Saturday, September 6, 2014

On the Truthiness of Morals

Are morals subjective or objective? A philosophical argument that really does have an answer.

It is hard to believe some of the topics that remain "live" in philosophical debate. Like the existence of free will, or the Christian trinity, or the existence of souls. Can you detect a theme here? Ideas from our religious history tend to have a very firm grip, coming as they originally did from our unconscious archetypes in the first place, no matter how little rational sense they make in a post-enlightenment intellectual world, i.e. reality. Philosophy departments the world over straddle a somewhat pernicious tension between keeping old philosophical questions alive out of honest historical study and respect for the past, versus, frankly, out of professional interest in having something to do and the safety of sticking to received perplexities, which is pretty much the opposite of what philosophy is supposed to be about.

I think the area of objective vs subjective morality is in this general position (See a lengthy discussion and series of apologetics by a proponent of moral objectivism). In theistic terms, morality is created by god, and either commanded via its prophets and scriptures, or, in more liberal versions, implanted by way of evolution to give us, if not universally moral behavior, at least close to universal discernment of what is good. The point of all this is sort of unclear, if god is all-powerful in the first place. Are we some kind of toy or weird experiment developed for its amusement?

And make no mistake, for the vast majority, religion is a its core a moral and moralistic enterprise. Scratch a theist, and you will find someone who believes that without god, all is permitted and society will fall to ruin. Indeed, the intense emotion these positions engender tell you right off the bat that something is fishy about the assertion of objective truth to morality. There are good evolutionary reasons for this nexus of groupishness and righteousness, of course, which makes it so odd that ...

Remarkably, the pull of objective morality goes far beyond the community of theists. Many philosophers, including the highly esteemed Derek Parfit, and even leading contributors to the atheist flagship magazine Free Inquiry, hold to the moral realist / objective position. Which is that morals have some kind of objective basis or "truth" value independent from our subjective pleasures and pains. This is a species of philosophical idealism, which generally believes in the reality of ideals, whether mathematical, like the ideal geometric forms, or moral, like those we feel ourselves striving for in some great communal project. Some even believe the ideals realer than the mundane reality under our feet. The connections to theism should be self-evident.

Parfit's recent work was reviewed by Peter Singer:
"Many people assume that rationality is always instrumental: reason can tell us only how to get what we want, but our basic wants and desires are beyond the scope of reasoning. Not so, Parfit argues. Just as we can grasp the truth that 1+1=2, so we can see that I have a reason to avoid suffering agony at some future time, regardless of whether I now care about, or have desires about, whether I will suffer agony at that time. We can also have reasons (though not always conclusive reasons) to prevent others from suffering agony. Such self-evident normative truths provide the basis for Parfit's defense of objectivity in ethics."

I do not see how this argument leaves the station. While there is a great role for moral reasoning in summing up our pains and pleasures to an optimized global judgement, the worm at the bottom of all this calculation remains pain and pleasure ... the very antithesis of objectivity, and the soul, if you will excuse me, of subjectivity.

This work was also reviewed by James Alexander (needs to be approached by a general internet search, not via this link):
"Parfit states the case against Political Theologians, against Nietzscheans, and against Kantian Constructivists as strongly as possible. His own position is unlike all of these in being resolutely impersonal. There is no privileged God, no privileged subject, and no intersubjective order emerging from the interaction of privileged subjects: there is, instead, an objective moral order. For Parfit this is an absolute presupposition: “If there were no such normative truths, nothing would matter, and we would have no reasons to try to decide how to live.” (Vol. II, p.619.) This view is what Parfit calls ‘Non-Metaphysical Non-Naturalist Normative Cognitivism’, or ‘Rationalism’ for short."

Excuse me, but this is nonsense. There is no need to go all axiomatic about where our reasons for "how to live" come from. They come from our inborn desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or however else one might like to phrase it. They are fundamentally subjective, which one can cast either as the evil and selfish dictates of the struggle for existence, or our hard-won capacity to weigh our subjective interests in communities of interdependence.

Whatever one's view, morals begin as the simple, subjective dictate to stay alive, avoid pain, and seek pleasure. (And to get exactly as much ice cream as Bobby does.) The fact that we can record the past and forecast the future, and the fact that we depend on others for virtually every facet of our existence means that our moral universe is incredibly complicated, spinning from those simple beginnings an endless negotiation about what each person might reasonably want & get in a society where others are similar moral beings with their own aims and pains. In the reigning system of democracy, we have come to a stable stand-off where the right to be a subjectively guided human is accorded to each person, with maximal freedom to pursue happiness coupled with minimal freedom to impinge on the pursuits of others. (Except for corporations, which are specially blessed immortal, amoral, and politically omnipotent persons.)

None of this needs objective morality in any respect. The idea that what we think right and best is also objectively good, while the Nazis (to take a convenient shorthand) are incontrovertable, objective evil ... well, that is simply a fantasy, though one that is incredibly seductive and occasionally quite useful. Even if every person on the planet agrees with such judgements, they remain anchored in the founding motivation that what is good for us collectively is good, and the reverse is bad- a totally self-centered and subjective criterion for morality.


Suppose, for instance, that the world community of dophins used their powers of speech to tell us something truly momentous. That they are the superior beings on Earth, and we should, (by objective morality), spend all our efforts to make the planet better for them, not for us. What would we say to that? But ... all of our philosophers say that making the world better for humans is what it is all about. One can not imagine this being very persuasive. If the dophins could drop bombs on us, would we respect them then? Or perhaps if they showed us their ability to feel pain, would we accept them as equals, let alone as superiors?

Hopefully this helps to show that not only are morals descriptively subjective, expressing how we have always generated and used them. But any normative system telling us what we should be doing is likewise inescapably based on subjective criteria as well- what we think in our wisdom, is good for us. Whether "us" is individual or collective leads to the endless dramas of our lives, in art and reality- the tension that religion labors so hard to resolve, but which remains inescapable.

The historical struggle to extend collective moral behavior to ever larger groups does not depend on any objectivity in morals, either, other than the trivial objectivity they may gain from being written in the form of stones and books. We evolved to cleave to our own group and kill the other group. So how one defines the group is of monumental moral importance. The advent of agriculture and other technologies to support ever-denser populations generated enormous societies with fluid groupings. In our age, the nation has taken pre-eminent position as the group that stands ready to demonize others, take their land, and exterminate them. While it is laudable that groups of hundreds of millions have managed to become internally peaceful, it is, hopefully, clear that the basis of such "moral" behavior is no more objective than it ever was.

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