I'm Done with Morality

How moral reasoning can fail us when we need it most.

Posted Dec 23, 2020

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder and harder to apply moral reasoning to any situation that actually needs it. So I've pretty much given up on it.

Of course, I still don’t do grossly immoral things like stealing money from friends’ wallets or physically hurting someone. I still try to be kind but am too often thoughtless or self-centered. I try to think about other people’s needs and what they care about, but it’s always at least a bit hit or miss. I tell the truth as often as you do, which is to say, not always.

But it's when a situation is more complicated than those that we rely upon moral reasoning and moral frameworks. And as a rule, the more you need them, the harder they fail.

The real examples that have driven me away from moral frameworks are too personal, so I’m going to make up one that’s fictitious. Here goes:

Coach Ted is a legendary figure in town. For 30 years, he’s coached the kids’ baseball league, rarely leading it to victory, but making the practices and games fun and special for each child, whether they’re superstar sluggers, shy and awkward kids who never hit a ball on purpose, or kids with very special needs. That’s what our community values. I’ve watched all three of our children learn lessons from Coach Ted beyond how to stand at the plate or when to steal home.

But now two women who work for the large accounting firm where Ted is CEO have come forward with serious complaints of sexual harassment by him. He denies everything. All I know is what I’ve read in the newspapers; Ted’s company is large enough that this is not just a local story.

The parents I’ve hung out with over the years at practices have always gushed about how much they love Ted’s way of dealing with the kids; his manner is somewhere between Mr. Rogers and Tom Hanks. But now some of the moms are saying they always thought there might be something fishy about him. He’s made what could be taken as suggestive remarks. The moms have caught him seeming to check out their bodies. And so forth. All plausibly deniable by Coach Ted if they’d confronted him.

Still, even the most suspicious of the moms are surprised at the seriousness of the charges, and they have organized a petition to demand that Ted be removed as coach. They have asked me to sign it.

I don’t know what to do.

On the one hand, I want to support the women bringing the charges: Believe women. I also want to support the moms who feel betrayed and think themselves lucky to have escaped Ted’s predations.

On the other hand, I don’t know enough about what actually happened and I probably never will. And even if I knew everything, I’d still be confused by conflicting obligations. In short, it’s time to call in the moral frameworks.

Philosophy professors (which I used to be) call the two main moral frameworks deontological and consequentialist. The deontological approach says a moral decision applies moral principles to cases: You shouldn’t steal because there is a moral principle that says that it’s wrong to take other people’s stuff.

Consequentialism looks to the consequences of actions: You shouldn’t steal because it will hurt the person you steal from. The dominant flavor of consequentialism is utilitarianism, a 19th-century philosophy that says that an act is wrong if the sum of pain it causes across the entire population is greater than the sum of pleasure it brings.

So, let’s put them to work.

If I assess the situation deontologically, it’s easy to condemn Ted for his treatment of those two women. For example, most of us accept the principle that we shouldn’t treat people simply as a means to our own ends, as Ted is accused of doing. Or we could apply the Golden Rule — do unto others, etc. — which turns out to be a close relative of that first principle. But my issue isn’t whether what Ted did was wrong: If he did was reported, of course it was wrong. What I actually could use some help with are the facts of the case: What did Ted actually do? How severe was the harassment of the two women? None is too much, but a lot is much worse.

Likewise, the consequentialist position doesn’t help me. How much pain will having one more signature on the petition actually alleviate? And if I don’t sign the petition, how much pain will I cause, including my own as my friends get angry at me? (Under utilitarianism, my pain counts but no more than anyone else’s.)

And these two frameworks don’t necessarily come to the same conclusions. Utilitarianism might have me sign the petition so that the women feel supported, but the principle-based view might tell me that it’s wrong to commit my name to a petition if I’m not really sure of the facts of the case.

Then you can stir in questions visiting from related frameworks, such as that of justice and fairness: What would be a fair punishment for Ted? Would being fired from his job be enough? Too much? Should he be stripped of the thing he loves most, thereby depriving the town’s children of the lessons of kindness and acceptance our children learned from him? Should I be a so-called “voice of reason” who suggests that we wait until the company’s internal investigation has concluded? Wouldn’t that make me yet another contributor to the sorry tradition of men telling women to “calm down” and “don’t be so hysterical”?

And on yet another hand — this is a multi-handed moral conundrum — I feel I have some obligation to Coach Ted. He’s been so patient with our children, even when they were going through difficult phases. He’s coached for 30 years for free, never missing a practice for a business meeting or travel, and never once raising his voice to a child. Even when they may have deserved it. (This might be a good place for me to remind you that all of this is entirely fictitious.)

And if I maintain my very casual friendship with Ted — I’ve only ever talked with him at practices and I’ve only ever called him “Coach Ted” — will I be implicitly telling him that harassing women is ok with me? Or that friendships can endure some bad behavior by one of the friends? But how bad? I don’t know, and the frameworks don’t help me.

This just skims the surface of the questions this situation raises. For example, forgiveness is a moral act as well, but since I wasn’t among the people he directly harmed, is it up to me to forgive him?

So, my moral reasoning fails me. I don’t know what to do, and I don’t think I can know what to do.

Still, I have to make decisions. Do I sign the petition? Do I say something to Ted the next time I see him? Without a moral framework that actually answers these questions, my behavior is likely to be determined by avoiding acts that will hurt people, and taking actions that in the immediacy of contact with someone seems like that’s what they need — and that’s true for the moms as well as for my behavior toward Ted. Care about immediate connections seems to guide me most. I am not recommending this approach. I am just reporting on my own state.

But I think it’s not an accident that for me, and I suspect for most of us, our moral behaviors are rooted in this sense of connection to others. That’s at the heart of a relatively new moral framework known as the "ethics of care," founded by feminist women. The ethics of care does not solve all our moral problems, but it reframes them in a remarkable and clarifying way. I’ll talk about that in my next post.