People make all sorts of statements about things being right or wrong, and we tend to act as if all those statements are roughly equal. Statements based on the Bible, for example, are put on the same playing field as statements based on science.
My point here, however, is to talk about right or wrong from a moral standpoint. When controversial issues like pornography, prostitution, white supremacism, affirmative action, or corporal punishment against children, are brought up, we discuss moral statements and political statements as if they answered each other. But actually those two types of statements cannot respond to each other, since they pertain to completely different things.
A moral statement is a statement which makes an evaluation of right or wrong based on values, or principles derived from values. For example, a statement such as “it is wrong to kill animals in order to feed on their flesh” is a moral statement which may be evaluated based on the values underlying it (concerns for animal welfare, being against suffering, being against murder for self-interested purposes, and so on). Whether you agree or disagree, I think it’s clear that this is a moral statement.
A political statement, as I define it, is a statement which makes an evaluation of right or wrong based on power. I’ve previously defined power, using J.K. Galbraith’s classification, as being of three general types: condign power (force), compensatory power (money) and conditioned power (indoctrination). Any statement which relies on one of these three things is a political statement, not a moral statement.
So if you say something like “it is not wrong to kill animals for meat them because most people are willing to pay for the meat,” that’s a political statement, not a moral statement. Your justification is based on money as the standard, that it is not wrong because people are willing to spend money on it. People spending money on things does not provide any sort of evidence of its morality: one can pay for anything, including hitmen, rape, massive fraud, and States routinely pay for war, torture and political assassinations. All it proves is that enough people feel that they benefit from the action to want to pay for it, and that these people do not particularly care what the victims think.
Here I want to clarify a possible objection. Someone might say that my first example also involves power, in the form of coercion against the animals, and that therefore it is not a moral statement. But it is not sufficient for a statement to include a form of power, or a value, to be of a certain type: we must look at how it’s justified. In the first statement, the coercion is not the justification, but the exact opposite, as it is what is being argued against. In the second statement, money (in the form of consumer demand) is the justification.
It is relatively trivial, though, to retool the second statement to a form like this: “it is not wrong to kill animals for meat them because most people value meat consumption.” That would be a moral statement. Not a particularly good one, since it is heavily influenced by conditioning.
This brings me to my next point, which is that the moral/political dichotomy is not black and white. In Western societies, a lot of moral statements have indoctrination hiding behind them. As a general principle, we should be far more wary of classifying any commonplace statement as moral statement, because statements generally become commonplace because of indoctrination or being promulgated by major social institutions. If someone tells people what they already want to hear, or are used to hearing, then they are likely doing so to curry favor, not to make a rigorous argument.
To take an extreme example, someone proposing antinatalism is not likely to do so to gain people’s favor, but rather generally (but not always) do so out of extensive arguing and weighing the arguments. Someone proposing natalism, on the other hand, is likely to do so to gain support, since it is a position that most people (that is to say, parents) already accept enthusiastically. The same thing is true to a lesser extent of other unpopular ideologies, like atheism, feminism, moral intuitionism, and so on.
Note that I am not saying that all commonplace statements are always wrong. Being classified as a political statement instead of a moral statement does not make a statement necessarily wrong. The fact that not all power can be eliminated from society, even under the most utopian scheme possible, is the most rigorous proof of this. Likewise, there are plenty of moral statements that are just plain wrong.
Let me use these principles on a debate that I’ve written a great deal about, pornography. So you often get an argument of the form “pornography is fine because women get paid well to participate.” This is a political statement, not a moral statement, and therefore has no place in a moral debate. The fact that the producers of pornographic videos have the money to get women to perform sexual acts has no bearing on the morality of said sexual acts, or of their distribution. Rather, it is a statement about a desired distribution of power: that rich producers should have more power, and women needing money should have less power. It is, basically, capitalist logic (whoever has the money makes the rules). Arguing about distribution of power can be a worthwhile subject, but it’s not a topic of morality.
So let’s take an argument from the other side (that is to say, my side), such as “prostitution is wrong because money does not equal consent.” While this argument involves the concept of money, it is a moral statement because it is justified by the moral concept of consent. We can reformulate the statement like this: “Consent is necessary for something to be right, trading money is not a form of consent, therefore prostitution is wrong.” Whether you agree with it or not (I do realize it is not a rigorous logical argument), I think it’s clear that it is a statement about morality.
Inherent in any moral statement is a pro-rationality, anti-power preface that can generally be described as: “No matter what the law says, any holy book says, or any other external authority says, I believe that…” While external factors are part of any moral evaluation, moral obligation cannot logically be derived from some externally-imposed obligation, such as the law or divine commands. Any statement that cannot thus be prefaced cannot be a moral statement. For instance, you could not say “No matter what the law says, prostitution is wrong because it’s against the law.” “Prostitution is wrong because it’s against the law” is necessarily a political statement (which I disagree with, since the law has nothing to do with morality).
A lot of people do not acknowledge the existence of any form of power beyond force. This means that they will put statements that are justified by money or indoctrination in the category of moral statements. This leads to the absurdity of equating payment with consent, or to say that a child who was indoctrinated in a religion for 18 years now has “freedom of religion” because they’ve become adults. I feel that a lot of moral disagreements stem from things which are actually not about morality at all, and that if we were able to distinguish the two, discussions would be a lot more productive.