Saturday, November 5, 2011

On moral subjectivity

Are moral truths objective? Are they even "truths"?

A recent New Yorker profile of Derek Parfit tapped into a broad and untypically theological theme that there must be something absolute about morals- something objective and fixed, a standard that we all know by some (maybe god-given) instinct and reach for or knowingly violate. A recent Philosophy bites podcast ventured into similar territory, with Paul Boghossian. (Here is a typical academic discussion.)

I'm no expert here, but very much take the opposite view, (most famously presented by Hume), that we come up with our morals subjectively, and communally by negotiation, ending up with characteristically human, but variable systems for entirely this-world reasons. The only hint of the absolute is game theory, which lends inescapable structure to our transactions, as it does to evolution more generally.

One interesting pursuit of philosophers of ethics (such as Parfit- or Rawls, or Singer, or Kant, or Plato) is the contruction of ideal moral systems founded on reason. For Rawls, reason says that we should build societies that treat everyone fairly, with the particular rule that in doing the design, we should assume that we would arrive into that society at a random position, not the position we currently hold, thus motivating author of such a system to be maximally impartial, just, and fair.
"He came up with what he called the Triple Theory: An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable." - from the New Yorker profile of Parfit cited above.
Well, this certainly sounds great, but one has to ask: why? What makes reason come up with such schemes? What motivated Rawls to come up with this scheme, and what could possibly make it "right" instead of "wrong"? There have to be premises here on which reason operates, such as our desire to be treated fairly, to be free, to have the opportunity to fulfull our personal potential, and live as well as is practical. There has to be a point. All the relevant points are desires. They may be common desires, but they are not unversal desires. It is the problem of competing desires that creates the whole need for moral systems in the first place, and adjudicating among them can't possibly be the job of reason, in the end, though reason is certainly helpful in articulating our choices and forecasting their consequences. At any rate, it is human desire that justifies a "reasonable" or utilitarian system for getting them satisfied.

So the logic of morals as I see it is that we have desires & needs, and this leads to the creation of a moral system that satisfies them in the face of other people with their own, either complementary or competing desires. I find it extremely hard to see where absolutes enter into this logic. Humans may well have desires that are programmed by god. We have no idea. But even if so, it is from that programming that our premises for "reasonable" systems descend in practice, not from some deity telling us directly what is good and what to do (Biblical interpretation aside, which would truly be going down a rabbit hole). Indeed, some of the most interesting religious literature features people telling god how poorly he has behaved, and shaming him to do better.

One can certainly see the practical attraction of positing morals as absolute and god-given, especially one's own. But that is a mere con game if no one has evidence that his are any more or less god-given than those of others ... which is the position I think we are in.

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  1. Burk, I think you and I are on really similar pages, even though I cautiously favor the idea that morals may be objectively true.

    However we only have subjective means to find them, and they correspond to our level of awareness.

    What's "right" for a cat may be different than for myself, because we are in different positions of awareness.

    Similarly, a psychopath may feel no empathy towards others, murdering with gusto, but most of the rest of us probably feel that the very best part of life is our relationships - something the psychopath would have no capacity to enjoy. So the psychopath lacks awareness and so lacks the possible benefits of morality - which still exist, even if he isn't aware of them. (this doesn't mean we should not lock him up for utilitarian reasons, of course)

    I sometimes use the idea of a child happily consuming a packet of sugar in a hallway, completely unaware of the full Thanksgiving feast he is missing in the next room.

    So, I suppose I am a Buddhist in this sense. What we call good and evil are natural products of our level of awareness.

    And this jives with your view that morality comes from desires (your mention of game theory is really interesting to me). We desire well-being. And there may be ways to objectively test what leads to the most well-being for individuals, societies, etc.

    Perhaps, there simply could not exist a society which lacked the law "Do not murder." Would this make that an objective moral truth?

    But I am cautious on all this. I do think that we move from our ethical intuitions, but that it is possible to reevaluate their effectiveness with our sense of reason. This is not unlike the traditional religious view of "natural law". And perhaps whether it was instilled by God, by natural selection, or both, it COULD be objective, depending on our criteria for that term, I suppose.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Not my best organization in the previous comment. It's too late at night, I suppose.

    I do think all morality is grounded in self-interest, I just don't see why that renders it totally subjective. For any pursuit we must accept a few foundational premises - and even these we reevaluate based on their effectiveness, and what makes them effective or not is how they serve our sense of well-being, our self-interest.

    Best, Steven

  3. Hi, Steven-

    How about a group like the Kingons / Vikings, etc., for whom perhaps killing is the highest desire in their moral system (in some appropriate setting)? I don't think this is objectively wrong. It only goes against the desires of more pacific cultures / weaker / victimized cultures.

    There might not be any level of awareness that would make this Klingon system wrong, if their cultural system is fully shaped around the dog-eat-dog ethic. Sure it can be unpleasant at times, but many traditions have found that unpleasantness can be made into a positive virtue. It is one thing to have empathy, it is another to "give in" to it, one might say, from such a perspective.

    Perhaps the full Thanksgiving feast is an ecstatic immersion in our competitive, even mean side, as one sees in hunters, or Football fans (or in the gospel of John). I think it assumes too much about human nature to always hew to the liberal and placid ethical aims. That is certainly one subtext of the Right political (and economic) stance- that of valorous, even extreme, competition.

  4. Hey Burk,

    You could be right, but consider more civilized society's move away from the Klingon culture. Perhaps there is only one pathway, personally and collectively, that leads to a maximization of well-being. Sure, we still watch football and engage in warfare that is morally reprehensible. But our hypocrisy in hiding it from ourselves (The war part) may reveal a latent desire to be rid of such things - although we may not be willing to do what it takes to accomplish this.

    I think that "right and wrong" are pretty subjective unless defined in terms of a larger goal, so perhaps we agree there. Perhaps our disagreement may lie in my cautious acceptance of the following statement:

    The wider our circle of identification with and concern for others is, the greater the depth and enjoyment of our experience will be.

    Is this objectively true? I don't know for sure. But it's the argument I would present to someone who didn't care about killing his neighbor.