I was strolling through my neighborhood, planning a new essay on the relation between moral belief and moral action, and in particular thinking about how philosophical moral slogans (e.g., “act on the maxim that you can will to be a universal law”) seem to lack content until filled out with a range of examples, when I noticed this sign in front of a neighbor’s house:
“In this house, we believe:
Black lives matter
Women’s rights are human rights
No human is illegal
Science is real
Love is love
Kindness is everything”
If you know the political scene in the United States, you’ll understand that the first five of these slogans have meanings much more specific than is evident from their surface content alone. “Black lives matter” conveys the belief that great racial injustice still exists in the U.S., especially perpetrated by the police, and it recommends taking action to rectify that injustice. “Women’s rights are human rights” conveys a similar belief about continuing gender inequality, especially with respect to reproductive rights including access to abortion. “No human is illegal” expresses concern about the mistreatment of people who have entered the country without legal permission. “Science is real” expresses disdain for the Republican Party’s apparent disregard of scientific evidence in policy-making, especially concerning climate change. And “love is love” expresses the view that heterosexual and homosexual relationships should be treated equivalently, especially with respect to the rights of marriage. “Kindness is everything” is also interesting, and I’ll get to it in a moment.
How confusing and opaque all of this would be to an outsider! A time-traveler from the 19th century, maybe. “Love is love”. Well, of course! Isn’t that just a tautology? Who could disagree? Explain the details, however, and our 19th century guest might well disagree. The import of this slogan, this “belief”, is radically underspecified by its explicit linguistic content. The same is true of all the others. But this does not, I think, makes them either deficient or different in kind from many of the slogans that professional philosophers endorse.
The last slogan on the sign, “kindness is everything”, is to my knowledge less politically specific, but it illustrates a connected point. Clearly, it’s intended to celebrate and encourage kindness. But kindness isn’t literally everything, certainly not ontologically, nor even morally, unless something extremely thin is meant by “kindness”. If a philosopher were to espouse this slogan, I’d immediately want to work through examples with them, to assess what this claim amounts to. If I give an underperforming student the C-minus they deserve instead of the A they want, am I being kind in the intended sense? How about if I object to someone’s stepping on my toe? Actually, these detail-free questions might still be too abstract to fully assess, since there are many ways to step on someone’s toe, and many ways to object, and many different circumstances in which toe-stepping might be embedded, and not all C-minus situations are the same.
Here’s what would really make the slogan clear: a life lived in kindness. A visible pattern of reactions to a wide range of complex situations. How does the person who embodies “kindness is everything” react to having their toe stepped on, in this particular way by this particular person? Show me specific kindness-related situations over and over again, with the variations that life brings. Only then will I really understand the ideal.
We can do this sometimes in imagination, or through developing a feel for someone’s character and way of life. In a richly imagined fictions, or in a set of stories about Confucius or Jesus or some other sage, we can begin to see the substance of a moral view and a set of values, putting flesh on the slogans.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, patriot, revolutionary, and slaveowner, wrote “All men are created equal”. That sounds good. People in the U.S. endorse that slogan, repeat it, embrace it in all sincerity. What does it mean? All “men” in the old-fashioned sense that supposedly also included women, or really only men? Black people and Native Americans too? And it what does equality consist? Does it mean all should have the right to vote? Equal treatment before the law? Certain rights and liberties? What is the function of “created” in this sentence? Do we start equal but diverge? We could try to answer all these questions, and then new more specific questions would spring forth hydra-like (which laws specifically, under which conditions?) until we tack it down in a range of concrete examples.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly didn’t agree on all these matters, especially the question of slavery. They could accept the slogan while disagreeing radically about what it amounts to because the slogan is neither as “self-evident” as advertised nor determinate in its content. In one precisification, it might mean only some banal thing with which even King George III would have agreed. In another precisification, it might express commitment to universal franchise and the immediate abolition of slavery, in which case Jefferson himself would have rejected it.
Immanuel Kant famously says “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:402, Gregor trans.). This is the fundamental principle of Kantian ethics. And supposedly equivalently (?!) “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (4:429). These are beautiful abstractions! But what do they amount to? What is it to treat someone “merely as a means”? In his most famous works, Kant rarely enters into the nitty-gritty of cases. But without clarification by cases, they are as empty and as in need of context as “love is love” or “kindness is everything”.
When Kant did enter into the specifics of cases, he often embarrassed himself. He notoriously says, in “On the Supposed Right to Lie“, that even if a murderer is at your front door, seeking your friend who is hiding inside, you must not lie. In one of his last works, The Metaphysics of Morals (not to be confused with the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals), Kant espouses quite a series of noxious views, including that homosexuality is an unmentionable vice, it is permissible to kill children born out of wedlock, masturbation is a horror akin to murdering oneself only less courageous, women fleeing from abusive husbands should be returned against their will, and servants should not be permitted to vote because “their existence is, as it were, only inherence”. (See my discussion here, reprinted with revisions as Ch. 52 here.)
Sympathetic scholars can accept Kant’s beautiful abstractions and ignore his foolish treatment of cases. They can work through the cases themselves, reaching different verdicts than Kant, putting flesh on the view — but not the flesh that was originally there. They’ve turned a vague slogan into a concrete position. As with “all men are created equal”, there are many ways this can be done. The slogan is like a wire frame around which a view could be constructed, or it’s like a pointer in a certain broad direction. The real substance is in the network of verdicts about cases. Change the verdicts and you change the substance, even if the words constituting the slogan remain unchanged.
Similar considerations apply to consequentialist mottoes like “maximize utility” and virtue ethics mottoes like “be generous”. Only when we work through involuntary donation cases, and animal cases, and what to do about people who derive joy from others’ suffering, and what kinds of things count as utility, and what to do about uncertainty about outcomes, etc., do we have a full-blooded consequentialist view instead of an abstract frame or vague pointer. Ideally, as I suggested regarding “kindness is everything”, it would help to see a breathing example of a consequentialist life — a utilitarian sage, who live thoroughly by those principles. Might that person look like a Silicon Valley effective altruist, wisely investing a huge salary in index mutual funds in hopes of someday funding a continent’s-worth of mosquito nets? Or will they rush off immediately to give medical aid to the poor? Will they never eat cheese and desserts, or are those seeming luxuries needed to keep their spirits up to do other good work? Will they pay for their children’s college? Will they donate a kidney? An eye? Even if a sage is too much to expect, we can at least evaluate specific partial measures, and in doing so we flesh out the view. Donate to effective charities, not ineffective ones; avoid factory farmed meat; reduce luxurious spending. But even these statements are vague. What is a “luxury”? The more specific, the more we move from a slogan to a substantial view.
The substance of an ethical slogan is in its pattern of verdicts about concrete cases, not its abstract surface content. The abstract surface content is mere wind, at best the wire frame of a view, open to many radically different interpretations, except insofar as it is surrounded by concrete examples that give it its flesh.