Putting the Moral Back in Moral Dumbfounding (Part II)

Let me briefly review my last post.

First, I assume, along with others, that a core part, even the core part of ethics is harm. It’s unethical to harm people absent some compelling reason. Second, preventing people from doing what they want to do is one really important kind of harm. So, taking those two really simple ideas together, it’s unethical to prevent people from doing what they want absent compelling reason.

Now, from these basic assumptions, I added one piece. Judging something immoral is one way to prevent people from doing what they want. After all, when we all agree X is immoral, then people get punished for doing X, preventing them from doing it. These simple ideas lead to the conclusion if you judge X to be immoral, then you are preventing others from doing something, which is harmful, and so whenever you do judge something immoral, you must, ethically, have a compelling reason for that judgment. If you don’t, you are unethically constraining others’ behavior.

Now, this idea is crucial, I suggested, given moral dumbfounding, the idea that people cannot always justify their moral judgments. So, I suggested, if you are morally dumbfounded – you know, or have the intuition that X is wrong but cannot provide a logical justification – you cannot, ethically, stop there; you must be able to explain and justify your moral judgments that something is wrong.

So then the question is, what do you do when morally dumbfounded? Suppose  you have just read Jon Haidt’s vignette, and you have the deep intuition that incest is wrong. You are willing, for argument’s sake, to grant the hypothetical that no one was harmed, that there was no coercion, and that the sex was non-reproductive. You cannot, however, provide a justification for your moral judgment.

Now, the issue doesn’t have to be incest. The point here is simply to think of anything that you think is wrong but cannot provide a logical and coherent justification for your view. It seems to me that you have a few choices, though others might be possible as well. For the sake of argument, instead of considering the incest case, read the following with something else in mind, such as same-sex marriage.

First, you can simply revise your view. If you try and fail to come up with a principle that you really believe in to justify your judgment that X is wrong, then you can decide that X is not, in fact, wrong after all. There’s no need to feel shy about this. History is replete with examples of things that fluctuate between right and wrong. Right now, marijuana is going from wrong to not wrong in many places, after having gone from not wrong to wrong not all that long ago. It happens. The list of behaviors that used to be considered morally wrong in some time or place but now is not in this time and place is lengthy (homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, consuming alcohol, divorce, lending money, dancing, sex before marriage, to name a very small few from a very large set).

 Second, you can try to think more deeply about your moral principles and try to discover what your principles really say about X. This process can lead you down some interesting roads. Taking the incest example, you might be left with the (morally surprising to many) view that the two characters in the story did not, in fact, do anything wrong. This conclusion will be unsettling to some – though presumably not the Lannisters – who feel that they simply find their intuitions about incest too powerful to allow moral reasoning to have the day.

Now, if you do come up with a principle that justifies the judgment that X is wrong, you must road test it. State the principle as clearly as you can. Now consider all the things that your principle tells you are wrong and all those that are considered right. If you think that the reason that the characters in Haidt’s vignette did something unethical for reason R – it is “unnatural” –  explore what other things R implies are also unethical (e.g., driving).

Now, bear in mind that life and morality are complicated, and many judgments will come down to tradeoffs. Remember, it’s always easy to come up with harm to someone, so restrain yourself from cheating and telling a harm story that is plausible but isn’t really driving your view. Many readers of blogs such as this one can take opposition to same-sex marriage as an example. What did you think of the argument that same-sex argument somehow harmed marriages between the sexes? Probably not much.  

Along the same lines, some situations are so vexing that it’s really hard to figure out how to think about them. Philosophers like to come up with these situations, in part to give our sense of morality a really tough road test. Thus we have the famous Trolley Problem and its variants. Most people think it’s not OK to push the poor person off the footbridge to save five, but are more OK with various other ways of causing the death of one to save five. It’s fine if your moral principles bend and break when faced with such cases. They’re there in part to vex you.

Of course, a third route you can take is to adopt or modify one of your bedrock ethical principles. If you really want to find X to be wrong, but your moral principles as they are won’t let you, well, you could change them. But beware travelling this route. Be sure to road test your new principle to be sure you don’t now condemn something you really don’t want to.

Finally, you can just declare the behavior in question to be an exception. I think this runs into the problem I discussed before – if you allow exceptions, then you can now convince yourself to declare anything immoral – but you could go that route if you wanted.

Now, all of this can be confusing, so I want to end by switching my language from ethics and morality to the simpler language of Good Guy and Bad Guy. (I intend the word “guy” here to be gender neutral. I apologize for this use, but the reason I’m choosing it is because of the role that the word plays in the idioms, Good Guy and Bad Guy. I feel that I would lose rhetorical force if I replaced “guy” with “person” in this context.)

One view is that the two people in Jon Haidt’s vignettes are, in fact, innocents. They are the Good Guys. They are exercising their freedom without harming anyone. They are, to my way of thinking, behaving ethically. In contrast, I take the position that condemning these characters is the act of a Bad Guy. Notice how this flips the script. We think ourselves Good and Noble for condemning the characters, who we view as the Bad Guys, breaking the Rules. This bears close scrutiny.

At the end of last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks gave one of his annual Sidney awards to Helen Andrews for her piece “Shame Storm.” The whole piece – Andrews’, I mean –  is worth a careful read. Discussing online shaming, Andrews writes:

The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. 

Towards the end of her piece, she talks about solutions to the problem that she sees with online shaming:

The solution, then, is not to try to make shame storms well targeted, but to make it so they happen as infrequently as possible. Editors should refuse to run stories that have no value except humiliation, and readers should refuse to click on them. It is, after all, the moral equivalent of contributing your rock to a public stoning. We should all develop a robust sense of what is and is not any of our business. Shame can be useful—and even necessary—but it is toxic unless a relationship exists between two people first. A Twitter mob is no more a basis for salutary shaming than an actual mob is for reasoned discussion.

It’s really, really important to remember that everyone thinks they’re the good guy. If you are in favor of same-sex marriage, remember that the people who are or were on the other side of the issue aren’t thinking to themselves, “Well, I’m a bad guy, and the bad guy does whatever they can to make sure no one’s happy, so….” Of course not. They think they are motivated by the side of light for whatever reason they have or tell themselves they have. No one joins the online mob because they think that helping destroy another person’s life is the best thing to do with their time. Again, of course not. They see themselves as the virtuous moralist contributing to the common good, holding Andrews, in her case, to account for her supposed sins.

So, ask yourself a key question when you condemn others, whether to yourself, privately, or to others, out loud, whether in a hypothetical vignette, or, as they say these days, irl.

Ask yourself this: are you sure you’re being the Good Guy?