I lately enjoyed listening to Julia Galef and Jonathan Haidt discuss Haidt’s theorized palate of ‘moral foundations’—basic flavors of moral motivation—and how Julia should understand the ones that she doesn’t naturally feel.

I was interested in Julia’s question of whether she was just using different words to those who for instance would say that incest or consensual cannibalism are ‘morally wrong’.

She explained that her earlier guest, Michael Sandel, had asked whether she didn’t ‘cringe’ at the thought of consensual cannibalism, as if he thought that was equivalent to finding it immoral. Julia thought she could personally cringe without morally condemning a thing. She had read Megan McArdle similarly observing that ‘liberals’ claim that incest is moral, but meanwhile wouldn’t befriend someone who practices it, so do in fact morally object after all1. As if morality was defined by friendship preferences or inclination to pass judgment. Again Julia is perplexed. Do these people agree with her, and just call their facial movements and personal social preferences ‘morality’? Michael Sandel even explained that he didn’t want to ban consensual cannibalism, he just thought it was immoral. Julia says, “I don’t even know what people are talking about when they talk about whether a thing is moral or immoral, if they’re not talking about wanting to use legal pressure to change people’s behavior”

Here’s how I see morality and its relationship with shuddering, judging, declining friendship, and the law:

Morality is about what is actually good.

Shuddering, cringing and wincing are instinctive guesses about what is actually good. But much like your instinctive guesses about whether a spider is dangerous or whether you are driving well, they can err, and can even continue to err after you have seen the error. They are especially likely to err when the goodness of a thing is not readily available to your imagination. For instance, if you are a twelve-year-old hearing about sex, you might shudder, but you are missing a lot of the good bits of the picture. Or if you are thinking about a baby coming from a test-tube in 1977, you may be mostly focused on the test tube situation, and not on the century of happy life that the child will have, and the love and joy in the family that would have been emptier.

Judging people is a response to your guesses about morality, but also to your guesses about other qualities like social status, effectiveness, personal aesthetics, and likelihood of being immoral in the future. You might judge people because they seem ridiculous, or slow, or aesthetically repellant, without thinking that the world would be objectively better off with a random different person existing instead. Or you might judge a person’s enjoyment of watching YouTube videos of plane crashes, without thinking that it is doing any harm.

Choices about friendship seem to bring in everything that ‘judging’ does, but are also substantially complicated by preferences for actual interactions. For instance, you might have no moral problem with cooking, while dispreferring cooking-obsessed friends. Sometimes you might even prefer friends with traits that you judge—you might find continental philosophy ridiculous, while also enjoying that your friend Bob is so into it, since he explains bits of it in a language that you understand, and it’s fun to tease each other.

The law is a complicated agreement between a collection of people for cooperating in pursuit of their different ends. It is very unclear that a thing being immoral (in the sense of ‘actually making the world worse’) means that the law should control it:

  • If the population mostly don’t know that the thing is bad, then it doesn’t seem like they should agree to be constrained from doing it. Similarly if they are in broad disagreement e.g. If you and 40% of people think A is moral, but 40% of people think it is immoral, and 20% are very unsure, then it may be that all of you think that it shouldn’t be legislated. The government doesn’t have access to the truth about it, and neither requiring or banning A would seem like a good compromise in the current state of knowledge, and either would probably have to be undemocratic.
  • Sometimes there would be harm in the law controlling things, or it wouldn’t be a good judge. e.g. maybe everyone agrees that it is immoral to cheat on your partner, or to not pay attention to signs that your teenage son is depressed because you are into playing a computer game, but most people wouldn’t want the law policing these things.
  • The law has certain actions available to it, and sometimes none is the best response to a moral concern. For instance, perhaps a person seems unfairly critical of others in a way that seems wrong to their friends. This is arguably better rectified with quiet words, sharp looks, or a reduction in invitations and endorsements, than by fines or sentences.
  • it can be better ultimately for people to make good choices through understanding the situation themselves over time, even while initially making errors, rather than having their good behavior forced or otherwise incentivized. For instance, it might be better for a person to learn compassion than to be trained by numb rote to act kindly, even if kindness is always better in the moment. Or, if the good behavior in question was enjoying the best experiences of art: you can’t actually force someone to experience a thing.
  • Coercion itself might be bad, or it might be fundamentally better for people to be free. (I’m being agnostic about what is or isn’t moral.)

Julia and these other people aren’t using words differently, I interpret2: Michael thinks a world where people consensually eat one another is worse, whereas Julia thinks it isn’t—her own displeasure at it is a little bad, but this is presumably nothing compared to whatever satisfaction those involved enjoy. Michael and Julia both have an emotional response, and perhaps neither would be friends with the participants. But Julia doesn’t want to use the law because she thinks the act doesn’t make the world worse, whereas Michael may or may not want to use the law, but isn’t talking about that—he’s saying that it makes the world worse.


  1. here, but gated, so just going by Julia’s recollection. 

  2. To be clear, I’m going by Julia’s description in this discussion with Haidt, and haven’t e.g. listened to the discussion with Sandel.