May 2010 archive

Two Meanings of Moral

Are there any terms less well defined, less well understood, than “moral”? I’ve already tried to tease out a few different uses of moral terms, but there’s a further critical distinction that I think it’s worth stressing, particularly in light of my recent riff on why morality doesn’t need God over on the ABC’s Drum Unleashed.

In the comments to that piece, between accusations of rampant relativism and lashings of ad hominem, it wasn’t uncommon to see the accusation that if you deny an objective moral absolute – whether from God or from or reason – then you’re left with an unpalatable moral nihilism, the kind of nihilism that makes rape and torture permissible, as suggested in this comment:

Without a defined yardstick morality is nothing but a slippery slope that steadily bends to prevailing ideas, be they correct or incorrect.

If you stand for nothing, you will fall for everything. The notion that morality is relative might soon accept relations with relatives – ridiculous thought now but who knows in what direction this slippery slope declines. Many an accepted idea today was frowned upon in the past.
– Grander view

Despite the fact that the church saw marriage between relatives as permissible in the past, this perspective is only true if you hold a particularly broad conception of morality – a conception that I think it altogether too broad.

Morality is often seen as referring to a code of behaviour, something that directs our actions, particularly when it comes to actions that affect others. But it’s also often seen as being a subject that concerns the facts about what is right and wrong. The two senses are like the difference between saying “don’t steal” and “stealing is wrong”; the first directs your actions, the second suggests there’s a fact about the world regarding stealing and its wrongness. That latter position is typically called moral realism – which says there are moral facts in the world that we can discover to be true, and these facts justify particular moral norms.

But, as Joshua Green argues it in his PhD dissertation, it’s possible to discard the moral realism bit and keep the action-guiding bit – and if you do so, you really don’t lose that much at the end of the day. The way he characterises the distinction is between:

moral1:  of or relating to the facts concerning right and wrong, etc.

moral2:  of or relating to serving (or refraining from undermining) the
interests of others.

So he reckons you can ditch moral1 – and there are good reasons for doing so – and still keep moral2.

You might call Greene’s approach ‘moral nihilism’ because he doubts the existence of objective moral facts in the world – as do other philosophers, such as John Mackie and Richard Joyce. But it’s only ‘nihilistic’ towards moral1, not moral2. Still, it might look like abandoning objective moral facts opens the door to an odious relativism when it comes to moral2; what’s to stop me justifying anything I want as being moral in any way I please?

However, the nihilism needn’t spread that far. All we need to do is find agreement on some very basic premises, and we can build a moral2 that looks just like we’d expect a moral system to look like, yet it’s not dependent on non-existent moral facts or supernatural forces.

One of the things we agree on is what morality is for. I’d suggest that morality springs from the fact that we’re social animals, and that we all have our own interests that we wish to pursue. Yet many of our interests conflict with those of others. So if we’re to effectively pursue our interests, then it’s a good idea to place limits on our behaviour when that behaviour might negatively impact the interests of others – as long as they agree to limit their behaviour when that behaviour might negatively impact our interests. Old school social contract stuff. Morality basically serves to regulate these interactions. It also serves other purposes, such as binding communities together through shared practice, and giving people rituals that cement their identity – but I’d suggest the core function of morality is to regulate social interactions. And I’d suggest that every moral system in the world has this as a core objective.

So, if we can all agree that this is what we want morality to do, then we can start to look at how best to achieve this end. Importantly, we don’t need to agree on particular moral norms or values – just on the function of morality. There might be many ways to effectively regulate social interaction – some better than others in different circumstances – but there are also lots of things that we know disrupt social harmony. Things like rape and torture.

You don’t need objective moral facts that are independent of us in order to show that this is true. So you can build a flourishing moral2 system that abandons the requirement for moral1 to back it up – it’d end up being somewhat pluralistic, at least where there’s more than one way to promote social interaction – but it wouldn’t be rampantly relativist.

As a side note, I think much moral enquiry (at least until G.E. Moore) starts with questions about moral2, but then it’s very easy to assume you need something like moral1 to back it up – so moral enquiry (particularly post-Moore) focuses altogether too much on moral1, and in doing so misses the point of what morality is really about. As such, I reckon moral philosophy could do with a bit of a purge of moral1. And if we can manage that, we might be able to focus more attention on the real problems of morality, i.e. constructing a robust and persuasive moral2 system.

Why Morality Doesn’t Need God

For a few months now there has been a trial underway in select primary schools around New South Wales offering an ethics course as an alternative to scripture – or Special Religious Education, as it’s called. It’s a wonderful initiative, and I wholeheartedly support it. In fact, I’m on the waiting list to teach should the programme be approved by the NSW state government following the trial.

However, the trial hasn’t progressed without impediment, primarily coming from religious quarters. Some religious figures have seen the ethics course as a threat to the scripture classes, some even suggesting they’re losing students to the secular course. This is even after the organisers of the ethics trial made all their material freely available to the various SRE conveners should they wish to use it, nullifying the competition issue. Yet many scripture classes continue to provide ample colouring-in and singing activities, but are a little thin on actual ethics.

Last night a programme aired on SBS called Insight – a rare and wonderful show where representatives from various perspectives in an issue are put in a room and have a moderated debate – that dealt with the religious opposition to the ethics trial. The show was gruelling, but fascinating all the same. I actually reckon the children were the highlight – they were far more insightful and open minded than the religious adults who spoke.

The religious proponents posited all the regular arguments, including the veiled notion that one cannot teach ‘real’ ethics without religious backing. It’s this fallacy that I offered some thoughts on on the ABC’s discussion page, The Drum Unleashed. As you can see, it’s been up less than a day and there are already 264 comments. Unsurprisingly, there are some strong opinions on either side, though I’m buoyed by the upwelling of support for secular ethics from some quarters.

A couple of clarificatory points, though. I’m not interested in disproving the existence of god. Nor am I interested in converting people to atheism. The arguments against God have all been made, and they haven’t changed significantly for at least 100 years. If there are still some unconvinced, then I’m not going to try to batter their dogma head on. I’d rather offer alternatives to supernaturalism that people see as being viable and desirable instead of simply tearing down religion.

In fact, in some ways I support the notion of organised religion, although absent supernaturalism and dogma, and with added checks and balances. We need cultural institutions to propagate values, and atheism, being a negative thesis, doesn’t even attempt to build something positive like this. It’s this secular religion approach, I believe, that is what non-theists of all ilks should be aiming for. Hammering away at the faithful isn’t going to achieve much – building a better world and welcoming the faithful in is a much more powerful approach.

The Meaning of Life

There are lots of ways to answer the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’, but I’ll cut to the chase: there isn’t one. At least, that’s if you take the question from the perspective of ‘what life means’. Unsurprisingly, I found the answer to that not in a philosophy book but in a biology book. Richard Alexander’s thought-provoking The Biology of Moral Systems (1987), as it happens.

Lifetimes have evolved so as to promote survival of the individual’s genetic materials, through individuals producing and aiding offspring and, in some species, aiding other descendents and some nondescendent relatives as well. (p37)

Alexander is Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Curator of Insects at the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan, although, as a biologist, I think he has a nuanced grasp of the philosophical implications of his field.

What Alexander is saying in the quote above is that life isn’t itself meaningful, in an explanatory sense, beyond its role in propagating genes. It just so happens that a living organism that can ‘work’ to choose a suitable mate and aid in the raising of offspring turns out to be a tidy way of making more copies of genes than other methods.

As Samuel Butler put it: “a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” Or, to appropriate for us: a human is just a gene’s way of making more copies of itself. Not very glamorous.

So, should we take that as the meaning of life, as our purpose on this wee speck of a planet in a vast and lonely universe? Should we drop everything and breed like mad? What if we find that we can produce a machine better capable of making copies of genes and propagating them throughout the environment? Should we then declare it a job well done and step into the euthanasia booth?

I suspect that many may find this a dissatisfying life pursuit. Although, if so, you should brace yourself for the implications of rejecting the ‘naturalistic’ meaning of life: there is no meaning of life. At least, there is no objective meaning that we can discover from the world, or that can be beamed directly into us by some supernatural being. There’s no revelation that might come from empirical or rational study that might reveal the purpose of life in a way that will intrinsically motivate behaviour.

But just because there’s no objective meaning of life doesn’t mean we can’t create meaning subjectively. In fact, I’d suggest that this is precisely what we do already – even if we believe we’ve found the objective meaning of life. We create our own meaning and project it on to the world. That’s not to say we create meaning randomly or arbitrarily. We are built such that certain things will more likely be given value than others. There’s no intrinsic right or wrong about this. It’s just a fact. But it remains that this projection of value on to the world is dependent on the projector: us. Without any humans – or life – in the universe, there’s no meaning of life to be found. Or projected…

So, no need to get all emo or existentialist. In fact, you might take solace in this nihilist view. If there’s no meaning from outside, all we have is ourselves – and each other – in which to find meaning. So let’s not get complacent. Let’s start reflecting and create that meaning together.