To name just a few examples of problematic lacks of linguistic clarity that I touch on from time to time:
- The word God itself, distinguishable from god, is exceptionally poorly defined, rendering it a dangerous and bad metaphor. Indeed, one of the weightier chapters of God Doesn't; We Do handles this particular issue at length. (N.B.: One member of the editorial staff refers to this particular chapter, the fourth, "Defining God," as an example of me at my best, so it will be worth referencing for those interested.)
- The word liberty means at least two very distinct things, causing much social and political issue lately. As this will be a topic for an upcoming post, I'll reserve further comment on it now save to summarize Abraham Lincoln's remark that when a shepherd rescues a sheep from the jaws of a wolf, the sheep calls the shepherd its liberator while the wolf rightly feels that its liberties have been infringed upon by the same act.
- A conscientious friend has been repeatedly pointing out to me that even the words truth and probablility are also dangerously unclear.
I do this specifically to reframe how we approach moral questions, not to attempt to undermine it. Indeed, to label an idea, and too-often by extension the person holding that idea, as immoral or amoral is so fantastically insulting that it is a powerful barrier to effective dialogue, causing heels to be dug in and personal honor to be dragged into a discussion where it simply does not belong. At some level, this sort of shaming is probably appropriate, especially in cases where someone is wilfully and knowingly engaging in some kind of wrongdoing, but often, the charge is not heard as it should be because the listener believes himself, possibly mistakenly, to be acting morally. I would go further than this and even assert that often the problem comes from the fact that one or both people involved are too moral in differing moral frameworks, all caught under the still-nebulous umbrella of "morality."
This is not an appeal to some kind of complete moral relativism in which moral frameworks are all considered equal! That is such utter rubbish of an idea that I refuse to give it credence in elaborating now that it's stated, although it will play into the ensuing discussion.
There is a certain battle being waged recently on the front lines of the moral debate between renowned author, neuroscientist, and moral philosopher Sam Harris, with whom I agree to tremendous degree, and pyschologist Jonathan Haidt, notably over his Moral Foundations Theory.
Haidt proposes that morality, cross culturally, is at least a six-dimensional phenomenon, based upon a variety of axes, expressed as diametrically opposed ends of a continuum:
Sam Harris, of course, was attacked by Haidt, who claimed that the New Atheists are "polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process," so he was obliged to respond harshly to this rather egregious accusation. As Harris went on to publish The Moral Landscape a few years later, it is difficult to say for certain that Haidt was attacking one of the central themes of that work, though it seems he was: that the only salient understanding of morality must rest upon the relative well-being and suffering of sentient beings.
This is where we must step back and see how complicated this whole notion is, particularly since Haidt attacks Harris (and the other New Atheists) as waltzing an understanding of morality toward moral relativism instead of away from it! The terms just aren't clear enough!
It seems to me that Haidt's research carries valid insight into explaining the variety of moral systems that have arisen in the world--a complex study, for certain. Supposing that his six-dimensional construction is both necessary and sufficient to describe the foundations of moral systems, even in the severely discretized case of a five-point scale on each axis (e.g. strongly one way, slightly, neutral, slightly the other way, or strongly), there are 15,625 moral positions defined by his framework. Some proportion of those, at least all of those admitting a net balance of values greater than zero (of which there are thousands) could be called "moral" systems with at least some degree of justification!
Pause for a moment to consider that someone who has adopted a moral system, by the above definition, that acts in accordance with the dicta of that system to the best of his knowledge, believes himself to be acting morally and will consider himself to be a moral person. This does not include those systems that are neutral or negative on the axis being considered moral to some people. Even in this grossly discrete, simplified case, taking Haidt's six-dimensional assessment at face value, there are literally thousands of meanings for the word moral! Moral relativism is the undeniably stupid position that all of these systems are "morally" equivalent, unable to be judged by any criterion and thus given equal status under "moral" considerations.
This, essentially, paints the titular theme of Harris's Moral Landscape, then! There is this hypothetical moral landscape in which various moral systems exist. Harris's central claim is captured in his subtitle: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which explicitly assumes that science can cast determination on moral systems. In other words, when Sam Harris claims that the only salient understanding of morality rests upon the relative well-being and suffering of sentient beings, it might be more clear to say that that his moral landscape gets its hills and valleys by saliently measuring the real moral worth of various moral systems using the metric of some hypothetical measure of their impacts on the well-being and suffering of sentient beings, science, of course, being able to shed considerable light upon that metric. Here we might note that neutral or even strictly negative moral frameworks, as I've defined on Haidt's construction, might be morally positive constructions as measured against the net well-being they create, though it seems extremely dubious to expect that any of those would be optimal moral constructions or even remotely close to them.
The center of Harris's critique on Haidt is that Haidt assumes a position that religious moral frameworks may be worth a lot more salt than Harris and the other New Atheists give them credit, and Harris finds it outlandish, repugnant, and clearly incorrect that a moral system based upon useful untruths has a chance of being measured optimally. I agree with this sentiment in full.
My issue comes with the term "moral" then. Under Haidt's construction, even grossly simplified, we have thousands of positions for which people could make a good case that they are being moral, and under Harris's analysis, we see the clearest, most salient way I have encountered to decide if they are right. My thesis here is that an essential problem arises from the assumed right of those acting in a moral system, per Haidt's construction or something analogous, to call themselves moral because they are succeeding in a moral framework. Harris seems to lay that claim to rest with his highly pertinent metric, but the issue arises over his (justified) use of the word "moral" to accomplish it.
Linguistically, this is exceedingly tricky to tease apart. I am tempted to call people who are succeeding in a particular moral framework "relatively moral," but that term already is loaded unfairly against the purpose. Worse, the expected negation, "absolutely moral" treads unfortunately into another usurped space--that of the moral absolutism usually associated with God by religious people (operating in "relatively moral" systems that Harris's work specifically tries to demonstrate are not "moral" at all). Another alternative is to call these people "framework-moral," which I rather like, but it leaves open the same problem for a name that appeals to Harris's conception. (Well-beingness-moral is too awkward for use, and any appeal to synonyms like goodness, righteousness, etc., is fraught with incredible difficulty.)
Since I agree with Harris's assessment that the only salient metrics of morality measure the resultant well-being and suffering of sentient beings as a consequence of some framework-moral system, I will opt to give favor to his work and call his conception of morality--a set of ethics that provide for optimization of well-being and a functional minimization of suffering for sentient beings--by its usual name: morality.
By this measure, we have no problem whatsoever in recognizing that an Islamic fundamentalist who beats or murders his own unmarried daughter over a matter of "honor" arising from an accusation of being seen alone with a boy or one that throws acid in her face for daring to learn to read might be very framework-moral while being abjectly immoral due to the extremely low likelihood that this particular framework-morality scores well on any salient metric. Notably, under Haidt's conceptualization, this particular Muslim may subscribe to and utterly fulfill a framework-morality that scores strongly in loyalty, authority, and sanctity--and may even be net-positive despite abysmal scores in oppression and harm--but he is not acting morally. This can, in fact, be pointed out without drawing direct criticism to the person, who may mistakenly think he is behaving morally, adding some sliver of hope that the accusation of immorality can fall squarely on the motivating moral framework instead of on a person who may actually only be severely miscalibrated in his moral thinking.
Now, much becomes clearer, but it requires us to talk about morality vastly differently if we wish to be precise. Field-testing of this concept in some recent discussions I've had seems to indicate that it is a game-changer for conversations about morally charged topics. I'll illustrate presently.
With this understanding, many moral frameworks can be evaluated. For example, political conservatism and liberalism can be seen as moral frameworks, and a particular conservative or liberal person can be very framework-moral, and yet that implies absolutely nothing about his level of morality. This, indeed, with a Randian Objectivist (of course, strongly conservative and starkly capital-L Libertarian), was one of the more successful conversations of this kind that I had, convincing me that reframing the discussion this way can work positively by keeping the matter firmly entrenched in the realm of abstract ideas, at least slightly lowering the chances of someone taking it personally and digging in for battle.
The conversation proceeded as so many do with Randian Objectivists, where anything but strict Objectivist ideas are doused with the black paint of being "immoral." It is easy enough to rise to this kind of talk and point out that many of the precepts of Randian Objectivism hardly qualify as moral, perhaps the utter exaltation of the self, the rejection of regulation on anything, the utter rejection of altrusim, or the recasting of anyone who isn't a "producer" as a vile parasite on everyone else--or generally a "lesser" that is worth nothing and should get even less. In doing so, though, the usual and imprecise language might read "it's flatly immoral to exalt the self and reject altruism entirely," which can very easily be taken as a personal shot at the Objectivist. (Objectivism, of course, is hardly unique in this regard--any moral framework that ties its morality to a set of fictions, especially idealized ones, instead of to the real-world notions of well-being and suffering of living, breathing sentient beings, is very likely to fail morality, in Harris's sense.) Cosmic battles of moral overture usually result, along with enmity and people who have hardly changed their positions. This is probably suboptimal a result.
A delicate change in thinking allowed me to say, though, "The problem isn't that you aren't a moral person. Indeed, you're very moral, perhaps even too moral. The issue is that you are 'very moral' under a moral system that, from my perspective, is immoral, and you see me the same way. Since this creates nothing but an impasse, we've got to look at it another way. We've got to somehow compare our moral systems, and see what falls out of them. My own particular framework aside, I would suggest that a concept of morality has to be measured against its consequences in the real world, compared against the well-being and suffering of all those subjected to those following that framework. Would you agree?"
One interesting thing about Harris's conception of morality is that once it is put to someone very plainly in terms of well-being and suffering, it is intensely difficult to dismiss. Perhaps only the likes of apologist William Lane Craig can even attempt to, and in doing so those folks are outed for their overwhelming preference of some set of fictions (the Bible, the Quran, Atlas Shrugged, etc.) to grounded, real-world concerns. While this doesn't exactly dismiss them, it certainly strikes them a heavy blow toward marginalizing their perspective.
The result, in this case, was that my debate partner had to agree with Harris's metric, complaining rightly that it is exceptionally vague and still ill-defined (of course!). In the process, while I certainly did not change her mind in real time, which is incredibly hard, I was able to get her to agree that it is "possible" that her moral framework only has evidence for working successfully in a collection of romantic fictions by Ayn Rand, even if she held to the claim that we don't know enough about "well-being" and "suffering" to say for sure about the real world--which perhaps now she will look at with increased interest and clarity.
If you've ever debated morals, or really anything else, with a Randian Objectivist, then you will realize the non-triviality of this accomplishment. I expect it was only possible because I directly started out by accusing her of being very (framework)-moral instead of leaving the matter where she could take it as an assault on her character. To me, the result was striking, and I was able to use this reformulation in another conversation to diffuse someone who was very socially conservative (telling him that he was very moral in the conservative moral framework, a commitment that was commendable in a sense) and reframe the conversation around the moral frameworks themselves instead of angry people calling each other names.
By increasing the clarity this way, perhaps with better terminology, we could tell someone that they are being very successfully, perhaps too framework-moral while getting them to re-evaluate the moral framework itself and perhaps see things from a different perspective.
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