Comparative Morality


Comparative Morality



It is plausible to suggest that our attributions of beauty are essentially comparative. To say that x is beautiful is to say that x is more beautiful than most things (or some such). More exactly, to say that x is a beautiful F (painting, person, motorcycle) is to say that x is more beautiful than most F’s. Objects are not said to be beautiful in isolation but only in relation to other objects; we certainly have the locution “x is more beautiful than y” and this locution is what underlies our use of the adjective “beautiful” used as a one-place predicate. It is the same with other adjectives: to say that x is large is to say that x is larger than most things of a certain class. Thus an ant can be said to be large because it is larger than most ants, though it is certainly not large in relation to other animals—it is large for an ant. Does the same hold for “beautiful”? Can something be a beautiful doorknob because it is more beautiful than other doorknobs but not beautiful tout court? It may not be a beautiful work of art compared to other works of art, suitable for exhibition in an art gallery. In any case, the word “beautiful” is best understood as a comparative: to be beautiful is to be more beautiful than other things of some class or other. This implies that an object can be beautiful in one world but not in another without changing its intrinsic character, since the comparison classes can vary between worlds: what is more beautiful than the majority of things in one world may not be more beautiful than the majority of things in another world. For example, a given bird may be more beautiful than most birds of its species in one world but not in another world in which avian pulchritude is of a higher order. Beauty is not then an intrinsic feature of objects that have it but a relative feature—a matter of how one thing compares to another. In a world of gods even Dorian Grey may seem plain—while what counts as ugly in one setting may be deemed handsome in another. Beauty comes on a scale and position on it is what matters. Accordingly, it makes little sense to entertain the idea that everyone might be beautiful, since that would imply that no one is more beautiful than anyone else: given that some people are more beautiful than others, some will count as beautiful and some will not (the same applies to doorknobs). The point of talk of beauty is to signal differences, so that to be less beautiful than others is to edge towards not being beautiful—someone has to lack this property in order than others may have it. The lowest ranked members of the relevant class will have to lack what the highest ranked members possess, on pain of rendering the concept of beauty nugatory. There can only be large ants because there are also small ants, and the same for beautiful people and doorknobs. In the land of the ugly some may yet be blessed with relative beauty, while in the land of the beautiful even Adonis may cringe and hide.

But I am not concerned here with aesthetics: I want to ask whether a similar story applies to morality. I take it that what I just said about beauty is pretty uncontroversial (if upsetting to the vain), but can something similar be true of goodness? Is it plausible to suggest that for a state of affairs or an action to be good or right is for it to be better than some chosen class of states of affairs or actions? Is moral goodness analyzable as a comparative concept, to the effect that it applies just when one thing is morally better than another? This would imply that moral goodness is not a fixed quality but something that varies with the comparison class: being good is a matter of a relation between the object in question and other objects. To put it simply, an action can be said to be good if and only if it is morally better than most actions. That will need some refinement, but the intent should be clear—goodness is a comparative concept. We can rank actions according to their degree of moral goodness and the property of being morally good is analyzable in terms of the relation of moral superiority. And the same for moral badness: some actions are worse than others and moral badness can be defined as being worse than other actions (of a certain class). The basic moral concept is thus a comparative concept, i.e. being morally better-than. Something like this conception is at work in classical utilitarianism: an action is said to be right just when it produces more utility than other actions that could be performed in the circumstances. Moral rightness is defined as being better than other actions, as judged by the utilitarian measure. If another action would produce more utility than the one actually performed, the latter action is not deemed right. A morally good action is one that produces more utility than other actions that belong to the class of actions that could have been performed. The same action that is deemed not right in the actual circumstances could be right in other circumstances—those in which it is the best of the available actions there. Actions are right only in relation to other actions not tout court. Utilitarianism doesn’t say that an action is right if it produces a lot of utility, which would be a non-comparative condition; it says that an action is right if it produces more utility than other actions. Since utility is the measure of goodness, this implies that actions are morally right according to whether they are better than other actions. And notice that the next-ranked action possible in the circumstances cannot be reasonably deemed wrong without qualification, since it would have been right if the first-ranked action were not available. It is not intrinsically wrong to give someone a hundred dollars—that is only deemed wrong when you could have given a hundred and one dollars. According to utilitarianism, actions are ranked on a scale of moral quality, with some better than others; it is not an all-or-nothing matter. The underlying notion is that of one action being better than others according to its ability to produce utility. In extreme cases an action could be very wrong in one set of circumstances and very right in another, depending on the other actions available (e.g. how much money you have to give).

There is a question how far the comparative account can apply under deontological theories. Isn’t it an absolute all-or-nothing matter whether keeping a promise is right and breaking one is wrong? But even here comparative considerations come into the picture, for two reasons. First, breaking a promise can be more or less wrong depending on the importance of the promise—promising to bring life-saving medicine to a sick person versus promising to sing “My Sharona” to a friend, for example. Clearly, it is worse to break an important promise than a trivial one, so promises can be ranked according to how immoral it is to break them. And it is not implausible to suggest that the scale might be differently set in a world in which promise breaking is more prevalent and serious than in ours: if people are continually breaking important promises, it will seem less immoral to break trivial ones. Or if people are extremely punctilious, what we would count as trivial promise breaking will incur strong condemnation from them. Similarly for lying, ingratitude, etc. It may even be supposed that in the land of routine genocide regular murder will not earn such powerful censure as in our world. After all, not all murders are equally bad, some being worse than others; thus we speak of particularly heinous murders and distinguish them from less grievous cases. The second point is that duties may conflict in a given actual case: telling the truth might involve breaking a promise, for example. Here it is natural to speak of one action as exemplifying more duties than another, thus ranking actions according to the amount of duty following they contain.[1]Comparative thinking is common even in a deontological framework, not just the simple statements “This is right” and “That is wrong”. We can always ask, “Yes, but which action is more right or wrong?” Much the same holds within a virtue ethics perspective, but I won’t go further into this, since the point is clear enough (some people are more virtuous than others, and some virtues more important than others). To be virtuous is to be more virtuous than the average or typical or some such.

The interesting question that arises from this is whether a certain kind of moral relativity follows. Is it relative to a given society how wrong an action is? Suppose that in one country immorality of every kind is rife with the murder rate sky high, while in another country bad behavior is rare and minimal with no murder at all. Won’t the people in these societies calibrate their moral scale according to the prevailing facts? Both will employ a scale ranging from “mildly objectionable” to “absolutely horrific”, but the same actions will be categorized under different moral descriptions—armed robbery deemed only “pretty bad” in the first society while excoriated as “the epitome of evil” in the second society. The prevailing and varying facts will fix how the scale is applied, just as in the beauty case. Our moral language is used to make distinctions, mark contrasts, and these distinctions will exist even when the actions described are different. Thus how bad an action is will depend on the nature of the society that we are dealing with: in a land of villains actions might be only mildly reproved that in a land of saints would be regarded as deserving severe sanction. Societies become more morally lax according to the amount of immorality within them.

But this relativist position encounters resistance from another aspect of our moral thinking, namely that we are wedded to the idea that some actions are intrinsically wicked (or good) irrespective of what other actions may occur. Can it really be that murder is less wicked in a society in which murder is common, as opposed to being described as less wicked by (numbed) members of that society? The intuition to the contrary is certainly strong, and relaxing it likely to lead to nasty consequences, but it appears to conflict with the comparative view of moral discourse. People might rate actions according to their comparative status given the general function of moral discourse, but it doesn’t follow that actions themselves vary in their moral standing as these ratings vary. I think this is a real tension in our moral thinking, since we are committed to both things; and it leads to an uncomfortable form of moral skepticism, to the effect that we might be wrong about how bad various actions actually are. Maybe we are rating actions comparatively so as to preserve the full spectrum of moral language but the underlying moral facts are not varying with our ratings. For example, we rate armed robbery as less immoral than murder, and no doubt it is, but it might be a lot worse than we normally suppose: it might be really bad, just not as bad as murder, which is really really bad. Or it may be that promise breaking is a lot worse than we think, even though it compares favorably to others types of immorality. We apply a fixed set of moral categories but that may not be adequate to the moral facts. Surely a society in which child murder is common is missing something if they regard adult murder as only moderately wrong (comparatively speaking)! So we could be in error about how bad (or good) things are because we deploy a comparative scheme that glosses over questions of absolute rightness. But what are we to do—should we start declaring that certain actions are extremely bad (e.g. promise breaking) and other actions superlatively bad (e.g. murder), phasing out such pallid locutions as “pretty bad” or “not OK”? That seems pointless, so we seem committed to a comparative conception of morality, notwithstanding contrary intuitions. I think that in the course of history our sliding scale has moved around a good deal, though from a wider perspective the moral facts have not changed—murder was always as bad as it is now (and it may be a lot worse than even we recognize). It is clearly important to our moral thinking that we retain a comparative point of view—we need to count some actions are worse than others not just as good or bad simpliciter—but we don’t want to devolve into a kind of relativism that makes the moral status of an action dependent on people’s comparative judgments. Thus there is a tension at work here as we try to do justice to both ways of thinking. This tension does not appear to exist in the beauty case, since there we have less trouble with the idea of relative beauty: a given person might really be less beautiful in a world in which everyone is at the Cleopatra level (though that person is equally beautiful relative to our world). A large ant in our world might be a small ant in another world in which ants are twice as large, but it is less easy to accept that a person who is fairly wicked in our world is quite virtuous in another world in which wickedness is doubled. But then isn’t “fairly wicked” clearly a comparative term, inviting the question “Compared to whom?” We seem to operate uneasily with a moral system that is largely comparative but also contains hints of the absolute.[2]


Colin McGinn


[1] W.D. Ross formulates the point this way in The Right and the Good (1930): “right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima faciewrongness, in those respects in which they are prima facie wrong”. Note the comparative form of this definition of rightness.

[2] I can find no analogy for this situation drawn form elsewhere: nothing else has this kind of dual structure. Pragmatically, our moral discourse operates comparatively, at least most of the time, but metaphysically we are also drawn to a conception of moral facts that transcends such comparative truths. If we compare non-moral uses of “good”, as in “good knife”, we find a comparative account compelling, but there is no countervailing tendency towards absolute judgments: to be a good knife is just to be better than the majority of knives (in a given possible world), and no knife is deemed non-relationally good. We would expect on semantic grounds for the moral “good” to follow the pattern of the non-moral “good”, but it seems also to connote an absolute trait of actions that doesn’t vary between possible comparison classes– hence the tension.

2 replies
  1. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    No moral adjective compels its own ascription. Were moral properties objective, with, “hints of the absolute”, one might expect a more reliably robust univocallity in our scheme of ascription. Moral properties ought to be the least coy in their solicitation of concept instantiation. As usual, hysteria is the rule of the day here in Florida. Why consumers are making a run on toilet paper is beyond me. This new virus is a serious concern, to be sure, and I confess to a little concern myself. Have you any thoughts?—Is the contagion of hysteria surpassing the contagion of the virus itself?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I don’t actually think that lack of moral agreement implies lack of objectivity. As to hysteria, this is America, the Land of Hysteria (often about nothing, though not in this case).


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