For Goodness Sake

This coming week I’m giving a talk on moral knowledge, and whether our current understanding of science points to a world where moral knowledge is impossible. That’s clearly a wander into the dark world of philosophy, and as with most such discussions, it will all come down to definitions.

The discussion will run much longer than this post, but to summarise the main idea, it goes something like this:

Traditionally people have held the idea that some things are just plain right and plain wrong. It’s good to help out one’s friends and family, not so good to cause them needless pain etc. Societies have, across time and place, developed moral codes which have served the purpose of reinforcing social norms. And, for most of history, people have linked these moral oughts to the existence of some higher force or being. Right and wrong wasn’t so much a social construction as a matter of truth. When an action was deemed morally proper it wasn’t because that’s ‘just the way our people have traditionally thought’ but rather, because it really was the right thing to do. Social obligations and Gods were inextricably linked.

So inextricably linked, indeed, that as some traditions came to question the existence of such Gods, they also questioned the existence of moral truths. This is the existential abyss to which adolescents are so attracted. I conclude there is no God, therefore there is no meaning, no true moral compass, just some dark, threatening void.

From this conclusion we get a modern fashion for moral relativism: looks bad to us, but hey, that’s just because we have a different moral perspective. Who’s to judge, really?

I have two lines of argument on this. The first is that the God argument is something of a red herring. Even if God does exist, we still have good reason to question whether that being’s moral opinions are available to us. Given the observed correlation between physical brain states and thinking states, which is the standard conclusion in current brain science, and the evolved nature of that brain, the current conclusion in biology, and the probabilistically predictable relationship between past and present physical states, the standard conclusion in physics, moral knowledge would require some sort of physical miracle. In other words, to know what God thinks, we would need our brains to configure in a way not consistent with the known scientific description of matter. This might happen on a moment by moment basis within the unknown recesses of our brain, or it might have happened in a single event in the evolutionary past, or as a single historical event, perhaps a God walking amongst us with a prescriptive moral code in hand, but in any case it requires a miracle. One is free to believe any of these things, of course, but for those of us who consider science gives us our best description of the physical world, that solution, and hence moral knowledge, is off the table, irrespective of whether God exists.

My second line of argument will be that it is a mistake to conclude that this lack of moral knowledge implies relativism. In other words, we can still believe in objective moral standards, even if we’re not moral realists. How might we make this case? Briefly, we can observe other areas of human knowledge where we have clear objective facts, despite the area itself not being grounded in some higher reality. Take prime numbers, for example. It is true there is an infinite number of them, this is an objective fact, but this doesn’t mean prime numbers must really exist, independent of our human construction of them. Construct a number set with its basic rules and certain objective facts fall out. Or think of chess. We set up the game with its rules, and from there a number of objective facts emerge (a particular configuration of the board constitutes check mate, for instance).

So, we don’t have a necessary logical link between realism and objective facts. The question becomes, could morality be a bit like chess or prime numbers? The obvious objection is that there is still something arbitrary, and potentially relativistic, about chess. Couldn’t some other group of people play chess with different rules, and so a different set of facts? Well, no, because then they wouldn’t be playing chess. Chess is defined by its rules or constraints. Could morality be?

Here we need to define morality, a step that is too rarely taken seriously (free will is another area where taking a bit of care with definitions would save an awful lot of confusion). Morality, to be meaningful, must refer to ‘oughts’ of behaviour. A moral act is one where there is some form of requirement to act. And so, we need to ask, where does this requirement come from? In other words, why ought we behave morally? If we can’t answer this question, we don’t have a moral system, and we are in fact speaking of something else. The traditional take is that the ought comes from God. We ought to behave morally because God wants us to (and the ancient Greeks had an objection to this – is the thing good because God wills it, or does God will the thing, because it is good?)

But, if we rule out this form of compulsion, on either scientific or logical grounds, where else could the ought come from? Why ought I behave any particular way? There seem to be three inter-related answers: self interest, social interest, and moral intuition. If I have clear instinct about certain moral situations (and in ethics, intuition is treated as the equivalent of empirical data, if a proposed moral system does not accord with our deepest moral instincts we reject it) then that creates the sort of ought a moral system requires. Self interest, the desire to stay alive, or live well, clearly creates a compulsion to act, and because we are irreducibly social in our nature, so too does the requirement to follow the rules that our social system requires in order to remain stable.

Hence, it seems to me to be clearly feasible to ground our moral systems in our evolved instincts, along with the requirements of a stable social system. And as soon as you do that, you no longer live in a world of relativistic, anything goes, morality. Some things are objectively wrong, in that they clash directly with evolved human moral instincts, or they threaten the stability of the social systems humans need in order to flourish.

This is not to say they will reduce to the same simple set of dictums we might find in number systems or chess. Human social systems are vastly more complex, and in many cases there will be parallel solutions to the same moral problem, and there will be cases where the moral imperative is not at all clear. Of course, this is true even if we take the realist line. Believing in moral reality does not relieve us of the burden of endless tortuous discussions, dissections and digressions in the moral field.

So, in essence, if we take a moment to see what moral systems are (a set of plausibly grounded oughts) relativism loses its grip on us: the need to find reason to act severely constrains, and hence objectifies to that degree, the sort of actions we can properly call moral. Or so I will argue.


2 thoughts on “For Goodness Sake

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    It looks like the math analogy is a feint, not really related to the core argument that our social systems have objective characteristics and needs. Math is an axiomatic system- we create the rules, and then derive the “truths” based on those axioms. It is not an empirical pursuit where the axioms are supplied by *reality*, and themselves are a subject of intensive search.

    I appreciate your core argument, though. I think at this point we are splitting hairs- about whether the social system is an objective fact that leads to necessary and objective rules embodied by our moral senses and rules. Or whether ultimately, the social system is an expression of our subjective wants, desires, and archetypes, which work with our moral sense which has been embedded by epochs of evolution (ultimate criterion: self-interest of the individual and group). What is the more “ultimate” explanation and criterion of morality seems a matter of taste at this point. In any case, I wouldn’t hold with relativism either, only subjectivism.

  2. Hi Burk

    I agree with your characterisation of maths here. The point is not to suggest an analogy, but rather to show that objective facts need not be grounded in realism, which is very often assumed.

    Thus, the extent to which we call moral systems objective, it seems to me, will depend upon how we first ground our definition of obligations.


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