Jason Mckenzie Alexander at iai.tv makes an interesting proposition, that morality is a social technology, one that goes out of date and frequently needs to be upgraded.
He first describes the common sentiment that morals are objective in some timeless platonic sense. I discussed the problems with this view in a post a while back on the various scopes of morality:
In that post, I noted that the first three undoubtedly exist and are constantly interacting with each other. They can be studied through psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, etc. But that if the fourth existed, we don’t seem to have any good way to determine it.
Another sense of morality is that it’s simply personal preferences. Discussing emotivism, the idea that the statement “murder is wrong” is equivalent to “boo murder”, or that “charity is good” is equivalent to “yay charity”, Alexander notes it makes most people uneasy. After all, if morals are completely subjective, then by what basis can we condemn immoral acts?
Alexander attempts to bridge this divide by reference to game theory. The idea being that the optimal set of rules to maximize social order and welfare is context dependent, and changes as the environment changes.
I think there’s some merit to this. The morals of a desert community tend to be very different from the morals of society living on freshwater shores. For example, people’s attitude toward wasting water will be very different. Many hunter-gatherer cultures have expectations of children euthanizing their parents when they become too old and feeble to keep up with the tribe, while agricultural societies tend to expect that people take care of elders in their senescence.
But while these types of factors definitely affect a culture’s mores, it seems clear that not all desert societies are the same, nor all agricultural societies, or hunter-gatherer ones. Environmental factors do lay down a moral landscape of sorts, but the details can still vary tremendously.
And game theory itself is only useful in regards to whatever the goal is. Of course, we all desire to survive and flourish along with our friends and family, but while “survive” is unambiguous, words like “flourish” and “welfare” leave a lot of room for interpretation. A woman raised in a traditional Pakistani household is going to have a very different idea of what it means to flourish than a woman raised in Sweden.
So I think the idea that there is an objective morality, that we just need to factor in all the correct variables, is dubious. It’s a variation of the notion of a science of morality. At the end of the day, morality is about how we should live together, which ultimately comes down to our collective psychology of how we want to live, a collective psychology that’s going to change depending on who’s in the collective. Societies have little choice but to hammer out a consensus on what their principles should be.
I do think there’s a lot to be said for a society finding a consensus that meets the instinctual needs of as many of their members as possible. With the proviso that our instincts are often in conflict with one another, and where to land on the tension between them often not anything that can be objectively determined.
And meeting the needs of as many as possible could itself be considered a cultural value. But if so, it appears to be one that more and more cultures are adopting, leading to what Martin Luther King described as the arc of history bending toward justice.
What do you think? Is there an objective morality? If so, how can we learn about it? Or is the whole idea of a universal morality misguided?