I wasn’t going to prolong my interchange with Eric MacDonald about “ways of knowing,” as I think we’ve both made our disagreement clear (and let me emphasize again the affection and respect I have for the man), but I want to make a few points connected with Eric’s latest response to me at at Choice in Dying: “Is there a science of morality?“
As I interpret it, Eric sees that there are indeed “moral truths” that can be discerned through reason and empirical observation (but not through “science”), while I maintain that what we call “moral truths” aren’t really “truths” in any meaningful sense, but guidelines for behavior that either evolved or were socially constructed to meet certain ends.
Eric starts by taking apart a recent post at Rationally Speaking (presaging a book to be called The Moral Arc of Science) in which Michael Shermer defends the view that morality can be grounded through science. Here’s Eric’s take on Shermer’s claim that the conquest of polio is an objective moral good:
Now, no doubt much moral good went into the achievement of the result, but whether the result itself is a moral good we may question. It is a social good, certainly, and the outcome of much moral good by individuals. But the actual reduction of numbers of polio cases from 350,000 to 222 is not, by ordinary measures, what we think of as a moral good. It is a social good which is the outcome of a great deal of hard work and dedication by many people, many of whom were driven by moral considerations.
I would argue that, in the end, what we see as moral goods are really social goods, and we should jettison the notion of morality in favor of understanding what we really mean by saying an act is “moral.”
I further argue that we’ll find that, at bottom, morality consists of a series of behaviors designed to achieve certain social aims—or that evolved largely as a way to promote individual welfare through cooperation of individuals in small ancestral groups. It’s likely that much of our “moral intuition” is based on evolution, and that evolution occurred in circumstances that no longer obtain. Ergo we must reexamine our “intuitive” morality. If we find that any of our evolved “moral” ideas are inimical to society—as, perhaps, is the xenophobic idea that we should treat members of our society better than members of foreign societies—we should get rid of them.
This does not mean that I think that morality is somehow objectively determined through reason and evidence. That’s because one first has to determine what one means by “social goods,” and that is often a matter of preference that can be immune to evidence.
Is abortion immoral? Try deciding that one objectively! But if we first construct the subjective dictum that “It is all right to abort a fetus before birth if that is the mother’s preference” (my own view of the situation), then we can say that abortion is moral. My view rests on the fact that fetuses are not sentient, and therefore have fewer “rights” (indeed, if they have any) than does the mother. But how can one argue objectively about what rights fetuses possess? How can one argue that “if it’s inconvenient for a mother to have an unwanted child, it is not immoral to abort the fetus,” and maintain that this is an objective truth? Against that claim we have all the faithful (and others) who argue, immovably, that a fetus is a potential human being, and thereby has rights. That is not subject to objective adjudication.
As I argued before, we should figure out why we think things are moral, and then adjust our “morality” to see if it meets the goals of having a code of behavior. Is it really bad to torture someone if there’s a 50% probability that that torture will save the lives of many others? That strikes many as innately immoral, but why? Getting us to think about such issues was, I believe, Sam Harris’s goal in writing The Moral Landscape. We shouldn’t automatically defer to our innate feelings of morality, but rather should delve deeper into the reasons things strike us as “moral” or “immoral”.
In the end, that exercise will, I think, result in deep-sixing the idea of morality in favor of, as one reader suggested, characterizing behaviors as “good or bad for society.” Maybe we think it’s bad to torture not because it’s inherently wrong, but because a society in which any torture is permitted would be dysfunctional. That’s something that can, in principle, be subject to empirical study.
And so I think there’s a lot of good in Sam’s neo-utilitarian approach, despite its many problems. (Two of these are deciding how to measure well being and how to adjudicate different forms of well being). What we call “morality” can be put on a scientific footing, but ultimately must rest on subjective judgments about the good and the right. Most of these judgments (indeed, perhaps the vast majority) will, I think, come down to “well being” or “social goods” when examined closely. But subjective judgments cannot produce “moral truths.”
Finally, Eric takes issue with my idea that we should dispense with the idea of moral responsibility:
I would be remiss here, however, if I did not also address one of Jerry’s central concerns, which he expresses in the following terms:
I am starting to think that we should dispense with the idea of “moral” and “immoral” acts for two reasons. The first is because morality is implicitly connected with free choice, that is, with “free will.” If one can’t choose one’s acts freely, that one can’t decide to be “moral” or “immoral.” Rather, as a consequentionalist, I’d replace “morality” with what it really means for most people, “the effects of an act on an individual or society.” Thus an “immoral act” might better be seen as “an act that reduces societal well being.”
In response to this what more can I say than that I disagree with the claim that we can give no sense either to freedom or to moral responsibility? This is a fundamental disagreement which is not susceptible to scientific proof, at least at present, in very much the same way that consciousness is unamenable to scientific explanation. Besides this, defining immorality in terms solely of a reduction to social well-being seems to me inadequate to what we normally mean when we speak of morality, which is as or more important in the context of individual relationships than it is on the scale of whole societies. Indeed, one of the besetting problems of utilitarianism is that it seems unable to deal with the more immediate concerns of individuals, and, indeed, in its classic form, would legitimate actions which most people rightly take to be immoral.
I stand by my claim that, in light of determinism of human behavior (which leads to my rejection of dualistic free will), we should reject the idea of “moral responsibility” and replace it with the simple notion of “responsibility.”
Consider this: a man who kills someone because of a brain tumor that causes aggression (viz., Charles Whitman), is deemed to be not morally responsible. But someone who robs a gas station and kills the cashier is deemed morally responsible. But if neither person has a free choice about their behavior. If both behaviors are the ineluctable results of genes and environments, then why is one person seen as morally responsible and the other not? It’s not that one person could have chosen to act differently while the other couldn’t. Neither could have chosen to act differently. And if you can’t choose freely, if your behaviors are determined, then what sense does the notion of “moral responsibility” make?
Now you might say that we need the concept of moral responsibility as a sort of social glue. I don’t believe that, for I think the simple notion of “responsibility” will suffice. If you’re responsible for something bad, sanctions must be applied, no matter whether you had a real and free choice. Those sanctions are leveled for rehabilitation of the offender, protection of society, and to serve as an example to deter others. The notion of “morality” has nothing to add; indeed; it complicates matters by implying the false idea that offenders could have made a different choice. (I hasten to add that the sanctions applied to the victim of a brain tumor will differ from those applied to someone who kills because he came from a terrible environment and was abused as a child.)
Finally, I want to point out that Eric implicitly admits that there can be no objective standards of morality:
It may be true that moral philosophy does not reach assured conclusions in the way that science does; but it may, for all that, be the nature of the human condition that these things are undecidable in a strict sense, yet, at the same time, be such that the continuing discussion of morality is the way in which morality’s objectivity, as an aspect of our understanding of being human, is maintained. Absolute moral conclusions are probably, simply as absolute, immoral, because morality, given the nature of being human, cannot arrive at absolute principles that are valid for everyone. . .
Well, if absolute moral conclusions are impossible because there are no moral principles “that are valid for everyone,” then how can there be “moral truths”? After all, scientific truths, while always provisional, remain valid for everyone. Antibiotics work irrespective of your ethnicity, nationality, or religion.