Thursday, January 10, 2013

Moral Philosophy: Helping Bad People Feel Better About Themselves

A lot of moral philosophy appears to be geared toward helping bad people feel better about themselves.

I have written recently about motivational internalism - the doctrine that "to know the good is to do the good." Motivational internalism provides a very efficient way to discard any moral argument supporting a conclusion that a person does not like. He listens to the argument then says, "Well, I don't feel at all motivated to do what you say I ought to do. Therefore, your argument must be flawed."

In fact, people use their motivation or lack of motivation as a test of moral arguments. More to themselves than to others they think, "I don't want to do what this person says I ought to do. Therefore, his argument that I ought to do it must be flawed. Now, where is that flaw?" Finding the flaw often means accepting or rejecting "facts" or fallacies depending on whether they give an illusion of supporting the desired conclusion.

Religious ethics follow the same pattern. There is no god. The morality people find in religion is the morality that the inventors of religion and the interpreters of scripture put into it. That morality, in turn, was or is the morality favored by their sentiments. "I am disgusted by the thought of sex with another man. Therefore, God hates fags and demands that they all be put to death." In this way, a person gives an illusion of legitimacy to their own hatred and bigotry. "Hey, it's not me saying these things. It's God!"

Taking one's own likes and dislikes and assigning them to an alleged perfectly knowledgable and perfectly moral super-being . . . it is hard to imagine a greater conceit.

We are told that scripture provides an objective morality independent of the sentiments of the agent. In fact, scripture provides a vague, ambiguous, incoherent set of directives which are alternatively ignored, emphasized, and reinterpreted to suit the interests of the reader. People appeal to their own sentiments to determine what scripture says. Their interpretation is not at all independent of those sentiments.

Evolutionary ethics is no better. In this case, the agent's sentiments are not justified in virtue of being assigned to a perfectly knowledgable and perfectly moral super-being, but to evolution. "Hundreds of millions of years of evolution has disposed me to disapprove of X. Therefore, anybody who does X deserves to die - or be imprisoned - or forced to submit to my will at the barrel of a gun." Many will disavow this way of expressing their claims. They recognize that the inference is entirely invalid. However, what they reject in theory they accept in practice. " Do you want to understand morality? Then look at your evolved sentiments." Evolution is their substitute for god, their tool for assigning moral legitimacy to their own likes and dislikes.

Nothing fits this model better than common subjectivism. Common subjectivism takes off all of the pretty wrappings and pretend justifications and says, quite simply, that your moral claims are nothing more than your own likes and dislikes. You are taking your sentiments and assigning moral value to them, then seeking to push those sentiments on the rest of the world. There is no real difference between the Nazi, the bigoted racist, or the doctor without borders trying to save sick children in an impoverished country. They just happen to have different sentiments - and no sentiment is actually better than any other. This provides an efficient excuse for the Nazi and the racist bigot to carry on with business as usual. More importantly, it provides a convenient excuse for the lazy liberal to shrug his shoulders and say, "I'm too busy watching Survivor and going to fancy dinner parties with my liberal friends to worry about what is happening elsewhere. The culture that kills women for the crime of talking to a man - well, that's just their culture. Who am I to judge, if I don't want to?"

However, common subjectivism does have an important insight into what it takes to be its chief rival - intrinsic value theory. Claims of intrinsic value actually often do involve an agent taking their likes and dislikes as signs of an important property "out there" - intrinsic to what they like and dislike. I was arguing with a racist once outside of a grocery store when an interracial couple came out - holding hands and laughing. The racist pointed to them and said, "See, that's what I am talking about." I could tell by his tone and body language that he could " feel" the wrongness of this interracial mixing - a wrongness that radiated out of the relationship he condemned and which his moral senses were properly sensitive to. The common subjectivist recognizes that this individual was mistaking his own subjective likes and dislikes as perceptions of intrinsic moral properties.

In fact, divine command theory and evolutionary moral theory are merely playing variations of this same tune. The divine command theorist says, "And this sense was created in me by an all-knowing and perfectly moral super-being, so they are legitimate." the evolutionary theorist says, "And this sentiment comes to me through a long history of evolution, and that gives it legitimacy."

The common subjectivist foregoes these failed accounts of legitimacy and says, "These are your sentiments. Go with them. If they include a sentiment that fags ought to be killed, don't look for justification. Just act on it."

What all of them have in common is a way of saying, "Look to your sentiments. Do what you like and avoid what you dislike and you can think of yourself as a moral saint while doing so."

They are all convenient tools for helping bad people feel better about themselves.

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