Disappointments of moral philosophy

I’ve always found much of moral philosophy unconvincing. And for a very long time I wasn’t able to put my finger on why.

One of my favourite ideas in The Sequences is the idea that there are no universally compelling arguments. It’s somewhat freeing when you can acknowledge that an argument that you find persuasive won’t necessarily be persuasive to someone else, and vice versa. And when you combine this with Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, it goes some way to explaining why moral philosophy is so often unsatisfying. Moral foundations theory says that there are (perhaps) six distinct intuitive bases that together form our moral opinions. And different people will weight those foundations differently.

By contrast, much of moral philosophy seems like an attempt to pick one principle that will explain the entirety of morality. And because there’s only one principle, there will be no conflicting priorities. My actual experience of thinking and talking about morality, though, is that one is forever wrestling with trade-offs. And clearly everyone makes those trade-offs differently, which is why there’s so much discussion and argument over these questions.

The idea that there is no single principle or argument which should be expected to govern the entirety of morality, and that differences between people’s brains will lead to different moral judgments, explains my frustrations with moral philosophy. And now that I can understand why I wasn’t convinced, I’m no longer troubled by it.