Six months ago or so I wrote an essay called On Virtue and Character, in which I attempt to distinguish between action and intent. And although I now find fault with several aspects of the paper, what I don’t find reason to criticize is the attempt to distinguish between moral intention or motive and describing a desirable outcome regardless of the incentive of the actor. For much like the discussion of free will, I feel discussions of ethics (or morality, or normativity, or actually of all these things) becomes congested by the introduction of misunderstandings through language. Wittgenstein once said that all the misunderstandings of philosophy were as result of language, and though all may be a tad hyperbolic he certainly was onto something.
Since the philosophy of virtue ethics is directed towards people’s habits and behavior (though they also look at a person’s state of mind upon acting) and Schopenhauer argues that descriptive morality is grounded in compassion I find it as convenient as any other arbitrary division that the former describe whether an action or outcome in the world be preferable and the latter describe how the motives of the acting agent are directed. Whether we ought to be moral is an entirely different question than both if we are in a given situation or if morality is grounded in compassion or something else.
The last question seems to me another meaningless division once we lose all normativity associated with the word. Unless we wish to define morality differently, if we define it as having concern for others, it seems a matter of analytic apriori knowledge that morality is grounded in compassion. We know that people by-en-large prefer compassion over selfishness or malice, but if we use the word morality to describe it without any normativity then all we are in effect saying when we say, “Jeff was moral when he saved Lisa,” is “Jeff was thinking of Lisa when he saved her; not of any potential reward he might receive or the potential displeasure it may bring to someone else.”
Let us be clear: it is not saying, “Jeff was right to save Lisa.” For this is a question of preference of action which I claim should be connoted to ethics and also as a moral, or hmmm, ethical skeptic I would claim we cannot know. We can know however what Jeff’s motivations were when Jeff jumped into the pool. And even if we could not, his motivations and whether he ought to do a thing are entirely different conceptually. One can argue that the two are intrinsically connected, and although in theory this could be the case there is nothing about the two concepts which makes this necessarily true. Just like in theory all triangles could be blue and all squares polka-dotted. This does not entail that the nature or definition of a tringle is attached in any way to “blue-ness” nor squares to polka-dots.
To reiterate, the question of a dog’s head being crushed by a giant rotating gear is a question of ethics, not morality. Unless one would make the argument that there is an acting agent with a will involved (either the gear has a will, or it is being controlled by an agent with a will whether it be a man or God) we must confess knowledge that there is nothing here of morality. That is to say it is neither moral nor immoral. Speaking of morality here is akin to Locke’s description of the will being tall or short being just as absurd for him as describing it as “free” or “not free.” His argument was not that the will was not free, but that freedom is not a thing to be attached to the will. What is to be attached to the action however is whether or not it is ethical or unethical. That is to say, whether the dog ought to have his head crushed or not. One may make the claim that it should, should not, it is contextual based on other factors (which ultimately is what the Utilitarian would argue – the dog could later run into the street and give half a dozen children rabes for example), there is no difference ethically, or that we have no way of knowing.
Though it is in some sense arbitrary which word we use for which concept, just as we could just as well call shapes colors and colors by the names of shapes I do think it is necessary to have two distinct words to separate these two distinct concepts in thought. Wittgenstein seems to be on to something again when he says we should look to how language is used. Though I’m sure we could find examples of the words I’ve given be used in the exact opposite way in which I’ve given them, on the whole I would say most usages of moral have to do with the intentions of the acting agent.
When we think of whether a man is “good” we think of his character or whether he considers others welfare as an end-in-themselves or considers others as only a means to his own goals or satisfactions. When we think of a person’s conduct, how they habitually act, we think of their lives forming a certain “ethical code” and whether or not this code aligns well with our own. How we feel people ought to behave whether or not context and circumstance are factored into this calculation or not. Someone then, could have a completely fine ethical code in the eyes of many, be square-dealing and fair, but do so for reasons that are entirely self-centered and therefore not moral.
Someone could say that he ought to be moral, but this is in effect saying, “it is ethical to be moral,” or the concept of ought for them has something to do with a person’s motives. Using the given meanings however to say, “one ought to be ethical,” is to provide no new knowledge or theory outside the original agreed upon definition of words. It is akin to saying, “a moral person has concern for others,” or, “a triangle has three sides.” One can argue with the definition of a triangle the same way one can argue semantics over the definition of ethics and morals but what is crucial is there is a difference between argument over the definition of a triangle and argument over what a three-sided thing is.
One is a question of representation while the other is a question of essence. To ask, “what do I mean when I say ‘triangle?’” is to inquire what meaning the sound I make with my mouth or letters I type on my keyboard refer to. To ask, “what is a triangle?” is to ask of the thing’s ontology or status in existence. It could be triangles are merely a product of a person’s mind, or they really exist; or they really exist and are merely a product of someone’s mind but then whether or not something is real is not contingent on it existing externally to the human mind.
Returning to distinguishing ethics from morals, though it is more difficult to think of situations of the opposite happening in the world they certainly do occur. A couple may send their child to a gay-conversion clinic where horrible things are done to them. The parents however, legitimately had the best interest of the child in mind and not only did they not wish him or her harm, they earnestly prayed for their child’s well-being although they arguably had a false notion of what well-being is. Many would say that their action was not ethical, they should not have done what they did, but that does not change the fact that their intentions were directed towards the child and not themselves in this instance.
Language is as much as logic a key aspect to philosophy. To ignore the means by which ideas are expressed by our species and attempt to focus only on the “content” divorced from all linguistics is much like Aristotle’s critique of the Platonic forms. Once you divorce all logical expression from its linguistic vessel you’re left with something that is not imaginable let alone possible to be actualized. For just as to have “horse-ness” is to mean to have something be a color and a size and a shape and so on, to have a thinking thing have a thought, whether true or false, whether profound or insipid, is to have a language be the “vessel” or means by which that thought is given.
A mistake in understanding the meaning of a word in a philosophical text is as erroneous as failing to understand the nature of the thought. Although the former can be easily corrected while the latter requires more thought and is perhaps to never be corrected in some due to limitations not in the understanding of the words but the thoughts behind them.