Hilzoy on the functions of moral judgment

Moral judgment, including adverse moral judgment, is a form of social and political action.

Hilzoy, a formidable moral reasoner herself, says that moral reasoning, and those who engage in it, would have a better reputation if people used it to consider what they themselves ought to do, rather playing the “I’m OK, you’re not OK” game. Making yourself feel good about your moral superiority to those whose actions you judge adversely is, says Hilzoy, a very guilty pleasure.

That’s true. But I don’t think it’s complete.

Yes, one good reason to think hard about whether I ought to judge someone else’s action to have been right or wrong is to know what I ought to do if ever I face the same choice. That, I take it, is Hilzoy’s “right view.” But there are other good reasons, and some of them are closer to what Hilzoy calls the “wrong view.”

Let me take the least problematic one first. If A is right to do X, then it follows that A ought to be imitated in doing X by those who face the same circumstances and choices. Conversely, if A is wrong to do X, then A should not be imitated.

That’s true about the person J doing the judging &#8212 which is Hilzoy’s notion of the “right way” to make and use moral judgment &#8212 but it’s also true about third parties, and in particular about third parties who hear J endorse or criticize A’s actions. If those third parties come to share J’s judgment about A’s doing X, they will be more (or less) likely to imitate A in doing X. If J is right, that is a good result. Making and announcing moral judgments about the actions of others is thus one kind of action, which may itself (depending on the circumstances) be praiseworthy or even obligatory.

(I take it, for example, that parents are obliged to use good and bad examples, among other devices, to teach their children the difference between right and wrong action. A parent who sees an instance of cruelty in the child’s presence and does not criticize it would be neglecting a parental duty.)

Moreover, if A is right to do X, that’s an argument (not necessarily a conclusive argument) that A ought to be helped to do X. If A is wrong to do X, that’s a reason not to help A do X, or perhaps even to try to prevent A from doing X. So my reflection on whether A is right or wrong informs not only my judgment about what I should do in similar circumstances, but how I ought to act toward A in his attempt to do X. Again, that’s a reason for me to attend to getting straight my moral judgments about the actions of others.

And, as in the case of imitation, it’s true in the case of helping that my announced judgment about the rightness or wrongness of A’s doing X might have the capacity to persuade others and therefore to influence their actions. Much political activity takes this form.

Moreover, since all sane human beings care about how they appear to others, my action of praising or blaming A for doing X can influence A’s own future behavior, especially when my expressed judgment persuades others to share my opinion and express it to A. (Putting aside my own moral opinions for the moment, I’d be very reluctant to appear in public in a fur coat, in a way that would not have been true twenty years ago. The &#8212 often obnoxiously expressed, “wrong-way” &#8212 moral judgments of the animal-rights folks have had a real effect.) This function of judgment mirrors the role once attributed to history and historians: to create incentives for historical actors to do good rather than evil by praising benefactors and blaming malefactors.

Further, the judgment that A was right to do X constitutes an argument (again, rebuttable rather than conclusive) that A ought to be rewarded for doing X, either formally or informally, while the judgment that A was wrong to do X constitutes an argument for punishing A, or for creating public policies or private practices that would punish people situated as A was situated for doing X in the future.

All of these, I submit, are legitimate functions of moral judgment and its expression. And the negative ones are very much in the “I’m OK, you’re not OK” mode. Hilzoy is surely right that a decent humility and charity would moderate that to some extent, and I would add that moralists might well do more good and less harm if they spent more time and energy expressing praise rather than blame. But moral judgments about others, and their social consequences (assistance and obstruction, praise and blame, reward and punishment) are necessary elements in any social system, and an account of moral judgment that excludes those functions is, to that extent, defective.

Footnote Note that I’m philosophizing without a license, while Hilzoy is an accredited expert. The reader should therefore add salt to taste.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com