Thursday, March 20, 2008

Are We Post-Moral?

For a while now I've been claiming to anyone who cares to listen that we live in a more or less post-moral age. I don't really have a developed argument, and in fact, I'm not even exactly sure what a 'post-moral age' means, but here's a brief attempt to explain.
I don't mean anything too profound by 'post moral.' For instance, I don't think that moral obligations have floated away, or that they have ceased to matter. For all I know, that may indeed be the case, but it's irrelevant to the notion I'm getting at. I also don't mean to suggest that the moral world has been supplanted by something newer, fresher or more 'authentic.' Again, this might be case, but it doesn't matter for my purposes. Finally, I am also not denying that many of us (although a decreasing number, I suspect) ask ourselves moral questions from time to time, perhaps even daily. Should I cheat on my taxes? Is it okay to distort my colleagues record in order to gain an advantage over her? Is it wrong for me to skip my friend's wedding for a vacation in Vegas? As I intend the term, it is perfectly consistent to recognize that people ask themselves questions like these but maintain that our world is post-moral.

I think I can best describe what I mean by 'post moral' by pointing out that few of us (post-moral persons) take our moral character or standing as something important and overriding in our lives. Becoming a moral person is not a task that, when suggested, most people recognize for themselves. Maybe I'm wrong about this. Maybe I'm projecting my own shoddy self-understanding on the world around me--but I don't think so. It seems to me rather that morality, to the extent that it is effective in the average person's life at all, operates as a constraint (however constructive) in the pursuit of goals. For example, Jones hopes to become a successful researcher, but believes that, morally, it is wrong to achieve this end by plagiarizing another colleagues work. It's not that Jones is just afraid that he might not get away with it; get away with it or not, he does not believe that it is right to plagiarize for the sake of self-advancement and to the injury of another person. But the point is that it never occurs to Jones that it is important to act this way because it is important to be a good person. Jones really has no interest in being a good person. He wants to be a successful researcher, but he recognizes that there are certain things one ought not do in the pursuit of that goal.

Now, I also realize that there are ends or projects that many of us work towards achieving, and to which some of us even dedicate our lives. Ending world hunger, helping displaced refugees, working to promote human and civil rights--these are all, in some sense, moral ends that lend purpose to many people's lives, and that many of us, to some extent at least, identify with. But again, it is completely compatible to work for such ends, even strenuously and with dedication, without concern for whether or not, in so doing, one is or is becoming a good person.

Alastair MacIntyre we know was all the rage for a while because he argued that some important moral knowledge--the importance of character and virtue, and habit--had been forgotten sometime on or about May, 1641. I'm not making this argument. I don't think that the desire to be a good person commits one to a virtue-theory of ethics. Kant is no virtue theorist, yet Kant certainly recognized that we ought, morally, try to be good persons. I'm just saying that while many of us worry about doing the right thing, few of us worry about being the right sort of person, and that this makes us 'post-moral.'


  1. Some philosophers in the past (like some philosophers today) really cared about the importance of being a good person. Sure. But what you're saying is that most people today don't care all that much about being a good person. So you think that at some point in the past most people really did care about being good people--and not just good people, but morally good people--in a way that we now don't?

    That seems a bit dubious. If what you mean by post-moral is that we don't care about being good people, I doubt we were ever moral. Sure, there was a time when religion dominated people's lives more, and so maybe people cared more about not going to hell. I'm not sure that's the same thing as caring about being moral, though. And, conversely, most of us (myself excluded, of course) don't care about being moral. But we do care (to varying degrees) how others see us and how we see ourselves and whether we live up to our own standards. Is your point just that we don't care about these things in specifically moral terms? You really think this used to be massively different?

  2. To make things short--yea, I do suspect that things used to be, if not massively, then quite different.

    Of course, it's not a question of 'most people,' but rather of what is expected of most people, or what most people expect of themselves. It's a question--I say in order to be annoying--of Dasein. I'm obviously not giving an argument of any sort, just trying to describe something that I notice, and that is that I can think of no one I know (with one or two exceptions) who, when asked to list what they want to be or do, would include 'be a good person' anywhere on that list. Most surely would fess to wanting to do the right thing, but this seems to have become divorced from (or rather, identified with) being a good person.

    Maybe you're right, and individuals from yonder moral age were only interested in being good persons for the sake of either implicit or explicit religious concerns. It wouldn't be the first time that such an identity had been made. I don't see this as a counter-argument to my claim, but rather as a elaboration or even explanation of it. All along, what we took as an independent moral sense really was underwritten by a religous Dasein--and so naturally enough after God has died, we find ourselves in a post moral age.

    Now, as to the question of whether in fact individuals in the past really did think in terms of being a good person, I don't know, and this is a quasi-empirical issue, but I do think that it's true. Especially in a world where (and here I'm speaking roughly through the middle ages til the 19th in Europe) one's station and vocation were largely out of one's hands, where marriages were largely group or family decisions, where early death was a familiar possibility, and where one was pretty sure that an everlasting fate depended in no small part upon one's personal goodness....there wasn't much else to do than worry about one's being or bad.

  3. I take your distinction between "being a good person" and "being a successful researcher" to be a distinction between "spiritual good" and "practical good," One might say "this makes my soul good but that puts food on the table" but it is assumed that "this" will cause happiness and "that" will cause happiness as well. The problem, then, is moral stupidity- we simply don't know which "good" is really good- which will really make us happy.

    In the Socratic ethical model (which I am eager to clarify against objections), I am basing my thoughts on, there can be no such distinction, because if behavior in the name of either practical good or spiritual good compells one to overall unhappiness, it's not really good. Practical good and spiritual good are both called "good" because they lead to happiness.

    As for the moral problems of today, in the ethical model I speak of, happiness must be contemplated on the basis of all the factors that cause pleasure and pain. That means you have to know how you will be affected by the people around you as you act on them. The problem of our time is the narcissism we see associated with the information age. The phenomenon of couples breaking up over telephon indicates an isolation brought about by such media, that it can function to dim the real personal connection while securing the abundance of such connections. If these media cause us to understand less the effect of personal relationships on our happiness, the result is not "post moral" so much as "moral stupidity,"

  4. Cicero,

    I take your points well. Perhaps it is the case that what seems to be a post-moral age is really the result of culture-wide moral dumbing down, or, as you put it, stupdity. Something like this is the thesis behind Alistair MacIntyre's 'After Virtue.' Interestingly, MacIntyre would seem to disagree with you about the source of this stupidity. He suggests (although this is from memory, and it's been a while) that the rise of rationalism, while great for the natural sciences and the rational organization of human societies, was dumb to the moral understanding that the Greeks and later the Christians had mastered and that made sense of one's place, morally, in nature and in society. Thus, it wasn't so much a moral laziness or corruption, but the rise of rationalism that explains our current inability to make sense, really, of our lives in moral terms.

    That said, I'm pretty skeptical of MacIntyre's account. If I were a Catholic, and were trying to make sense of the place of community, church, and individual soul, then yea, I'd find his account compelling...

    In any case, I do think that the diagnosis is irrelevant to the overall thesis. All I'm trying to argue is that we have a very different moral understanding of ourselves than was common just a hundred years ago, or even less. I myself am not quite sure what to make of this, even granting that's it true, so until I have a better account, I'll keep calling it 'post moral.'

  5. I think I'd explain the changes in moral sentiments over the last several centuries as an income effect. Think of the effort undertaken to adhere to moral norms as a good that one consumes and the reading and studying of literature (biblical or otherwise) as investment in moral capital that allows you to consume more. As our libraries have grown beyond the Bible and the odd Jane Austen novel, we've accumulated ethical capital in non-Biblical sectors that were previously too expensive for us.

    From this perspective, it’s not so much that our moral concerns have declined as that we’ve diversified our moral portfolio. Several hundred years ago, no one cared much about cruelty to animals or not hurting minorities’ feelings with ethnic slurs, but today many people take both pretty seriously.


  6. Braudie,

    Steven Pinker has an essay that might interest you, remarking upon the same changes you mention.

    He focuses specifically on the decline in violence, and especially, on the stomach for violence. There are a number of theories he considers, but concludes, rightly, that even if we've described a true phenomenon correctly, it's causes or antecedents remain opaque.

    Again, I'm trying not to lay claim to any particular genealogy. I don't think, however, that it could simply be a matter of a diversified moral portfolio...or rather, if so, this has come with the important consequence that we no longer frame moral questions in the same way. To venture a probably misleading analogy, it would be like comparing the way a Prussian Junker ran his estate (with a concern for productivity, by leveraging equity, on the look out for cost-cutting technologies, etc) to the way a modern investor manages her 'estate.' In a certain sense the modern manager simply has a broader portfolio, but in another, there is a huge difference, namely, that ultimately, the Junker is not interested in maximizing net income regardless of where his capital is invested, and is concerned only really with maintaining a viable and inherited estate. The analogy I guess would be between caring for the estate (being moral) and not.


    sorry, didn't come out right. here's the link

  8. Thank you for your response. As the thesis seems more a matter of socio/psychological analysis than a philosopher can manage with precision, the discussion is limited (as I suspect you are aware).

    I'm very impressed with this blog, having spent most of my blogging time with political blogs that no longer interest me much. I will be adding you to my main blog roll.

  9. Hey Cicero,

    Thanks! Please continue to share your thoughts if we say anything you like, if you catch us saying something really stupid, or something just wrong. We really appreciate your comments.

  10. I hope you'll return the favor of correcting my stupidities if I ever get around to posting on my blog!

  11. I think your distinction doesn't hold water for several reasons. First, being a good person seems to be a locution to express something to the effect that our researcher is not concerned with those traits of character that lead to the Good Life. In this limited sense, your example seems to be against virtue theory or in some type of sophisticated trait-based consequentialism.

    It is largely assumed that it is conceptual feature of morality to be overriding. As long as our researcher takes morality as overriding his personal interest, then in a limited sense, he is susceptible to the pull and convincingness of morality, regardless of his character. The more he is moral, usually, the more someone's character will cohere with accepted moral intuitions of common-sense morality. If a person always does the moral thing, even if he does it begrudgingly, morality is still being overriding as per usual regardless if the question of a person's moral character falls short of morality as a whole. I don't see how post-moral age criticism matters much because ethics in the anglo-american tradition can carry as normal.

  12. I don't know if being "overriding" alone is enough to characterize morality. It is not only virtue ethicists who think it is important to structure a life in some ways demanded by morality. Kant, for example, stressed self-perfection--including moral self-perfection--as a crucial duty. Someone who does not act immorally (because he takes moral prohibitions as overriding) and yet does not aim at becoming more moral (because he just doesn't think this is an important goal) would thus be failing to take morality as overriding. I think this is some of Michael's point.

    Sure, anglo-american ethics can carry on as normal (if under the heading of normal you include skeptics like Williams and Velleman). But anglo-american ethics is itself somewhat post-moral in that most just don't care about self-perfection as a moral duty. And with that, I would think, the foundation of morality as a force in our lives is lost.

  13. What I am claiming is their is a type of person out there that fits your researcher example that can be considered minimally moral by the fact that he takes moral prohibitions as overriding, even though he possesses a questionable character. For me, I maintain that morality is a series of oughts that trump instrumental and personal interests since to pursue one's interest in light of morally relevant consideration infringes on the obligations one has to others. In this light, your researcher can be considered habitually moral and that creates what I might a call a functional morality. If this person never revealed to anyone his preferences and reasons for action in any capacity, then you couldn't tell him from a truly good person. As such, there is little room to tell the difference when I don't know someone as being functionally moral or a good moral person. As such, I think a minimal standard of morality is all that is required, though ideally as moral philosophers we may want to think people capable of aspiring to the status of morally good characters.

    The foundation of morality for you and Michael is grounded in being a good person, and the failure of our age to acknowledge this demarcates a post-moral age. I don't know how ground-functioning good character is for morality personally since I think this type of argument must tend towards talk of characteristics like a virtue-based account or a trait-based consequentialism. For me, I think that regardless of someone's character as long as they reason the right thing to do in light of whatever they would really want to do, then they ought to choose what morality requires of them. In a way, I always thought of this as a Kantian idea, a type of motivational-internalism about moral reasons. If there is something deficient you find about how I have understood the post-moral distinction or my interpretation of your thoughts, please dialectically point me in another direction.

    In speaking to Kant, yes, he did have notions of duties of self-perfection. These duties that fulfill one's obligation one has to oneself are consistent with my account of morality that I have provided (even in the weak sense of this blog). Morality is a set of constraints that one ought not to pursue if others at the same time cannot act on them as well, and self-perfection is one of the things we all ought to do.

  14. The reasons why I characterize morality by its overridingness is precisely the reason I don't see us getting much traction out of the post-moral distinction. Mainly, if someone is not concerned with not being a good person, but can be considered to be functionally moral, then a person can still be moral. For, you say that the concern of being a good-person, a person of good character, is no longer a concern of our age and anlo-american ethics (broadly construed). I don't know that this is really true. Let me explain further.

    Let us assume that our researcher tells no one that he has personal and instrumental desires to advance his work, even to the point that he once entertained the thought of copying another's research and claiming it as his own. In this example, if he does the right thing by merely doing what morality requires, even though he wanted to do otherwise, no one outside of his deliberation would ever know he wasn't a person of good moral character. From the outside, it appears he is doing the right thing. As such, morality can still do its work even if people begrudgingly do so. In this example, morality is still robust in that it is overriding for everyone, as any Kantian would believe, and overridingness seems to be compatible with the source of Kantian ethics for why I ought to do the moral thing is that by possession of a reason, the truth of that moral reason is enough to motivate me to act. Right now, I should claim a motivational-internalism to moral reasons.

    I don't know if being "overriding" alone is enough to characterize morality. It is not only virtue ethicists who think it is important to structure a life in some ways demanded by morality. Kant, for example, stressed self-perfection--including moral self-perfection--as a crucial duty. Someone who does not act immorally (because he takes moral prohibitions as overriding) and yet does not aim at becoming more moral (because he just doesn't think this is an important goal) would thus be failing to take morality as overriding. I think this is some of Michael's point.

    Sure, anglo-american ethics can carry on as normal (if under the heading of normal you include skeptics like Williams and Velleman). But anglo-american ethics is itself somewhat post-moral in that most just don't care about self-perfection as a moral duty. And with that, I would think, the foundation of morality as a force in our lives is lost.

  15. VP- My point was just that morality traditionally involves something other than just constraint on our actions: it involves prescriptions as well as proscriptions. Importantly, the functionalist approach (where one acts as morality dictates despite not wanting to; or perhaps because one wants to, but not for moral reasons) is insufficient for Kantian morality. One has to act on the moral incentive in order for the action to be moral (this is what having a good will consists in). And this involves, for imperfect beings, having the sort of character in which moral incentives trump non-moral incentives (i.e., virtue). So for Kant, the cultivation of virtuous character (though not in an Aristotelian sense) is crucial. This is so for two reasons:

    1. If you act as morality dictates but for non-moral reasons, your action has no moral value.
    2. If you generally act as morality dictates, but only because your natural inclinations tend to correspond with moral demands, then you are unlikely to stick to morality if the two should happen to diverge.

    So just acting within moral constraints is not enough, on this model. One must also strive to be the sort of person who always takes moral constraints to be overriding.