moral language

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Morality is an objective property of a system that consists of a person that utters moral statements and the specific entity in, or feature of, the world that the statement identifies or denotes. Yet Morality can be explained in terms of lower level interactions. This does not contradict, systems can have properties that their parts alone do not.

Ethical statements

Let’s take a look at two ethical statements:

  1. It is morally wrong for Alice to lie to Bob.
  2. It is morally wrong for Bob to strangle Alice.

What do people really mean when they utter those statements? Let’s try to pin down the underlying reasons and motivations of the first statement by paraphrasing it:

1: Due to my genetically hard-coded intuitions about appropriate behavior within groups of primates, my upbringing, cultural influences, rational knowledge about the virtues of truth-telling and preferences involving the well-being of other people, I feel obliged to influence the intercourse between Alice and Bob in a way that persuades Alice to do what I want, without feeling inappropriately influenced by me, by signaling my objection to certain behaviors as an appeal to the order of higher authority.

But what is meant by an appeal to the order of “higher authority”? To make this more clear, let’s now take a look at a chat between hypothetical Bob and myself:

Alexander: I don’t want you to strangle Alice.

Bob: I don’t care what you want!

Alexander: Strangling Alice might have detrimental effects on your other preferences.

Bob: So? I don’t care, I assign infinite utility to world-states where Alice is dead!

Alexander:  But it is morally wrong to strangle Alice.

Bob: Hmm…I think you are right, I don’t want to be immoral!

What happened here? I have been trying to convince Bob not to kill Alice. In other words, I tried to get Bob to do what I want. I used three different methods:

  1. Accounting for third-party preferences.
  2. Weighing one preference against all other preferences.
  3. Evoking guilt.

Explanatory remarks to methods 1-3:

1: Primates don’t like to be readily controlled by other primates. To get them to do what you want you have to make them believe that they actually want to do it themselves.

2: Humans who are in a temporary rage often discount all long-term consequences of their decisions. To be persuasive it might take some subtle, non-obvious incentive.

3: Using moral language is really a form of coercive persuasion. Since when I say, “It is morally wrong to strangle Alice.”, I actually signal, “If you strangle Alice you will feel guilty.” It is a manipulative method that subtly influences Bob to say, “You are right, I don’t want to be immoral!”, when what he actually means is, “I don’t want to feel guilty!”

Method #3 works by making use of various cultural and otherwise present connotations carried by the label “morally wrong”, primarily by evoking negative emotions and the prospect of a loss of social reputation. The difference to methods #1,2 is that #3 does derive its authority from a complex (obscure) interrelationship of evolutionary, emotional, environmental and cultural factors. While method #1 asks Bob to be altruistic and #2 selfish, method #3 does posit a fuzzy imperative.

Further reading

‘Moral Ontology’ by Richard Carrier

Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

Trivers on Self-Deception

Ego syntonic thoughts and values

The limits of introspection

Homo Hypocritus Signals

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