Friday, 7 December 2012

Wrong, Wronger, Wrongest: the Presumed Binary Logic of Morality

I often wonder why moral philosophers and ethicists are so obsessed with trying to determine "what is right" and "what is wrong", "morally permissible" and "morally impermissible" and whether that obsession is not a huge mistake. It seems that many ethical arguments focus on the question whether a certain action or practice is right or wrong. And usually those who participate in the argument tend to assume that if the action or practice in question is not right (i.e. not permissible), then it must be wrong, and if it is not wrong, then it is right. There are no other options. Is abortion right or wrong? Some are for, others against it. For some it is murder, for others a morally neutral medical operation. You need to decide which side you are on. Is lying always wrong or sometimes permissible? Kant believed it was always wrong; most people would say that often lying is okay. Murdering someone? Yes, definitely. But then again, not all killing qualifies as murder. So is killing someone morally wrong? Very often, but not always. Where it is not, it is justified. It is permissible.

However, here's the problem: even if we accept that things really can be right or wrong (and can be determined to be so), which is far from obvious to me, it seems that merely distinguishing "right" from "wrong" is an almost ludicrously inadequate response to the complexity of the moral world. Lying is wrong. Not paying for your bus ticket is wrong. Stealing a CD from the music store is wrong. Raping someone is wrong. Torturing a small child to death is wrong. Well, maybe. But shouldn't we attempt to say more about how wrong exactly it is? Isn't that what we really want to know? Do we seriously think that stealing a CD is as wrong as raping someone? No, actually we don't. So obviously some actions are more wrong than others. But moral philosophers and ethicists do not talk much about that. We are too busy finding out what is right and what is wrong, and it doesn't really occur to us that even when we are successful in our endeavour we have at best brought a very crude form of order to the moral world. It is as if we were bewitched by the binary logic of the words, for both the word "wrong" and the word "right" have no comparitive. Actions are not "righter" or "wronger" than others, and it even sounds odd to say that an action was "more right" or "more wrong" than another. The very grammar of those words thus strongly suggests that things are either wrong or right, and that there is nothing in-between. There is no scale that reaches from the very wrong or "wrongest" to the very right or "rightest". But isn't that exactly what we would need to do justice to the diversity of actions, situation, and circumstances that we have to deal with, and to our moral intuitions regarding them?


  1. Morals generally are based on common sense, and make common sense. We need morals to achieve social cohesion. People want to be accepted and loved. If they don't adhere to a certain moral code they wouldn't be. The fact that we keep arguing about morals is good. It keeps society fresh and robust.

  2. Yes, that is probably right. But I didn't mean to say that arguing about morality is bad or useless. On the contrary: I think we should expand or enrich the way we talk about morality. To reflect common sense.

  3. No, arguing about morality is a good thing. I just meant to highlight its importance. And naturally we will continue to argue about it because there never will be total agreement. Even what constitutes common sense can be arguable.