Moral Judgments

Judge - "(v) to form an opinion or evaluation about something through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises; to form a judgment." Judgment - "(1) a formal utterance of an authoritative opinion; (2) the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing; an opinion or estimate so formed; (3) a proposition stating something believed or asserted."

What are moral judgments? Moral judgments are evaluations or opinions formed as to whether some action or inaction, intention, motive, character trait, or a person as a whole is (more or less) Good or Bad as measured against some standard of Good. The moral judgments of actions (or inaction) are usually the primary focus of any discussion of Moral Judgments in particular, and Ethical analysis in general. This is because the judgments of intentions, character traits, and persons are generally based on the judgment of actions that the intention, motive, character trait, or person does or might potentially do or not do. So limiting the discussion to the moral judgments of actions (or inactions) will also, with suitable obvious modifications, address the moral judgment of intentions, motives, character traits and people.

What distinguishes moral judgments from non moral judgments, is the context of the statement. Philosophy, and particularly Ethics, differs from the sciences in one very important way. All of the sciences, both "hard" and "soft", deal with descriptions of Reality. They purport to describe in varying levels of detail, what is about Reality.  Ethics, on the other hand, is that branch of Philosophy that describes what one ought. All of the various philosophers, in all of their various works on Ethics, are detailing what you "Should" do or how things "Should" be, not what is. In answer to the questions "What should I do?" or "What is the 'right' thing to do?", ethics answers "You should do what you 'ought' to!" So moral judgments are judgments about what one "ought" to do (or not do), or have done (or not done).

We can group moral judgments into two broad classes. There are "before-the-fact" moral judgments, and there are "after-the-fact" moral judgments. Before-the-fact judgments are those made before the action (or inaction) takes place. They are made based on the best information available at the time as to what the moral landscape holds and what its future shape will be. These are judgments about what you "ought to do (or not do)", and whether what you are planning to do (or not do) is Good or Bad. After-the-fact moral judgments are made after the action (or inaction) has taken place, and are based on 20/20 hindsight view of the actual consequences. These are judgments about what you "ought to have done (or not done)", and whether your actual actions were Good or Bad.

A second major distinction of moral judgments is that they can only be made of an agent with the freedom or will to choose. Moral judgments are judgments of certain choices, or potential choices, where the one who chooses is aware that there is a choice, and has the capability to choose. A person who cannot do other than what was done, is not subject to moral judgment. But if a person has the freedom to choose alternatives, then that person's intentional, or unintentional actions or inaction can be subject to moral judgments. This argument is the ethical basis of the "Insanity" defense. The insanity defense argues that the accused cannot be considered guilty because the accused was unable to make a choice of an alternate behavior. The behavior exhibited was "unavoidable". This line of reasoning is never too successful when it is applied to the average human, with an average degree of intelligence. But it is the reason we do not make moral judgments about what a falling tree does on its way down. If the tree happens to kill someone, we don't judge that the tree "ought not to have done that" because the tree had no other alternative. This same logic applies to situations as well where the individual concerned does have some sentience. You don't pass moral judgments on your pet puppy dog or your 2 month old baby, if they piddle on the floor. You realize that they are not capable of choosing some other behavior. But you do judge your 3 year old pet dog or little girl if they piddle on the carpet, because you know that they are bright enough to make the choice, and they have been instructed to know that their particular choice was not a "good" one.

The third important distinction is knowledge. In order to be able to make a choice, you have to be aware that there are alternatives. If your knowledge about your current situation is thin, or your knowledge about how reality behaves is thin, then you might come to the conclusion that there are no better alternatives. You might make a choice that you believe is the correct one, but because your knowledge is thin, you overlook a better one. In such a case, we could make an after-the-fact judgment about what you ought to have done, if you had had better information, but any before-the-fact moral judgment we might make about what you did, has to be based on the knowledge available to you at that time. A person who made the best choice that they could under the information they had at the time, cannot be censured for making a "Bad" choice at that time. And a person who did not know the actual consequences that would result from action or inaction being judged, is also excused from moral censure. We do not censure the players involved in accidental happenings. It is assumed that the individuals involved could not have anticipated the actual consequences of their actions. What actually happened was "an accident". (This argument does not apply, of course, to the other use of the symbol "accident". An automobile collision, although often called an "accident", is usually not "accidental" in this sense, since it is assumed more or less correctly that the individuals involved in an automobile collision are cognizant of the consequences of poor driving behavior.)

An exception to this principle of knowledge, is if the person involved could "reasonably" be expected to have known or be able to find a better alternative, or to find out the probable consequences of the action or inaction involved. Thus we can say "You ought to have known that . . . . ". (Which is why an automobile "accident" is usually not regarded as "accidental".) The judgment in this case is more a judgment of the behavior choices that resulted in the ignorance in the first place, than a judgment of the particular behaviors that resulted from that ignorance. It is an almost universal moral judgment that individuals "ought" to learn enough about their local portions of Reality that they can make "Good" (i.e. non-ignorance based) behavioral choices most of the time.

Can a Moral Judgment be True/False ?

Consider a moral judgment "P is Good", where "P" is some proposition statement. Can such a judgment be True or False? If you recall the discussion on The Nature of Truth, you can see one obvious way in which this statement can be True. A system of Ethics can establish by definition that "P" is definitionally equivalent to "Good". But consider a similar statement in the same system of ethics "X is Good" (where "X" is not the same as "P"). Can we determine whether this statement is true or false? Well, obviously, we can fill the system of ethics with a series of definitions establishing all those things that are considered "Good". Thus any statement of this form that is not among those definitions would have to be considered false. And this is one approach that some philosophers have employed in defining ethical systems. Consider, for example, the Ten Commandments of God and Moses.   Or the myriad rules of living laid down in the Talmud.    

But a more usual approach is to set the initial definition (or set of definitions) such that "P" is some proposition (or set of propositions) about some concept of Reality. Now assuming that "X" is also a statement about this same Reality, we can then determine if "X is Good" is true or false by determining whether the statement "X is P" is true or false. Determining the truth of this latter statement is a matter of empirical induction from our knowledge of Reality. Which means that we can, at least in principle, determine whether "X is Good" is or is not true (enough).

Let's consider another moral judgment "I ought to Q", where Q is some action (or inaction) on my part that will effect Reality in some way. Given a definition such as "P is Good" (where "P" is some proposition about Reality), this second example can be True if it can be shown that action "Q" will result in "P". Assuming as we did before, that both "P" and "Q" are statements about Reality, then determining the truth of this latter statement is again a matter of empirical induction from our knowledge of Reality. And we can therefore determine whether "I ought to Q" is true (enough).

In general, if "X" and "Q" are propositions based in some universe of discourse, and are valid statements within some system of philosophy, then we can appeal to the structure of that philosophical system to determine whether there is a definitional or deductive connection between the two and some part of the set of definitional statements "P is Good". To be able to do so, there must be at least one definitional statement of the form "P is Good" that exists in the same universe of discourse as "X" and "Q". If, for example, "X" talks about aesthetic beauty, then there must be some "P" that talks about aesthetic beauty. Obviously, we will either be able to show that there is such a connection, in which case the statements are True, or we will not be able to make this connection, in which case the statements are not True (note that this is not equivalent to False).

What remains is to consider the case where the statements "X is Good" and "I ought to Q" are expressed in a universe of discourse that does not include the definition "P is Good". In this situation, there is no means available for determining whether or not "X" is Good, or for justifying the opinion that "Q" is something I ought to do. We cannot, therefore, determine whether these statements are true. They must remain in the realm of opinion.

To expand on this conclusion - what would result if the particular system of Ethics under examination did not establish a definitional connection between our understanding of Reality and the concept of Good? In other words, what happens to a system of Ethics if there is no definition "P is Good" where "P" is a proposition about Reality? Can we then determine the truth of a statement "X is Good" where "X" is a proposition about Reality? I do not see how this is possible. The concept and symbol "Good" when employed by itself in the Ethical realm, is generally considered to have no meaning, unless specifically provided one by some particular system of Ethics. One might say that a system of Ethics is the provision of a suitable definition for the symbol "Good". But from the initial hypothesis this line of reasoning, the ethical concept of "Good" does not have any referents in Reality that we can point to and say "X shares this similarity with Good". So we cannot arrive at a Reality based concept of Good, and cannot determine whether or not "X" can be validly grouped with those things that are "Good". And consider again the statement "I ought to Q", where "Q" is some action affecting Reality. The same argument holds. Unless your system of Ethics establishes some form of connection between statements about Reality, and the concept of "Good", then it will be impossible to determine the truth value of any moral judgment that involves a statement about Reality.

To make this line of reasoning clearer, we can use a concrete example. Can we determine whether the statement "Telling the truth is Good" is true or false? The trivial way of course, is if our system of ethics defines that "Telling the truth" is definitionally equivalent to "Good". A slightly less trivial way is if we have a definition such as "Honesty is Good". Then we may employ the definitional constructs of English and the processes of philosophical reasoning to demonstrate that "Telling the truth is honesty". And we can conclude that "Telling the truth is Good" is true. But if our system of ethics does not have any definition of Good that is based on Reality, we can say nothing about whether "Telling the truth is Good" is true or false.

So, yes, a moral judgment can be True. But if and only if the ethical system within which the judgment is made establishes a definitional connection between some proposition "P" about Reality and the normative concept of "Good".

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