Why Most Moral Theories Are Deficient

I recently wrote a paper entitled “Why Most Moral Theories Are Deficient.” I welcome comments and criticisms. Here’s an abstract:

“In this paper, I present an argument that poses the following dilemma for any moral theory: either reject one or more of our most firmly held moral convictions or accept that non-moral reasons can counterbalance moral reasons and thereby affect the moral permissibility of our actions. Furthermore, I argue that, given this dilemma, we should conclude that most, if not all, of the moral theories currently on offer are deficient in that they either fail to comport with our considered moral judgements or fail to provide us with the requisite account of non-moral reasons and how they affect the permissibility of our actions. I conclude the paper both by suggesting that we take a new approach to normative ethics and by taking the first step in this new direction.”

3 Replies to “Why Most Moral Theories Are Deficient

  1. Hi,
    Since you are seeking comments, I’ll provide some, since I’m puzzled by the abstract. Here are some questions:
    “. . I present an argument that poses the following dilemma for any moral theory: either reject one or more of our most firmly held moral convictions or accept that non-moral reasons can counterbalance moral reasons and thereby affect the moral permissibility of our actions.”
    I don’t see what the dilemma is.
    First, are you saying that for *any* moral theory, if it is true, then some of “our” (whose?!) most firmly held moral convictions are false and/or ought to be rejected? I don’t see why that would have to be the case: although people mean different things by the term ‘moral theories’, one could just build up a theory that was strongly based on “our most firmly held moral convictions” so they are quite immune from any criticisms.
    Second, are you saying that for *any* moral theory, if it is true, then it is also true that non-moral reasons can [and do?] counterbalance moral reasons and thereby affect the moral permissibility of our actions? Again, I don’t see why that would be true, esp. for all moral theories. Some folks, of course, see moral concerns as always “overriding” and it’s not easy to see how one could argue with them to the effect of, “Nope, your own theory implies that moral reasons are not always over-riding!”
    Third, I don’t see how this is a dilema, in the typical ‘If p, then (awful stuff), but if ~p then (awful stuff) too! :(‘ form.
    “Furthermore, I argue that, given this dilemma, we should conclude that most, if not all, of the moral theories currently on offer are deficient in that they either fail to comport with our considered moral judgements”
    * Well, there typically are some bullets to bite with most ethical theories.
    “or fail to provide us with the requisite account of non-moral reasons and how they affect the permissibility of our actions. I conclude the paper both by suggesting that we take a new approach to normative ethics and by taking the first step in this new direction.”
    What’s the new approach? I suspect it would be useful to say more about what you think ‘ethical theories’ are and what people are doing (or should be doing) when they are doing ‘normative ethics.’ That would help set up why it should be done in a different way.
    OK, hope that’s helpful.

  2. Hi Nathan,
    Thanks for your comments. To answer one of your questions, I’m saying that *every* moral theory is faced with the following choice (dilemma?): (1) reject one or more of our most firmly held moral convictions (see the paper to find out which ones specifically) or (2) accept that non-moral reasons can counterbalance moral reasons and thereby affect the moral permissibility of our actions. Now neither choice is “awful.” But I argue that, given this dilemma, it follows that most of the moral theories currently on offer (e.g., utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc.) are deficient in one of two ways. If you’re interested in the arguments or the details, just click on the titled of the paper in the body of the original post. It appears in gray and turns black when you move the cursor over it.

  3. Nice piece. Some frustrating puzzles in applied ethics result from a failure to settle certain metaethical issues first. For example, Singer’s argument that we have an obligation to donate until we ourselves are destitute seems implausible, but difficult to refute. As I see it, the answer lies in metaethics, where we need to work out the relative weights of moral and non-moral reasons. The way to proceed is as follows: we can begin with a means-end conception of rationality. Morality can be given a rational justification, a la Gauthier et al. Morality consists of a set of cooperative strategies for promoting our mutual interests. Of course, while it is rational for us to promote our mutual interests, these are not the only interests we have, and so this approach to morality must recognize that moral constraints are only a subset of rational constraints, and that these other sorts of rational constraints (egoistic constraints, for example) may often outweigh moral constraints.
    If you approach arguments like Singers from a purely normative ethics standpoint, it is difficult to see a way out of the dilemma he gives us. But if one takes a broader view–situating moral constraints within an overall theory of rationality–one can see that moral constraints aren’t the only rational constraints, and that if we are to do what is (instrumentally) rational, moral constraints are only sometimes overriding.
    Anyhow, I have a paper which situates moral constraints within a theory of rationality, and tries to explain (along the above lines) how moral constraints can be overridden by non-moral reasons. The explanation is brief, because I had not fully comprehended the significance of this issue to moral theory.
    A final comment–I apologize if the above comments are somewhat disjointed. I have a one-month old baby in the house, and my brain is only functioning at about 50% of full capacity, due to sleep deprivation, etc. Please be understanding!

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