Tuesday, May 31, 2005


I doubt that any cliché has been used more frequently to undermine ethical reflection than this one: "Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?" No discussion of morality can proceed very far before someone empties his philosophical quiver and unleashes this sophomoric rhetorical challenge.

The unstated implication behind the question is that ethical principles are nothing more than personal tastes. Given this assumption, the declaration that one type of behavior is better than another becomes equivalent to announcing that steak is good and broccoli bad. All ethical judgments are thus reduced to arbitrary acts of imposition. A thing is labeled ‘bad’ only because some high-handed dude has declared that it is.

It is worth noting that no one employs this shopworn challenge in the arena of science-- because within that discipline it is assumed that some answers are closer to the truth than others. Even in history and sociology, most folks would dismiss "Who’s to say" challenges with a sneer. The obvious response is that "evidence" and "coherence" are the standards for deciding whether a proposition is true or false--not the declaration of some disciplinary czar vested with absolute authority to impose his will on less-influential practitioners.

When it comes to ethics, however, all these considerations are ignored --as if everyone knows that no such thing as ethical evidence exists. Such an idea would come as a shock to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas--as well as to more recent thinkers like Kant or John Stuart Mill. Heck, even Karl Marx spent decades cooking his economic books in order to convince readers that Communism was both morally superior and historically inevitable.

In addition to ignoring the possibility that ethical evidence exists, those who fling the "Who’s to say" ratchet into the cogs of ethical reflection also ignore something else--namely, that their rhetorical challenge presupposes the existence of a moral standard that it simultaneously denies.

The "Who’s to say" argument is only effective because it makes any possible answer to the question morally indefensible--since nothing is true simply because so and so says it is. But if nothing can be declared immoral, then there is no basis for rejecting the arbitrary imposition of one person’s values on another. Put succinctly, the "Who’s to say" argument presupposes two contradictory ideas: 1) All moral statements are arbitrary impositions. 2) Arbitrary impositions are immoral.

The clichéd interrogative requires the very morality it denies. And then it employs that sliver of moral indignation to undercut serious moral reflection. The fact that "immoralists" are reduced to blatant self-contradiction in their most popular logical offensive is a bit of evidence worth pondering. The fact that most people don’t recognize this logical con-game is a tribute to the intellectual and moral sloth of a culture that would rather let sleeping consciences lie.


G.Rap said...

Excellent brief articulation of the huge moral problem of our time: the pretense that there are no moral absolutes except the unacknowledged ones of the speaker! Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Moral is a tricky word; I'm still not sure what most people mean when they say it.

Is the "who's to say" line merely expressing skepticism, expressing that many moral claims lack substantive grounding? If so, would the best response be not to write off the line as contradictory but to try and ground the moral claim in some set of beliefs the listener shares?

However, if "who's to say" is just stating absolute moral skepticism, it probably does deserve to get written off and or made fun of.

RKirk said...

Moral isn't a "tricky" word in my view. It derives from a general term that refers to "mores" or "habits" and "customs" but, in its narrower usage, denotes actions that are ethically sound--
i.e. that correspond with the way the universe is and the way we are, essentially. Read C. S. Lewis's THE ABOLITION OF MAN for a more extensive discussion of "the Tao" or "Rita" or "natural law"--all terms that refer to a concept that is at the root of every culture. Humans can act, as Kant said, according to a conception of what is right--i.e. moral.

What is, in fact, "tricky" is determining, in certain circumstances, what exactly IS moral--or, to reiterate Plato's question, how to define (with precision) the word "virtue" (THE MENON).

As for the question "Who's to say?" my essay is devoted to addressing the issues you raise. Those who employ the question as an "immoral" weapon want to have their cake and eat it too. They both dismiss morality as subjective and appeal to a non-subjective morality that they use to dismiss the arbitrary imposition of moral opinions on others. The latter usage, however, is only logical if the former idea is abandoned. Did you get that essential point?

maurile said...

A thing is labeled ‘bad’ only because some high-handed dude has declared that it is.

Sounds like theistic moral reasoning in a nutshell. ;)