Noble Disagreement in Moral Matters

In a previous post I made the case that moral discourse can be civilised by attending to the reasoning and argumentation made on behalf of the conclusions adopted, so that the positions can be thought through and if agreement is not attained, at least one can see how one’s opponent gets from A to B to C ( What this view presupposes is that there can be noble disagreement in moral matters such that whilst two interlocuters disagree, their disagreement is not based on any unworthy sentiment of the one to the other, e.g. hatred, malice, fear etc; rather their disagreement is a reasonable one such that either sees the weight of his or her respective reasons as outweighing the other’s.

It is often presupposed that this sort of noble disagreement is impossible in moral matters; this is because of a general widespread commitment to moral relativism. Failing any objective moral principles by which moral judgements can be made, the relativist often argues that such judgements are based on subjective tendencies of the one making them. Hence, when moral disagreement occurs it is not a result of some reasoned framework which grounds the judgement; rather it is a judgement of the other person motivated by some underlying sentiment. Hence, moral relativism often frames moral judgements as a kind of disapproval of the person acting in a way that we dislike, to which the obvious response is that if you don’t like X, don’t do it, but don’t tell others not to. Clearly on such a view there can be no noble disagreement in moral matters, because all moral disagreement rests on some ignoble motivation for objecting to the behaviour of another.

In order to circumvent this scenario and allow for noble disagreement and in turn civilised moral discourse we must distinguish between making a moral judgement and judging a person’s moral behaviour; the two are not identical.

When we make a moral judgement we do so having outlined and defended a moral framework which considers species of acts and determines whether they are good or bad accordingly; hence one striving to be good seeks to act in accord with that framework. All three of the main moral traditions (virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism) outline a framework by means of which moral actions can be categorised.

Making moral judgements as to what is right and wrong given a moral framework is quite distinct from judging a person’s moral character. A person may be committed to some moral framework, for example the utilitarianism of Singer defended in Practical Ethics whereby we consider equally the interests of all who have a stake in some action. That person may be trying her best to form her actions in accord with that outlook since she is convinced of the truth of Singer’s view. However, given her personal history, her weaknesses, aspects of Practical Ethics she finds challenging, etc she may fail to live up to the standards of Singer’s outlook. Nevertheless, given her starting point, that person may have come quite far in her own endeavour to live by a particular moral vision. She should be praised accordingly for that, even though in a number of respects she fails to live by the standards of the outlook she has adopted.

A person, for whatever reasons, may fall short of the standards set by some moral framework; that doesn’t make the standards any less true, and the inability to live by those standards, as in the above example, is not an immediate condemnation of the person. Only the individual person knows how far (or not) he or she has come in trying to live a good life by some standard; but the standard itself can be considered independently of the people trying to live by it (or not) and assessed in itself.

One can have a noble disagreement in moral matters precisely because one can consider the truth or falsity of a moral outlook independently of those who do or don’t live by that framework. Hence, when one argues that A, B, C are right or wrong, one is not making a judgement on a person who does or does not do A, B, C; rather, one is making a judgement on the rightness or wrongness of A, B, and C. And this can be done by appealing to independent reasons and not on the basis of some sentiment about the practitioners of A, B, and C. Noble disagreement in moral matters then requires that we focus more on the truth or falsity of the moral framework involved, e.g. the truth or falsity of Singer’s Practical Ethics or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and less on the person who strives, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to live by that framework. That way we can avoid imputing to those with whom we disagree ignoble sentiments as founding the disagreement and thereby focus more on the reasonableness of the moral outlooks involved.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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