‘Morality’ is Equivocal

It’s a truism that people disagree about what actions are morally right, good, bad, or wrong, and this fact is often expressed by saying that they have different ‘meanings’ or ‘definitions’ of morality, a turn of phrase which is close enough to the truth but somewhat misleading (the disagreements are over content, not what the word is to mean – it’s precisely because people mean the same thing that their different opinions are in conflict).

But I think that a stronger claim can be made, which would be properly expressed by talking about different ‘meanings’ of the word ‘morality’: that is, it may be that there are in fact two or more distinct things that the word ‘morality’ confusingly refers to. The term ‘morality’, that is, may be ‘equivocal’ – like the term ‘trunk’, which refers both to an elephant’s nose, a car’s boot, and a human’s torso, with no single meaning applying to all.

An interesting consequence, which I’ll explore in the next post, is that ‘moral relativism’, or even ‘nihilism’, may be similarly equivocal.

I’m prompted to this thought by this interesting site, essentially a collection of questionnaires aiming, among other things, to measure statistical differences in the reasoning of different political groups (which I was put onto by Rumblegumption [top link]). The particular questionnaire I wanted to talk about was called ‘moral foundations’, and worked on the basis of ‘moral foundations theory’ (more info here).

To summarise, the idea is that moral reasoning tends to feature five ‘foundations’, namely:

1) Harm/care, virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity,  ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group, anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/respect, deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination.

The basic finding is then that lefties see 1. and 2. as being of paramount importance, and the other three as of much less, if any, while conservatives see all 5 as roughly equally important. This is illustrated in figure 1.

Fig.1 - People who self-identified as the extreme points of a 7-point scale of political identity rated the moral importance to them of a range of factors, then grouped into five broad headings.

Fig.1 - People who self-identified as the extreme points of a 7-point scale of political identity rated the moral importance to them of a range of factors, then grouped into five broad headings.

This is not a brute fact – the difference between 1.-2. and 3.-5. is quite clear on an abstract level. 1.-2. fit into an ethic of helping and respecting other people as being like you – they fit within the ‘golden rule’ of ‘do to other people what you would like them to do to you’. But 3.-5. don’t work like that, they bring in ideas (like that some actions are just disgustin and unnatural, or that some people deserve respect or loyalty that others don’t) which don’t fit easily in that ‘golden rule’ system.

This division can also be seen if we look at academic moral philosophy – it is, in this sense, very strongly ‘left-wing’, in that almost all attempts at grand ethical systematising rely either on the idea of seeking to promote the happiness and non-suffering of others (utilitarianism/care ethics, i.e. foundation 1.), or of seeking to promote and respect the rights and autonomy of others (Kantianism, various deontological theories, contractarianism, i.e. foundation 2.), and much of moral philosophy is about the disputes between these two (and hence within their broader pairing). To find systematic treatment of themes 3.-5. as fundamental basic principles requires looking to, for example, the ‘natural law theology’ of the Catholic Church, a religious and, let’s face it, pre-modern institution.

Fig.2 - average results for political lefties (blue), conservatives (red), and Aldersons Warm-Fork (green).

Fig.2 - average results for political lefties (blue), conservatives (red), and Aldersons Warm-Fork (green).

My results, for those who are interested, are shown in Fig.2, where I show myself to be, shock horror, a bit of a lefty.

Anyway, so we have this apparent distinction, psychological as well as philosophical, between two sets of considerations. What I want to suggest, then, is that there are in fact two entirely separate things going on, which are not simply ‘two types of morality’ but as different as the elephant’s “trunk” and a car’s “trunk”.

I’ll try to characterise those things as briefly as possible. What appears above as ‘foundations’ 1. and 2., and appears in moral philosophy as pretty much every theory in moral philosophy, is ‘value egalitarianism’. The idea here is that whatever is ‘valuable’ to person A (not being hurt, having food, living happily, etc.) will be treated as valuable also by person B (and others).  So each agent ‘should’, when making a decisions, consider the effects on all those involved, and treat them equally, to construct an overall value of ‘what’s best for all of us’. I should really stress that for philosophical theories like Kantianism and utilitarianism, equality is ‘built in’ to the logic of how they work.

Note that here the ‘moral principles’ are ‘objective’ in that for each individual agent, the importance of considering all of the other agents isn’t up to them as an individual – however, those principles are not ‘objective’ for the total group of moral agents, except as a sort of ‘formal rule’ for generalising their individual ‘goods’ and ‘bads’. ‘Rightness’ transcends each person but not all persons.

Conversely, what appears as foundations 3. and 4., and especially foundation 5., and in moral philosophy as largely-religion based stuff, is ‘value authoritarianism’. The idea here is that some particular things, like working against specific group X, disobeying the commands of specific authority X, breaking specific rule X, eating specific food X, engaging in specific act X, etc., are supposed to have a value (good/bad) that stands outside whatever any individual or totality of individuals wants or doesn’t want. However, since once we stop believing in imaginary friends, we realise that such values cannot be ‘discovered’ or ‘communicated’ to us from outside the totality of people, obviously they will in fact have to come from some particular group of people, who are in fact finite beings but present themselves as speaking on behalf of the infinite.

I call it ‘authoritarianism’ because such a judgement (that, say, homosexual acts are wrong and disgusting) cannot come from any other source than somebody judging it to be wrong, but that at the same time, they must present this judgement not as their own but as coming from a grander and higher source, consequently as overruling, without reconciliation or mediation or rational analysis, conflicting judgements (that, say, homosexual acts are awesome and a lot of fun).

As I implied through my choice of labels, I don’t think that these two are simply ‘conflicting sources’, I think they are directly opposed, since one relies on equality and the other must violate equality. And they clearly don’t work in the same way, they haven’t started in the same place and diverged, they are just different things.

Now, just to try and wrap up, I’m not saying that the term ‘morality’ is equivocal between value egalitarianism and value authoritarianism. Rather, I think it’s equivocal between one thing, which we might call ‘conservative morality’, or ‘pre-modern morality’ (yes, I know the terms are contentious, whatever), which is the combination of value egalitarianism and value authoritarianism, and another thing, which we might call ‘liberal morality’, or ‘englightenment morality’, which affirms the independence and completeness of value egalitarianism.

This explains to some extent the disconnect that I as a philosophy student often notice between ‘morality’ as philosophers use the term (which is largely to mean ‘englightenment morality’, because most of academia is filled with enlightenment (and ‘post-enlightenment’, if you want) thinking, and the way that a lot of other people use it. For example, words like ‘immorality’ and ‘morals’ have in many people’s minds a strong connection with sex – but this is largely absent in academic moral philosophy. The word is applying to two quite different systems.

In my next post I’ll draw out some more of the implications of this, especially as it relates to the idea of ‘moral relativism’.

4 Responses to “‘Morality’ is Equivocal”

  1. johnqpublican Says:

    Another way to describe it is as the distinction between prohibitative and exhortative moralities; the underlying difference between a mode of thought that is dominated by “Thou shalt not” and a mode of thought dominated by “One should”. It is worth noting that one of the distinctions in practice is that value systems based on “Thou shalt not” tend to embed a Them (or Thou) who are subject to prohibitions, and an Us, who issue them. Exhortative systems tend to expect the author to uphold them.

    The basic run of law and society in medieval northern Europe, for example, was entirely based on prohibitative moralities (where Us was the Pope and Them was everyone else). The popularity and social effects of quest and roman literature among the professional military class was, quite consciously, an attempt to develop an exhortative moral compass: chivalry.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “The popularity and social effects of quest and roman literature among the professional military class was, quite consciously, an attempt to develop an exhortative moral compass: chivalry.”

    A very interesting point, thanks.

  3. bank Says:

    Almost nothing succeeds like success

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