Crawl Across the Ocean

Friday, November 13, 2009

28. Moral Realism

Note: This post is the twenty-eighth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

"If you're right," said Armbruster, "you've been systematizing a stratum of behaviour that underlies what we conventionally accept as morality. Some of your precepts obviously correspond with legal or ethical views of right and wrong. Other's don't. Yet you've put them all on more or less a par. I think that's what sticks in our craws, Kate. Or anyhow, it does in mine."
"Maybe the syndromes are existential morality, Armbruster," said Kate. "That's rather what I mean by survival systems. I like your metaphor of a substratum."
from Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs.

While doing some googling today, I ran across an interesting essay1 on morals by Steven Pinker.

Pinker's writing suffers a bit from freakotrarianism2 but he's a smart guy and he excels at writing clear explanations of complicated topics. His essay covers a lot of ground, but what I wanted to highlight here was his explanation of the notion that is guiding this whole series of blog posts, the notion of 'moral realism' or the idea that there are moral facts in the world that really exist (i.e. that morals aren't purely subjective),

"The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other's children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other's child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it."

I'm not sure the second point (about not being able to privilege one person's interest over another) is necessarily true in all cases, but it is the broader point - that morality exists in a form of a group of if-then postulates that have universal application like the laws of mathematics - that I agree with. And the point of these posts is to record my (in all likelihood, entirely futile, but hopefully interesting all the same) efforts to track down what these laws might be, using Jane Jacobs' empirical observations of which morals and professions tend to be linked together as a roadmap.

Some links on moral realism:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

1The essay is titled ' The Moral Instinct' - a reference to Pinker's book, 'The Language Instinct' which argues that humans have an instinctive biological adaptation to learning language.

2Freakocontrarianism? See here, for an explanation.

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