At the preconference yesterday, I inadvertently sparked some
controversy by advocating a "technical" definition of morality.
Very, very sadly, I wasn't able to attend in person. The latest
Californian storm forced me to give my presentation by Zoom.
Someone mentioned that the discussion continued after I logged off.
Since I couldn't elaborate my views in person, they suggested that I
distribute a recent paper.
I attach the paper here. This email is not self-promotion, though it
may be anti-self-demotion! Mostly, though, I'm sharing the paper
because the debate is worth having. The paper makes the points I was
trying to make, at the cost of being lengthy.
The short version is this:
1. Everyone who studies morality needs to define it. (No
disagreement in our group there.)
2. Some definitions work better than others. (No disagreement there
3. A definition of morality as obligatory concerns with others'
welfare, rights, justice and fairness, as well as the reasoning,
judgments, emotions, and actions based on those concerns, is the one
I continue to advocate. (This is effectively the SDT definition, and
I didn't perceive disagreement.)
4. Yet, it doesn't seem possible to demonstrate that one definition
is superior to all other definitions for all purposes. We don't have
any criterion for identifying some One True Morality nor do we have
a sensible way of defining morality in a way that captures all uses
of the word "moral." For that reason, the definitions we adopt for
research are "technical" definitions. (Some disagreement about this,
5. That scientific, technical definition of morality can separate
the moral from the non-moral (e.g., the conventional). It can't
separate the moral from the immoral, the morally right from the
morally wrong, since those are not distinctions than an empirical
science is equipped to draw. This is not relativism, however. I
don't claim that there's no truth about whether torture is wrong; I
only claim that we find such truths not with scientific methods but
with the human capacity for moral reasoning. (Some disagreement here
I perceive these ides to be entirely consistent with--and strongly
supportive of--Social Domain Theory. That's why I expected them to
be uncontroversial:) My paper was prompted by what I saw as spurious
critiques, both of the SDT definition and of the constructionist
emphasis on definitions. So perhaps yesterday's controversy arose
merely because I did not explain my points well enough. But if the
disagreement is real, I would love to discuss these issues further.
Please do reach out!
I much missed seeing you yesterday; I hope to see you soon!