As you will know if you have been reading this blog over the last week, I am presently involved in a dialogue/debate with Guy Walker over human morality and from where it has come. I’ve so far written two pieces in response to a comment he made externally. My first piece dealt with the foundational philosophy involved in discussions of morality (actually, involved in any discussions of philosophy since they are the building bricks of philosophical thought), and my second appeals with morality as a result of evolution, of which the building bricks are evident in other species. I plan on doing a third piece on morality and the brain.
Response below is Guy Walker replying to my first piece, so it does not involve any claims or explicit reference to my second piece. Guy may or may not comment here but if he does, please treat him respectfully and let the conversation be a civil discourse. I know I am a fine one to talk since I often get exasperated when arguing with him externally and don’t add here to my expectations here. Hey ho. Enjoy and debate. Over to Guy:
A Dialogue: Response to “Making Moral Claims Without Doing the Groundwork” by J. Pearce
Important quotations from the piece (linked at the bottom of this response)
“At the end of the day, looking down on things is pretty arrogant, and assumes that you know best.”
“Morality is an abstract idea,..”
“…morality is a conceptual construct that we create in order to navigate the world as a social species. Without it, society would fall apart. That is precisely because society has been constructed using morality as both a tool and a currency.”
“…there is, descriptively, subjectivity concerning moral philosophy.”
“Deontology is the idea that there is some objective, mind-independent moral framework. If this can’t exist outside of sentient minds, then we have a problem. If all humanity or all sentient creatures were to die, then the concept of morality (the existence of morality) would die with those sentient creatures. The basic point is that you simply can’t decontextualise morality. This is what deontology seeks to do and is doomed to failure. The enquiring murderer and other similar thought experiments put paid to this. Reductio ad absurdum of deontology leads to conclusions where deontologists would actually allow any number of horrible things to happen in the name of rigid morality.”
“But what does this mean if morality is conceptual and not ontically real? Well it means these conceptual ideas like morality have to be constructed by minds. All minds are independent of each other but they have similar biological construction as well as cultural and historical similarities. Therefore, we often agree on things. However, we also often disagree. The only way of navigating this is to agree by consensus. And this is precisely what happens. This is how democracy works and how laws get written. You vote in a ruling party that can change the law based on a majority rule. Or you have some kind of dictatorship that doesn’t do this…”
“…if we want to establish any abstract claims (such as morality and thus politics and regulation and law), we need to do so by consensus.”
Underlying this piece are a set of assumptions which I’ll outline first before detailing the general assumptions underpinning my different thoughts on the matter.
The main assumption is that humans exist first without morality but with a mental state that is capable of creating the ‘abstract idea’ of morality for reasons of necessity such as the avoidance of dictatorships or of society falling apart. So “conceptual ideas like morality have to be constructed by minds” perhaps out of nothing. The necessity of creating such ideas, presumably, arises out of our social condition which, inevitably pits us against each other in Hobbesian conflict. It is interesting to speculate on what the pre-construction of moral concepts state evoked consists of. What were we like at that stage? Presumably floating, amoral intelligences. This is to evoke an idea of a kind of tabula rasa state devoid of elements of what we usually take for granted as our whole humanity. It is to take a very distinctive position on these things. Cogito ergo mores. The thinking definitely comes first at the top of the pyramid, the human intellect supreme. In that sense it is a top down approach.
It also buys into the idea of “subjectivity concerning moral philosophy” and, perhaps the idea that morality is an off the shelf “construct” tailored judiciously and pragmatically to fit various situations.
The piece suggests that opposing this view is the ‘deontological’ one. This is not only wrong but dangerous. “Reductio ad absurdum of deontology leads to conclusions where deontologists would actually allow any number of horrible things to happen in the name of rigid morality.”
“Deontology is the idea that there is some objective, mind-independent moral framework.” The etymology of the word deontology suggests a duty to an objective set of morals. Inevitably in western culture, based as it was for so long on Christian thought, the objective set of morals have been considered to have been dreamed up by and acquired from a Judeo-Christian God, often portrayed as being petulant and vindictive for no apparent reason.
The trouble with this is that it perpetuates the idea that morals are arbitrary and unforced by any necessity; just snatched from a tree or from the top of a mountain. Interestingly, this deontological arbitrariness (Jehovah’s vindictive rules are in no way compelled but just made up) is an idea shared by the author who thinks moral concepts just need to be ‘constructed’ to satisfy practical considerations. Now, although I am characterised as a deontologist in the piece, in fact, I am not. I don’t think a post-modern thinker or Jehovah simply dreams up a construct which is then imposed on society from outside, dropped, as it were, from the heavens or from the pragmatic mind of Michel Foucault. I don’t think that is how morality emerges. So, now, to my under-pinning of moral reality and my account of what it is…..
I do, like deontologists, believe one has a duty to morality, but unlike them, I don’t think morality is a random set of rules with no internal logic or compulsion which we have to adhere to blindly and dangerously. Indeed, why would I?
One can give various accounts of the creation of the universe and human beings and I’m not going to insist on any of them. For what it’s worth I believe in the Big Bang, Evolution and God and see no difficulty in entertaining all three ideas. I’m going to use a purely notional creator God to illustrate an idea though as a thought experiment. On the assumption that an omnipotent God created the universe does his omnipotence extend to meaning that he could fly in the face of logic by making, say, 2+2=5? My view would be not. This is because the rules of maths are embedded inexorably, in the fabric of the universe. God knew that 2+2 would always equal 4 and would consider it pointless to want it any other way. The moment of the act of creation always meant, God or no God, that 2+2 would equal 4. It can’t be any other way. This is not, in fact to limit the omnipotence of God because being able to make 2+2=5 is not what omnipotence means.
It’s the same with morality. Jehovah, on a bored afternoon, did not just dream up a special morality, like the rules of Monopoly, for the deontologists to slavishly follow purely in order to flex his muscles and show them who’s boss. If you set about creating (and, if you like, leave out here the idea of a creator God entirely as the point still obtains whatever led to our appearance on the planet) a conscious, self-aware creature that succeeds, as ants do, by living and co-operating socially the rules of morality will emerge inevitably and spontaneously the moment such creatures come into being. It is an attribute of their being as much a part of the fabric of humanity as maths is of the universe.
A little aside here: the first good in human being is life and the first evil is death. As Schopenhauer demonstrated we have implanted in us a fierce ‘will to life’ that we were not consulted on that guarantees this and the further ‘will to reproduce’ (and thus perpetuate the good of life) is similarly implanted. This is why one of the first moral rules is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
Put such creatures in social proximity and morality springs up spontaneously the moment the first australopithicus steals a mammoth steak from his neighbour. The neighbour’s appetite (first) and then his innate sense of fairness is outraged and he kills his neighbour. This can’t go on as we soon degenerate into a Hobbesian state of nature and perpetual conflict. The same goes for sexual jealousy. The sense of injustice that emerged spontaneously from the situation of proximity and competition has to be codified into general social rules. There is, therefore, necessity as in “morality is a conceptual construct that we create in order to navigate the world as a social species. Without it, society would fall apart.” But it’s not a construct but a codification of morality that has already spontaneously emerged from our situation and our moral instinct (for we were never moraltabulae rasae). Moses didn’t go up Mount Sinai to collect a set of random and unpredictable instructions. He went to get a codification of what was already there in people (Jehovah knew it would be there just as he knew 2+2 would equal 4 at the moment of creation) that functioned at the social level and in the social situation.
The spontaneous emergence of morality (it could not not have emerged from the social situation) is really what the Adam and Eve story is about. They never existed and are an example of someone starting from human reality and then creating a retrospective myth or story to explain the present in symbolic terms of an imagined past. The point is that once you create a self-aware creature the descent into ‘knowledge’ and the political is inevitable and spontaneous. It’s built into the nature of the creature.
An inevitable objection to my view is that of moral relativism in the world. Not every culture has the same moral rules. This is absolutely true if you are talking about the superficial; things like sumptuary or hygiene laws which differ the world over. However, I’d argue that there is a deep Chomskian moral grammar that means the essentials (based on the life=good, death = bad equation) obtain the world over. Virtually everywhere, murder, rape, theft, violence, lying and cheating (the kind of things you find in the Ten Commandments and the things that emerge inevitably from proximity and competition in primitive societies or in ones with advanced economics) are anathematised. The deep Chomskian grammar is bound to arise from the situational things we have in common – the same appetites, the same Maszlovian needs, the same sexuality, the same mortality etc. God (or any lawmaker) codifies what he knew couldn’t help but emerge. In a sense this kind of moral universalism underpins the Voltairean Enlightenment stance that spoke in terms of a world community.
This leads me to the question of ontic ordering. In purely temporal terms humans emerge from Nature with a nature. This, in my view, is to adopt a bottom up approach. Where lower can one begin than in the nature on which we all depend for existence and the consciousness that enables me to make these observations? A human baby is a cluster of appetites, senses, and emotions. Reason and language will only emerge much later on. As the child grows and goes to school it will, sooner or later get involved in a competitive scrap over a ball or sweets and announce the immortal sentence – “It’s not fair!” before it punches the other child. A school teacher, in possession of the codified school rules, will intervene and adjudicate. Gradually the child will be acquainted with formalised morality. The morality arose out of the child’s competitive animal appetite followed swiftly by its instinct for justice first though.
The same ontic ordering obtains in an adult. He will feel moral outrage in the form of emotion at an injustice inflicted on him by someone who scratches his car and absents himself from the scene. In civilised humans this reaction will rise up through the ontic ordering, beyond a desire to punch the perpetrator to his reason and he will appeal to justice through the socially agreed means of calling the police. He will appeal to the social codifications of morality that are enshrined in laws.
Morality begins in implanted instinct. In a conscious self-aware creature like us it is impossible to imagine it not being there. It is not implanted by God (except in the sense, if you believe that is how it happened, he started the whole shooting match that led to the social and competitive situation) but by the social situation just as the fact of things being plural can’t not lead to mathematical truths and laws. It is one of the properties of self-awareness and consciousness. An omnipotent God could not have created a universe without it. An interesting paradox.