Another reason to avoid moral terminology in philosophical ethics is that morality functions through the emotions, especially that of anger, of which the primary moral species is blame. The emotions, though they may have some cognitive content, are passions, and in most areas of philosophy it is rightly thought that arguments should be assessed in the light not of emotion, but of calm rational reflection. Blame is not entirely irrational, of course, but as Aristotle says, ‘it seems to listen to reason to some extent, but to hear it incorrectly; it is like hasty servants who rush off before they have heard everything that is being asked of them and then fail to do it, and dogs that bark at a mere noise, before looking to see whether it is a friend. In the same way, spirit, because of its heated and hasty nature, does hear, but does not hear the command, and so rushes into taking revenge’ (EN 1149a).
Moral language, then, including the notions of right and wrong, duty, rights, justice, the virtues, and so on, is best avoided as far as possible in fundamental normative ethics. If someone claims that f-ing is wrong, for example, we should translate that as the claim that there is a reason, perhaps an overriding reason, not to f, and then ask why. If the answer comes in moral terminology, that will need to be translated as well. By ‘demoralizing’ such language we may arrive at what really matter – our reasons for action and what grounds them – and we will also be less likely to be misled by emotion.
The paragraphs above come from the beginning of a paper I recently published on religious pluralism in health care, in an excellent special issue of Bioethics, edited by Justin Oakley, C.A.J. Coady, and Lauren Notini. In that paper, I go on to explain why the case for welfarist demoralizing seems especially strong when dealing with issues such as that of religion in health care, where emotions run high. I also point out that, though I’m primarily recommending demoralization in philosophical ethics, I recognize the instrumental value of a good deal of morality (as I do that of law), and believe that there may be a place for (careful) demoralizing in thought, discussion, and action more generally.
by Roger Crisp
What, then, does ground reasons? Nothing other, I suggest, than the welfare or well-being of individual sentient beings. This is not a commitment to utilitarianism, since welfarism does not imply that the only grounding relation is that of impartial maximization, though I suggest that any plausible form of welfarism will allow that this is one way in which well-being can ground a reason. But there may be others; it may be, for example, that we should give some priority to those who are badly off, or that we should be especially concerned about the well-being of those affected by our own agency. Nor are the only issues here purely ‘ethical’: matters involving, for example, the metaphysics of personhood or the theory of decision are bound also to arise.
(Thanks to the editors for publishing my paper. Further discussion of demoralizing can be found in the first chapter of my book Reasons and the Good (2006) and in another (excellent!) special issue — of the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice — edited by Tyler Paytas, Richard Rowland, and me.)
This may be an odd thing for a moral philosopher to say, but I think that morality is not fundamentally important. In fact, I think it would be helpful if we stopped using, or at least drastically cut the use of, moral language in philosophical ethics, unless we are engaged in some non-normative enterprise, such as describing a particular morality, that of common sense, for example, or of some particular group or individual. This is not because I am some kind of normative nihilist, or rational egoist. I accept that we should do many things that morality requires us to do, such as not to inflict pointless suffering on non-human animals, but not that we should do them because morality says we should. Morality is a social phenomenon analogous to law, and in the case of law also I see no reason to do anything merely because the law requires it.
This is not to say that there could not be fundamental moral reasons. That is to say, morality could be more than a social phenomenon, constituting a set of independent norms which must be characterized in moral terminology. (This picture of morality is analogous to the picture of law in natural law theory, according to which positive law – the social phenomenon – can be assessed in the light of natural laws independent of positive law.) But we should not begin, as so many philosophers have done and continue to do, with the assumption that there are fundamental or ultimate reasons for action the content of which can be captured only by using moral terminology. We should introduce such reasons into our account only if they are independently justified and required to answer our ultimate practical question: what does one have reason to do? One can say, for example, that each of us has an ultimate reason not to inflict pointless suffering on a non-human animal without using any moral terminology. Someone might wish to add: ‘It is wrong to do so, and hence this reason is a moral one’. But since this introduces a whole set of moral notions, and raises many questions about the nature and status of moral properties, the onus is on this person to explain the value of their suggested addition.

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