What is Good?, What is Just?, What is True?

A Surprising Thing about Moral Disagreements

Moral disagreements are a common part of life. But there is something very surprising about moral disagreements that we often don’t realize.

To illustrate this, allow me to present you with a thought experiment.[1] Please imagine these four people:

Person #1: Jill believes X is the moral thing to do. Now, Jill truly cares about morality. And if she discovers that something else like Y is the moral thing to do, she will do that because she truly wants to be moral.

Person #2: Dylan agrees with Jill and says that X is moral. But Dylan doesn’t truly care about morality. Rather, he mainly cares about fame and power. And Dylan realizes that if he says that X is the right thing to do, it will earn him more fame and power currently.

However, if it turns out in the future that saying X is bad and immoral brings him fame and power, Dylan will immediately change his position.

Person #3: Carlos disagrees with Jill and Dylan. He believes that Y, rather than X, is the moral thing to do. Now, Carlos also really cares about morality. And if he discovers that X is indeed the moral thing to do, he will certainly do that because he truly cares.

Person #4: Sandrine agrees with Carlos and says that Y is the moral thing to do. However, she says that Y is moral not because she has considered the matter herself. Rather, she says Y is moral because various leaders important to her tell her this is so. In fact, if these leaders told her instead that X is moral, she will change her mind.

Question: Which of these four people have the greatest moral disagreement?

I will return to this question shortly.

Rodin’s Thinker, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First, I would like to examine the nature of moral disagreements in general.

People certainly disagree morally about a lot of issues.

For example, some people think that it is moral, at least in some cases, to use animals in medical research. But other people think it is never moral to do this.

And as another example, some people think that in cases in which a patient is terminally ill, in extreme pain, and has no chance of recovery, euthanasia is morally permissible.

But other people believe that euthanasia is never moral, no matter the circumstance.

As a final example, some people believe it is morally permissible to torture terrorist suspects to save the lives of civilians.

But other people believe it is never moral to torture anyone, including a terrorist suspect.

I give these examples to illustrate that it is possible for people who care deeply about morality to disagree about the morality of a certain situation.

For example, when people disagree about the morality of euthanasia, it is often because people on both sides of the issue care so deeply about morality.

Similarly, when people disagree about the morality of using animals in research, usually it is because all parties care deeply about moral issues of various kinds.

So, it is important to note that moral people can disagree about moral decisions. Sometimes we make the mistake of automatically assuming that people who hold different moral conclusions than we do are immoral or that they do not care about morality.

But that is not usually the case.

In fact, we could have five different people discussing a situation who all care equally about morality but disagree about certain moral conclusions.

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café”, picture by Fred Barnard, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, of course, a reasonable question to ask at this point is, “Why do people who care equally about morality often disagree about the moral thing to do?”

One of the reasons moral disagreements occur is because morality pertains to what we believe the good is. For example, when we care about morality, we are concerned about what constitutes good behavior or good character in a certain situation.

But people hold different theories about what goodness is.

For example, some people suggest that people are good and act well[2] when they act consistently with virtues like courage, generosity, self-control, or love. (For example, the philosopher Aristotle argues this. You can read more about him here: How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues.)

But other people argue that people are good and act well when they act from duty, doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. (The philosopher Immanuel Kant argues this. You can read more about him here: How to Cultivate a Good Will.)

On the other hand, some folks argue that people are good and act well when they aim for the best outcome or consequence, like maximizing virtuous happiness. (The philosopher John Stuart Mill argues this. You can read more about him here: How to Maximize Happiness and Minimize Pain.)

And other people believe that people are good and act well when they show compassion, working to minimize suffering. (For example, people who practice Buddhist ethics often hold this view. You can read more about this here: The Ethics of Compassion.)

Picture by Matt Collamer, courtesy of Unsplash.

As you can imagine, people’s conception of morality is very different, depending on whether they prioritize virtue, duty, maximizing happiness, or relieving suffering.[3]

And even if people hold the same view of goodness, they may disagree about how to apply that view in specific situations. For example, two people could agree that morality is doing your duty. However, they might disagree about how to act dutifully in the case of euthanasia.

So, people can care equally about morality, hold the same view of moral goodness, and still have moral disagreements.

But as you can imagine, moral disagreements often make us nervous.

That is because moral disagreements, especially very tricky ones, can make us feel like it is hard to figure out the right thing to do. But if it is hard to figure out the right thing to do, this means we might make a mistake and behave immorally.

And many of us feel that if we make a moral mistake, we are bad people, which fills us with fear and shame.

Picture by Joice Kelly, courtesy of Unsplash.

As a result, sometimes we decide to hand over our moral decision-making to a strong leader, like a political or religious leader, who will tell us the right thing to do.

And initially it seems like this is a good solution. After all, if we just rely on a leader to tell us what to do, it seems like we could end moral disagreements, and we would never make a moral mistake.

In such cases, we imagine that following a leader would reduce moral decision-making to a formula, something like this:

Doing what leader says = moral and good

Not doing what leader says = immoral and bad

But moral decision-making is not quite that simple.

For example, let’s say people hand their moral decision-making over to a leader. How would they know that leader is doing the right thing? After all, even the best leaders are human and sometimes–despite their best efforts–they make mistakes.

And sometimes good leaders, even moral ones, get led astray by immoral motives.

And in either case, if people follow these leaders blindly, they end up acting immorally as well.

On the other hand, we might believe that if we could find a perfect leader, maybe like Jesus, then we could definitely end moral disagreements.

However, this is also not the case.

For example, the New Testament suggests that Jesus’ disciples generally thought he was the son of God and perfect.

Nevertheless, during Jesus’ life and after his death, Jesus’ disciples or followers regularly disagreed about the right thing to do.[4]

Weirdly enough, they even often disagreed about whether Jesus himself was behaving as he should, such as when Peter rebuked Jesus for washing Peter’s feet.

“Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples”, by Albert Edelfelt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, it seems that we cannot end moral disagreement by reducing moral decision-making to a formula or following an authority, even a perfect one.

And in fact, many moral philosophers suggest that moral decision-making is an art rather than a formula. For example, they argue that we learn to be moral people not by a formulaic calculation but from a combination of good instruction, good role models, good intention, and practice (which entails some trial and error).

And if morality is not a formula but an art we must practice, which I believe it is, we will always have some moral disagreement in life.

Now let’s return to the thought experiment with the four people I presented to you at the beginning of this post.

Here it is again. Please imagine these four people:

Person #1: Jill believes X is the moral thing to do. Now, Jill truly cares about morality. And if she discovers that something else like Y is the moral thing to do, she will do that because she truly wants to be moral.

Person #2: Dylan agrees with Jill and says that X is moral. But Dylan doesn’t truly care about morality. Rather, he mainly cares about fame and power. And Dylan realizes that if he says that X is the right thing to do, it will earn him more fame and power currently.

However, if it turns out in the future that saying X is bad and immoral brings him fame and power, Dylan will immediately change his position.

Person #3: Carlos disagrees with Jill and Dylan. He believes that Y, rather than X, is the moral thing to do. Now, Carlos also really cares about morality. And if he discovers that X is indeed the moral thing to do, he will certainly do that because he truly cares about morality.

Person #4: Sandrine agrees with Carlos and says that Y is the moral thing to do. However, she says that Y is moral not because she has considered the matter herself. Rather,  she says Y is moral because various leaders important to her tell her this is so. In fact, if these leaders told her instead that X is moral, she will change her mind.

Question: Which of these four people have the greatest moral disagreement?

A Surprising Thing about this Moral Disagreement

On the face of it, it seems like Jill and Dylan have the greatest moral disagreement with Carlos and Sandrine.

That is because Jill and Dylan both say X is the moral thing to do. But both Carlos and Sandrine say that Y is the moral thing to do.

However, if we consider the issue more carefully, we might notice that Jill and Carlos have a lot more in common morally than Dylan and Sandrine.

That is because Jill and Carlos both care deeply about morality, and that is their focus. On the other hand, Dylan doesn’t truly care about morality. And Sandrine appears to care the most about gaining approval from important leaders in her life, rather than caring about morality.

Now, in matters of morality, the people who prioritize morality over fame, power, or approval will usually continue to strive for moral goals and become more moral together, correcting their moral errors.

So, even though Jill and Carlos initially have a moral disagreement, they have more in common with each other than Dylan and Sandrine with whom, respectively, they appear to agree initially.

That’s the surprising thing about morality.

People who care deeply about morality but have moral disagreements have more in common than folks who appear to agree morally but have significantly different commitments to morality itself.

I like to present thought experiments like this to my students because it helps them understand that moral decision-making is a rich and nuanced subject.

And I hope you might recognize this same thing. That’s one reason I write this post.

But, of course, I also write it because right now in our country (I live in the U.S.), there are a lot of people disagreeing morally about a lot of things.

As such, I invite us to consider that our deepest moral disagreements are not with people value morality but hold different moral positions than we do.

And in fact, if we are able to relax our defenses and listen to people who care about morality and hold different moral positions, we will likely improve our moral decision-making together.

Drawing and painting by yours truly.

So, our greatest moral disagreements are not with people who hold different positions than we do necessarily.

Rather, our greatest moral disagreements often lie with people who hold moral positions like ours for non-moral reasons, especially for reasons like approval, fame, and power.

We should recognize that when people hold our same moral positions but for non-moral reasons, it very likely that they will change their positions rapidly and frequently and pressure us to do the same.

By the way:

If you are interested in understanding how to be more ethical, you might like this post: How to Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code.

Also, the book Justice by Harvard professor Michael Sandel is a great book about different conceptions of the good that people hold in society.

Sandel’s book contains thought-provoking moral dilemmas and provides some helpful guidelines for thinking through moral disagreements.

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[1] A thought experiment is a fictional scenario philosophers sometimes use to help illustrate a philosophical problem or truth.

[2] By acting well, I mean that people act with goodness resulting in moral and ethical behavior.

[3] And these are just a few of the ways people conceive of the good.

[4] One example of this is when Jesus’ followers argued about whether it was right to eat meat that had been offered to idols (see 1 Cor. Chapter 8) or whether it was right to eat meat (see Acts 10 and 11) previously deemed unclean according to Jewish dietary rules.

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