Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 1: The Problem

People often deny the existence of moral conflicts and moral responsibility. If there are genuine moral conflicts and it matters what side you pick then you have a responsibility that you wouldn’t have if no such conflicts exist. Most people hate responsibility like poison and so hate the idea of moral conflicts too. This post is very different from standard positions on morality and moral conflicts so I will start by explaining what I’m writing about before giving examples.

Morality is about how to make decisions. Morality doesn’t dictate exactly what you should do: it restricts your options. So morality may not say that you should study physics, but it does say you shouldn’t commit murder.

People often use the term morality just for making some subset of decisions and say those are the only decisions for which there are restrictions on how you should make decisions. Some people seem to limit it to being about sex or relationship stuff. Others seem to limit it to how to deal with other people. This is a very bad idea. Suppose that we restrict morality to relationship stuff. Then we have a problem. Suppose you’re a scientist working late at night in a lab. You could start a new experiment or you could go home and have a romantic dinner with your girlfriend. If this decision is totally aribtary then really that means there are no objective rules for dealing with your girlfriend because you can always put off or change anything you planned to do to accomodate your research. I could do the same by just combining anything where a person there is objective morality with something else where he claims there are no restrictions on how you should make decisions. Either morality is objective on every issue, or it is not objective at all.

A moral conflict is where an attempt is made to enact two or more incompatible ideas about how to make decisions. These ideas might be enacted by different people, e.g. – before the American Civil War many people in the US wanted to enact slavery and some other wanted to stop them. But a person can also have an internal moral conflict, e.g. – some people prefer homosexual sex but think they ought to prefer heterosexual sex.

Moral responsibility means that you can and should develop a position in any moral conflict in which you are involved. Some people want to spank their children, others do not. (Just to be clear, I think spanking is evil. Below I reproduce some excuses a parent might give for hitting a person who is half her size and totally dependent on her for his survival. I consider these arguments pathetic excuses for barbarism.) If you hang around people who smack their children and you don’t oppose what they are doing they and their child may assume that you approve. The child doesn’t want to be spanked, the parent wants to spank him so there is a moral conflict. You have chosen to get involved in the lives of such people, so you put yourself in the position of participating in that moral conflict. Nobody else can make the decision for you of whether you will approve of spanking or not. And whether you show signs of approval or disapproval may matter. A child might be encouraged to think that the smacking is wrong if you stand up against it. Or a parent may begin to doubt that smacking is a good idea if you explain why you oppose it. You might say that the whole point of spanking is to deliberately inflict pain on the child. This can’t help the child learn because the pain will not give him any way to enact whatever the parent is proposing. And in any case, the parent doesn’t have any way to guarantee that he is right or probably right, so the parent might be preventing the child from enacting a position that is better than the parent’s position.

And if you favour the use of physical violence as a means of dealing with children (i.e. spanking), that, too, is important. Whatever reason you give will have implications beyond those that you want it to have. For example, if you say smacking is necessary because children don’t know a lot then it is legitimate to use assault against any ignorant adult too. If you say it is necessary because children have less well developed brains than adults and can’t learn certain things then you have another problem. For a start, the spanking policy makes absolutely no sense if the child can’t learn because nothing you do to the child will make him change his behaviour. So then you are committed to defending an inconsistent position, i.e. – you are committed to a policy of ignoring criticism and have severely damaged your ability to learn.

Many people do take inconsistent positions and such a position can only be maintained by having a way to disable criticism of that position.

One way of doing this is to deny the existence of moral conflicts. So in the spanking example above, the apologist for spanking might say that there is no moral disagreement involved. the child doesn’t really disagree with the spanking policy, he just seems to be disagreeing. The pro-spanker might say that the child will thank the parent for spanking him later and so really the parent and child agree. This makes no sense since even if the child comes to think later that the spanking was good at the time he didn’t agree and said so. And indeed the whole point of giving the spanking is precisely the child disagrees with it and finds it unpleasant. The idea that he actually agrees later is also dubious. If the child states that he doesn’t agree with the spanking after it is given the parent might spank him again, so the child might just be agreeing to avoid being spanked.

Another way to try to disable criticism is to deny that you are responsible for something you do or say. You might say that you have to hang around with spankers because they are your family, say. And since you have to get along with them you can’t say that you think spanking is bad. But in reality, there is nobody with a gun to your head making you hang around with your family or express approval for spanking. You could decide not to deal with your family, or you could decide to tell them you don’t approve of spanking. If you don’t do either of those things, you are reponsible.

You might hope that this is limited to a few minor faults in some people. But this idea is an evasion in and of itself. An idea or action is either problematic or unproblematic. If it is problematic you should replace it with a better set of ideas or actions.

Part 2 is about why people deny moral conflicts and responsibility and how to solve them. Part 3 is about some common examples of denying moral conflicts and responsibility.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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