The Scope of Morality

By Daniel Tippens

Every decision is a moral decision. Every dollar you spend on yourself is a dollar that could instead be donated to a good cause. Every minute you spend is a minute you could have done something more kind or helpful than what you actually did. Every person you see, you could greet warmly or grumpily, give them a kind word or not bother. Of course, it’s exhausting to think this way! But still, there is I believe no such thing as a morally innocent choice.

-Eric Schwitzgebel, The Splintered Mind

Eric Schwitzgebel  is explicitly voicing what I take to be an increasingly popular and little discussed view in moral philosophy — that all actions have some moral status or another. In this sense, then, there is no “morally innocent choice,” for if every action has a moral status, then every decision that someone makes, so long as they care about morality, will have to be sensitive to what the status of their action will be. Call this the Universal Moral Status view (UMS).

Some moral theories even have UMS built into them, the most obvious of which is Utilitarianism, according to which one is morally obligated to perform the action that brings about the greatest utility (or happiness, best consequences, etc.), a principle that clearly applies to all actions.

Philosophers aren’t ignorant of this, and their sensitivity is manifested in the well-known “over-demandingness” objection to Utilitarianism. If Utilitarianism is true, then all sorts of actions that we consider to be quotidian and intuitively permissible, like going to the movies with my friends, will be morally impermissible since they don’t bring about the most happiness.  Consequently, Utilitarianism is over-demanding.

Notice, however, that this objection is compatible with UMS, since it maintains that many of our quotidian actions are morally permissible and that Utilitarianism delivers the wrong verdict on the status of these actions. They still have a moral status, the disagreement lies with what that status is.

Virtue ethics is a little more tricky, first because it uses a different sort of moral vocabulary and focal point for moral evaluation, and second because I suspect that some virtue ethicists wouldn’t endorse UMS. The language of virtue ethics is that of a virtuous or vicious character, not that of permissible or impermissible action. Still, one might think that virtue ethicists could endorse their own version of the idea that all actions have some moral status or another, in the sense that all actions either do or do not reflect a virtuous character. In Dan Kaufman’s recent essay discussing the matter, he says, “Aristotle’s ethics is probably most associated with the famous “doctrine of the mean,” according to which the virtuous temperament is the moderate or “reasonable” one, and the right thing to do in any given situation, consequently, is whatever lies between extremes of excess and deficiency (my emphasis added).” Virtue ethics, then, is at least compatible with a version of UMS, though, again, some virtue ethicists might (and probably would) reject it.

Kant may have explicitly disagreed with UMS, for he famously held that “an action, to have moral worth, must be done from duty.” If ‘moral worth’, here, simply means moral status, then Kant is committed to the idea that only actions done from certain intentions have any moral status  However, some scholars might reject this interpretation, as does Michael Slote whom I asked in conversation.

I think that UMS is false; that some actions have no moral status at all. I also hope to show that once we accept the idea that not all actions have a moral status, a new picture of moral disagreement or moral progress/change emerges, one that is particularly prevalent in our society today.

Not All Actions Have a Moral Status

My view is that all actions have the capacity to have a moral status, but don’t always have one, as a matter of fact. One way to illustrate this is to consider the section of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding titled “Of Justice.”  Hume discusses the origins of distributive justice and property. Specifically, he is concerned with the conditions under which questions of distributive justice arise. He invites us to consider a world in which there is no scarcity of resources. In such a world, questions of distributive justice would never come up. Take air, for example. Since air is not scarce, we wouldn’t think about justice and injustice when we take a breath, and if all of the world’s resources were similarly abundant, then as Hume puts it, “It seems evident that…the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of.”

Hume also observes that if “every man [felt] no more concern for his own interest than for that of his fellows,” questions of justice wouldn’t arise. For Hume, family-dynamics approach this kind of situation, where food, for example, isn’t considered one person’s property or another’s. Rather, it belongs to the whole family, and concerns regarding the just distribution of food typically don’t come up.

His last remark on this point involves how justice is suspended in circumstances in which society has broken down, and self-preservation becomes the utmost concern.  Hume asks, “Is it any crime, after a shipwreck, to seize whatever means or instrument of safety one can lay hold of, without regard to former limitations of property?”

Hume is suggesting that it would be wrong to say that actions have the status of being just or unjust, under such circumstances. Justice doesn’t enter into the picture. It’s not that we have a justice-related intuition that it is permissible to take in the air that isn’t in scarce supply. Rather, we don’t have any intuition about the justice of this act at all.

I think that something similar is true about morality, more generally. There are cases in which considerations of morality simply don’t arise. Whether I roll out of bed on the right or left side in the morning, hum to the radio while I drive or greet someone with “hello” as opposed to “hey.” It’s not that such actions are permissible, but rather, that the question of their morality is simply inapt.

There is a difference between lacking an intuition about the moral status of an action and having the intuition that an action is permissible. The latter involves an overt moral sentiment directed at an action. When I consider the trolley problem and decide that it is permissible to throw the switch, I have a detectable intuition on the matter. When pondering whether to eat with my right or left hand, I lack any moral feeling at all. My claim is that lacking a moral intuition about the status of an action suggests that it doesn’t have one.

I said earlier that on my view, all actions have the capacity to have a moral status, but don’t always have one. Think again about Hume’s example of breathing. The reason why taking a breath doesn’t raise questions of justice is because it isn’t a scarce resource. However, one could certainly imagine air coming into short supply, such that we have to regulate its distribution, and quarrels would begin about the just way to do so. Correspondingly, any action could come to have a moral status, under the right conditions.

Moral Progress and Moral Change

That not all actions have a moral status also helps to explain certain kinds of disagreement that are prevalent today. Ordinary moral disagreement involves debates about what the status of an action is, where everyone agrees that the action in question has a status. But sometimes, the relevant debate is about the status itself; that something which didn’t have a moral status before should be taken as having one, now. The idea is to bring morality into the picture where it wasn’t before. Call this kind of change one of moral production.

To see this, compare two ongoing debates, regarding, respectively, the ethics of comedy and abortion. The former represents a case of moral production, while the latter represents a very standard type of moral dispute.

A common belief among many comedy fans is that morality should be — and typically has been in the past — left at the door; “suspended,” in Hume’s words. All one needs to do is consider the careers and success of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, or Sam Kinison to see the extent to which this idea has governed our thinking on comedy.

Today, however, some are attempting to challenge this, morally reprimanding comedians for making socially insensitive jokes of one kind or another.  Indeed, this development has reached a point at which many comedians are refusing to play on college campuses, where this sort of moral condemnation has been the most intense. The response that one frequently hears is that moral critics of comedy need to learn to “take a joke,” “quit being a snowflake,” “stop being so sensitive,” or some other phrase indicating that they think that the action in question is “trivial” in some sense or another – like rolling out of bed on the right side – and shouldn’t be beholden to moral considerations.

Contrastingly, in debates over abortion, no one says that one needs to learn to just “take an abortion” or “stop being so sensitive.” They do not suggest that pro-life advocates are trying to moralize a trivial issue. They recognize that abortion has a moral status, but disagree about what that status is.

That being “overly-sensitive” is emphasized in the comedy debate and not in the abortion debate is particularly revealing to me, for what it means to be overly-sensitive is to be disposed to feel something that others wouldn’t and shouldn’t. Being allergic to chocolate means that one has a reaction to it where there shouldn’t be one. Being an overly-sensitive person is to have moral feelings where people ordinarily wouldn’t and shouldn’t — to have moral sentiments where they should be lacking — like having feelings regarding justice and injustice, with regard to breathing air that is in abundant supply.

Anyone who has been keeping up with political issues knows that this accusation of over-sensitivity is widespread, arising in debates over proper gender pronoun use, gendered language, cultural appropriation, the ethics of eating, and more. Dan Kaufman recently gave a brief list, in which he points to

…what one eats and drinks and wears and watches and listens to; what sort of car one drives to work (or even that one drives to work); what sort of job one has; how one spends one’s spending money; what sort of apartment or house or neighborhood one lives in; whether one uses gendered pronouns or words like ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘uncle’, and the like in one’s ordinary conversations; even what one thinks to oneself, entirely separate from one’s behavior.

In all of these cases, the relevant moral concerns regard moral production and not ordinary moral disagreement. Activists try to make the case that an action that has traditionally been taken as morally empty should be seen as having a moral status, while their opponents maintain that such actions’ traditional, morally neutral status should be retained.

Whence Morality?

If UMS is indeed false, then the question arises as to the conditions under which actions legitimately obtain a moral status.

Outside of formal disciplines like mathematics and logic, the search for necessary and sufficient conditions is almost always a fool’s errand, so the best I can do is identify some heuristics for determining whether an action has a moral status. The first was already suggested by Dan Kaufman, when he wrote:

It strikes me as unlikely that most of our mundane, daily business should have any moral valence whatsoever, even when it involves the little kindnesses and slight cruelties, with which our ordinary lives are filled.  Our moral meters should not be such sensitive instruments, and moral praise and blame should be infrequent; saved, as it were, for “special occasions.” For one thing, there’s something absurd about suggesting that every kid’s bologna sandwich or family barbecue or utterance of “Thank you, sir” constitutes a moral offense.  For another, there is a real futility in targeting basic, common activities for moral condemnation.

Dan is suggesting that a good heuristic for deciding whether an action has a moral status is whether it is something that everybody does; if it is mundane. The moral significance of ubiquity is something that has been recognized by others, though not necessarily for the same purpose. Michael Slote argues that if an action is universal it places constraints on the kinds of attitudes toward the behavior that we can reasonably ascribe to the people who perform such actions, and thus, constrains how we can evaluate the moral characters of such individuals.

I think that another good heuristic for the merits of a particular case for moral production is whether making it requires courage; whether a person is willing to make a personal sacrifice on behalf of something; accept a degree of moral uncertainty; and have the capacity for moral regret. In an earlier essay, I gave the following example with Spider Man:

The Green Goblin held a train full of children in one hand and Mary Jane (the woman Spider Man loved) in the other. Both the train and Mary Jane were suspended over hundreds of feet of open air. Peter knew all of the relevant physical facts about gravity and biological creatures to know that if the Green Goblin were to release the kids or Mary Jane, all of the released parties would surely die. When the Green Goblin dropped both parties, Peter was uncertain about what to do. Was it better for him to save the woman he loves over saving the train full of kids? Or was it better for him to save the train full of kids over saving Mary Jane? Peter was morally uncertain.

If one genuinely embraces the idea of moral uncertainty, then regardless of the choice one makes, one will feel moral regret afterward, wishing that one could have done more, and questioning the choice one has made.

Moral courage involves all of these elements. Suppose a soldier on the battlefield sees that the only way to successfully advance is to put an innocent bystander at risk. If he proceeds to do so easily and happily, he lacks moral uncertainty, and if afterwards, he believes that the decision was obvious and has no trouble sleeping that night, he lacks moral regret, and it would be odd to describe him as courageous.

I contend that we typically take legitimate instances of moral production to involve courage on the part of its advocates, and this makes sense, for it suggests that while the action that previously had no moral status was ubiquitous and mundane, it is no longer trivial in some relevant sense. If the response to your moral production advocacy forces you to have courage, then the thing you are advocating for is likely important.

This is why I don’t take many of the prevalent moral production debates in public discourse today to be legitimate instances of moral production. The advocates do not exhibit courage, in the sense just described.  They are happy to accuse people of racism, sexism, or any form of bigotry, without any hint of moral uncertainty, despite the damage that this can do to the person accused, and they seem to feel no moral regret in having done so. Their actions also fail to involve any real sacrifice, as they often involve little more than sitting in front of a computer screen, Tweeting their accusations under the protection of anonymity. This, of course, isn’t true of all people in these moral production debates, but it is certainly noticeable in many of them.

Philosophical Implications 

As I noted at the beginning of this essay, the main targets of a critique like this are consequentialist moral theories like Utilitarianism, and if I am correct that not all actions have a moral status, then these theories are false as they currently stand. They could be amended such that they only operate over actions that have a moral status, and I would be interested in seeing consequentialists consider this. A more general point is that any theory that holds that all actions have a moral status would be, in my view, wrong.

That not all actions have a moral status also carries implications for moral psychology. Many experiments in this field involve presenting people with a moral dilemma of one kind of another, and asking them whether the action is obligatory, permissible, wrong, etc. But on my view their list of options is incomplete, for some people might lack an intuition on the matter, but fail to have the option of “morality doesn’t apply.” Moral psychology, as it is currently practiced, involves experimental designs that presume too much.

Finally, my view has implications for the philosophical topic of moral progress. I contend that a significant amount of moral progress, if there is any, involves debates and battles over moral production, not just moral disagreement. Societies collectively realize, through painstaking movements and civil upheaval, that the conditions of our world are such that an action that previously had no moral status now has one, recognizing that the scope of morality has expanded.

(This article was originally published on The Electric Agora)

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