Bloodless moralism

In First Things, Helen Andrews criticises consequentialist morality. It is no longer sufficient to know that something is wrong, one must give a reason based on outcomes, she says, decrying that. It is a long essay, and summaries of what she thinks is bad or good might be a straw man, but she made me think of One instinctively knows when something is right, which Google tells me was an advertising slogan for Croft Original sherry. One grows up in the right schools with the right education, reading the classics, drinking proper sherry as soon as one is old enough, worshipping in the Church of England, and the decency of ones elders rubs off on one.

There was a man who wanted to learn about jade, so the expert gave him a piece of jade every day to examine. After a few months he gave a green stone which was not jade, and the man expostulated, “You tell me nothing, you just give me pieces of jade, and now you give me a stone which is not jade!” Of course, he knew it was not, instinctively. Andrews praises Christopher Hitchens, who she says was not an expert in anything, but people cared what he had to say for two reasons: It was evident that he had read widely, and he expressed himself beautifully. Both of these are forms of authority.

She argues that social science research into good policy for good aims does not work. She cites the Doll tests, which she says were so flawed in their method as to be scientifically worthless. I could not comment- but if they are shown to be worthless, it is by other social scientists honing their methods, and finding better ones, or at least the pitfalls to avoid. That social science is difficult does not mean it is not worth trying.

The doll tests were used as evidence in Brown v Board of Education, mandating the racial integration of US schools. She approves that decision, but not that particular evidence. She does not say how she would have decided it- perhaps with Quemcunque miserum videris hominem scias,  a quote from Seneca, or Jesus’ teaching on who is my neighbour, to include the Samaritan, the hated outsider/foreigner. I am glad she approves the Civil Rights struggle, but judge her commitment to racial equality on her attitude to people of colour’s struggle now- this dismissive aside on “LGBTQ identity politics and black lives matter antics” may indicate that.

So her apparent belief in deontology may be naturally conservative, better at seeing when something has been recognised as right, than finding ways of improving culture. A good education is no guarantee of morality. People quoted the Bible to justify slavery. Perhaps the divide should be between those seeking to improve the whole society through moral action and those merely in it for themselves, rather than by the tools we use to find that moral action.

Or deontology works when we have an idea that something is right, but could not quite put a finger on why. It may be that I had a rule inculcated as a child, or a Great Ape instinct that this is beyond the normal behaviour of my species.

Philosophers could debate whether necessity or coercion ever justified theft without ever looking at consequences, either those imagined as likely or shown by social science evidence. People make slippery slope arguments which are later shown to be unfounded. My own morality is a mix of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics, half understood, inconsistent, and almost certainly at least partly self-interested, but eliminating consequentialism would not improve it.

On the train, a woman could not sit by her ten year old daughter, so sat beside me. I offered to swap seats with the daughter so they could sit together, and she accepted, gratefully. It cost me nothing, benefited them both, and still gives me pleasure a week later, and I cited that pleasure when Andrew raised evolutionary arguments against altruism. “Not everyone would feel it,” he said. Those of us who do should stick together.

Bloodless Moralism.” I found it through Ross Douthat.

4 thoughts on “Bloodless moralism

  1. Her point doesn’t seem to be proposing any particular ethical system of her own as much as criticizing contemporary moral argument: isn’t there something dishonest about invoking scientific “fun facts” to justify forbidding the state to execute teenagers? However you know that executing a teen is bad, it has nothing to do with the post-facto justification you claim is scientific.


    • Well, why is executing a teenager bad? Anyone who spends much time with them knows their impulse control is poor, their knowledge of the world limited, and in the struggle to become independent from parents they may make poor choices or be easily led. Why should they not be executed? Because their responsibility is not as clear as that of an adult committing the same act. That argument might persuade someone who would execute adults quite happily, and might debate when full responsibility should be apportioned. The evidence on brain development confirms what everyone knows. It makes it harder for the person suppporting capital punishment to oppose.

      Generally it seems she is opposing consequentialist morality- the consequences of an act affect whether the act is good. How else will you know the consequences, but by observation? Common knowledge is just observation over a long time- unless it is false.


      • What she is criticizing is the justices feeling the need to resort brain science and statistics when the argument you propose above is the one they really wanted to make, but didn’t have the ability to do.
        As for consequentialism, it does not enter. In fact you could probably argue the reverse, that it is better for society if we eliminate sociopaths early rather than late.


        • That is a question of observation: is rehabilitation possible? A man with a violent past and constructive present told me, “I grew up in a plague zone, and caught the plague”. I don’t feel his violence is all his fault, but do feel his rehabilitation is to his credit- neatly reversing some Christian understandings. So evidence of consequences backs up arguments both ways. Let us do right, however we understand it, however we reach our understanding- and be open to new learning on what is right.


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