The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Moral Horror


Are morally assessable actions the same just if they have the same evil outcome? I don’t think so. I think this misses at least one important aspect of moral thinking, one that I call moral horror.

Should we really not care that one political candidate is in favour of permitting partial birth abortion, because the other candidates are in favour of permitting abortion anyway, so their views are morally on par? As some readers will know, I think abortion is prima facie wrong. A few years ago I outlined what I think are the most basic reasons for saying that this is so which would/should be accepted by people who don’t necessarily accept my wider views on ethics and religion. I’m not interested in persuading you of that now. I’m going to assume here that my position on abortion is basically correct, but the principle I’ll be discussing applies to other issues as well.

Some time ago now – at about the time that possible candidates for the Republican party nomination in the United States were trying to woo the public – I got into a conversation with an American Christian about where candidates stood on the issue of abortion (for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter who those candidates were). I said that whether I would have voted for him or not, I preferred one candidate over another, because the candidate that I preferred was opposed to partial birth abortion, whereas the other guy did not want to ban them. That, I said, was a morally significant difference.

My interlocutor disagreed, and said that this was not a morally significant difference. In fact, he went on to suggest that I just didn’t “get it,” that I had fallen for rhetoric about one form of abortion being “better” than another, and that I was simply favouring a candidate who was more selective about how we should kill babies, sneakily making it look like he was more morally upright (yes, the tone of my interlocutor resembled the tone with which I describe what he said).

I think this is seriously mistaken. It assumes an approach to morality that is an enormously simplified version of consequentialism that says: “If two policies result in the same number of dead unborn children (I use that term loosely since a partial birth abortion arguably doesn’t really involve an unborn child), then no other factors are morally relevant, and those two policies are morally identical.” Recall that I am assuming here that it’s generally wrong to kill unborn children. This approach to morality neglects an important feature of the actual circumstances that generate moral facts, as illustrated by the following thought experiment.

Suppose there were two scientists of questionable moral character. They are both conducting research. One of them develops a machine that will make women happy (or at least, he believes that is what it will do, and so do the women involved in the research). All he has to do is press a button. But there’s a catch. When he presses the button, out there in the universe, someone dies. Nobody ever meets the person who dies, and almost nobody knows that there ever was such a person. In fact, there is an ongoing debate as to whether there really is someone who dies. In fact there is, but some people don’t believe that, and even the scientist involved has his doubts (sometimes). But he presses the button, and in fact someone dies. As observers, once we realise that this is what will happen, we would object in the strongest terms, I assume. “That’s wrong! You mustn’t do that! You’re killing someone!” We might say other things, but the point is that we would judge that something morally sinister was going on. This is seriously unethical. Now, consider the second scientist. He has also developed a process that he believes will make women happy, and the women in the tests believe that it will work too. But there’s a catch here as well. Here, as part of this process the scientist must drag in an unsuspecting woman from the street. He ties her up and looks her in the eye. “I’m going to kill you!” he screams. He then takes a claw hammer and smashes her skull in. he reaches into her smashed open skull and scoops out a handful of her brains and begins eating it. He then decapitates her and hangs her by the feet over a bathtub, draining all of her blood into the tub. After that, he bathes in the blood, singing about how he has just viciously killed a woman, and about how he would gladly do it again.

As observers, what do we shout out this time? “Stop – that’s unethical”? “This is immoral?” “I object?” “You’re killing someone?” What about “You’re exactly like the other guy?” Is he just like the other guy? In each case, one person dies, right? So that means the actions are morally the same, right?

Of course not. No sensible, morally functional person would ever respond to those two scenarios as though they were exactly on par. Even a person who barely objected at all to the actions of the first scientist is likely to be shaken by the actions of the second. The reason for the different reactions is that observers of the second situation would experience significantly more of what I am referring to as moral horror. What’s more, I maintain that it is appropriate that observers of the second situation experience more moral horror, and that their doing so is a reflection of the moral status of the actions being performed.

The sensation of horror in general is probably familiar to most of us, so I’m comfortable appealing to it as something you’ll recognise. But stating succinctly just what it is isn’t easy. The ever-quotable C. S. Lewis gets close to the idea, but not really by defining it, instead doing what I’ve done here, giving an example of the kind of scenario that naturally prompts horror. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room”, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost might do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

What Lewis calls “dread,” I call horror. I do that because horror seems more of a general term than dread. Horror identifies a feeling that is not limited only to a special kind of fear (as dread is), and I say that because it seems to me that the sensation described above is very similar to a sensation that arises (or, so say I, should arise) in a moral context where fear not a an obvious factor.

Moral horror is no more (or less) than a specific instance of horror, as it arises as the appropriate response to moral wrongdoing of such a nature that is inadequately responded to with the judgement that something ought not be done and the exhortation to stop (and perhaps efforts to stop others from doing it, and seeking punitive measures against those who do). There’s a theory in ethics (specifically in meta-ethics) called expressivism. According to expressivism, moral judgements aren’t really propositions. They’re not really attempts to state facts about reality, even though people who utter them might think they are. Really, says the expressivist, moral judgements are expressions – “ventings,” if you like – of our emotions, our sentiments, our will, or something else. According to expressivism, strong moral condemnation is not really the judgement that in fact an act has the property of being seriously morally wrong. Instead, the theory goes, such a moral judgement is more akin to shrieking “Eek! How awful!” I think expressivism is mistaken about what moral judgements are, but the theory is on to something. After all, when we make especially strong moral judgements (positive or negative), those judgements very often are delivered along with expressions of emotion, sentiment or will. So when we see someone about to massacre a classroom full of children, for example, we won’t simply say “in fact this is wrong, and you ought not do it.” It’s far more likely that we will scream “Oh my God, what are you doing?! You monster!”

There is probably a wide variety of the kinds of factors in a moral context that could quite properly give rise to moral horror. I think people with healthy moral faculties react differently to evil when graphically depicted and evil when it is further “out of sight.” The former is much more likely to give rise to moral horror than the latter. Epistemology also plays a key factor, both in the moral culpability of the perpetrator of evil as well as in the observer. If the perpetrator really ought to know that something is wrong, but does it anyway, we might strongly morally object. But if a situation is so blatantly wrong that absolutely anybody should think it screamingly obvious that something is wrong, and yet they do it anyway, moral horror becomes more appropriate. If a person not only does what is clearly morally wrong, but seems to relish in it, exhibiting the very darkest side of human nature, again, here is a proper cause of moral horror. There are probably other factors too, but hopefully these are enough to convey the general nature of such factors. If there’s a way of summing up all of these (and there may not be), moral horror is a proper response when evil is carried out, and that evil, in the observer’s judgement, exhibits an especially ugly degradation of humanity.

You might share my view that abortion is generally wrong, and you might think “But I view all abortion with moral horror, not just partial birth abortion. Why don’t you?” If you don’t share my view on abortion, fine, substitute the word “abortion” with murder and try to translate what I’m about to say into terms that suit. If someone were to say this to me, I would offer two responses. Firstly, I don’t regard all unjustified killing with moral horror as I am trying to outline that phenomenon. Moral horror is not just really strong moral objection. It carries a truly terrible psychological price. Once you’ve experienced moral horror, you are changed. If we say “Oh my! I am recoiling in moral horror!” too often, we become like the boy who cried wolf. We end up sounding like student association presidents who continually declare that “student are outraged” over this or that government policy, when really all they mean is that “my fellow association executive members and I disagree politically with the government.”

My second response is this: OK, maybe you really do experience moral horror at all abortions everywhere. My own view is that if this is the case, you haven’t been exposed to enough moral wrongdoing. When everything is morally horrible, nothing is. But let’s say you are really, really convinced that all abortion does and should produce this response. Maybe you think that everyone should see with no trouble that abortion is always heinously immoral and that those who carry it out are always fully aware of the awfulness of their stance (pretty unlikely, I think). Maybe you think that abortion has an especially aggravating feature because the victim (the unborn child) is the most innocent and defenceless being you can think of. I have sympathy with you there. So OK, you experience moral horror at all abortion. This doesn’t make them equal. Like moral disapproval, moral horror comes in degrees. If abortion in general produces moral horror in you because of all its aggravating features, how much more horror should be produced when the baby is in full view of the abortionist and those working with him, and he is willing, not just to kill an unseen thing, but to, putting it in the lingua franca, stab the baby in the back of the head and suck his/her freakin’ brains out? If this prompts in you exactly the same reaction to the destruction and removal of a four-week old embryo that nobody can see, many people (wrongly, so say I) do not believe is even a human being, which doesn’t look nearly as much like us as a late-term fetus, and where the woman and abortionist concerned are subject to widespread social pressures to believe that what is going on is not wrong, then I suggest that your moral senses need to be re-calibrated. Do not misunderstand me, I think both actions are wrong. But the former should be observed with a degree of horror that simply isn’t as warranted in the case of the latter.

That’s why I disagreed (and still disagree) with what my interlocutor had to say last year. I don’t support the stance of any political candidate who is generally in favour of abortion rights. But I do draw a moral distinction between a candidate who shows any sign of being able to respond appropriately when moral horror is called for and one who, apparently, cannot. Although both are wrong, the two are not the same.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Jason

    Thanks Glenn, I see your point and I agree.

    In one case we’re dealing with someone who kills something that he does not believe to be human, the other kills something that he is perfectly aware is human.

  2. Well yeah, that contributes. But it does seem to me to be more than just that. Some doctors who perform earlier abortions, or using different methods, might also believe that the unborn child is a human being (many do), and yet partial birth abortion might still properly produce moral horror in way that those other cases don’t. That knowledge is a factor, but there’s more than just that knowledge that produces moral horror in response to something utterly ghastly.

  3. A follow-up thought: A big part of what I’m saying here is that there are some evils that go beyond disapproval and really should – not just at an aesthetic level (although very often that too) – but in an evaluative way as well, actually freak you out. They have a glaring unattractiveness to them (there’s that aesthetic angle).

  4. John Quin

    Hi Glen
    I dont know where to put this so I’ll put it here.
    I was thinking about parsimony and how it is used with teleological arguments and then wondered if a parallel applies to the moral argument. Specifically if we consider a teleological argument, let’s say one that uses specified complexity to argue for design in an organism. If a we could show that a naturalistic account of the origin of the organism exists then most people would say that making a design argument would be undercut and asserting the existence of a designer unwarranted on account of occoms razor.
    So applying this to the moral argument, if a naturalistic account of morality can be found (well usually speculated) then couldn’t we also say that it is unwarranted to propose a supernatural basis for morality. Perhaps you could argue that postualting an entity would provide greater explaintory power, in that the morality could be real, but then I think many naturalists might just want to push the point that this was just as valid a position as the theistic moral realist.
    To your knowledge has anyone addressed this or tried to run this line of argumentation?

  5. Hi John, for random questions there’s a contact button over on the right.

    Your question reminds me of a blog post I wrote on Occam’s Razor and the moral argument for theism. People have indeed proposed that Occam’s razor undercuts the moral argument. I don’t see it that way at all. Feel free to offer any follow up comments at that blog entry.

  6. John Quin

    Thanks Glenn

  7. Brian

    Quite frankly, any discussion of what you call moral horror is hopelessly intractable without factoring in the idea of spiritual Evil. If we are calling the reaction “moral horror,” the most appropriate descriptive term for what inspires that reaction ought to be “diabolical.”

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