–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

On Our Use of the Moral Idiom

by | Jun 13, 2024

An unpopular teen – call her “D” – is in her high school cafeteria, eating alone. Several other girls taunt and humiliate her, to the point that she bursts into tears and begs them to cease their torments, crying, “You’re hurting my feelings, please stop!”

What would be different if she had told them, instead, that they ought to stop what they are doing, because it is morally wrong? Why might she say this, rather than what she actually said?

A common feature of our moral thinking is that statements and requests like those made by D are not enough; that the language of joy and sorrow, love and hatred, sympathy and callousness is inadequate for the purpose of addressing the dramas that characterize so much of human life; and that we need the language of morality in order to do so.

But why isn’t it enough to say that something is horrible and that one hates it and wants it to stop? Or that something is wonderful and that one loves it and wants it to continue? What does the moral language add that is missing from the language of emotion and feeling?

One potential answer lies in Kant’s philosophy: I make a moral appeal rather than an emotional one, because in the absence of a moral reason, what I say or do will fail to be moral. But, while this explains why we will make moral appeals, if we want to be moral, it doesn’t say anything about why we would want to be moral, a question for which, notoriously, Kant has no compelling answer. For Kant, moral obedience is constitutive of being a person, so to fail to be moral means suffering a kind of “diminished personhood,” but this simply raises the question of why anyone should care about that.

By “Why do you want to be moral?” I do not mean “Why would you want to be moral, rather than immoral?” which is the way that philosophers typically frame the question. My question is “Why would you want to be moral, as opposed to (merely) being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc.?” 

Now, a Utilitarian might say: “Being moral just is being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc. It is not some extra quality.” But while I can imagine a Utilitarian saying this — and I don’t need to imagine it; one self-described Utilitarian has said something very much like this to me — I wonder whether she can really mean it.

Certainly, what she says is true to some extent. When we act under the impetus of positive feelings, we sometimes do things for the object of our affections that the Utilitarian would deem good, and when we act under the pressure of negative feelings, we sometimes do things to the object of our antipathy that the Utilitarian would deem bad. In short, acting out of sympathy sometimes serves the cause of utility, while acting on the basis of antipathy sometimes undermines it. But neither is any sort of guarantee. One can act out of sympathy and cause harm nonetheless, and one can act out of antipathy and maximize utility, notwithstanding. So the aims of being sympathetic and maximizing utility are not only conceptually separable, they will often come apart, as a matter of fact.

An admittedly cynical reason for using moral language rather than the language of positive and negative sentiment is that we don’t believe that people care enough about one another to be moved by the mere voicing of a desire. By characterizing what we want as an obligation, we imbue it with an air of necessity that will make it more likely that the person will comply with our wishes. Those who think this way will say that D should recast her wish as a moral obligation, if she really wants to ensure that the girls will cease their taunting. After all, if the girls don’t care about the feelings of the girl whom they are making miserable, then why would they care that D wants them to stop?

I can imagine someone protesting that there is no need to be so suspicious about morality; that our use of the moral vocabulary is simply a matter of being truthful. One might point to the common admonition that we should not “trivialize” the things that have happened to others, as in, “How dare you trivialize what those bullies did to that poor girl in the cafeteria!” and suggest that the offense of trivialization is an offense against the truth: the misdeed of having failed to adequately characterize a situation or event; specifically, of having underestimated its significance. The thought is that engaging with the moral framework of concepts is necessary, if we are to sufficiently respect the truth, in the sense of honoring the full significance of something that has happened to someone.

Why are we offended by what we perceive as a failure to adequately represent this particular reality? Certainly, it seems odd, at least as described thus far. The mere fact of misrepresentation, taken separately from its tangible effects, is a purely aesthetic offense, and while there undoubtedly are those who are gripped by the idea of truthfulness for truthfulness’s sake, they are a rare and obsessive bunch.  

I would like to suggest that the offense of trivialization is not an offense against the truth but is rather one of insufficient sympathy. When I am upset by what I perceive as your trivializing description of something that has happened to me, the reason that I care so much isn’t because this particular misrepresentation offends the truth, but because it offends me, for it suggests that you don’t care about me enough. I am thinking, “If you really cared about me, you would have characterized this situation in such a way as to engender maximal sympathy,” which means, in a way that maximized the significance of what has happened.

Lest we think that this brand of offense is egoistic, people can clearly get angry over what they perceive as trivializations, even if they don’t know the trivializer or if the thing that is allegedly being trivialized happened to someone else, even if it is someone they don’t know. For example, a common refrain that one hears when someone tries to compare the Holocaust to some other mass murder or genocide, is that such comparisons trivialize it, and the people saying this need not have survived the Holocaust themselves or even know anyone personally who did. They are saying, in effect, “How can you care so little about those people?!”

Regardless, our turn to the moral framework is born of an impression of inadequate human sympathy. What we care about is people caring about each other, and when we invoke morality and employ the moral conceptual framework, it is because we think that people don’t care about each other enough. That we invoke it so frequently and in so many different contexts and have done so for such a long time suggests that this perception of a failure of human sympathy is both general and longstanding. 

At a minimum, these considerations suggest the following:  

First, we would be better served by attending to the cultivation of human sympathy than by the proliferation of moral philosophies and moral discourse. With respect to the formal curriculum, this might suggest a diminished place for philosophy, in comparison with subjects like literature and the fine arts – the latter of which directly engage us at the level of the affective sensibility – or like cultural anthropology, which confronts us with the actual practices and sensibilities of those who belong to cultures other than our own. 

Second, we must face the fact that the “moral image” that philosophers have been peddling since antiquity is based on a fundamental misconception – or, if you read the history of ideas the way that Nietzsche does, a fundamental dishonesty. Philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, and others have taken our moral frameworks and practices as demonstrative of our essential nobility; as something that speaks highly of us. They take it as constitutive of our personhood; as that which distinguishes us from the beasts; as the thing about us wherein our dignity lies. 

But, if the points raised here have been correct, exactly the opposite is the case. Our moral framework and language, rather than demonstrate our elevation, point towards our debasement. We invoke and engage in moral performances not because we believe in our fellow men and women, but because we do not; specifically, because we don’t think that they possess any kind of inherent or instinctive charity; at least on average.