Convention and Morality

Convention and Morality


Convention and Morality

Abstract: In this paper, I argue for restricted moral conventionalism – the thesis that conventionality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a norm being a legitimate moral requirement. I distinguish morality from ethics and moral norms from other social norms. Morality is a matter of what we require of each other – moral misbehavior is potentially subject to coercive third-party interventions and/or disciplinary actions. Restricted moral conventionalism thus holds that we can accuse, coercively intervene, or sanction only if the norm violated is a conventional moral norm.

"Morality", as I will be using the term, is about what we require of each other. It is what we are accountable to others for and what others are accountable to us for. It involves the use of moral authority to intervene, correct, instruct, accuse, excuse, discipline, and sanction. Although many moral interventions do not involve the application of sanctions, some connection to sanctions is essential to moral norms: general adherence to moral norms is ordinarily necessary to be in good standing with others as a participant in society.[1], [2] Unlike laws, policies, procedures, and guidelines, morality is not officiated: no specific body is charged with developing, implementing, or overseeing moral norms. Moral authority is diffuse. But, moral authority is like political or legal authority in that moral requiring is a human activity. Insofar as they are morally required, moral norms are not required by nature, God, or practical reason - they are required by people of each other.[3] All existing societies have moral codes: bodies of moral norms that members use to hold each other accountable for their participation in society. Conventional moral normsarethe widely accepted social norms thatparticipants in society use for exercising moral authority. Legitimate moral norms are norms that should be used in this way: they are the norms that existing participants in society ought to use when holding each other accountable; they are norms that can, with justification, be used to exercise legitimate moral authority.[4] Morality, so understood, is narrower than ethics broadly understood as concerned with the norms governing how we ought to live.[5],[6]

According to liberal moral conventionalism, the moral propriety of an action is determined by the rationally grounded moral norms that the substantial majority of mature adults disinterestedly accept.[7] "Disinterestedly accepted norms" are the ones used when making third-party moral judgments in which no personal interest is at stake. At a minimum, a norm is "rationally grounded" if it has at least one sufficient purpose, it serves that purpose, and this is known. Purely private interests are excluded from sufficient purposes for moral norms. Sufficient purposes are things like ensuring the survival of society, preventing harm, promoting peaceful coexistence, and so on. All sorts of non-moral goods can serve as a basis for moral norms. The issue of which non-moral goods provide rational grounds for which moral norms in which contexts is itself an ethical question.

Liberal moral conventionalism is a species of restricted moral conventionalism: conventionality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for moral legitimacy.[8], [9] All legitimate moral norms are necessarily conventional norms but the converse need not hold.[10] Herein I will argue for the weaker thesis of restricted moral conventionalism – a theory of the rational grounds of moral norms is beyond the scope of this paper. To begin, an account is needed of conventional moral norms.

Conventional Moral Norms

Any society includes numerous behavioral and related norms. In addition to what we often think of as conventional moral norms like prohibitions of assault, theft, and such, societies often have norms about dressing, eating, conducting business, sleeping, and so on. Norms pertain to nearly everything we do. They are staggering in their variety, function, and origin. The orderliness of the social world is a product of sufficiently many participants' shared adherence to and maintenance of social norms. Such norms make available to participants in society various ways of living: types of relationships, private and social activities, professions, forms of expression, and so on. Without numerous sorts of shared norms there simply is no social world. Conventional moral norms are a subset of social norms. Theyarenot identified by content or purpose but by distinctive uses: making accusations, demanding apologies and behavior changes, defending against accusations, rallying others to one's side, justifyingsanctions, and so on.[11] Moral norms delimit a dimension of behavior for which people are accountable to each other simply as participants in society - they mark off aspects of behavior that are everybody's business and serious business at that.[12] Maintaining some level of morally acceptable behavior isessential to one's standing in relationships and society. Socially adjusted adults internalize most conventional moral norms and usually adhere fairly closely to them when dealing publicly with those whom they regard as peers.[13] For such people, being found out of bounds, especially publicly, is shameful; undetected infractions can lead to feelings of guilt; and deliberate infractions are often rationalized. Conventional moral norms effect spontaneous behavior, deliberation, and perception of the social world. Peer contextualized adherence to conventional morality is generally unforced and it is commonly recognized as an ideal that one willingly take responsibility for infractions.

Because they are well-known and widely accepted, conventional moral norms ground a shared expectation about how people ought to behave and what they ought to be held morally accountable for. Let us suppose that A, B, and C are mature adults living together as peers in the same society. A and B are in a romantic relationship and A breaks it off. B responds by vandalizing A's car. C is just a third party with no personal interest at stake. The shared norm is a common ordinate from which A can work towards holding B accountable. Because this is a moral issue, it is C's business and, consequently, C has standing to intervene in certain ways. C has standing totake certain limited but extra-ordinary steps to prevent B from vandalizing A's car, to report B’s action to A, to take A's side, or even accuse B of their own accord. When things go smoothly, third parties could validate A's innocence and B's guilt; B takes responsibility for their action, and third parties could validate this. This is how morality is supposed to work. And in many cases it does work this way although for a variety of reasons things often go awry. Existing moral norms are used by mature adults to make and respond to accusations in the context of a shared understanding of what it is for the process to work correctly.[14]

The Necessity of Conventionality to Moral Legitimacy

Let R be some ethically ideal norm that is not actually part of a given society's moral code. R might be based in religion, natural law, the categorical imperative, a hypothetical social contract, ideal utilitarian rules, or anything else. But, society doesn'tactually require people to behave in accord with R: overwhelmingly,mature adults don't instruct people to adhere to R, don't correct each other for failure to adhere to R, don't feel guilty or apologize for violating R, don't care if others know they've violated R, and don't do anything tohold each other morally accountable for violations of R - doing any of these things would, by the vast majority of mature adults, be considered rather abnormal. R will be a legitimate moral norm if and only if participants in society are, in general,entitled to expect others to adhere to it: such entitlement is the basis for correctly using the norm to hold others accountable. If restricted conventionalism is correct, then R, although ethically ideal, can't possibly be a legitimate moral norm.

With conventional moral norms, one is epistemically entitled to believe that most mature adults are familiar with them and willingly accept them. This doesn't mean that one is epistemically entitled to think that others will agree with one's own application of that norm to specific cases - any number of factors can lead people who accept the same norm to apply it differently. But, mutual knowledge of mutual acceptance of the norm establishes a common starting ordinate from which to work towards agreement or at least mutual understanding. For R, this epistemic entitlement does not exist. The warranted default presumption is that others don't accept R as a moral norm.

Psychologically, moral norms are either learned or accepted on the basis of what one has learned. That R is, in fact, not accepted by the overwhelming majority of adults is evidence that its non-acceptance is epistemically inculpable. People did not learn R. From what they did learn, a substantial majority of adults did notinfer R. Among the non-acceptors are many people who are emotionally mature, virtuous and upright by the standards of their society, intelligent, and well-informed given their context; in short, many people who are exemplary in their reasonableness and yet quite diverse from each other in many ways don't accept R. Those who do accept R are special in some way - maybe they have greater moral imagination, combine intellectual genius with extraordinary sympathy, have had certain atypical experiences, or something else. Given the non-acceptance of R by so many otherwise reasonable people and the special causes at work in those who do accept R, members of society in general are inculpable for their non-acceptance of R.

Given the warranted presumption that others are, generally speaking, inculpably non-accepting of R, one is not entitled to the expectation that they take responsibility for violating R. Any "success" one has in using R to hold others "responsible"is likely through bullying. When actually guilty,a person can take responsibility only ifthat person can agree with the judgment of the accuser. Given that the accused is in a state of inculpable non-acceptance of R, the accused ought not concur with the judgment of the accuser: there simply is no cogent argument from shared premises to the allegedly indicting conclusion and the accused's non-acceptance of the crucial premise is beyond critique. From the standpoint of the accused and nearly all third parties, the accuser is mistaken about the content of morality and is acting unreasonably in imposing a personal ethical judgment on others. It is appropriate to respond with incredulity, not apology. The accuser is simply not entitled to the expectation that others take responsibility for violations of R. So, R is not a legitimate moral norm.

The adoption of a norm as a moral norm involves creating a social space in which people have the authority to use that norm to correct, accuse, defend, intervene, etc. Creating such a social space is a collective project, not an individual one.

Of course, in some actual cases the presumption of acceptance of a conventional moral norm by mature adults fails. For some reason, the accused does not accept the norm. Depending on the facts of the case, this non-acceptance may or may not be culpable. A newcomer to the societymight simply not know it. Ignorance, in some cases, is an excuse.[15] In such cases, accusation can turn to instruction and correction. But, like accusation, these actions presume authority. It is doubtful that mature adults would be ignorant of the moral norms of their own society. Some, however, might reject a moral norm simply out of self-interest. Whereas excusing ignorance in some cases would not be disastrous for society, excusing egocentrism would be. A person who, based in self-interest, has the authority to opt out of a moral requirement is simply someone whom others do not have the authority to hold to account. The potential failure of the presumption of acceptance doesn't deprive one of moral authority society creates.[16]

Aside from well-established conventional norms and norms, like R, that are not accepted by the overwhelming majority, there are norms with contested status. A significant number of people attempt to use these norms with moral authority and a significant number of people reject such use. One might simply acknowledge that some norms have an indeterminate status - while the status of many norms is quite clear, others aren't. That's just a feature of morality as an existing and evolving social tool and it is a mistake to suppose that all moral questions have unambiguous answers. But, matters are not quite so bad as this - the evolution of morality isn't, generally, a wholly capricious and arbitrary affair. People use well-established norms to debate the contested ones. Debates about controversial issues are not insulated from the rest of the moral code. Well-established moral norms give common ground to people on opposing sides of controversial issues. Contested norms tend to be about fairly specific behaviors. Onrestricted conventionalist grounds, a contested norm itself doesn't give one standing to condemn, correct, or defend a behavior characterized in that specific way. But, behaviors can typically be characterized in many ways and some of these will be related to established norms in such a way as to ground one's moral authority: even if there is no specific principle for it, discriminating against homosexuals is, for example, rude, disrespectful, and rooted in ignorance and/or superstition. Public debate, alongside some use of more general moral rules to at least call out inappropriate behavior can lead to the eventual establishment of a new convention that alters the moral topology of the social landscape. This new convention can then play a role opening new social territory for contested norms and resolving those conflicts. The set of legitimate moral norms itself undergoes evolution. The existence of contested norms, far from being a problem for liberal conventionalism, shows its strength. For the liberal conventionalist, the ongoing moral debates we have in classrooms, cafes, social media outlets, and numerous other locales are ethically vital to the well-being of society - they create the ground on which we justify moral assertions to each other.

The Insufficiency of Conventionality for Legitimacy

Although conventionality is a necessary condition of a norm's being a legitimate moral norm, it is not a sufficient condition. A person who sincerely uses a norm to accuse, defend, or correct is endorsing that norm. While norms can't be used in certain ways unless they are conventionally accepted it doesn't follow that one ought to endorse any conventionally accepted moral norm. Simply that others accept using a norm with moral authority does not imply I should also do this - that's no ethical justification and exercising moral authority requires ethical justification. At a certain stage of development, a person might exercise moral authority simply on the basis of a rule being a rule. Insofar as a person doing this is acting on the basis of something independent of a private interest, this is a more mature stage than someone who is narrowly self-interested. Even so, this is not a mature level of ethical thinking as it fails to think in terms of any kind of critical reflection.[17] Many norms are associated with broadly known rationales indicating how the norm is needed to prevent harm, to do good, to please God, and so on. Knowing the rationale, mature individuals should reflect on the norm and could conclude that it doesn't actually prevent harm, or do good, or please God, or be fair, and so on. For example, it used to be conventionally accepted that homosexual sex was morally wrong. Maybe it was widely though falsely believed that God abhors homosexuality and punishes societies that tolerate homosexuality. On reflection, one might reject this belief. If none of the rationales for a given norm hold up under reflection, then the norm ought not be accepted.[18] We ought not hold people accountable on the basis of norms that serve no positive function - to do so knowingly is to knowingly act without reason beyond self-assertion or rule-worship - it is an exercise in authority for its own sake.

Given that not all moral norms in a society are legitimate and only the legitimate ones generate grounds for exercising moral authority, moral authority ought not be exercised on the basis of illegitimate norms. Doing so is a mistake of one sort or another. But, because these norms provide no real basis for exercising moral authority, one is not legitimately accountable to others for adhering to them. In various cases it might be prudent to follow them or appear to follow them. But violating these norms simply isn't immoral. Given that a prohibition of homosexual sex doesn't hold up under ethical reflection on its alleged rational grounds, engaging in homosexual sex is not morally wrong even if it were to violate conventional morality.[19]

Whether a norm is legitimate or not is independent of what people think about its legitimacy. Maybe because of the influence of religion in medieval Europe no one was in a position to reflect, in an informed way, on a prohibition of homosexual sex. Nevertheless, there really was nothing morally wrong with homosexual sex. Rationales for moral norms do not exist in a void separated from facts or objective truths. In this way, moral norms are analogous to architectual norms: made by humans but sensitive to facts and truths that are not made by humans. Physics and mathematics don't fix the design principles of cathedrals, but they do constrain them.