Philosophical justifications for morality

By Ken Perrott 26/04/2011

I will use this post to answer some of the more philosophical questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version. (Open Parachute@SciBlogs). Last time in Answering questions on morality I responded to some specific questions from a critical religious apologist.

One outline of my approach is in Foundations of human morality but I have discussed these ideas in many other posts.

Once again I thank all those who have critiqued my ideas — I have found the input valuable. And I welcome further criticisms

Are philosophical justifications required for morality?

John Wilkins says yes in his comment:

’If you argue for a position — such as a particular course of action being right or wrong — then no matter what you give as a reason for thinking it is right or wrong, the moment you introduce a prescription, a normative element, you need some irreducible missing premise to the effect that ‘you should [or should not] do X’. . . . To justify a course of action, you must, rationally, have a bridging principle of justification that is non-factual.’

John does not disagree with a scientific explanation of morality but says this:

’neither justifies nor has any moral force upon the actions of agents unless you introduce that ’thou shalt’ prescription.’ Then one needs a ’prescriptive premise.’

Alonzo Fyfe  at the Atheist Ethicist argues for an ’external standard’: What [our intuitions or morality] should be is determined by their conformity to this external standard.’

I think this approach is related to the is vs ought concept. It implies there is an objective, external, ought. And that we can not determine this ought, this prescription, from the facts of a situation. Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their “external standard” from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seems to. (No – ’god did it’ explanations don’t work — they never do).

We experience moral prescriptions

I think our automatic moral reactions, our designation of things being right and wrong, is very much prescriptive. Yet no conscious philosophy is required. No-one thinks of ’normative elements’ or ’irreducible premises.’

We experience our morality prescriptively — and largely unconsciously. Even when we rationalise to explain our reactions very few people are going to use these words or give a philosophical analysis. All this goes on in our brain and largely unconsciously. So at what stage during our unconscious moral reactions or our conscious moral deliberations do we refer to this ’external standard’ or use prescriptive premises? Some people may refer to such prescriptions during conscious moral discussions — but there is no evidence these exist objectively, separate from the individual or her culture.

Consider also the very different ’moral’ behaviours of different species. The females of some insects will kill and eat the male after coitus — our species doesn’t (although some men may feel there is a psychological parallel). Doesn’t this suggest that morality is at least species specific, perhaps not objective. Perhaps more to do with the actual organism or group of organisms.

Part of the motivation for desired ’external standards’, ’prescriptive justifications’, absolute or objective moral truths is the fact that our intuitions of right and wrong are so strong. They feel so real. But that doesn’t make them real, external or objective.

Maybe there is also a cultural pressure to think about external standards or prescriptions. PZ Myers raised this issue when he acknowledged that he had critiqued Harris’s book with mistaken interpretation of the is-ought argument (see Craig brings some clarity to morality?). As he puts it these issues are ’getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.’

Then perhaps, related to both these influences, there is a common feeling that morality is just too important an issue to be determined by individuals. That there must be external standards or prescriptions.

Infinite regression of ’external standards’

I have also noticed another a common interpretation of Sam Harris’s arguments is that the ’external standard’ or moral prescriptions can be determined by science. (This is not exactly helped by him using the subtitle ’How science can Determine Human Values’). But quite a few reviewers have pointed out this simple transference of ’external standards’ or prescriptions from gods to science does nothing to solve the basic problem.  That whatever external standard is used, one will be caught in the infinite regression or requiring a further external standard to justify the chosen standard.

Both Fyfe and Kenan Malik (in Test-tube Truths) illustrate this by extending the  Euthyphro dilemma. This argues, in its modified form: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” Which we can extend to any ’external standard’ as Fyfe does when he says:

’The answer to the Euthyphro argument in both cases is to argue that morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of  ‘”human instincts and intuitions’.’

And I add – or outside of any other external standard. Hence the infinite regression.

I think Malik has the answer:

’The desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values is a desire to set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.’

’Unless we wish to believe that values are simply plucked out of the sky, then we must accept that there is some relationship between the kinds of values that we hold, the kinds of beings that we are, and the kind of world in which we live. But while values can never be entirely wrenched apart from facts, neither can they be collapsed into facts. Humans are the bridge between facts and values. The significance of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it embodies a deeper claim: that concepts such as goodness, happiness and wellbeing only have meaning in a world in which conscious, rational, moral agents exist that themselves are capable of defining moral right and wrong and acting upon it. It is the existence of humans as autonomous moral agents that allows us to act as the bridge between facts and values.’ [my empahsis].

I think this is the answer to the problematic ’external standard’ of Fyfe and the ’bridging principle of justification that is non-factual’ of Wilkins. In one sense our problems have arisen because we have overestimated the importance of moral certainty. We therefore find it difficult to accept that our morality may not rest on external ’truths.’ Sometimes our moral decisions may not be obvious or may be ’fuzzy.’ Perhaps, in fact, our standard is internal. And it arises from our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent social and empathetic beings.

But what about our negative intuitions?

This does need an answer. After all, history does show that sometimes our intuitions based on evolved instincts can have bloody consequences. An obvious issue is the ’them vs us’ problem. Sometimes described as the problem of expanding reciprocity.

This is a double-sided sword. On the one had our empathy and kin sympathy encourage us to protect and advance the interests of our ’in-group.’ On the other hand this often means conflict with the ’out-group.’ The morality of the ‘in-group’ may value  a warrior who kills a warrior from ’out-group’ who threatens their security. At a more mundane level a prevailing morality may actually encourage attitudes which are xenophobic or racist. Because of our natural ’in-group/out-group’ instincts.

The history of social development of our species has necessarily been one of expanding the boundaries between the ’in-group’ and ’out-group.’ This has required social mechanism to expand our morality from simple kin or clan considerations to wider city, regional, national or coalitional interests. Social structures, legal frameworks, religion and ideologies have assisted this. Religion, for example, enables expansion beyond national boundaries by pushing the boundary between them vs us to non-believers vs believers. Ideologies have done a similar thing based on ideological beliefs (eg., communism, democracy) or class interests (hence The Internationale).

So it is inevitable that intuitions wider than just ’good’ empathetic ones are involved in providing our ’internal standards.’ However, these ’standards’ are not simply the instinct or intuitions themselves. As social and intelligent beings our social, legal and moral structures may be based on our human natures (good and bad) but there are also the result of reasoned processing. Both individually and collectively.

As a species which has memories and is capable of planning we can look further ahead than simple satisfaction of instinctual requirements. We can postpone rewards, consider the long-term and wider social effects of our instinctual behaviours. We can apply our intuitional, in-built ’Golden Rule’ in a way that favours some intuitions over others. In fact, in a way that recognises our in-built ability for behaviour which we consider wrong, as well as right.

A realistic, human morality

Again I am sure some people will resist this analysis because it does not ’set moral values in ethical concrete’ or ensure ’moral certainty.’ But surely our history shows such certainty to often lead to tyranny. A more realistic appreciation of human morality is based in our own human nature and amenable to reasoning and deliberation. A morality which takes account of our real situations, is capable of improvement over time and is available to all — whatever the ideological or religious outlook.

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