Putting the Moral Back in Moral Dumbfounding

As a kid, just like every other kid, when my parents asked me why I did something bad, occasionally I would answer “just because.” And just like all other parents, my parents did not accept this as an explanation. And imagine if they did.

“Why did you chop down the cherry tree?”

“Just because.”

“Ok, well then, I guess it’s time to get a new cherry tree!”

Parents understand that it’s illogical to accept “just because” as a reason or explanation because, of course, it’s not. And, more concretely, it undermines deterrence. Next time I’m contemplating mischief, I know I can fall back on the (non-)excuse that it was “just because.”

Now, a peculiar thing about the (non-)reason “just because” is that we let ourselves get away with this sometimes.

Many people are familiar with Jon Haidt’s classic work on what he called “moral dumbfounding.” I won’t reproduce it yet again here. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read about it, but the summary is that if you ask people if (harmless, consensual, non-reproductive) incest is morally wrong they’ll generally say that it is, but they won’t be able to give you a principled reason for their view. Just because.

Now, the usual lesson people take from this finding is about how people decide what is right and what is wrong. Moral dumbfounding shows that in such cases, roughly, we haven’t worked through a careful, rational explanation of why we came to that view. It’s “just because.” (If you want to read more, Jon Haidt’s book on the topic is a good place to start.)

I’m not interested in that idea per se, that people use their intuitions to make moral judgments. I’m interested in the next step, the cherry tree part: if you morally condemn something but are unable to produce a principled reason for that judgment, then continuing to condemn that thing is itself unethical.

Maybe it’s obvious that saying “just because” is as bad, or worse, in the case of morality as it is in the cherry tree case. But let’s dig in a bit deeper just to be sure it’s really clear.

When you judge something to be wrong, you are, in essence, trying to prevent people from doing X on pain of punishment. So, in the past, when people said – and they did – that same-sex sexual relationships were “just wrong,” such relationships were prohibited and punished. (Note that in some cases punishment for doing X is and was informal rather than formal – social opprobrium as opposed to jail time – but the argument is the same.) So when you lend your voice (or vote) to the chorus of people who say X is wrong, you are preventing people who want to X from doing so. This perspective shows how important it is to get moral judgments right. Because moral judgments are tools we all use to constrain what others may do, just as in the cherry tree case, “just because” is not a sufficient reason to justify a moral judgment.

Indeed, pushing further, my view is that judging something to be wrong without a justification beyond “just because” is itself unethical. Notice that allowing a non-reason to justify a moral view allows anything to be prevented. If you say that X is “just wrong,” sticking by your view that it’s wrong without being able to provide a reason, what you are saying is that for any X, you are preventing people from Xing if they wish but have no principled reason for doing so. Down this road lies exactly the moral world we don’t want, in which whatever practice people feel like preventing – homosexuality, inter-racial dating, dancing – can be. And anyone who supports moralizing (and so preventing) these practices is complicit in being unethical: preventing people from doing what they wish just because. So, when you are morally dumbfounded and you are content with relying on your intuition that something is wrong, you are saying that you yourself have no particular duty to have an actual reason to try to constrain what other people can do. You are allowing yourself to chop down the cherry tree – and, indeed, other people’s cherry trees – “just because.” That, in my view, is Bad.

Notice that other familiar moral rules, such as those surrounding theft, don’t run into this problem. The principles at work here are the notions of property rights and harm. As a general matter, we believe (in the West) that, foundationally, people have a right to their property, physical and intellectual. Therefore, taking property harms the person – they no longer have the property – and so it is morally wrong. This principle itself lies within a more general set of principles of freedom and harm. People ought to have the freedom to do what they wish with their property (up to certain limits) and that is why theft is a kind of harm – making someone worse off – and so should be prevented.

And on that note, it’s important to bear in mind that reasons to justify moral judgment should be scrutinized. The reason that reasons should be looked at carefully is that people might say that such and such is harmful – because as we’ve just seen, harm is seen as a legitimate justification – but in many cases there is no actual harm, and this reason is simply given as an excuse to justify the moral view.

So, to summarize. First, moral judgments constrain what other people can do. When societies agree that X is morally wrong, people can’t X anymore, or are punished if they do. Second, if we decide that X is wrong and don’t feel the need to provide a principled reason, then we can prevent anyone from doing pretty much anything. Historically, this has led to all kinds of constraints on people’s freedom, as the case of homosexuality shows. This second point is why it’s important to be very skeptical of catch-all reasons, such as appeals to “nature,” religious texts, or (supposed) harm. One can nearly always come up with some plausible reason that others might believe, or find hard to challenge. (In our culture, a religious justification for a moral view is hard to challenge because it is viewed as unethical to challenge others’ religious views. This point makes moral conversations fraught because religious writings can be used to justify a very large array of moral views; religious texts can be “interpreted” in many different ways.)

I’ll discusses some consequences of these arguments in a post I’ll put up shortly.

Note: This entry also appeared at by bog at Psychology Today