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An Accurate Moralometer Would Be Useful, but Also Horrible?

Would you want to try one on your friends, colleagues, or romantic partner?

Key points

  • A "moralometer" —a hypothetical device that perfectly measures moral character—would have great scientific and practical value.
  • Would such a moralometer be dystopian, because one's moral character is private or because those classified as immoral would be treated unfairly?
  • I don't think I'd want to live in a society full of moralometers. But why, exactly?

Imagine, if you can, an accurate moralometer—an inexpensive device you could point at someone to get an accurate reading of their overall moral goodness or badness. Point it at Hitler and see it plunge down into the deep red of evil. Point it at your favorite saint and see it rise up to the bright green of near perfection. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing to have?

Eric Schwitzgebel
a "moralometer" given to me for my birthday a couple of years ago by my then thirteen-year-old daughter
Source: Eric Schwitzgebel

Now maybe you can't imagine an accurate moralometer. Maybe it's just too far from being scientifically feasible. Or maybe, more fundamentally, morality just isn't the kind of thing that can be reduced to scalar values of, say +0.3 on a spectrum from -1 to +1. But set qualms aside for the sake of this thought experiment. $49.95 buys you a radar-gun-like device that instantly measures the overall moral goodness of anyone you point it at, guaranteed.

Imagine the scientific uses!

Suppose we're interested in moral education: What interventions actually improve the moral character of the people they target? K-12 "moral education" programs? Reading the Bible? Volunteering at a soup kitchen? Studying moral philosophy? Buddhist meditation? Vividly imagining yourself in others' shoes? Strengthening one's social networks? Instantly, our moralometer gives us the perfect dependent measure. We can look at both the short-term and long-term effects of various interventions. Effective ones can be discovered and fine-tuned, and ineffective ones can be unmasked and discarded.

Or suppose we're interested in whether morally good people tend to be happier than others. Simply look for correlations between our best measures of happiness and the outputs of our moralometer. We can investigate causal relationships too: Conduct a randomized controlled study of interventions on moral character (by one of the methods discovered to be effective), and see if the moral treatment group ends up happier than the controls.

Do morally good people make better business leaders, or better kindergarten teachers, or better Starbucks cashiers, or better civil engineers? Simply look for correlations between moralometer outputs and performance measures. Voila.

You might even wonder how could we even pretend to study morality without some sort of moralometer, of at least a crude sort. Wouldn't that be like trying to study temperature without a thermometer? It's hard to see how one could make any but the crudest progress.

Imagine, too, the practical uses!

Hiring someone new at your business? Take a moralometer reading beforehand, to ensure you aren't hiring a monster. Thinking about who to support for president? Consider their moralometer reading first. (Maybe Hitler wouldn't have won 37 percent of the German vote in 1932 if his moralometer reading had been public?) Before taking those wedding vows... bring out the moralometer. Actually, you might as well use it on the first date.

But... does this give you the creeps the way it gives me the creeps?

If it gives you the creeps because you think that some people would be inaccurately classified as immoral despite being moral—well, that's certainly understandable, but that's not the thought experiment I intend. Postulate a perfect moralometer. No one's morality will be underestimated or overestimated. We'll all just know, cheaply and easily, who are the saints, who are the devils, and where everyone else is situated throughout the mediocre middle. Your overall moral character will be as publicly observable as your height or skin tone. It might not be your best attribute, but of course, we're judged by height and race too, and probably less fairly.

If you share with me the sense that there would be something, well, dystopian about a proliferation of moralometers—why? I can't quite put my finger on it.

Maybe it's privacy? Maybe our moral character is nobody's business.

I suspect there's something to this, but it's not entirely obvious how or why. If moral character is mostly about how you generally treat people in the world around you, well, that seems like that very much is other people's business. If moral character is about how you would hypothetically act in various situations, a case could be made that even those hypotheticals are other people's business: The HR department, the future spouse, etc., might reasonably want to know whether you are, in general, the type of person who would, when the opportunity arises, lie and cheat, exploit others, shirk, take unfair advantage.

Some aspects of your moral character might be private. It's none of my colleagues' business how ethical I am in my duties as a father. But the moralometer wouldn't reveal such specifics. It would just give a single general reading, without embarrassing detail, masking personal specifics behind the simplicity of a scalar number.

Maybe the issue is fairness? If accurate moralometers were prevalent, maybe people low on the moral scale would have trouble finding jobs and romantic partners. Maybe they'd be awarded harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as others of more middling moral status. Maybe they'd be shamed at parties, on social media, in public gatherings—forced to confess their wrongs, made to promise penance and improvement?

I suspect there's something to this, too. But I hesitate for two reasons. One is that it's not clear that widespread blame and disadvantage would dog the morally below average. Suppose moral character were found to be poorly correlated with, or even inversely correlated with, business success, or success in sports, or creative talent. I could then easily imagine low to middling morality not being a stigma—maybe even in some circles a badge of honor. Maybe it's the prudish, the self-righteous, the precious, the smug, the sanctimonious who value morality so much. Most of us might rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.

Another hesitation about the seeming unfairness of widespread moralometers is this: Although it's presumably unfair to judge people negatively for their height or their race, which they can't control and which don't directly reflect anything blameworthy, one's moral character, of course, is a proper target of praise and blame and is, arguably, at least partly within our control. We can try to be better, and sometimes we succeed. In the world we're imagining, per the scientific reflections above, there will presumably be known effective means for self-improvement for those who genuinely seek improvement. Thus, if a moralometer-heavy society judges someone negatively for having bad moral character, maybe there's no unfairness at all. Maybe, on the contrary, it's the very paradigm of a fair judgment.

Nonetheless, I don't think I'd want to live in a society full of moralometers. But why, exactly?

Maybe it's just imaginative resistance on my part. Maybe I can't really shed the idea that there couldn't be a perfect moralometer and so necessarily any purported moralometer will lead to unfairly mistaken judgments? But even if we assume some inaccuracy, all of our judgments about people are to some extent inaccurate. Suppose we could increase the overall accuracy of our moral assessments at the cost of introducing a variable that reduces moral complexity to a single, admittedly imperfect number (like a passer rating in American football). Is morality so delicate, so touchy, so electric that it would be better to retain our current, very inaccurate, means of assessment than to add to our toolkit an imperfect but scientifically grounded scalar measure?

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