Yesterday I explained to FroKid my view that moral perception yields certain properly basic beliefs such that when we perceive certain actions we can perceive immediately in a properly basic way the action as right or wrong, good or evil. As I said, “I believe a human being with properly functioning moral perception will perceive in a properly basic way that such actions [e.g. the devotional killing of infants for a deity] are heinous.”
“This just sounds like an unfalsifiable sixth sense. A person could use this basis to attack or defend any action as moral or immoral. If the debate over morality was a contest of mere moral “perceptions,” then we would just be in a constant stand still, because people have different moral perceptions. This is why I think it is beneficial to articulate our moral perceptions in some sort of definable good.”
I decided to write a quick article about this response because it provides a helpful launching point for thinking about moral perception and reasoning. FroKid wrongly assumes that a belief which is properly basic is “unfalsifiable” and that it draws an end to moral reasoning. On the contrary, I recognize that moral perception is fallible and that retaining moral justification for certain moral perceptions may require additional reasoning. The same goes for seeking to persuade others who insist they perceive things differently. In this article I’m going to explain one way to reason with those who insist that they have a different moral perception. The method I will propose is found in seeking ways for them to encounter the other and thereby to faciliate in them a self-awareness that they are unjustly marginalizing the other.
An analogy with sense perception
The falliblity of moral perception can be illustrated with the analogy of another properly basic doxastic process: sense perception. For example, when I undergo the experience of seeing an apple enter my visual field I am justified in believing there is an apple entering my visual field. That justification is immediate and basic. At the same time, I recognize that this sense perception is not infallible. I could be hallucinating, for example. So proper basicality is consistent with the doxastic process that produces properly basic beliefs being fallible.
Now I say “Look at that apple on the ledge across the street.” And the person I’m with looks carefully and insists that there is no apple on the ledge across the street. In this case the disagreement that arises may be sufficient to call into question my initial justification for believing “There is an apple on the ledge across the street.” Of course, it also may not be sufficient. Depending on the circumstance, I may believe myself justified in retaining the belief. But at the very least we can appreciate that disagreement about a properly basic belief can quickly move it into the space of reasoning where supplementary evidence may be required for us to retain justification in it or to persuade others of it. (Thus, I might seek to provide an account for why my companion fails to see the apple. Or I might seek to provide corroborative evidence of the apple’s presence by seeking the testimony of a third party.)
Meeting moral mis-perception through encounter of the other
The same is true in moral perception. Initial justification for a moral belief can be undermined by additional disconfirming evidence (e.g. widespread disagreement of others). Or, conversely, it can be retained but additional reasoning strategies could be required to win over the other who insists they see things differently. And how might this look? Let’s consider a case.
Imagine, for example, that Jack is a good Christian living in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1950s. Jack is sitting on a bench minding his own business when he looks with shock as he sees a black man and a white woman walking down the street holding hands. Automatically Jack concludes that this is wicked. Indeed, he is so repulsed by what he sees that he is shaking with anger.
Jack might believe his moral perception was providing properly basic beliefs that the couple is engaged in an immoral practice of inter-racial dating. He might believe that he can just see that this is immoral and that any other properly functioning moral person could see this as well.
We recognize Jack is wrong. On our view, Jack’s moral perception is distorted by the racism into which he’s been inculcated. So when I find myself disagreeing with Jack I don’t rethink my views on the ethics of inter-racial dating. However, I do recognize that I shall have to find an effective way to reason with Jack in order to win him over to my moral perception. But how best to do that?
There’s much room for debate, discussion, and dialogue. And there would be many ways one might meaningfully engage Jack. One could argue through a process of formal ethical reasoning. But for folk like Jack (and indeed, for most folk) I suspect that a more encompassing experience would be more effective at achieving moral transformation. I think here of the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr :
“people often hate each other because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t each other, they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate, they cannot communicate because they are separated.”
With that in mind, I would propose seeking ways that Jack could be forced to encounter the other (i.e. black people) outside of the typical strictly controlled constraints of the society in which he lives. Removing him from that societal context and allowing him to encounter black people in other circumstances would begin to free him from the constraints of the culture that has distorted his moral perception.
Encountering the Amalekite Other
What about when a Christian reads a narrative like the herem slaughter of children and infants in 1 Samuel 15:2-3 and insists they see nothing wrong with the text? I think that those folk are misreading the scenario just as Jack misreads his. It is not that there is no such thing as moral perception but rather that the traditional constraints in which those Christians are forced to read the text do not allow them to perceive the inherent wrongness of the action. Just like Jack is constrained in his reading of interacial dating from the constraints of his tradition, so the Christian is constrained in their reading of the genocidal slaughter.
Just as I would seek to transform Jack’s reasoning by facilitating meaningful encounters with the “others” outside the constraints of his culture, so I would seek to bring Christians into encounter with the children and infants of the Amalekites outside of the constraints of the text and the tradition in which they’ve been trained to read it. Of course the Amalekites are long gone so we can’t directly encounter them. But all is not lost. We can get to know them indirectly through thick descriptions of what it would mean to slaughter an infant and commit genocide on a population. And that comes by familiarizing ourselves with the stories of other peoples who have been historic victims of genocide. The Amalekites bled the same color as Armenians, Tutsis, Kurds, and every other ethnic target of genocide in history. And by introducing people to the reality of infant and child slaughter in these other conditions, often baptized under the aegis of a religious ideology, we can begin to appreciate what it would mean to slaughter an Amalekite infant.
And once people have a better grasp on the full gravity of what is entailed by genocidal slaughter of a civilian population many (though certainly not all) will be led to reread the text in question.
So I think that moral perception is not an end to moral debate but rather the beginning of it. Moral perception doesn’t provide an infallible foundation but it does provide a solid place to stand as we move our basic moral percepts into the space of reasoning and begin to explain the reasons for our ethical convictions to others.