Are there any terms less well defined, less well understood, than “moral”? I’ve already tried to tease out a few different uses of moral terms, but there’s a further critical distinction that I think it’s worth stressing, particularly in light of my recent riff on why morality doesn’t need God over on the ABC’s Drum Unleashed.
In the comments to that piece, between accusations of rampant relativism and lashings of ad hominem, it wasn’t uncommon to see the accusation that if you deny an objective moral absolute – whether from God or from or reason – then you’re left with an unpalatable moral nihilism, the kind of nihilism that makes rape and torture permissible, as suggested in this comment:
Without a defined yardstick morality is nothing but a slippery slope that steadily bends to prevailing ideas, be they correct or incorrect.
If you stand for nothing, you will fall for everything. The notion that morality is relative might soon accept relations with relatives – ridiculous thought now but who knows in what direction this slippery slope declines. Many an accepted idea today was frowned upon in the past.
– Grander view
Despite the fact that the church saw marriage between relatives as permissible in the past, this perspective is only true if you hold a particularly broad conception of morality – a conception that I think it altogether too broad.
Morality is often seen as referring to a code of behaviour, something that directs our actions, particularly when it comes to actions that affect others. But it’s also often seen as being a subject that concerns the facts about what is right and wrong. The two senses are like the difference between saying “don’t steal” and “stealing is wrong”; the first directs your actions, the second suggests there’s a fact about the world regarding stealing and its wrongness. That latter position is typically called moral realism – which says there are moral facts in the world that we can discover to be true, and these facts justify particular moral norms.
But, as Joshua Green argues it in his PhD dissertation, it’s possible to discard the moral realism bit and keep the action-guiding bit – and if you do so, you really don’t lose that much at the end of the day. The way he characterises the distinction is between:
moral1: of or relating to the facts concerning right and wrong, etc.
moral2: of or relating to serving (or refraining from undermining) the
interests of others.
So he reckons you can ditch moral1 – and there are good reasons for doing so – and still keep moral2.
You might call Greene’s approach ‘moral nihilism’ because he doubts the existence of objective moral facts in the world – as do other philosophers, such as John Mackie and Richard Joyce. But it’s only ‘nihilistic’ towards moral1, not moral2. Still, it might look like abandoning objective moral facts opens the door to an odious relativism when it comes to moral2; what’s to stop me justifying anything I want as being moral in any way I please?
However, the nihilism needn’t spread that far. All we need to do is find agreement on some very basic premises, and we can build a moral2 that looks just like we’d expect a moral system to look like, yet it’s not dependent on non-existent moral facts or supernatural forces.
One of the things we agree on is what morality is for. I’d suggest that morality springs from the fact that we’re social animals, and that we all have our own interests that we wish to pursue. Yet many of our interests conflict with those of others. So if we’re to effectively pursue our interests, then it’s a good idea to place limits on our behaviour when that behaviour might negatively impact the interests of others – as long as they agree to limit their behaviour when that behaviour might negatively impact our interests. Old school social contract stuff. Morality basically serves to regulate these interactions. It also serves other purposes, such as binding communities together through shared practice, and giving people rituals that cement their identity – but I’d suggest the core function of morality is to regulate social interactions. And I’d suggest that every moral system in the world has this as a core objective.
So, if we can all agree that this is what we want morality to do, then we can start to look at how best to achieve this end. Importantly, we don’t need to agree on particular moral norms or values – just on the function of morality. There might be many ways to effectively regulate social interaction – some better than others in different circumstances – but there are also lots of things that we know disrupt social harmony. Things like rape and torture.
You don’t need objective moral facts that are independent of us in order to show that this is true. So you can build a flourishing moral2 system that abandons the requirement for moral1 to back it up – it’d end up being somewhat pluralistic, at least where there’s more than one way to promote social interaction – but it wouldn’t be rampantly relativist.
As a side note, I think much moral enquiry (at least until G.E. Moore) starts with questions about moral2, but then it’s very easy to assume you need something like moral1 to back it up – so moral enquiry (particularly post-Moore) focuses altogether too much on moral1, and in doing so misses the point of what morality is really about. As such, I reckon moral philosophy could do with a bit of a purge of moral1. And if we can manage that, we might be able to focus more attention on the real problems of morality, i.e. constructing a robust and persuasive moral2 system.