The Ethics of Make-Believe

One of the most persistent questions of any child is, "Why?"

Told that he needs to eat his vegetables or go to bed now, the child will look up and query, "Why?" Given what the parent considers to be a reasonable answer, the child is likely to continue the query. This can go on until, exasperated, the parent falls back on the reliable game-ender, "Because I'm the mommy, that's why!"

This penchant for seemingly unending inquisitiveness indicates a growing self-awareness in the inner child - a sense of curiosity, independence, rationality, and intellectual satisfaction. This is such a universal phenomenon that we take it for granted, realizing it teaches us something very important about the kinds of beings humans are.

But Dr. Richard Joyce suggests that such curiosity and need for intellectual satisfaction can get in the way of ethical behavior. In his article, "Moral Fictionalism," Dr. Joyce adds his explanation of the provenance and nature of moral relativism to the symposium printed in the January 9, 2011, issue of Philosophy Now.

Dr. Joyce believes we don't need to give reasons or explanations for why we act the way we do. The attempt to do so, he insists, has been frustrating and fruitless; it's time we gave it up.

Instead, all we need to do is sort of feel our way around the room, as it were, guaging the ethical atmosphere of any particular situation, and learning to act as we may and must in order to gain whatever benefits we can. He writes, "There is a very real possibility that no reasonable account can be given of what it takes for a moral judgment to be true." So why bother? "Thus there is a very real possibility that none of our moral judgments are true at all..." Nor, he insists, do they need to be.

"Moral fictionalism," as Dr. Joyce refers to his brand of moral relativism, believes we can all act morally without having to justify why we act they way we do. This seems a little scary and irresponsible. "Yet," he writes, "would it really be so awful to do away with morality? I don't think so."

Dr. Joyce thinks we create more strife and confusion, rather than stimulation and cohesion, by arguing the merits of one ethical position over and against another. He believes "we have many reasons for engaging in the myriad of cooperative ventures typically reckoned to be supported by morality" without having to understand or justify why we do.

In this view, ethics seems a bit like a board game, where no one consults the rules anymore. We just all know how to play: "We can simply decide to be kind to each other, to refrain from harming each other, to repay our debts, and so on." Sort of like the federal government, I suppose? "If we appreciate social cohesion and the benefits it brings, then why do we need morality prodding us along to do these things?" That seems like a pretty big "If" in some situations. Dr. Joyce insists, "The amoral society is not forced to tolerate socially destructive behavior any more than the moral society."

Here's the gist of Dr. Joyce's moral relativist worldview: "The idea is, then, that one can in this way gain some of the pragmatic benefits that come from sincere moral belief." In other words, we can practice kindness, refrain from harming one another, seek benefits without slighting others, and keep society from self-destruction, all without having any good moral reasons how or why. Yeah, that should work.

Of course, the board game which the moral fictionalist wants to play has a definite shape, known rules and procedures, and spaces where the game pieces respect one another even as they compete. And, while no one consults the rules anymore - because everyone knows them - it's not uncommon for those rules to begin to be changed to suit the convenience of the players. Like the way my family consults the dictionary with impunity before playing words in Scrabble (shame on us!).

The rules that govern Dr. Joyce's make-believe ethics, and that no one consults anymore, are, of course, the laws and precepts of Scripture; and the gameboard is the yet-lingering Christian consensus of how a society ought to work. Dr. Joyce cannot account for his need for kindness and social cohesion, but the Christian worldview can. Accuse Dr. Joyce of borrowing from that worldview for his own ethical system, and he'll just shrug and ask, "So?"

But there's a bit of dishonesty  and disingenuousness at work here, as well as a large measure of denying the undeniable human need to answer the question, "Why?" Why should we do this and not that? Love our neighbor rather than steal him blind? Observe a rule of law rather than be a law unto ourselves? It's part of our very essence, as the image-bearers of God, to live this way, and no amount of ignoring or denying our essential nature can make for a reliable system of ethics in the long run. When the last vestiges of the Christian worldview are finally shelved, and the rules at last thrown away, we'll be stealing from our fellow players' money piles when they aren't looking.

Tell your innocent child asking "Why?" that "It doesn't matter" often enough, and he will begin to get a feeling of complacency, irrelevance, and perhaps even resentment. Do that for a few generations, and the innocent children asking, "Why?" will soon enough become the irrational beasts of Golding's Lord of the Flies asking, "Who cares?"

Additional related texts: Proverbs 14.12; Ecclesiastes 3.10-13; Romans 2.14, 15

A conversation starter: "Does moral behavior have to have an explanation? If so, why? If not, why not?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

Today's ReVision

Never So Bad

How bad can things get? Not bad enough to thwart our mission.

Join the Ailbe Community

The Fellowship of Ailbe Newsletters