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Moral Hallowing Reevaluated

by Bill Meacham on September 13th, 2018

After getting some feedback on my essay last time on Richard Beck’s notion of moral hallowing, I realize that I was a bit too harsh on him. A reader comments,

Just taking an intellectual position [of moral anti-realism] does not cause my underlying, social ape moralizing and politicking to stop, nor could it, in a real human with human psychology. I am not going to stop behaving as though or acting on my underlying, subjective belief that murder is wrong ….(1)

Right. All of us except for psychopaths have a sense of morality that we cannot simply reason away. The details of what conduct is prohibited, allowed and required by the moral code vary from culture to culture, but all cultures have one. Every culture has sets of rules, whether stated explicitly or not, that specify how people are to act. And people in every culture—which is to say all people, as we never find humans in isolation—have internalized the moral code of their culture and have a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Most of our moral judgments are not made rationally. They are not carefully thought out; instead, they are they come as intuitions, which some call the voice of conscience.

By “intuitions” I mean rapid and automatic judgments. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph say that intuitions are “the judgments, solutions, and ideas that pop into consciousness without our being aware of the mental processes that led to them.” Moral intuitions are a subset: “Feelings of approval or disapproval pop into awareness as we see or hear about something someone did, or as we consider choices for ourselves.” Human beings “come equipped with an intuitive ethics, an innate preparedness to feel flashes of approval or disapproval toward certain patterns of events involving other human beings.”(2) Haidt explains that most people have more one than category of moral intuition: an urge to care for people and prevent harm, for instance, a concern for fairness, a respect for authority but also a revulsion toward those who dominate others, and more; and their relative degrees of influence vary from person to person.(3)

Beck says that “both Christians and atheists ground their ethics in metaphysics, in presupposed ‘oughts,’ basic norms taken as givens.”(4) In my essay last time I took him to mean that when people really think about it, they find that they can articulate what their basic norm is. I objected that after careful thought some people intellectually adopt moral anti-realism and recognize no basic norm. What I overlooked is that even such people can’t help feeling moral emotions and making intuitive moral judgments.

Consider Peter Singer, a moralist best known for his role as an intellectual founder of the animal rights movement. He is a stringent utilitarian, arguing that “we ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can”(5) and that physical proximity makes no difference in how much we are obligated to help someone. A needy child in East Bengal counts morally as much as one right next door.(6) But he has spent tens of thousands of dollars a year on care for one person, his mother(7), that could instead have fed several hundred children in Africa.(8) My point is not to blame Singer for his choice. I just want to point out that when it comes to morality, our intuitions, such as the urge to help one’s mother, often have more influence on our decisions than our intellectual positions.

This is a more charitable way to understand Beck’s claim that everyone grounds their ethics in metaphysics. Regardless of our intellectual position, we all have moral instincts, and we act on them. Beck’s talk of metaphysics makes the process sound more cerebral than it is. A great number of us don’t think through the implications of the norms we have enough to even question whether there is one that grounds them all. But if we do take a moment to reflect, we find that some things are indeed of overriding importance to us, in practice if not in theory.

So in that sense, Beck is right. Now the question is “So what?” What shall we do about the norms we rely on?

The first thing to note is that moral norms are not the only ones that influence our behavior. The norms we follow are not just our moral instincts, but our baser tendencies as well. The great majority of us fall prey at times to pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth, not to mention simple selfishness and discourtesy to others. Or we approach life in ways that are self-defeating, leading to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Or both. In Christian terms, we sin. In secular terms, we succumb to akrasia, the vice of weakness of will. Lacking self-control, we act against our better judgment.

There is no shortage of advice as to what to do about such unfortunate circumstances. Christians advise us to repent and get right with God. Buddhists advise us to cultivate mindfulness and compassion. Stoics advise us to quit worrying about things we have no control over and make good choices about the ones we do. In my book I explain a number of ways we can take advantage of our uniquely human ability to think about our own thinking and avoid emotional rigidities that impair our ability to make good choices.

But what about the moral norms themselves, whether or not we live up to them? Once we get some clarity about the fact that we have such norms and what they are, we get to question them. What is their basis? Why should we follow them? We feel the obligation to do good, be fair, and so forth, but why should we? These are meta-ethical questions having to do with the ontology of morals. And that is a topic for another time.

Notes

(1) Lucas.

(2) Haidt and Joseph, “Intuitive Ethics,” p. 56.

(3) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 123–127 and 170–176.

(4) Beck, 29 August 2018.

(5) Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” p. 238.

(6) Ibid., pp. 231-232.

(7) Specter, “The Dangerous Philosopher,” p. 55.

(8) Unite For Sight, “Fighting Hunger.”

References

[Beck, 29 August 2018] Beck, Richard. “Yet More On Moral Hallowing.” Online publication https://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2018/08/yet-more-on-moral-hallowing.html as of 30 August 2018.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Joseph Craig. “Intuitive ethics: How Innately Prepared Intuitions Generate Culturally Variable Virtues.” Online publication available upon request from the author at http://people.stern.nyu.edu/jhaidt/moraljudgment.html as of 9 September 2018.

Lucas, Richard, comment on Meacham, “Moral Hallowing.” Original comment posted on Google Plus, reposted at https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=1692#comment-10546.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at https://www.createspace.com/4051825.

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265052 as of 12 April 2017.

Specter, Michael. “The Dangerous Philosopher.” The New Yorker, 6 September 1999, pp. 46-55. Online publication http://www.michaelspecter.com/1999/09/the-dangerous-philosopher/ as of 8 September 2018.

Unite For Sight. “Fighting Hunger.” Online publication http://www.uniteforsight.org/hunger/module3 as of 10 September 2018.

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