The Moral Frameworks of Our Politics and Why They Matter by Jacob Zahalsky

Author: Jacob Zahalsky

Read Time4 Minutes, 36 Seconds

I have a blog now. I figured it would be a nice place to put my ponderings instead of just letting them fly off into the void. So I’ll just write about what I’m thinking at the moment and see if I can form coherent thoughts.

Today, I’m thinking about the many ways in which our metaethics apply to the policies we advocate for, and specifically how no one seems to think enough about it.

For the uninitiated, metaethics is how we define good and bad. Not what is good, but what good is. Our metaethic is the moral system and foundation we all have to judge whether something is good or bad. We all have some sort of system like this, but we don’t always give a lot of thought to what it is specifically.

Why is freedom good? Why shouldwe have human rights? Things such as freedom and human rights are often taken for granted as inherently good, but there must be a reason, an explanation of their goodness. What parameters do these things fall in that make them good?

How we form a metaethic is not settled. If we don’t think about it too much, many of us just operate under our intuitive metaethic; what our evolved sense of morality, psychology, personal experience, and upbringing has led us to believe is good and bad.

Almost every religion has some form of supernatural absolute metaethic. For example, in monotheistic religions, God is arbiter of all that is good or bad; every moral question can presumably be answered by studying His instruction.

Some people believe that morality is subjective, and that what is good or bad varies based on the cultural and religious preferences of individual groups or countries.

There are also metaethics based on objective criteria such as pleasure and suffering. Essentially, good is synonymous with pleasure/well-being and bad is synonymous with suffering.

A defense of any particular metaethic is not the point of this post. The point is that our conclusions about this question are not semantic or superfluous. Our feelings on this topic effect our political leanings and decisions, and the policies enacted by our governments.

A present example is the controversy surrounding abortion. I will incredibly oversimplify this complex debate for the sake of making a broader point about political debates in general.

Under some religious metaethics, morality is defined by what God says, and God says that all life is morally valuable. Thus abortion is morally wrong. The pro-life position is entirely logical if you start with the metaethic of divine moral command (presuming that His command is interpreted correctly). (Of course, religious people can be pro-life or pro-choice, or anywhere in between. I’m using a stereotypical perspective to make a point.)

An intuitive metaethic may lead some people to value the freedom of the mother to maintain bodily autonomy, because freedom is an intuitive value. Others may intuitively value human life, no matter how new or small or unconscious.

Under some well-being/suffering-based metaethics, the fetus is not a moral factor until is has developed the cognitive capability to feel pleasure and suffering. Until then, the mother is the only morally applicable thing in this situation.

The problem in this debate about morality is that its often as if we’re playing different sports and arguing about the rules. I scream at you that I just scored a touchdown, while you insist that I’m actually out at first base. We argue about moral conclusions without considering that our opponents have moral frameworks and starting positions completely different from our own. This leads us to conclude that, since our conclusion is good, our opponents must be intentionally doing bad things. After all, the rules of football clearly state that when I reach the end zone, I score a touchdown. Any denial of something so obvious seems to be made in bad faith. This tendency to think of our political opponents as evil gets us nowhere and misses the point. They’re conclusion is logical, and good, given their moral framework. From they’re perspective, we’re the evil ones.

Instead of arguing about touchdowns and outs, we should take a step back and first decide which sport we want to play. Likewise, instead of labeling each other as baby-killers or body-invaders, we should be debating about what we value and why in the first place. We need to come to a conclusion about a collective metaethic, or at least understand the other side’s metaethic, or we will never make any progress in this debate.

An effective understanding of our and others’ moral frameworks/metaethics not only helps us navigate these difficult debates, it also helps us recognize bad arguments.

Consider the assertion: “Socialism is evil.”

It’s pretty common at Trump rallies and among Fox News guests. It’s an effective rhetorical tool to frame a debate around Evil Democrats vs Freedom-loving Patriots, but it lacks any justification for the evilness of socialism. Socialism is just, inherently, “evil.”
However, once we try to define “evil,” we realize that this is a more complicated debate; it involves questions of freedom, inequality, and fairness, as well as economic policy. All of these things themselves, even “fairness,” must also be justified as good or bad. Any political conclusion based purely on the idea that an ideology or principle is inherently bad, is inherently incomplete.

If we continue to fail to recognize the metaethics behind our political decisions, we will continue to have fruitless debates and misinformed policies.

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