There Is No Morality, and That’s a Good Thing

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Moral philosophy is an infamous mess. However, this mess, which moral philosophers have inadvertently foisted upon us, may in the end do us a favor: by trying in vain to come up with a coherent and convincing system of morality moral philosophers may have shown that there isn’t in fact something called morality.

But let’s take a few steps back first. Why is moral philosophy a mess? After 2000+ years of trying, not even the brightest minds have produced a morality that’s the least bit convincing. There isn’t even a shred of promise that something convincing is somewhere around some distant corner. For example, your theory might require a bit of rethinking if it states that to act morally you have to

  • Tell an inquiring murderer the whereabouts of your targeted friend
  • Engage in infanticide
  • Prefer a society with billions of people living only a marginally worthwhile life to a small society of very happy people
  • Harvest the organs of a perfectly healthy individual in order to save 5 very ill and possible terminal patients
  • Be as greedy as you can be so as to make tons of money that you can then donate to some hypothetical other people who I suppose shouldn’t follow the rule to be greedy
  • Engage in mutually advantageous exploitation
  • Etc.

However, “rethinking” won’t do the job. Moral philosophy has been “rethinking” for ages, and the only thing to show for it are increasingly exotic and outrageous moral systems that refute one another and that can never and shouldn’t ever be the guide to anyone’s daily actions. You have very imaginative constructs like negative utilitarianism or esoteric consequentialism that have had about as much traction as a spider in a bathtub. Or you have hybrid systems such as rule utilitarianism, threshold deontology or luck egalitarianism that look like desperate attempts to bridge contradicting theories and offer a unified and irrefutable system without the unsavory parts of its components. Qua traction they aren’t any better.

Of course, it’s not because a theory lacks traction that it isn’t correct. Lots of unpopular things are correct. But the general persuasional failure of moral philosophy does indicate a deeper level of failure. Maybe moral philosophy fails because it tries to find a good explanation of something that doesn’t exist. And maybe it makes the same mistake as theories about the Martian canals, Aether or other Phlogistons. (Some ominous parallels perhaps to theories about free will or the Mind).

But if there is no morality, then how do we explain the sense of morality? It’s quite common for people to have a sense of right and wrong, to have a distaste of doing wrong, to oppose wrong when they see it done, to avoid harming others etc. The failure of moral philosophy to come with a good system doesn’t change this fact and doesn’t undo the reality of this moral sense. But if it’s true that there is no morality then this moral sense is an illusion, right? Not necessarily. Moral intuitions such as “do no harm” and “do unto others as you’d have done to you” are not necessarily proof of the existence of something called “morality”. These intuitions are perhaps based on mere self-interest rather than being the result of a moral system. We follow these intuitions in our daily actions not because a system of morality (or a God for that matter) demands this of us, but because doing so furthers our interests.

For example, we have an interest in a prosperous life, but in order to have a prosperous life, we need bakers, butchers, shopkeepers and the like to be able to prosper as well. We need peace, but peace is a public good: if we have it, others have it as well, and the only way to have it for ourselves is to try to give it to others. Reciprocity also explains the intuitions against harming others. If we refrain from harming others we may expect others to reciprocate, for different reasons: those others have no reason to retaliate; they make the same calculation as we do; and there is habit-formation in rule respecting behavior. There is a whole field of game theory that is based on similar assumptions. And the scientific inquiry into human evolution also gives support, as it seems that a lot of morality has an evolutionary basis.

So we end up with “values” that are really self-interested rules which happen, by chance alone, to benefit others. And which, because of these benefits, appear to be morally inspired, altruistic and benevolent. This appearance in turn has produced a whole field of philosophy that, in my mind, mistakes the appearance for the underlying reality.

PS: how do human rights fit into this? If I were famous I would be famous for my interest in and promotion of human rights. Isn’t that a moral stance? Aren’t human rights based on a moral theory? Or aren’t they a moral theory themselves, equivalent to utilitarianism and such? Not in my understanding of human rights. Of course, if you believe that human rights are divine commands or a tool to enforce a consequentialist or deontological morality, then the possible non-existence of morality undercuts the system of human rights. But in my view human rights are tools to promote interests. (I have an older post here explaining my interest-based approach to human rights. And another one here about selfish reasons to respect human rights. A more concrete example is this post about the attractiveness of religious liberty to those who hate it, namely those of us who are most ardently religious. There is also a subset of human rights violations that is relevant in this context, namely boomerang human rights violations).

The absence of a link between human rights and morality also explains

More about human rights and morality here.

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Truth vs Reasonableness in Politics

Some will disagree, but I believe that many of the important questions in politics, society and morality aren’t matters of truth, knowledge and certainty. For example, it isn’t “true”, in any sense of the word, that justice means the equal distribution of goods, that abortion is wrong, or that free speech is important. Those who advance those propositions may use facts, data and logic in their arguments, but ultimately the propositions are value judgments rather than statements of fact or knowledge. They are about right and wrong, not about true or false. (I made a similar case here).

This view of morality is known as moral skepticism. The opposing views are often called moral intuitionism or moral realism, and state that there are objective facts of morality independent of human opinion. I’ll do these views an injustice and summarize them in the question: “Don’t you know that slavery is morally wrong?”.

I can understand the attraction of such claims, but still I think moral skepticism holds because political and moral matters are fundamentally different from mathematical or scientific claims based on logic, data gathering, experimentation, statistical analysis, falsification etc. In politics and morality, we’re stuck with mere opinions; opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. Of course, also in matters of scientific or mathematical truth will there always be people with other opinions – take the example of global warming, or the vaccination skeptics – but these other opinions can be easily dismissed by facts, experiments, proofs etc. (which doesn’t mean that these opinions will go away; many people are immune to facts and proof). The same is not the case for basic political and moral questions. These questions may also be supported by data and experiments, but ultimately they rest on arguments for or against value judgments, and hence they can’t be settled on a purely cognitive or scientific basis (in other words, they aren’t – or better don’t have to be – caused by the mere ignorance or stupidity of one of the parties).

So, if data aren’t sufficient and truth and certainty aren’t a possible result of politics and morality, and if, as a result, there will always be a plurality of contradicting opinions, should we just keep on arguing indefinitely? Obviously we don’t. We decide on these questions all of the time. A large proportion of political activity is taken up by decisions on moral matters. And many consider those decisions not only necessary but also urgent. But then how do we decide? How do we distinguish good from bad decisions? We decide, not simply on the basis of facts and experiments, and certainly not on the basis of proof or a priori given truth or knowledge. Instead we use reasonable procedures guaranteeing the best possible decisions in a situation of uncertainty and urgency. These reasonable procedures produces reasonable decisions, not true or certain decisions. It is not because truth and certainty are unavailable that we have to find ourselves at the other extreme of arbitrary, impulsive and purely individual decisions. It is not because we cannot be certain of something that we cannot act in a reasonable way. There’s space between moral realism and moral nihilism, or between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism.

Reasonable decisions have at least the following six characteristics:

  • First of all, reasonable decisions have to have a high level of acceptability and have to be relatively easy to attain and to execute. The decisions of the majority of the people are more difficult to attain but also more acceptable and therefore easier to execute than the decisions of an individual, a monarch or a minority. A decision by consensus is, of course, even more acceptable, but it is also much more difficult to attain. The system of majority decisions seems to be the most reasonable one because it strikes the right balance between the two different criteria of acceptability and ease.
  • However, a reasonable decision has other characteristics as well. A decision of a majority can have terrible consequences, even if it is highly acceptable to the majority and easy to attain and to execute, especially when it is directed against a minority. A decision is a solution to a problem and should not cause problems that are worse than the one it tries to solve. The consequences of a decision should be taken into account. In other words, a reasonable decision is a responsible decision, in the sense that responsibility means taking into account and being accountable for the consequences of your actions.
  • A reasonable decision must be the best possible one under the given circumstances. This means that all possible decisions must be allowed to appear and to be defended in public before the actual decision is taken. The advantages and disadvantages of each one must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of all other possible decisions. The choice between competing decisions must take place in public and as many people as possible should participate in this choice, otherwise we may not find the best possible decision. If we exclude some people, we may exclude some possible solutions or some arguments against or in favor of some solutions. In order to be able to identify the best solution, the choice of a solution should be preceded by thorough examination of every possible or proposed solution and by public argumentation and deliberation. A maximum number of people should consider every possible solution. Reasonable decisions or reasonable solutions to problems should be public and should involve massive and free participation. Dictatorial, secret or impulsive decisions can only by chance be the best possible decisions.
  • We should not be impulsive, but some things are urgent nevertheless. Sometimes we do not have time for massive participation and for thorough consideration of all possible solutions and arguments. Timeliness is also a characteristic of reasonableness. A decision that comes too late can never be called reasonable.
  • The characteristic of timeliness is balanced by the characteristic of provisionality. Every reasonable decision is provisional, experimental (but not in the scientific sense) and therefore possibly transitory. It must be possible to correct or revoke a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one, if better arguments for other decisions turn up or if the circumstances change. This makes the speed of some decisions more acceptable. Regret and self-criticism are important democratic values. There is a Scottish rock band, The Proclaimers, that sings: “what do you do when democracy’s all through, when ‘minority’ means you, when the rest can’t see its true?”. The members of the band are Scottish nationalists who favor independence. However, there seems to be no Scottish majority ready to follow them. The error in their argument is that democracy is never “all through”. You can always continue to advocate your case and maybe, some day, you will find the right argument to convince a majority.
  • The provisional character of a decision should, of course, be balanced against the need for stability and continuity. Decisions that change all the time are not the best possible decisions either.

These remarks indicate that democracy and freedom of speech are necessary or at least very helpful to arrive at the best possible decisions. Of course, massive participation and free discussion are also important in the discovery of scientific truth. But the “massive participation” is limited to scientists with knowledge of the domain in question. No one will propose a nation-wide referendum to decide on the correctness of the theory of relativity for example. Moreover, scientific discussions rest heavily on data, proof, experiments etc., which doesn’t have to be the case in moral and political matters.

Politics is not concerned with an a priori given truth. Political decisions do not exist because someone declares them after contemplation of the truth. They exist because a democratic majority has taken a decision with its limited knowledge of the moment and after reasonable, public and large-scale discussion, and because afterwards experience has shown that the decision has done what was expected and that arguments for other decisions have remained unconvincing. Reasonable procedures and experience, rather than truth, data, proof etc. give legitimacy to decisions.