Personal Morality and Public Morality

I am a demi-vegetarian.  If you want to know more about it, read my previous post here.  When I go out to eat, I try to find something that’s vegetarian or something as close as I can based on my personal beliefs.  When I’m with a group of people, they can get what they want.  I don’t look down on them for ordering something with meat.  I’m totally ok with them getting what they want.  For me, my vegetarian beliefs are personalized for me and I feel it works for me because it coheres with the rest of my attitude about the world.  Thus, demi-vegetarianism is something that’s part of my personal morality.

On the other hand, there are ethical considerations that I think shouldn’t just be personal, but should apply to everyone.  I’ll call this public morality.  With public morality, since it’s based on the community, it’s more universal.  Thus, not only should you want people to believe in this type of morality, but you should somehow persuade or at least show them why they’re wrong if they don’t follow this type of morality.  A good example is murder.  I don’t know anyone who holds the attitude this:

Person A: Murder is wrong.

Person B: Murder is ok.

Person A: Well, then we just have a matter of difference.

If it were me, I would want to tell Person B that s/he is wrong in believing in that and that Person A is wrong for being too tolerant of Person B.  So public morality is more enforcable to everyone and you want to engulf the other person to join in on that morality.

Things get tricky when you can’t tell if it’s a personal or public morality.  Take abortion for example.  I’ve had many students that have thought abortion should be personal or public.

On the personal side: I’ve had students who’ve said that they personally don’t think abortion is moral, but they still want to allow other people to have that choice, or at least make it legal.

On the public side: there are many cases where people think abortion is immoral and they want to influence you into thinking that’s also immoral.  And if you still think there’s nothing wrong with abortion, that person simply thinks you’re not rational.  In this case, the having a belief isn’t something personal (like ice cream flavors), but it’s more outreaching for all of humanity (much like the murder example).

Let me give another example: go back to vegetarianism.  For me, my vegetarianism is a personal thing.  I don’t care if others eat meat or not.  However, there are others who think vegetarianism should belong in the domain of public morality.  PETA is a good example of this.  PETA really encourages people to be vegetarians and they feel that vegetarianism should be pubically moral.

A really good example that doesn’t deal with morality, per se, is politics.  There are a lot of people who are liberal or conservative and they take on those beliefs and philosophes as personal.  It’s the attitude of “I’m liberal/conservative, and if you’re not, that’s fine.”  There are those who feel that it should be a public thing: “I’m liberal/conservative, and you should be one too, and if you don’t believe what I believe, then you’re simply wrong, irrational, or you just don’t get it.”

Religion is a good example too.

Personal morality: I’m (fill in blank), and if you’re not, that’s ok.  I believe in what I believe and that’s a personal choice.

Public morality: I’m (fill in blank), and if you’re not, that’s not ok.  You should believe in what I believe because that’s the proper thing to believe.

So why do some people feel that issues should be public or private?  I think one characteristic is tolerance.  I’m tolerant of meat-eaters and people from different political perspectives, but I’m not tolerant of people who thing murder is generally ok.  People in PETA aren’t tolerant of meat-eaters.  Ann Colter isn’t tolerant of liberals.  Extreme Fundamentalists aren’t tolerant of people who are or believe in pro-choice.

Now I’m not saying we should be tolerant on everything.  After all, I don’t think we should be tolerant to people who believe murder is ok.  I think we should convince them and show them that they’re wrong.  But it gets tricky to other issues because it’s hard to find a good level of tolerance.  How much tolerance is needed?

I’m sure there are other characteristics besides tolerance, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Abortion, Ethics, Paper Topic, Politics, Religion, Vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Personal Morality and Public Morality

  1. Emily says:

    What a great way of breaking it down. Public vs. Personal Morality. Frankly, personal morality is easier to get along with usually. 🙂

  2. This is a great topic, and something I’ve always thought about. I’ll often ask myself (I’ll use these terms since it explains it clearer) “Should I make this issue that I believe so strongly in public? Or just personal?” I almost feel like I’m not following my beliefs if it’s not public. But..I’ve also realized that public morality can make one a grouch. Plus, how often do you really convince someone of your point of view? I’ve tried to make the most compelling arguments only to be frustrated by how stubborn the listener is being – maybe they have the same experience with me! 🙂

    Another thought is that people have a form of immunity to ideas. The first time someone hears an idea, or the first time someone hears an argumentative person speak they may give it real consideration. But after a while they recognize the idea as something they’ve heard before. For me a good example is pyramid schemes – I was interested in a company called Equinox a while back, but that built up my immunity to these ideas. So, you bringing up morality may just build up an immunity to the idea.


  3. shaunmiller says:

    Hey Emily, it’s true that personal morality is much easier to get along with. Sadly, people don’t feel like that.

    As to Vic, it’s hard to find a balance between public and personal. Indeed, some philosophers think that any form of public morality is a form of totalitarianism. But I think you’re right that the other listener is being stubborn, but it’s part of the human condition I guess. After all, no one likes to be proven wrong.

    However, I find the smartest people are those who will gladly trade their false beliefs into true ones. Along with the Socratic tradition, people will not only want to get rid of false beliefs but are happy to get rid of them. For those that don’t, they’re being dogmatic in their beliefs and those are the types of people that we’ll never be able to reach. Socrates, for his part, never talked to them because they will never change their ideas. As we grow up, we do form an immunity of ideas, but I think it’s healthy to see if the ideas we hold are tenable, no matter how uncomfortable we become. That’s the only way progess can be made.

  4. Killer J says:

    I’ve always had a problem with people who claim to be super tolerant, in fact, I’m intolerant of them. Grow a spine, you PC wackjobs! Besides, “Tolerance is the virtue of a man with no convictions.”

    I also have a difficult time with people that are completely intolerant of anything beyond their view. Even if they agree with me!

    Both ubertolerance and rigid intolerance are character flaws, in my opinion. Ubertolerance is a unabashed, pussified pacifism and intolerance is undoubtedly narcissism.

    Thus, a good balance between public/personal morality is best.

  5. shaunmiller says:

    Hey Killer J,

    I wasn’t sure if tolerance was an attribute. That was only one quality I mentioned because that was the best thing I could think of at the moment. I’m sure there are other qualities that deals with this but I can’t think of any. But I agree that tolerance should be a middle be instead of going to the extremes. I guess it’s hard to figure out where the middle road should be. One man’s tolerance is another’s intolerance.

    • thekillerj says:

      After four years of letting this post marinate, I must say I disagree with myself. A balance between public and personal morality is just fence sitting. A lot of people have passionate beliefs, but cower when it comes to making those beliefs known.
      I think it is admirable when somebody with a strong sense of personal morality on an issue pushes their agenda to make it public. Even if I disagree. I still admire the person, but may desire to kick their ass (or at least look cross eyed at them).

      • shaunmiller says:

        Do you admire the person or the fact that the person made a bold claim? I mean, Hitler made an agenda public, but I wouldn’t say he’s admirable.

      • thekillerj says:

        I admire the person for making a bold claim. It’s not either/or. As far as Hitler, I suppose a line needs to be drawn with whom I choose to admire for being bold.

  6. Chris says:

    I enjoyed this post, but I’m having trouble working out how the ideas fit into any meta-ethical framework. (Which likely says as much about how I’m still trying to get an understanding of what meta-ethical frameworks are as it does about your post..)

    I think what’s missing is that you don’t say whether something in your “personal morality” is actually a prescription on the world; i.e. whether “In exact situation y, I choose to do x” is a rewording of “People should choose to do x in exact situation y” to you or not.

    If it is, which I think is objectivism, I don’t see why you’re creating the distinction between personal and public morality — does it actually have anything to do with ethics, or is it just a practical decision that you don’t like the conflicts that arise when you tell other people what you think they ought to do? You seem to say that you really don’t care whether other people cause animal suffering, though, which doesn’t sound very objectivist.

    If it isn’t a prescription, then I think we’re into subjectivism; but if you’re a subjectivist, I don’t know what basis you have for declaring that tolerance is a way in which we *ought* to behave, objectively.

    If you know of any literature on how a split between public and private morality might work, I’d enjoy reading more. Thanks!

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Chris. As you can tell, I’m interested in ethics, but I haven’t developed a meta-ethical framework, or even a normative one for that matter. So here’s an interesting question: why am I tolerant of other’s causing animal suffering, but I’m not tolerant of murder? It’s a good question and I really don’t have an answer to it. I have also known many vegetarian philosophy professors (who knows more about this stuff than I do) who will gladly go in an eating group where meat is served (of course, they don’t eat the meat). Since these professors hold on to an objective framework, they do want to persuade others around them that eating meat is wrong. So what gives?

      I think silent influence is probably the best answer I can give. If I were to always attack other people’s beliefs that eating meat is wrong, they are usually taken aback and from there, I won’t get invited to many things. People usually don’t like to hear that their beliefs are wrong. Thus, if I’m not invited to many things, my influence would be waning. But then again, what if people went to a murder meeting? I think I would call the authorities (assuming I couldn’t convince my murderistic friends) because while murder is morally wrong, we have a system of law that makes it easier to punish people breaking that law. I can’t call the authorities if people eat meat because there’s no law backing up that morality.

      So the most I can do is give some heavy influence and show by example why I’m doing the right thing and I hope to convince others by my example.

      Of course, the “example” story isn’t that convincing, but for know it’s why I’m doing it. I’ll have to think about it.

  7. Chris says:

    Thanks, Shaun! That makes sense.

    I still think there’s a relevant question of whether your vegetarian philosophy professors believe that their students *ought* to be vegetarian, even if only they believe that privately — if so, their approach of silence isn’t really an ethical framework of personal vs. public morality, as much as it’s a practical decision to use silent influence rather than direct conflict when in situations with someone who’s not acting entirely ethically, in their view. (Maybe the distinction between those two ideas isn’t a very important one, though.)

  8. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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