May 24, 2016

The Moral 'If'

The Moral 'If'
Our moral language is in essence the language of obligation, the 'shoulds' and 'oughts' we employ. Whether we believe that the root of morality is divine fiat, the laws of nature, an economy of utility, a socially evolved survival mechanism, or an exercise of human freedom, we always experience morality in terms of shoulds and should nots. If this normative language is what characterizes morality, it’s our misunderstanding of that normative context that I believe is our greatest error.

The context of ‘should’ is ‘if’. I would go so far as to say that every ‘should’ implies an ‘if’ before it. Should always follows, often implicitly, in the form "if you want to..., then you should..." If you want to stay dry on a rainy day, you should carry an umbrella (or wear a rain jacket). If you want to keep your job, then you should follow your supervisor's directions. If you want to graduate or do well in school, then you should do your homework (in a way that satisfies the teacher). Each of these ‘shoulds’ are directions that you need follow if you want to achieve some end given a certain set of circumstances. The end in mind and the limitations of the give circumstances are the context of moral language.

The examples I just gave above, the weather, work, and school, are amoral. The question is, what differentiates amoral and moral normativity. My simple answer is nothing. The same language-form I applied to everyday choices applies to questions about charity and poverty, war and peace, sexuality and medicine. The difference lies only in the complexity of the limiting circumstances and the end we have to achieve. (In technical terms, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative.) Take war as an example, the moral questions are immensely difficult because of the complexity (to the point of absurdity) of the ideal of a global peace in a world of seven billion diverse individuals. The complexity does not arise because morality is a distinct discourse from, say, the simple question of staying dry. Both are examples of what Immanuel Kant, and the Greeks before him, knew as practical reason. To be more straight forward, we could replacing the idea of ‘practical reason’ with ‘strategy’. Morality is as simple and as difficult as plotting a navigable course from England to Queensland – it’s a simple matter of knowing where you are and where you’re going, it’s the difficult matter of knowing how to navigate every contingent obstacle that lies in your way (and also actually knowing where you are and where you’re going).

There’s a long tradition of this kind of thinking called teleology. In short, teleology begins with the end goal and the material conditions and then derives its means from there. What I’m arguing for is a kind of modest teleology but I prefer the ‘if…then’ construction to the more typical ‘do A in order to reach B’. The reason is because the end, B, is what should first be considered. “If you want to reach B, then do A… but are you sure you want B?” It’s a question of agency.

Agency is central and irreplaceable to my view of morality and too easily ignored in the traditional formulations of teleology. I begin with "If you want..." Of course, my desires are themselves complex. I want to finish writing this post. I also really don’t want to keep writing. My desires are incoherent, but if I want to finish, then I should keep writing; if I want to relax, I should stop. My moral impulse (or strategic thinking) to do exactly what I’m doing is in a contest with another impulse. The wisdom of morality lies in the ability to clearly see what I want most of all and bend my actions toward that end. Finishing this piece is more in line with my deepest moral ideals, my values and hopes, and I’m not actually that tired, so I should follow through.

I’ll be the first to admit that there is a strong current of individualism about this formulation of morality. Some might call it nihilism and relativism, but that ignores my basic contention that we genuinely value what we want, we really do find it meaningful. We are our values, and we cannot cast them off. Agency isn’t about choosing our values, it’s about making judgments in the conflict between our incoherent values. I can’t pick and chose my values, neither do I need everyone else to share my values in order to genuinely care about them. I simply care, and that’s where value begins and ends.

Moral disagreement is then no more than a disagreement about means and, chiefly, the value of our ends. We value many of the same ends, and for many of us our ideals have significant overlap, but it’s difficult to maintain that everyone does (and therefore should) have the same ideals and values. If a sparrow wants to go somewhere quickly, it should fly; if a fish want to, it should swim. They’re so different that they should employ different practical strategies – following different normative structures – in order to achieve their ends. Two people aren’t as different as a bird and a fish are, but there is enough difference within our species that we should pause before assuming that everyone wants what we want, or values what we value. The same end doesn’t serve everyone the same way. We know this already when it comes to career choice and relationships. It would be pure folly to assume that we all need to pursue the same career. If you want to be successful, then you should attend a university: this is patently false if someone wants to be a successful carpenter. I may want to spend my life reflecting on ideas, but it makes little sense for an owl to tell a beaver to stop building and fly. It’s clear in our careers; it’s about time we recognize this in other aspects of our life as well.

Hence my moral ambition is not to tell you what 'ifs' are worth starting from (which goals are worth pursuing, which values are truly valuable). My pretensions are more modest. At most I’ll suggest what means is best employed in order to achieve a given end. After that I only want to encourage you to think about the ifs on which you build your shoulds. Each time you tell someone else "you should...", each time you extend it to politics and say (as politics is wont to do) "we should...", first ask yourself: toward what ends are my prescriptions directed? Why is this end worth pursing rather than that one, and do my own goals need to be shared by others? If you think a politician should drop out of the race, consider that you might not understand the end goal he has in running. If you think your son should study something vocational, consider that his learning and career goals might not be yours. (Also, for the son, consider that you need to feed yourself.) We don’t share all of our ifs, and if we want to be at peace with other people, we should be aware that they might want something very different from us.

To be sure, being more conscious of our morality would never eliminate moral disagreement. Our values will still face irreconcilable differences with others’. In fact, through all this I’m not even saying that we should think about morality differently. I’m saying that this is how our moral thinking always operates, either well - if we remain critical and reflective when we connect ifs and shoulds – or poorly – if we mistakenly pursue lesser moral values like relaxing over finishing this post.