’t say that I find anything wrong with that nor have I have heard anyone ever find anything wrong with that.

  44. I find this sort of reductio ad horrorshow completely unconvincing, I’m afraid. It’s entirely rhetorical.

  45. Marc Levesque


    Agreed. I really liked your essay.

    – – –

    On the many recent comments about revenge, though I’m not immune to impulsive retaliatory acts myself, I’ve never thought revenge was actually justifiable, no matter the offense.

  46. Just to be quite clear, the issue under discussion is not the merits or otherwise of revenge-taking or getting even, but the transfer of decision-making rights that takes place when a wrong is done by A against B, if we operate within what Dan called “the moral idiom”. If we don’t operate within that idiom, then no transfer takes place because having the idiom is a necessary condition of the transfer.

  47. Marc Levesque

    >… but the transfer of decision-making rights that takes place when a wrong is done by A against B, if we operate within what Dan called “the moral idiom”.

    What I maybe should have said was that, with or without the idea of revenge, I don’t know of a moral system I think of as justifiable.

    More broadly, I don’t think that an individual’s or their greater community’s well-being rests on questions of morality.

  48. Dan wrote in the OP:

    “The point, then, is that we care about people caring about each other, and when we invoke morality and employ the moral conceptual framework, it is because we think that the people we are dealing with don’t care about each other enough.”

    I would want to make a distinction between “invoking morality” and employing *ordinary* concepts relating to informal rights, justifications, etc.. Like Dan, I am wary of the former but I accept the latter as an inescapable part of social life. It is difficult to make sense of human interaction without recourse to these sorts of notions.

  49. “If we don’t operate within that idiom, then no transfer (of decision making rights) takes place because having the idiom is a necessary condition of the transfer.”

    Nonsense. This is determined in legislation as adjudged in courts of law. What you’re looking for is a “higher law” to refer to, should the law prove unsatisfactory to you. That is an understandable and acceptable rhetorical move; but it has no ontological ground.

    We don’t need a philosopher here – only good lawyers. And to be sure, they are hard to find.

    But that’s the price we pay for agreeing to live in a pluralistic society governed by law and not by gods or those who would assert godly insight or authority.

    Anyway, to the original problem- I don’t want to bring those offending me to justice – I want to destroy them. The law tells me that’s illegal, Buddhism tells me it’s a waste of time. History tells me that, ‘this too shall pass.” But it’s really about the present and going forward. There are multiple ways to deal with that, some of which you remark by the way in your qualifications. But none of them are intrinsically bound to any moral idiom.

    Capital punishment in the common understanding is about revenge – in the common understanding, destruction of transgressors. Of the two rational arguments for it, deterrence has proven statistically indemonstrable. The other is stronger, that the condemned are at least cancelled from possible future crimes. The question is whether this is a strong enough argument to risk cancelling innocents by accident and misjudgment. I waver on and off on this point. But that’s not because I have any sense of moral reality. It is a social question. And that victims may desire vengeance to the extreme of cancelling a transgressor is also a social question; The question has been decided by legislation and courts of law; this decision may change over time, given political changes in our legislation and judicial government bodies. But while those involved may be influenced by “moral idioms,” and will certainly babble these rhetorically in public, the final decisions will be legislated and adjudicated in very prosaic pragmatic terms.

  50. Oh, one last reminder: “Rights” are constructions of the (written or unwritten) constitution of a state. “Natural right” ideology is incoherent – the only right granted us by nature is the right to die, because no one can prevent the natural course of our physiological ruin, or of our furthering this by the many methods available to us.

  51. “Like Dan, I am wary of the former but I accept the latter as an inescapable part of social life. It is difficult to make sense of human interaction without recourse to these sorts of notions.”

    Study rhetoric.

    It’s not about making sense, it’s about getting people to do what we want from them.

    It was never about “truth.” It has always been, and still is, and will always be, about control of human behavior.

    ‘But surely there is something more – ‘ Nope.

  52. Marc Levesque

    I’d only add, restraint by itself can also prevent the commission of crimes, and I think it’s likely that the institution of a death penalty has in the long term negative repercussions on the social climate.

  53. EJ: Your comment seems to me to rest on a false dichotomy: viz, any right is either a legal right or a natural right. I don’t subscribe to natural rights. But I do think many moral issues are outside the jurisdiction of the law. And those issues involve rights and obligations. For example, many matters that arise between friends, or within families. Or in school cafeterias. Or where the law fails to play its proper role, as in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”.

  54. ejwinner

    Since the comment from which I am quoting below seems to be directed at me (I am the one who is quoted), I shall respond.

    “Study rhetoric… It’s not about making sense, it’s about getting people to do what we want from them.”

    The sorts of notions I mention are directly relevant to how we make sense of (rationalize, justify, criticize/condemn, etc.) our own actions and the actions of others. To say that they are just about getting people to do what we want is a gross oversimplification.

    “It was never about “truth.” It has always been, and still is, and will always be, about control of human behavior.”

    I certainly never claimed it was about truth!

    “‘But surely there is something more – ‘ Nope.”

    Nor did I suggest there was something more.

    So… where this is coming from and the target to which it is supposed to be directed remains unclear to me.