Modern Moral Reasoning

A whole series of things I read recently got me thinking of the subject of moral reasoning. Moral philosophy is not a course I have yet taken in my M.A. studies, but I am already solidly in the broadly Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics that constitutes one of the primary threads of Western moral reasoning. The key question here is "what must I do in order to become good?"

Another major thread is broadly Kantian, and is probably the dominant, although not necessarily preponderant thread in Western societies. The theme of this kind of moral reasoning is autonomy, the idea that our human dignity requires that we be self-legislating in moral matters.

Elizabeth Warren, the author of the Two Income Trap, was nominated to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This greatly concerned Tyler Cowen, who worried that limitations on credit, even clearly risky credit, undermine autonomy.

Steve Sailer points out that the law that authorizes this new agency specifically limits its authority to impose usury regulation. So thankfully, the right to engage in usury remains uninfringed.

This is a good example of why autonomy is a poor basis for action. Autonomy does indeed require that we allow people to enter into any damn fool terms they want to, provided they understand them [which is is pretty much never in the case of the payday loan places that occasioned this]. However, when this kind of thing comes up for a vote, you find that a majority of the citizenry regard this as an obviously bad idea, as when Arizona recently restricted the ability of payday loan businesses to operate.

A recent paper about WEIRD people [Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic] illustrates the disconnect between Cowen et al. and the citizenry.

Research in moral psychology indicates that typical Western subjects rely principally on justice- and harm/care-based principles in judging morality. However, recent work indicates that non-Western adults and Western religious conservatives rely on a wider range of moral principles than these two dimensions of morality (Baek 2002, Haidt & Graham 2007, Haidt, Koller, & Dias 1993, e.g., Miller & Bersoff 1992). Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, and Park (1997) proposed that in addition to a dominant justice-based morality, which they termed an ethic of autonomy, there are two other ethics that are commonly found outside the West: an ethic of community, in which morality derives from the fulfillment of interpersonal obligations that are tied to an individual’s role within the social order, and an ethic of divinity in which people are perceived to be bearers of something holy or god-like, and have moral obligations to not act in ways that are degrading to or incommensurate with that holiness.

Even among Westerners, the kinds of moral reasoning that look to obligations beyond the self are not dead, merely dormant. Metahistory suggests to us that the modern age is ending, and that we will see a return to social dominance of the commonsensical opinion that making high-interest loans to the obviously irresponsible harms the common weal.