What is a Moral Guillotine?

Welcome back! After a tumultuous December filled with volcanoes, turtles, family, and festivities, it’s time to get back to the important things in life- the examination of philosophical ideas. (JK, the other things are important too, after all, I don’t really believe that philosophical questions come from the vacuum of the mind). So, without further ado, I present to you MOARAL PHILOSOPHY.

The art of naming is a delicate thing. There are messages in names, and meanings, as well as more mundane considerations such as uniqueness, and ease of remembering when it comes to names of businesses, blogs, and the like. Those of you who are well-versed in moral philosophy are likely already familiar with what a “Moral Guillotine” is, and some of my more curious readers may have already googled it- in which case, this post will likely only be of interest to you as far as it contains my snarky and erudite remarks.

So let’s get to it.

What is the Moral Guillotine?

The moral guillotine, posited by David Hume, is one of the major foundational problems in ethics, or, perhaps, more properly (because it is foundational) meta-ethics.

The problem as I see it goes like this:

  1. Ethics seeks to discover facts about the world and use these facts to make proscriptions about the way we ought to behave.
  2. This involves two different types of statements: positive (descriptive) and normative.
  3. It is not clear how reasoning about positive statements can lead us to any conclusions about normative statements.

This is also called the is-ought problem, and as you might be able to tell, I largely ignore it.

Why it Isn’t Helpful

In general, meta-ethics asks: On what are you basing your ethical theory?

The answer to this is normally some hand-waving about the metaphysics of the world we live in, and some value theory as to what we should consider important. We can see why these things are necessary to ethics because in some sense the metaphysics are the macro-context of the world.

If reality is not real and we are all living in the matrix, we will probably evaluate actions and outcomes according to a different scheme because we generally think computer programs and dreams are governed by different rules, and that “real” things have more moral weight than non-real things. (There might still be the possibility that Virtue Ethics remains the same regardless of metaphysics because its about your actions and how those actions affect you as a person, but also killing a puppy in a videogame and killing a puppy in real life would likely affect you very differently and we think that’s okay.) Value theory also generally comes from some sort of understanding or fact about the world- for example, Utilitarianism wouldn’t make much sense as an ethical theory if everyone was incapable of feeling pain or pleasure.

In this way, our ethical theories are grounded in facts. They are built up from the world around us and from our reasoning about how we believe the world works. If the facts change, then we think that our theories should also change to ensure they are correct for the context we are applying them in. I should note, however, that this is different from moral relativism, because meta-ethics is normally concerned with macro-contexts regarding the nature of reality, which remains consistent across different cultural groups and locales.

Perhaps though, this is where the is-ought problem comes from: if we use facts about the universe to inform our ethics, and tell us what we should do, then does that in fact mean that our ethics are not grounded? Why should facts about the world inform ethics?

A Possible Answer

My favourite answer to this problem comes from philosopher Hilary Putnam. Putnam’s argument is this.

  1. We cannot test any empirical statements without some background context. (Imagine trying to discover a theory of gravity without knowledge that objects exist and behave in certain ways). Instead, we test statements by weighing beliefs against each other and looking to facts to support or cast doubt on our beliefs.
  2. There exist statements which are both descriptive¬†and prescriptive. Putnam calls these “thick” or “entangled” statements. For example, the term “courageous” we generally understand to be “unusually willing to face danger” and we also ascribe a positive moral value to it, and consider courage to be a positive thing (as opposed to “brash”).
  3. What we consider “true” is generally what is predictable. I.e. what is useful or effective to use in future scenarios.
  4. Facts/truths about ethics are often of the thick variety, and prescriptive statements about ethics predict regularly both the likelihood of the actor to act in a certain way, and the likelihood of others to judge the actor in a certain way.

Another excellent answer to this problem is posited by feminist philosopher Phillipa Foot. Foot shares a similar premise to Putnam- the idea that many statements are entangled- she chooses the example of “injury” which includes in itself ideas about harm and impairment. “Injury” is by definition something that we would like to avoid, and becomes nonsensical if we decouple it from these associations.

Ethics and Language

One of the really interesting things that I think comes out of the debate is the idea of the importance of language, and how language is rooted in fact, but entangled in so many other things. I think it emphasizes the importance of language in moral judgement, and also perhaps gives more credibility to the idea that the way we use language is morally weighty. The entanglement means that it is a much easier to step to understand how our language can be harmful.

I think it also emphasizes that many philosophical problems are often semantic ones, which is why we need precision in our language (though it should be noted that precision can be achieved without an overabundance of jargon). Finally, I think it shows the funny thing that happens in philosophy sometimes where we become so fixated on perfect arguments and perfect reasoning that we forget the world itself is messy and what is first and foremost the most important thing to consider is the pragmatism of our ideas working for us to build a better world- and not just an abstract one, but the one we live in here and now.

Pointless Problems

In many ways, this problem reminds me of “the problem of induction”, I won’t get into the problem in detail, but I will say that while philosophers consider this to be a major problem, the principles that underlie it are essentially the basis for all scientific inquiry and is the reason that science works- and as long as it continues to work, then the problem seems inconsequential.

My experience in the past has been that people that like to poke holes in the foundations of ethics are often people that are looking for excuses to justify their bad behaviour. Maybe there isn’t a perfect transition from identifying facts about our world and reasoning about the way we ought to behave given those facts, but they do give us a pretty good basis for understanding how our actions might affect others, and how others will feel about those effects, and in the end, being a good moral person is often just doing the work to try to understand these things and be respectful of others’ safety and happiness.


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