A response to: ‘Do moral theories work?’


I’m writing this as a response to an episode of Two Beers Until Phronesis. I help with the audio production and have featured on the odd episode. This article addresses some errors and misconceptions as well as additional thoughts on this topic, using quotes in the episode as a springboard to address various points. 

The main reason I think it’s important to respond is that I want to encourage better philosophical discussions of ethics. This is not about making anyone look foolish, I’m hoping that we can all learn something and the quality of the discussions can improve. I believe in dialectic and debate as a core part of how we form clearer arguments and develop our understanding, mostly through learning about our own reasoning and beliefs in the process. 

The episode in question is ‘Do moral theories work?’ Featuring Connor, Joe and podcast first-timer Al. This first part addresses the first eight minutes or so of the episode. For the full context you can listen to the podcast here. I will do my best to quote from the episode as contextually as possible. This piece will not be about my own positions on normative or meta-ethics, but maybe that can be covered at some point if there is any interest. 

For context the word ‘good’ is a placeholder for whatever formulation of meta-ethics is being used, I will use it in the same general placeholder sense that it is used in this podcast’s discussion. Meta-ethics features in this article, but mostly in how it relates to normative ethics. 

  1. The Opening Premises

 Connor: “Me and Joe are quite skeptical about these traditional moral theories … enlightenment era stuff … when people started moving away from a religious context … [towards a] secular explanation of ethics.” 

One of the first things that is established is a critical view of post-enlightenment moral theories. A description of two main ways to categorise ethical theories are brought up: 

Connor: “there’s traditionally two ways of thinking about ethics, and it might surprise some people that there are only two … because when you think about moral action you’ve only got intentions and outcomes. Outcomes would be these consequentialist theories … in a very basic sense looking at an action being good because it produces the best outcome … This ethical way of thinking is more to do with cognition and reason.” 

I think Connor meant outcomes and actions here, as consequentialists have intentions but don’t focus on whether the action itself is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ only whether it’s consequences are a net good. Outcomes and actions are a valid way to sort moral theories into two basic categories, but confusion over the general description of these categories creeps into the analysis. Deontology falls under the evaluation of actions along with virtue ethics, while consequentialism falls under outcomes as stated. The problem is with the rest of the statement. One of the most famous attempts to ‘rationalise’ and be highly ‘cognitive’ with moral theory would be Kantian ethics, a deontological theory. A description of outcome based theories as being ‘cognitive’ or leaning heavily on enlightenment ideas in contrast to action based ones suggests the actions category does not include deontology or that deontology can’t be heavily ‘cognitive’ or ‘rational’. 

This is one of the reasons why normative ethics is more frequently talked about as three categories instead of two: Consequentialist, Deontological and Virtue ethics. Generalisations about ‘action’ based moral theories become very limited without separating them like this. 

2. Misunderstanding Deontological Ethics

Connor: “The next ethical theory … [is] Deontology or Kantian ethics because it’s invented by Kant … that’s looking at the intention and producing rules and thinking about moral duty.” 

The first big mistake is that Emmanuel Kant did not invent Deontological ethics. Kantian ethics is far from the first deontological theory. In fact over a hundred years before Kant published The Groundworks of Metaphysical Morals, social contract theories were being discussed by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Interestingly, Glaucon in Plato’s Republic even brings up an early version of social contract theory in a dialogue. 

If we include the fact that religions often have a deontological ethics system, then deontological ethics might be the most ancient of all moral normative frameworks. Divine command theory is essentially the formal term for following God’s command, and is thus deontological. I will not get into utilitarian vs virtue vs deontic religious ethics here, I’m no expert in that area but it’s worth mentioning this is not the case for all religious ethics. Some would argue that religious ethics is a wholly separate normative category, but when it comes to the nature of how action is determined the only real distinction is the meta-physical reasoning or rationale for following moral obligations. 

Summary: Not only is Kantian ethics far from the exclusive formulation of deontological moral theories, it is definitely not the first. 

3. Business Ethics 

Connor: “When businesses talk about business ethics, I think really they’re talking about some vague sense of Utilitarianism.” 

This is the first image that comes up when I googled ‘business ethics’: 

Most of the stuff I’ve read on business ethics has the similar premise of promoting virtues and condemning actions deemed ‘unethical’ in the workplace. What does that remind you of? 

It definitely isn’t utilitarianism.

Business ethics is a form of applied ethics, that is to say it isn’t necessarily associated with a particular normative framework. But if we look at the kind of prescriptive actions business ethics uses, deontological (‘don’t steal staplers’), and virtue (‘be an organised, friendly and punctual person’) ethics are the main ones. 

This is probably a case of confusing the incentives of a company to always do what serves its profit margin and maximise financial utility with how it might persuade its employees to act ‘ethically’ in such a way that is conducive to productivity and social cohesion. 

While some businesses will encourage staff through incentivising behaviour that increases the value of the company, this is not what is being called ‘business ethics’. Business ethics, whether cynically used to indirectly improve productivity or workplace conditions, is not utilitarianism. It lays out what actions and virtues should be embodied, not that actions are always justified if they achieve a higher moral end. 

This confusion may be a case of conflating stereotypical traits of both companies and utilitarianism as ‘cold and calculating’ and combining them together. Even if they are, it doesn’t automatically mean that it makes sense for businesses to make use of consequentialist ethics in the workplace. Companies, if anything, like to set rules or promote virtuous ideals of the ‘good’ worker archetype. They probably don’t want workers making their own rationalisations over when to break a few eggs for the greater moral good omelet. 

4. Misdiagnosis of Utilitarianism

 Connor: “I think … some vague notion of Utilitarianism is how most people tend to think about ethics, if at all, if they do systematize it … “

It would be fun to discuss this at some point as I have a different opinion on this. I consider virtue ethics to be the predominant way that people analyse their moral actions in western culture. Here’s my basic argument on this:

Most people do not think in terms of ‘utility’ in an abstract sense, even if they briefly consider which possible worlds have more total ‘good’ in them before acting. In general I think that culture has a far greater influence on a person’s normative decision making if they don’t do much philosophical digging. If culture is the biggest ethical influence then people will think about what actions make them a ‘good person’ in the vaguest sense before acting. I don’t think there is often a complex calculation going on, either genuine cultural programming to act in accordance with what is seen as a good person (virtue ethics) or to obey rules and laws and norms as a guide for moral code (deontological). A case could be made that egoists are likely to also be utilitarians (just maximise possible well being for oneself over anything else), but I don’t believe that most people only avoid stealing or murdering in fear of punitive measures from their state or community. I still have some degree of hope that most of us are not outright sociopaths. 

I have a lot more to say on this topic, particularly about how virtue ethics manifests itself in western culture. I may do a piece on this in the future.  

Joe: (On utilitarianism as most people’s approach to ethics)  “ … as a general point being ethical is being good for most people, or like what is best for the majority of the population.”

Not that long ago in the cinemas (RIP) we had our big purple utilitarian villain, Thanos, believing that in order to maximise ‘good’ in the long run, half of all life had to be wiped out. In the Thanos example half the extant population being wiped out is not what is best for the ‘majority of the population’ at the time. Most of the half who survive are not exactly going to be happy about what happened, many probably had their lives completely ruined. The (dumb in this case) rationalisation is that ‘good’ will be maximised in the longterm for future populations. 

I’m aware that these discussions on the podcast are pretty casual, but It’s important to be cautious with how you make general statements about normative theories. Joe’s description is not what utilitarian ethics is about and thus the premise that most people are probably utilitarian in their approach to ethics is not supported by the description. Oversimplifications lead to misunderstandings about what moral theories are and can give people with only a passing interest in ethics a false impression. Acting out what is ‘best’ for the majority of the population is not the same as acting in a way that generates the maximum possible utility. Utility being the property of something to improve well-being, minimise suffering or whatever meta-ethical formulation of utilitarianism is being applied. While it is understandable how this mistake is easily made, it sets up further false descriptions of utilitarianism. 

The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy sums up this common misconception in it’s article about consequentialism:

 “These claims are often summarized in the slogan that an act is right if and only if it causes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” This slogan is misleading, however. An act can increase happiness for most (the greatest number of) people but still fail to maximize the net good in the world if the smaller number of people whose happiness is not increased lose much more than the greater number gains. The principle of utility would not allow that kind of sacrifice of the smaller number to the greater number unless the net good overall is increased more than any alternative.”

Normative ethics is a prescription of how to act, and acting towards maximising ‘good’ in the utilitarian sense can in fact have nothing to do with what is best for the majority of people. Given certain meta-ethical assumptions, a utilitarian could rationalise that 45% of a population in hedonistic bliss and the other 55% of a population in a mild state of misery as a net ‘good’ thus making it correct to act towards this possible world over another if limited to a set of actions where alternative options generate less total utility. 

These are just examples of how utilitarianism can hypothetically work, calculations and assumptions going into what is considered a ‘good’ outcome will affect which actions are considered ‘good’. Some utilitarians may come to totally different conceptions of which actions maximise consequential ‘good’ and have different meta-ethical conceptions of what maximising utility really means. Utilitarians probably spend more time debating with other utilitarians over what constitutes utility than debating other moral theories. There is a large diversity of different approaches within consequentialism in general as well: Hedonism, ethical altruism, egoism and pragmatism are some examples.  

A virtue ethicist for example will believe that virtues are the best way to judge whether an action is ethical. That does not mean that the virtue ethicist cannot also believe that by acting virtuously he or she is thereby ethically improving the world for ‘most people’. Acting virtuously is prescriptive, belief in what may lead to a better world is meta-ethics. It is simply the case in isolation that the virtue ethicist believes that ‘good’ actions are judged by virtue. 

I want to make it clear that this is not me fighting for the utilitarianism team. I want moral theories to be criticised with good arguments and how they relate to meta-ethics or applied ethics in the real world. If a moral theory is not understood or set up correctly, this cannot be done properly and creates a strawman for people who are not as familiar with moral theories to form false opinions over. 

5. Why Normative Ethics is Important to Think About

Connor: “I think a lot of people … are mostly thinking about the consequences … I don’t think any of these two theories really describe everything … There’s a third one that I’m a fan of and that’s [virtue ethics]” 

Normative ethics is prescriptive not descriptive, virtue ethics is no more ‘descriptive’ of the real world than deontic theories. They are all just tools to evaluate how to act given a meta-ethical position. What I think is being confused here is a critical view of cognitivism (ethical statements are propositions that can be true or false) as a criticism of particular moral theories. Whether or not you think ethical statements make sense as propositions in the real world does not automatically exclude particular moral theories over others. 

 What needs to be understood better in these types of discussions is the relationship between a moral theory and it’s meta-ethical assumptions. Some moral theories assume a limited set of compatible moral beliefs. A normative theory requires a meta-ethical assumption as a starting point, but this does not always assume how that translates into action. Here are a couple of easy examples of how moral theories can relate to meta-ethical positions:

  • A moral nihilist has no rational moral motivation to act in accordance with any moral theory, they have no reason to distinguish one action as more ethical than another. There may be other reasons why they follow a normative framework, but they wouldn’t be derivative of moral beliefs. 
  • A moral relativist can have moral motivation, but actions that can be considered ethical change depending on their criteria for how right or wrong changes. Thus there is no universal ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Cultural relativism for example changes what is considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ morally depending cultural context. 

It makes sense for nihilists to discard normative ethics entirely. Relativists/pluralists won’t subscribe to most forms of deontology on account of excluding the idea of definitive non-competing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to act, but they can be some non-utilitarian forms of consequentialist. Relativists can also be virtue ethicists as the definition or value of a virtue can depend on culture or who you ask, but most virtue ethicists would likely not claim to be relativists and argue this point. I have given non-universalist examples here because they are the easiest to illustrate the point with.

These are just examples of how it’s worth understanding where moral theory comes from and how it relates to meta-ethics. It is a good idea to first stake out what you think constitutes moral knowledge, if anything, and see where your ideas take you. 

There are an enormous number of different meta-ethical positions that can be used as ways to organise how one is thinking about morality. Categories such as cognitivism, non-cognitivism, moral realism/irrealism/anti-realism, universalists, relativists, skeptics … the rabbit hole goes on and on. There are probably whole books that can be written on how to categorize these theories and pair them off with which views are compatible with what and who is derivative of whom. 

The easier thing to do is to ask yourself from the ground up, what you believe? Don’t be so hasty to dive in to support or criticise moral theories before understanding what your own fundamental moral beliefs may be. A better way to deconstruct moral theories is to start with what assumptions they make about morality, and how they claim that should be translated into ethical action. 

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