The Future of Morality

Published by timdean on

As I struggle and strain, on a daily basis, to make sense of that strangest of human capacities that is morality, and struggle to suggest to my peers that it might not be what they – and two millennia of philosophers – think it might be, I come across a chapter in a book that might well be a manifesto to the New Synthesis in Morality.

colored_pencils_chevre_sIt’s authored by Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir, and it’s to appear in an upcoming edition of The Handbook of Social Psychology, although it’s available for download directly from Haidt’s home page.

Get it. Read it. Because this is it, folks: this is the End of the Beginning of the New Synthesis, the path hacked through the jungle of confusion to a new destination, and the Beginning of the Middle of the actual hard work of mapping the complex terrain of our moral faculty.

Haidt et al’s main thesis is as follows:

  • Morality since the 18th century has been largely thought to be about preventing harm and promoting fairness exclusively.
  • It has also long been thought to be the domain of reasoned reflection rather than fickle emotion or sentiment.
  • The resulting philosophical moral systems were assumed to be unitary, consistent, and based upon a single set of underlying principles.
  • But this is only because moral philosophy, by its nature, is a reasoned enterprise; it seeks truth rather than practicality, and assumes moral thinking, likewise, seeks moral truths rather than good-enough courses of action.
  • But if you explore the way morality actually works in day-to-day life outside the convolutions of moral dilemmas, it’s not actually all about harm and fairness, and it’s certainly not guided by reason alone.
  • In fact, morality across all cultures serves a broader purpose: to make social life amongst non-kin possible by mitigating self-interested and anti-social behaviour.
  • And there are many solutions to the problem of making social life amongst non-kin possible.
  • Preventing harm and promoting fairness are two approaches, but so too are improving group cohesion, encouraging shared customs, and punishing those who violate the rules and customs of society.
  • Solving these problems enabled humans to become a very successful species, but the solutions are not only cultural, they’re in our genes as well.
  • Over countless millennia humans have evolved a number of mechanisms – emotions, sentiments, cognitive faculties – that allow us to make quick and dirty judgements that promote pro-social behaviour.
  • Our capacity for reason has also evolved and contributed to promoting pro-social behaviour, although it doesn’t play the primary role, but it does enable us to abstract away from our initial sentiments into cultural institutions, such as religion, and these can further serve the ends of promoting pro-sociality.
  • The fact human cultures have so many diverse solutions to the problems of promoting pro-sociality is a strength, not a weakness, even if those solutions are not unitary, consistent, and based upon a single set of underlying principles.
  • So, if we’re to understand human morality – and if we’re ever to develop normative ethical systems – we at least need to understand how morality got to where it is today, and we should re-examine the assumptions that morality is seeking truth, and that it needs to be founded on reason.
  • Instead we should explore the tapestry of human morality, and base normative endeavours on this enterprise.

And there, in 14 short points, is the revolution in morality. Aristotle, Plato, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Singer etc etc were all wrong (well, maybe not Hume). Certainly they have made some huge contributions to moral thinking, but they are only addressing a small piece of the puzzle. As a result, moral philosophy – and particularly meta-ethics, which is obsessed with explicating moral ‘facts’ where none may exist – is wildly off course.

New Moral Framework

The way forward for moral philosophy is not to attempt to develop reasoned principles that can be applied to solving moral conundrums. Instead we should be working to develop a moral framework that allows for a broad pluralism of underlying values, but which, when taken as a whole, serves the ultimate purpose of promoting pro-social behaviour. Within this framework can exist manifold competing and conflicting moral outlooks that exist in tension – much in the same was as occurs in the democracy, where competing and contradictory political outlooks keep each other in balance.

The new moral framwork would be there to mediate between these outlooks when they conflict, and to ensure that the entire edifice serves the ‘greater good’ of social behaviour. Within that, it would allow for the individual moral outlooks to go their own way. It could even allow for religious moral outlooks, even though the framework is an explicitly secular construct.

This enterprise won’t be easy, and it may not even succeed. Certainly, by their very nature, moral outlooks tend to see themselves as the only solution – an evolutionary relic that promoted group cohesion back in the day, but which today would threaten the very programme of a secular moral framework. As such, necessarily, we would have to actively address and mitigate some of the very moral intuitions that underlie the moral framework itself, particularly when they serve to threaten pro-sociality on a broad scale. How? I don’t yet know. But this is a project of existential importance if we’re to face the challenges of the coming century and beyond without tearing ourselves apart.

In short: the New Synthesis in Morality begets A New Moral Framework that explicitly allows for moral pluralism under a unified banner that serves to promote cooperation and pro-social behaviour. We don’t need to – and shouldn’t – seek a single moral solution, for there is none.

The motto of this New Moral Framework? Simple: we’re all in this together.


Ajay Jetti · 14th June 2009 at 5:35 am

Nice article,

Not relevant to ask, but how did u get the list like that, i mean wihtout dots but arrows in a box, i was trying to get a list with spacing, can u tell me how did u do it in wordpress

Im really sorry that i have asked just such a irrelevant question, but i ll ask more relevant questions afterwards, i just asked this cos i was writing something in my blog and din fing a way to get write a list with space and different styling

Tim · 14th June 2009 at 12:41 pm

Hi Ajay. The list style is part of the Freshy theme, so it’s outlined in the style sheet. I’m sure you could reverse engineer it from the CSS and make your own.

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