Bringing Back the Moral Wrestler: Author Meets Critics at APPE 2019

By: Dr. Daniel E. Wueste
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy & Religion, Clemson University
Dr. Wueste's piece is in response to Prof. Amitai Etzioni's recent book Happiness is the Wrong Metric, which can be downloaded for free here:


Professor Etzioni is anxious to bring back what he calls the moral wrestler. If I have understood him correctly, I believe that is a good idea. I’m not entirely sure, however, that I have understood him correctly. I offer this caveat —and thus have something to talk about today— because, in my reading, on more than one occasion, I was puzzled; and it may be the case that in grappling with Professor Etzioni’s ideas, I arrived in a place where I could see my way clear to say, as I did a moment ago, that bringing back the moral wrestler is a good idea; my worry is that result may depend on cockeyed interpretations of his ideas.

At the beginning of Chapter 2, Professor Etzioni invites attention to a conception of human nature shared by the three Abrahamic religions: We are “morally flawed”; while we are capable of distinguishing right from wrong, we “keep straying,” we “struggle between doing good and being tempted to violate our sense of what is right.” We are, by our very nature, “engage[d] in a life-long wrestle between the better angels of [our] nature and our debased sel[ves]. This conception of human nature contrasts with conceptions of human nature –yes plural— in social science, which, although they are “richer,” are “less clearly etched.” Another feature of these conceptions, according to Professor Etzioni, is that they do not pay enough attention to “what makes for winning moral wrestling” (41). It appears from his discussion that this is by design as social sciences such as economics and behavioral economics, for example, are committed to moral neutrality. The questions, “what makes us better than we would be otherwise” (45) and “what makes some people better moral wrestlers than others” (46), are left unanswered because they aren’t addressed.

Discussing, in turn, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, which he calls “softer social sciences,” it emerges that although they do a better job of “providing [a] secular and empirical understanding of moral wrestling” (46), in doing so they open a Pandora’s Box” (46). They do this by providing empirical support for “philosophical relativism, the suspension of moral judgment, which takes the oomph out of moral wrestling” (47). Here we need to slow down a bit.

Professor Etzioni writes,

Once one takes the position that x believe in monogamy and y believe in polygamy, and that x has no basis on which to tell y that x’s choice is more moral than that of y—one pulls the rug out from under all cross-cultural moral claims. And because the same is true for subcultures within each society, these intrasocietal judgments are also left without a firm foundation (47).

To be sure, if moral judgment were suspended, that is, if it were not possible to make judgments based on distinctions between right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust, we would have a problem. Hobbes provided a famous description of the state we’d be in: the lives of human beings would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” And so, it’s tempting to say that the problem wouldn’t be that moral wrestling lacks oomph, rather, it’s that we would be caught up in the war of all against all.

Professor Etzioni acknowledges that some social scientists have argued that all is not lost, because some values are cross- cultural and these can serve as a foundation for moral judgments that are also cross cultural. He is quick —too quick, I think— to dismiss this move with the observation that “many cultures approve killing outsiders…[and in addition] “many cultures…lionize killing some of their own, for instance in so-called honor killings.” What this shows, according to Professor Etzioni, is that “even the most elementary moral value, thou shall not kill, is not universally shared” (47).

I should say, first, that “Thou shall not kill” is not a value; it is a command, or if you prefer, a rule. Rules and principles are devices for safeguarding values, say, for example, human life. And, although two or three, or seven communities share a value, there’s nothing in that that guarantees the development of the same rule to safeguard it. The connection between a value and a rule that safeguards it is not conceptual/logical; it is more like the link between “puppy” and “difficult to housebreak” than it is like the link between “bachelor” and “unmarried.” Moreover, differences that we see with respect to the applicability of rules more likely turn on questions about what counts as a this or that than on one party’s accepting while the other rejects the rule. A rule to the effect that wrongdoers should be punished, for example, is much more likely to run aground, if it does, in trying to answer the question whether or not John Doe is a wrongdoer, than because it isn’t accepted by one or more persons. There’s something else worth noting here. A rule may do the job of safeguarding a value well or not; it may be ham-handed or elegant, and that, in turn, may lead to disparate results in application. But that, rather than showing that the value it is supposed to protect isn’t shared, may reveal a design flaw, for example, a lack of moral sensitivity to problems likely to arise in the application of a rule that allows no exceptions.

And so, it emerges that the all -is-not-lost move of the social scientist, a move that, you’ll recall, is supposed to keep the lid on the Pandora’s Box of relativism, is not robbed of its force when, let us suppose, it has been shown that the rule thou shall not kill “is not universally shared.” Further, since the all-is-not-lost move —arguing that certain facts about us as critters, which are cross cultural, have moral import— plays a significant role in the social intuitionism of Jonathan Haidt, one of the few social psychologists Etzioni identifies as a “scholar who [has] made contributions to the study of moral wrestling” (50), I think it would be a good idea to have a another look at the idea. I invite attention to it as it appears in an article by legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart where he defends the separability thesis of legal positivism against natural law jurisprudence, which denies it, while admitting, indeed arguing, that there is a core of good sense in natural law theory. One reason for considering Hart’s take on the idea is that it involves a conception of human nature, which is important for both Professor Etzioni and Jonathan Haidt. Another reason is that with Hart’s treatment of the idea it is clear from the start that relying on human nature we will be relying on a foundation of contingent fact.

Hart begins by noting that the world and those who live in it are subject to change and may, in future, be very different. He notes as well that “if this change were radical enough not only would certain statements of fact now true be false and vice versa, but whole ways of thinking and talking which constitute our present conceptual apparatus, through which we see the world and each other, would lapse.” That our bodies change in size and shape is a plain matter of fact. That such changes aren’t drastic, rapid, or irregular, thus allowing us to see each other as the same individual over not insignificant periods of time, is also a matter of fact. To be sure, this is a contingent matter of fact, but, Hart writes, “on it at present, rest huge structures of our thought and principles of action and social life.” To drive the point home Hart asks us to

suppose that men were to become invulnerable to attack by each other, were clad perhaps like giant land crabs with an impenetrable carapace, and could extract the food they needed from the air by some internal chemical process. In such circumstances (the details of which can be left to science fiction) rules forbidding the free use of violence and rules constituting the minimum form of property -with its rights and duties sufficient to enable food to grow and be retained until eaten would not have the necessary nonarbitrary status which they have for us, constituted as we are in a world like ours. At present, and until such radical changes supervene, such rules are so fundamental that if a legal system did not have them there would be no point in having any other rules at all. Such rules overlap with basic moral principles vetoing murder, violence, and theft; and so we can add to the factual statement that all legal systems in fact coincide with morality at such vital points, the statement that this is, in this sense, necessarily so. And why not call it a "natural" necessity? Of course even this much depends on the fact that in asking what content a legal system must have we take this question to be worth asking only if we who consider it cherish the humble aim of survival in close proximity to our fellows (Hart 1958:622-623).

The idea, again, is that there is a foundation for “huge structures of our thought and principles of action and social life” in human nature —in the sort of critters that we are. While this foundation resides in the world of contingent fact rather than, say, an intelligible or noumenal realm of immutable, universal and timeless truths, it is a firm foundation; and, it’s important to note, although it is undeniably connected to culture, fin — if it were, the tail would be wagging the dog— and that scuppers the worry about Pandora’s Box.

At this juncture, we’ve got the ticket we need to get on board with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who, you will recall, Professor Etzioni identifies as a social scientist “who [has] made contributions to the study of moral wrestling” (50).

According to Haidt, for a proper understanding of moral judgment attention should be focused on the automatic processes of the human mind, and in particular, what he calls intuitions. What Haidt calls intuitions are rooted in our biology and evolution, which includes forces of nurture as well as nature: “moral intuitions derive from innate psychological mechanisms that coevolved with cultural institutions and practices” (Graham, Haidt and Nosek 2009:1030). Accordingly, — and this is important— although they are innate, they are modifiable. Following cognitive scientist Gary Marcus, Haidt holds that “innate ‘does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience’” (1031). These mechanisms, which he also calls moral foundations[i]  (harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, purity) are something like Velcro for the teachings of parents and others within a social group about virtues, vices, and the interlocking expectations of social practices. They are, Haidt suggests, again following Marcus, key elements of a first draft of the moral mind that has been written by evolutionary forces and will be edited by experience (1031).

According to Haidt’s social intuitionism moral judgments are the product of intuition. The philosopher’s account to the contrary notwithstanding, moral reasoning is an ex post affair. What Haidt calls intuition is a variety of cognition that contrasts with reasoning in the following way: “intuition occurs quickly, effortlessly, and automatically, such that the outcome but not the process is accessible to consciousness, whereas reasoning occurs slowly, requires some effort, and involves at least some steps that are accessible to consciousness” (2001:818). As Haidt has it, while it may be the case, at least sometimes, that reasoning generates moral judgments, intuition is the default.

Again, as Haidt has it, moral reasoning is largely, if not entirely, an ex post affair. Moral judgments arise from intuitions; reasoning about judgments occurs after they have been made. In this respect, the process is lawyerly. Indeed, speaking of moral arguments in the terms of his now very well-known image of the rider and the elephant, the rider atop the elephant of intuition “becomes a lawyer” (2006:22). Now, a lawyer starts with a conclusion, that, for example, (her client) plaintiff wins, and constructs an argument to justify it (Haidt 2001:828). The American legal realists suggested that, the received view notwithstanding, the process of judicial reasoning is essentially the same. I think we might well say that lawyers and judges are wrestlers; they are wrestling with the available norms, which are, so to say, competing for a place in a justificatory argument that will be scrutinized by others.

Talking about how judges make decisions, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote,

The language of judicial decision is mainly the language of logic. And the logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty and for repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man. Behind the logical form lies a judgment as to the relative worth and importance of competing legislative grounds, often an inarticulate and unconscious judgment, it is true, and yet the very root and nerve of the whole proceeding. You can give any conclusion a logical form (Holmes 1920:181).

According to John Dewey, what Holmes has in mind in speaking of logic and logical form is the logic of the syllogism, i.e., the logic of exposition. The logic of exposition, which answers to what Homes calls a “longing for certainty and…repose,” serves well the purpose of showing that an already determined judgment is justified by showing that it follows from premises of law and fact. But, as Holmes indicates, judgment about the value and significance of competing legislative grounds takes place before the premises of law and fact make an appearance in the syllogism, i.e., before the legal conclusion is given a logical form. Dewey argues that what goes on in this space involves another kind of logic, a “vital logic,” the purpose of which is “not to draw a conclusion from given premises,” which is something that “can best be done by a piece of inanimate machinery by fingering a keyboard,” but “to find statements, of general principle and of particular fact, which are worthy to serve as premises” (1924:2). Dewey calls this “a logic of search and inquiry” (1924:24). It is responsive, he says, to “the need of another kind of logic that “reduce[s] the influence of habit, and... facilitate[s] the use of good sense regarding matters of social consequence” (1924:21).

Time is short, so I will close with a suggestion about moral wrestling that fits well with what we ought to happily take away from Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral judgment, namely, that moral reasoning is largely an ex post affair and the rider works as a lawyer. Taking some cues from Holmes and Dewey, I suggested that lawyers and judges are wrestlers —instantiating the “vital logic” that lies behind a syllogistic form, they are wrestling with the available norms that are competitors for a place in a justificatory argument that will be scrutinized by others. Putting these ideas together I should say that, in a straightforward sense, with Haidt’s rider, the moral wrestler is back.


Works Cited

Dewey, J. 1924. “Logical Method and Law” Cornell Law Review. 10:17-27. Accessed 25 September 2017.

Etzioni, A. 2018. Happiness is the Wrong Metric, Library of Public Policy and Public Administration 11, 319-69623-2_2

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. 2009. “Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96:1029–1046. H

Haidt, J. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to

Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review, 108: 814-834.

Haidt, J. 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.

Hart, H.L.A. 1958 “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Feb., 1958), pp. 593-629 Stable URL: Accessed: 01-03-2019 02:18 UTC // here excerpt from pp. 622-623)

Holmes, O.W. Jr. 1920. Collected Legal Papers, New York: Harcourt Brace and Howe.


[i] According to Haidt, Graham, Nosek, and Joseph’s moral foundations theory there are five foundations: Harm/care; Fairness/reciprocity (the first two are “individualizing foundations); Ingroup/loyalty; authority/respect; Purity/sanctity (the last three are “binding foundations). These foundations are key in their effort to explain how liberals and conservatives differ: liberals more vigorously embrace and employ the first two, harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, than conservatives who embrace and employ all five in a rather even-handed way. (2009:1029–1046.)