Moral theory isn’t as helpful as many people think

I actually have some nice things to say about moral theory, but I’m saving them for another post because I’ve been kept up late doing other things, and a purely negative post is easier to dash off late at night. Let me begin by quoting a great bit from Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Once upon a time, I met someone who proclaimed himself to be purely selfish, and told me that I should be purely selfish as well.  I was feeling mischievous(*) that day, so I said, “I’ve observed that with most religious people, at least the ones I meet, it doesn’t matter much what their religion says, because whatever they want to do, they can find a religious reason for it.  Their religion says they should stone unbelievers, but they want to be nice to people, so they find a religious justification for that instead.  It looks to me like when people espouse a philosophy of selfishness, it has no effect on their behavior, because whenever they want to be nice to people, they can rationalize it in selfish terms.”

Eliezer doesn’t say this, but I suspect you could replace “selfishness” and “selfish” with equivalent terms for any other moral philosophy anyone has actually devised, and it would be just as true. Very few philosophers really get their morals from their moral theory. Peter Singer is as good a candidate as anyone for an exception to this rule, but he admits he doesn’t perfectly follow his own consequentialist philosophy, sometimes other factors override his actual actions. And what I’ve just said isn’t terribly controversial. Many ethicists today would say they’re not trying to derive their morals from a moral theory, rather they get their moral theory by reflecting on and trying to refine the morals they had before they ever did philosophy.

When I first read The God Delusion I was annoyed that Dawkins didn’t do more in the way of moral philosophy, like what famous dead and living professional philosophers do, and instead talks vaguely about the moral zeitgeist. Now, though I suspect Dawkins was closer to the truth about morality than most ethicists. Progress in ethics is real, but how we make it is somewhat mysterious. So far, I think Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature may have come the closest to getting the explanation right, though I suspect even Pinker gives philosophers too much credit.

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