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I think that moralistic judgements and punishments are insidious: they make people do things out of shame, guilt and for the wrong reasons. It seems to me that they can hinder people from empathetically connecting with their own needs and the needs of others, that is moral judgements are metaphorical defensive walls that we erect as part of our outer shell.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean. Suppose one child hits another. If the perpetrator's parent interferes and scolds their child using the moralistic language and punishments that is pervasive in society, e.g. 'you are a bad boy', or 'that was a wrong thing to do' and then banning from watching T.V. Now the usual response this will get is either: a) defensiveness, e.g. 'he started it' and/or b) if the perpetrator does refrain from similar behaviour in the future it will probably be because they want to avoid being punished.

This could be contrasted to a parent attempting to empathise with why the child hit in the first place and drawing the child's attention to what needs of theirs and of the other child that are not being met. This is essentially Non-violent Communication (http://www.cnvc.org/).

I have two related questions: first, is there any sustained criticism of the usage of moralistic judgments and punishments in the philosophical literature? [I have yet to come across any philosopher in the fields of political obligation and ethics who seriously and coherently suggests that all talk of obligations, duties and 'what one should do' is destructive.] Second, what justifications could be offered to defend the usage of moralistic language and punishments?

November 3, 2008

Response from Lorraine Besser-Jones on December 1, 2008
In response to your first question, there is a pretty significant discussion in contemporary ethical theory regarding the concepts of obligation and duty. Elizabeth Anscombe, in “Modern Moral Philosophy” suggests that talk of duty is meaningless absent the existence of a lawgiver. Both Michael Stocker (“The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”) and Bernard Williams (“Persons, Character, and Morality”) take this concern further, and argue that concepts of duty and obligation can be psychologically damaging to agents. While these authors don’t explicitly discuss the moralistic judgments and punishments your question cites, they do address your more fundamental concern that appealing to “duty” is problematic.

Your second question is harder to answer. Some might justify appeal to moralistic language and punishments on the grounds that they can be effective modes of getting people to do the “right” thing (even if they psychologically damage people in the process!). One might try to justify the workings of guilt and shame by appealing to aspects of human nature that make it the case that we feel guilty when we harm other people, and so on. This sort of justification could be quite plausible, so long as the feelings of guilt and shame are tracking something real (i.e., inherent to human nature), and not just some “doctrine” that people have been brought up to believe in.


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