Personally, I’ve been doing a little soul searching, trying to see how my life so far measures up with what I wanted my life to be. Of course, I found no soul. But that does not affect the measure of my life so far.
This blog . . . as long-time readers already know . . . represents my attempt to make good on an oath that I gave to myself when I was 16 years old to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been if I had not lived. Of course, I needed to know what ‘better’ was if I was going to actually fulfill this goal. I took the attitude, when I was 16 years old, that I honestly did not know. I was hearing different people making different claims, all of them perfectly certain that they were right and everybody who disagreed with them was wrong, and I absolutely did not know which to pick.
When I thought of the certainty that others expressed I thought that this was the greatest hypocrisy. “How could you be so certain of being right – certain to the degree that you are willing to impose huge costs on others – when there are people out there who are as smart as you are saying that you are wrong?”
In fact, it did not take me long to realize that one way to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been would be to do something against this arrogance.
I learned that one of the things that people do to get themselves into this mindset was to trust their feelings. They did not look at the arguments – at the reasons for adopting one view over another. Instead, they would hold a proposition in their mind and judge how it caused them to feel. If they liked the feel of an idea, then they asserted that it was true, and so absolutely true that it justified whatever harms might be inflicted on others as a result of promoting that belief.
I never trusted my feelings. I always thought that feelings were the prejudices and bigotries that I was raised with, and were never to be given any weight unless I could put a solid foundation of reason underneath them.
It was easy to see why a person should not trust their feelings. Every atrocity committed in human history was committed by people who made themselves comfortable with their crimes. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the slave owners in the American south felt perfectly comfortable with the idea of owning slaves. The inquisitors and crusaders of Europe were of a mindset that they had trouble not sleeping if they were to spare the life of an infidel or a Muslim. The every-day crimes that I see around me, from the person who abuses a child to those who view homosexuality as the biggest threat America faces, are all perfectly comfortable with the ‘feel’ of their thoughts and actions.
I see this as reason to distrust feelings, not because these things that others accept ‘feel’ wrong to me. I distrust feelings because I am surrounded by people whose feelings differ, who cannot all be right. The evidence makes it abundantly clear that feelings are not to be trusted.
So, as I sat there in my American History class thinking about making the world a better place, I knew that I could not trust my feelings to tell me what that was. I knew that I could not just grab on to some sort of cause that I liked and start working on promoting it – because I would likely be making a mistake. I decided that I needed to learn a lot more than I already knew before I could make sure that I was actually making the world better.
And still I was surrounded by people who, out of arrogance, presumed that they only need measure how they felt about things to determine that they were fighting on the right side, and that it was safe to ignore everybody who felt that they were wrong.
So the fighting continued.
It seemed that one thing that a person could do in order to make the world a better place was just to deflate some of the arrogance out there – to invite people to ask themselves, “Am I right? Am I so certain that I am right that I am willing to inflict harm on others in the name of my own moral perfection?”
Anyway, while so many people were arrogantly presuming their own moral perfection, I went off to college to study value theory – to try to find out what the reality of ‘better’ actually is.
I learned a lot of 12 years of college. I gave the issues that haunted me a lot of thought to finding out what ‘better’ was, and I ruled out a lot of theories.
I ruled out divine command systems at the start because God does not exist. And even if God did exist, how could we answer the question that what God commanded us to do was better than what God prohibited us from doing?
I ruled out libertarian theories because ‘man qua man’ does not exist, and the theory makes an entirely invalid leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought’.
I ruled out natural rights based theories because advocates of these theories could not tell me what a right is, or how I can find one in nature.
I ruled out non-natural theories because, if value cannot be reduced to something natural (something in the universe that ‘is’) then it makes more sense to say that value does not exist then it does to postulate non-natural entities.
I ruled out act-utilitarian theories because the only way a human can always perform that act that maximizes utility is if a human has only one desire – the desire to maximize utility.
I ruled out rule-utilitarian theories because they collapse into act-utilitarian theories.
I ruled out happiness theories because whenever happiness and truth when different routes, value followed truth, not happiness.
I ruled out subjectivist theories because, if everything is a matter of opinion – if A is just as valid as not-A – then there is no reason to adopt A or not-A and adopting either would be a mistake.
I ruled out emotivist theories because moral statements behave in all instances like propositions.
I ruled out theories that ground morality on genetics because the advocate of genetic morality cannot answer the question, “Is X moral because it is loved by our genes, or is X loved by our genes because it is moral?” If the former, then the most atrocious acts can be moral. And if it is the later, then morality is something outside of our genes.
I ruled out intuitionism because it made more sense to view our intuitions in terms of the prejudices and bigotries we were raised with than some type of supernatural connection to some mysterious moral truth.
Yet, in spite of these flaws, each of these theories have people who latch onto it as tightly as any religion, and who refuse to entertain any objection.
When people latch on to a flawed idea with the tenacity of a religion, and think that their attitudes are so well grounded that it is perfectly legitimate to use that system to advocate harming others in some way, we have (or potentially have) a very serious problem.
So, perhaps, one way to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been would be to simply point out to people the errors in following any of these flawed systems. I do not really need to advance a separate system that I thought was true. It would be enough to simply clear away some of the brush – the garbage ideas that litter the moral landscape – to make some room for ideas that made sense.