For many, the idea of morality or moral philosophy is used as a carrot and a stick, a means with which to reward people who do good with praise, and to punish people who do badly with criticism. We often will conflate actions with persons, equating people who do bad things with people who are bad, and vice versa. These puritanical impulses also often lead to incorrect moral judgements where individuals who are successful are considered to be good, because obviously otherwise they wouldn’t be successful, because they would have been punished. This view of morality is comforting because it lets us assume that morality is all we need, and that it is confined to narrow, specific realms. It allows us to ignore that it gets messy, that there are things like collective responsibility, that we must occasionally collaborate with each other, that sometimes we get things right for the wrong reasons and sometimes we get things wrong for the right ones. It allows us to ignore that morality is often a decision between two good things, but that it is hard to know which of those things is better in a given situation.
This impulse to judge also can lead to the conflation of legality with morality. We want to punish immoral things, therefore we make them illegal. When we want to define things as immoral, we may make them illegal to be able to do so without fully interrogating why such a thing is wrong in the first place (a good example of this is laws against sex work).
But is ethics actually about making judgements on people or their actions?
I would argue no.
Return to the Moral Guillotine
If you will recall, the moral guillotine is the problem of turning an “is” into an “ought.” Oughts are what ethics is actually all about.
When we say, “doing X is wrong.” What we really are saying, or at least, what we really should be saying is, “one ought not do X.”
When we say, “doing X is good.” What we are really saying is “one ought to do X.”
Now, there are some who might argue that such statements imply each other, and that both are working in tandem. After all, especially if we are virtue ethicists we care little about actions and more about what kinds of people people are. However, if we dig deeper, most virtue ethicists will say that the reason we care about the kinds of people that people are, and the kinds of habits they have is because we don’t just want people to do the right thing by accident, we want them to do the right thing on purpose, because then that means they will consistently do the right thing. In other words, we want to be the right kind of people because we want to always do the thing we ought to do, and if we aren’t the right kind of people we might make mistakes sometimes.
Now, some philosophers do speak in the language of blame and praise. In particular, we may think a person is more or less blameworthy for a particular action given the amount of involvement they had in that action. For example, we may think that someone who injures someone though negligence or inaction is less blameworthy than someone who injures someone intentionally by setting up a trap or punching them in the fact. However, this blameworthiness in some ways also makes little difference to what they ought to have done. It is still perfectly acceptable to say that in both cases the negligent or inactive party ought not to have been negligent or inactive, and that the active party ought not to have punched someone in the face or set up a trap for them.
Interestingly, we do not usually say someone is praiseworthy for doing something they ought to have done, rather, we reserve praiseworthiness for supererogatory actions (i.e. actions it would be good to do, but I don’t need to do). Although, my skepticism as to if supererogatory actions even exist has been documented in a previous post (if it would be good for me to do something, oughtn’t I do to it?).
In short, I am skeptical that telling people they are bad will motivate them to change. Furthermore, telling them such things can start cycles of self-pity and blame which do no one any good. Just as the carceral system does not adequately stop crime or rehabilitate people, I don’t think that judging people for their poor choices is the right way to go.
Instead, we should focus on changing specific behaviours. Some people may be okay with saying “well I’m a bad person and I’m okay with that,” as a way to avoid changing their behaviours. If instead we say, “it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, you still should do this and not that” we focus on what needs to change, and then, even if we are being Aristotelian about it, by consistently doing the right thing, we will eventually become the kinds of people who do the right things.
I’m not here to give you a pat on the back, or to tell you how horrible of a person you’ve been and take away your favourite toy. I’m here to help you figure out what you can do, what you should do, what you must do going forward, whatever kind of person you are. I’m here to change things.