One of the most pervasive fallacies in ethics is collapsing the distinction between descriptive ethics and normative ethics, which many moral theorists do even today. In other words, they make observations of how people do behave based on evolution, social expectations, goals common to most human beings, etc., and conclude that therefore people ought to behave that way or, alternatively, that this distinction is pointless in practice because people will continue to think and behave in a way that reflects a desire to achieve these common goals and therefore there is no reason to seriously concern oneself with any morality in which alternative goals are sought. Some thinkers, such as Sam Harris, pursue this second course explicitly and with full awareness that they are doing so, while others, such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan, pursue this course more subtly or possibly even without awareness that they are doing so.

Both modes of thinking are fallacious, the first because it constitutes the naturalistic fallacy or reasoning from an “is” to an “ought,” and the second because it equates what is useful with what is true. I have already dealt with the naturalistic fallacy and the is-ought problem extensively in earlier posts, so I will focus on why the second position is fallacious.

The second position is an attempt to take an approach to ethics akin to the scientific method, where the goal is to find an explanation of empirical phenomena that is useful and questions of ultimate or metaphysical truth are not pursued (at least not within the framework of science; they can be pursued within the framework of philosophy or even religion so long as they do not conflict with scientific findings). In science, the primary concern is not whether one’s interpretation of data or repeated empirical observations is true, but whether it effectively explains the data and how parsimoniously it does so.

The general form of this argument typically goes as follows:

If humans generally approach moral questions and moral claims a certain way, it doesn’t matter if a few people approach them in a fundamentally different way than the majority. This is of no practical consequence for any actual human society, and thus we may as well just admit that humans generally have common goals and concerns and treat those common goals and concerns as real properties of human experience and thus, for all intents and purposes, real properties of the world. While it is possible to argue for a completely different set of goals and concerns, such a vastly different set of goals and concerns would have no practical significance, as few would be willing to embrace it and in any case it would very likely be harmful to the survival of the human race in the long run.

Furthermore, such an approach may have practical consequences, of a sort that the person approaching ethics this way and the majority of people would regard as profoundly negative because of the great suffering they could well end up entailing. Seriously treating the common goals or concerns of people as not really existing or not inherently worthy of assent will make it possible for people to pursue moral goals and concerns that regard human life as trivial or treat violence and cruelty as good things, and undermining the common goals and concerns of human beings would accomplish exactly that.

Now, even if it were true that not treating the supposed common goals and concerns of the majority of people as real, universal properties of the world would lead to a world where there was nothing to stop people from perpetrating mass violence and/or indulging their instincts towards exclusivity and wanton cruelty, this would merely prove that it would be inconvenient if these alleged real, universal moral properties did not exist. It would not prove that any real, universal moral properties actually existed. (Now, it is of course possible to equate what would be convenient if it were true with what is true—that is called wishful thinking.)

However, I don’t even think it’s true that not treating the common goals and concerns of most people as real properties of the world (or, aiming lower, as worthy of assent precisely because they are common among people) would necessarily, or even likely, lead to these consequences. Those who have argued that the supposed common goals and concerns of people do not necessarily represent or reflect real moral properties of the world have, as far as I know, never perpetrated violence on a massive scale, and may in fact be less likely to do so because they have just as easy a time recognizing the baselessness of moral claims that would justify violence and the indulgence of instincts towards exclusivity and wanton cruelty. Following up on this latter point, the historical evidence suggests that people are just as capable, if not more capable, of perpetrating mass violence and acting on their cruelest instincts in the name of morality as they are in the name of amorality. In fact, every major example of mass violence I can think of was done in the name of something its perpetrators believed to be a good or even the good.*

Even if rejecting the view that these supposed common goals and concerns are real or worthy of assent precisely because they are common goals and concerns would lead to all the negative consequences those who criticize those who reject this view fear they would, it would still not prove that this view was correct.

Finally, even if arguing against treating supposedly common human goals and concerns had no practical consequences, those who value the truth for its own sake, as I do (though I acknowledge, of course, that I have no objective or universal basis for doing so), would still pursue this line of argument if they believed it to reflect the way the world actually is. For those who care about truth for its own sake, it makes all the difference in the world whether the supposed common goals and concerns of human beings cited by those now being criticized are based on objective, universal properties of the world, or are based only on values that people subjectively hold because of their biological heritage, psychological makeup, or socialization and upbringing. If they are subjective and based on the latter sorts of factors, there is no duty to adhere to or live by these supposedly common goals and concerns.

Obviously, there are practical consequences to living or not living by certain values, but there are again only subjective and particular grounds, not objective or universal grounds for favoring any particular consequences or types of consequences.

This touches on and may even simply restate an earlier point: Those who collapse the distinction between descriptive ethics and normative ethics generally go even further and either explicitly assert or strongly imply that patterns of moral reasoning common to (most) humans should be the basis of human moralities now and in the future understand, and thus make a prescriptive claim. However, there are no rational grounds for deriving such a normative ethical claim or “ought,” from observations of nature, including observations of human nature, and including observations made according to a strict application of the scientific method.

I will briefly touch on my comments that Kohlberg and Gilligan not only seemingly collapsed the distinction between descriptive ethics and normative ethics, but did so either without arguing for it or maybe even without realizing it. Both of them posited a hierarchy of moral development: Kohlberg argued for more stages, but both posited a hierarchy of development with multiple stages, with Kohlberg emphasizing stereotypically “male” concerns related to justice and individuality and Gilligan emphasizing stereotypically “female” concerns related to care and relationships with others.

Even if it was not their intent to collapse the distinction between descriptive ethics and normative ethics, in practice many people treat their stages (and those of their followers) not merely as descriptions of the ways people do behave, but as ways people should or ought to behave or as measures of whether people’s behavior is worthy of approval and to what degree.

At the very least, I don’t think their major works pointed out that they were merely describing how men and women do approach morality in practice and not providing prescriptive guidelines or standards by which people should live, evaluate behavior, or evaluate moral ideas. At least, I don’t recall them pointing this out.

I want to emphasize that I am not attacking their moral development models themselves. As long as their moral development models are not treated as prescriptive or as providing standards of how people ought to behave, evaluate behavior, or evaluate moral ideas, and are instead merely considered for their descriptive accuracy or lack thereof, there is no collapse of the distinction between descriptive ethics and normative ethics and the foregoing critique does not apply to them.

* Examples of supposed “goods” mass violence has been perpetrated in the name of include national unity or integration (Nationalist and later Communist China, Fascist Italy), nationalism and national glory (many historical empires, including Imperial Japan in the 20th century), social equality (the Soviet Union and other communist countries), racial purity (Nazi Germany), the will of God and other religious and theological grounds (Islamic jihadis, Christian crusaders), purging perceived undesirable elements from society (Nazi Germany), secularization (Revolutionary France, most communist countries), liberty (Revolutionary France), racism (Arab and European empires in the modern period), spreading supposedly enlightened ideas or culture (many modern European empires), and many others.