Thursday, March 13, 2008

Reflections on Rejected Moral Theories

Hello, readers.

How’s life?

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.


Anonymous said...

While clearing away the brush is certainly important, I don't think it is even on the same scale as proposing a better solution (such as DU). When someone is convinced that their current view is wrong, they won't simply go into a null-state, they will seek something else to replace it. What they replace it with could be just as bad or worse.

I personally found DU during a period of searching, having rejected the moral theories I'd so far come across, and I am immensly gratefull.

I guess what I'm getting at is that it sounds a bit like you're considering giving up on promoting DU and instead simply clearing away false theories, and I think that would be a tragedy. Not because the clearing doesn't need to be done (it does), but because DU is too important to be abandoned.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I still think that DU works . . . and one of the reasons that I like it is that it avoids the problems with each of these alternative theories.

(1) It postulates no gods

(2) It does not postulate an entity such as 'man qua man' and recognizes that desires (as the only reasons for action that exist) are necessary to bridge the gap between fact (that which exists) and value (that which provides a reason for action).

(3) It does not postulate nature rights, but does postulate rights in terms of states that we have reason to encourage people to protect or desire.

(4) It does not postulate any non-natural entities - it reduces ethics to natural properties; desires (as propositional attitudes), states of affairs, and the relationships between them (the proposition that is the object of a desire is true in the state of affairs that has value).

(5) It does not require that people have only one desire.

(6) It does not collapse into act utilitarianism because desires are rules that cannot be violated, and 'ought' implies 'can' means that there is no 'ought' to do something that violates rules that cannot be violated.

(7) It is based on desire fulfillment (which links value to truth) rather than happiness.

(8) It has no place for a person holding a moral view that there is no reason to hold. Moral positions are defended by appeal to the reasons that exist for holding them.

(9) Moral statements are propositions - they have a truth value, and some of them are true.

(10) Moral value consists on relationships between maleable desires and other desires, so they do not depend on genetics (except insofar as genetics limits the degree to which desires are maleable)

(11) It treats our 'intuitions' as moral 'first guesses', but provides a framework that we can use to test intuitions against. It does not treat intuition as special access to some sort of transcendental moral fact.

Anonymous said...

I've been lurking for ages and really appreciating your careful approach - many thanks. I particularly like the evenhanded way in which you criticise behaviour or beliefs regardless of who holds them.

I think you're a bit hard on feelings in this post though. I think our feelings and emotions are like an additional sense - they give us some very useful information about the world and abour ourselves.

The trouble is that we're not informed consumers of what our feelings tell us - we identify uncritically with the feelings rather than questioning them and challenging them.

I think it's really important to engage with our feelings as well as our rationality. If for no other reason than because, if we don't have time to think about the options, we generally act on emotion. And if the emotions we tend to feel are negative, we're likely to act in a way that does harm.

I think there are some emotions that we have reason to promote in the same way as there are desires that we have reason to promote.