How Ethics Is More Like Physics Than Faith

Most people are not specifically trained in moral philosophy. They are not expert in technical distinctions such that they could tell you with any kind of systematic coherence the exact reasons that morality must be obeyed but they just know and feel that it should. When pushed for an abstract “metaethical” explanation of their morality they will typically flop too far in the direction of either absolutism, relativism, or pragmatism. And in either case they will think their position is obviously true according to common sense and in practice think and act as though most of their actual moral judgments are equally just “common sense”.

But, philosophically speaking, morality is not simply a matter of some universal “common sense”. Cultures rather radically shape what commonly seems sensible to the people who live within them. While there seem to be some basic general moral categories that are cross-culturally universal to our brains, the moral economies set up to interpret and apply those categories in practice can be drastically different from each other.

It is for such reasons as these that I think we need to culturally detach to a fair degree and not just do moral philosophy in such a way that simply tidies up our prejudices. We should be willing to go to levels of abstraction that are indifferent to the particularities of our own culture as much as possible, rationally assess the meaning of value and, within an understanding of value in general, assess what makes norms in general valuable.

Then we can reassess our own norms for how they actually lead to what is rationally identifiable as valuable. And we can look at other norms, even ones that drastically differ from our own, and figure out in what ways they actually attain genuine value too, even if they do so by ways that would repulse us or be rejected by our norms. And we can also look and see whether their norms or our own objectively fail to attain to what is of rationally identifiable value and critique our own norms and others not simply from within the terms of the moral prejudices with which we just happened to be raised but by a standard capable of distancing itself from that.

Those are ambitious goals. They require difficult and controversial philosophy. Most people have different preoccupations and areas of expertise. They do not have the time, inclination, and/or the acuity to work out answers that solve these problems. And yet they make moral judgments, the ultimate truth of which depends on answers to these problems. Are they being irrational when they do this? Can they make rational judgments about moral particulars without having an adequate, philosophically grounded metaethics? Or do they just have faith in their values?

First, let’s clarify the difference between faith and other kinds of uncertain belief. Faith entails an implicitly or explicitly willful belief that is obstinate in the face of counter-evidence and goes so far as to disdain changes in belief as a matter of principle. Faith also usually involves trusting as a matter of principle in dubious authorities disproportionately more than their actual, demonstrable expertise warrants.

Is all moral judgment like that? Well, prima facie, there are some ways that the average person (and even most philosophers, if we ask for Nietzsche’s opinion or my own) does the same thing in believing moral propositions as he or she does in believing religious propositions by faith.

For one thing, there is a default deference to culture and tradition in many people’s moral beliefs that looks similar to how they form and maintain religious beliefs. For another thing, people frequently argue about moral issues emotionally and with appeals to emotions, similar to the way they defend their religious positions. As with their religious beliefs, quite often people will refuse to immediately change their moral beliefs even after receiving what look like indisputable refutations of them that show they are internally inconsistent, unfair, harmful, or in some other way seemingly wrong.

With moral and religious beliefs alike people think and behave with a higher degree of felt certainty than their conscious analyses of evidence would seem to warrant. Both moral and religious beliefs have enormous consequences for people’s lives. They frequently lead to the most fundamental and life-determining commitments, they influence some of the most decisive choices people ever make, and they lead to some of the deepest feelings of personal satisfaction or personal despair people ever feel.

And despite this enormous influence of moral and religious beliefs on people’s lives, the ordinary person does the shallowest conscious investigation into the rational correctness of those beliefs. And not only are these most vital matters not rigorously examined intellectually, but just as countless laypeople in the pews every Sunday pooh pooh the value of abstract theology as a way to know God, laypeople of all creeds and none dismiss moral philosophy as a waste of time not even worth studying because it is assumed to be either too hopeless or too unnecessary.

So, are most people just faith-believers when it comes to morality? Is the average atheist still guilty of faith in moral fictions, even as he or she might be clean of faith in religious ones? Some philosophers would say yes. Nietzsche would not only say yes that ordinary people believe in morality by faith but even go much further and say that even many philosophers who claim to examine morality rationally are self-deceived and actually just the protectors of a faith. I think I can show textually how Nietzsche thinks he (or the philosophers of the future whom he influences) can break with this pattern and determine a genuinely better value standard for not only assessing but deliberately creating genuinely better moralities.

For my part, I do not think that it is generally correct to equate moral decision-making with faith-based thinking and here are my reasons why.

There are two senses in which someone could be said to know with respect to morality. On the one hand, someone can have theoretical knowledge and a mastery of numerous technical truths with respect to morality which can be aids in coming to better specific conclusions about specific moral problems than the average person, unaided by philosophical clarifications, would. But, on the other hand, someone can be knowledgable about morality as a matter of competence at moral evaluations and decision-making, even where technical theoretical competence is missing (or, even, badly carried out).

To use an analogy: I am embarrassed to admit this but I do not know a thing about calculus. I dropped out of that course as an apathetic high school senior and never returned (to my eternal regret). So I cannot do the basic physics calculations that explain how the angle and the speed at which I should duck my head to avoid a ball of a specified speed, direction, and angle from knocking me unconscious. But even without the slightest real knowledge of theoretical physics or basic college level math, I am rationally competent not only at evading your average errant projectile but also at not bumping into objects, not tripping, and not getting hit by cars (except for that one time in February).

I can do this without a physicist’s competence at explaining precisely how how to navigate the world. It takes engineers who understand the basic theoretics and applications of physics to design robots who can get through doors. But I can get through them well enough because of to the ways that natural selection has geared my mind to work automatically. Had this “know-how” kind of knowledge required a conscious awareness of physics in order to be achieved, then no animal would have lived long enough to reproduce itself, and the millions of generations of evolving organic life leading to the humans who finally figured out theoretical physics would have never happened.

So the average human has a genuine, workable, truthful, and innate common sense knowledge of the very basics of the physical world and how to make a range of physical decisions correctly and knowledgeably. This knowledge is not as precise as a physicist’s understanding. It certainly does not make physics irrelevant if we want to build better tools for making a better world. Our common sense understanding is workable enough for everyday life but that does not mean when physicists explain that the more fundamental workings of the physical world are wildly counter-intuitive to our everyday experience of it that they are wrong for countering our trusty old common sense that works well enough for us in evading flying objects, doorposts, and objects on the floor. We could never engineer computers or go to space or split the atom using common sense.

Well, it is similar with morality. The process by which we evolved certainly did not yield us a perfect, abstract, theoretical understanding of what is of genuine value and what norms we should live by that is programmed into every brain. But it inevitably gave us a set of feelings responses and basic categories of judgment that help us automatically discriminate a number of goods from a number of bads. We naturally have pro- reactions to countless things that are generally good for us and con- reactions to countless things generally bad for us. We constantly make automatic cost-benefit analyses which are about as good as our judgments about how to avoid bumping our heads on door frames.

Just as our standard issue programming is good enough to get us to reproductive age and a couple decades beyond, and further requires greater technology to make much longer lives ordinary, so similarly our intuitive feel for social relationships, nutrition sources, and other basics of value discernment are good enough to have created and maintained countless societies, and those societies have not only aided the perpetuation of the species but have in many cases successfully transferred knowledge through generations so that the whole species could learn and improve together.

Our natural sense for what is basically good and basically bad is in many cases pretty effective (i.e., pretty good). It is hardly as random or arbitrary as beliefs that are obstinate against evidence and based on sheer deference to unjustified authority. We do naturally trust the authority of tradition too much in determining the good from the bad. But this natural conservatism is not entirely irrational. There are vast ways that having a default trust in the tradition protects us against dangers we would have no way of anticipating but which our ancestors discovered and built traditions to protect us against.

This is why we who aspire to be moral and social reformers through our philosophies and our activism must very carefully study the mechanisms by which even ideas and institutions which have observable negative consequences serve other goods and figure out how to systematically assure that those goods are still held up without their traditional supports.

Our abilities to value and to lay down norms are also wonderfully helpfully malleable. We can now, through philosophical reasoning (by which I mean not only sophisticated and formal philosophy but the extensive debating about philosophical issues that nearly all people engage in whether they recognize they are doing philosophy or not) vastly refine our judgments about good and bad. We have for centuries been developing better theoretics and better techniques for both understanding and practically improving human flourishing (which is our ultimate good, as I would argue on the theoretical level).

Most people are competently and truthfully identifying good from bad in most cases. There are contentious points of disagreement of course. But they are not in all cases. And even where they exist they assume basic categories of value in common. They understand implicitly that minimal health and maximal excellence are goods and that what that serves them is for the best and what harms them is for the worst. Everyone gets this, innately, regardless of the wildly different implicit and explicit social structures they develop for distributing which goods to which people under which conditions, etc.

Even with naturally crude and unjustly socially constructed value judgments and norms, for centuries people have successfully discriminated the basics of good and the basics of bad well enough to live to reproductive age and a couple decades thereafter and to thrive in a number of human excellences as much as the state of their culture at the time afforded.

And just as we can navigate the world well enough for minimal survival and perpetuation of the species with our natural brain mechanisms but require theoretical physics to engineer robots and computers that can replicate those processes, so also we must go from our “good enough for minimal survival and perpetuation of the species” daily value judgments to much more theoretically sophisticated and technically engineered structures to create truly just and maximally flourishing societies. They do not just spring up, whole-cloth, out of “natural” human interactions. And nor do they maintain themselves or readapt themselves to new circumstances “just naturally” either. They take scrupulously careful socialization, and re-socialization through an endless process of thinking, experimenting, educating, legislating, experiencing, and reevaluating.

And just as we have vastly improved our theoretical and technical mastery of the physical world, I submit that we have made similarly enormous theoretical and technical strides in terms of discerning good and bad with respect to morality and politics. We have identified and now work increasingly to counter grave evils that used to be matters of “common sense”. And just as enormous theoretical anomalies and physical limitations still confront physicists, so do very hard theoretical disagreements and hard practical choices still confront ethicists and legislators and everyday people.

And, of course, with ethics, we have incentives towards immorality which further complicates issues. And just as natural common sense physics is often an obstacle to clear thinking about theoretical physics and technical engineering, requiring rigorous retraining of the minds of physicists and engineers, so also a whole host of both natural and traditional common sense assumptions are a positive obstacle to thinking in the best value terms against the temptations of numerous cognitive biases which were fit for our minimal survival but are counter-productive to our maximal flourishing.

This is why, unlike a lot of many timidly over-conservative philosophers, I want to follow Nietzsche’s advice and assess morality not from within its terms but from broader value categories that are more theoretical, even when they are counter-intuitive to morality’s own flawed “common sense” internal categories and to tradition.

But nonetheless, I submit that as a practical matter, our trust in our natural and socially shaped common sense value judgments are usually trustworthy, in most matters, and are not simply a matter of faith, but are instead worth calling knowledge in many instances. This is true even if we have big controversies related to the biggest theoretical and practical issues. Most of our value judgments do not posit wild and unverifiable things like supernatural agencies or miracles. They are really much more practical and conducive to reality than that. In many cases they quite effectively manage our social relationships, our health, our careers, etc. We do viscerally and emotionally respond against challenges to our value judgments. But this is because most of our value judgments constitute the preconditions of our own thriving and so our brains are rigged as a matter of default to treat our value feelings as vital matters on that account. So we, quite understandably, require powerfully effective arguments and time to ruminate and be careful before we change our values.

But, as an empirical fact, we do change them and we quite often do so as influenced not only by social and political pressures but by rational considerations. We change them both individually and collectively, through experiments and reevaluations by members of every class in society and in every social context, from the academic to the intimate to the political, and through a long and ongoing process of experience and abstract reason and power struggles, all interacting with each other in a feedback loop, which on the long arc of history seem to be leading towards greater justice.

With all this in mind, a takeaway analogy: People who use the free speech that they take for granted to disparage moral philosophy as useless, superfluous, and incapable of progress since it does not function like a natural science are as naive, as historically and practically ignorant, and as guilty of practical contradiction as those religious believers who use the internet to talk about how science can not attain any genuine truths because it cannot square its own metaphysical foundations or tell us about the meaning of life.

Your Thoughts?

I figured out the germ of this post as I brainstormed with James Croft about how moral knowledge might be possible even without an airtight metaethics during our written dialogue a few weeks ago.

I have also written a few posts on how faith is a corruption of the reasonable traditionalism that morality should be constrained to in the following posts:

I think that centuries of moral stagnation and regressions can be blamed as much faith’s corrupting moral traditionalism just as much as the stagnations and regressions of science and philosophy have long been the fault of that same corrosive.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.