Why Theorize About Morals?

Let’s assume we all agree that nobody ever decides how to act on the basis of a moral theory. This view is called moral particularism, and in my opinion it’s woefully underrated in current ethical philosophy.

At first glance you might object that, when asked why we perform certain actions, we generally respond with an argument from a moral theory. But how we talk about our decision-making process is mostly bullshit. A 1977 article by Nisbett and Wilson, Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes, concluded that our introspective access is “not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports”, and that we usually make up theories to explain our haphazard thought processes. In real life we base our ethics off emotion and empathy instead of ethical theories.

You might also object on educational grounds. When a child asks us if it’s right to take his friend’s lunch, nobody responds: “Well, ethics is complicated and I can’t give you an ethical theory that holds in all instances. Rely on your conscience and it will guide you.” Instead we tell them it’s wrong to steal. But what are we really doing here? I contend that we’re not teaching a child a moral rule; instead we’re doing a number of things. We’re providing a moral example in our not-stealing selves. We’re suggesting certain considerations that might be morally pertinent in this instance. And so on.

Why am I fielding objections to moral particularism in a post titled Why Theorize About Morals? Because these two objections point the way towards a discussion of moral theory that’s compatible with the idea that theory doesn’t guide our actions. If we want to hit a baseball a long way, we don’t study aerodynamics or physics, we practice baseball. But if we want to explain why a certain baseball swing is more effective, we need to go into biomechanics and physics! The batter doesn’t care why a swing works, only that it does, and the moral actor qua actor doesn’t care why an act is right, only that it is. But scientists and philosophers are going to be interested in those ‘why’ questions.

In short: just because talking about morals isn’t helpful to people who want to act morally doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting field of study.

(It’s also worth noting that what I’m doing now is “talking about morals” – so moral philosophy might indeed be useful as a path out of moral theorizing, in the same way that anarchism is useful as a path out of politics.)


3 thoughts on “Why Theorize About Morals?

  1. Abandon TV

    I totally agree that we primarily teach morals (or anything else for that matter) by example, not by words. But moral theory is still required because – to a very large extent – morality is determined by our level of awareness (or lack of it).

    If a small child steals someone’s sandwich they are not acting as immorally as an adult stealing someone else’s sandwich. This is because the child has had less exposure to moral theory AND has a less developed rational mind to apply that theory.

    Likewise, if we learn moral behaviour ONLY by example can we be said to be behaving morally? Or are we just copying behaviour? We need to UNDERSTAND what makes behaviour moral/ immoral in order to truly behave morally/ immorally.

    Does that make sense? 🙂

  2. Sean Post author

    “We need to UNDERSTAND what makes behaviour moral/ immoral in order to truly behave morally/ immorally.”

    See, I don’t really agree with that. We don’t need to understand the physics of riding a bike – as far as I know, it’s actually really complicated – in order not to fall off. We just need to practice and develop the right habits. I think it’s the same with acting morally.

    “If a small child steals someone’s sandwich they are not acting as immorally as an adult stealing someone else’s sandwich.”

    I agree, but not because the child has had less exposure to moral theory. It’s because the child’s sense of empathy (which is a faculty and doesn’t really have propositional content) hasn’t developed yet!

    You’re right that copying behavior isn’t a route to behaving morally – at least, not by itself. We also need empathy, compassion and so on.

    1. Abandon TV

      OK, so suppose I took some sweets from a shop counter and ate them thinking they were free samples, but actually they were not. Did I steal them? Was I acting immorally?

      Or suppose I come from a culture where bicycles are considered shared property and I ‘borrow’ a bike to go to the park. Did I steal that bike? Am I acting immorally?

      In both cases I think the answer is “no”…… and yet, you could also argue that I could have been more careful and asked if the sweets were free samples before eating them, or learned more about the new culture I was visiting before I got on the bike.

      As soon as I KNOW the sweets are not for sale, and the bike is owned by someone then my intent as well as my actions become theft, and therefore immoral. So the morality of an action is based on more than the mere act itself. The intent behind the act counts for a lot, too.

      Being misinformed and miseducated about morality in general also changes your intent in a similar way.

      But at the same time I would also argue that even if the intent is good, the act can still be considered immoral. I view ‘voting’ in elections as immoral, because you are advocating (in fact demanding) that force be initiated against other people, by your elected representatives who are acting on your behalf. Initiating force is immoral. Therefore voting for other people to initiate force on your behalf must be immoral.

      But most people think voting is morally virtuous (or neutral) because government school indoctrinated them to believe this. Their intent is moral, yet their actions are immoral. But they too have a moral responsibility to think beyond what they were taught in school, and decide for themselves whether voting is moral or immoral.

      So basically I think there’s moral / immoral action and moral / immoral intent…. and a sort of grey area linking the two 🙂


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