An Introduction To Moral Criticism

I am somewhat value relative, at least insofar as I believe that the particular values a person holds seems to be a personal decision based on personal thoughts and information. Thus, if someone holds any value - from positive values like "all murder is immoral" to negative values like "people of a different race are inferior" - I do not believe that I can question the validity of that value. I might disagree in some cases and agree in others, but I cannot question any value that another person holds, because there is no basis to do so. It's personal.

But that doesn't mean that all morality escapes criticism merely because it's subjective. I will now outline a framework for valid moral criticism.

I say a moral framework is complete if it can be fully articulated to another individual, who can then use that framework to come to similar moral conclusions in a comfortable majority of cases. Completeness means that any agent making a moral decision can fully articulate his or her moral reasoning in about the same way before, during, and after the moment the decision is made.

Suppose Jones argues that violence is wrong, except in cases of home invasion. Suppose I put it to Jones that a man is a block away from his home and intends to invade it, and Jones agrees that it is moral to employ violence against the intended invader. Here, I criticize Jones' moral framework on grounds that it is incomplete. The mere intention to invade was not discussed in Jones' initial moral framework. Jones revised his moral position only when he had to.

It is obviously difficult to devise a fully complete moral framework that anticipates all possible circumstances. That someone hasn't considered all avenues, and has thus left their moral framework incomplete, is certainly no mark against his or her character. But it is a valid criticism of his or her moral position.

I say a moral framework is consistent if it leads to the same or similar moral positions whenever the underlying circumstances are the same or similar*. I am willing to accept a margin of error here, since no human being is perfectly morally consistent. We can say that a moral framework is consistent if it results in the same or similar conclusions in a comfortable majority if instances involving the same or similar circumstances.

Completeness is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for consistency. If Jones appears to come to different conclusions despite similar circumstances, we cannot say for certain whether Jones' moral framework is inconsistent or incomplete; not until we ask him, anyway. If, on the other hand, Jones consistently comes to the same conclusions, but cannot articulate why, then his moral framework is obviously incomplete. We would not know, however, whether his rules themselves are consistent, or whether he is merely guessing, arbitrarily.

Once again, consistently living up to one's moral framework without ever once falling short of moral perfection is a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do. That we occasionally fail to act consistently on our morals is not exactly inexcusable. (Although, he or she who is most consistent in his or her morals can certainly be said to have higher moral integrity than he or she who is less consistent!) Nonetheless, inconsistency is a fair and valid moral criticism to be made whenever it is demonstrated.

I say a moral framework is accurate if it is both consistent and complete, and if it also performs as intended.

Suppose Jones subscribes to a utilitarian moral case for socialism, and thus believes that government intervention in the marketplace maximizes social utility more than rational self-interest does. Suppose also that Jones is fully consistent in this belief, and that he can fully articulate it. If it can be shown that a policy of government intervention results in less social utility than would otherwise be the case, then Jones' moral position on socialism is inaccurate and has led him astray.

This is fundamentally different than the previous two criticisms because it means that Jones' moral framework functions exactly as designed, but produces results that are different than those intended.

We all occasionally get things wrong on moral issues. Sometimes we stand up for what we think is right, only to discover that our moral position actually made matters worse. As the saying goes, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Once again, it is no mark of bad character if we occasionally hold moral positions that, when put into practice, produce different results than those we intended. Nonetheless, whenever this happens, it is a fair moral criticism to make.

It's important to remember that ethics and moral values are a personal decision. I must reiterate that there is a great deal of subjectivity involved in the particular values a person holds. But our mere holding of a value does not enable us to escape moral criticism. If it can be shown that one's moral framework is incomplete, inconsistent, or inaccurate, then an honest person must come to terms with that criticism and revise his or her moral framework accordingly.

Finally, it is worth noting that this is probably not an exhaustive list of fair moral criticisms. But it is a good start, at least, and should serve to provide a useful introduction to the concept.

* If necessary, we can break this down even further. Circumstances can be defined as material if they are pertinent to the rules contained in the moral framework, and immaterial if not. Then, that framework is consistent if it yields the same moral conclusions whenever the material circumstances are the same. (For the sake of brevity, I ignore the possibility confounding rules such as "Whenever three or more immaterial circumstances change, the circumstances can be said to have materially changed.")