Is Morality a Matter of Taste?

3. Nature of Moral Reasoning

Book cover: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

In this section, I want to paint a scenario of a moral discussion. Picture this scene. Three friends are sitting around the coffee table arguing over a moral question that is very much in the news—voluntary euthanasia. They are discussing whether people enduring unbearable pain much of the time while suffering a terminal illness ought to be able to end their lives as they choose.

  1. The first friend, Fred, says: 'The terminally ill ought to have that right as people have a right to act autonomously unless the act harms someone else.'
  2. Mary, the second friend, objects: 'The terminally ill ought not as instituting such a right will lead to abuse with some elderly coerced into ending their lives.'
  3. John, the third friend, says baldly: 'The terminally ill should be prevented from choosing the manner of their death.'

Fred and Mary ask John why he thinks so. After a brief pause, John replies: 'I just like it that way.' Fred and Mary press John further, 'Why do you want to prevent people from choosing how they die?' John pushes back, simply insisting, 'That is just what I want.'

I want to pause here for a moment and ask you to reflect on what you think of John's contribution to the moral discussion. Note that I'm not asking you whether you think John's conclusion is right or wrong, but about his style of reasoning for his conclusion—about the nature of his contribution.

I want to propose that Fred and Mary are offering a moral reason for their judgment. Their reasons are based on considerations broader than their own personal wants and preferences. Of course, we may disagree with one or both of their justifications, but I think it natural to say that they are advancing a moral argument.

Regarding John, however, I propose that he is not offering a moral reason for his judgment at all. Recall that John replied, when he was pressed to support his judgment, 'I just like it that way.' and 'That is just what I want.' By exclusively appealing to his own personal preferences, he seems not to have engaged in the moral debate at all. He may be advancing a prudential reason for his view. However, I think it's natural to insist that he is not putting forward a moral justification for his position. His stated reason is outside the bounds of moral discourse.

Copyright © 2017

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