Does Moral Philosophy Make a Difference?

Missives from Marx has a series of posts up in which he suggests, in essence, that

“There’s something really stupid about the meta-ethical arguments about whether or not legitimations for ethics are absolute or not, and, if not, whether people can still be ethical…most people just don’t give a shit about meta-ethics.”

This is of interest to me, among other things, because I’ve recently been doing a certain amount of work on meta-ethics (i.e. what is ethics? what do words like ‘good’ mean?) and will, with luck, be presenting to a conference in mid-November, arguing that the foundations of ethics (in at least one sense) are absolute (in at least one sense) in what I think is a fairly novel way. If that goes well I will probably post on it. So I don’t think the whole issue is ‘stupid’.

Of course Missives has a point, which is that people are not waiting with bated breath for some philosophers to finally announce whether truth is beauty, or whether, in fact, beauty is truth. Most of the actions that we call ‘moral’ (in at least one sense) are motivated by something other than metaphysics – they’re some psychological impulse or other, whether empathy, disgust, fear, etc.

But I think this point can be over-stated. The question to ask, I think, is not so much ‘does philosophy affect people’s behaviour?’, but rather the two questions ‘does philosophy affect ideology?’ and ‘does ideology affect people’s behaviour?’

By ‘ideology’ I’m thinking of the whole layer of things that stand between academic study and everyday life: religion, politics, economics, pop-science, literature, etc. In short, the things that non-intellectuals draw upon in answering the same questions as academic philosophers.

Thus defined, I think it seems very likely that ideology does affect people’s behaviour, often in big ways. And does philosophy (and, more broadly, academia) affect ideology? It seems likely – though I’m not sure how one could prove the matter either way.

But the image of one thing just ‘affecting’ another is perhaps a bit too simple. Ideas can be looked at in at least three ways: politically, psychologically, and theoretically. The only ultimate source of ‘action’ is psychology, since action is what humans do from motives, but people like having ideas by which to act, and their selection of ideas reflects the theoretical features of those ideas.

For instance, it seems perfectly plausible to me that someone might happen to find the picture offered by ‘the scientific worldview’ unbearably bleak and nihilistic, precisely because it reduces ethical questions to the level of unconstrained choices, personal tastes. If the nearest idea that can avoid that is a religious one, they may adopt that religion, they may find that it ‘makes sense to them’, even if they would otherwise have found its reactionary views about sex off-putting. They then feel forced to support said reactionary views out of a desire for consistency.

Or, someone who has only ever encountered communism as a more-or-less nihilistic doctrine, that rejects all talk of ‘principles’ as humbug and puts value only in the acheivement of victory, might find it harder to identify and object to the progressive blows against democracy and freedom taken by their self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ – and if their resistance is delayed by that struggle to make sense of things, that makes it easier for said leaders to entrench their power and strangle a revolutionary moment.

If that sort of thing might happen – and I see no reason to think that they don’t – then the theoretical features of ideas can influence what causes people do or don’t ‘throw their weight behind’. Ideas don’t drive changes, people do, but people need to use ideas to do that and they may find the available ideas more or less useful.

Missives from Marx criticises those who “think we’re having a meta-ethics legitimation crisis. But we’re not—only they are.” Certainly, we’re not in danger of some sort of ‘total collapse’ where people all decide to rush madly into the street for orgies, rap concerts, and snorting crack off the bodies of sacrificial infants. And the suggestion that we are (or that such a thing is already happening) is an authoritarian and reactionary fantasy.

But I do think we’re at a point where the ideological scene looks somewhat washed out, with all the major ideologies seeming somewhat discredited, all the big questions seeming to lack convincing answers. That’s not just a theoretical situation – it’s primarily a political, and a social, situation. But I think it reinforces and is reinforced by a intellectual exhaustian that offers people little of the right kind of ideology.

And I think the ‘crisis of meta-ethical legitimation’ is one component of that. If it was entirely correct, a harsh truth, then that might be unfortunate but unavoidable – but if it’s actually a conceptual confusion then there may be some merit in trying to unravel it.

3 Responses to “Does Moral Philosophy Make a Difference?”

  1. missivesfrommarx Says:

    I might have more to say about this, but for now I’ll stick with this: I don’t think meta-ethics is stupid. I’m actually really interested in meta-ethics (reading it, thinking about it, doing it). I think that some meta-ethicists think that the “right” meta-ethics solution to relativism or whatever will be the magic bullet that will once and for all convince people to be ethical—and THAT is stupid.

    Now, you might suggest that they don’t really think that, but the way they frame these debates necessarily assumes that. It is almost always framed as stopping a slide into relativism (even the relativists usually try to show how their relativism doesn’t slide into an “everything goes” relativism). As such, these stakes are implicit: people will end up as baby-fucking cannibals unless I can somehow prove to them that there are ethical norms built into the furniture of the universe.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I don’t think meta-ethics is stupid.”

    Point very much taken.

    “It is almost always framed as stopping a slide into relativism (even the relativists usually try to show how their relativism doesn’t slide into an “everything goes” relativism).”
    Perhaps, perhaps. I wonder though – how does this compare to epistemology debates that get framed as ‘stopping a slide into scepticism’, or metaphysics debates that get framed as ‘stopping a slide into solipsism’ (or, indeed, those in the past that were framed, partly, as ‘stopping a slide into atheism’)?

  3. missivesfrommarx Says:

    Yes, yes!! Again, I like reading epistemology, but the idea that if we get epistemology right then people will start thinking straight and stop believing in falsehoods has got to be wrong!

    We don’t usually dispute knowledge claims by criticizing another person’s epistemology. If I come across the claim that African-American culture causes them to be lazy, I’m not going to launch into a lecture on epistemology.


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