The Tyranny of Morality

There are values, and they come in morally relevant and morally irrelevant varieties. The value of the tastiness of my espresso seems to be morally irrelevant. Promoting such a value is not to do something moral. Otherwise, sipping my coffee in the morning constitutes a moral act. However, some moral theories do not allow for this natural line of reasoning.

Any theory that takes the maximization of value to be a moral imperative will deny that there are morally irrelevant values. For example, a hedonistic act utilitarian will take the only intrinsic value to be pleasure. Everything else is valuable insofar as it promotes pleasure. Since the only duty we have on this form of utilitarianism is to maximize pleasure, that means that sipping my coffee this morning constituted a moral act. It was morally good that I drank coffee instead of water this morning, because the coffee was more pleasurable. In fact, I had a duty to drink coffee instead of water, as long as I was in a position to know that the former would be more pleasurable.

The problem I have with such a view is that it moralizes everything. We act in relation to perceived value or disvalue. When I engage in an action, I do it because I have some reason to, and that reason is typically because the action or consequence is valuable in some way. The same goes for avoiding actions because of their disvalue. But if our one moral duty is to maximize value then all of our actions are moralized. Nearly every action we engage in can be criticized on moral grounds because it could have promoted more value than it did. Call this the tyranny of morality.

A moral theory is tyrannical when it moralizes everything. All of our actions ought to be in the service of the good, despite any of our plans, interests, or desires. So our actions are all morally relevant, because they are all related to value in some way. I take this to be the real source of the common objection to forms of consequentialism that require value maximization. Such theories are far too demanding, as the objection goes. But the reason they are too demanding isn’t usually articulated, besides attempts at eliciting intuitions about demandingness. The reason these theories are too demanding is because they are tyrannical. They moralize all of our actions, because we are the sorts of creatures who act for reasons, and reasons are intimately related to values.

  • Suppose a government was deciding whether to pass a law that banned the consumption of coffee. Let’s consider the question of whether passing such a law is morally permissible. If the value of the tastiness of your espresso is morally irrelevant, then it is irrelevant to the question of whether the proposed ban is morally permissible. But it is not the case that the tastiness of your espresso is irrelevant to that question. Thus, it is not the case that the tastiness of your espresso is morally irrelevant.

    I think that there is a way to save part of your intuition that the tastiness of your espresso is morally irrelevant. We should say that, while it is relevant, it is not very weighty. I certainly share the intuition that the tastiness of coffee is not morally weighty. The fact that it is not weighty means that, in a very large number of actual cases, the reasons that we have to promote the pleasure associated with drinking espresso are easily overridden by other reasons. We might say: (E) the fact that some act promotes the pleasurable experience of drinking tasty espresso only weakly tends to make it the case that we ought to perform the action.

    This explains our intuition that your sipping espresso is not a moral act. We don’t want to call the decision to drink espresso a moral decision because, in normal circumstances, nothing serious rides on it because of the truth of (E). [On the other hand, when a person or persons has/have the power to ban all espresso experiences, the number of banned experiences add up and, collectively, count as a weighty reason to not engage in the ban.]

    • Thanks for the comment, Jason. That does seem to be the best response to my concern. I’m reflecting on your thought experiment and it seems to me that tastiness isn’t doing the moral work (although I can see why others would disagree). In the case of banning consumption of coffee, the restriction of freedom is what would be relevant to the question of permissibility. The government may justify its policy with considerations of public health, but that would be weighed against the cost of restricting people’s freedom of choice. I have the same intuition if I shift the thought experiment to consuming dirty dish water, which is definitely not tasty (at least I don’t think so; no personal experience there!). If the government decides to ban consuming dirty dish water, its reasons would have to outweigh the cost of restricting our freedom to consume dish water. So it could be that the value of freedom is morally relevant in both cases.

      The reply I anticipate is that freedom plus tastiness may be weightier than just freedom, so the tastiness of coffee plus the value of freedom to consume it tips the scales more than just the value of freedom would (like my case of dish water).

      I think this may just come down to a clash between our intuitions about which values are morally relevant. I definitely take your point about weightiness, though. It does seem like a way to save some of my intuition while remaining within a maximizing consequentialist framework. I’m thinking about how the context in which tastiness features affects its moral relevance such that it has any moral weight at all. Could it be that my coffee consumption in the morning has no moral weight by virtue of tastiness, but if a government decides to ban it, the tastiness becomes weighty?

      Thanks for drawing my attention to this possibility.