What does “moral” add?

It’s been a while since I talked about Jerry Coyne’s views on free will, and I wouldn’t do it this time, except that in his latest discussion of Dennett he includes one paragraph that shows just how deeply confused he is about the issues with free will and moral responsibility:

Certainly we must be held responsible for our choices: to protect society if we make bad ones (showing our brains have “faulty” wiring), to deter others from thinking they can get away with antisocial behavior, and to help rehabilitate those who engage in such behavior. But I deny that this responsibility for is a “moral” responsibility. What does the word “moral” add to that? And if we don’t have a choice in how to act, what is “moral” except the label that predetermined actions comport with social norms? Imputing “moral” responsibility is no different from saying “this person did that thing for reasons we can’t completely understand.”

Here’s the issue: “moral responsibility” does not in any way describe some kind of strange and spooky type of responsibility that is totally and completely different from all other types of responsibility and is the type of responsibility that maps to free will. All types of responsibility for our decisions were supposed to map to or be impacted by the free will debate. So, then, what does the “moral” refer to? Well, to a subset of our decisions, decisions that have a moral character. Not all of our decisions are moral ones, but all of those decisions are, in fact, ones that we have to be considered morally responsible for.

We can see that not all of our decisions are, at least, moral ones. When I decide to buy the full series of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” because it is on sale at Best Buy, that’s not normally a moral decision; it’s just a pragmatic one. When I am trying to decide whether to shovel my driveway first thing in the morning or to wait until the afternoon, that again is not usually a moral decision. They can become moral decisions due to other factors. For example, Peter Singer might try to make the decision to buy a frill for my enjoyment a moral decision, when there are others who could better use those resources. And if people are coming over and my driveway would be dangerous, then whether I shovel it before they arrive or not might be a moral issue. But in general, they aren’t, because they don’t have that moral character. We might not know what precisely it means for a decision to have a moral character, but we know that some decisions clearly do and some decisions clearly don’t.

(I talk more about this here.)

Additionally, it is possible to be able to be held responsible for your decisions, but not your moral ones. I would argue that psychopaths, for example, cannot be held responsible for moral actions, not because they lack the same decision-making abilities — or lack of them — that we have, not because their will is more constrained, but because they are incapable of understanding what gives a decision moral character. Unlike others, they consistently fail the moral/conventional distinction. They cannot understand what it would mean for something to be moral, and so at that point they are incapable of making any moral decision, just like I’m incapable of making a medical decision about the best course of treatment for a patient: it’s not that I can’t make those decisions, it’s just that I don’t know enough to make that decision. Or, perhaps a better example is that psychopaths are incapable of making a moral decision for the same reason that a blind person is incapable of deciding if a painting provides a good visual representation of something; neither of them have the capacity to make that decision, even though their decision-making abilities are unimpaired.

The key is that a non-moral decision may be just as confusing as a decision as moral ones. In fact, non-moral decisions are more likely to be ones that we can’t completely understand because they are more tightly tied to the personal preferences of the person than moral ones are, which generally appeal to some kind of universal or societal code for their reasoning. So that last sentence is horribly confused, and can only be explained by thinking that moral decisions are supposed to be specially “free willish”. They aren’t. Moral decisions are just the really, really important ones, the ones that we want to make sure we make correctly, and the ones that we want to punish or reward people for making, and we can’t do that if even moral agents lack responsibility for their decisions. If hard determinism is true, the argument is that we aren’t responsible for any of our decisions, and that problem strikes hardest for moral decisions, because it means that we are also incapable of acting morally, not because we are incapable of understanding morality, but because we are not responsible for any of our decisions, even the moral ones. In short, it’s a problem because ought — especially moral ought — implies can, and so if I can’t help but decide to take the immoral action then it cannot be said that I ought to have taken the moral one instead. At which point, we lose all justification for punishment or reward of any actions, particularly ones with moral character.

It seems to me that to make his point stick here, Coyne has to deny that morality exists at all. But if he does, then a lot of his own arguments across various fields have no argumentative basis; he can’t condemn the Catholic Church for the immoral things it does if there is no such thing as morality. So if there is such a thing as morality, then we have moral responsibility: people being held responsible for their decisions that have a moral character. Again, Coyne misses that determinism impacts the “responsibility” side of the ledger, not the “moral” side, and so his arguments completely miss the relevant issues.

Note: In a later comment, Coyne agrees that moral responsibility can be seen as responsibility in a social context — I disagree with that definition of moral — but then adds “…but the problem as I see it is that the idea of “moral” responsibility is weightier than just “normal” responsibility, demanding some special actions or special opprobrium.” Yes, because moral interactions are weightier than other interactions, even if just seen as actions in a social context. Actions that impact others are weightier than actions that only impact yourself. This is kinda obvious, no?



2 Responses to “What does “moral” add?”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    So to put it shortly, Is a moral decision any decision that we choose to evaluate morally?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’d argue that it isn’t one that we choose to evaluate that way, because whether a decision has a moral impact is not something that we can decide for ourselves. It’s objective.

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