Redefining moral rules?

Gene Callahan had a post recently on this Salon article by Irin Carmon. In the article, Carmon writes:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

Gene comments:

Hey, and let’s have serial killers define their own morality for themselves as well. It’s hard to see how Carmon could object to that, except to say it doesn’t fit her definition.

I agree that morality isn’t whatever we say it is (i.e., I’m not a moral relativist.). But let’s see if there might be a worthwhile point lurking around here.

Here’s one plausible (I think) account of what ethics is: a goal-oriented activitiy aimed at reducing suffering, increasing happiness, facilitating social coordination, increasing fairness, and cultivating virtues, among other things.

On this account, the purpose of ethical rules is direct us toward these ends. Obeying them isn’t good in and of itself; rather, following them helps us acheive the goals that morality is concerned with.

If this is the purpose of ethical rules, then as we learn more about the world and about human nature–about the sorts of things that lead to suffering, happiness, fairness, etc.–certain longstanding ethical rules could turn out to no longer make sense. That is, we learn that some rules are not as conducive to human flourishing as we thought and require revision or abandonment.

To take one fairly obvious example: much of force of the traditional prohibition on homosexual activity came from beliefs that it was associated with vice, suffering, and ill-health. But we now know that this isn’t the case, so the old rules seem–at least to many of us–obsolete. Note that this isn’t a form of moral relativism, but rather a revision of moral rules as our understanding changes (and, we hope, improves). (If the reader disagrees that the traditional prohibition on homosexuality is wrong, then she can substitute another outmoded moral rule of her choosing.)

Clearly this isn’t the only way to think about ethics. But, as I said, it’s a plausible one–and one that I think helps account for sentiments like the ones expressed in Irin Carmon’s piece.

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10 thoughts on “Redefining moral rules?

  1. Lee, I would point here to the distinction between amor sui and amor dei: do you think Carmon is pointing towards the shattering of the amor sui to allow amor dei to penetrate us, or is she instead very actively reinforcing the shell of self-love with all this talk of “self-definition”?

  2. Her language isn’t the language I’d use. Although I do think there is a place, under God, for moral autonomy. God does not provide pre-determined answers for every choice we make.

    Part of the problem I have with the passage quoted is that it could be read in a political/social or a moral sense: that is, is the point could be either (1) that in a free society we each get to make certain decisions for ourselves, at least within some spheres or (2) morality just is whatever each one of us decides it is. I doubt many people, if pushed, would actually affirm 2.

    The main point I was trying to make, though, is that there is a case to be made for the “revisability” of moral rules that doesn’t entail relativism. In fact, the idea of revising the rules imples that relativism is false, I think.

    • Re point 2: Yes, certainly many people have confused ideas here. I think if pushed, they might come up with something like, “Morality is a human creation.” What else could a materialist think?

      And my point does not argue against the “revisability” of moral rules. But think of science: the fact that the best scientific theory of one time will be replaced at another time certainly does not mean that we each get to define science as we want to!

      • I agree. But I think there are also dis-analogies with science that we should keep in mind. Scientific theories attempt to explain a range of facts or phenomena, whereas moral rules (at least on the account I sketched above) attempt to provide practical guidance toward human flourishing. They are “reality-constrained” so to speak, but not in the same way.

    • I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss (2), although I think the basic human impulse here isn’t so much “Everybody determines her own morality as a general principle,” but “I know what right and wrong are, and anyone who says otherwise is insulting me.” Political movements appeal to that impulse a LOT when they’re trying to rouse the rabble. It’s a cornerstone of the pro-choice movement, as well as the Tea Party stance against liberal elites.

      The anthropologist in me says this isn’t so much about radical individualism as it is a suspicion of all authorities above the personal level. Almost everybody who says this sort of thing has a tight group of comrades who share those beliefs. The trouble with this sort of tribalism is that it does tend to head off the sort of collective reasoning toward the common good that you posted about here.

      • I was reluctant to read that passage as affirming a particular philosophical thesis about the nature of morality because Carmon seemed to me to be writing a polemical piece (rather than, say, an article for a philosophy journal).

        That said, you do point to an important distinction: between nature of morality (what is good?) and the epistemology of morality (how do we know what’s good?). The fact that we seem to lack an agreed-upon method for identifying the good can lead to the kind of tribalism you describe. Clearly that’s one of the big challenges of a liberal society, which is supposed to be able to make room for competing views of the good within one overarching framework.

  3. I think part of what’s bothering her is that men are defining women, what they are, what they deserve based on that. It makes me think of people defining animals – they’re “resources” and so it’s ok to do factory farming, for instance. At least in my church, the all male hierarchy does want to say what women are, what they deserve (JPII’s letter to women, for instance), and that’s part of this whole contraception/women’s reproductive choices argument that’s going on with the Catholic church. I don’t hink it’s about relativism – I’m ready to believe in absolutes – but the interpretation of those changes with better understanding, more information, more compassion.

    • Oh yeah–absolutely. I’m on board with that critique. And I agree that it’s not a “relativistic” impulse. Though the language of “defining boundaries for themselves” might seem to suggest it, I was trying to show that it needn’t.

  4. PS – I read the Burroughs Mars books when I was a teen and liked them but I don’t know if I’dd still like them now. I wonder how Tarzan would hold up.

  5. Irin’s article is bosh composed of such lumps of garbage as “women were attacked with fierce misogyny simply for existing in public” in support of the lying feminist propaganda that the latest episode in the ongoing culture war between clericalists and liberals over legal enforcement of the traditional Christian sexual morality is a “war against women” and a “war against women’s rights” led and carried out mostly by old white males whose insurance pays for their Viagra.

    [Aside: How would she know that? I just called my carrier and my insurance does NOT cover ED medication though it DOES cover contraception for women. What a world, what a world.]

    Anyway, her article is clearly well ensconced in the “say anything, no matter how meaningless, absurd, or untrue and no matter what the collateral damage, to advance the cause” tradition of political discourse.

    The Republicans have been perfectly right to insist the controversy over mandatory contraceptive coverage raises First Amendment issues but their side has lied in claiming it’s a free exercise issue – the churches have no free exercise right to a waiver on laws, rules, or regulations they morally disapprove – rather than an establishment issue in which the clergy are unconstitutionally demanding, here as elsewhere, that American law be bent around divine law, as they expound it.

    But feminists are as narcissist in their victimhood as blacks and, anyway, a great many of the men and women who support them and Obama in this controversy as well as in the culture war in general do so with a profoundly guilty conscience it does not pay to too much inflame by demanding they defy the clergy, tradition, and divine law head on.

    Many are the Christians in America who support the legality of abortion, easy divorce, adultery, fornication, pornography, homosexuality, and contraception despite agreeing fundamentally with the clergy that all these things are profoundly wrong and contrary to the express will and law of God.

    It may be that huge numbers of them find it possible to defy moral traditionalism if the battle is cast as pitting men against women though they would have no stomach for it if described as pitting clerical authorities in which they guiltily believe against secularists and liberals in whom they do not, the traditional morality they guiltily defy against the emerging secularist morality they do not accept and even still condemn.

    Hence you have seen nobody on the liberal side insist this battle of the sexes line is man-hating bullshit (but Bill Maher may cut lose with an outburst any day) though you have seen many on the opposing side cast this and the entire culture war as a war against Christianity.

    About that much, at any rate, they are right.

    But perhaps more to your point let me say one cannot recall too often Bentham’s profound observation that “right” means “conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number” or it means nothing at all.

    Especially in light of the fact that “right” does not mean “conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number.”

    Nice chatting with you, after so long.

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