Moral Flexibility: TLDR

In my immediately previous post, I set out the basics necessary to understand the concept of metaethical flexibility. In short, this is a term to describe how the same person might appeal to consequences when considering one ethical question but god’s commands when considering another and in still others use a different form of moral reasoning altogether.

I also argued that, though there is only a small amount of research on how humans make moral decisions, there is almost none directly examining or measuring metaethical flexibility. Further, professional ethicists tend to specialize in a particular type of moral reasoning and not just a particular ethical question. Focus on a particular ethical question might lead an ethicist to examine all the different ways humans might think about that question, but since it is likely that some are likely to end in different, even contradictory answers (and since we humans don’t like to be told the same action is both moral and immoral at the same time), this form of exploration is considered less satisfying and/or less productive than trying to find a single answer by rigorously following a single ethical methodology.

To defend an answer, an ethicist typically will examine how other metaethics might lead to different answers. However, this effort to defend an approach and its answer frequently doesn’t help those who use other metaethics to come to agreement on the conclusion. Ethicists, then, more frequently contest answers within their own metaethical schools than answers derived within other schools.

Although this seems like it would at least help the community of persons that do employ a particular manner of ethical reasoning, the existence of metaethical flexibility implies that an ethicist cannot even trust that those persons who self-identify as belonging to the same metaethical tribe will be using the same ethical reasoning style when it comes to a specific question.

Ultimately, then, humans are inconsistent in the way they think about moral questions, and a body of professional ethicists who treat humans as if they are consistent is going to fail to provide the benefits to a community that a more realistic ethical profession might be able to provide.


  1. DanDare says

    People are goal seekers. Their methods for seeking a goal are based on past experience and incomplete information. Since ethical stances are usually incomplete and fuzzy people don’t adopt them as absolute but rather by and la4ge. Experience may drift the general rules and add to the set of exception handling rules.
    That there is any commonality between people’s rule set is interesting.

  2. says

    there is only a small amount of research on how humans make moral decisions, there is almost none directly examining or measuring metaethical flexibility

    The research about how humans make moral decisions is pretty bad, in my opinion. It’s a start, but I don’t think “trolley problems” and Prisoners’ Dilemma candy-puzzles are going to yield great insights except that people do weird things in weird cooked-up scenarios.

    One thing I am curious about: what are your feelings regarding retaliation? Consequentialists seem to like to focus on positive outcomes (maximizing the best for everyone!) yet people seem to me to factor in fear of retaliation very often. There’s some of that captured in “tit for tat” game theories, but we clearly appear to operate our societies based on negative social pressure as often as positive, perhaps more. People factor in “I’d do that, if I was sure I wouldn’t get caught and go to jail” as often as “I’d do that because it was fair” (for approximate values of “as often”)

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    The research into moral decision making that does exist doesn’t typically address “how” in the sense that I am using the word. I’ve been meaning to write about the Trolley Problem for some time (since before I stopped writing at Pharyngula and started Pervert Justice). I have quite a few nice things to say about Philippa Foot, and her (re-)popularization of the Trolley Problem has led to quite a bit of commentary about what rules can be inferred to be at play during certain moral decisions. However, the literature spends little time on how those rules are justified and even less time on the process of reasoning that employs those rules.

    For instance, some ethicists have spent some significant time on how (in their opinions) the inferred rules at play can be logically justified and whether or not the inferred rules at play, as worded by the ethicists, appear to be fundamentally consequentialist or deontological (or something else). This is very different, however, from (e.g.) interviews with non-ethicists (or non-professional ethicists) in which the persons employing the rules share how those rules are used and whatever they are able to articulate about their reasoning processes.

    What we have, then, is a series of inferrences about what rules are at play, how those rules can best be worded in the language of philosophy, where the particular wording chosen is best placed within the metaethical cladogram of ethical reasoning strategies, and, finally, what that implies about how groups of persons can be placed in a parallel cladogram of tribes defined by their ethical reasoning strategies.

    What we do not have is an actual narrative account of how a particular ethical decision is reached and what roles ethical “rules” played in that narrative.

  4. As for retaliation, I’ll need to write more about that elsewhere, but for now I’ll say that the boundaries of retaliation vs. justice are not precisely set. Both are responses to previous behaviors and both can be either formal or informal. Much argument centers around whether a particular entity “deserves” the consequences that will flow from an action taken subsequent to and justified by previous actions performed by that entity. Russia interfered with the US democratic process in (at least) the 2016 presidential election. Obama, knowing this, kicked certain Russians out of US territory and took certain other actions, including taking control of property previously controlled by the Russian government. Was this retaliation? or was it justice? I’ve heard news anchors say that the Obama action was taken “in retaliation” for the Russian actions. But what if the action was taken after due consideration by government officials, the process was consistent with US laws, and the effects on the Russian government are not disproportionate to its actions that tipped enough voters that it is more than plausible that without those efforts we would have a different president – one even backed by not only an electoral college majority but also a majority of voters? Can this be fairly said to be “justice”? If it can, is it really also fair to describe it as “retaliation”?

    In general, I’m less negative on retaliation than many ethicists, but not because I find nothing appalling, unethical, or unjust in instances of retaliation. Rather, I’m less negative on it because I find that when I speak publicly about the topic of retaliation, my audience frequently has a hard time determining precisely what I oppose.

    One could say that only retaliation that
    1. occurs after due consideration and
    2. that is proportionate in its effects on the target and
    3. that limits its effects to the target and
    4. that is ethical in the methods of enactment
    is morally acceptable.

    One could also say that if these conditions are met, that such actions are not “retaliation” and then relabel such responses “justice”. At that point, you might say that what remains in the category of retaliation is unethical. But then – with retaliation carefully defined in a way that excludes some popular uses – its easy to say “retaliation is immoral” and forget that not everyone was paying attention to your definition of retaliation (or maybe some just don’t agree).

    For those reasons and more, I prefer to say that some retaliation is morally acceptable and go from there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *