Friday 9 September 2016

What is moral right and wrong?

The blog's been quiet for some time. There are reasons for this. I'll get to them in time, but I'm going to start us back up with some philosophy.

There are some major questions in philosophy that have been around as long as people have. What is morality? What is the self? What is god? What is free will? What is existence made of? How should I live my life? Depending on your perspective, these questions have either been answered long ago, or are just as open today as ever they were.

I have believed roughly 2-3 different answers to these questions at different times in my life, and changing my beliefs has been a rare (roughly every decade or so) but thoroughly enjoyable and unexpected experience every time.

While it would be poor inductive reasoning on my part to suppose that the answers I have now to these questions will remain so, I believe two things which I think make it worthwhile spelling them out anyway. First, like changes in scientific consensus, changing in philosophical belief doesn't undermine the authority of the process. When we replace newtonian physics with subatomic physics, we're not saying Newton got it completely wrong, we're saying he was on the right track, he just didn't consider some fine print. Second, I feel I have resolved some internal frictions in my philosophy which existed before now, so I feel like now is the time.

So, here is the first in what may become a series of my personally held convictions about the major philosophical conundrums. Because ti seems wrong to do what I do without ever spelling them out.

What is moral right and wrong?
There are two broad answers to this question. One is to deny the existence of moral right and wrong. The other is to accept its existence, and then try to explain how it exists, and why that account means we should behave in certain common sense ethical ways.

I have long held a relativist position, for many reasons, including lack of evidence for god, and causal predetermination. But the greatest argument for moral relativism is a simple counter. I can imagine a person who - for whatever psychological/genetic/causal reasons, simply loves to murder people, and cannot be convinced otherwise. I can find no good reason why this person ought to feel guilty. I can find no convincing way to explain to this person that what they are doing is wrong. I can find no explanation of what this person could do in order to become a good person. And I cannot, on a simple common sense level, understand a system of ethics which condemns someone as evil while simultaneously recognising that there is nothing they or we can do about it. If some people are just inevitably evil then the motivational power of an ethical system is thoroughly undermined.

It's precisely analogous to my favourite argument against god. Some popular religions would have it that not believing in the one true god means you're a bad person. Yet, using every intellectual and emotional capacity available to me, I am not able to believe in god. If god exists, it follows that god built me in this way, and is then hell-bent on punishing me for god's own doing. That cannot be perfection. In fact, that sounds like exactly the kind of fiction a fucked up, guilt-ridden narcissist would create.

All this being said, I have always had a strong moral compass - or more accurately a strong emotional reaction to unfairness and contradiction, and this has been hard to integrate with my philosophical beliefs.

One way to cash out on this is to be thoroughly emotivist. To accept that my strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness are merely preferences which carry no more authority than my preference for vanilla over chocolate. This perspective, however, carries some unfortunate side effects. It renders moral behaviour meaningless. It means there is no meaningful moral discussion to be had, no social progress to be made, just changing tastes. Most importantly, it means I have no reason not to screw you over if I think it will benefit me in totality. It means we are all pretending to be moral, while really looking out for ourselves.

Where can we possibly go from here?

This is my suggestion (and certainly not mine originally). It's a form of compatibilism between authoritative morality and a scientific understanding of the world which denies the possibility of an actual moral authority. Here we go.

I suggested above that an essential ramification of moral relativism was a selfish, individualist perspective. This was a lie, but a lie I tried to internalise for over a decade. It's a natural enough assumption, in our particular culture. If there isn't a set of rules telling me I ought or must treat people with a certain moral respect then why on earth would I choose to do so? If everyone thought like me, wouldn't society collapse?

We live in a world which functions on the myth of individualism. We are told from day one that we are in competition with others, for jobs, for relationships, for money, for happiness. We are sold products which turn entirely around making the individual more attractive, more intelligent, more successful. We HAVE to be out for ourselves, because no one else will be.

The joke is that individualism relies on non-individualistic beliefs. The lure of professional success is nothing without the social recognition which comes with it. Looking good is worthless unless something good comes to you because of it. Money is only worth what other people will give you for it. Yet we're encouraged to ignore these facts; to pretend that money is worthwhile in itself, that 'success' will make us happy, that conforming to cultural beauty norms is any less arbitrary than conforming to local linguistic norms.

I always prided myself on being able to step out of these cultural dogmas, but I was wrong - they coloured most of my life in ways I am only just recognising. Most relevantly, they coloured how I interpreted moral relativism.

I grew up (like a lot of my readers) in an environment where the pervasive existential narrative is a scientific and economic one. Humans are understood as essentially selfish. The world is understood as essentially meaningless. Life is understood as a struggle to beat the competition. Against this backdrop, I assumed that in the absence of moral authority, it was my obligation to get the most for myself.

This perspective is false, but self-sustaining. If you understand the world in this way, and you discover that there is no moral authority, then of course you will go out and be a dick to people. You will say to yourself, "Wow, how fantastic, finally I can be myself, do whatever I want, free from authority," and then you will go out and treat people like objects.

But it may just be that you do that, and then realise that that didn't make you happy either. You may do it and realise that actually you weren't being selfish at all, you were still letting someone else tell you what to do, you just didn't realise it - because you were letting your environment define you as this machine that doesn't care about others except in so far as they help you out.

You may realise that being TRULY selfish would mean abandoning that pervasive conception of what a person is, and what the point of life is, and opening up to the fact that we are all in this together. That we are all one. You may realise that in the absence of authoritative morality and purpose rather than having no direction, you are free to choose for yourself. And you may realise that if you can choose from an infinite set of possibilities, it will be much more fun to choose something that is not dickish.

So this is how I now render compatible my logical scepticism of authoritative morality with my strong moral conviction. My morality is not authoratative in the way many moral philosophers would prefer that it was. I will never tell anyone they are a bad person, I will never eliminate them from consideration for a relationship of some kind because of something they've done in the past. I will not guilt myself out for things that I have done in the past.

But at the same time, I will not accept that my moral intuitions are mere preferences, like vanilla over chocolate. Moral intuitions are the result of a complex series of reasoning which draws on verifiable facts about the world. While it's not the case that there is any one correct moral system, it is the case that there are huge overlaps between us in what makes our lives good, and that these overlaps are not a zero sum game. What makes life good is not money or things, but people and relationships - be they close to us, or increasingly in the modern world, far away. We can talk meaningfully about how we can behave to maximise our chances, and we can agree to sets of rules which work towards these goals.

But most importantly, if you decide the rules aren't up to scratch, I support wholeheartedly you efforts to disobey and change them.