A Rational Morality

I’ve found on a number of occasions that people who conceive of morality as something handed down from on high don’t understand how there could be any alternative to that view. “If you don’t get your morals from [deity of choice], where do you get them?” The frequency with which this line of questioning appears demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what sort of a concept morality is and how we can coherently define it. The assumption at the heart of the misunderstanding is that morals must be things in the world—not necessarily that they must be tangible, but that they have an existence independent of the human mind. For a person holding this view, morals are fixed, constant, and external.

(Continued below the fold.)

The Source

This notion of external moral values is equally ludicrous whether the perceived source is a deity or a dictator. Morality is a value-based judgment system, a human-created way of applying conceptual labels to human interaction and decision-making. These labels, the words of moral judgment—good, bad, right, wrong, just, unjust—have no real-world referent, the way ‘pencil’ or ‘babboon’ do. They only exist in the abstract, which is to say that they only exist as products of the human mind, and this is the only way they really make any sort of sense—as linguistic constructions for describing and evaluating human behavior. People intuitively understand this, I think, but they persist in thinking of moral values as something existing independent of human reason (and often not even accessible to human reason).

Nature certainly doesn’t make sense as a source for morality, given that nature (pathetic fallacy aside) has no particular interest in whether we act “morally” or “immorally.” This is to say that two actions, one “moral” and one “immoral,” may have markedly different consequences, but nature has no real investment in one over the other for the sake of adhering to a moral system. Examined in this light, moral actions are not qualitatively different from immoral actions from any perspective other than a human one. The only distinction between actions, from a natural standpoint, is due to a difference in the direct consequences of those actions. Any attempt to claim the natural world as a source for arbitrarily chosen moral values is bogus, and is most likely an attempt to rationalize a supernaturally-based view of morality.

Defining the System

It is important for us to understand why morality exists, what purpose it serves in human discourse. Morality is most readily understood as a system we impose in order to make our lives easier—in terms of both individual quality of life and overall utility—and to turn them into something other than ‘kill or be killed.’ In its rational form (as distinct from the sense of ‘public morality,’ where things are arbitrarily chosen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for no logical reason), it is a product of extrapolating from rational self-interest. The impulse towards morality is not, fundamentally speaking, an impulse towards treating people justly or fairly for its own sake, but rather an impulse towards treating people justly and fairly in the hopes that they will treat us in such a way. An appropriately chosen moral value within such a system is one that strikes the right balance between self and other, in the sense that the negatives of obeying it ourselves are balanced out by the positives of everyone else obeying it. The most obvious example is the widely held moral prohibition against killing for reasons other than self defense. This is an appropriate moral value for us to hold, because we can reasonably (there’s that word again) expect that the desire to not be killed is more or less universal, that the convenience of not worrying about being murdered will outweigh the inconvenience of not being able to slit the throat of someone who pisses us off. That this is often overlooked in moments of passion in no way invalidates it as an ethos—it just means that there are situations in which people will make decisions based on something other than morality.

Extrapolation and Universality

You will undoubtedly notice a certain degree of speculation within such a system. This is unavoidable, practically speaking, given the overwhelming numbers of people on the earth; it’s not even remotely feasible that we interview the entirety of the human population, in order to have a truly universal representation of human desires. We must rely on experience and reason to give us a sense of what humans value, and which of these values must/should be considered unimpeachable—life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness, etc. As we’ve previously established, reason is the only universal language available to us for discussing and analyzing these issues; emotion is not irrelevant, especially when utility and happiness are so closely linked, but the fact that something makes us feel good doesn’t in and of itself make it a universal good in any sense. And there is a need for morality to come from a universally accessible source, because otherwise it becomes meaningless as a system for human behavior. If, say, concepts of morality were bestowed by Hypothetical Supernatural Entity #1, and Hypothetical Supernatural Entity #1 was only perceptible to a certain subset of the population, then the rest of the population couldn’t be fully participating in the system, in the sense that they wouldn’t have any direct access to these “moral values.” Likewise, there is a need for some sort of universal morality in our increasingly global culture; if ever there was a time when different cultures could function with drastically different moral systems without affecting each other, that time is long since gone.

To What End?

The end result of this sort of moral reasoning (post-conventional, under Kohlberg’s very useful rubric, which I expect I’ll discuss again at some future point) is less clear than the merits and methods of the process itself. The only coherent theory of morality, it seems to me, is one which falls under the heading of a social contract, given the lack of justification for drawing moral values from external (non-human) sources. We identify, by careful reasoning, certain values which we all implicitly agree to live by, in order that we may enjoy the advantages of civilization over a more animalistic, survival of the fittest system. The logistics of this are troublesome, as is determining the ideal relationship of morality and law, but the point is that we must embrace a rational definition of morality, wherein we recognize that moral frameworks exist only insofar as we create them and impose them on ourselves and, by extension, on others. It should also be recognized that morality is not, from a broad perspective, a necessity; rather, it is a particularly useful system we’ve concocted to keep from killing and raping and stealing from each other (which is to say: to keep from being killed or raped or stolen from). The sooner we recognize the necessarily rational nature of moral judgments and stop trying to assign some absolute “moral” status to random beliefs and prejudices, the more just and pleasant our world will become, and the less we will abridge the fundamental rights of others.


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8 Responses to A Rational Morality

  1. westin says:

    Good piece. I take brief issue with the bit about “nature.” While I agree that the source of morality cannot be found in nature, I think it is important to point out that nature is a very good sign of morality or immorality. If I dump a bucket of paint thinner into a stream, not realizing it is toxic, and some vegetation dies as a result, I’ve been a bad person — even though I had no malicious intent. Perhaps I’ll blame the withering greenery on a drought, but maybe I’ll realize it happened as a result of my actions and stop before the neighbor’s kid gets poisoned. In this way, morals can be thought of as ‘coming’ from nature, though the source remains some sort of social contract I have with my neighbors not to poison their child.

  2. Filthy Habit says:

    I’m going to pose this as a question rather than an explanation, as this is one of those deep philosophical questions that I have a great interest in and have burned many brain cells pondering over the years.

    Urizen wrote:

    Nature certainly doesn’t make sense as a source for morality, given that nature…has no particular interest in whether we act “morally” or “immorally.” This is to say that two actions, one “moral” and one “immoral,” may have markedly different consequences, but nature has no real investment in one over the other for the sake of adhering to a moral system…Any attempt to claim the natural world as a source for arbitrarily chosen moral values is bogus, and is most likely an attempt to rationalize a supernaturally-based view of morality.

    In the broadest fashion imaginable, let me now ask, “What if nature is the source for morality?” and, as a corollary, “What if nature does have an investment in one over the other?”

    By way of explaining myself here, one of the things I’ve inferred over the many years in my layman’s study of quantum physics is that there is clearly some form of interdependence, or balance, at work within our universe. It’s difficult to comprehend, because we, as individuals, or a collection of individuals, or as an ecosystem or a biosphere, or even as a planet, solar system and galaxy, occupy such a miniscule portion of space and time that our insignificance on the grand scale of the universe is overwhelmingly palpable. But, this may not be the case after all, if my thinking is right. While we all can grasp the notion that the universe, i.e., nature, is not a conscious entity, it is, however, quite possible that the collection of the various reducible elements within the universe are unconsciously going about their business fighting a war against chaos in a quest for equilibrium, and we, as elements of the universe ourselves, are mere powder-monkeys in that grand, universal conflict.

    I know this is beginning to feel like a discourse on free-will versus determinism, as indeed there are those aspects about what I’m trying to convey here, but I think there’s a little more to it than that. But, if you consider morality and human nature, we do behave morally or immorally based on either deterministic tendencies or on free-will, so it is very relevant to introduce these concepts to the discussion before ruling out nature’s role in morality.

    Consider for a moment all of the recent research that reveals that homosexuality is, in fact, a biological trigger that we have no control over. There is apparently no genetic disposition toward homosexuality; instead, it appears that as we reach puberty, a biological trigger in our brain fires off that orients us one way or another. The outcome is not necessarily predetermined, and the prevailing belief is that the trigger functions based on the needs of the environment. Experiments with lower mammals, for example, have shown that this homosexual trigger may be a way for nature to enforce birth-control and to prevent overpopulation by a species. This seems a highly reasonable explanation for human homosexual behavior. I’m not attempting to draw homosexuality into a debate of whether it is moral or not, but it is exemplary of a mode of behavior that is most likely produced through an external cause in nature. So, in this sense, nature does have a stake in the outcome.

    Likewise, we might be able to show that other modes of human behavior, things that we really do consider moral or immoral, are also related to causes from nature. A serial killer, probably what we collectively consider the most immoral of all, might also be compelled through some biological trigger; however, it may be possible that serial killers perform some necessary function in nature that we simply fail to understand. So too for virtually any mode of human behavior, whether or not it registers on our radar-scope of morality.

    As a result, while on a conscious level we may believe that our moral behavior is driven by an internal and selfish motivation, it may be that we have little or no conscious control over how we behave in the framework of morality, and are, in fact, merely responding to innate triggers that have an external cause in nature’s need to attain balance. If that is the case, it would be wonderful to discover exactly why and how nature goes about its business doing exactly that.

    And now, the BIG BOMB: If nature does have a participatory role in human behavior and morality (a big if), then what we value as morality becomes irrelevant due to the fact that if nature causes our behavior, then, by extension, all behavior is moral.

    Just some food for thought, I guess…

  3. [...] One of the crucial questions I didn’t address in my previous post about morality was that of which interactions are appropriate for us to evaluate on a moral scale. Not every action has a moral/immoral component to it. Morality is a framework to govern interactions between humans, or at least between creatures with a certain degree of sentience; while we may not be able to agree on definitions or degrees of sentience, we can agree that the complete lack thereof precludes an entity from taking part in a moral/immoral interaction. (It is nonsensical to talk about the morality or immorality of a man interacting with a wooden board.) In the most fundamental sense, morality exists, as I have said, to make our lives easier and happier than they would otherwise be, were we all left to our own animalistic devices. What this boils down to in principle, and what every moral value can be reduced to, is the protection of a certain set of rights. Differing moral systems hold differing views of what rights are natural/unimpeachable, what rights should always be protected, and what rights are more properly thought of as privileges, and these discrepancies are what result in different moral values. For a moral system to be rationally coherent, though, it must focus on interactions between rights-possessing entities. [...]

  4. [...] The other component is more complex and tends to express itself in a variety of ways. Broadly speaking, it is the conflict between the simplicity of a monolithic culture and the complexity of multiculturalism, secular values, and differing individual identities. This complexity is, if we are being honest with ourselves, much more integral to our political and cultural heritage, and certainly more consonant with the values upon which the nation was founded—the actual values, e.g. an ultimate respect for individual freedoms and rights, not the “Christian nation” label that’s so dishonestly and inaccurately applied centuries after the country’s founding. More on values in a bit. This particular conflict often manifests itself as secular values vs. religion, primarily because of the way religious traditions (and, accordingly, religious leaders) seek dominion over not only ’spiritual’ matters (i.e. the conjecture of theological narratives) but also political, philosophical, ethical, social, and (much to the dismay of many of us) even scientific matters. Whereas religion can be seen as a valuable source of cultural narratives and community identity, even by those of us who find the concept of faith contra reason to be repugnant, it cannot function as an appropriate set of philosophical and moral boundaries, due to its fundamental irrationality—even when it’s not explicitly contradicting logic and empirical evidence, it has no particular rational basis (that being the nature of a faith belief, whether the belief persists in the face of contradictory evidence, or merely in the absence of affirmative evidence). Only a system founded on human reason can serve as an appropriately universal barometer for human interaction, and therefore also a set of fundamental guidelines for law and government. [...]

  5. [...] For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end). [...]

  6. [...] Anyone who has trouble recognizing this as a legitimate source of good and moral behavior needs to take a long, hard look at their own morality. [...]

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