Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t Moral Experts

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A problem with many ethical theories is the assumption that moral decision-making is just a matter of consistently applying rules, such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative or the Utilitarian ‘principle of equal consideration of interests’.

When we look at how we actually decide what to do, the conscious application of rules is not what we see. All decisions have many moral dimensions, and are therefore ‘moral decisions’. Even choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream has ethical implications, such as the relative benefit or harm to cocoa and vanilla farmers.

It follows that we make hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘moral decisions’ a day, if only by default. Each decision is subject to a range of ethical concerns and rules. In the ice-cream example, apart from the farmers, what about the environment? Should I even have ice-cream, would yogurt be healthier? It goes on and on.

Yet on most days, no explicit principle comes to mind as we make decisions. This is not to say that rules don’t play a part in ethics. But so do heuristics, habits of mind that allow us to make quick decisions in real time that will hopefully, in aggregate, maximize returns across all relevant moral considerations.

The reason why no rule comes to mind when we act in most cases is because we’re often weighing between a range of moral demands, each with its own set of rules. For example, to be a good mother, daughter, employee, friend and citizen all at once. We don’t usually have time to consciously reflect on every relevant rule before acting. So we often just act, sometimes without even thinking twice about it.

Over generations, heuristics become ingrained in our culture and consciences. Should I give to the poor in my town or to strangers 1,000 miles away? Perhaps in an ideal world I should compare the relative needs of anyone I could possibly help, weighing all relevant moral concerns, but I don’t have time for that. So in general, we help those near us. There are complex reasons for this. For example, we are more likely to know people around us, so there’s more accountability, and a higher chance of reciprocity.

But at the mall, someone asks me to donate to disaster victims 1,000 miles away. I give her money because as a rule of thumb, we try to help anyone who asks us face-to-face. Again, there are many reasons why, including the ones above. These heuristic norms can’t be fully captured by any set of strict rules, even though they may include strict rules (such as the incest taboo in most cultures). In this case, my two actions seem to even contradict each other. Perhaps if we think about it carefully enough, they do!

Heuristics are far from ideal, but we don’t make decisions in ideal circumstances. They’re intended to make sense most of the time, not all the time. Often, heuristics ossify. They are hard habits to change, personally and culturally, when no longer relevant to changing circumstances. But they do reflect an accumulated collective wisdom (mixed in with foolishness) that no single person can untangle without losing some valuable threads.

That has not stopped philosophers from trying, but there will always be gaps between any theoretical system of rules, thought out at leisure, and the habits of thought that operate in real time, informed by individual and collective experience. This is why moral philosophers can’t even agree with one another, because they can always find flaws in each other’s abstract moral theories when applied to specific real-life scenarios, where heuristic considerations ordinarily apply.

This lack of consensus invalidates any claim to ‘moral expertise’ by philosophers. Whatever they mean by that term, it doesn’t entail we may entrust our ethical decision-making to anyone with a Philosophy PhD, as we would our lives to an MD. It would be imprudent to seek treatment in a hospital where the doctors can never agree on a diagnosis! Philosophers can’t relieve us of the burden of individual responsibility, both for our actions and the justifications we give for them. In that sense, philosophers don’t have a privileged moral viewpoint. They are just one of us.

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