Friday, 11 May 2012

Does moral theory create extremism?

Moral theory is what most moral philosophers spend our time doing. We try to clarify our moral intuitions about things like fairness, freedom, and responsibility and how they relate to each other. We do that by working them out as specific concepts which operate according to consistent and coherent rules (theory). When done well in an academic context this exercise produces not only a private aesthetic pleasure to the philosopher, but also an incremental contribution to the public good of human understanding. But when the same approach is directly applied to our political debates about complex moral issues - like abortion and vivisection - it can easily give rise to extremism.

What moral theory gives us is not ‘the right understanding’ of a particular moral issue, but rather systematic scrutiny of what would follow if we were to take up a particular understanding of one or more of our ordinary moral intuitions. It follows that moral philosophy can produce more than one theory from its basic materials (including families of closely related accounts, like different versions of utilitarianism), and so more than one interpretation of moral issues. Moral philosophers assess these theories and contrast them against each other largely in terms of their theoretical virtues, especially internal consistency, external coherence, parsimony (explaining the most with the least), clarity, and precision. For example, does it contain contradictory claims or implications? Can it give definite and non-absurd answers to difficult cases?

Obviously this exercise bears little relation to how most people's moral lives work i.e. how we actually reason about moral issues and how we experience that reasoning. There is no problem with that disjunction in itself, so long as we understand it. Our moral reasoning is concerned with making decisions, while moral theory is concerned with understanding what it is that our decisions are about. However in this relationship between practice and theory real problems can arise because of the asymmetric authority enjoyed by theorists in any moral debate. This competitive advantage follows directly from what theory is built to do: provide a clear, systematic and bullet-proof articulation of a specific account of our moral intuitions.

Take the cases of abortion and vivisection. Most people wouldn't be able to provide upon demand a definitive systematic and coherent position on these. But that doesn't mean that imposing theoretical clarity is helpful. In fact it tends to create what I call ‘moral extremism’ which combines a narrow perception of an issue in black and white terms with a structural inability to consider it from any other perspective.


Most people think abortion is a bad thing, but are prepared to admit that there are worse things. What one sees in people's ordinary thinking on the subject is a tangled bank of moral intuitions and concerns, including about personal responsibility; case context and history; the general moral character of the person(s) involved; a woman's safety and quality of life; the well-being of the child if it were born; long-term and indirect consequences for the kind of society we live in; and the role and limits of law with respect to ethical decision-making. We perceive many rights, wrongs and maybes around the issue of abortion, and the way we come to moral judgements about it is therefore highly idiosyncratic and contextual.

Moral theory provides a way to bypass that chaotic jungle of moral thinking and arrive at definitive principles about which aspects to consider and how to weight them in any case. Theories are able to give consistent answers to questions because they are set up to assess questions in the same way every time. In other words, any good (logically coherent) theory has its conclusions baked into its assumptions. And they are able to give precise answers because they only consider certain information. To put this another way, theories introduce clarity to moral reasoning by excluding most of our prima facie relevant moral concerns and intuitions from being counted (cf Amartya Sen). In academic usage this kind of ceteris neglectis clause ('all other things are negligible') can serve an epistemic function similar to that found in scientific theorising, since it allows different features of our complicated moral world to be studied in isolation. By pruning back the moral undergrowth one can see how particular 'plants' may develop if they are left to themselves.

Yet when used in political argument the ceteris neglectis clause takes on a different and exclusionary character. The debate in America between 'pro-lifers' and 'pro-choicers' can be seen as an outcome of just such an exercise in moral theorising - that is, the employment of the moral theorising style, absent the presence of actual moral philosophers. The result is an impoverished moral vocabulary, callousness, and divisiveness. One side says that:

A foetus is a human being 
Killing a human being is murder
Therefore killing a foetus is murder

The other side says, more or less, that:

Women have sovereignty over their own bodies
A foetus is part of a woman's body
Therefore women have the right to abort their foetus.

This kind of logical argument, in which the conclusions are simply rearrangements of the axiomatic moral intuitions, has a certain authority. The conclusions are clear; the issue is black and white. The bemusing feature is not that these arguments are based on false intuitions, but that, by opting for the rigour and clarity of a moral theory approach to the issue (albeit an extremely crude version of this that professional moral philosophers would protest), other seemingly relevant aspects are systematically excluded. For example, we have intuitions both that a foetus is a human being and that it is a part of a woman's body. These theoretical arguments don't give us any guidance about how to reconcile these different intuitions. They just assert a binary relation: one intuition matters totally and the other doesn't matter at all.

Such a narrow informational base gives a theory tremendous scope. It can be applied to many different ways of framing the morality of abortion issue and it will always give the same answer. Of course it does - it simply ignores all the contextual information we try to add. That is why many theoretical pro-lifers feel they must oppose abortion even in cases of rape or incest. It's also why theoretical pro-choicers feel they must support a woman's right to choose in all circumstances, even if that choice takes on a consumerist character or if abortion appears to be being used as a form of contraception. All such features are deemed irrelevant to the central issue ("life" or "choice") and so are excluded from any consideration by the structure of the theory.

It should be obvious that most ordinary people do not subscribe to either of these theories, though they may yield to their force in debate. Furthermore it is questionable how much they help people in their actual moral decision-making about either the general issue or their own personal choices. (For example, there are many reported cases of theoretically devoted pro-lifers having abortions while still remaining convinced that it is wrong.)

Nevertheless these two theoretical camps dominate the moral, political, and legal public debate about abortion, despite the fact that they are, by construction, mutually exclusive. Proponents of either theory are structurally unable to see the other side's point of view because their accounts can assign no value or place to each other's central moral intuitions. The public 'debate' that results from this theory-driven extremism rather resembles a shouting match across a chasm than an effort at intellectual engagement.


Vivisection is another case in which the 'muddled' intuitions of most ordinary folk are at odds with the tight theoretically organised arguments of activists. Most people think harming animals is a bad thing, but consider that other things, such as saving human lives, can be more important. But the vivisection debate is dominated by extreme theorists who abjure such muddle-headedness in favour of strict clear principles.

Anti-vivisectionists tend to see all use of animals in testing as cruel and therefore wrong. They make no distinction between mice, cats, and primates. Animal research scientists see all use of animals in testing as instrumentally justified and likewise see no distinction between different kinds of animals. Because of the theoretical positions taken by both groups, important distinctions that 'ordinary' people would consider relevant are entirely excluded and cannot even be articulated.

Ordinary people care whether experiments are genuinely undertaken in order to cure or ameliorate significant health problems for human beings or are really fishing expeditions looking for an exciting publishable result to benefit some academic career, or for a marginally beneficial pharmaceutical product that will boost some corporation's bottom line. We care about minimising the degree of discomfort each animal endures, because we care about their well-being - we never stopped caring about that even though we seemed to endorse 'the principle' that we can use animals in experiments. In other words we are concerned about what the moral rights and wrongs of the case add up to, not which abstract theoretical account to sign up to once and for all.

From either theoretical position the question of which animals we experiment on is irrelevant. Yet we ordinary folk do pay attention to such distinctions because we don't endorse either a systematically theorised human-first or all-sentient-beings-are-equal moral position. So we don't want experiments on primates, but also not on companion animals like cats and dogs. Primates are too similar to us - evolutionarily, physiologically, and cognitively - for it to seem right to sacrifice them without a very very good reason. Companion animals have been bred for millennia to love us. To put them through such a horror feels morally abhorrent - a betrayal. Yet it's hard to explain this to someone armed with a theory. They tend to sneer and say you're just being sentimental.


Most people's moral lives are full of implicit contradictions, but this should not be mistaken for a great buzzing blooming confusion that should be swept away in the name of theoretical clarity and rigour. Moral theorising is a philosophical tool that is easily abused outside of academic inquiry.

When we try to subsume the practical domain of morality into moral theory by clearly defining the principles that count and binding them together in certain fixed constellations, we excise a great deal of actual moral life. We forget our responsibility to get to grips with the actual moral complexity of  real-life, and instead consider such issues in the straightforward simplified form revealed by looking at them through the narrow lens of a particular theoretical account. We lose our ability to articulate and incorporate concerns that don't fit easily into theoretical frameworks, like our moral sentiments, and we even lose our confidence that these sentiments count as moral ones at all. We find it harder to talk through our moral decisions with others in our moral community, as the requirements for public discourse become narrow and formal, and that reduces our own individual ability to think through moral issues.

Moral theory can play a helpful role in public life. For example it can identify important moral contradictions deserving of public reflection, such as between a shared commitment to the principle that 'All men are created equal' and institutions of slavery and misogyny. Here it functions as an open challenge to the public to reconcile its practises and moral self-understanding. Yet its crude use in the hands of activists can promote an unhelpfully closed and narrow - dogmatic - thinking on complex issues. At the same time, the authority provided by rigour and clarity means that theorists tend to dominate public debate and thereby exclude the non-theorised opinions of the great majority. The combination of these features leads all too readily to the institutionalisation of polarised political factions whose representatives demand that you choose a theory. The resulting democratic debate has little space in it for genuine public deliberation: the winning arguments are decided in terms of the number of followers ('votes'), not the quality of the moral reasoning.

Daniel Townsend has written a severely critical analysis of this essay over at The Townsend Acts. I've edited my original post slightly to clarify my argument in response to his points.


  1. This is a very well written piece. I think it really highlights a major problem we have in modern political discourse... namely, how to have constructed debate aimed at creating greater consensus. Currently, we tend to view issues such as abortion as a battle between two extremes, where the victory of one side is the defeat of the other.
    Unfortunately, people like having clarity even if it means extremism. People are fundamentally uncomfortable with their muddled intuitions and inherent contradictions. We like to be able to state clearly WHAT we believe, and WHY. For this reason people adopt clear-cut moral theories. We are more likely to try and bend our moral intuition to the theory than to re-examine the theory or admit its limitations.

  2. The market for moral theory like any other product demands crisp formulation and attractive packaging. The unintended consequence is moral extremism. It is similar to using specific application solutions to broad spectrum questions and insisting that the questions be constrained to suit the solutions.

    It seems to happen in all spheres of life. Off the shelf point solutions are used for general well would be like using aspirin for happiness.

  3. The "theorizing" of most extremists is about an inch deep, and the contradictions easy to point out. You may do an injustice to your field to say it somehow is responsible for that. The pro-lifers, as example, are not coming out of philosophy departments, but out of churches. Extremists want to have the appearance of having theory on their side. Of course. But like Sanjay Negi, I see that as a marketing message.

  4. Very nice unpacking of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s statement that “the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.“ The problem is that reality is fractally peculiar---that is, at every scale and in every dimension, we see unique entities in unique situations. Trying to encompass this teeming, restless multitude with a few general statements and principles is difficult enough in physics, but when it comes to the vagaries of human culture, in which different peoples at different times accept different moralities, it's hopeless. Matching general principles to the peculiarities of particular situations is always going to be difficult and non-algorithmic and it will always involve tradeoffs.

  5. Christian Roth19 May 2012 at 20:42

    In conclusion, no, moral theory does not "create" extremism. Moral theory--critical reflection on principles--is our best hope of bringing order, appreciation of nuance, and full self-consciousness into the reasoning processes of the moral realm--that is, the realm of our evaluations, preferences, and preferments as they relate to human conduct. To say that theorizing per se leads to a want of nuance and thus extremism is incorrect. It really depends on the quality of the mind doing the theorizing. I also don't think the author should worry too much about abusing his authority as a theoretician. The last thing moral philosophers need worry about is their undue influence on the citizenry.

    What theoretical reflection/analysis does is first of all to show how instinctive and passion-ruled that process is in people who do not know how to think critically about their own assumptions. In other words, it brings enlightenment concerning our mostly pro-visional pre-conceptions or prejudices and extremism. It does this, in part, by isolating the factors that are truly relevant to an issue. In that sense filtering our distracting nuances is essential.

    The distinction between ad hoc analysis of such evaluation and the real-life, real-time, visceral-emotive, and existential context in which the decisions that end moral reflection, such as it transpires in your average American consumer, is crucial. Philosophy always arrives after the facts/events of moral life have transpired. If there is any danger in philosophical reflection it is that, in seeing both sides of any issue one is rendered incapable of actually choosing--that is, of being partial. To resolve one way or another necessitates a kind of dogmatism, a decision to stop analyzing and weighing nuances impartially in order to choose in media res one way or another; to cast one's ballot. Such partiality seems the least philosophical thing of all. The danger of theoretical reflection is not extremism but skepticism, relativism, and the suspension of judgment. It is to enter a realm "beyond good and evil" as the all-too-human. But the realm in which normative decisions truly matter is the political realm, not that of ataraxic privacy.

    1. Theorising is indeed an excellent tool for critical reflection, which is how moral philosophers (should) use it. But my concern is about when theorising is used for polemical purposes in the public sphere. It is in that domain that I think it goes wrong.

    2. In conclusion, no, moral theory does not "create" extremism. Moral theory--critical reflection on principles--is our best hope of bringing order, appreciation of nuance, and full self-consciousness into the reasoning processes of the moral realm--that is, the realm of our evaluations, preferences, and preferments as they relate to human conduct.

      Gee. One wonders how all of those societies not structured by moral theories manage to avoid total collapse.

      Also, in case you hadn't noticed, modern moral theory currently has the opposite effect of what you describe: there is zero agreement on what, as you put it, is a "relevant" response and what is merely a "distracting" one.

      Annette Baier put it best: "They come to our introductory ethics classes with some questions in their minds about the rationale for their moral beliefs. We offer them a variety of rationales, and a correspondent variety of decision procedures, no one of which may justify all their pre-philosophy-course moral beliefs. By then they are thoroughly confused. To the variety of cultural traditions we have added, crosscutting that, a variety of "rational" procedures, each backed by a theory. A better recipe for moral cynicism could scarcely be deliberately devised."

    3. I think you're onto something there. I see a lot of students graduating with a bachelors in philosophy who are unable to say what ethics is or what they themselves believe, but are adept in the casuistic use of moral theory to win arguments. But I don't see that in those who go on to graduate studies and beyond. I think the problem is that a little bit of theory can do a lot of harm.

  6. Interesting article. My one comment would be that you seem to posit the extremism of those trying to forbid all women from having abortions and those trying to let all women have access to abortions as equal. I can't see that the two positions are comparable in their extremism. If you were actually referring to forcing women to carry to term with an outside authority forcing abortions in order to control certain populations, then I could accept the comparison. You may have been, but I wasn't sure. The other problem with the comparison is that there is no clarification as to how many people belong in each camp. As a former anti-choicer, we used staw-men arguments to create the illusion that we were the few righteous Davids fighting the many Goliaths that were trying to trick or force women into aborting. It wasn't based on reality.
    Have you read this article?

    1. I think you misunderstood my point. I define extremism as the combination of "a narrow perception of an issue in black and white terms with a structural inability to consider it from any other perspective", not, as it is often used, being on the wrong side of an issue.

  7. Excellent post. Keep up the good work! I am even more sympathetic to common sense intuition than you are: I think that his total non-understanding of socially embedded moral psychology leads the theorist to see arbitrariness where there is in fact a nuanced and sensitive system of responses. Put another way, a person whose emotional/intuitive responses were completely in line with a single modern moral theory might be something of a monster, or at least very strange and anti-social in certain respects.

    Thus, I am not at all convinced that ordinary psychology needs moral theory to provide "order, appreciation of nuance, and full self-consciousness", to quote Christian Roth's breathless exhortation. I think that ordinary people need to know more facts, not to have their evaluative responses straightened out by absolutists.