I’m finally getting the chance to post again after a few very hectic months. This isn’t because I haven’t had time for philosophy; in fact, it’s the opposite. Since the academic year began, I’ve been busy precisely with studying philosophy.
This post is inspired by a quotation I rediscovered, a quote which is very well-known (to the point of often being used as a cliche), but one I had forgotten about. The quotation is the following, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech opposing the war in Vietnam:
“I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
This quotation is often referenced in political contexts as a call to fight for political justice. This is an appropriate analysis of what kind of action it calls for, but doesn’t exhaust its meaning as a philosophical claim. When I recently rediscovered this quotation it occurred to me that there are some implied meta-ethical claims which I thought were very insightful. I want to explore those claims in this post.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term “meta-ethical” I’ll provide a quick explanation. An ordinary ethical claim might be a claim about whether a particular act is right or wrong, or whether certain states of affairs are morally good or bad. A meta-ethical claim is, by contrast, a claim about the nature of morality itself (for example, the claim that morality is objective).
So what claims is King making when he says that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”? I think it’s something like the following set of claims:
1. There are objective moral facts which are true independent of whether they are believed to be true (“the moral universe”).
2. These facts are discoverable by humans through rational inquiry.
3. Therefore, it is theoretically possible for humans to discover, over time, the complete set of moral facts (“the arc…bends toward justice”).
King thus seems to be supporting a notion of moral progress that is similar to the widely-accepted notion of scientific progress. In fact, the notion of scientific progress can be accurately laid out in parallel terms:
1. There are objective scientific facts which are true independent of whether they are believed to be true.
2. These facts are discoverable by humans through rational inquiry.
3. Therefore, it is theoretically possible for humans to discover, over time, the complete set of scientific facts.
The parallel drawn here will likely raise the following objections: How can it be possible that moral facts are anything like scientific facts? Isn’t it the case that while scientific facts are empirically verifiable and have reliable methods of discovery, while moral facts rely on intuition for justification and have no reliable methods of discovery? And doesn’t this inaccessibility of so-called moral facts point to the possibility that there may not even be any moral facts that are, like scientific facts, objectively true claims about reality?
These are difficult questions to answer and I won’t attempt to do so thoroughly, for that would be a much bigger project to undertake than is possible in this post. But I will attempt to make a limited argument using an example of what might be accurately thought of as a “moral discovery.” Consider, for example, the proposition that it is immoral to treat women as the inferiors of men. This is, I think, a straightforward example of a moral fact, and a matter of objective truth. Furthermore, I think it is a moral fact that is undeniable enough to the educated reader that, despite some inclination toward skepticism as to the possibility of any moral facts at all, such a reader would be loath to deny its truth.
Why is it so undeniably true that it is immoral to treat women as the inferiors of men? Obviously, it’s partially because of the falsehood of the claim that women and inferior to men. But it’s also because it seems obvious that if women are not inferior to men, they shouldn’t be treated as such. So the proposition that it is immoral to treat women as the inferiors of men stems from an idea that groups who are equals in kind (men and women, whites and blacks, etc.) should be treated as equal. In other words, they should not be discriminated against arbitrarily. This should be relatively uncontroversial.
But for thousands of years, women were treated as far from equal to men. In many countries, the treatment of women is still abbohrent. Even in the United States, equal treatment still hasn’t completely been achieved. So as a matter of descriptive fact, women are not the equals of men in terms of treatment. But it is obvious they are in terms of capacities; and it’s also obvious that this discrepancy between capacity and treatment is not rationally justifiable. By coming to understand that equals in capacaties are morally entitled to be equals in treatment, we have made a genuine moral discovery.
So haven’t we just outlined an example of an acceptable standard for “discovering” moral facts? Sexists throughout generations have tried to rationally justify their discrimination against women by claiming that women don’t have equal capacities to those of men. Similar arguments have been made to justify the subjugation of certain racial groups. But these arguments are all factually incorrect. Once we recognize the equality of capacities, equality of treatment rationally follows. We use rational inquiry to get from evidence to moral facts. This is how moral progress works; and I think it’s clear humans as a species have made a great deal of moral progress; we are much closer now to understanding the what is truly good in the world.
So it’s clear there is such a thing as moral progress. And it does have some parallels with scientific progress, in that with both phenomena there exists a corpus of facts which can be discovered through a combination of evidence-gathering and rational inquiry. But I admit that the parallels do end at a point. The methodology of science is far more reliable in producing confirmed results, whereas the methodology of ethics often leads to disagreements which seem irresolvable, especially when it comes to specific ssues such as the morality of abortion or killing in war.
These aspects of ethics makes moral discovery a difficult process, but it does not follow that we should abandon the quest for moral progress, nor that we should deny the possibility of genuine moral discoveries. If we deny that moral facts can be discovered, we are forced to claim either that they don’t exist, or that they are constructed, not discovered. But if moral facts are constructed, then they are contingent and based on nothing; they are not really moral facts at all but simply facts about what humans think (for more on this issue, see my previous post on the impossibility of subjective morality).
If we deny we can make make moral discoveries, then we are forced to deny that we have discovered an objective moral truth when we have come to the conclusion that women deserve to be treated as men’s equals, or that blacks deserve to be treated as whites’ equals. If any propositions are to be taken as objectively true moral facts it’s these; to deny such paradigmatic examples is essentially to deny the existence of any objective moral facts. But for reasons I’ve outlined in previous posts, such a denial causes morality to fall apart. Therefore, it’s essential to a coherent conception of morality to accept some notion of moral progress. Moral nihilists may accept this argument, but the conclusion they would draw from it is that not only is their no such thing as moral progress, but their is no such thing as morality at all. But this is not a plausible view. There must be such a thing as morality, and therefore there must also be such a thing as moral progress; to deny this would be to make a grave error.
Out of the three major branches of moral philosophy, normative ethics is concerned with questions of what is morally good/bad and why. One of the most general and far-reaching questions we can ask in normative ethics is therefore, “What is moral goodness?”
Given that this is such a broad question, we shouldn’t expect an easy answer to it, and should therefore be wary of any attempts we see at easy answers. And there have been many of these attempts at easy answers, essentially answers of the form, “Moral goodness is just X.”
Some of the answers I’ve seen in my studies (paraphrased) include:
“Moral goodness is just whatever produces happiness.”
“Moral goodness is just whatever fulfills people’s desires.”
“Moral goodness is just whatever fulfills the desires an ideal observer would have.”
All of these answers are ones that, due to their simplicity, should give us pause. However, they are all theories of moral goodness that have attracted considerable support. And as with any such theories, we can’t simply dismiss them out of hand by saying they’re too simple or too easy; if these are theories people take seriously, we have to take them seriously and show just why they don’t work. In this post, I’ll evaluate each of the above three “monistic” theories of moral goodness, and attempt to show why each one is inadequate (As a terminology note, by monistic theories of moral goodness I mean theories which hold that moral goodness is reducible to just one other thing, such as desire-fulfillment, whereas pluralistic theories would deny this).
Let’s consider the first of these monistic theories, the theory that moral goodness is just whatever produces happiness. A good example of a moral theory which makes this claim about moral goodness is utilitarianism. Basic utilitarianism holds that one should always act so as to maximize overall happiness. If all we need to take into account when deciding whether any given action is a good one is its effect on overall happiness, then moral goodness must be just whatever produces happiness.
Utilitarianism is a popular theory, but I think it, and all other moral theories which take moral goodness to be reducible to happiness alone, are far too simple to properly account for the nuances of morality. In philosophy, theories are almost always critiqued using thought experiments which show that adopting the theory in question would commit us to making moral judgments which are unacceptable to us. I’ll use a variant of a common thought experiment to show that moral goodness can’t be reducible solely to the production or maximization of happiness.
The following thought experiment is sometimes known as the “deceived spouse” example. Let’s say Martha is married to Joe, and Joe is having an affair. Martha has no idea, and is happy thinking her husband is faithful. Joe is also happy knowing Martha has no idea that he’s cheating on her. Now let’s say you’re Martha’s friend and you find out Joe is cheating on her. You’re torn because you know that blowing the whistle on Joe will make Martha (and Joe) very unhappy. On the other hand, it seems like Martha would be better off knowing the truth about Joe, even if it makes her unhappy. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like Joe deserves to be able to continue his affair with impunity.
My guess is that most people’s intuitions about this case will say that the moral thing to do is to tell Martha what’s really going on, even though this will produce a state of affairs where two previously happy people will become unhappy. That’s certainly what I think about the case, anyway. But if it’s morally better for Martha to know the truth even though it will make both her and Joe unhappy, then moral goodness can’t be just whatever produces happiness, because if it were, it would be impossible for it to be morally good to decrease overall happiness. So it seems like utilitarianism, and other ethical theories which take moral goodness to be just whatever produces happiness, commit us to getting the wrong answer when it comes to the deceived spouse example, and are therefore do not give the correct answer to the question, “What is moral goodness?”
Let’s move on to the next monistic theory, which holds that “moral goodness is just whatever fulfills people’s desires.” This often referred to as a preference theory or desire-fulfillment theory of moral goodness. This theory of moral goodness is often implicit in a lot of economic thinking, which often operates on the assumption that outcomes in which desires are fulfilled are good outcomes. An example of an ethical theory that subscribes to this theory of moral goodness is what is known as preference utilitarianism, which is similar to standard utilitarianism, but holds that we should maximize not happiness, but desire-fulfillment. Desire-fulfillment theories of moral goodness are quite popular, but fall short when applied to he simplest thought experiments.
Let’s say I have an eating disorder, and as a result I have the desire to eat a dangerously small amount of food each day. If moral goodness is just whatever fulfills people’s desires, then it would be a morally good outcome if I fulfilled my desire of starving myself, and it would actually be immoral for others to thwart my desire and prevent me from doing so. But this is clearly absurd; it can’t be the case that it’s morally good for these kinds of desires to be fulfilled. And if it’s possible to have desires that would be morally bad to have fulfilled, then moral goodness cannot be adequately defined as desire-fulfillment.
The fact that many desires are not morally good ones poses a significant problem for desire-fulfillment based theories of moral goodness, but those who are sympathetic to such theories sometimes respond by modifying them to account for the existence of bad desires. The resulting claim is that “moral goodness is just whatever fulfills the desires an ideal observer would have.” Such a theory is commonly known as an ideal observer theory of moral goodness. Proponents of such a theory hold that moral goodness is not the fulfillment of just any desires we have, but rather the desires we would have if we were fully informed and always desired the best things (In other words, if we had the desires of some kind of omniscient observer).
This seems to make some sense at first; if moral goodness is simply the fulfillment of the desires we would have if we had the best desires we could possibly have, it’s difficult to see how there could be a counterexample to this theory like the ones I presented to the previous theories of moral goodness. But the problem with ideal observer theory doesn’t lie in a lack of intuitive plausible; the problem with ideal observer theory is that it fails to be a theory of moral goodness at all.
If moral goodness is the fulfillment of “ideal” desires, which are in other words the best desires we can have, this presupposes an objective standard of what counts as a good desire. But if certain things are in themselves the right things to desire, whether or not we actually desire them, it seems like those things are in themselves morally good. So ideal observer theory is in effect saying, “moral goodness is the fulfillment of the desires we would have if what we desired was morally good.” Once we see ideal observer theory for what it really is, we realize that it doesn’t provide a theory of moral goodness at all. It only ends up making the trivial observation that it is morally good for morally good desires to be fulfilled. A coherent theory of moral goodness cannot appeal to the concept of moral goodness in trying to explain it; to do so is simply circular. Therefore, ideal observer theory is also an inadequate theory of moral goodness.
In this post, I looked at three examples of major monistic theories of moral goodness, and discussed why they, under scrutiny, end up failing to give satisfactory answers to the question, “What is moral goodness?” Of course, showing that each of these theories is inadequate does not prove that moral goodness is not monistic and cannot be defined simply. However, I think the fact that these monsitic theories tend to fail does lend credence to the idea that the good is in fact pluralistic. This would explain why when we try to reduce the good to just one simple thing, like happiness or desire-fulfillment, we always end up failing to fully capture what we really think the good is.
In life, we’re often faced with the fact that figuring out just what is morally good to do in a given situation can be very difficult; there seem to be so many different factors at work in moral quandaries, and it is difficult to weigh them against each other. But as I’ve hopefully done some work toward showing in this post, the response to this complexity should not be to oversimplify the concept of moral goodness and define it in terms that will inevitably be inadequate to really capture its meaning. Instead of trying to do away with the complexity of moral goodness, we should instead seek to tease out and truly understand this complexity. This seems to be to be a much more productive way of trying to answer the question, “What is moral goodness?”
This is an excerpt from a lecture by the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, which is highly pertinent to the argument I made in my last post, in which I argued that objective morality must exist. I think Dworkin does a really good job of debunking the moral skeptic/anti-realist’s more facile claims against the existence of objective moral values (moral realism). Thanks to David Zheng for sending me this clip.
In my first post I attempted to lay out the distinction between personal preferences and moral beliefs. I took personal preferences to correspond to statements, essentially, of taste or distaste for something, while moral beliefs correspond to statements about the moral status of something. The crux of my distinction was that personal preferences are just that, personal, and are therefore subjective claims, while moral beliefs attempt to establish something universal, and are therefore objective claims. But my claim that matters of right and wrong are objective rather than subjective is not a noncontroversial one, so I thought it would be worth addressing in more detail the question of whether morality can be subjective.
While the belief that morality is subjective is uncommon (but not unheard of) among moral philosophers, it is very fashionable among other academics, especially in fields such as anthropology and literary theory, which have been heavily influenced by various postmodernist movements emphasizing subjectivity. In this post, I want to try to do two things: first, to lay out a popular argument given in favor of subjective morality, and second, to refute it. But first it might be useful to define just what is meant by subjective morality, and by its converse, objective morality.
Let’s first address the claim that morality is objective. When we claim that morality is objective, what we’re claiming is that moral facts are universal; they hold true regardless of who we apply them to. If morality is objective, then if any given act is wrong for me, it’s wrong for everyone else as well.
Now, to claim that morality is subjective would be to claim the opposite. If morality is subjective, if any given act is wrong for me, it isn’t necessarily wrong for anyone else (although it could be). The claim that morality is subjective is essentially the claim that different moral standards can apply to different people.
The popular argument in favor of subjective morality (and against objective morality) goes something like the following: When we make moral claims, we can speak only for ourselves. I have my morality and you have yours, so I’ll follow mine and you follow yours, and we’ll both be doing what we think is right. Who am I to tell you what to do? All I can do is follow my own moral beliefs, I can’t force others to follow them. Morality is just a matter of doing personally what you think is right; it’s subjective. To claim that my moral beliefs are universal and hold true for everyone, and expect that everyone follow my moral beliefs, would be exceedingly presumptuous and arrogant.
This is an argument that seems convincing at first. After all, by virtue of what can any of us claim to have some sort of privileged access to the moral truths of the universe? What justifies anyone in telling anyone else that what they’re doing is wrong? And, if no one has privileged access to moral truths, isn’t morality essentially just a matter of personal opinion? These are the kind of questions which, if not addressed properly, can easily lead us to thinking that morality is subjective.
But here’s the problem with the argument for subjective morality. The claim that morality is subjective presupposes that there are facts about right and wrong, and that these facts are agent-specific. In other words, there are different moral facts for different people. “Killing animals is morally acceptable for Bob” and “Killing animals is morally unacceptable for Susie” can coexist as moral facts under subjective morality. But this is clearly absurd. How can it make sense to apply different moral standards to different people? If there is a rational argument for the moral wrongness of killing animals, surely that argument must apply generally rather than to some people and not to others? Obviously there are many different contexts in which an act such as the killing of an animal can occur, but differences of context are not the issue at hand. If Bob and Susie commit the same act, in the same context, with same intentions, surely the act must have the same moral status regardless of whether it was committed by Susie or Bob.
If you’re not convinced, consider another example. Let’s say I walk up to you and out of nowhere, completely unprovoked, shoot you in the arm. When you demand an explanation for my behavior, I say the following: “Well, it seems like you think randomly shooting other people in the arm is morally unacceptable. However, my morality states that it’s perfectly moral to randomly shoot others in the arm. Since morality is subjective, your moral beliefs only govern your own actions, so you really can’t judge me for doing something that was perfectly okay under my morality.” Something tells me in this situation, you wouldn’t just agree to disagree with me. In fact, you would probably be quite insistent in judging me for shooting you, despite my argument about subjectivity. But this would mean that you don’t just believe randomly shooting people in the arm would be wrongfor you to do, you believe it’s wrong for everyone to do. In other words, it’s wrong in general. It seems like universality therefore is implicit in moral claims.
This universality is what makes morality what it is. Moral claims, by nature, have to have some force behind them, or they simply don’t make sense. When people do bad things, we judge them for it and try to prevent them from doing those things in the future; we don’t simply allow that they had a different set of moral beliefs from us and just agree to disagree. However arrogant it might often sound, we have to believe that our moral beliefs apply universally; this is inherent to the way morality functions.
So why do the arguments for subjective morality seem so convincing at first? My hunch is that it’s because there really does seem to be something at first to the claim that none of us has privileged access to the moral truths of the universe, and that consequentially our moral beliefs are doomed to be mere opinion. But those who claim morality is subjective make a grave error when they think the above provides evidence for their claim. Even if we have no way of knowing for sure whether our moral beliefs are true, it doesn’t follow that moral truth simply becomes subjective. As long as the moral facts are out there, even if we have limited access to them, it’s still perfectly possible for people to be right or wrong about moral matters. The seeming impossibility of achieving absolute certainty about moral issues doesn’t mean that morality is simply a matter of personal opinion, just like the impossibility of detecting quarks in the 19th century didn’t mean they didn’t exist back then.
But the moral subjectivist might make the following rebuttal: Well, for all intents and purposes, quarks didn’t exist in the 19th century. So for all intents and purposes, if we have no access to conclusive proof about moral matters, isn’t everyone for all intents and purposes as right as anyone when it comes to morality? Without conclusive proof, isn’t it the case that we have no good way of arbitrating moral disagreements? And if so, isn’t morality effectively subjective?
My response to this kind of argument (which I hear often) is a philosopher’s response, so it won’t satisfy everyone, particularly those who are already skeptical of philosophy, but here goes: I think there’s a perfectly good way to arbitrate moral disagreements, and to judge which moral arguments are better than others, and that is by exercising our faculties of reason. Reason is, of course, the foundation of the entire field of philosophy; philosophy seeks to come to truth’s using the tools of reason and logic. And when we get in arguments about matters of morality, if we are arguing properly, we’ll be using these tools of reason and logic to evaluate the moral issues in question. I won’t deny that moral truths seem extremely difficult to nail down, or that not all moral disagreements will be resolved through productive debate. But, as I hope I’ve shown, the human notion of morality simply doesn’t function in a way that leaves room for morality to be anything but universal, and this means that the very notion of subjective morality is an impossibility.
We have to believe that our moral beliefs are the right ones (or we wouldn’t believe them in the first place) so we might as well do the best we can to make them the most well-reasoned, well-examined beliefs we can. This exercise of reason, I think, is the only way to gain the so-called “privileged access” to moral facts necessary to back up our moral claims with (rational) force. The idea that we might be able to, through rational argument and inquiry, get at objective moral truths, is as far as I can tell the best defense that can be made in favor of the ordinary, objective notion of morality that seems to be impossible to do with away with.
moralphilosopher asked: This is a fuzzy thought, but it relates to your first post, and is motivated by the recent health care mandate/tax decision. In the case of same-sex marriage, the moral belief is "right" or "wrong." Based on the political system, the moral beliefs of people in society will get translated into legislation -- "allow" or "don't allow." How about something like "smoking cigarettes?" Can there be a moral belief that is somewhere between "right" and wrong" that translates into a decision to tax?
For any given action, we have to believe it is right, morally neutral, or wrong; there aren’t any other options. If an action has no moral content, such as what color socks I decide to wear tomorrow, then it is morally neutral. If it isn’t morally neutral, it has to be either right or wrong. In other words, for any given action, either we should do it, we shouldn’t do it, or it doesn’t matter. However, morality and law aren’t always aligned; we don’t legally require everything that’s morally required, and we don’t legally prohibited everything that’s morally prohibited. And this is generally thought to be a very good thing, on account of more general moral beliefs about what degree of government interference in our lives is morally acceptable.
So to answer your question, the only moral belief that would be in any sense between “right” and “wrong” would be “morally neutral.” But I don’t think that’s what you have in mind. What I think you’re getting at is that since we only discourage the use of cigarettes rather than outright banning it, this would seem to correspond to a less strong moral belief than believing that an action is morally impermissible. But we have to remember that the government doesn’t ban everything that’s morally impermissible. Even if smoking cigarettes is immoral, that doesn’t necessarily mean the government should ban it, because it might also be the case that banning cigarettes would constitute an overreach of government into the realm of personal freedom.
The actual reasons why cigarettes have ended up being taxed and not just banned are of course much more complicated than that. The main point we have to keep in mind is the following: Beliefs about whether actions are morally permissible and beliefs about whether actions should be legally permissible are both moral beliefs, because they are both beliefs about what we should or should not do. But these beliefs won’t always correspond exactly; it’s perfectly consistent to believe something is morally impermissible while also believing it should be legal. For example, adultery is almost universally believed to be immoral, yet few people believe it should be illegal. When thinking about the question between morality and the law, we always need to keep this disjunction in mind.
janam12 asked: It's interesting how you brought up the difference between personal preference and moral values. I've had to deal with this with my vegetarianism/veganism. Most people don't seem to understand that although they might consider dietary choices as a personal preference, I consider it as a moral issue. I think it'd be nice if you could bring up more topics where a lot of people don't understand that their opponents have a moral issue against it (e.g. abortion)
Vegetarianism and veganism are great examples of how dietary choices can also be moral issues. Whether or not to perform an action is only purely a matter of personal preference when the act is completely morally neutral. When I’m deciding what flavor of ice cream to get, it’s clearly a matter of personal preference, because morality simply doesn’t factor into my choice. However, morality does factor into many other dietary choices we make, such as whether or not to eat meat. If morality didn’t factor into eating meat at all, it would be a matter of personal preference whether or not to eat meat. But morality clearly does factor into eating meat; for example, by eating factory farmed meat, we support a system which is both cruel to animals and detrimental to the environment. Vegetarians and vegans often make the argument that on account of these factors, we are acting immorally most of the time we eat meat.
Abortion, on the other hand, is an issue where at least in the US, I think both sides of the debate understand it as a moral issue. Those who think abortion should be illegal think so because they believe it to be a gravely immoral act. On the other hand, those who think abortion should continue to be legal tend to think that women have a moral right to control their bodies and their future, and that this makes abortion at least sometimes morally permissible.
What it comes down to is that we need to understand that when a choice has any moral content, it ceases to be simply a matter of personal preference, and becomes, by virtue of its moral content, an issue of morality. And when we think an action is required or prohibited by morality, by definition we think people should or should not do that, regardless of their preferences about the matter.
Alright, here it is, my first actual post. This post is inspired by a quote I saw floating around in liberal/progressive circles, which was meant to ridicule opposition to same-sex marriage:
“Claiming that someone else’s marriage is against your religion is like being angry at someone for eating a donut because you’re on a diet.”
The fact that I happen to be in favor of same sex marriage doesn’t prevent me from pointing out that this is a terrible analogy. The reason it’s a terrible analogy is because it fails to recognize the difference between moral beliefs and personal preferences. The above statement implies that marriage, like going on a diet, is just a matter of personal preference. The implicit argument is something like the following:
1. One should not attempt to force others to conform to one’s personal preferences such as going on a diet.
2. Beliefs about marriage are personal preferences.
3. Therefore, one should not attempt to force others to conform to one’s beliefs about marriage.
The problem with this argument is in the second premise; it’s implausible to claim that beliefs about marriage are simply personal preferences akin to going on a diet. Going on a diet is obviously a personal preference; if I think going on a diet is what’s good for me, it doesn’t follow that I should think going on a diet is what’s good for everyone. Conversely, moral beliefs are not merely personal; they are (at least according to ordinary morality) universal. For example, the belief that murder is wrong is a moral belief, not a personal preference. When I say that murder is wrong, I don’t mean it’s just wrong for me. It would be absurd to say that my belief that murder is wrong simply means I think I personally shouldn’t commit murder; my belief that murder is wrong means I think people shouldn’t commit murder in general.
Now let’s consider the belief that same-sex marriage is wrong, which is clearly what opponents of same-sex marriage are saying, whether their grounds for believing so are religious or secular. This is clearly a moral belief, not a personal preference. A personal preference about marriage would be something like the following:
Regardless of my beliefs about same-sex marriage, it’s not for me because I’m heterosexual.
The above proposition is clearly an example of a personal preference, because regardless of my moral beliefs about marriage, I can, based on my sexual orientation, have a personal preference about who to marry. But that’s not how moral beliefs about marriage function. If someone says same-sex marriage is wrong, they’re not just saying that they don’t want a same-sex marriage; they’re saying that there’s something morally objectionable about same-sex marriage that renders it impermissible in general. So it doesn’t make sense to say things like, “If you don’t like same-sex marriage, don’t get one.” Statements of that kind are akin to saying, “If you don’t like murder, just don’t kill anyone.” Obviously any comparison between same-sex marriage and murder sounds ridiculous, but the reason for their dissimilarity is not that one is a matter of personal preference while the other is a moral issue. Both are moral issues insofar as there is debate over their moral permissibility; the two should be different in the eyes of a supporter of same-sex marriage because there’s actually nothing wrong with same-sex marriage, while there is something wrong with murder. This is why it is much more productive to make arguments about why same-sex marriage is perfectly moral rather than claiming that marriage is just a matter of personal preference.
The point of this post isn’t to criticize supporters of marriage equality (which I’m one of). The point is that if we want to make good arguments about issues like same-sex marriage, we have to recognize the difference between moral beliefs and personal preferences. If we try to tell people that their moral beliefs are simply personal preferences, our arguments will not only be unconvincing but also flat-out bad arguments. Furthermore, when we treat issues simply as matters of personal preference we actually trivialize those issues. The question is whether allowing gay marriage is morally acceptable for a society. Regardless of one’s answer to this question, a moral belief is being formed. Being able to make proper arguments about what should and should not be permitted in a just society requires that we recognize and engage with moral beliefs as such instead of incorrectly relegating certain beliefs to the realm of personal preferences.
First of all, if you’re reading this, thanks for checking out my blog. I initially had the idea to start this blog because, as a philosophy student, I find myself constantly pondering various philosophical questions and issues. Sometimes this leads me in circles, and sometimes to novel conclusions which might have the potential to genuinely contribute to the philosophical discourse. At the very least, this blog will serve as a place for me to document my philosophical ideas and responses to various philosophical questions for my own sake, so that I can keep track of them and develop them further in the future. Hopefully, it will also serve as a way for me to share my ideas with others and get the feedback of my peers, stimulate discussion and debate, and in the process generate new ideas and inquiries. This sharing of ideas is a necessary component both of personal intellectual development and of the philosophical discourse. My goal with this blog is therefore both to better myself as a critical thinker and philosopher and to generally contribute to the philosophical discourse.
I chose the name “The Armchair” for this blog because philosophy is often (and sometimes derogatorily) described as being primarily an “armchair” discipline, in which philosophers, rather than going out into the world and doing empirical research, simply sit and think. The description of philosophy as primarily an “armchair” discipline isn’t a wholly inaccurate one, but I don’t think this poses a significant threat to the value of the philosophical method. Even if we grant that armchair philosophy is not enough to provide us with all the answers, surely the exercise of pure reason still plays a central role in the pursuit of truth. There will always be disagreement as to the value of simply sitting and thinking as a method of answering the fundamental (and not so fundamental) questions of the universe, but I hope it can be agreed upon that this method at least has some significant value (at the very least the value of sparking debate and discussion). Since this blog will basically comprise my thoughts and ideas from the armchair, my armchair philosophy, I’m calling it “The Armchair.” In other words: If the armchair is a place where philosophy is done, and my blog is the armchair, then consequently my blog is a place where philosophy is done (see what I did there?).
This basically sums up my motivations for this blog. I also want to note briefly that I’ve included an “ask” page (see top right) where questions can be submitted if, by any chance, anyone wants me to address a particular philosophical issue or question. Finally, I’ll note that since I want to try to keep this blog as comprehensible to the general (educated) public as possible, I’ll to try to keep the philosophical terminology to a minimum and explain whatever jargon I do end up using. Now that I’ve gotten these formalities out of the way, stay tuned for forthcoming posts in which I’ll actually write about philosophy. Thanks for reading.