Monday, December 26, 2011

Morality: Part 2 (definitions)

This is a multiple part blog on morality:  [Previous]      [Next]

Charles Darwin was very brief in defining morality:  “that short but imperious word ought.”  My dictionaries are also pretty straightforward: "knowing right from wrong,” or “virtuous conduct.” 

I'm not a philosopher but I took an excursion and found a number interesting distinctions.  To deontologists, morality means obeying rules -- the absolutists among them claim there are absolute rights and wrongs, regardless of consequences. Moral consequentialists, on the other hand, judge the rightness of an action by its consequences. Among them are utilitarianists, who apply the standard of “greatest overall happiness” as a measure for morality. The conflict between deontologists and consequentialists is evident in Plato’s fifth century B.C. query: Are things right because God commanded them, or does God command them because they are right?

Elizabeth Anderson, in a paper published in C. Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, answers ...
if the latter is true, then actions are right independent of whether God commands them, and God is not needed to underwrite the authority of morality. But if the former is true, then God could make any action right simply by willing it or by ordering others to do it. This establishes that, if the authority of morality depends on God’s will, then, in principle, anything is permitted. 
she goes on …
We know … that it is wrong to engage in murder, plunder, rape, and torture, to brutally punish people for the wrongs of others or for blameless error, to enslave others to engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide. … If you find a train of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that everything, or even just these things, is permitted, this is a good reason for you to reject it.
But this is the relativist approach, which has the same weakness as "common sense." It depends on the momentary perspective of a single observer, which is notoriously ephemeral. Moral issues come and go.   For example, think about seat belts, product safety, flirtation in the workplace, racism, wearing fur, drilling oil, spanking children, toy guns, homosexuality, smoking, organic food, genetic engineering, and more. "Common sense morality" is easily inflamed into moral indignation and self-righteousness, which can itself justify bad behaviors.

But what's the alternative, an unchanging absolute right and wrong?  Who would judge it, and how?  That would put us back into the same philosophical problems defining morality as before, just this time with an autocrat to enforce it.

Even utilitarianists, who seek to do the least overall harm, are faced with the problem of measuring "harm." And they may advocate pushing one person in front of a bus if it would save two lives -- an abhorrent, but possibly moral, thought. Sam Harris took the utilitarian approach in The Moral Landscape, suggesting that we maximize well being. Well being might be defined as happiness.  Some troubling situations arise.  Steven Pinker wonders “should we indulge a sicko who gets more pleasure from killing than his victims do from living?”  

What's more, would the goal be maximizing total happiness or average happiness?  The former would lead to teeming populations, the latter would recommend identifying anyone who was a little less happy than average.  The world would simply be better off without them.

And it gets worse: whose happiness – one’s self, one's family, tribe, nation, all of mankind or -- as many Buddhists would suggest -- all conscious beings?   Animal rights groups square off against the food industry on this last question.   If sentience is required we certainly need a better understanding of consciousness than we have now.  Is an insect sentient?  But then, why should consciousness even be a factor?  Isn't crushing a beetle, mutilating a tree, or defacing property all matters of moral consequence? 

We can wonder forever whether morality should protect non-human species, lower animals, and other living and even non-living things.  A parallel question is whether these things can themselves be moral in their behavior.  Instinct for example.  Can it be considered moral? In one stroke Darwin was certain that it is not: “We have no reason to believe that animals have this capacity; when a Newfoundland dog drags a child out of the water … we do not call its conduct moral.” But then he writes “in the case of man … actions of a certain class are called moral whether performed deliberately … or impulsively through instinct.”
Morality, in the end, seems to be a mix of poorly defined or contradictory notions, and the rules, formulas, or feelings, that govern it are are subject to whim, cultural bias, and rationalization.  Many of the more appealing definitions (to me) require identifying consciousness, measuring harm, placing subjective values on everything,  and making arbitrary decisions which have huge influence on what is "moral" behavior.  And being moral may or may not require consciousness.

So I am going to explore the biological concept of altruism: "where individuals seemingly pay a cost, at least in the short term, to benefit another individual.” I think it's a reasonable compromise.   It's not perfect, as it denies the value of helping one's self, and it doesn't fall neatly within any of the philosophical perspectives above.  But it captures -- I think -- much of Darwin's "ought."  It doesn't require consciousness -- and why should it?  If an ant dies trying to save the colony, does it matter if the ant was aware of what it was doing?  If I toss a bottle out the car window without giving it a thought, does the not-thinking make it less wrong?  There's something even more fundamental and important about reflexive, instinctive, behavior.   

So I take the position that instinctive altruism should be considered along with true morality.  If not moral itself, instinct may give us insight into the origin and evolution conscious morality.

Next: part 3: Seeds of Morality

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