Introduction and Overview
Gerald Jones has recently published a fascinating article in PhilosophyNow magazine entitled ‘Moral Blind Spots.’ Though the content of his article is multi-faceted (e.g. nodding to topics in transhumanism, historical revisionism, and metaethics) and ultimately addresses the moral imperatives behind veganism and vegetarianism, what piqued my interest was the extended analogy that Jones developed to compare physical deficiencies involving one’s eyesight with moral deficiencies.
They are, verbatim, as follows:
Type 1: Moral blindness – we cannot see what might be wrong, perhaps lacking the necessary facts that would enable us to make a judgement.
Type 2: Moral myopia – we fail to see an issue as a moral issue, perhaps as the result of a distortion in our moral vision.
Type 3: Moral complacency – we don’t look hard enough for what might be wrong, perhaps being overly certain of our own goodness.
Type 4: Moral cognitive dissonance – we can see a contradiction or conflict in our values and actions, but have developed strategies to block this knowledge from our decision-making.
Type 5: Moral blind-eye-turning – we can see that we’re applying our moral principles inconsistently, but we turn away from this as if it isn’t happening.
Type 6: Moral weakness – we can see what might be wrong, but we do nothing about it through weakness of the will.
Type 7: Moral muteness – we can see what might be wrong, but we don’t talk about it (perhaps through fear, oppression, convention, or taboo) and so nothing changes.
Jones further noted that the seven types of moral blind spots can actually be grouped into two distinct categories:
- Moral Blind Spots of Ignorance (Types 1-3): Not knowing and not being able to see that a social practice is wrong.
- Moral Blind Spots of Weakness (Types 4-7): Seeing something as wrong, but being unwilling to change it.
What’s more, Jones identified a particular philosophical work or scholar for the reader(s) to research in order to learn more about that particular ‘moral blind spot.’ For instance, those interested in researching Moral Blindness should consult William Talbot’s book “Which Rights Should Be Universal?” meanwhile those who want to learn more about Moral Myopia should read Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy’s article “How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics” and those who want to study Moral Complacency should read Kant’s work “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.”
Overall, I thought Jones’s article was quite well-written and serves as an important example of creative synthesis of several key ideas in moral philosophy. Too often the norm in philosophy is atomistic and reductionist; we seek to analyze or explain something by appealing to, or breaking something down into, smaller and smaller pieces of the whole and by showing that several seemingly unrelated phenomena can actually be conceptually collapsed into one. Jones bucks this trend by bringing together a more macroscopic view of certain concepts and themes in moral philosophy. With my own undergraduate background in Global Studies (International Relations), I appreciate any approach to knowledge that synthesizes seemingly disparate parts into a coherent whole. And that is just what Jones has done with this article.
However, there is one extremely problematic component of his article that I feel must be addressed seeing as it deals with something very near and dear to my own heart: metaethics. Since I aim to pursue a PhD in the field in the moderate to distant future, I have an obligation to take him to task for one thing in particular. Specifically, Jones does not properly address the varieties, or varied expressions, of moral relativism (or other nuanced aspects of metaethics as a whole).
To be fair, I believe Jones was most likely constrained by a word limit (or a desire to avoid falling too deeply down the rabbit hole, as is often the case with Metaethics). PhilosophyNow is meant for popular audiences; it is a popular publication that is not meant to be associated with (or subjected to) the same rigorous review processes and expectations of a professional philosophical journal. Please don’t misunderstand me: there’s nothing wrong with that! I actually have nothing but the utmost respect for the collective that produces and maintains PhilosophyNow, month in and month out. It’s one of my favorite things to read on the Internet and I believe that the popularization of philosophy is a task for every philosopher, amateur or professional. But the brevity that PhilosophyNow requires of their articles is just something that we need to be aware of from the onset.
Now, not to beat an already-deceased-and-beyond-decomposed horse, but given the inherent flexibility in human language and the divergent use of our various cognitive faculties, no rationally responsible individual should, in this day and age, treat any particular philosophical view, belief system, or argument as essential or monolithic. At its most basic, this insight exhorts us to be careful in our assessments and avoid fallacious thinking whenever possible (e.g. stereotyping, hasty generalization, straw man, etc.).
Beyond that, though, we have to recognize that whatever criticisms or objections may apply to a particular version or form of something (e.g. argument, belief system, view, etc.), they may not apply to all versions or forms of that same something. Different terms or different interpretations of the terms or different causal explanations could be utilized in such a way that the criticisms and objections that one tries to raise will never actually succeed because they attack a straw man by highlighting something (some feature, aspect, element, or component) that is entirely irrelevant or inapplicable. As a result, we lose a great deal of nuance and impetus for genuine discussion when we fail to consider the plurality of possibilities inherent to much of our search for truth. In sum: one size doesn’t fit all.
So, while what Jones says in his article may apply to moral progress and moral relativism as he articulates it, there is much more that can and should be said. In the interest of charitable interpretations, I am posting the excerpt in question below:
“At this point it is important to attend to the meta-ethical elephant in the room – namely the issue of moral realism. We now avoid what we believe to be some of the moral errors of our ancestors, because we can see what they couldn’t: in theory at least, we have abolished slavery, hunted down child abusers, extended rights to everyone, stopped human sacrifices, etc. These positive changes imply that there has been moral progress. The idea of moral progress in turn seems to imply that there must be an objective moral yardstick by which our moral judgments can be measured – which is the position of a moral realist. So the concept of moral blind spots is comfortably compatible with moral realism.
But what if moral realism is incorrect? What if morality isn’t objective, but is instead relative to each society, which creates its own moral principles and rules? Does moral relativism make the concept of moral progress, and moral blind spots, incoherent or irrelevant?
At first sight it might seem so. After all, if morality is relative then there is no external standard which we can use to say ‘our society no longer makes moral mistakes’ or ‘our ancestors were wrong’ (since their morality was right for their culture).
However, the seven causes of moral blind spots I outlined above remain relevant even if there is no objective morality. This is because each type raises practical issues that, if addressed, will improve our judgments, making them more reasonable and consistent. In turn, a moral relativist response to each type might be:
(1) Moral blindness. We can make the effort to go fact-finding;
(2) Moral myopia. We can become clear when an issue is a moral issue;
(3) Moral complacency. As a society we can encourage self-criticism and challenge;
(4) Moral cognitive dissonance. We can attempt to identify and remove any contradictions in our value system;
(5) Moral blind-eye-turning. We can acknowledge hypocrisy or inconsistency, and endeavour to be consistent in how we apply our values;
(6) Moral weakness. We can identify strategies to overcome individual weakness of the will;
(7) Moral muteness. We can talk about moral issues, and create structures and laws that encourage open dialogue.
None of these actions depend on moral realism, but all are actions which, if successful, will lead to progress even from a moral relativist perspective, and make us better placed to overcome our moral blind spots. So whether morality is objective or relative, the concept of moral blind spots is still useful to us in future-proofing our moral framework.”
Up above, I’ve emboldened in red the problematic elements. It is worth exploring them more in-depth. As far as his initial premise goes, I would agree. If morality is objective, then there is a standard measure or definition of what counts as morally right and morally wrong. And this measure/definition, presumably, does not change over time, thereby allowing its use as a static guide for morality. So far, so good.
… If morality is relative, then the landscape changes.
To be clear, we need to differentiate between several fundamental debates within metaethics as a whole. The first of these is moral realism vs. moral anti-realism. Briefly, moral realism holds, among other things, that there exist such things as moral facts and moral values.
Meanwhile, moral anti-realism denies that “moral properties—or facts, objects, relations, events, etc. (whatever categories one is willing to countenance)—exist mind-independently.” This could involve the claim that either (1) that moral properties do not exist at all (e.g. moral nihilism, moral skepticism, moral fictionalism), or (2) that they do exist, but that existence is (in the relevant sense) mind-dependent (e.g. ethical subjectivism, moral relativism, emotivism, prescriptivism).
Next, there is moral objectivism vs. moral relativism (subjectivism). Moral objectivism holds that what is right or wrong doesn’t depend on what anyone thinks is right or wrong. That is to say, the view that the ‘moral facts’ are like ‘physical’ facts in that what the facts are does not depend on what anyone thinks they are. In contrast, moral relativism states that what is morally right or wrong depends on what someone (society, the dominant culture, whomever) thinks. Moral relativism is the idea that there is no universal or absolute set of moral principles.
Finally, there is moral cognitivism vs. moral non-cognitivism. Honestly, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has such a stellar summary that I’m just going to copy and paste it here:
“Non-cognitivism is a variety of irrealism about ethics with a number of influential variants. Non-cognitivists agree with error theorists that there are no moral properties or moral facts. But rather than thinking that this makes moral statements false, non-cognitivists claim that moral statements are not in the business of predicating properties or making statements which could be true or false in any substantial sense. Roughly put, non-cognitivists think that moral statements have no substantial truth conditions. Furthermore, according to non-cognitivists, when people utter moral sentences they are not typically expressing states of mind which are beliefs or which are cognitive in the way that beliefs are. Rather they are expressing non-cognitive attitudes more similar to desires, approval or disapproval.
Cognitivism is the denial of non-cognitivism. Thus it holds that moral statements do express beliefs and that they are apt for truth and falsity. But cognitivism need not be a species of realism since a cognitivist can be an error theorist and think all moral statements false. Still, moral realists are cognitivists insofar as they think moral statements are apt for robust truth and falsity and that many of them are in fact true.”
With that in mind (or at least nearby for quick reference), we can assess Jones’s analysis of moral progress. To briefly summarize the problematic aspect of his analysis: Jones asserts that even “if moral realism is incorrect” and “morality isn’t objective,” then his identification of the aforementioned ‘moral blind spots’ will still be useful (even if no longer, strictly speaking, truthful). The reason for this is that the ‘moral blind spots’ will help us to improve our moral judgments over time by making the latter “more reasonable and consistent.”
First, one can, at least in theory, be a moral realist and a moral relativist at the same time. What’s important to note is that moral realism is a predominantly an ontological claim (i.e. what (possibly) exists) while moral relativism is predominantly an epistemological claim (i.e. what we (possibly) know). This fact demonstrates that they do not need to be analyzed together; they are separable concepts, depending on our intentions and purposes. If nothing else, Jones’s analysis is thus far sloppy and misstated.
Next, in order to defend his claim that ‘moral blind spots’ are not “incoherent or irrelevant” (though he ultimately opts to explore the latter rather than the former), Jones asserts that “Each type [of ‘moral blind spot’] raises practical issues that, if addressed, will improve our judgments, making them more reasonable and consistent.” Initially, there is the criticism that he should have focused on the logical coherence of his analysis rather than its pragmatic use. However, my prior qualification about PhilosophyNow’s audience, word limits, and the like comes into play here.
But even beyond that, he is making some problematic background assumptions about this hypothetical moral relativist society. One cannot simply assume that, even if morals are relative to each society or group, that the rules and principles and beliefs developed therein would be anything even remotely resembling our own systems or understanding of morality. For instance, one society may develop a morality in which moral decisions are not to be made using any kind of intellectual activity (or at least as little intellectual/analytical activity as possible). Instead, individuals are encouraged to “listen to their gut” or to make snap/arbitrary decisions (insofar as that is truly possible). As a result, they have little to no interest in improving their moral decision-making because they place little to no emphasis on moral knowledge (unlike us). Thus, Jones’s moral blindness would fail to be relevant or useful in at least one case.
To be clear, I’ll give two more examples (moral myopia and moral complacency), but I believe relevantly similar examples could be given for all seven of Jones’s ‘moral blind spots,’ thereby strongly undermining his entire analysis.
According to Jones, moral myopia is the ‘moral blind spot’ that has trouble distinguishing moral from non-moral issues (and when one becomes the other). Let us think of another hypothetical society and its morality. For this society, let us imagine that they embrace moral nihilism (to the maximum extent practically and livably possible). In such a society, there would only ever be non-moral issues. As nihilists, they would deny the existence of the moral realm whatsoever. Thus, Jones’s moral myopia would also presumably fail to be relevant or useful in another case.
Also according to Jones, moral complacency is the moral blind spot that results from a lack of self-criticism and self-awareness. To provide yet another hypothetical example, let us imagine a society in which God has given clear instructions about morality’s expectations, duties, obligations, promises, punishments, and the like. They are a Divine Command Theory society in which everything about morality (its existence, knowledge of it, etc.) is determined by God.
Let us adjust our example slightly and imagine that this is a tribal God that is fiercely arrogant and sensitive to anything that could be deemed pejorative or negative. As a result, this God does not care to hear doubts or negative moral judgments or accusatory questions from His followers (or prayers at all). Thus, there is a total lack of regard for self-criticism of the morality in this particular society since this society’s morality is derived from their God and their God prefers a particularly impoverished form of morality. Thus, moral complacency would also fail to be relevant or useful in yet another case.
These hypothetical examples can be extrapolated numerous times and in numerous ways. What’s important to note is that Jones does not need to provide counterexamples to my counter example. That won’t resolve the problem. Rather, he has to admit that there are some strikingly obvious, and quite possibly fatal, counterexamples to his ‘moral blind spots’ such that they will not be relevantly useful (or appropriate) to enhancing our moral decision-making and judgment capabilities.