Friday, January 29, 2021

A Taxonomy of Possible Moral Changes

I’ve recently been studying the history of moral change and moral revolution. The purpose of this has been to get a handle on the mechanisms of moral change over time and to use this to predict and plan for future moral changes. I’ve written a lot of half-baked thoughts about this over the past 18 months or so. In this article, I want to collect some of those thoughts together and present a taxonomy of the types of moral change that can occur in human societies.

This will, necessarily, be an abstract discussion. I’m not going to be focusing on specific examples of moral change over time; I’m going to be focusing on the high level forms of moral change instead. Nevertheless, I will provide some concrete examples as I go along. These examples are not always intended to be historically accurate or even plausible. They are just intended to illustrate a relevant concept or idea.

1. The Elements of Moral System

I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to understanding human morality. I agree with the majority of moral philosophers in stipulating that there are two main branches to any moral system: an axiological branch and a deontological branch.

The axiological branch is concerned with values. What is good? What is bad? What is important? What is worth promoting and celebrating? And so on. There is both a positive (the good) and negative (the bad) dimension to value. Values comes in degrees: things can be more or less good or more or less bad. This means that we often try to rank the relative value of different things. That said, value propositions (statements claiming that something or other is good or bad) are essentially binary in nature: something is either on the good side of the ledger or it is on the bad side. There may be some strictly neutral things: things that are neither good nor bad, but I suspect true neutrality is rare.

Values can attach to people, events and states of affairs. For example, we can say that pleasure (a subjective state) is good; one person helping another (an event) is good; and that Martin Luther King (a person) was good. Values can also be either intrinsic or instrumental in form. Intrinsic values are valuable in and of themselves (irrespective of their consequences or extrinsic properties). Instrumental values are things that are valuable because of their consequences or extrinsic properties. Pleasure is said to be the quintessential example of something that is intrinsically good; pain is the quintessential example of something that is intrinsically bad. But sometimes pleasure can be instrumentally bad (e.g. where it leads to greater suffering in the long run) and pain can be instrumentally good (e.g. where it leads to greater pleasure in the future). Many of the things that we value we value for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons. For example, loving intimate relationships are often thought to be intrinsically valuable, but they are also alleged to have an number of instrumental benefits (financial security, personal health and well-being etc).

The deontological branch of morality is concerned with the rightness or wrongness of human action. The terminology may be somewhat confusing. The deontological branch of a moral system is not synonymous with deontology as a general normative theory. Deontology as a normative theory is associated with the claim that we ought to do certain things irrespective of their consequences (i.e. that we have relatively fixed duties). It is usually contrasted with a consequentialist normative theory. The deontological branch of a moral system is more general and less prescriptive than that. It is concerned with answering questions such as: What is permissible? What is forbidden? What is obligatory? And so on.

Unlike value propositions, deontic propositions come in more than two flavours. Indeed, deontic logic is highly complex and multivariate. For what it is worth, I think there are essentially four flavours of deontic proposition:

  • X is forbidden (i.e. you ought not to do X)
  • X is permissible (i.e. you can do X but you are not obliged to do so)
  • X is obligatory (i.e. you ought to do X)
  • X is supererogatory (i.e. X is a really good thing and is above and beyond the call of duty)

I know there are others that think there are other forms of deontic proposition (e.g. that something can be omissible and not just permissible), but this four-flavour view seems to cover most of the relevant ground.

Unlike values, deontic properties attach to actions by people, and not to people themselves nor to general events or states of affairs. We can say that Martin Luther King was a good person, but we cannot say that he was a forbidden or obligatory person. That wouldn’t make sense. We can, however, say that his leading the march on Washington was permissible (perhaps even supererogatory). The deontological branch of morality is often complex and messy because obligations can sometimes conflict. Say you promised two people that you would meet them at the same time on the same day, but in different locations. Technically, we might say that you are obliged to meet them both, but practically speaking it is impossible for you to satisfy both obligations. How can we resolve such conflicts? Is this simply a dilemma that cannot be resolved? Much ink has been spilled over these matters but it would be a distraction to get into them now. The important point is that, like values, deontic classifications often need to be ranked relative to one another, particularly when it comes to obligations. We need to know if one obligation ranks higher than another and so on.

I believe that the axiological and deontological branches are closely related to one another, but in an asymmetrical way. I believe that our values play a fundamental role in shaping what we think is right or wrong. Very roughly, I believe that we are permitted and perhaps obliged to perform actions that produce or honour or celebrate good people, events and states of affairs; we are forbidden from performing actions that produce, honour or celebrate bad people, events and states of affairs. This understanding of the relationship between axiology and deontology may, however, be controversial, at least from a causal perspective. It’s possible, given what we know about human psychology, that what we are permitted (and able) to do has an impact on what we think is valuable. Indeed, I suspect changes in social behaviour often feedback into changes in societal values. So it is perhaps best to think the relationship I just outlined as a logical one, not a sociological or behavioural one.

2. The Types of Moral Change

In any event, given that there are these two branches to morality, it follows that there are two main types of moral change: axiological change (i.e. changes in values) and deontological change (i.e. changes in what we think is right and wrong). Let’s consider, in slightly more detail, these two possible forms of axiological and deontological change.

Axiological change is the most straightforward, at least from a conceptual perspective. As mentioned earlier, values attach to persons, events and states of affairs. Most human societies have identified a class of things that they think are good and a class of things they think are bad. For example, pleasure, education, friendship, loyalty, democracy, freedom, responsibility (etc) are all widely classed as good; pain, ignorance, isolation, treachery, autocracy, slavery and recklessness (etc) are commonly classed as bad. (Yes, I know, there are lots of nuances and variations here). Within these respective classes of good and bad things, we often try to rank and prioritise the respective items. They might decide that freedom is more valuable than pleasure (or vice versa). Sometimes such rankings may seem unfeasible or illogical. People might just throw their hands up and say all these things are equally important or not capable of being ranked relative to one another. That’s fine, but I see that strong value pluralism as a kind of ranking in itself (a neutral or flat ranking). Furthermore, I suspect that most people, in practice, rank their values even if this ranking is only implicit and only applies for certain practical purposes. I suspect that strong value pluralism is the preserve of philosophers alone. This is important insofar as the study of moral change, as I conceive it, is concerned with how social moral beliefs and practices change over time and not with changes in the ideal form of morality that is commonly studied by philosophers).

Anyway, with all this in mind, it seems to me that there are three basic forms of axiological change:

Axiological Additions: New people, events or states of affair get added to the set of values and given a classification and ranking. I suspect this arises primarily from social and technical innovation. For example, when social media was invented people started to evaluate it and so started to classify it as either a good or bad thing and assign it some sort of ranking.


Axiological Reprioritisations: There is a change in how people rank the relative value of something within the set of good or bad things. For example, with the rise of the knowledge economy, literacy and numeracy, which were always values to some extent, became more valuable and more important than they were in an agricultural or manufacturing economy. People may also, of course, decide that things we thought were better are worse or worth the same as other things.


Axiological Reclassifications: People switch something from the set of good things to the set of bad things. For example, where once upon time some people believed that female servility and passivity was a good thing, many (though sadly not all) people now believe it is a bad thing. You can probably think of reclassifications as an extreme form of reprioritisation.


You may wonder why I don’t include subtractions among the possible forms of moral change. If something can be added to the set of values can it not also be taken away? I’m not convinced of this. I tend to think that humans exhaustively evaluate all people, events and states of affairs that they encounter. If it exists and people are aware of it, it probably has some value classification and ranking. That said, it’s possible that some evaluations are highly uncertain or unstable or neutral. For example, we might have no stable or agreed upon classification or ranking for new innovations like lab-grown meat or genetically engineered offspring (though there are lots of strong opinions out there).

What about deontological changes? These are trickier to taxonomise. If we grant that there are four basic forms of deontic proposition (forbidden, permissible, obligatory and supererogatory) then it is possible for any existing deontic belief or practice to shift from one of those forms to another. For example, if we currently believe that giving lots of money to charity is supererogatory, we may, in the future, come to believe that it is forbidden, merely permissible or obligatory. Likewise, although most people now believe that it is permissible to eat meat, it is possible (in principle) that we may in the future believe that it is forbidden, obligatory or supererogatory. It may be hard to believe in some of these possible moral changes right now but they are, in principle, possible. Furthermore, radical deontological shifts have happened in human history. As recently as 50 years ago, many people thought homosexual sex (never mind marriage) was forbidden. Nowadays, most people think it is permissible.

Anyway, if we accept that there are these four types of deontic proposition, and that any existing deontic proposition can, in principle, shift to one of the other three types, we can use some simple combinatorics to work out the total number of possible deontological changes. There are 12 of them (3 for each of the 4 types of deontic proposition).

But, of course, the possible forms of deontological change don’t end there. New technologies and new social arrangements make new forms of action and interaction possible. These new actions will require some deontic classification. For example, the creation of the internet and social media has made cyberbullying a new possible form of human action. We need to figure out how to classify that action. Is it forbidden in the same way that physical bullying is forbidden? Is it more or less serious a form of wrongdoing? I’ve spend a lot of my academic career looking at the new forms of action made possible by technology and figuring out how it should be classified from a deontic perspective. Consider, for example, my work on virtual sexual assault and robotic rape. It’s possible, of course, that new actions don’t require new deontic rules. They may just be subsumed under a old deontic rule. For example, the deontic proposition stating that you ought not bully people could be expanded to include cyberbullying (a process some people refer to as semantic deepening, i.e. an existing concept is found to have a broader scope of application). But either way, the new actions requires some classification.

Finally, given that some deontic claims have to be ranked relative to one another (e.g. which obligation takes priority in the case of limited time and resources), it is also possible for deontological change to take place via a re-ranking or re-prioritisation of deontic claims. For instance, in a time of global pandemic, the obligation to prevent the spread of disease might take priority over the obligation to maintain one’s social commitments.

In short, even though it is a more complex phenomenon, it seems that there are three main types of deontological change and they line up with the three main types of axiological change:

Deontic Additions: New actions become possible and must be assigned to one of the four types of deontic status: obligatory, permitted, forbidden, supererogatory. For example, cyberbullying is assigned the status of being forbidden.


Deontic Reprioritisations: The relative ranking of different deontic claims is changed. For example, preventing the spread of disease takes priority over our usual social obligations in the time of a global pandemic.


Deontic Reclassifications: An action that was once classified as forbidden/obligatory/permitted/supererogatory is reclassified and assigned one of the other deontic statuses. For example, slavery was once permissible but it is now forbidden. In principle, deontic reclassifications can take 12 different forms.


The diagram below summarises the taxonomy of possible moral changes.

I hope this taxonomy of possible moral changes is useful. It may seem a little obvious in retrospect (now that you’ve read through this explanation) but when you are thinking about moral change in the abstract it can seem like an intimidatingly diverse phenomenon. It’s useful to put some limits on its possible forms.

1 comment:

  1. On rereading this, it seems to me that axiological and deontological change end up hopelessly intercorrelated. For example, I can't see how one switches from permitting of slavery to forbidding without a shuffling of relative rankings of values.