By Nathan Watson, Opinions Editor


We all know somebody who, for whatever reason, cannot seem to mind their own damn business. Whether solicited or not, they are always eager to throw their two cents into a situation and, more often than not, their contribution is negatively critical. You have made or are making a mistake in judgement somewhere, and it is their job to point this out to you.

As annoying as such people may be, their relentless prying is only an exaggeration of an indispensable aspect of social interaction. Like it or not, the characteristic nosiness of other humans and the likelihood that we will have to justify our behaviors to others is one of our primary motivations for moral action. Knowing that we must hold ourselves accountable to others is often the only thing that holds us back from doing what is right.

But, even if we are relatively “good” people—that is, even if we do what is right not out of fear of judgement or punishment, but out of a sense of duty—we nonetheless suffer from a number of deficits in moral ability. Even in many cases where we distrust our intuitions about the rightness of wrongness of a certain action, further deliberation is likely to serve little benefit if it is not done correctly.

Because of this, it is important that our moral reasoning move beyond internalized deliberation and into the moral “space of reasons,” to borrow and slightly modify a concept made popular by philosopher Wilfrid Sellars. Although Sellars used the phrase to refer to the nature of knowledge of the natural world, it can just as aptly apply to morality. Knowledge, for Sellars, involves “justifying and being able to justify what one says,” and a similar process occurs when we argue with a dissenting voice. By engaging in public (i.e. with at least one other person) deliberation with somebody who holds an opposing viewpoint, we are committing ourselves to justifying and being able to justify what we do.

Unfortunately, many harbor the belief that performing these judgements is a bad thing, a sort of invasion of privacy. A number of memes feed into this belief, including some whose original intent was benign. It is true that we should be without sin before we cast stones at another sinner; yet asking another sinner to give reasons for their actions is perhaps what they needed to challenge the beliefs that led to their actions. Imagine the following two scenarios.

(1) You are in the supermarket when you begin to hear a familiar commotion: a young child, probably in their “terrible twos,” begins throwing a temper-tantrum to the embarrassed dismay of his mother. After a few vain attempts to silence the child, the fraught mother turns the child around and delivers a quick and smarting blow to the child’s rear end. You, a development psychologist and parent of three successful, adult offspring, believe that spanking is at best ineffective and, at worst detrimental.

(2) Your co-worker, John, has three school-aged children about whom he frequently complains. Chief among his complaints is that he can never afford to buy all the things they need. Most recently, he had to forego buying his kids new school supplies. Last week you overheard him telling another co-worker about his plan to buy a brand new sports car with his anticipated Christmas bonus. Concerned that his money would perhaps better be spent in a savings fund for his children, you consider speaking up and trying to persuade him out of his current plans.

Should you step in and suggest to the shopping parent that their behaviors may not be conducive to the child’s well-being? Should you suggest to your co-worker, John, that his money is perhaps well-spent saving for his children’s’ futures? Whether you agree or disagree with the actions taken by these imaginary characters is not what’s at issue. No matter what your stance on a controversial issue, you are bound to come across people with different attitudes and beliefs, and whose behaviors elicit your disapproval. The question is whether it is right or wrong to challenge such people. To answer in the negative by appealing to the merits of privacy, or to somehow require that the observer “has his own house in order” before he criticizes the behavior of others is to reveal a profound misunderstanding of the nature of morality.

The upshot, of course, is that an effective exchange of moral reasoning requires a certain extent of intellectual honesty: both parties must be willing to both engage in the topic rationally and, if their beliefs or reasons for action turn out to be lacking, they must be willing to change their mind. The social has suggested that we are notoriously bad at this sort of intellectual honesty. As Haidt discovered in a number of experiments, people more often than not simply reaffirm their original beliefs and behavior when they are no longer able to justify them to another person. Yet there is a silver-lining to his discovery: professional philosophers (who have, through training, been encouraged to engage in such reasoning in a relatively impartial and honest manner) seem to be open to changing their mind. This difference is likely attributable to many philosophers’ understanding of morality as such a constructive endeavor, so there is little reason to believe that such a change cannot be brought about by others.

And the flip side of this coin is that, obviously, you owe the same reasons to yourself and other people. As a moral agent, you ought to be not only willing, but eager to provide justificatory reasons for your behavior. For, even if you trust the acuity of your own moral judgement, honest engagement with dissenting voices is the only way to constantly keep guard against the human tendency towards errors in moral judgement. So, the next time a brown-noser offers their two cents into how you should live your life, welcome their contribution as an opportunity to engage in the only practice that keeps us accountable as moral agents.