Saturday, 25 January 2014

Postlude: Eternal Consequences

or, What Kind of Harm?

I see that I had planned to write another Moral Foundations post and had forgotten to do so! This is my attempt at recovering that fumbled intention. 

In the previous post of my Moral Foundations Series, I wrote, "If moral intuitions can be wrong (which is a truism these days), should we even be talking about Moral Foundations Theory? Shouldn't we be talking instead about deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, moral nihilism, immoralism, divine command theory, or other logical bases for morality?" My proposed answer was that, on the one hand, there's an argument to be made that Moral Foundations make bad philosophy, but on the other hand, we cannot act morally without investments, and our Moral Foundations provide those investments.

 Ethical philosophy's role, then, might be to manage those investments. I wrote in "What Kind of Character is a Virtue Ethicist?", in my Good People and Going Wrong series, that telling me your moral philosophy (I discuss deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics) doesn't help me figure out what matters to you. If you say, "I am a deontologist," I don't know what you think your duties are. If you say, "I am a consequentialist," I don't know what goods you are trying to maximize and what harms you are trying to minimize (and for whom). If you say, "I am a virtue ethicist," I do not know what virtues you are trying to cultivate. Your moral structure might be clear, but I still don't know what your values are. What I wonder, then, is if the Moral Foundations provide those missing values.

That sounds great, but there's a problem. Some of the Moral Foundations lend themselves to certain moral philosophies better than others. Harm/care, for instance, seems to work much better with consequentialism than with deontology or virtue ethics. I suppose you could say, "I have a duty to provide care," or "I have a duty to do no harm," a sort of layman's Hippocratic Oath, but these are pretty heavily skewed towards consequentialism. Meanwhile, it seems very difficult to articulate loyalty or authority/respect in consequentialist terms: how would you maximize loyalty in a system? These lend themselves much more to deontology or, perhaps especially, virtue ethics. One of the reasons I've never declared for a particular moral philosophy is that none of them deal especially well with all three of harm/care, fairness, and freedom/oppression.

 The difficulty of expressing certain values in certain moral systems might explain why the deontologists I've known have often been social conservatives while the consequentialists have often been social progressives. But I actually wonder whether those social conservatives really are so deontological after all. A lot of Christians seem to be consequentialists in one respect: they care very much about the consequences their actions will have on the fate of their soul. So they might be divine-command flavoured deontologists or they might be virtue ethicists of Christlikeness, but for a lot of them, the eternal consequences matter; a long-game consequentialism is powering a short-game deontology (or virtue ethics). I must not lie, despite the consequences on this side of the grave (deontology), because to stray from God will have consequences on the far side of the grave (consequentialism). And the drive to proselytize is all about this! We have to save those souls from the fire (harm/care)! (Now certainly not all Christians are driven by afterlife concerns--I'm not, for example--but there is such a stereotype for a reason.)

This shows up particularly well in the purity/sanctity Foundation, I think. Purity binds together all three of consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology. Normally the moral or ritual laws which protect purity are deontological ones--pre-marital sex is defiling (for women and not for men, but that's another matter), and it does not matter whether the consequences of not having pre-marital sex are, let's say, the death of every living thing in a the neighbouring village. But, at the same time, the loss of purity is a consequence and constitutes damage to a person's virtue. (Indeed, I'm reading virtue ethics now as a very specialized kind of consequentialism, in that it has to do with the consequences actions have on your soul/identity/character.)

I don't think we're doomed to failure if we use moral philosophy as a structure which the Moral Foundations fill out, just because the results are sometimes difficult or make the structure look different; indeed, I've said over and over again that the content you plug into structures changes how those structures operate, and the structures into which you plug the content changes what that content means. The fact that some combinations will be clunky or will require retro-fitting is unsurprising if you look at it in the way I've discussed genres. What I think the exercise shows us is that consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, divine command theory, et al aren't so nicely separable after all. Oh, there are probably people who do distill their moral philosophies down (Kantain deontologists who eschew concerns about salvation, total utilitarians who do not care about how their hedons are distributed), but most of us aren't purebreeds. Most of us are left with the hard work of kludging together a mutt moral system which does justice to our values as best we can make it.

This is the last Moral Foundations Series post. The index is here: link.

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