Toward A Better Foundation For Morality

In Liberalism: In The Classical Tradition, Ludwig von Mises writes, “Everything that serves to preserve the social order is moral; everything that is detrimental to it is immoral.” For my money, this represents the clearest, most concise way to frame the notion of of morality as a social institution.

Recently, fellow Sweet Talker Samuel Hammond elaborated a bit:

For my part, I think ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norns that you can call trancendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.

I don’t know the extent to which Samuel agrees with Mises, but his statements seemed consistent with the “liberal-subjectivist” interpretation of morality Mises seemed to describe in his oeuvre. In short, our notions of right and wrong change with the times, and with the circumstances. Something once considered immoral is today anything but (think casual sex); something once considered common practice is now considered utterly heinous (think child brides). Morality seems to flex and change with the society experiencing it, at least according to Mises’ view. And even if Hammond himself looks at ethics differently, it’s not controversial to suggest that what I’ve just described is a view widely held by many people of many different political and philosophical persuasions.

Still, problems arise with this point of view. Here’s a big one, for example: Suppose you were a slave in 19th-Century America. Then, for you, your position in society and society’s treatment of you is perfectly ethical – even though you know quite rationally and reasonably that this cannot be the case.

For an ethicist like Mises, slavery is perfectly ethical until the social order evolves; then, we need to change the ethics to serve the new social order. If the new social order happens to enslave you, well, that’s just tough cookies. Better luck next social order; today, your beliefs about human equality are immoral.

Subjective Ethics: Alternatives To

I’ll readily admit my bias here: I don’t think a world in which social orders allow us to enslave each other until such time as a new social order comes along is a particularly ethical world. I have a bias in favor of liberating the enslaved and oppressed. I think human beings are capable of a better system of ethics. Unfortunately, many of the alternatives pose problems of their own.

One alternative, for example, is deontological decree, i.e. the word of god. The appeal here is obvious: god is perfect, surely his system of ethics is a pretty good one. But deontology poses two main problems for people like me.

The first is that, if I don’t believe in the particular god making the decree, then for me the system is identical to the “liberal-subjectivist” scenario described above. In other words, if your god happens to decree that my daughter can be made a child bride, and I object, that’s just too bad for her and me. To object is to contradict god’s will, and only evil (unethical) people do that.

The second problem with deontology is that, as a purely empirical matter, it tends to be absolutely miserable in practice, leading to ethical catastrophes like the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Taliban, “honor” killings, caste systems, and so on. Deontology is so atrocious in practice that almost no one thinks it’s a good idea anymore, not even most theists.

Another possibility is utilitarianism, a favorite among rational types and academics. Calculating the choice that results in the most net total (subjective) happiness is an attractive proposition because it gives us a way to apply objective thinking (economic models and the like) to legitimately subjective questions. It’s a democratic approach to ethical problems. Here again, however, I spot two primary problems.

The first I shall illustrate by repeating an example I read in Steven Landsburg’s excellent book, The Big Questions. While he tells it better than I do, the example in my words goes something like this: Suppose everyone in the entire world were experiencing a dull but perpetual headache which could, for some strange reason, be stopped by killing a single innocent man. According to Landsburg and most other utilitarians, unless that man happens to be a Utility Monster, the right ethical choice is to kill one man in order to spare the rest of the world a mild headache. The moral of the story is: Don’t be the guy.

Still not convinced? Then what if I called that one guy “the guy with slightly darker skin and a comparative advantage in picking cotton?”

Aha, there it is. We’re back to the same scenario I laid out at the outset of this blog post. If your utility happens to be in the minority, too bad for you. Under utilitarianism, the enslavement or murder of any person y is theoretically justifiable, so long as we can buttress the case with a utility function U = ∑(xi,y) for sufficiently large i.

Virtue Ethics, a favorite among Sweet Talkers – myself included – seems to work really well on an individual level, because it affords the moral agent a means by which to reason through the ethical ramifications of a particular dilemma and arrive at a strong conclusion that reflects the totality of one’s moral code.

Adam highlighted a couple of substantial problems in a previous post:

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

So, one weakness of virtue ethics is that it means our moral worth might depend on our ability to rationalize our virtue rhetorically. Anything goes as long as we can make a good argument for it, nothing is moral unless it can be argued-for. Then, another weakness is that, in a liberal democracy, we still end up putting it up to a majoritarian vote. The result is… yep, the same scenario I described at the outset of this blog post.

A New (?) Proposal For What Makes Something Moral

Is there any better standard upon which to found our systems of ethics, something that performs a little better than the ones I’ve described thus far?

I think I might have one: mental health. Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

For example, slavery is universally bad for every society in every time period, since no one could argue that being enslaved results in anything other than a mental health tragedy for the victim; furthermore, I could easily make the case that slave-ownership is corrosive to the mental health of the owner, too. The fact that slavery fails my moral test for both the victim and the perpetrator, by their own internal and subjective standards is a major advantage, to put it lightly.

The test performs equally well for minor ethical dilemmas. For example, lying is shown to be wrong not just because “society deems it so,” nor because “honesty serves the greatest good for the greatest number,” nor even because honesty is virtuous. Rather, lying is immoral because your life will be miserable if people don’t trust you, you won’t be able to live with yourself if you consistently betray the trust of others, and everyone else will be miserable, too. As for “white lies,” the mental health test shows us that uncouthly stating whatever you’re thinking in the name of total honesty is closer to a pathology than a virtue; if you can’t be sensitive to others’ feelings while telling the truth, then you might need to improve your mental health.

This seems intuitively true to just about everyone. On some level, we all know that it is only very weird people or people in a state of dire mental health who give no consideration to the feelings of others, and merely robotically act in a prescriptively “moral” fashion.

At the same time, the mental health test arms us against the prevailing attitudes of an oppressive mob. Society at large might tell you that it’s moral to force you to marry an old man or a first cousin – but if you know that it’s wrong for your mental health, then you have the moral authority to say “No!” even in the face of unanimous peer pressure. Better a mentally healthy social outcast – maybe even better a dead dissident – than a crazed or broken slave. Furthermore, a pervasive sense of conformism is itself mentally unhealthy, and going along with the crowd when one’s sense of morals suggests otherwise is a prime example of why conformism can be a big problem. And yes, contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is also problematic. So, the key question, the one that provides clear moral guidance both for the contrarian and the pushover is, “Is this good or bad for mental health?”

One conclusion that arises is that a compromised state of mental health, no matter what the reason, compromises our ability to make good moral decisions. This, too, seems to make intuitive sense: soldiers in a war zone have a reduced ability to make the same kinds of moral decisions that they do during peace time; someone experiencing profound grief will often neglect her loved ones; and so on. This underscores the importance of mental health, as it might be integral to our ability to be good people.


Part of my reason for writing this post is because I’m hoping for feedback. This idea is relatively new to me, and I’m still not totally sold on it. It seems robust, but I feel as though I might be missing something important – possibly a few things. This notion does tend to put me at odds with people who would ordinarily agree with me on some significant moral issues. That is sufficient to cast doubt on the idea. At the same time, the more I evaluate it myself, the stronger the idea appeals to me.

So maybe I need help spotting my errors. If you happen to notice something I’ve missed, please do leave a comment.


18 thoughts on “Toward A Better Foundation For Morality

    1. For me, the difference is that the former is capable of being clinically evaluated by psychiatrists and psychologists, subject to the best available and ever-improving scientific knowledge, while the latter is not.

      For example, I might insist that taking advantage of you is right for my subjective well-being, but if psychological evaluation reveals that I might be a psychopath, I’d have an important moral “check” against what would otherwise be my pure internal rationalization.

      1. Andrew Fitzandrew

        What would protect a runaway slave in the south from accusations of Drapetomania? Or a soviet dissident from forced incarceration? Doesn’t this just pathologize moral disagreement?

      2. edgar lores

        Psychology is a soft science. Psychological evaluations usually involve a cluster of symptoms, all of which may not be present in the subject under evaluation.

        How can slavery be classified as immoral when there are some slaves who are mentally happy to be slaves and some masters who are mentally happy to have slaves? Not all people (slaves) yearn for freedom. And not all people (masters) respect freedom.

        Thank you for adding another yardstick as to what constitutes morality .

  1. All perceptions are from a point of view of the perceiver. People generally perceive differently, therefore the common way to solve arguments is to go with the populous majority. We are constantly bombarded with propaganda and media advertising to persuade our views and thinking on all manner of things. Influence.

  2. It always gladdens my heart to see another moral philosophy post up on Sweet Talk.

    I think that to make mental health do so much work, you need a firm idea of what health is, how it serves as a basis for evaluation. In many ways, all that virtue ethics entails is the Aristotelian conception of health applied to a human life as a whole

    I think, from what you’d said here and subsequent comment threads, that part of what you’re reaching for is not only an intellectual foundation, but the authority of medicine. I agree that there one can have authority, be authoritative, in medicine, but I’m also pretty comfortable with ineradicable fragility, which I think all institutions of human authority have.

    Thus, the institution of modern medicine requires enough of its practitioners be ethical that we can trust their findings by and large (and as for replication, that is merely a case of trusting them to check up on one another for error more often than bad ethics), and that they can organize themselves as a discipline in such a way that more accurate ideas stand a better shot of being adopted than less accurate ones. Ethics, politics, rhetoric. All frail, very capable of falling into corruption or coming apart entirely. Andrew points out that the history of psychology and psychiatry—a very short history!—is rife with manipulation for unethical political purposes.

  3. The Mises quote is spot on IMO. To me “moral” and “pro-social” are basically synonyms. I don’t like virtue ethics because it is individualistic. I think social order is essentially action coordination, not character development. Of course you can stipulate moral =s cultivating the types of dispositions or traits held by people who choose pro-social actions, but that’s a super ad hoc and desperate way to savage virtue ethics. That doesn’t mean virtue ethics is totally bunk; it’s just not about the problem of interpersonal morality proper.

    I think you should stick to your original instincts re: the Mises quote and avoid Sam Harris-esk “morality correlates with objective mental states” sort of arguments. There’s a lot of interesting things to discuss about mental health and well being, but, like virtue ethics, it represents a category mistake vis a vis explaining social order.

      1. Not inherently or uncontingently. There are many values which multiple cultures converge the through evolutionary forces, as well innate predisposition. Either can be called weakly transcendental, but IMO universalization is mostly something language does to concepts

      2. Thank you. Could the issue be one of epistemology?

        The assumption seems to be that there are no moral universals because we do not apprehend them a priori. They are the product of evolution and time. But are moral universals less so because they are the result of convergence? It could be that moral universals are, not invented, but discovered like mathematical truths, like E=mc2.

        “Innate predisposition” could be evidence of some form of inherency.

        I do not expect a reply. Just something to think about.

  4. Jeffrey S.


    Not surprisingly, I think you give deontology a bad rap! Although to be fair to you, if you are thinking of “divine command theory” when you think deontology, then you are missing out on the more important thinkers in the natural law school of philosophy. My personal favorite is Ed Feser and a good place to start is his blog (here is a good post to get you started:

    Natural law theorist claim we can reason together about the good and what is moral. That doesn’t mean everyone will agree — but every system of ethics has this problem — at least natural law theorists can use reason to develop their system of ethics which becomes binding on man across time and space. Your idea seems too subjective — what if a young, pregnant mother says it will help her mental health to have an abortion? What about the mental health of the growing human life inside her, even though the brain is not fully formed? Your ethics might say it is O.K. for the mother to kill her unborn child, which I think should be unethical in any good moral system.

    1. One important matter I should clarify: In my intended meaning of it, mental health doesn’t depend on the subjective perspective of the acting moral agent so much as the consistency of that perspective with the agent’s actual mental health.

      For example, addicts often spend a long time believing that their vices are choices made in their own rational self-interest. It is only later that they realize the damage being done, typically when they encounter guilt. But to a qualified psychological observer, the addiction is usually obvious despite the addict’s claims to the contrary.

      In order for an action to be moral under my theory, the action must demonstrably serve long-run, sustainable mental health. Abortion is too complex a topic to give us a good read on a new moral idea like this, but I’m sure you can see how the young mother would have to resolve her dilemma by accounting for her short-run fears *as well as* the long-run consequences of her decision. If you believe that the fetus is also entitled to mental health considerations, then those, too, must enter the equation.

      1. Jeffrey S.


        I find this intriguing:

        “One important matter I should clarify: In my intended meaning of it, mental health doesn’t depend on the subjective perspective of the acting moral agent so much as the consistency of that perspective with the agent’s actual mental health.”

        What is interesting about this is that natural law theorists would say something similar about our ability to reason together about ethics — in other words there might be subjective opinions about the proper ends of our use of our sexual powers (to use one classic example) but in fact there really is only one proper end that can be discovered through the use of reason (and via further argumentation it can be known that for human flourishing and ethical behavior we must not frustrate the use of our natural powers.)

        So your idea intrigues me even if I know that in its modern formulation I would wind up clashing with psychological practitioners on what actually constitutes mental health.

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