The Morality of Moral Judgement I: The Metaphysical Junk

Making judgements can sometimes be a tricky thing, especially when making them about people. As human beings, we ascribe moral value judgements to actions (sometimes actions to which they shouldn’t be ascribed). Based on those actions, we compile them into broad judgements about an individual’s character. Because people fear mistakes in judgement, there has been a common theme in recent years that tells us, “Don’t judge.” This is wrongheaded. Judgements about people are critical to living the kinds of lives that we want. They allow us to befriend the people who will likely be a positive influence, while avoiding the people who would be detrimental. The key is to figure out how we make judgments and when to make judgements. The goal of this post is to provide an initial metaphysical framework that I will use in my discussion of the morality of moral judgement.

What the heck does this mean, this “morality of moral judgment” thing? I am referring to the general rules that explain when and how we should make moral judgements about one or more individuals. Although I use the word “morality,” my intention is not to say that making this or that judgement is good or evil. My intention is for it to be understood as morality-lite, in which the stakes are not that high, and right and wrong is determined by what is effective in helping one to reach a wiser life. The second usage describing a type of judgement, includes both the normal usage of morality involving good and evil and morality-lite. By “metaphysical framework,” I am referring to (or attempting to refer to) what exactly is going on when we make moral judgements. The following is what I will be assuming in this series.

There is a difference, as I hinted at earlier, between a judgement about an action and a judgement about a person. The second kind of judgement is derived from one or more of the first kind. If Jimbob throws a pipe-bomb into a circus resulting in a number of deaths and injuries, then I can judge that action on its own terms. All things considered, I would judge that action to be pretty darn immoral because it involves harming and/or extinguishing human life.

creepy clown

creepy clown (Photo credit: greenkozi)

From this, many would conclude that, therefore, Jimbob is an evil person. But what if Jimbob also volunteers as a firefighter? What if he protests the clubbing of baby seals? What if he is a wonderful husband and father that would never be expected to do something as erratic as chucking a pipe-bomb into a host of clowns?  Maybe he just had a really, really good reason to throw it. Suddenly, it isn’t so easy to label Jimbob as “evil” because there are actions he has done in his life that are good as well as bad.

The reason this can be so tricky is because our goal is to ascribe static traits to dynamic situations and somewhat indistinct personalities. There are a number of different ways in which people would ascribe to Jimbob a moral judgement (that may even stretch beyond those here). (A) They might call him evil, justifying it by saying that killing people overrules any possibility of labeling him as a good person; (B) they might call him good, arguing that his character shows that he wouldn’t do something so outlandish without a good reason; (C) they may call him neither good nor evil, with the explanation that (A) and (B) are inaccurate; or (D) they could call him both good and evil, emphasizing that he has proven that he is capable of both.

I believe that (D) is probably the most accurate of these options. (A) and (B) characterize Jimbob by a limited set of data, while (C) is a refusal to make any moral judgement. Although moral answers can sometimes be ambiguous, (C) simply does not provide an answer. The implication behind (C) is either that there is no such thing as morality, or Jimbob is among those who cannot be classified in this particular case. The first possible implication could be plausible if it is decided that the framework of morality is no longer a useful one (but we are assuming that it still is useful). The second, I suspect, would make it difficult to justify any punishment or praise for Jimbob’s actions because there would no longer be a connection between the moral action and the moral agent.

There is still another aspect that I haven’t yet included that is quite important. This is time. Until now, the judgements I have considered stretch across an undefined range of time. There is a problem in attempting to ascribe unchanging labels to ever-changing individuals. Answer (D) allows more flexibility when taking this into account. If individuals are both good and evil, the way we measure morality can now be measured in the form of a scale. Instead of a mere binary understanding of good or evil, we can ask how good and how evil individuals are. Thinking about it in this framework, I hope, should lead to more accurate moral judgements.

Let’s apply this to Jimbob. We can look at all of the things he has done over the course of his life, his “moral history,” if you will. We can take the good things: saving a grandmother from a burning house last week, spending quality time with his daughter making sure she studies and stays healthy, etc. Then we can take the bad things: the exploding clown incident, the inexplicable drunken brawl this weekend, and so on.

There are at least two key considerations that follow from analyzing things this way: 1) How do you measure the degree to which actions are right or wrong? 2) How do you compare the good and the bad with one another?

In response to (1), there is a clear difficulty here in attempting to think quantitatively about something so qualitative. However, I would contend that if we want to have a moral discussion, then there isn’t really a choice. We already attempt to discover the degrees to which something is good or bad. We may as well try to be as scientific as we can (which includes retaining a healthy dose of skepticism). As for (2), I think this is the kind of question we would need to ask if, for example, we were to decide whether or not to continue dealing with someone. Although this is an important question, providing an answer goes beyond my scope here, but we may be able to zero-in on something resembling the truth in later posts.

Pascal’s Wager and the Giant Meatball

English: raw meatball, before frying it עברית:...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blaise Pascal said in the seventeenth century that we ought to choose to believe in God because an assessment of the consequences tells us that we have more to gain by doing so. If God does exist, we gain infinitely by believing and we lose infinitely by not believing. If God does not exist, we (presumably) gain finitely by not believing and lose finitely by believing. Because the infinite consequence of our decision in the “God exists” world will always outweigh any finite consequence of our decision in the “God doesn’t exist” world, we stand more to gain by choosing to believe.

Pascal builds his argument upon the assumption that there is no way to reasonably determine the existence of God. Therefore, we must “wager” by weighing the possible outcomes. His argument also presumes, however, that it is reasonable for a belief to be determined by weighing the consequences—that belief is no different from any other action in this regard. My position is this: to hold a belief on any ground other than a justification of its truth-value is either irrational or non-rational. If it is decidedly impossible to justify the truth-value of a proposition, then it is irrational to believe the proposition.

Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to a different scenario. Suppose I believe that there is a giant invisible space-meatball speeding towards Earth that will knock it into the sun, and the only way to survive is to steal a local space ship from the shipyard and travel to the moon colony (this is a sci-fi example). I tell my friend this, and he is extremely skeptical. He says that I can’t prove it is true. I respond that he cannot prove to me that it is false. We mutually agree that we will never reasonably determine the truth-value of my claim.

But then I tell him we stand more to gain by choosing to believe that the space-meatball exists. If it does exist, we will gain our lives by believing, but lose our lives by not believing. If it does not exist, we will gain or lose little relative to our lives. My friend reluctantly agrees, and we spend the rest of our lives on the moon as ship-stealing fugitives, anxiously awaiting a giant cataclysmic meatball that never comes.

It is clear that using this wager-mode of thinking without giving any attention to the truth-value of one’s beliefs could be fairly disastrous if it results in dangerous behavior. The difference between this example and the example with God, is that if I can remain skeptical about the meatball and travel to the moon, I will still accomplish my goal if the meatball exists. However, I cannot merely act in life as if God exists and make it through the pearly gates. I must legitimately believe (at least in the Christian tradition). This means that I must believe despite an ability to falsify or prove the claim in order to accomplish my goal of not burning in hellfire for eternity.

Pascal wants to treat belief in God more like an action than a belief. It isn’t a physical action though. When it comes to justifying physical action, one may wager in terms of desired outcome. In complex cases, one must weigh possible outcomes in conjunction with risk. If I want to buy a clown nose at Walmart, I must think about the possibility that they don’t sell them and the risk that I will arrive to find that they have none. If I call, and the person says they have them in stock, I reason that I have reduced the risk that I won’t be able to purchase one at the store. The decision of what action to take is dependent both upon what I predict to be true and what I want to happen.

When it comes to belief, the thought process does not include desired outcome. Belief, by definition, is the mental state we have when we regard a proposition as true. So it must be grounded in a justification of whether or not a proposition correctly describes reality in order to fulfill its function. Therefore, the mental process leading up to belief is the means by which we figure out what is real and what is not. If all this is accurate, I think it follows that it makes no sense to believe something without having at least some justification for it. And I am fairly certain that to know what belief rationally entails while disregarding it purposefully is downright irrational.

Since belief in God is required to accomplish the goal of not suffering at the hands of demons forever, people who do not believe are thrust into an odd position. In order for an agnostic to believe in God, one must disregard the entire function of belief. This is what Pascal asks us to do. An agnostic must therefore decide between a rational decision to not hold a belief and a decision to cast rationality aside in favor of soul-insurance.  Many would call this faith and would agree that believing in God necessitates that one disregard rational thought in this case. Some have no problem with this. I used to have trouble understanding how it is possible, but there is no doubting the evidence that it is possible for human beings to hold beliefs that contradict other beliefs. It happens all the time.