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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- Quote of the week, taking a moment away from economics to learn about higher education. From Science magazine, taken in turn from Teachers College Record, 114 (2012):
"Most students enter college aiming for a 4.0 GPA. Given that grading in American educational institutions is unregulated, how meaningful is a 4.0? Rojstaczer and Healy examined grade distributions from 200 American colleges and universities over the past 70 years. They report that movement away from the traditional bell-shaped grading curve began in the 1960s and 1970s in order to help students avoid the military draft. A continual rising of grades followed, without the accompaniment of increased student achievement. Graduation rates have remained largely static for decades, the literacy of graduates has declined, and college entrance exam scores of applicants have fallen. America's educational institutions have gradually created an illusion where excellence is widespread and failure is rare. In fact, “A” is now the most common grade. Efforts at grade regulation are controversial, but without grading oversight, either on a school-by-school or national basis, it is unlikely that meaningful grades will return to American education."