The Domain of Moral Judgment (Morality Part Deux)

One of the crucial questions I didn’t address in my previous post about morality was that of which interactions are appropriate for us to evaluate on a moral scale. Not every action has a moral/immoral component to it. Morality is a framework to govern interactions between humans, or at least between creatures with a certain degree of sentience; while we may not be able to agree on definitions or degrees of sentience, we can agree that the complete lack thereof precludes an entity from taking part in a moral/immoral interaction. (It is nonsensical to talk about the morality or immorality of a man interacting with a wooden board.) In the most fundamental sense, morality exists, as I have said, to make our lives easier and happier than they would otherwise be, were we all left to our own animalistic devices. What this boils down to in principle, and what every moral value can be reduced to, is the protection of a certain set of rights. Differing moral systems hold differing views of what rights are natural/unimpeachable, what rights should always be protected, and what rights are more properly thought of as privileges, and these discrepancies are what result in different moral values. For a moral system to be rationally coherent, though, it must focus on interactions between rights-possessing entities.

It’s likely that by now you can see where I’m going with this. The previous paragraph can be summarized as follows:

  1. A coherent moral system can only deal with interactions between two or more sentient (to whatever degree) entities.
  2. A coherent moral system exists for the purpose of protecting the rights of participants in that system.

The concept of consensual/victimless crime, then, is meaningless from a morality standpoint. Society may have an interest in promoting ‘public morality,’ but that doesn’t mean it is morally justified in doing so. Leaving aside issues of morality vs. law, an interaction which doesn’t involve the abridging of rights of either party (obviously these interactions can involve more than two participants, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume only two) cannot properly be called ‘immoral.’

Take consensual crime—actions that are deemed criminal, despite being between two fully consenting adults. There is no moral justification for prohibiting any such interactions; as long as both directly-involved parties give informed consent (more on this later), there are no rights being abridged, and thus there is nothing to qualify such a situation as ‘moral’ or ‘immoral.’ It’s simply an interaction between two people, the same in principle as two people shaking hands. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the morality or immorality of such things unless you want to suggest a drastically different and much less defensible goal for a moral system (enforcing God’s will, say).

The principles involved in victimless, one-party crimes are more or less the same. Justifications for laws against suicide in particular tend to fall into two categories: the logistical argument, which suggests that although suicide only directly impacts the person committing suicide, it has considerable indirect effects on other people; and the appeal to moral authority argument, wherein suicide is claimed to be An Immoral Act, period, end of story. The latter doesn’t hold water at all, given that no one’s rights are being abridged. Those who argue from this perspective often speak as if rights implied requirements, i.e. the right to live must be exercised (because it’s natural, because human life is sacred, or for some other nebulously defined and poorly articulated reason). This is clearly not true; my right to live can’t be seen as a requirement to live, just as my right to free speech can’t be seen as a requirement to use that free speech. I am perfectly within my appropriate moral boundaries to go my entire life without saying a word, even if I’m capable of speech. (If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess that this isn’t particularly likely for me.) The logistical argument has slightly more of a logical basis, but it rests on the assumption that acts ought to be evaluated not just in terms of the actions themselves and their direct consequences, but also in terms of any indirect consequences that may crop up in the future. This makes some sense in the abstract (and I’m not entirely sure how to rebut it on principle), but it sets a troubling precedent, especially in a world where even the smallest action can have numerous unforeseen consequences. At any rate, I’m fairly certain that it would be impossible, no matter how many causal leaps were taken, to make a case that person A committing suicide can possibly violate any fundamental, unimpeachable rights of person B, assuming we’ve more or less arrived at a reasonable consensus as far as what those fundamental rights are (the right not to be sad is not defensible as such a right; the right not to be killed is).

This is all the long way around saying that morality becomes meaningless if we try to apply it to situations that don’t have a morality component. Such situations are more properly thought of as matters of cultural norms, and obviously legislating based on cultural norms is a bit more iffy than legislating based on a rationally-generated system of morality. Especially in an increasingly globalized society. Moral judgment can only be applied to situations where someone’s natural rights are being abridged; if all parties to an action/interaction have given autonomous and informed consent, then a consistently-defined morality has nothing whatsoever to say about the situation. These actions may offend some cultural norms, but calling them immoral is a gross misuse of the term, and that’s really the sort of term we ought to get right.



5 Responses to The Domain of Moral Judgment (Morality Part Deux)

  1. Urizen

    I would disagree that morality is between only humans. Morality is the support for all that we think and do regardless if the dirctionality of our intents involves a system that is not sentient.

    Surely environmentalism contains a moral support.

    The domain for morality has not be proved save for those with faith and that would be debated severely by those without.

    I pertain to the Vedic system and since the Godhead is both within and without everything in creation there are always two sentient beings. This involves a non-mechanised entity at the absoulte level.

    I do appreciate your concerns over a coherent system to direct humanity.


    David Nollmeyer

  2. Urizen says:

    I would disagree that morality is between only humans. Morality is the support for all that we think and do regardless if the dirctionality of our intents involves a system that is not sentient.

    Surely environmentalism contains a moral support.

    I would argue that the sense of morality you’re talking about is more appropriately called an instinct or an impulse, rather than a system that actually governs actions. Such impulses are difficult to define and nearly impossible to codify, which is part of what leads me to the conclusion that they have no place in a rational ethos. That’s not to say we can’t use these impulses to guide our decisions, but we have to recognize that they’re beliefs rather than moral compulsions. I’m not sure one could really coherently define environmentalism as a universal moral principle (unless you’re talking about compassionate treatment of animals, due to categorizing them as sentient, but I get the feeling you’re referring to a more general sense of environmentalism, one in which ‘actions good for the environment’ are considered ‘moral’).

    I don’t mean to argue that environmentalism isn’t a good, worthwhile thing. There are direct logistical arguments for it (respect for the environment will keep us from turning our world into a useless shell) and indirect moral arguments for it (destroying the environment fucks over quite a few people, both present and future), but I don’t think there’s any direct moral argument for calling ‘being good to the environment’ a moral value in and of itself. The indirect arguments are somewhat persuasive, but the moral calculus is much too complicated to unequivocally say that environmentalism is a definite ethical compulsion.

    The domain for morality has not be proved save for those with faith and that would be debated severely by those without.

    I think this is the sort of thing I was trying to get at. My argument is that morality by definition (assuming we’re aiming for a consistent definition of morality, and any other definition would be useless except in completely closed-off groups of people) can only coherently refer to interactions between sentient entities, whatever our definition of sentient happens to be. I suspect you’d agree that talking about the rights of a drop of water or a plastic bag would be meaningless; likewise with talking about the morality or immorality of a man interacting with a drop of water or a plastic bag. We could theorize about what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ would be in these situations, but there’s no way to extract a universal moral value from them.

  3. […] For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end). […]

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