What do you want from a moral theory?
A member of the studio wrote to say:
I would want it to inspire me, to convince me to change my ways. I want it to go towards guiding my life . . . . That’s why we study moral theories, to become better people, to do better.
The inspire and convince standard of moral theories strikes me as being somewhat problematic.
If we look at the things in human history that have had the power to ‘inspire and convince’, they have not had a particularly stellar track records.
The 9/11 hijackers were inspired and convinced. So were a great many followers of Hitler. Stalin did an excellent job of inspiring and convincing people and religious wars in Europe at one time inspired and convinced people to lock up whole villages of people in the town church and set it on fire.
Many of the proponents of Proposition 8 in California acted on a deep sense of inspiration and were convinced beyond all possible doubt that they were the 'better people' and were 'doing better'. It is also true of the members of Operation Rescue and those who are trying intently to get intelligent design taught as a scientific theory. These people are as inspired and convinced as it is possible for person to become.
I am not saying that people who seek to be inspired and convinced in this sense are necessarily going to take part in these types of atrocities. What I am saying that the capacity of an idea to inspire and convince people is not a reliable measure of its quality. The search for something to inspire and convince us is not necessarily the same as the search for something to help us actually become better people and to do better.
Not only is it the case that people seeking to be inspired and convinced often get caught up in movements that perform the most horrendous evils, many well-supported truths lack the capacity to inspire and convince.
Look at the huge numbers of people who are exposed to the theory of evolution, and yet fail to be inspired and convinced by it. In fact, they are more strongly inspired by and convinced of ideas that deny evolution than they are by evolution itself. Clearly, the value of the theory of evolution is not be found in its capacity to inspire and convince. It is found in its ability to predict and explain.
When I went looking for a moral theory, I did not take that journey with an eye to measuring theories according to a desire to be inspired and convinced. I went looking for a theory that followed the basic principles of reason.
I went looking for a theory without exotic entities. Whenever a theory started talking about God, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, a natural moral law, social contracts, impartial observers, decision-makers behind a veil of ignorance, my first question was, "Is it real?" If the answer was, "No," then my next move was, "Throw it out."
This got me into trouble when I ran into the so-called is-ought distinction; the idea that there are two realms of being, an is realm and an ought realm, that are independent of each other with the power to interact. If this is what ought requires then I am ready to toss it out as well. I will stick solely with what is.
Yet, even doing this, the phenomenon of pain, the desire for sex and to eat, an interest in having a room at a comfortable temperature, my interest in my wife’s happiness and my desire to say or do something that will make the world better than it would have been if I had not existed – all of those things clearly exist in the world of is.
There is no sense to the idea that we would have none of those things unless a separate realm of ought exists to infuse the world of is with value. Things have value because of the way the world is, or they have no value at all.
None of these goods requires a search for that which has the capacity to inspire and convince. We could speak in a sense, I suppose, of the power of fire to inspire and convince me to keep my hands out of a hot flame. Of course, this happens in the same way that a sight of a homosexual couple might inspire and convince somebody to contribute great amounts of effort to a Constitutional amendment to allow gay marriage.
The only thing that has the power to inspire and convince us in this sense are things that we personally like and dislike. Which is why the standard of inspire and convince so often ends up inspiring and convincing people to do horrendous evil.
Ultimately, this is what the inspire and convince crowd is looking for. They wish to discover a set of ideas that tickle the pleasure centers of the brain in the right way – something that, like a narcotic, makes them feel good.
Unfortunately, one of the things that tends to make humans feel good is membership in a tribe or a gang who adopts the attitude, "We are the only people who truly matter – and all others are beneath us." This is a message with a huge capacity to inspire and convince - with a historic track record of inspiring and convincing people to do horrendous things to those deemed beneath us.
This explains why the standard of inspire and convince has been associated with so much evil in the past, predicts that it will put us at risk of so much evil in the future, and gives us practical-ought reason to promote an aversion to this particular standard.