Balanced descriptions vs. proper moral evaluation

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Joined  26-12-2006
29 February 2008 06:57

An unfortunate, and very common fallacy in moral arguments is to utilize the proper standards for factual descriptions as essentially the same standards that should be used for normative judgments.

For example, an ideology or person cannot be properly morally judged on the basis of evils alone, but we have to “subtract” the goodness in it as well to get a balanced view.

And even if we were to condemn an element in a particular ideology or person, that element should not determine the moral value of the ideology or person as such.

For example, we cannot judge Islam on basis of its death penalty for apostasy, because we need to take into account the commitment in Islam for taking care of orphans as well. And so on.

But, if we think a bit further, this is utterly ridiculous.

If I murder and rape girls on Saturdays, do I get to be better person if I help old women across the street on Wednesdays?
How many old women do I have to help over the street on Wednesdays to “compensate” for my murders?

Similarly, does the fact that Nazism espoused welfare benefits for old German workers make it a less murderous, Jew-hating ideology?

The morally proper judgment is NOT this type of pseudo-arithmetic where the net evaluation of an ideology or person is given by a sum of the “positive” goodnesses and the “negative” evils.

Rather, an ideology is never morally better than its worst contained element, and a person has no higher moral value than his worst unrepented action or attitude.

Evil is a moral contamination that affects the whole ideology or person like a spreading poison, rather than being confined as a minuscule ingredient in it that is insufficient to judge the whole by.

A similar confusion is evident in counter-arguments towards condemnations of entire ideologies as religion, by saying “so-and so religion is not a monolithic entity, we must distinguish between the cases, and individuals might have their own versions of it”.

Let us consider the set of all ideologies that contains as an element anti-Semitism, calling for discrimination against Jews.
Why should we need to know any more details about these ideologies in order to form a morally proper judgment of them?

It is SUFFICIENT to point to that ideological element, irrespective of any other ideological strands, to undergird our moral evaluation of them.

And, only insofar as that element is explicitly thrown out of such an ideology should our judgment to the better.

Thus, for example, we may condemn all individualized versions of Islam that sympathizes with the murder of apostates as thoroughly evil systems of thought without knowing any other faith facets within them.


This is not an unwarranted simplification of the issues, but rather the way in which we sift out what is relevant for a moral judgment of some ideology, and what is not.

Obviously, some bad ideologies can be relatively worse than another, for example an Islam form that contains both a sympathy for killing apostates AND stoning of adulterous women is certainly worse than those Islam forms prescribing only one of these perversions.

But that does NOT make those one-evil ideologies morally good, they remain wholly unacceptable ideologies from a moral point of view.

This type of relative judgments between badnesses is about as interesting as judging whether a person is just a troll, or if he actually must be called an ogre.
Or if he is really, really bad, a monster..

[ Edited: 29 February 2008 07:00 by arildno]
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29 February 2008 07:40
arildno - 29 February 2008 11:57 AM

An unfortunate, and very common fallacy in moral arguments is to utilize the proper standards for factual descriptions as essentially the same standards that should be used for normative judgments.

Actually you’re pointing out the perfectionist fallacy and arguing for consistency, not a different set of standards.


Total Posts:  1290
Joined  26-12-2006
29 February 2008 16:11

Of course there are different standards for factual descriptions and normative statements.

In a factual description of an ideology, or the exercise of it, the moments of major relevance (i.e, of historical significance) might be either “good” or “bad” from a moral point of view.

You basically need to list all the significant factors, whatever you think their moral value is. It is an irrelevant concern in the search for historical truth.

Now, it most certainly is true that facts are important in the MORAL evaluation of some ideology (we shouldn’t misportray prevalences, distributions and so on), but that does NOT mean all the historical facts about the ideology are necessary to list in order to draw a well-founded moral conclusion.

Say a society likes to kill hunchbacks, and at the same time is committed to taking care of orphans.
Now, since orphans are pretty rare, we might say that hunchback-killing is not a major concern within the ideological framework, but taking care of orphans definitely is.

But, in a moral evaluation of that society, it is pretty much irrelevant that it is committed to the welfare of orphans, as long as they are committed to murdering hunchbacks. THAT last element gives you the highest moral value that society can be ascribed.

So, the standards used in factual research and moral judgments are not the same.

Is is not ought..

Total Posts:  1290
Joined  26-12-2006
10 March 2008 11:40

This has real life implications as well.
For example, take the case of Islam:

On the one hand, you have sentiments expressed like “there is to be no compulsion in religion” AND “apostates are to be killed”.

It is morally irrelevant how many different ways you may seek to harmonize these messages such that both retain some sort of validity; ALL of them are evil, due to the presence of the second element.
Only those Islam forms that explicitly reject the idea that apostates are to be killed, or harmed, can be regarded as possibly morally good ideologies.
(One example of that is the Ahmadis, who, tellingly, are branded as heretics by mainstream Muslims)