I’ve had a few conversations lately on morality, and it strikes me that I haven’t written about it in quite a while. The discussions focused on whether there is any objective morality, or any objective definition of good and evil. This is an age old question.
It occurs to me that we can break moral notions down into certain types.
- Personal morality: This is what we all individually viscerally feel is right or wrong. It appears to arise from a combination of instinctive innate intuitions and cultural indoctrinations. While we are all human and mostly have the same instincts and intuitions, we feel them with varying levels of intensities and in various combinations of those intensities, heavily modified by our unique experiences. In other words, conscientious people can conscientiously disagree about right and wrong.
- Cultural morality: This is the culture’s definitions of right and wrong. It is, in essence, the consensus arrived at from the members of that culture, modified by the environments that the culture exists in. (For example, the mores of desert nomads will be different from farming or fishing villages.) 2 is essentially a summation of 1, but it also influences 1 heavily, making the relationship between the two complex, with a tendency to have a life of its own, transcending and often modifying and becoming part of the environment that modifies itself.
- Societal laws: This are the mores from 2 that a society chooses to encode and enforce. Most people are aware of the stark differences between 3 and 2. There are many things that are legal but are widely considered immoral, and there are many things intuitively regarded as just, that are illegal. Some of these differences arise from who has power in a society, but some of it also arises from a pragmatic necessity for laws to work and be enforceable across the society.
- Objective morals: These are morals precepts that exist “out there” in some platonic sense. If you’re religious, these may be the commandments of a god or gods. If you’re secular, you may try to find it in some other aspect of reality, such as evolved human instincts.
There’s no question that 1-3 exist. They can be studied through psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and history. We can read studies of them in various other cultures, both in the world today or throughout history. They themselves have an objective existence, although they are constantly changing.
The question is whether 4 exists, and if it exists, whether there is any way for us to know it.
Again, if you’re religious, you may believe that 4 definitely does exist; it is simply the will of the deity or order that you worship. The problem is that there is no way to prove that any one religion is the right one, at least not in any manner that the adherents of other religions, or of no religion, will accept. And even within a religion, there are often strong disagreements about what that objective morality is between different sects, denominations, and often even within the core scriptures. If any one religion is true, it historically doesn’t seem to help us in discovering exactly what the objective moral precepts are.
Many secularists have attempted to find an objective morality in human instinct. I have some sympathy for this approach, and I do think human instinct puts some constraints on moral rules, so that they’re not completely arbitrary, although the freedom allowed by those constraints appear to be wider than just about anyone is comfortable with. The problem is that there is no one set of human instincts. As I mentioned in 1 above, we’re all a little different.
The other problem with using human instinct as a guide, is that it often leads to mores most of us find problematic today. It appears to be human nature to consider people who are like us to be the in-group, and all others the out-group, with the result that, historically, the out-group is often treated as less than human. It’s also true that human empathy with people who are out of sight appears to be unnatural. In these and many other cases, we feel the need to override our instincts in these areas with “the better angels of our nature.”
Of course, these “better angels” are themselves the result of other instincts. A while back, fellow blogger, Ignostic Atheist, asked whether we were born evil. My response was that we were born with both selfish and pro-social instincts, which are always in tension. Different individuals and cultures declare different spots along the spectrum of that tension as “good” or “evil.” An overbearing fascist might shift “good” all the way to the pro-social side, leaving little room for individual freedom, while an anarchist might position it far toward the selfish side.
All of which is to say that we can’t find an objective morality within human instinct, or more broadly in natural facts. Attempting to do so is often called the naturalistic fallacy.
So, if an objective morality exists, we appear to have no way to ascertain it, or have confidence in its existence. We’re back to David Hume’s famous (infamous?) observation that you can’t derive an ought from an is, the is-ought distinction. No one has found a convincing solution to this distinction. Although it hasn’t stopped many from claiming that they have, or claiming that the distinction doesn’t really exist, but those people have generally failed to convince the intellectual world. (Although, of course, they often do have substantial followings.)
Does this mean that discussing morality is pointless? That all viewpoints, no matter how odious we may find them, are equally valid? That moral propositions are nothing more than emotive “yay charity” or “boo murder”? Are we doomed to normative moral nihilism?
I think the answer depends on whether we can find shared common values. If we can, then, on the basis of those shared values, we can apply science and logic to help resolve difficult moral conundrums. At least some of the time. For example, in a debate about animal rights, appealing to a shared sense of empathy and care of others, and then asking why it shouldn’t pertain to non-human animals, is a powerful argument.
Other times the logical answer may crash into another instinctive or indoctrinated intuition. The abortion debate could be seen as a tension between the wellbeing of the mother and that of the embryo / fetus. If so, a logical and evidence based discussion might lead us to conclude that the welfare of the mother should trump the welfare of, at least, an early stage embryo with no conceivable ability to experience suffering. But this conclusion crashes into a sacred value held by many pro-life advocates, who consider the zygote to be an ensouled and inviolable human being, which they think should be treated like any other human.
Of course, even then the discussions are worth having. After all, what other choice do we have, at least other than having one group impose its values on others? (A choice resorted to far too often in history.) I’ve noted many times before that in a society with universal suffrage, we have no choice but to do the hard work of finding a consensus that the majority of us can live with.
But I guess the question I have is, am I missing something? Is there a way to ascertain objective definitions of good and evil? If so, what are they?