Annoying Morality

Annoying Morality

Given its importance, there is something deeply unsatisfactory about morality. I don’t mean its alleged subjectivity or relativity, which is more puerile than profound, still less the existence of metaethical controversy; I mean its fragmentary and unsystematic character. It appears as a list of injunctions with no unifying principle underlying them. This is a well-known complaint, so I don’t need to expatiate on it: the miscellaneous list of deontological rules, the consequentialist additions and amendments, the need for separate principles of justice. There are 10 commandments, but why 10 and not 14 or 2 or 23? The usual list concerning lying, stealing, killing, promise-breaking, committing adultery, betraying friends, ingratitude, contract-breaking, et cetera, seems woefully heterogeneous, and refuses to submit to unification or even simplification, despite some valiant efforts. Even utilitarianism consists of two non-equivalent principles, concerning harm and benefit, where one (the no-harm principle) doesn‘t entail the other (the maximize well-being principle). Considerations of justice complicate the picture still further, not being reducible to anything more primitive. There are many things we must not do, and likewise for what we must do. Some say it all comes down to one rule—treating people (and animals?) as ends in themselves, not violating the social contract, maximizing utility, obeying God, conforming to societal norms—but none of these stands up to scrutiny. Moral pluralism seems to be the inescapable predicament—a lamentable lack of system, order, and organization (where is the moral analogue of Peano’s axioms?). What is worse, this lack of unity breeds moral conflicts, dilemmas, and quandaries: one department of morality suggests one thing, another suggests another, with no resolving principle in sight. The poor moral agent is left struggling with a heap of different commands, cognitively overburdened, unable to think straight, confused and bewildered. It’s all so complicated, so messy, so all-over-the-place![1]

Prudence is different. Here things are pretty straightforward: there isn’t a lot to learn, to remember, to take into consideration. It’s mainly a matter of consequences: don’t harm yourself in the future; act so as to make your future self happy. You don’t need to worry about not treating yourself justly, not lying to yourself, not stealing from yourself, not betraying yourself, not committing adultery with yourself, and so on. Just don’t ignore your future self’s welfare—who could forget that? You may not always act prudently, but at least you know clearly and simply what you should do. But morality is not like that—not by a long chalk. Prudence is part of morality, to be sure, but morality contains a whole lot more, and it is thorny stuff—taxing, sometimes confounding. How can we teach all this to children? How do we navigate it in the heat of the moment? How can we keep our conscience clear with all this junk to think about? Some religions preach love as the unifying formula, but that is hopelessly limited, unrealistic, and prone to lapses from strict ethical correctness. It is appealing in its simplicity and sentimentality, but it fails to measure up to the complexities of the moral life. The fact is that morality is intolerably many-sided, splintered, and polymorphous. It seems cobbled together. This has consequences. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if morality had a sleek and simple nature—where one rule encompassed everything moral? Then everyone would be clear about what they ought to do—what morality requires of them. Wouldn’t this reduce moral laxity and moral skepticism? Because, frankly, the complexity is annoying, irritating, maddening—it makes you want to scream sometimes. It’s just so hard. It’s a pain to have to think about, a drag on the spirit. Even the smartest people get tripped up by it. You always feel that you might have missed something, and you frequently have. Why did God have to make it so bloody complicated, given that he wanted us to obey it? And it fuels the moral nihilists among us, who would be happy to get rid of morality entirely—who needs the hassle? Human life would be a great deal easier if morality were more straightforward.

Why do we even speak as if morality were a single unitary thing? Doesn’t this encourage simple-minded moral monism? Why not admit that so-called morality consists of heterogeneous subdepartments—moral maxims, future consequences, justice and injustice? At least let’s acknowledge that it isn’t a clean-limbed monolith but a museum of monuments of varying ages and pedigrees—a type of zoo. Also, teach it in schools like any other difficult subject of study; don’t expect everyone to get the hang of it by trial and error with no explicit instruction. It’s too academically demanding for that. Bit of history, bit of anthropology, some literature, lots of philosophy, examinations, the works. There could be an A-level in it. As things stand, morality is a haphazard collection of disparate ideas bundled together into a kind of disorganized heap. The ordinary mortal needs help finding his or her way through it.[2]

[1] W.D. Ross’s moral system (if that is the word) is agreeably realistic in its avowed pluralism, but it is complicated and far from algorithmic (“prima facie duties”). It represents the actual nature of moral thought, not some philosopher’s idealization. But it is intellectually far from readily graspable; and it doesn’t translate smoothly into right action. Still, I think it is the best moral philosophy we have. See The Right and the Good (1930).

[2] In my experience people’s moral expertise differs dramatically, and their level of moral complacency. Mostly people are just too simple-minded, too morally lazy. Professors are no exception. Moral thoughtfulness is a rare commodity. It takes work, patience, and dedication.

11 replies
  1. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    In morality also , like in prudence, things are straightforward ! Do not harm ( your paper ” moral minimalism” ) ; prudence : dont harm yourself ; morality : dont harm others. I think that moral theorists ( moral philosophers ) , not morality itself , made morality annoying . in addition, we human beings have moral faculty (madule) and therefore in principle there isnt any big problem in acquire our moral knowedge ( this is again your view )

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Do you feel the same way about political/social philosophy? I ask as to a lay person (like myself, at least), moral and political philosophy seem both to deal largely, though not exclusively, with the relationship between the individual and (multiple levels of) society – but from different perspectives obviously.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That depends on whether political theory is conceived as normative. If so, and if the norms are borrowed from ethics, then yes; but some parts of political theory will not be normative in this way.

  3. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Morality, logic, basic finance — all these important subjects should be taught in schools. The teachings will be different in different places, but that is not an argument against teaching them for the reasons that you specify. Morality used to be outsourced to churches and families and the other two subjects are supposed to be learned by the individual person. And all of it is wrong as your article explains.


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