This is a repost from January 2011. The post is a nice overview of my account of moral philosophy, written as a reply to Christian doubts about the possibility of an atheistic moral philosophy. I have worked out a number of important nuances since writing this but it should serve as a nice introduction for newer readers or review for longtime readers.
Tom Gilson thinks that theism accounts for moral realism better than atheism does. My reasons for rejecting that view are here (though I am interested in tailoring a future post specifically to Gilson’s particular way of arguing for a theist basis for moral realism).
For now, however, rather than counter Gilson’s positive claims for theism’s ability to ground moral realism, I want instead to answer the first of nine questions he poses as challenges to atheist moral realists.
I consider myself a form of moral realist, even on his specific definition of it as “the view that moral duties and values have an objective reality that does not depend on any person’s or group of persons’ opinions or beliefs about them”. But I reject his equation of this position with the ideas that (1) that there are “unchanging moral absolutes”, (2) that moral duties and values have always existed, or (3) that morality’s “essential principles are eternally unchanging”.
In this context, I will answer the first of nine supposed problems that Gilson proposes for atheistic moral realists and in a future post I hope to address the other eight. Gilson’s first question is, “What is a moral value or duty; specifically, to whom or what is it a value, and to whom or what is the duty directed, owed, or pointed?”
Moral values are valuable to human beings and possibly to other rational beings which may exist–if they share certain relevant features which would make moral values valuable to them.
But what are moral values and why are they important to human beings? The first thing to note is that moral values are not our primary values. Our primary value is simply to exist. This is the most fundamental value because it is the precondition of any other values whatsoever.
Our existence is constituted of certain activities in which we are instantiated as the beings we are. For example, without our brain activities which generate our thoughts, for example, we do not exist as persons. And, on a more physically fundamental level, without our cells performing the activities which constitute our bodies, we cannot even exist bodily and since our personhood depends on certain brain activities and the brain is a bodily organ, we cannot exist as people if the cells in our body do not perform “body activities”.
Therefore, in order to exist maximally we must maximally perform the activities which make up our kind of being. In order to fully realize our humanity, which is our fundamental essence, we must maximally powerfully express our various powers through which we exist. To certain important extents doing this entails having the requisite physical health to sustain the bodily underpinnings of those flourishing powers.
The more we realize our powers, the more we come into being, i.e., the more we are at all. We have an inherent interest in being what we are since this is the precondition of all of our further interests.
It is in the context of this most basic good—the existential precondition of all our other goods—that we can assess the worth, i.e. the value, of everything outside of us and inside of us.
As far as things outside of us go, oxygen, for example, is of crucial value because it is an indispensable precondition of our organic life. As far as internal components of our psyche go, we can assess some of them as being of greater value insofar as they either constitute, contribute to and/or amplify powers we have and others as being of lesser value insofar as they tend to detract from our other powers with a detrimental effect on our overall powerful realization of ourselves.
In this context, our minds have evolved powers of value discrimination, some of which function automatically and some of which involve deliberative processes.
Evolution has imperfectly but nonetheless powerfully effectively overall equipped us to make many snap judgments. We taste sweet things as pleasant, which is equivalent to interpreting them as desirable. This is because in the ages in which we evolved, sugary substances were highly advantageous to us and were in rare supply. When those of our ancestors who had mutated the quirk of finding sweetness incredibly pleasant and desirable stumbled upon sugary things, they kept eating them and reaped an advantage over any of their peers who may have not had the quirk of finding sweet things pleasant.
Over time the fitness for survival of sweet tooths to our prehistoric environment kept encouraging the transmission of an automatic preference for sweetness until today our brain automatically makes the value judgment that sweet things are good for it (in the form of pleasant sensations when our tongues come into contact with them).
In such manner as this, our brains are naturally conditioned to make all sorts of automatic judgments of positive or negative value. Many of these judgments are immediately indicated to us with the persuasive force of pleasures or pains which often enormously influence how we react to things without any rational deliberations occurring or needing to occur. And in certain matters in which erroneous rational deliberations would be extremely harmful (or even fatal), pain can be so extreme that we have no psychological ability to resist its demand we remove or avoid whatever is causing it.
There are some situations in which our automatic pleasures or pains may not be finely calibrated enough by the process of natural selection to guide us by themselves. In some cases, we need to reason about the actual conditions of our survival or our flourishing either because our natural pleasures and pains offer no direct input or because the input they give us is insufficient for figuring out what is best for us overall when abstract considerations, remote effects, and complicated calculi about how to generate net gains in pleasure are all taken into account.
So we have vitally evolved powers of inference, by which we are capable of figuring out both what ends are worth pursuing for our most fundamental good and various effective means to attaining those ends. Of course our inferential powers are imperfect and in numerous cases have taken centuries or millenia to figure out how various things work. Nonetheless, inference is an often effective tool for figuring out what means are objectively efficient for attaining what ends. And so we can say that inference is an effective tool for discovering values, insofar as value means potential effectiveness for attaining an end.
Within all of this context, moral values can be situated as real, objective, but nonetheless historically malleable, goods for human beings. Specifically moral values arise out of several psychological value priorities innate to our minds, given how we have evolved. Because social cooperation was a powerful means for human survival, we have evolved naturally to be social beings. Insofar as certain virtues and habits of judgment made social cooperation possible, we have evolved basic natural tendencies to develop various pro-social virtues and habits of judgment.
Some of these habits of judgment take the form of calculations of advantage which reflect the prisoner dilemma sort of situations in which our minds evolved. We have habits of suspending our own primary interests when they come at the expense of others whose cooperation we need and of punishing others when they do not do the same for us and of punishing them even when it comes at further cost to us. These habits help us automatically form and reinforce everyone’s participation in a cooperative society that objectively was the precondition of our survival.
In this situation we have deeply ingrained and further cultivatable aversions to causing each other serious harm which keep us from hurting each other—as long as other specific emotions which were naturally selected for their own contributions to our flourishing are not activated in such a way that they powerfully override this default restraint. And we also have both automatic and cultivatable inclinations to care for one another which are manifestly powerful and constitute an enormous amount of our human lives—more than we ever realize or appreciate. (We are understandably extremely highly sensitized to deviations from this cooperative norm and tend to remember, dwell upon, and lament these failures and, in our morally hysterical moments, confuse them for the dominant way we engage with each other, when in fact they are not.)
Our fundamental need for cooperative group and interpersonal behavior made it so that those who had strong intuitions that they should treat others the same as they themselves needed to be treated were likely persistently selected for since this inclination had the effect of leading to that vital cooperative group and interpersonal behavior that made humans live long enough to pass on their genes.
We can infer from here that an a priori norm of formal fairness, which tells us that we are required to treat each person who is similarly situated to another in the same way, has evolved and become a standard issue part of our mental machinery, in terms of which we all think. And one of the primary concerns for formal fairness that we have also had is that it is only fair that we return favors with favors and harms with harms.
And so our consequentialist modes of thinking that seek to maximize not only our own pleasures and flourishing but others’ as well extends from our sense of fairness. It strikes us as unfair to not generally wish others the goods we wish for ourselves–at least if those others are cooperative with us and not harmful to us.
Our ability to think in terms of formal consistency and formal fairness makes possible our strong feeling that there are moral absolutes. It is formally unfair for anyone to make himself an exception to the basic rules of cooperation which we all except.
The principle difference between deontologists and consequentialists strikes me as a difference between thinking of the rules atomistically and non-situationally or thinking of the rules of fairness as allowing for highly contextual factors to influence what is fair. So the deontologist thinks one may simply “never lie” or “never steal” since these actions are generally unfair; whereas, for the consequentialist it can be both fair for everyone to have the right to lie in cases where lying will save a life and fair for no one to have the right to lie where lying involves cheating others out of what they are owed on grounds of fairness.
Since very few cases of lying will actually have fair outcomes that give people what they are properly due, even most consequentialists will talk in shorthand about lying as bad without bothering to enumerate all the qualifying exception cases in which it would be good and fair.
A duty is a responsibility we have to act fairly and fulfill the demands of our moral intuitions. This duty is objective and our intuitions about the binding character of the principle of fairness is objective because the cooperative activities which their exercise sustains are integral to our survival and our thriving and our survival and thriving are intrinsically necessary to us.
To answer Gilson’s question about to whom our duties are due, the answer from the moral perspective is other people. We have these duties to others, however, because they are a precondition of our own survival and our own thriving, and thus, ultimately our duties to others are actually made necessary by our intrinsic interest in our own being. These duties are important to us regardless of whether we consciously acknowledge them as such. They are independent of our beliefs and desires and objective in this way. They need not be “eternal”, they need not “absolutely” override all other goods without qualification, and nor need they demand the same specific things of us in every circumstance whatsoever.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.