Monday, June 04, 2007

Can we Have Moral Standards without Moral Beliefs? (by guest blogger Justin Tiwald)

Let's say you have a student in your introductory philosophy class who claims he doesn't "have a morality" (there's always someone!). He explains his claim in various ways. Most often he says he doesn't have a morality because his every decision is based on egoistic calculations, other times it's simply because he does as he pleases. But whatever the explanation it's clear that he takes some pride in it: other people live by moral standards, but he has risen above that.

I think my response is similar to that of just about everyone else in this situation: I don't believe it. What gets me out of sorts isn't the thought that he's a moral monster (he usually isn't), it's that he really does have a morality but won't admit it. How does one convince him that he has a morality in spite of himself?

"Having a morality" can mean many things, but what the class amoralist seems to have in mind is this: you have a morality when you hold yourself to moral standards as such. At minimum, you believe that living according to a standard is morally good, and this belief enters as a non-instrumental reason to adhere to it. These moral reasons needn't be decisive, and they don't always need to motivate you to do the right thing (you can have a morality even if you fail to live up to it). But your belief in the standard's moral goodness is essential, and this is where the self-proclaimed amoralist thinks he parts ways with the moralist. While the amoralist has standards that he holds himself to, it's obvious to him that they're not moral ones. He doesn't ultimately care whether his behavior is right, considerate, charitable, fair, respectful, etc. He only cares whether it will get him richer, make him more loved, or allow him to have more fun.

Put this way, so much of the amoralist's smugness depends on his not believing his standards to be moral ones. But does this really matter? In my view it matters much more that he treat his standards as moral, not that he believe them to be moral. The characteristic ways of treating a standard as moral include taking seemingly moral pride in meeting them, and feeling seemingly moral guilt or shame for falling short of them. It also includes behaving as though the standards are imposed from the outside. Subjectively speaking, the standards aren't "up to us," nor are they fixed by our wants and needs. However we understand our own relationship to these norms, we invariably think and behave as though we're stuck with them, even when we'd prefer others.

I tend to think that most psychologically healthy human beings cannot but have standards that they treat in these ways (with all of the usual caveats for sociopaths and victims of bizarre head injuries). Generally speaking we're stuck with our consciences, and our consciences will treat various standards as moral ones whether we like it or not. Sometimes they'll hold us to moral norms that we do not consciously uphold, as when someone explicitly disavows charity but feels guilty for leaving her brother homeless. But our consciences will treat even treat many of our non-moral norms as as though they are moral norms. Many people pursue wealth with a moral zeal, and if the amoralist is serious about his amoralism he'll invariably take a kind of torturous, guilt-ridden "moral" pride in having risen above moralism (call this "Raskolnikov Syndrome"). Whatever the amoralist may believe, then, it would be far-fetched to say that he "has no morality" at all.


I'd like to thank Eric for letting me borrow his soapbox these last few weeks. I've truly benefited from the comments and emails that I've gotten in response. Having seen this from the other side, I can say with even more certainty that he has a great thing going here!


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very nice post, Justin! Thanks so much for blogging at The Splintered Mind!

A related phenomenon is what I call "sophomore relativism" -- the view that everyone just has her own morality and all moralities are equal. I don't believe the sophomore relativist either. I don't think she really believes, in her heart of hearts, that Nazi genocidal morality is just as good as (say) contemporary liberalism.

What motivates the sophomore relativist, I think, is a kind of intellectual laziness. She doesn't want to be bothered to figure out the tough meta-ethical questions, and this is a clever stance that allows simple responses to ethical and meta-ethicsal challenges.

I wonder if a similar intellectual laziness might be part of what is behind the avowal of amoralism, too.

philosoraptor said...

When there are so many people who express "sophomore relativist" sentiments, it's going to be hard to make a (true) generalization about their motives or reasons.
In my own courses, I've seen plenty of students who do seem motivated, at least in part, by the sort of, um, "aversion to hard thinking" that you described.
But equally, there are plenty of students who adopt a sophomoric sort of relativism as a form of self defense. That is, for people many of whom are still trying to find their own voices and figure out what they think, the certainty with which other people (the text authors, some classmates, their instructor...) express themselves can feel somewhat assaultive. And sometimes, sophomoric relativism is a response to that sense of being "under siege". It's a way of saying, "leave me and my beliefs alone! (And I'll return the favor.)"
This isn't incompatible with the laziness hypothesis; I just wanted to complicate the picture that you offered, given what I've observed in my courses.

Justin Tiwald said...

That's a very compelling diagnosis, Eric! I think it's certainly true of sophomore relvativism, and it could well play a role in the amoralist's stance as well. Maybe the amoralist's views are the result of laziness about meta-ethical issues in combination with a certain amount of pride in squarely facing unpleasant truths.

I agree about moral relativism as a form of self-defense, Philosoraptor. Just to put a slightly happier spin on it, I would also add to the mix a reflexive preference for moral and religious tolerance.

Daryl said...

Hi Justin. Another way to place the moralist and amoralist ultimately in the same ethical bandwagon would be to generalize the amoralist's claim about himself -- precisely the opposite strategy from your own. The claim is that his standards for behavior are not moral ones at all but strictly instrumental. Generalizing this claim would mean that the moralist's standards are also strictly instrumental, and that our consciences are simply habitual tendencies stamped into our psyches through generations of successful behavior. This way we could say that it's the moralist who is smug, not the amoralist, and that his smugness depends on his believing that his standards transcend mere expediency. We could also say that the morality of his standards is simply an invention because the moralist is just too lazy to trace the concrete genealogy of those standards.

Justin Tiwald said...


Ah ha! That's an astonishingly Nietzschean diagnosis! I have no doubt that many of the moralists are smug in the way you suggest as well, but I'm also fairly confident that it's not all just expediency.

Daryl said...

Just wondering if you mean expediency at the individual or species level. I consider Nietzsche to be good company indeed, but I confess I was going for more of an evolutionary psychology angle, given what little I know about the subject. I find EP intriguing but I remain skeptical about the specificity of its conclusions.

Justin Tiwald said...


Hmm. Well, I was thinking about expediency on the individual level. Individuals tend to treat various standards as moral ones even when it isn't expedient to do so.

Ai. The evolutionary psychology issue is a whole 'nother can of worms, as they say. Probably a much bigger and messier one.

Eric Pepke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Eric Pepke: The substance of your comment is fine, but I think it's probably just a bit over the line between fair-but-rough and inappropriately rude. Tweak it a bit and I'd be happy to let it through the gate.

Eric Pepke said...

Comment rewritten as per Eric's moderation.

When one searches for a definition of "morality" in the context of philosophy on Google, one is directed to the definition given by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at This gives two definitions of morality, one descriptive and one normative. Both definitions describe morality as a code.

It is entirely legitimate to question that categorization. Trivially, one could say that one has no morality under that definition because it does not define a personal morality. More interestingly, one can legitimately challenge the conception of morality as a code. I would agree with them, and even if I did not agree, I would still consider it legitimate. If there is argument, however, at least I could explain it.

Given adherence to the definition, the only logical way to challenge the idea of a code is to say that one does not have a morality.

However, if one does that, then one is put down, with accusations of syndromes and rather hypocritical dismissal of smugness, because who is really being smug here? All this rudeness because they, in good faith, are trying to use what they think are canonical definitions.

And if you do not like that definition, you can petition to have it changed, or at least make it excruciatingly clear from the get-go that you are not using that definition. Anything else is a rather crude, cruel, and, yes, smug bait-and-switch.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for resubmitting, Eric!