Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The foundation of morality

A question was raised on a video I was watching today, and has been raised endlessly in religious debates for time immemorial. “Without god, on what basis can you criticise another's morals?” This question and variants are as old as the sea, “without god all is permitted”, “the ten commandments are the only true basis for morality”, “morality is only an opinion, it's not valid to criticise anyone else” etc. This is such a common idea I think it warrants a look at.

Let us start by dismissing the religious part of this question, then we can think about the far more interesting question lying under it. The religious aspect of this is removed by unpacking the question, it runs like this: my religion provides objective moral values, without such objective morals there is no absolute truth in any moral statement, and without that people could do any immoral thing they liked. The problem is in the first premise, no religion gives objective standards for morality to a person approaching that religion for the first time. If someone who has never done so before reads the bible and produces a moral code from it they have a problem. Do they go with a a literal interpretation of all commands as morally valid and so condemn tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), throw Derek Acorah out of town (Deuteronomy 18:10-11), destroy entire towns if there are people advocating other religions (Deuteronomy 13:12-18), reject forward planning (Matthew 6:34) etc. or do they pick and choose which parts of the bible are relevant or which are metaphorical. I cant of course judge any of these things before I have a basis for doing so (and am personally fine with the Derek Acorah thing =p ) the point is simply that almost none of the people who make questions of this kind would accept as objectively morally true all of these things.

We conclude from these examples then, that people do not accept as totally valid all statements that come from a religion or from a teacher of any other kind. They use some sort of standard to judge what commands they accept and which they reject, not the religion itself. This is a factual not a moral observation so without having yet any basis for morals I feel happy in removing mention of god from the original question as an irrelevance. (Feel free to oppose this in comments below). So we now have a new more general question: “what is the basis for moral criticism?”

A few observations: there is, in any one culture and time, a widely accepted moral opinion on a large number of basic things. The number of people in the 21st century west who when pressed would not say they believe “what Joseph Fritzel did was wrong” to be 'true' could probably be counted without having to take your socks off. The are a number of arguments near these obvious basic things where there is little to no consensus (is it right to eat meat, what is the appropriate way to treat groups of historically oppressed people etc). We also notice that these things are not fixed. Many centuries ago many things which are now in the latter category were once in the former and vice versa, and things that were firmly decided one way or the other are now decided in the contrary way. It was widely acknowledged in the ancient world that slavery is not only acceptable but the only way to make a successful society work, today there is a very real debate over the morality of abortion, in classical Greece it was universally accepted that not only was abortion moral, infanticide was quite acceptable.

Moving away from the community for a moment and onto the person. How does the individual develop his moral opinions? I fear some may turn away in disgust at this but: we have to start in evolutionary biology. It is inevitable that any creature with a nervous system that can detect things closely related to it will act to the benefit of those things, this gets its genes into the next generation. There are countless examples of altruism in just about any class of animal (and even some plants) that you may care to think of. So we should expect humans to be fundamentally kind to those closely related. We should also expect children to follow commands from their parents, be they “dont touch that it's hot” or “dont eat that it's unclean”, not following these puts the baby at a risk of death and so is selected out of the gene-pool. (For a far better and more detailed analysis of this please see the truly excellent and badly-titled book “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins). So we have an instinctive morality of clan loyalty, looking out for your own, sacrificing yourself to save two brothers etc. Notice that these rules are fairly constant, the many genes responsible for all this stuff will probably not have altered significantly in the million years people have been people. So we should expect these things to be roughly the same in all times and places.

Overlaid on that we have cultural morality, re-enforced by peer-pressure, this gives us what a lot of people mean by the “true moral message” of one religion or another, this is why people feel they should eat their greens and get some education, people aren't born feeling this, but at a later age they feel this like it's an instinct. In this category comes moral messages in common expressions, nobody can argue with “forgive and forget”, it is a moral axiom of our culture, not so in another time or in another place. Notice that these change with the society, I know the morals my parents and others gave me are different from the morals of someone from a deeply conservative family in the middle east, or from a Spartan. I could go on about this for hours but your political view is a real factor here (Take the test at - then watch the TEDTalk that explains why: it's a really interesting phenomenon). This changes and evolves, it will change in a way that convinces the most people in the next generation to stick with the same moral framework as the last (I vote labour because my father did etc).

Later we become sophisticated and think about these basic impressions. We develop the vague impression of happiness when animals are cared for into vegetarianism or supporting dog's trust. We take a feeling of unhappiness at domineering and unfair people we encounter in our early life and become trade unionists or members of amnesty international. This is where the criticism enters discussion at last. Levels below this we can analyse where the impressions come from, much like trying to work out where a fear of spiders comes from, but the impression itself isn't based on any argument so no argument is going to change that. However arguments and reasoning do produce these later sophistications. So arguments and reasoning can change them.

Assertion moral criticism is based not on absolutes, but on the best way to enact in practice an approximately equal basic moral assumptions, moral criticism of those outside ones own culture can either be based how to enact on their basic moral assumptions or to appeal that their higher level culture based instincts are not compatible with deeper biological instincts.

What we observe from our considerations of society is that if there are moral absolutes to be had anywhere then societies aren't good at finding them, morals change too much to have included anything like a truth of objective reality. We note that revelation or commandments from some outside source are arguments for ones own moral opinions only after they have been formed and are in no sense an objective moral framework. The holy books are not where religious people get their morality any more than people get it from leaders of personality cults or from superstars. Moral codes come first, then arguments from outside back them up. One always has the choice to reject or accept any command written in stone, one does this because of ones own pre-existing morals.

The sophistications I talked about before (I mean that word in the most positive way, not with the slightly sneering tone it has acquired) are quite literally rules or rather sets of rules about how to act. We follow these rules because they help us to satisfy those desires which our instincts give us. One can argue about these very effectively and with a strong basis. If you have a friend raised in the same time and place then generally his instincts will be much the same as yours. So when one argues about his sophistications as opposed to yours, one is not arguing which is more pleasing to god, or which accords better with the absolute morals that are stored somewhere. I argue with my friend about whether it is moral for such and such a law to be passed, we aren't arguing as to whether it fits into an external moral framework (as we would if we were asking “is it constitutional”) but whether the moral instincts that we both share fit well with it. If I argue with a Kantian about the problem of lying (see footnote*) the question is not whether the ban on lying is really a logical part of Kant's system (it is) but whether that fits with our shared instincts.

Outside of our culture here means outside of those people who we should expect to have the same instincts as us. Notice this is only a change in the learnt part of our instinctive morality, all humans at all times have approximately the same level of altruism etc at birth because it's genetic and not very variable (again see selfish gene). What does change over time and place is the stuff your parents and others around you re-enforce in your behaviour. So for me today in the classic Oxford Union debate “this house would never fight for queen and country” my instinct is to agree, because my loyalties are to myself, my close friends and to the whole of humanity, and are really not attached to queen or country. A Spartan would have immense loyalty to his country. How can the two of us argue?

I can argue that fighting for his country is not the best way to be loyal to it, that supporting your country means sacrificing your own glory and working for peace and prosperity. He can argue that the best way to protect my friends and those I am loyal to is to fight. We are arguing here not that the other's intuition is wrong, but that we have not chosen the right way to promote it. This seems to me to be a valid way of arguing that might actually change people's minds. This is the same sort of reasoning that gives us “would you like it if everyone did that?” and arguments about logical consistency of ones morals. Here we can have real logical discussions that get us places, this is the most firm ground for a discussion of someone else's morals.

We have a second way of arguing outside our own culture: our genetic instincts are obviously more deep-rooted than our cultural ones. (This does not of course mean stronger, ask anyone who has committed suicide in the name of honour). It is sometimes possible to argue that the instincts a person's culture has given them do not fit well with itself or the other instincts they have. People can be shocked by the things they have been lead to believe, ask anyone who's been freed from a cult, we can argue that the morals that such societies deeply ingrain into people are bad simply because when they are properly thought about they disagree with a much deeper form of morality. This idea of really coming to grips with your morals and understanding what it is you really think is the point of many reconciliation panels after terrible conflicts and atrocities. This is harder to make rigorous, the basis is our genetic predispositions towards some particular kind of morality. Whilst it is true that we will all share that predisposition it is often weak compared to some ingrained cultural belief.

I am a scientist and a mathematician, so I am pre-disposed to think about morals in terms of maximising the function happiness. This leads inevitably to utilitarianism (the idea that the best thing to do is to add up all the happiness that results from a given action and go with the action that gives you the biggest number). However inevitable this idea is given my upbringing and culture it can be killed outright (along with my belief in democracy) by the classic example of the terrorist's son. There is a bomb about to go off and kill a thousand people, the terrorist is under arrest, and his son is there, you know the only way to save those thousand people is to torture that young child. Simply adding up happiness and suffering will tell you that torturing that boy is moral, but our deeper genetic instincts tell us this is a really bad idea. One can have an argument based on this moral code or that and get a good resolution, or one can appeal far less logically to our genetic inheritance. This is not guaranteed to get us a resolution or to even be accepted as an argument and is by far the weakest form of moral criticism, but it does get resolution enough of the time to be worthwhile. Nazis such as Speer have said sorry, people have rejected barbaric cults they have been brainwashed into.

It's not much of a basis for morality, but it is enough I think for me to criticise Hitler without having relativists jumping up and down at me. I dont claim to have objective truths, but I do claim that dispute is possible and that it can be resolved one way or the other. As with science things cannot ever be decided one way or the other, but a consensus can be reached and discussion is not futile.

*basically Kant sets out a great long incomprehensible framework for all of morality and one of the logical consequences of this is that it is never right to lie, even if a murderer is at the door who wants to know where your mother is so he can kill her. This is obviously regarded as a flaw in Kant's system by many people.

Comments as ever wanted, this one especially, I'm sure it's half drivel.

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