–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Moral Philosophy and Moral Life

by | Jun 28, 2024

An argument against theism is that the world looks exactly as you’d expect it to if there is no God and not at all like it would if there is one, and I want to say the same thing about morality: Moral life looks nothing like you’d expect it to if traditional moral theories like Utilitarianism or Kantianism are true and exactly like you’d think it would, if they are not.

By “traditional moral theories,” I mean theories that purport to identify general, defining characteristics of moral rightness and wrongness, obligation and prohibition, for the purpose of developing moral principles from which specific moral obligations can be derived. Thus, the Utilitarian identifies effects on the general welfare as the defining characteristic of morality, from which comes the principle of utility that is then deployed to instruct us on how to act in particular cases. We can tell an identical story about the Kantian that only will differ with respect to what is taken to be the defining moral characteristic which, for Kant, was whether or not the principle or “maxim” on which one is acting can be rationally universalized.

Now, it seems to me that if any such theory was true – by which I mean any theory that has this general form – one would expect moral life to look something like this:

(1) Once one has determined which of the competing moral theories is true, the only real epistemic challenge in the conduct of one’s moral life is that of determining which actions conform to the defining principle laid out in that moral theory – i.e. whether or not this action will maximize utility or whether or not that principle conforms to the Categorical Imperative.

(2) The only real personal challenges one faces in the conduct of one’s moral life are akratic. That is, they revolve entirely around problems of self-control in conforming one’s behavior to one’s duty as defined by the relevant moral theory.  

(3) Coming to the right moral view on any particular occasion is a straightforwardly intellectual affair, as it involves nothing more than determining: (i) which moral theory is correct – i.e. whether Kant or Mill or whomever is right about the defining moral characteristic – and (ii) which actions conform or fail to conform to it.

(4) There isn’t much (if any) need for practical reason. In order to live a moral life, all that one needs to do is: (i) hold the right moral theory; (ii) identify which actions conform to it; and (iii) have sufficient control over oneself to act accordingly. Beyond this, there is nothing to figure out (aside from the things indicated in (1)), so the role that practical reason is supposed to play in moral life is rendered obscure.

(5) Moral life, in light of 1-4, should be relatively easy. I don’t mean to suggest that self-control may not be difficult or that determining which moral theory is true may not constitute an intellectual challenge, but rather that moral decision making itself should not be a particularly wracking process since, according to traditional moral philosophy, it is simply a matter of following the correct recipe for moral life.

Of course, any serious, honest reflection on moral life reveals that it is profoundly difficult. Not only may it be hard to conform one’s behavior to what one deems right or wrong on a particular occasion, but the very determination of what one’s obligations are in the varying circumstances of one’s life is often fraught and sometimes even tormenting. This is because moral life is not aptly characterized in the manner described in (1) -(5), but rather, as follows:

(A) The general characteristics by which traditional moral theories define obligation may all be morally significant and compete for one’s consideration in morally charged situations. There is no one, for example, who has not been faced with circumstances in which considerations of utility and considerations of principle imply courses of action that conflict with one another, and in such situations, the moral theories themselves provide no guidance. Whether the general welfare is more pressing than acting on right principles in any given situation is something that I have to decide and moral philosophy is of no help in doing so.

(B) Not only is practical reason absolutely central to the successful navigation of moral life, but so is a kind of moral perception. Reasoning, after all, never gets a person down to the truly particular, but must always, at some level deal in generalities. What the most pressing element in the current situation is and thus where my obligations lie is something that can only be seen and not deduced. (This is a point that Aristotle makes in the Nicomachean Ethics, in a comment about how one determines whether bread has been suitably baked.) 

(C) Beyond sound moral reasoning and perception, there is the further point that all the force of an obligation lies in the extent to which it is actually felt by the obligated party.  When the work of the intellect and the perceptual faculty is done, the emotional work still remains in that one must be moved, if the obligation is not to remain inert and impotent and nothing more than a bit of writing or uttered words.  

(D) Moral life is one for which there are no recipes for success. Because our practical reasoning can be faulty; because we can misread a situation; because we can misidentify what is most pressing in a particular case; because sometimes, regardless of how carefully one has considered things, clarity is only found in hindsight; and because even with all of this going perfectly, one may still find oneself unmoved; for all of these reasons, real moral life, as opposed to the simplistic, rationalistic version of it imagined by moral philosophy, is characterized by the persistent, perennial, and very real possibility of getting things wrong and sometimes terribly so. Contra (5), then, moral life is not easy but extremely difficult and a source of constant and appropriate anxiety and concern.