Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Unclarity of Amorality

Scott Hughes, founder of the Online Philosophy Club wrote an interesting article posted in his Philosophy Forum section called The Clarity of Amorality. His basic argument is to avoid the use of moral terms in discussing moral issues, that is not use "moral talk" (or moral-speak as I have called it in the past). I fully endorse such an approach as if one cannot do this, substitute other terms for moral terms, then one is most likely operating with a purely semantic and hence subjective approach. If others do not use or agree to use your moral terms the way you do - a very common occurrence - all that results is a dispute over semantics usually with no independent, hence objective, way to decide which meanings to use. Being explicit about what one means can produce clarity and avoid such semantic games.

However whilst I agree with the intent behind Hughes article it contains a number of significant issues to prevent him achieving his stated goal.
Morality consists of moral values used to judge conduct, events, and people in general. It refers to the way people try to universally categorize human conduct as right or wrong, or good or bad.
Well one is free to define morality any way one wishes, but in order to deal with pragmatic issues that underlay the use of moral talk in the real world four factors must be dealt with: the prescriptive, descriptive,universal and expressive factors. Now different approaches might either explain or explain away, any and all of those features - but all must be dealt with one way or another. So it does not matter Hughes defines morality -anyway he is seeking to avoid the use of moral talk - nonetheless how he deals with these fours factors is crucial in seeing if he has addressed the problem space correctly. Of course, it is not required, although desirable, that I would agree with his answers, only that he has provided some answers for each of these four factors.
For example, when a person says the moral statement, "eating dogs is morally wrong," they might mean the amoral statement, "eating dogs disgusts me." When a person says, "doing drugs is immoral," they might mean, "doing drugs will cause you more trouble than pleasure." When a person says, "breaking the law is morally bad," they might mean, "if you break the law, it will probably result in very unpleasant consequences for you." When a person says the moral statement, "you should go to work on time," they may just mean that amoral statement, "I recommend that you go to work on time."
Is this is what many people mean when they use moral talk? Crucially he has failed to address in any way the universal factor. The descriptive and prescriptive factors are variously covered in the suggestions but where is the expressive factor - the encouraging of recommendations? Without these expressive and universal aspects these amoral alternatives are really amoral and nothing to do with the topic at hand!
Using the moral terms, rather than saying specifically what one means, lacks clarity. When a person calls a certain action immoral, we do not know what they mean exactly.
Well I wholeheartedly support this goal, however the alternatives Hughes presents fail to be addressing what the moral terms could reasonably mean! More examples of Hughes missing the point include:
Do they mean the action disgusts them? Do they mean they dislike it? Do they mean it would hurt them? Do they mean it would hurt the person who does it? Do they mean their religion forbids it? We can try to figure out what they mean by the context, but they can also just specify it by using amoral terminology.
It is becoming clear that far from Hughes advocating a solution to moral speak, he is advocating moral nihilism That it there is no meaning to moral talk - there is no universal expressive/prescriptive/descriptive talk that can refer to anything objective or subjective, it does not exist. As he say in the comments to the post:

'Amoral' is to morality what asexual is to sexuality.

For something to be amoral, that means that it does not have any moral value.
However where is the argument that this meta-ethical view correct?
We can more clearly express ourselves by specifying what we mean in secular and descriptive ways, rather than in general moral terms. Consider giving up morality due to its lack of clarity. Instead of making moral prescriptions, consider making amorally descriptive statements.
It seems to be that because moral talk is unclear he recommends giving it up, or one could, say, one ought not to use moral talk! In his efforts to argue against moral talk, however carefully he does not use the terms themselves, there still exist the the meaning behind all this - that Hughes is making a moral prescription! If as he implies he is making an amoral descriptive statements than he cannot recommend using amoral descriptive statements without contradiction!

It is simply not the case that anyone would find his suggested type of substitutions at all representing what they are trying to express. He is instructing everyone to stop doing normative ethics and just do descriptive ethics but this fails to address the normative issues entirely, they simply do not disappear as result of this, nor can he make such a suggestion without doing normative ethics himself.
Hughes thereby misses the whole point that he is trying to resolve and his argument is self-defeating.