Monday, December 01, 2008

Moral Theory without Moral Practice

As I mentioned previously, I am undergoing an assessment of the Atheist Ethicist blog with the hope of making some improvements. Db0 has provided me with my own site that I will be migrating to in the next month. I am trying to figure out what types of changes I should make.

One of my original motivations for creating this blog was to present some ideas I had in the realm of moral theory. I had wanted to leave the world a better place than it would have been if I had not existed. However, I needed to learn what 'better' consisted in. So, I went to college (and graduate school) to study moral philosophy. I picked up some ideas along the way – a set of ideas I rolled up and put under the title "desire utilitarianism".

However, I have always had a problem with studying moral theory. I have never had much of an interest in theory that does not find some form of expression in our moral practice.

In graduate school, I had the sense of academics sitting in the forum debating the subtle differences between the ancient Greek concept of "eudemonia" compared to the modern concepts of "happiness" and "flourishing" while gunmen went up and down the street slaughtering those around them.

Events over the last few days in Mumbai, India has called this old image vividly into mind once again. That event testifies to a failure of putting morality into practice, and depicts the costs of that type of failure.

We create morality to protect us from these types of events.

Yet, it is not the worst example of that failure. Gunfire, explosions, and burning buildings in an exotic setting makes for entertaining television, but this does not make it the greatest moral evil imaginable. More people will die . . . more people will be left sick and injured in the world as a result of the decision to inhibit embryonic stem-cell research than by the decision to shoot people on the streets and hotels in India.

Bigotry in America has decided to exclude same-sex and unmarried couples from adopting or being foster parents for children. This means, in some cases, children will be placed with inferior married couples where a superior married or gay couple is available.

Any nonsense of the form that the worst married couple is still better than the best unmarried or gay couple simply shows how learned bigotry and hatred can blind people from making reasonable, sensible decisions.

The number of children who will grow up harmed as a result of this bigotry – and the number of adults harmed by being deprived of something of potentially tremendous value (in raising a child) – will almost certainly be substantially larger than the harm done by 10 gunmen in India. It just isn't as entertaining.

Moral theory itself is mere entertainment if it tells us nothing about how to deal with real-world situations such as these, and then motivates us to make the changes it recommends. It has to tell us something about how to prevent real harms suffered by real people.

1 comment:

Luke said...


I think the work you are doing in moral theory is very important. Please keep it up!