Monday, February 09, 2009

My Definition of Morality?

I have been asked by a member of the studio audience to provide my definition of morality.

Perhaps you can help this old timer and provide me with your definition of morality if it is different than "desire" quote.

I am going to exploit the opportunity provided in answering this question to point out that a great deal of ink is spilled, and a great many electrons are abused, in moral discussions by the mistaken impression that definitions matter.

In fact, a lot of people who discuss ethics think that the core debate in ethics is a debate over the meaning of the word "morality", Two combatants enter the arena, each with their own definition of the term, and they do battle. The winner is the person who has the correct definition.

These battles go on indefinitely, with neither combatant seemingly able to deliver a telling blow, leading a few onlookers to think that there is no correct definition of morality.

What this is thought to imply is that morality is subjective – and that everybody gets to simply invent their own morality without having to worry if they have adopted a “correct” standard.

This whole arena . . . this whole fight . . . is nothing but a massive waste of time and effort, and I want no part of it.

Yes, people can pick whatever definition of 'morality' they like. There is no 'correct' definition of morality. However, there is no 'correct' definition of any word in any language.

There is no correct definition of the word ‘atom’ either – there is just a definition that a group of people have decided they are going to use in communicating with each other.

There is no correct definition of the word 'planet'. The dispute, with different astronomers bringing different definitions into the arena and doing battle is purely a political dispute that has no bearing on astronomy itself. Astronomers know it. This does not imply that they are not passionate supporters of one side or another. However, astronomers realize something that too many ethicists get wrong . . . that, in the long run, definitions do not matter.

Try going to an astronomy convention and claiming that, since (1) a dispute over the meaning of 'planet' can go on indefinitely, and (2) there is no experiment that anybody can perform to show which definition is correct, it follows that people can adopt whatever theories of planet formation they like, and they will laugh you out of the room.

Astronomers know something about the meanings of words that far too many people who write about ethics fail to grasp.

They understand the proper role of definitions.

Now, there are two types of definitions that are really of concern here. Descriptive definitions, and stipulative definitions.

A descriptive definition is the definition that actually describes how people use a term. A dictionary provides a listing of descriptive definitions. It provides a list of words and descriptions of the various ways in which that term is used.

There can be genuine disagreements over whether a descriptive definition is correct. This is a dispute over whether a particular theory actually describes how a term is used in a society. If somebody were to assert that the word 'carpenter' refers to a small domesticated version of the cat family, they would be wrong. We test different descriptive theories by seeing if the theory can accurately explain and predict how a term is used.

The other type of definition is a stipulative definition. In this model, the user of a term merely stipulates, "When I use the term T, you are to take it for shorthand for some long description that I do not want to repeat over and over again."

In desire utilitarianism, I stipulate that a desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs S where P is true in S. This is not a description of how people generally use a term. Rather, I need a shortcut for referring to states of affairs in which there is a desire that P, a state of affairs S, and P is true in S. Rather than using that description over and over again, I merely tell my readers that I will use the term 'fulfill' and its various cognates to refer to this relationship.

So, now, what is my definition of morality?

I don't have one one. When it comes to this term, I am actually interested in the descriptive definition – the theory that describes how the term is typically used. In observing how the term is actually used, I note the following:

Moral terms are prescriptive – they are used to recommend courses of action. That is to say, morality refers to certain reasons for action – certain types of reasons make an action right or wrong.

I also hold that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. However, that is not a part of the meaning of morality. That is a fact that, when combined with the descriptive meaning that morality is concerned with reasons for action, concludes that morality must be concerned with desires. If some other type of reason for action exist, then they are morally relevant. The definition of morality covers them. However, as a matter of fact, they do not exist.

Morality is concerned with universal reasons. A reason for action that is limited to a specific person in a specific situation has nothing to do with morality. My desire for chocolate ice cream creates no duties or obligations.

So, this suggests that morality has to be concerned with universal desires – with desires that people have reason to make universally common or universally non-existent.

Morality is also concerned with praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If a theory of morality makes no use of these elements, then it is severely lacking something.

Desire utilitarianism holds that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are the tools for promoting (making universal) certain desires and inhibiting (making its non-existence universal) of other desires.

Morality contains the element that 'ought' implies 'can'. It makes no sense to say that a person ought to do something that cannot be done.

So, in desire utilitarianism, morality is concerned with malleable desires. It makes no sense to promote a desire using the tools described above if those tools can have no effect on the desire in question. It only makes sense to use those tools where they have an effect – to say that a people ought to desire something only if it is the case that they can do so.

In each case above, I have presented an element in the descriptive definition of morality, and an element of desire utilitarianism that corresponds to that part of the descriptive definition.

Two conclusions follow from this.

First, desire utilitarianism is not true by definition. There are a large number of theories that can meet the descriptive definition of morality. However, those other theories make use of reasons for action that do not exist (gods, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, etc.). That is a problem if one wants to make moral claims about things in the real world.

Second, you can eliminate all moral language and desire utilitarianism will be unaffected. The definition of "morality" is unimportant. What matters is whether or not the items identified in desire utilitarianism really exist and have the relationships described. Just as with the astronomer’s dispute over the definition of "planet", any dispute over the definition of "morality" is just a side show.

6 comments:

Luke said...

Excellent. Thank you.

anton said...

I agree. I believe that every writer is served well by listing his definitions so the reader can concentrate on the essence of what he is saying, rather than getting hung up on a difference of opinion on a definition, or which definition they choose to apply. Since I use the term morality in many of my postings, I felt it was important for my readers to know what definition I was applying.

It would help, for instance, if definitions for such words as hades, pagans, torture, alma, etc. preceded speeches from the throne, the White House or the pulpit.

Daniel said...

Hold on a second. Astronomy and fields like it are able to continue their work without a set definition because the principles discussed exist independantly of their discussion. Isn't saying this for morality the same as saying that there is a universal standard that we must strive to be made privvy to?

faithlessgod said...

Daniel

"Hold on a second. Astronomy and fields like it are able to continue their work without a set definition because the principles discussed exist independantly of their discussion."
This is exactly Alonzo's point here. One can consider ethics without having a set definition of "moral" since the "principles" (IMHO an unfortunate choice of term here but I think we know what we mean) discussed exist independently of their discussion namely: desires, states of affairs and the relations between them. These exist regardless of how one (dis)agrees about how and whether they map onto moral terms.

"Isn't saying this for morality the same as saying that there is a universal standard that we must strive to be made privvy to?"
This is as much or as little of a "universal standard" as one that applies in astronomy with respect to planets or any other celestial objects for that matter.

In another sense nature is the standard and what science strives to be privy to. There is no difference here in ethics. Speculating but if you think there is, then what is the basis for this assertion? A worry over "universal standards" is not sufficient.

Kip said...

Sorry for commenting on such an old post, but I have a question about it. Can you please explain how these two statement do not contradict each other:

Alonzo> "...there is no 'correct' definition of any word in any language."

Alonzo> "There can be genuine disagreements over whether a descriptive definition is correct. This is a dispute over whether a particular theory actually describes how a term is used in a society. If somebody were to assert that the word 'carpenter' refers to a small domesticated version of the cat family, they would be wrong."

Kristopher said...

nice post, thanks.