Morality Play from Philosophy Experiments is an interesting test. It does not tell how good or bad one is; it only measures one’s morality in terms of “moral parsimony”. The concept of moral parsimony seemed ambiguous to me and I will explore that in this post. The idea is explained thus:
“Moral frameworks can be more or less parsimonious. That is to say, they can employ a wide range of principles, which vary in their application according to circumstances (less parsimonious) or they can employ a small range of principles which apply across a wide range of circumstances without modification (more parsimonious). An example might make this clear. Let’s assume that we are committed to the principle that it is a good to reduce suffering. The test of moral parsimony is to see whether this principle is applied simply and without modification or qualification in a number of different circumstances. Supposing, for example, we find that in otherwise identical circumstances, the principle is applied differently if the suffering person is from a different country to our own. This suggests a lack of moral parsimony because a factor which could be taken to be morally irrelevant in an alternative moral framework is here taken to be morally relevant.”
The law of parsimony states that if there are two or more competing theories that explain the problem (or hypotheses) the simplest theory is mostly likely to be true. For instance, if we commit a mistake and we have multiple ways of explaining away our mistakes, the theory that it happened because of our own ignorance (which is simple and fluff free) is more likely to be true. The principle of parsimony makes the explanatory power of a succinct theory very clear: it quotes the “truth” value based on its succinctness. But the use of moral parsimony in the above test leads to nothing but ambiguity. Let us think about it this way. It is good have a wide and accommodating notion of morality as it offers us flexibility to make “best” decisions. For instance, consider the moral rule that lying is wrong. Even if we believe so truly, we could never get ourself to lie out of our moral duty if doing so, let’s say, would put a person’s life at great risk. Moral decisions become the hardest when there are conflicts of interest and we tend to think instinctively to “minimise the harm” rather than “maximise the good”. Also, morality itself is extremely complex in that having a strong moral belief has no direct bearing on how we finally act in a given situation. That is to say, a strong moral belief will not necessarily translate itself to an unflinching will for that moral act and we might end up using many different principles in different situations – all for a good result and with a well-meaning intention. But on the other extreme, there are people who disregard moral rules and discard them at will out of self-interest and lure of personal gain. Even they seem to have a wide ranging principles but for a wrong end. This only adds to the confusion of “principles theory” of moral behaviour because there are situations where moral inflexibility (small range of principles) is the best while there are others where flexibility (wide ranging principles) may or may not be the best.
On the final page of the results section, the test claims “We make no judgement about whether moral parsimony is a good or bad thing.” (After giving the definition, it is cleverly suggested in the test results that we should ourselves decide what this parsimony means! Perhaps the burden of ambiguity was perceived as a moral burden by them!) But extending the law of parsimony to morality, if the concept of parsimony must hold to make sense, we are made to infer that having a “small range of moral principles” is most likely to make one right. Hence, in spite of the test’s claims not to make judgments, it has already made it. If doing right is good as we all understand it (otherwise it might become pointless), then the “right” resulting from having a “small range of moral principles” should make one good too. But the test claims it makes no such conclusions which is false but what it finally concludes remains ambiguous. Hence, the concept of moral parsimony presented itself is ambiguous.