Ronnie de Souza has an interesting article at Aeon on why he thinks the concept of morality isn’t helpful. His overall thesis is that the idea that there are things that are right or wrong without qualification, in and of itself, adds nothing useful to the conversation. We can find reasons why or why not to make a particular decision without reference to it. And when we do mix it in, it tends to lead to barren and often bitter arguments between parties being sanctimonious about their own preferences.
On the one hand, as someone who has expressed skepticism myself that there is any type of absolute moral realism, I can completely see where he’s coming from. In many ways, naive conceptions of morality, similar to other such conceptions of love, beauty, consciousness, life, and many other things, adds little of value to many conversations, certainly scientific ones. As concepts, they are so muddled that including them leads to the pointless and endless debates de Souza references. Productive discussions can take place without them, using more precise concepts instead. The temptation to simply dismiss them is understandable.
This view is in contrast to one offered by Eric Schwitzgebel a while back, that often people inflate and explode a concept (he was talking about phenomenal consciousness), that is, deal only with the naive version and then conclude the whole thing should be dismissed. My response was to contrast this with the deflate and preserve mentality, to reduce a concept to the extent that the objectionable aspects of the naive version are no longer relevant, allowing the concept to be retained. An example is deflating the concept of God to the point that the word “God” just refers to the laws of physics.
Inflaters have a tendency to accuse deflaters of engaging in word games just to preserve a cherished concept. And I think there is some validity to this. Often proponents shift between inflated, and easily defeatable versions of a concept when among sympathetic parties, and the more deflated, and harder to dismiss versions when confronted with skeptics.
My approach historically has been to recognize that there are indeed inflated and deflated versions of the concept, to delineate them, and then be precise about which ones I think are worth accepting and which aren’t productive.
In the case of morality, this has historically looked something like this.
- Personnel rules
- Cultural rules and mores
- Legal rules
- Objective rules that exist “out there”
It seems uncontroversial that the first three exist. They can be studied via psychology, sociology, history, and other fields. The controversy is for the fourth one. For that, I agree with de Souza that talking like it exists isn’t productive. But I also agree with him that people aren’t likely to give it up anytime soon. It’s just too easy to justify your version of 1-3 by pretending it reflects 4, rather than providing more grounded reasons why others might want to consider it, or considering the reasons others give for their own version of 1-3.
Which makes me wonder if de Souza might not be wrong in principle, but right pragmatically. Maybe in many cases, to have a productive conversation, we need to eschew these words and reserve them only for colloquial usage.
What do you think? Are terms like “morality”, “love”, “consciousness”, and others still useful for careful philosophical or scientific discussion? Or should we only retain them for casual conversation?