[lit-ideas] The universal applicability of moral judgments

  • From: Eric Dean <ecdean99@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 18 Nov 2008 17:09:51 +0000

While I think I understand the sense in which moral judgments can be 
characterized as universal assertions, as Walter has been emphasizing, I think 
that there's at least some cogent reason to wonder whether that might not just 
be so much the worse for moral judgments.

Walter uses as an example: "Teachers ought to respect the autonomy of their 
students."  I think that is as clear an example of a universal assertion, and a 
moral one at that, as one could ask for.

But precisely because it's a *moral* assertion, and not, say, an assertion 
about mathematics or theoretical physics, I think one can legitimately ask how 
to apply it without thereby betraying a hopelessly benighted relativism.  
Morality is intrinsically an applied branch of knowledge, as it were.  A moral 
principle whose application is completely opaque wouldn't seem to qualify as a 
moral principle.

So now for an example that raises a question about the universal application of 
Walter's example.  In the military, a drill sergeant's job would seem to 
qualify as "teaching", but it notably would not be thought of as "respecting 
the autonomy of their students".

I think the choices at this juncture are fairly simple and clear -- either 
Walter's assertion needs to be qualified, or the notion of 'universality' needs 
to be qualified, or the drill sergeant needs to be excluded from the class of 

Or take another example.  The college chemistry professor has her students 
doing a lab experiment with some potentially very dangerous chemicals.  She 
sees one of her students about to do something that could blow up the lab and 
everyone in it.  She immediately grabs his wrist and pulls it away from the 
valve he was about to open.  At that moment it would appear she did not respect 
the autonomy of her student, within the meaning of Walter's putative maxim.

Again, I think the choices are fairly simple and clear -- either the universal 
assertion needs to be qualified, the notion of universality needs to be 
qualified, or the roles the professor and student are playing in the lab need 
to be defined so their encounter no longer constitutes a potentially relevant 

My point is that I do not see how one can distinguish *moral* assertions from 
their interpretations in the way one can meaningfully distinguish mathematical 
assertions from their interpretations (vide the corpus of mathematical logic).  
Because the interpretation of moral assertions inevitably involve potentially 
endlessly qualifiable circumstance (life being as messy as it is), I don't 
think the notion of 'relevantly similar' is the obvious, transparent notion 
Walter seems to think it is.

The distinctions in law, plagiarism and semantics that Walter cites as 
illustration for our ability to recognize 'relevant similarity' seem to me far 
from perspicuous.  The distinctions Walter cites -- between 1st degree murder & 
accidental homicide, between copying another's work and coincidental 
independent creation, and between the meanings of each word in various pairs of 
related but distinct words -- all operate within realms in which the space of 
possibilities is established in advance and the question is which of a pair or 
group of correlated attributes applies, given that one of them must apply 
(someone's dead by another's hand, so the law presumes the events fell under 
one of a list of possible headings, murder 1 and accidental homicide being two 
on that list).

But in the case of a moral maxim like "Teachers ought to respect the autonomy 
of their students" the questions of who's a teacher, who's a student, what's a 
student's autonomy and under exactly what situations should it be respected are 
all very relevant, legitimate questions about the *meaning* of the maxim.  
Unanswered, the maxim is, I submit, a bit of idle pedantry with no 
applicability in the world.  But as one goes to answer those questions, the 
maxim's universality starts getting qualified.

As a guide to thinking about action, as, in other words, a suggestion about 
where to look in resolving practical dilemmas about teaching people, Walter's 
maxim seems very useful.  In fact, I make an effort to apply it myself just 
about every day.  In my current job I'm 20+ years older than just about 
everyone on my staff...  

But to call it a universal maxim is, in my opinion, to crush that usefulness by 
demanding subservience to an order whose relevance may not be readily 
discernible.  For example, I think one could make the case that the teacher who 
grabs the foolish student's wrist before he blows up the lab was in point of 
fact respecting the autonomy of the student in the circumstances -- there 
wouldn't have been a student with any autonomy to violate or respect otherwise. 
 But one could also make the case that such a situation simply represents an 
exception to the maxim.  

I don't see the point of insisting on either interpretation, except as a form 
of coercion intended to preserve some order or other.  And I don't see what 
insisting on the "universal applicability" of moral judgments can mean other 
than to insist on one of those styles of interpretation.

Useful guides are just that, useful guides.  They're not laws like the laws of 
physics or the axioms of mathematics.  Kant's categorical imperative, imho, is 
a useful guide, in just this sense, not a universal law.

Regards to one and all,
Eric Dean
Washington DC 

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