In my last post I wrote:
Only political ideals can be judged morally. The construction of a political system is a matter of science (political, legal etc…), not of morality. For example, whether to have a presidential system, or a parliamentary system; whether the tenure of elected representatives should be 4 years or 10 years; whether copyrights should be granted for 20 years or 50 years; whether the minimum voting age should be 18 years or 21 years; etc.. are not moral questions.
Is such a distinction – moral vs “scientific” (for lack of a better word to describe judgement that is not moral) – valid? What is it that makes a particular question, a moral question? What is the use of making such a distinction?
Consider some examples of what I would regard as moral questions:
- Should I have definite goals (short term and/or long term) or just live life as it comes?
- Should I choose my own happiness or other people’s happiness as the purpose of my life?
- I do not approve of something my friend did. Should I voice my disapproval?
- A guest forgot something at my house. Should I return it?
Consider some examples of what I would regard as “scientific” questions:
- Should I buy a new computer next week or next year?
- Should I use Windows or Linux?
- Should I rent an apartment or buy one?
- Should I buy a newspaper or use the internet?
There is nothing about the questions themselves to justify a distinction. Both kinds of questions are about choice, both can be answered objectively – with reference to facts as one sees them, both can be easy or difficult to answer, both require the same method to reach an answer – analyze the relevant facts and make a value judgement. And yet it is quite clear to me that there is a distinction. What is it?
The distinction is in my understanding. As I integrate facts, I form certain principles to help me form my value judgements. As I observe newer facts, I validate these principles and identify contexts within which they apply. If a particular question can be answered by the direct application of a principle I have already validated, I regard that question as a moral question. This means that when I classify a particular question as a moral question, I already have an answer to it and I am certain of my answer. However, if the context implied in a particular question is extremely narrow, I will not have any single principle which I can use to answer the question directly (because I only form or retain principles which apply to broad contexts as a matter of economy). I would regard such a question to be a “scientific” question. By analyzing the relevant facts, I might eventually reach an answer to such a question. I might also be certain of my answer. But that certainty is not relevant to the distinction. The question remains a “scientific” question until I formulate the answer directly in the form of a principle.
This distinction applies even if the principles I have accepted are not based on a complete rational understanding, but are accepted unquestioningly from the culture or from faith. As long as I accept a principle, I will regard any question that is directly answered by it as a moral question. As my understanding improves, it is possible that a question that was once a “scientific” question (for me) will become a moral question. Also, should I discover that some principle that I had previously accepted is incorrect, a question that was once a moral question will become a “scientific” question. A moralist (someone who has firm principles about several issues) will regard a lot of questions as moral questions. A pragmatist (who shies away from all principles) will regard most of these questions as “scientific” – to be resolved by trial and error, by an approach of whatever works.
Why is the distinction useful? By considering the questions a particular person regards as moral or scientific, I can understand what principles he accepts or does not accept. If there is a particular question that I regard as moral but he does not, it means that there is some principle which I accept but he doesn’t. If we are to have a constructive debate, the subject of the debate should be the relevant principle and not the particular question. As a case in point, I believe that government bailouts are morally wrong. Someone (and there is no dearth of such people) believes that bailouts are necessary to “save the economy”. Instead of arguing about how a particular bailout will affect the economy, the argument should be about how a bailout is unjust and why injustice can never be practical, with the bailout as a mere example.
This distinction is useful even when I deal with people with whom I share basic principles. When I deal with such a person, I can safely assume that we will agree on moral questions. But we may well disagree on “scientific” questions. The disinction helps me predict where we can expect to agree.
Filed under: Concepts | Tagged: Judgement, Morality, Principles, Science | 10 Comments »