John Rawls: Everyday morality isn’t simple to explain

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 8 Comments

A useful comparison here is with the problem of describing the sense of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language.  In this case the aim is to characterize the ability to recognize well-formed sentences by formulating clearly expressed principles which make the same discriminations as the native speaker.  This undertaking is known to require theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge.  A similar situation presumably holds in moral theory.  There is no reason to assume that our sense of justice can be adequately characterized by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles.  A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well.

from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (revised edition), pp 41-42.

I like this comparison, although I think familiar common-sense precepts are more useful for moral theory than the ad-hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge are for syntactic theory.  Telling people not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition does nothing to explain why  “the go store I need” is a sentence of English you’ll never hear from a native speaker.  Telling people to do to others what they want done to them will go some distance to explain why we judge physical assault as immoral in most cases.  Of course that’s just some raw material for a theory.  There’s lots and lots of work to be done after that.

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§ 8 Responses to John Rawls: Everyday morality isn’t simple to explain

  • I actually have a bit of a different take. If you want to know how to get from Chicago to Cleveland I can tell you, if you ask how far it is from Chicago to……, not so easy to answer.

    Liked your about page.

    • paginavorus says:

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t quite understand the connection. Could you say that another way?

      • Sorry, I can be less clear than I think.

        In essence, I don’t necessarily see questions of morality to be as difficult as some might think.

        • paginavorus says:

          Do you mean particular moral judgments, or the general project of accounting for moral judgments? Rawls is talking about the latter. We may have very clear opinions about any particular question of right and wrong, but that doesn’t mean we can give simple principles that fully generate all those opinions. Similarly, we may have very clear opinions about what is and isn’t a normal-sounding English sentence, but that doesn’t mean we can give a simple set of rules that identify any possible sentence as normal English or not. That knowledge is unconscious. The only part we have direct conscious access to is its output in the form of intuitional judgments.

          • I’m willing to learn. Perhaps an example from you would be a learning experience for me.

            My example….Morality is a societal construct.

            Stealing from my neighbor is wrong because

            1. He may return the “favor”.
            2. It creates instability,
            3. It harms productivity.
            4. It is divisive.

            (off the top of my head)

            • paginavorus says:

              These reasons could sufficiently explain why stealing is wrong. Do they explain all the moral judgments you might make? A moral theory needs to do that. To start building one, maybe you could examine these reasons and see if they’re both necessary and sufficient for stealing to be wrong. If you remove any one of them, is stealing still wrong? If so, that one isn’t necessary.

              If they are necessary and sufficient, then you might ask whether they explain the wrongness of everything you consider wrong. I’m guessing they don’t. If they don’t, do they follow from some other reasons or principles such that you could trace them backwards until you find principles that explain all your moral judgments? Or are they free-standing and totally logically separate from at least some of your other moral judgments?

  • I’m on and off, so I may not always respond as quickly as I should.

    Morality is a societal construct, and thus, in the stealing example….yes, it is always wrong to steal from “one of us”, not, necessarily from “one of them”.

    I wrote an article quite some time ago on the subject which I’ll see about importing here.

    Speaking of morality, I’m not quite sure of the etiquette, and thus even if I do and you find the time to read it, I don’t mind continuing the conversation here.

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