Moral Judgment in the Real World
March 11, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Judgment, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, March 10th, offers an account of moral values as those societal standards which we adopt (either implicitly or, if necessary, deliberately and consciously) in order to achieve better social outcomes (by producing more stable, productive members of that society). I'm not sure if this offers the best possible account of moral judgment, but it does seem to make some sense:

We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.
. . . The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

This account suggests a naturalistic picture, i.e., that morally good behavior derives from recognizing what is good for human beings via the societies they live in (social goods) and acting in accord with such standards. Behavior that involves taking responsibility for oneself and for others for whom one should take responsibility (one's family and fellows within the community) as well as self-control overall in order to avoid behaviors which damage those dependent on us (avoiding drug abuse, illicit and promiscuous sexuality, shiftlessness and so forth) are thus recognized as the moral drivers of behavior. That is, these behaviors are seen as being good because they serve the deep or long term interests of individuals (not just their immediate desires or preferences) whose long term interests we want to serve, or, if we don't, whose interests we, at least, should want to serve.

. . . it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

But is this approach enough to establish a basis for making moral choices? Even if we can agree that it is generally better for human beings to live in groups with social cohesion in order to produce and look after new members of the species, and that human beings generally fare better when they have back-up support systems, especially as they age or encounter disease, a judgment still has to be made that that is important (to be valued) by those who don't feel an interest in continuing the species or simply lack concern for who will tend to them in sickness or old age (and believe they have good reason for lacking such concern). Importantly though, the real problem for moral claims often seems to occur when people living in a society believe they can get all these things from that society without, themselves, trimming the sails of their own behavior (except perhaps publicly to avoid censure or worse) so they can fully participate in the norms of that society.

That is, we can surely argue that shoring up one's society, as David Brooks argues in the article from which those passages are taken, is good for the society overall and that that may even be good for the species (and its members) who live in that society. But why is it also good for any particular individual to fully participate in the specified norms of the said society if he or she can reap the benefits, or enough of them to meet his or her needs, without fully enrolling in the relevant norms? Why not just opt out except when you need something?

One can argue that that doesn't work a lot of the time but, in fact, it does and can work some of the time while moral claims are made for all relevant cases and not for only those when they work for the agent personally. If moral norms are to be personally compelling, it doesn't seem that claiming we must subordinate our own good for that of the larger group or species, either all the time or in general, can be enough.

And in the end, that's what moral debate seems finally to be about.

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