It might seem a facetious question to ask: what’s so special about morality? But it’s a question I think worth asking in a serious way before embarking on any in-depth discussion of the nature of morality. And one that I don’t think is asked seriously often enough.
Plenty of discussions in ethics begin by stating that the starting question is, as Bertrand Russell puts it: “what sort of actions ought men to perform” (Russell, 1910). So it often begins, with ‘ought’ as the starting point.
But not any old ‘ought’. This is no simple ‘should’ of prudence or expedience. No ‘should’, in the sense that one ‘should’ do something, but is not obliged to do so. This is a bare knuckled ‘ought’, implying a certain obligation, nay, inescapability.
Richard Joyce (2006) calls this feature of morality practical clout, a term I’m happy to adopt to describe the apparent gravity of ‘ought’ (although, if it was up to me, I would have called it practical mojo).
I’ve cobbled together a list of some of the ‘speical’ features of the moral ought – these aren’t stated as being necessarily ought-worthy, nor would they be agreed upon by all thinkers, but they do appear enough throughout the literature to bear a mention:
- Impartial – morality is beyond self-interest
- Universal – morality applies to everyone (or everyone within a particular group, or every moral agent, depending on your bent)
- Objective – something makes moral propositions true other than our subjective whim or personal preferences
- Justifiable – a moral norm is defendable, there are reasons for accepting it, it’s not just arbitrary
- Overriding – moral norms are more important than norms of custom or individual preferences, they override them when there’s an apparent conflict
- Non-negotiable – moral norms are binding, obligatory, you can’t just weasel out of them if you don’t want to obey them
- Action-guiding – moral norms steer behaviour, they’re not just matters of theoretical interest, where one might proclaim a moral principle but feel not inclination to follow it in practice
- Imperatives – imbued with the force of necessity rather than contingency
- Other-focused – moral norms are not just about individuals in isolation but are about the interaction between individuals
- Harm – many moral norms are centred around preventing harm to others
- Fairness – many moral norms are also centred around preventing injustice
- Altruism – many moral thinkers believe that even if morality doesn’t spring from altruism, it’s compatible with altruism and the Golden Rule
- Happiness – moral norms either directly or indirectly lead to happiness or wellbeing
- Rational – moral norms come from rational agents, they’re justifiable using reason
- Concerns ‘value’ – as opposed to ‘fact’
I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list, but I think it captures a decent proportion of the features that many thinkers believe makes morality ‘special’.
But I have my doubts about some of these features. I’ve read altogether too many papers in ethics that take some (or all) of these things as being so obvious as to be beyond question. And I hardly believe that’s a healthy way of beginning an ethical enquiry.
Now, I don’t doubt that many of these features are intuitively appealing. But it’s the very fact that they seem obvious in everyday experience that ‘ought’ to raise an eyebrow.
Compounding this concern is my growing conviction that morality is best understood as an evolved device for encouraging a social animal to behave itself in a social context. And if that’s the case, then many of these obvious ‘special’ features of morality are illusory.
It might have been useful to treat morality as if it was inescapable, rational, non-negotiable etc, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. In fact, moral norms might be entirely prudential ‘shoulds’ driven by instrumental values that simply carry a greater emotional weight because of the gravity of the implications of ‘moral’ decisions compared to non-moral decisions.
That doesn’t really make morality special, but it makes it no less important.