What is a moral compass?
This essay is about an assertion that stands as a premise of the ideas of Christ's College, Cambridge philosopher Farbod Akhlaghi. Although it is not relevant, this author is also a philosopher from Christ's College, Cambridge. That he disagrees so fundamentally with the philosophical ideas of Dr Akhlaghi is purely coincidental and should not be taken by Dr Akhlaghi or anyone else as a personal criticism of him. He and this author just differ fundamentally about a very important issue in moral philosophy. It is important to explicate that difference, so that those studying or interested in philosophy, and moral philosophy in particular, understand the intellectual, rational and indeed moral choice between the two points of view. Every respect is afforded to Dr Akhlaghi, notwithstanding the fact that this author disagrees with him so fundamentally. A clear explanation of the differences between us is essential for the argumentation in moral philosophy to advance.
Here is a synopsis of Dr Akhlaghi's thinking published in The Guardian newspaper on 26 January 2023. For those unfamiliar with the newspaper, it is a high quality but avowedly left-wing British newspaper of some historical standing, also popular in recent years internationally, whose opinions as a general rule ought to be granted respect even if one does not ultimately agree with them. The article is here:
The title text of the article, which we think Dr Akhlaghi would agree represents a fair summary of his views, is this:
'Moral duty’ to allow family and friends to make big life choices, says Cambridge philosopher
‘Self authorship’ is a right, argues Dr Farbod Akhlaghi, and people should make their own decisions on new jobs or having children
The academic paper in which Dr Akhlaghi expounds his ideas is called Transformative experience and the right to revelatory autonomy. His argument is that it is impossible to know if a friend’s life will benefit from a transformative experience. It is only by making these choices independently that we can know ourselves. (The last two sentences are the Guardian's summary but we consider it accurate.) Akhlaghi continues:
It is not the value of making a choice as such but, rather, that of autonomously making choices to learn what our core preferences and values will become. For autonomously making transformative choices when facing them, deciding for ourselves to learn who we will become, gives us a degree of self-authorship.
We don't agree. We consider this a licence towards irresponsible and ultimately amoral libertarianism. Here we explain why.
We should start by affording Dr Akhlaghi a fair point. Nobody has the right, outside the couple themselves, to dictate prescribe or pressurise a couple into whether or not to have children. But that is the easiest example in his favour. The reason why not is that nobody else except the couple themselves has as good quality information and knowledge as the couple to decide whether children of that relationship would be brought up well. Hence the decision can only be for the couple thsmelves, absent some exceptional cases (for example where one or both members of the couple have a serious mental illness or are in periods of extended penal custody).
However here we imagine that we would start to differ with Dr Akhlaghi soon afterwards. Imagine a scenario in which both putative parents had sinned so grievously against society's norms pre-conception, for example by committing a joint murder, that society's institutions of criminal justice delivered to them punishments that entailed they would never be able to have children together (for example, two life sentences). We suspect that Dr Akhlaghi would find something wrong with this: his branch of libertarianism would say that this couple ought to be able to procreate anyway and society has no business telling them otherwise, because there is a 'moral dury' to allow others to make life choices. Just as this duty, says Dr Akhlaghi, extends to family and friends, so it must extend to society as a whole. Upon his premise, we don't see how he avoids this conclusion. And it is a conclusion we consider completely wrong. It is legitimate for society to take away certain rights from people, including the right to procreate, if they have committed grave crimes. One of the many reasons why is that they won't be able to be good parents while they are incarcerated, undergoing their penalties.
Hence in principle society is entitled to make overriding moral decisions about the right to procreate. And if society as a whole is entitled to do this, then there must be at the very least marginal cases in which friends and family can apply pressure in similar directions. What society proscribes, it is legitimate for individuals to reinforce.
What if a person's life choice were something more controversial, for the example the choice to commit acts of paedophilia against persons under the age of majority? Would family and friends not have a legitimate role in trying to persuade someone not to do this; and if necessary taking acts to prevent them, such as reporting then to the Police? Is this not the basis of the duty of priests who have seen evidence of their colleagues abusing children to speak up, denounce it and report it; and is this not why we have pilloried in recent years those priests who have failed to live up to this standard?
It cannot be right that every 'life choice' is legitimately outside the scope of the criticism of family and friends. Some life choices are simply immoral, and we have a moral duty to step into the lives of those acting immorally to try to prevent them. Actually this duty exists whether or not we are family or friends. It is just that family and friends are more likely to have the information justifying their intervention than are strangers.
At the other end of the spectrum, Dr Akhlaghi is obviously right to say that family and friends have no right to intervene in a decision of a person to become a homosexual. We agree with this. That is because by contemporary social norms, homosexuality is not immoral but paedophilia is. So the dividing line that cuts Dr Akhlaghi's theory in two is the moral compass. Families and friends are perfectly entitled to step in where behaviour is immoral. They have no right to intervene when people are acting in morally proper ways.
Suddenly there is nothing left of Dr Akhlaghi's theory. At best it boils down to an assertion that family and friends ought to do what they ought to do; and ought not to do things distressful or harmful to the principal where there is no obligation to do so. This, surely, is a moral hypothesis that is trivially true.
Maybe we have got Dr Ahklaghi all wrong, and all he really means to say is that friends, family (and indeed anybody else) ought not to push autonomous rational individuals such as human beings to follow social or religious norms with no particular intrinsic moral value (such as the wearing of veils by women in Islam, for example) in ways that the individual does not wish to be so pressed. But if that is all he means, it would be hard to find any other philosopher who would disagree with him. Contemporary society - and all right-thinking people, including priests and other moralists (no insult is intended by this term - it just covers any person who gives advice on moral issues) - would accept entirely that nobody ought to be forced into accepting a set of religious beliefs or theological axioms, for example.
Dr Ahklaghi is trying to fashion a space for a new sort of libertarianism, in which we can all do what we want and neither our family nor our friends can properly do anything about it. The problem he faces is that there is a series of overriding behavioural rules that Dr Askhlaghi's illustrious predecessor Immanuel Kant would call the moral law. And where conduct breaches the moral law, for example because it hurts others without reason, it is entirely legitimate for friends, family, society, law enforcement officials and everyone else to try to prevent immoral behaviour from occurring; and, reciprocally, to encourage moral behaviour.
This is what we call our moral compass. Long may it thrive. Many people know what it is but do not comply with it because they are afraid. We have not just a right but a duty to encourage them to do the right thing rather than to breach the moral law for the sake of their personal convenience. The more people do the right thing, undoubtedly the better the world becomes. There is ample space for libertarianism, as long as it does not include the freedom to harm others or otherwise act immorally.
Finally, we note Askhagji's assertion:
Offering reasons, arguments or evidence as if one is in a privileged position with respect to what the other person’s experience would be like for them disrespects their moral right to revelatory autonomy.
Akhlaghi suggests therefore that the more likely a choice is to affect someone’s “core identity and values”,
[t]he stronger the moral reasons required for interfering in their decisions. ... [so] advising a friend on whether to eat a cheeseburger or not is easier to justify than advising them on whether to go to university.
We could not disagree more. Going to university may have consequences of moral significance - e.g. the welfare of the family for which the decision-maker is responsible. Whereas eating a cheeseburger is obviously morally irrelevant. On Akhlaghi's theory, we have a stronger obligation not to interfere with a person's choice to become addicted to cocaine than with a person's choice to eat a cheeseburger. This is boloney, and it illustrates the epithet that there's no view so stupid that some philosopher somewhere or other has not expounded it.