On the Existence of “Moral Blind Spots”

According to Michael Austin, who writes the Ethics for Everyone blog for Psychology Today, we are suffering from “Moral Blind Spots.”  Referring to the morality-based arguments in favor of slavery of an earlier time, he writes,

When I read these arguments and discuss their flaws with students, I’m reminded of something a professor of mine once asked, “What will future generations think about us? What moral blind spots of ours will they see, that we miss?” There are many possibilities, to be sure, but I think that future generations may look back at the disparity of wealth in our world and wonder how we could have missed the injustices that exist related to this.

If future generations are still capable of rational thought, perhaps they will ask a more pertinent question:  In view of the fact that the nature of morality and the ultimate reasons for its existence should have been obvious to our generation, why did so many of our philosophers, professors, and other assorted Ph.D.’s in the social sciences still believe there was some logical basis for making moral judgments of past generations?  Like so many of the other contemporary experts on morality, his work is informed by the tacit assumption that Good and Evil exist, independent of their subjective origins.  Like the others, he throws out a barrage of “shoulds” without troubling himself in the least about establishing their legitimacy, apparently oblivious to the many books discussing the biological origins of morality that have been appearing lately.  Here are some examples from his article:

It is disturbing, shocking, and disappointing to read arguments which include the attempt to defend the indefensible.

The “indefensible” he refers to is slavery.  Austin is not providing us with a description of his subjective moral intuitions in response to a particular stimulus.  Rather, the implication here is that there are objective reasons to consider slavery indefensible, and attempts to defend it as disturbing, shocking, and disappointing.  In short, he is saying that slavery is objectively Evil.  Why?  We are not told.  Nothing could be easier than striking poses in defense of this particular instance of “expertise in morality.”  Does not everyone agree that slavery is Evil?  What could be easier than simply shouting down anyone who disagrees?  They simply reveal themselves as Evil by association.  In reality, slavery is neither Good, nor Evil, because such categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves.  We can certainly say that the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the U.S. today is that slavery is evil.  It was also the subjective moral judgment of many individuals in the ante-bellum South that slavery was good.  What we cannot say is that there is some objective basis for deciding which of them is right.  Continuing from the article,

We look back and wonder, “how could educated people believe that slavery was a moral institution?”

Here Austin is assuming that there are objective reasons for considering slavery moral or immoral.  He does not tell us what they are, and for good reason.  There are none.

How could we believe that it is morally permissible for certain parts of the world to have so much, while others, through no fault of their own, die of malaria because they lack access to something as cheap and effective as a bed net or anti-malarial medication.

Here Austin is assuming that there is an objective basis for declaring some things morally permissible, and others not.  Again, he does not trouble himself to explain why.

I pay extra money each month to my satellite tv provider so that I can watch Arsenal on the Fox Soccer Channel, have an occasional overpriced drink at the local coffee shop, and I purchase other things that I don’t really need. To be clear, I don’t think that we should necessarily stop all such spending. What I do think we should consider, however, is the option of curtailing some of this spending and then putting that money to work in ways that can help others who are suffering from treatable illnesses. By making do with a little less, we can help others live. This is not mere charity, it is a matter of justice.

Here, we find a baseless “should” associated with the spending of money in one way as opposed to another, another baseless “should” concerning what it is appropriate for us to consider, and what not, and a declaration that something is a “matter of justice” without the least semblance of an attempt to establish the legitimacy of that assertion.

Morality is a loose description of a collection of behavioral traits, observable in human beings, with analogs in other species.  The ultimate reason for their existence is the evolution of physical traits in the brain and nervous system.  Those traits exist solely because individuals who possessed them were more likely to survive, in times which bear little resemblance to the present, than those who didn’t.  So much is becoming increasingly obvious.  In spite of this, Austin and legions of other modern moralists continue to simply assume the existence of objective morality as a given.  It is nothing of the sort.  Today, objective morality is like a dead man walking.  Perhaps future generations will have the sense to wonder why it is taking the dead man so long to finally collapse.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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