This is my first attempt to contribute something to this blog–or any blog for that matter. Sorry, it’s nothing original, just a recycled interview from “religion dispatches”.

Ten Questions for Hans-Georg Moeller on The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality
(Columbia University Press, 2009)

What inspired you to write The Moral Fool? What sparked your interest?

The book was written as result of a certain personal uneasiness about the increasing prevalence of moral communication in contemporary society. I found that not only the obvious moral hypocrisy often contained in public statements by, for instance, politicians, preachers, or academics, bothered me, but more generally, the undeserved prestige of ethical language. It seems to me that ethical communication has almost reached a pathological level in our society, bringing about, in Hegel’s words, a certain “frenzy of self-conceit.”

The book is aimed at making such pathologies visible—for instance in the mass media, in politics, in warfare, and in legal procedures, but also on a personal level, when people are urged to practice and experience a “morality of anger.”

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Morality (moral communication and moral thought) is not in itself “good.” And: Dare to take ethics not so seriously.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

The book is very much focused on moral pathologies in North America. I think that moral pathologies in other regions (Germany, China, for instance) show quite different symptoms. Maybe one time there will be a catalogue of the various forms of moral pathologies in different places and at different times.

North American moral pathologies are related to what may be called the “narrative” of American identity and clearly stem, historically speaking, from the fusion of fundamentalist Protestantism and 18th-century Enlightenment political liberalism. Fundamentalist Protestant morality endorses, for instance, strict individual responsibility for one’s sins (and, vice versa, credit for one’s achievements in the world), total commitment to the Christian God and the community united in His name (the family, and, by extension, the nation), and an ascetic lifestyle.

Enlightenment liberalism highlights similar values in a secularized form: individual “pursuit of happiness,” a commitment to “public life,” and the virtues of the commoner (rather than elitist or aristocratic man). It is not difficult to see how such a catalogue of moral ideals can lead to a celebration of vengeance, jingoism, and Puritan ethical prescriptions. In The Moral Fool, I have tried to describe how such moral pathologies have been influencing, for instance, American legal practice (death penalty), protest movements (Abolition, anti-gay sentiments), war rhetorics (just war philosophy), and the mass media (Hollywood movies).

In Europe, moral pathology is closely tied to 20th-century European liberal-progressive Protestantism. In Germany, for example, moral pathologies derive mostly from the traumatic experiences in connection with the Nazi regime. In Germany, a discourse of collective guilt (self-)ascription has produced some sort of moral overcompensation manifesting itself in the form of paradoxical moral arrogance. Germany now conceives of itself as the repentant sinner who, by fully acknowledging his crimes, has become the ethical champion of the world.

To a certain extent, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin represent North American moral pathology, and the Nobel Peace Prize award for Barack Obama expresses European sentiments of moral superiority. This Nobel Prize was supposed to say something like: Now that you have repented the Bush administration’s sins, Europeans welcome you back to the commonwealth of the ethically pure nations.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That to say that morality is not necessarily good is itself a moral statement. People who say this demonstrate that they are incapable to use the terms good/bad in a non-moral sense. I think we use these terms non-morally most of the time—perhaps with the exception of moral philosophers and religious fanatics.

In my view, the worst effect of the growing prestige of moral and ethical language is probably the nearly insurmountable obstacles that this language erects with respect to attempts to come to a more realistic or adequate understanding of contemporary society and its problems. Once moral language is introduced into, for instance, political or academic communication (the recent discourse on climate change is a good example) other dimensions of communication are pushed into the background.

With respect to climate change, for instance, there is a remarkable discrepancy between the intensity of ascribing moral blame and the depth of understanding climate science. Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT denying climate change—if so, I’d open myself up to moral blame—I am just saying that only very few people who feel capable of making moral statements about it will be able to make sense of a scientific article on climate research in an academic journal. I think that this can probably not be overcome by raising public knowledge (sciences, for instance, have become so complex that it is simply impossible for the “public sphere” to discuss an issue such as climate change in a scientifically accurate way).

The remedy I suggest is: “ironization” of moral language and moral communication. In the end, a book such as The Moral Fool intends to ironically deconstruct rigid moral language as it has been created, for instance, by mainstream Western moral philosophy. I think similar deconstructions can be performed in the mass media (late night Shows might help) or perhaps even at the fringes of politics (through ironic speech or ads, etc.).

On a very general level, I’d say that Eastern philosophies can demonstrate the contingency of certain foundational notions of Western thought that hardly go questioned. I have tried to challenge the widespread “prejudice” about the goodness of morality with the help of Daoism. Other possible challenges could tackle the value of “truth” (as opposed to “efficacy”) or the one-sided focus on “life” as the antagonistic alternative to the non-living (as manifested in various “Wars on Death” or often uncompromising “Pro-Life” attitudes in contemporary society).

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Yes, passengers on long-haul flights. I hoped the book would be readable in one stretch for anybody when they have nothing better to do.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

All of the above.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I quite like the title. Along with the design, it’s probably the best thing about the book.

How do you feel about the cover?

Oops, I just answered this, I guess.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Any book that sold a million copies.

What’s your next book?

I want to write a sequel to The Moral Fool, this time about the pathology of the semantics of “democracy.” The tentative title is: The Voting Fool.

27 thoughts on “QandA

  1. Hi Georg; this makes me want to read the book of course…

    A question: I wonder if you distinguish — whether in the book or just in your thinking — between morality and “the ethical.” Your target seems to be morality and moral communication, but someone might want to distinguish that from the broader category of the ethical, where that encompasses not only judgments about what is right and wrong, but also broader appraisals of goodness — admirability of character, for example.

    You could take a morally judgmental attitude toward Tiger Woods. On the other hand, you could just think he’s kind of a sleazy, arrogant bastard, or something like that. I would consider the latter to fit within “the ethical” though not necessarily within morality. Or do you think the same sort of pathologies exist in that broader set of ethical attitudes and communication?

    • Sure, Manyul, one can distinguish between morality and ethics, for instance in the way you suggest. I discuss a number of such philosophical distinctions in the book (Hegel, Luhmann, and others). Unfortunately there is not one standard distinction between the terms. I therefore opted to use the terms, as in contemporary English, interchangeably. I approach ethics basically as a form of communication and, by extension, as a way of “looking at things” or, more techniclly, speaking, an observation. I do not use it as a characteristic of people or their behavior, but as I said, as a particular form of social and individually judments of people and their behavior. I therefore would not look so much at Tiger Woods or his actions, but, in this instance, at how the Mass Media report on it and how Woods then reacts to these Mass Media judgments through further communication in the Mass Media. In other words, I am not so much interested in Tiger Wood’s moral pathologies as in the pathologies of the social communication about him.

    • Yes, good. I have found it interesting that almost the entire discourse surrounding Woods has not so much been moralistic as it has been about the potential damage to his “brand” and his financial empire. I wonder why. Perhaps it has to do somehow with him not being a politician. There’s something very Greek about it; it’s like the narratives about the gods, or just Zeus, and the results of infidelity — a certain amount of humiliation and some damage to reputation and power. But so far as I’ve seen, no moral condemnation in the press or by anyone else.

    • But isn’t Wood’s reputation and brand damaged exactly because of his supposed moral failures? Interestingly enough, just like in finances, what is judged is not the moral “substance” as such, but how it is supposedly evaluated in the “public sphere”–like the value of stocks, etc. A “brand” is a virtual product and “morality” seems to play a part in its value construction, no matter if it is Tiger Woods, Starbucks, McDonalds, or Exxon Mobile. Maybe it is not only Greek, but also quite “Postmoderist”.

  2. Hi. I have two questions, Georg.

    1. In your view, is there no possibility that the North American moral pathologies you discuss reflect North American misunderstandings of morality (of the details or of the nature of the thing), rather than defects of morality itself?

    2. I think it’s uncontroversial that there are many nonmoral ways in which morality is often not good. For example, it can be bad for the pocketbook, a bad thing to read about when studying for a math exam, a bad way to carry out a crime, etc. Moral cooking might sometimes be worse cooking, or culinarily worse, than some alternatives. Under very special circumstances, moral golfing must be very bad golfing. One could go on. But I suppose these aren’t your points. That is, I suppose you don’t just mean that morality is often worse-in-a-way (as Judith Thomson might put it), worse in one way or another, than many alternatives. That makes me wonder what you mean by “good” when you say morality isn’t. Do you take there to be a “good simpliciter” that doesn’t turn out to be equivalent to “morally good”?

    • to 1) I don’t think morality can be “misunderstood” in the sense that one deems morally wrong what in fact is right (or vice versa) since I do not suppose that morality is the inherent “goodness” of a person or an act, but basically a specific form of communication. In mv view, “morality” is not inherent in the “nature” of things or acts. My core example is: The weather is also not “inherently” good or bad, when we call the weather good or bad we actually do not really say much about the “nature” of the weather but rather impose a specific coding on it.

      to 2). The points you list ARE indeed mine. When I say morality is not necessarily good, I mean it in exactly these ways.

      to 2)

    • On (1):

      If I understand you, you are saying here about nonmoral “good”-talk one of the main things your argument supposes about moral talk, which is that it is empty in some sense.

      For my part, I think the goodness of good weather isn’t intrinsic to the weather; rather it’s a relation between the weather and human interests, or the interests of the conversants; though since we can usually take the relevant points about the latter for granted, we can talk as though the goodness of the weather is just a quality of the weather, and be correct or incorrect in what we say about the weather.

      I have been incorrect about whether the day’s weather is good; and one is often wrong about tomorrow’s weather.

      On (2):

      But then your claim is uncontroversial, for those points are all uncontroversial.

  3. Hi Hans-Georg,

    1 “What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic? That to say that morality is not necessarily good is itself a moral statement. People who say this demonstrate that they are incapable to use the terms good/bad in a non-moral sense.”

    So you are the one saying that “to say that morality is necessarily good is itself a moral statement” and you say that people who say this are incapable of using the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a non-moral sense. Thus you are incapable of using those terms in a non-moral sense. Though an obvious inference, I must be missing something.

    2 Pathology language is an obvious idiom in which to couch amoralist judgments. Yours implicitly refers to a properly functioning quasi-moral system–make that ‘systems’. But can your use of ‘pathologies’ avoid normativity and avoid making prescriptions about what the North American quasi-moral system ought be like? If not, is that problematic for your ends?

    3 Whence the geographical regionalization of moral pathologies? Individuals on a continent surely have individual moral pathologies under some description, but collectively the continent has some? Odd, especially as you’re talking about North America.

    • to 1) To say that morality is good is indeed a moral statment, and thus obviously means: It is morally good. People who make moral statements can hardly exclude themselves from them. E.g. When I say that someone is evil, I can hardly go on saying: But this is üerfectly fine with me. (As Wittgestein explains in his lecture on ethics in a similar way). In Luhmann’s terms, moral language normally implies the “interdiction of self-exemption”. Once you make moral statements, you more or less necessarily take sides an include yourself on the good side–and thus use charge the terms good and bad morally. I however say: It is not necessarily (amorrally) good to use the terms good and bad in a moral way. Again: to make moral statements implies basically the assumption that moral statements are morally good. To avoid moral statements or to say that moral statements are not necessarlly amorally good, allows for the usage of the good-bad distinction in an amoral way.

      2) To call something pathological does not necessearily mean to have a cure for it–like with many diseases. In other words, to identify a disease, does not imply to positively identify a specific prescriptive form of “health”. Health here only negatiovely means simply the absence of a particular pathology. hen I say, it is pathological to smoke, I am not thereby saying what in particular a healthy lifestyle is. In the case of an alcoholic’s self-description as pathological for instance, such a diagnosis may not even imply the desire to change it–and nevertheless be an accurate description.

      3) I am not talking about “continents” or individuals, but about societies, or, more precisiely, communications. Thjis is y no means a “collective” term since I do not think that societies or communication is a collective of individuals or a continent.

    • I don’t agree that “morality is good” has to be a moral statement. For example, a campaign manager might say it to her client as a general strategy recommendation. And a utilitarian who thinks morality is only one of the many things that can be consequentially good or bad might defend her views by arguing that morality (living morally) is (consequentially) good. My own view is something like that.

      I’m inclined to agree with Ryan that using “pathology” does imply some conception of health, however minimal.

      Regarding the “interdiction,” see under #7 below.

  4. Georg (Hans-Georg?), to follow up on a kind of worry your three respondents so far have raised, I want to propose a rough account of morality and moral language, on which account morality seems to me to come out pretty reliably good. Here’s the account —

    ‘Morality’ is a name for this:
    (a) Appreciating that you are one person among others, (b) respecting people (including yourself), (c) caring about people, (d) looking at things also from others’ points of view, and (e) holding yourself to those standards you hope others will hold themselves to.

    ((That isn’t to say everyone who uses the name would grant this account. And what the activities amount to in practice surely depends on whether there is an omnipotent punitive god.))

    Thus to call a person or action or option immoral is to say that it is distinctly at odds with those activities. And on this account of ‘morality’, it is perhaps more important to be concerned with the morality of what you do yourself, especially what you are considering doing, than with the morality of what other people have done, so perhaps (as some moral philosophers these days insist) the main use of moral language ought to be in deliberation, some of which is communication.

    But on the above account of morality, morality is not a specifically linguistic practice.

    Maybe the term ‘morality’ is on this account pretty vague. Still, several factors mitigate the vagueness of the account. For one thing, the activities listed can be done more or less, and toward a wider or narrower range of people. Being moral can vary in those ways too. One can be moral toward this person and not toward that. Further, there are natural limits to how far one can, say, “care about people,” especially as consistent with the other activities on the list. Further, being in a community of people who also do more or less these things may substantially narrow and focus what doing these things amounts to in the concrete.

    One reason to think that morality on such an account is pretty reliably good (at least if the ‘good’ we’re using has something to do with the needs and interests of people in general) is that the less we do those things, the less likely we are to be well-oriented in human affairs, and so the more likely to mess things up if we try anything important. That is, the fairly fundamental cognitive role of these activities makes them pretty essential to practical rationality in human affairs. (Even scientists have to do roughly these things toward the community of scholars in order to be scientifically rational.)

    Aside from asking whether you’ll grant that (A) the rough account above is correct, and (B) on that account morality comes out pretty reliably good, I also want to ask whether (C) the account captures your standards for calling a persistent moral phenomenon pathological (bad).

    • A) I don’t know if the account is correct, but it is not mine. For me, morality is not the property of a person or act, but a form of making distinction, it is a code, so to speak.

      B) On your account, morality may be good, but again, when you call this account (morally) good, then you are using miorality i the way of my account of it, namely as a way of distingishing (between morally good accounts and morally bad accounts) and thereby contradict your own account–which I find good for me but not good for you since it proves me right and you wrong.

      C) No.

    • I did not in fact call my account “good” at all, much less in the sense “morally good.” (I think it’s not very bad!)

      I think usually what one means by calling an account “good” is that the account is pretty accurate (whatever the topic of the account). In some cases one means the account is plausible, or useful; the context can pin down what’s meant. I think it would be odd to call an account “morally good,” even an account of morality.

      I did say there are other, peripheral, senses of ‘morality’, and describe them.

      I did say that morality on such an account would be pretty reliably good. That is, the set of activities described by the account is good.

  5. Hmm. HG, I’m actually not sure whether you’re saying that morality just is a kind of linguistic practice, or just that morality-talk is the only kind of “morality” you’re talking about.

    In my view, the word ‘morality’ sometimes refers to a kind of language-game, or rather a social game in which language plays a large role, as in ‘the morality of the Greeks’; a usage of special interest to skeptics about morality itself. But I think that that is a peripheral use of the term, like the use of ‘physics’ to refer to e.g. the physics of the Stoics. In that use, ‘morality’ is a countable noun. But the use of ‘morality’ as an uncountable noun to refer not to this or that particular morality (game), but to refer to such gaming in general (as we speak simply of “physics,” meaning the human activity and discipline), is, I think, rare.

    I don’t understand what you mean by saying that you take morality to be “an observation.”


    Since your original post responds in part to something I said below it, I’ll try to answer. I said I think morality is part of practical rationality. (I meant practical reason.) If I understand you, you propose that moral discourse tends to work against reason and understanding, and you give an example: (expression of) moral concern pertaining to global warming leads people to understand global warming less well than they otherwise would. Something like that. Specifically, I guess, the idea is that (i) the blame game is a distraction, or that (ii) concern about each other’s behavior leads people to a concern for propaganda, a concern that competes with the concern for truth and justification.

    Regarding (ii), it is certainly true that concern about outcomes can lead us away from truth. Offhand that seems to me independent of whether the concern is specifically moral. I wonder whether you would recommend that people reduce their concern about global warming.

    Regarding (i), the main blame game I’ve noticed in connection with global warming is a minor rhetorical aspect of the diplomatic wrangling over money, which I think isn’t what you’re talking about. Offhand I would think a little more vigorous blaming might increase debate and thus increase and spread knowledge, so long as it doesn’t get bound up with religion or ethnic divisions.

    Maybe neither (i) nor (ii) is what you meant. Your nod in the direction of pragmatism suggests to me that (ii) isn’t your leading worry.

    Hm. I think my account of morality implies that one thing that can tend to make an action morally bad is the obviousness of the damage it would do, and another thing is the magnitude of the (at least somewhat predictable) damage. When the obviousness is large but the damage is small, or vice versa, we are in morally tricky territory. Climate change can be morally tricky in the latter way. But as morality tends to involve respect for scientific consensus on scientific matters, it seems to me offhand that one needn’t understand the scientific details in order to have justified moral concern about what we are doing about the problem.


    Insofar as you have identified real pathologies, I wonder how far they can be ascribed not to the very idea (or expressions) of morality, but to religion, to liberal reticence to discuss morality (letting moral ideas stay unsophisticated), and to other social problems generally.

    • I basically agree with this comment. I think that unlike the scioentific debate about moral warming, the public-political debate is highly morally charged. This makes it necessarily less scientifically valid. I am unable to judge the scientific debate on global warming or even if there is such a debate (some say, there isn’t). I do not feel the urge to ethically side with any of the moral arguments about global warming. I do not see that the scientific consensus (which may well exist) leads to a consensus on what to do about the problem. And here, again, is where moral discourse coms in and rather than being helpful only makes things more complicated, complex, and confused. The very problem is that even if there is a scientific consensus, this consensus does NOT automoatically translate into answers on what to do (legally, politicall, economially, or even scientifically). The helplessness with respect to this void of amswers with respect to “what to do” leads, in my view, only to a lot of MORAL WARMING in additional to the global warming we already face.

    • Oh, I had thought you were saying something different.

      I haven’t myself observed that moral concern does more harm than good in this area. I think the overwhelming fact is the widespread lack of moral concern. If there were more moral concern, I think that wouldn’t be the end of the world!

  6. The account of morality I offered above is in a way not a philosophers’ account. I think it works as a rough account of the thing the philosophers are trying to describe more clearly and elegantly (when they’re not seriously misunderstanding the term, as I think philosophers sometimes do). Also students can’t deny that these activities exist.

    In my previous comment I was too quick to say that the use of ‘morality’ as an uncountable noun parallel to ‘physics’ (the human enterprise, not what that enterprise judges) is rare. I do think it’s rare; but on my account morality-the-judging-game isn’t as neatly divided from morality (the topic of the judgments) as physics is distinguishable from physics, history from history, etc. For morality there are many distinctions one might draw. For example, there’s (a) moral language; (b) moral judgments (whether or not expressed in specifically moral language); (c) broader practices of interaction in which such judgments play a central part, etc. Participation in such practices (involving judging one’s options, one’s previous actions, oneself, common options such as public policies, others’ options, others’ previous actions, others) is, I think, part of morality proper: especially the practices involving judging one’s own and common options. At least, I think a certain amount of deliberate care about whether one is (e.g.) respecting people is in practice necessary for our being anywhere near as (e.g.) respectful as we’re capable of.

    I agree with you this far, HG: I do think it would be a bad idea for society to use a moral vocabulary of general terms like “moral” while not using more specific language rightly recognized as being associated with morality, such as obligation, respect, cruelty, etc. (or while making significant associative errors).

  7. One more thing is puzzling me, HG! You want to challenge the widespread view that morality is necessarily good. But by ‘morality’ here you mean the practice of making moral judgments, and I guess you mean mainly judgments about others. Is there a widespread view that morality in this sense is necessarily good?

  8. I don’t follow that line of thought at all. From what you say above, the “interdiction” hypothesis (IH) seems to be something like this: Whenever Smith expresses a (positive or negative) moral judgment about Jones, Smith thinks Smith is (a) subject to the same basic standard(s) Smith relied on in judging Jones, or (b) not currently violating said standard(s), or (c) going to live up to the standard(s) in future; or (d) something else in that general neighborhood.

    If (IH) is anything like that, I don’t see how it would support the inference you seem to draw here. The inference seems to be this:

    (1) Many people openly hold that that (MNG) morality is necessarily morally good.
    Therefore (2) Despite never saying so, many people actually believe that (JNG) making moral judgments about others is necessarily good.

    (2) as I’ve stated it here is ambiguous in a couple of ways. The less interesting way is that it’s vague as to how many is many. But I take it that when you’re challenging the “widespread” view that morality is necessarily morally good, you mean to be challenging the dominant view on the topic (whatever that topic turns out to be).

    The more interesting way that (2) is ambiguous is that (JNG) is ambiguous. (JNG) could mean (J1) the general social practice of making moral judgments is necessarily good, or (J2) necessarily each particular act of moral judgment is good.

    (J1) seems weak for your purposes. It is consistent with the idea that lots of moral judgments are morally bad things. It is even consistent with the idea that most moral judgments to date have been morally bad things, so long as the institution has great potential.

    But (J2) is not such that many people might believe it. They would have to believe that it is necessarily morally good to express approval of torturing children, and also necessarily morally good to express disapproval of the same thing. That isn’t the widespread view you’re challenging, is it?

    If (J2) is what you have in mind, then (2) is false. In that case, if your inference from (1) and (IH) to (2) is valid, (IH) is false.

    Am I missing some (J3)?

    In sum, in trying to understand what you mean by (2), I can’t think of a version that it seems to me you would endorse, much less a version that could be supported by (IH), with or without (1).

    I have tried to make a formally valid argument using (IH) to support a version of (2), but I have succeeded only by stretching both statements too far. Thus:

    (IHx): Necessarily, whenever I make a moral judgment, I think I’m being morally flawless.
    (2x): Necessarily, I think each of my moral judgments is a morally flawless act.

    (IHx) is radically implausible. And (2x) doesn’t report any view I have about all of my moral judgments, much less anybody else’s. It only reports many distinct views I have, each view being only about the particular acts of moral judgment I am engaged in at the moment.

    • Bill,

      excuse the brevity–after all, it’s Christmas. Our ways or methods of argumentation seem to quite different. So the dialogue is getting problematic. Another problem is that you don’t argue on the basis of my book, but on the basis of my blog responses to you. In any case, the way you represent my arguments formally is often inaccurate. As much as I am aware, I never made any “whenever a then b” statements. In fact, an aspect of my criticisms of moral discourse is that it sometimes tends to make statements in this form and people take take them literally. I think it is particulalry dangerous to make “whenver…then” statements when they are meant to be ethically serious. But I am NOT saying “Whenever one makes a whatever-statement then this is necessarily dangerous.”

    • I think the kinds of problems you point to here are endemic to serious philosophical discussion.

      I believe I have not engaged mostly with your replies to me, though I have indeed not read your book.

      WHENEVERS: My whenevers aren’t quite reports of what you mean; they’re part of my asking what you mean, where I say explicitly that I don’t know what you mean. (I hereby ask again!) None of the worries I present there depends on any difference between “absolutely whenever” and “usually when”. Further, my whenevers above are all in proposed paraphrases of one statement of yours: “Once you make moral statements, you more or less necessarily take sides and include yourself on the good side–and thus charge the terms good and bad morally.” If by ‘once’ you meant “once” (i.e. as soon as and thereafter) and not “whenever” or “usually when,” then I have a much harder time seeing how the statement might seem plausible. Further, the main worry I presented wasn’t that this statement said too much, but the opposite: it said too little to do the work you wanted.

      I gather you’ve written a very interesting book about drawbacks of a variety of main kinds of North American moral judging. I gather that you have successfully demonstrated that much moral judging is bad. I don’t know whether you try to show that moral judging as a general practice inherently tends to be on balance bad. I’ll fudge the difference between these two theses for a while, in the formula “moral judging is commonly bad.”

      I gather that you want to claim, as one philosophical payoff, that a certain philosophical commonplace is shown to be false: the commonplace that “morality is necessarily good.” That would indeed be of great philosophical interest. I gather that this is in a way the point of the title of your book. And I gather–as always, without certainty–that the skeleton of the line of thought is the following:

      a. Moral judging is commonly bad. (from the book)
      b. Moral judging is not necessarily good. (a)
      c. “Morality” can properly only mean moral judging. (premise)
      d. Morality is not necessarily good. (b,c)
      e. It is a commonplace that “Morality is necessarily good.” (premise)
      f. A certain philosophical commonplace is false. (d,e)

      By “skeleton” I mean that I do not claim to have reported or to know all of what you think is necessary for the argument. What would be a fallacy if this were the whole argument may not be a fallacy of the whole argument.


      I agree that there is in fact a philosophical commonplace that morality in the sense of morally right action and/or moral virtue is necessarily good. But I think it is a plain fact that there is no widespread opinion that morality in the sense of moral judging is necessarily good. (There is a half-hearted popular commonplace that moral judging tends to be bad, and there is robust general agreement that there is such a thing as too much moral judging.) The sentence “morality is necessarily good” would normally be meant and understood as meaning that morally right action and/or moral virtue is necessarily good, not as meaning that moral judging is necessarily good.

      So one might think that the skeleton commits a plain fallacy of ambiguity, arguing that since morality in one sense (moral judging) can be bad, morality in another sense (right action/virtue) isn’t necessarily good.

      But the skeleton presented here doesn’t commit that fallacy. It commits a subtler one. It argues that anyone who says “morality is necessarily good” can’t properly mean “morality” in the sense of right action/virtue. She can only properly mean the word in the sense “moral judging.” Therefore she does mean it in the sense “moral judging:” she actually has the view that moral judging is necessarily good. This last inference is the fallacious one.

      Incidentally, we might distinguish many different forms of this fallacy, parallel to e.g. the following arguments:

      (i) Mistakenly thinking ‘cat’ means “dog,” Zhang sincerely says, “I have a cat at home.” But ‘cat’ can properly mean only “cat,” not “dog.” Therefore Zhang thinks he has a cat at home.

      (ii) Mistakenly thinking 100 has an integral cube root, Smith sincerely says, “My friend the mathematician must know the integral cube root of 100.” But while 100 cannot have an integral cube root, ‘the integral cube root of 100’ (sic) is the name of a popular dance club (and of nothing else). Therefore Smith does in fact think her friend is familiar with that club.

      But that’s all I’ll say about the different forms.

      (Now, I think you replied at the end of string #7 to a quick version of this charge of fallacy; but as I have explained in #8, I find the reply wholly opaque. If your book addresses the matter, perhaps you could paste in the relevant paragraphs, or at least report the page numbers.)


      To attack the commonplace, one has to know what it means by ‘good’. We can distinguish several things one could imagine that someone might mean by ‘good’ in the sentence ‘morality is necessarily good’.

      MORALLY GOOD. If she means “morally good” and by ‘morality’ she means “morally right action/moral virtue,” then her sentence is a commonplace because it is a mere tautology.

      GOOD-IN-A-WAY. If her ‘good’ is an abbreviation for a catalogue of e.g. the many nonmoral “ways of being good” that Thomson might distinguish, then there are two main things she might mean by the sentence: (A) Morality is necessarily good in each of the nonmoral “ways,” (B) Necessarily, each instance of morality is necessarily good in some one of the nonmoral “ways.”

      (In string #2 I asked whether your point was that moral conduct is always bad in *some* nonmoral Thomsonian way. I thought you couldn’t say Yes. You said Yes—which would mean that your point was to deny the claim that acting morally is always good in every Thomsonian way. But I don’t think that’s your point at all; both because (a) you’d be attacking something that nobody accepts, and (b) if that were your point, you would be using ‘morality’ in a way you say you don’t use it.)

      GOOD SIMPLICITER. The person who says “Morality is necessarily good” might think there is a goodness simpliciter, at least conceptually distinct from moral goodness, and might mean to say that morality necessarily has that quality. My guess is that people who regard the claim “Morality is necessarily good” as philosophically interesting mainly mean this.

      TENDING TO SUPPORT HUMAN INTERESTS. One might mean vaguely that morality necessarily tends to support human interests and stuff like that, without having any view about whether there is a “good simpliciter,” and without having any elegant explication of the vague notion (such as maximal net pleasure). The view that (A) right action/virtue broadly tends to be good in this vague sense is, I think, widespread; but the view that (B) each right action/virtue is necessarily good in this sense is, I think, a view whose denial is a dominant commonplace. A third possible view is that (C) it is necessarily true that as a broad generalization, morally right actions/virtues tend to be good in this sense. This view might be defensible, and I think it is interesting.

      I find myself tending to imagine that in your cultural argument you use mainly this vague and general “human interests” sense of ‘good’. I don’t have any objection to your using ‘good’ in that sense. But your direct discussion of ‘good’ makes me wonder whether that can be what you mean.


      If the practice of moral judging inherently succeeds in getting people to act morally, then it might be possible to argue for one or another kind of connection between (C) just above and the view that it is necessarily true that the practice of moral judging tends to support human interests. In that case, if (C) were a commonplace, there might be a connection between showing that judging is bad and showing that the commonplace is false.


      If we’re talking about “morality” in your sense (which I’ve been abbreviating as “moral judging” without thinking that I know exactly what you mean) and if the “good” you’re talking about is in fact the vague human-interests sort, then one naturally supposes your substantive argument against the commonplace-sentence is one of these:

      Argument 1: Many instances of moral judging are bad; therefore it is not a necessary truth that each instance of moral judging is good.

      Argument 2: Detailed cultural analysis offers rich support for the view that the whole practice of moral judging, especially judging of others, tends on balance to be bad, or at least does not tend on balance to be good.

      The conclusion of 2 would indeed be important.

      2’s claim involves a comparison with human society lacking the practice of “moral judging,” so that the job of reporting the thesis of 2 to an audience involves teaching us how to imagine that absence: and therefore involves at least saying clearly what one means by that practice of moral judging, what are the boundaries of the practice whose absence’s consequences we are to tot up in historical imagination.

      I don’t myself think of the practice of moral judging as necessarily involving distinctly moral vocabulary. I think maybe you do think of it that way. That might make the task of defining the practice easier for you than for me, at least if you have an independent way of identifying a bit of vocabulary as “moral.”


      Above I proposed a five-part “account of morality.” (You said you didn’t know if it was true, but I gather you think no such account can possibly be true.) On my account, to be moral is to engage in a set of activities. ‘Morality’ in the primary sense is a name for that complex of activities. Now, I suppose you would grant that even if the complex is vaguely defined, it is nevertheless possible for a language to have a word that refers to that complex. So I wonder why, in your view, our ‘morality’ (in one sense of it) can’t possibly be such a word. I completely understand if you have no time for this question.

    • Bill,

      just briefly, sorry: I think the main difference between our two approaches is that you look at morality in form of moral judgments, i.e. from the perspective of analytic philosophy. I, however, look at it as moral communication i.e. from the perspective of social theory. I would agree with your summary a)-f) of my position, if you only were willing to exchange “moral judging” with “moral communication”. I think both approaches are justified and not necessarily incompatible–but nevertheless quite different from one another.

    • Hi Hans-Georg,

      As I wrote just above, my phrase ‘moral judging’ was here just an abbreviation for whatever you meant by ‘morality.’ Using ‘moral communication’ doesn’t make any difference to any of my arguments above.

      (Except on one small point: I wrote, “There is a half-hearted popular commonplace that moral judging tends to be bad” (in the US). That’s true partly because many people use the term ‘judging’ with Matthew 7:1-6 in mind, thinking of communicative acts that are strongly negative; and partly because negative moral communication is just saliently troublesome. If by ‘moral communication’ you don’t mean mainly negative communications, then I think there isn’t a half-hearted commonplace that “moral communication” in your sense tends to be bad. Still, I doubt there is anyone who thinks that engaging in moral communication is always good,morally or otherwise.)

      I disagree with your account of my approach. I’m sorry our efforts at communication haven’t worked out! Your book sounds intriguing, original, and valuable.

    • Hmmm. That review makes me not want to read this book. I do like the quote at the end though: “But I think it is quite possible, natural, and healthy to be an imperfect one [i.e., a moral fool], someone who, most of the time, does not really believe that she knows what is really good or bad, and who does not even use such terms in an absolute sense (p. 187).”

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