The Roots of Morality II: The Foundation

In the previous post in this series, I argued that moral relativism is a logically inconsistent position and must be discarded. The only remaining option is moral objectivism; that is, the position that some acts are objectively right and others are objectively wrong, and that this will be true regardless of any person or group’s opinion.

However, the knowledge that morality is objective does not tell us what it actually consists of. In this post, I will propose a basis for objective morality which can be developed into a full-blown ethical system.

So as not to be distracted by tangential matters, I will cut straight to the heart of the matter. What is the most basic principle, the most fundamental goal, that should underlie the way we treat each other? What is the goal we are trying to achieve, what is the end we are trying to maximize, when we conceive of a moral philosophy?

Different systems of thought have a wide variety of answers to this question, but most of them make little attempt to justify their answer. Communism says that the ultimate value is community, libertarianism that the ultimate value is individual liberty. Western religion generally identifies it as faith in God, while some Eastern systems of thought such as Confucianism claim it is societal stability and reverence to one’s elders. Dictatorships usually claim that the supreme moral virtue is obedience. But in all these cases, we can ask: why? Why should that be the foundation of morality and not something else?

These specific examples are symptoms of a more general quandary. If some proposed moral system claims that the ultimate virtue is something like justice or obedience or duty or piety, we can always ask why that should be, why we should choose that quality and not a different one. Granted, there cannot be an infinite regress of justifications; any chain of explanations must stop somewhere. However, we should not stop sooner than we have to. If we are truly to reach the roots of morality, we should keep asking the question of why as long as it can be meaningfully answered.

If one devotes some thought to the matter, I believe it will become obvious that there is, and can be, only one answer. No matter what quality anyone proposes as the root of morality, it is always possible to ask why we should value that quality and not some other – except for one. There is only one quality that is immune to this question and that therefore can truly serve as the foundation of morality, and that quality is happiness.

Happiness is where the regression of reasons stops because there is no further reason why we desire happiness; happiness itself is the “why”. A person might seek wealth, fame, love, or friendship because they believe it will bring them happiness, but happiness is not itself sought because it will bring about some other desirable quality or state. In the entire universe of human experience, it is the only thing that is good intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally. Unlike everything else we value or desire, it is not a means to an end, but the end itself.

This recognition is a very large step toward constructing an objective morality, but it does not get us all the way there. There is an extremely important corollary question. Happiness cannot exist in the abstract, in an undifferentiated state. Rather, it must always exist in someone‘s mind. Given that we have identified happiness as the supreme moral value, the inevitable question is: whose happiness? Should we identify only our own happiness as of moral worth, and craft a morality built purely on selfishness and self-interest? Should we identify others’ happiness as of supreme value and spend our entire lives in slavish devotion to their wants? Should we identify all people’s happiness as of exactly equal value, and assist needy children and serial killers with equal effort and devotion? And if none of these options are selected and we decide that the happiness of some but not all others is valuable, then which others, and why?

The first piece of evidence pointing to an answer to these questions comes from the study of human nature. The occasional aberrant pathology aside, human beings are social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups. As such, we possess a sophisticated sense of empathy that gives us some insight into how those around us are feeling. This sense is realized through physical adaptations such as mirror neurons, which fire both when we experience an emotion and when we perceive another person experiencing that emotion.

The existence of such faculties suggests a rational motivation, one that can be justified purely on the basis of self-interest, for promoting the happiness of others. Just as food and water are basic human needs and therefore it is generally a good thing to provide them, so too it seems that living among happy individuals can significantly contribute to one’s happiness. Conversely, persistent exposure to miserable, angry or unhappy people is a major drain on one’s happiness. (In this case, neuroscience is only confirming what has long been obvious to common sense.) Creating Passionate Users has more information on this phenomenon of “emotional contagion”.

In addition, there is a strong, purely practical reason to create a moral system that encourages individuals to contribute to the happiness of others, rather than the opposite. Namely, if your happiness is obtained in a way that makes other people unhappy, they will always oppose you and work to hinder your goals. On the other hand, if your happiness is derived wholly or partially from other people’s happiness, they will be far more likely to assist you, since their goals align with yours, and you will be more likely to achieve your own ends and be happy as well.

Finally, consider this argument: If you are happy when other people are happy, you have the potential for far more happiness than you could ever achieve for yourself by individual effort. A selfish person, one unconcerned with the emotional well-being of others, can only feel the happiness they acquire for themselves; but an empathetic person can experience, in addition, not just their individual happiness, but the sum total of all the happiness of the people around them. Conscience by its nature is not something we can turn on only when convenient, however, and if we are to draw happiness from people around us, it is impossible to ignore their suffering and need at other times.

For these reasons, reason tells decisively against a theory of morality based on pure selfishness. Instead, the rational course is clearly a morality that values the happiness of others and promotes actions that increase it. And why not? Unlike many of the other things we strive for, happiness is not a limited resource. It costs you nothing for other people to be happy, and will very likely even help you, for the reasons described above.

The straightforward conclusion is that happiness should be maximized. But equally plainly, reason dictates that the way to do this is not to aid all people equally. Giving aid to people whose aim is to reduce the happiness of others, such as religious fanatics or secular tyrants who want to enslave and impose their will on others, will actually decrease, not increase, the total net happiness of humanity. on the other end of the spectrum, aiding people who already enjoy a high level of comfort is unlikely to increase their basic happiness significantly, and so is far less urgent than aiding people who are in need of basic necessities.

It is this basis that makes morality objective. Some critics of Part I scorned the idea that morality could exist independently of anyone’s opinion, but within this framework it is easier to see how that is so. Happiness is more than a mere construct of opinion, and the conditions that produce it cannot be altered at whim. Regardless of whether we recognize it or can tell what it is, there is one way of living, one way of structuring society, that will produce greater happiness than any alternative method for all concerned. That one true path is what constitutes objective morality. All that remains is for us to figure out, using reason and conscience as our tools, what that path consists of. Developing ideas in this direction will be the task of the next part of this series.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom
Atlas Shrugged: Objectivist Batman
Atlas Shrugged: Fiat Motors
Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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