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Justifying Our Moral Judgments

Thomas Dabay combines the ideas of David Hume and Immanuel Kant to help show how we can be right about what’s right.

How ought we to justify our moral judgments? To take a concrete case, consider the fact that throughout much of the Western world, poor and ethnic minority children are significantly less likely than their richer white counterparts to receive a satisfactory education. Although we can make some judgments about this fact in purely descriptive terms – perhaps judging it to be an inefficiency in the education system – we also make judgments about it in prescriptive terms. In particular, we might judge that there ought not be this sort of educational inequality; that it is morally wrong that there is. But what makes us think that we are right in making such a judgment?

When asked this sort of question people often employ one of two strategies of thought. On the one hand, Amy might find it intuitively shameful for such things to happen, especially in a country with a virulent history of racial discrimination such as the United States. On the other hand, Betty might believe in principles that engender a duty to promote human flourishing, and education is a key contributor to such flourishing. Such appeals either to moral intuitions or to principles seem to be common strategies, ones that philosophers and non-philosophers alike use to try to justify their moral judgments. After considering each approach in isolation, I will argue that only a mixed strategy that appeals to both intuitions and principles is adequate for justifying our moral judgments.


To help focus our discussion of intuitions, I will concentrate on one prominent ethical tradition, which has grown out of the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76). According to Hume, we are the sorts of beings who have gut-level feelings of approval or disapproval when considering certain states of affairs. When we think about children being denied education, for instance, we are liable to feel disgust or shame. Alternatively, when we see a child having fun, we are likely to feel joy or satisfaction. Hume called these feelings ‘sentiments’.

Sentiments are important for our present discussion because we seem to experience them with the directness and immediacy of an intuition. Additionally, certain sentiments seem to have an intrinsic moral attractiveness. Consider rage and joy: the latter is a sentiment that, all things being equal, we ought to promote, whereas we ought not to promote the former. Hume’s thought was that we can justify our moral judgments about a state of affairs through the morally-charged sentiments we feel in reaction to that state of affairs (and his friend Adam Smith wrote a famous essay on similar lines, called The Theory of Moral Sentiments.)

One obvious worry this thought provokes is that people don’t always have what we might think to be appropriate sentiments in given situations. There are people who feel joy in the face of other people’s pain, yet we don’t want to say that these sentiments ought to justify their moral judgments. Hume anticipates this worry, reassuring us that in general it is part of human nature to empathize with others. But this empathy is not simply one sentiment among all the others, because empathy is not a sentiment at all. Rather, empathy is a capacity or tendency to feel another person’s sentiments. Hume thought this was the result of a special sense; Smith thought it worked by a psychological process of mirroring: in imagining the pain (for instance) of another person, we feel some of that pain in ourselves and therefore, naturally, we want to alleviate it.

Ruby Bridges
De-segregating education, 1960: US Marshals sent to ensure her safety in the face of protests escort 6 year old Ruby Bridges home from her school.

However, this response only goes so far. Consider again the example of educational inequality. A short fifty years ago, empathy failed to produce, in many white Americans, appropriately negative sentiments in reaction to the injustice of segregated, inferior schools for black American children, and the reasons are not hard to identify. At the very least, segregation itself may have prevented white Americans from experiencing at first hand the misfortune of those afflicted by educational inequality, leaving empathy little opportunity to correct their inappropriate sentiments. More problematically, the inequality itself showed that many people had inappropriate sentiments. Empathizing with one another would strengthen the popularity and intensity of these inappropriate sentiments. For these reasons, sentiment by itself would seem to be inadequate for justifying moral judgments.


Since the Humean intuitionist approach has these problems, let’s turn to the second strategy for justifying moral judgments: appealing to principles. Again, to focus our discussion, I will concentrate on a prominent tradition in ethics, this time associated with German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

According to Kant, reason provides us with a test for identifying good moral principles. The first step of this test is to recognize what our plan of action is in a particular circumstance. For instance, consider the case where you have grown fed up with your job and are looking for a new one. You eventually get an interview, but unfortunately it will take place during work hours. To attend the interview you will need to take the day off from your current job, but you know that your boss will not give it to you if you tell her the real reason you want time off. With this in mind, you think it would be a lot easier on both you and your boss if you just fibbed and told her that you’re feeling sick and won’t make it to work that day.

An honest appraisal of your plan of action here is that you are planning to lie to your boss. Once you identify this plan, the Kantian claim is that reason provides a standard by which you can judge its moral character. To construct this standard, you need only ask one simple question: ‘What if everyone acted according to my plan of action?’ If the situation you describe in answer to this question is consistent, then you can justifiably believe that the action you plan to perform is morally permissible. Otherwise, you ought to conclude that your planned action is impermissible, and therefore it would be wrong to perform it. Returning to our example, after identifying your plan to lie, you must ask yourself, ‘What if everyone lied?’ It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the purpose of lying is to deceive; and yet if everyone lied, no one would be deceived because everyone would expect everyone else to lie. According to Kant, this sort of inconsistency between the purpose of your plan in lying and its universal results provides justification for the moral judgment that lying is wrong.

This, however, is only half of the Kantian story. Even if Kant’s test identifies apparently good moral principles, we must also ask to whom these principles apply. For Kant, such principles apply to all moral agents; doubly so here, in that every moral agent ought to tell the truth to every other moral agent. However, this response depends on people recognizing moral agents as moral agents. If we return to the educational inequality example, we see that this introduces a stumbling block. Thus although most rich white humans nowadays recognize that poor or non-white humans are full moral agents, this hasn’t always been the case. Until not very long ago, across the Western world the need to justify slavery and racial oppression tempted whites to think of blacks as being not fully rational – not fully human – and so not fully moral agents. So although racists could recognize that a person is being harmed when they do not receive a good education, and that harming a person is wrong, they wouldn’t recognize the black victims of educational inequality as being full persons, and so worthy of ethical consideration. Instead, they would wrongly see these victims as having the moral status of, say, non-human animals, and on this basis many whites could justify their inappropriate moral judgment here to themselves and their peers.


At this point we should be able to diagnose the problem both the Kantian and Humean strategies face when taken in isolation: on their own, either strategy leaves us with a problematically static system for justifying moral judgments. That is, the problem is that once some moral judgment has become widely accepted in society, neither strategy offers a mechanism for critiquing it. With Kant’s strategy this is because social conditions may prevent people from recognizing other individuals as full moral agents, while with Hume’s strategy, it’s because social conditions may isolate people from the bigger picture and so inappropriately skew their feelings. My suggestion is that we can address these issues and come up with an adequate way of justifying our moral judgments by using each strategy to supplement the other.

The key thought behind this joint strategy is that we have to start where we find ourselves, but that we ought not stay where we start. So if we find ourselves with strong empathetic sentiments, we should start by taking them at face value, but we should quickly ask ourselves in a Kantian manner what we would think if we had these sentiments for everyone. In the educational inequality case, people who feel neutral or positive sentiments when considering poor or minority students receiving a bad education are unlikely to feel comfortable about having those same sentiments in relation to rich white people like themselves receiving a bad education. This inconsistency in their sentiments should tell them that their original sentiments are misguided, and that there is most likely a moral principle they are not appreciating. So by this mechanism, people can ‘ascend’ from moral sentiments to moral principles, introducing a dynamic corrective component to Hume’s strategy.

Alternatively, if we find ourselves strongly supporting certain moral principles, we should take them at face value to begin with, but from there, we should start to imagine the sorts of empathetical sentiments they evoke in their wider application. For example, if our principle is that only certain humans – rich white males – have a right to good education, we generally won’t feel any mixed sentiments when we imagine all the inanimate objects or non-human animals that we do not educate. However, imagining the lower quality of life that poor and minority students will have because of their lack of education should introduce mixed sentiments even in someone with class-based or racist preconceptions. By recognizing these more mixed sentiments, people can come to better recognize the moral status of people that they have been ignoring, and upgrade their moral principles. In this way, Kant’s strategy of universalizing principles can be supplemented so that people can ‘descend’ from moral principles to moral sentiments in order to identify the proper scope of their principles.

By combining these two corrective mechanisms together we engage in a process that the American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) called ‘reflective equilibrium’, although I prefer the phrase ‘sound common sense’. Depending on our starting position, we either rationally reflect on our sentiments or empathetically reflect on our principles, and make changes where need be. From there, we will then find ourselves in a new moral starting position, and the onus is on us to continue rationally and empathetically reflecting. Only then are we doing everything we can to justify our moral judgments, and only then can we continue to grow as moral beings.

© Thomas Dabay 2016

Thomas Dabay is taking a PhD in Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

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