Friday, May 08, 2009

Moral Luck and Moral Sense

Some of the points that I have made recently against moral luck (the idea that a person can be held to be praiseworthy or blameworthy based on events entirely outside of his control) apply more generally to moral sense theories as well.

I use the term "moral sense theory" to refer to those theories that claim that we have evolved a “sense” of right and wrong – that we can judge moral merit by asking ourselves how we feel about things. These feelings, in turn, could either be attributed to a deity of some sort (who wrote this moral code into our brain), or to evolution (where we evolved a sense of right and wrong as an aid to survival).

I suggested that primitive humans might well have evolved a disposition to strike back at others based on harms done rather than harms intended (which, in turn, is an important step to knowing what desires an agent does and does not have). This is because "harms done" is a good approximation of "harms intended." While it makes more sense to strike back against harms intended, primitive minds cannot always do what makes the most sense. They have to develop rules that are "good enough" to efficiently get the job done. Holding people responsible for harms done is one of those “good enough” rules for primitive minds.

Since those early days, we have written this acquired desire into our moral code. It is embodied in the principle, “a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, and a life for a life.” This is as close as one can get to the primitive idea that a person is to be held morally responsible for harms done rather than harms intended.

An evolutionist atheist can counter the idea that morality came from God by explaining how this same moral sense evolved. We do not have to postulate a supernatural entity who wrote this code onto our soul at the time humans were designed. We can argue instead that evolution favored those individuals who were disposed to hold others responsible for harms done. This had the effect of efficiently molding the desires of others so as to create aversions to that which cause harm and desires for that which fulfills the desires of others – particularly where primitive animal minds have evolved.

Yet, there is still a sharp distinction between what we sense to be right and wrong, and what is right and wrong in fact.

“Morality” as the moral sense theorists conceive it is simply a make-believe story that gives the illusion of legitimacy to acting on our own desires. We discover that we wish to do something. We go from this to the claim that God or evolution wrote a moral sense into our brains. This moral sense, not by coincidence, happens to correspond to what we desire, so we can act on our desires without guilt.

All we have to do is ignore the fact that the question, "What do we desire," is a separate and distinct question from asking, "What should we desire?"

Now that we have a greater ability to distinguish harms intended from harms caused (and with the knowledge we now have of the ways in which we can “give people a reason” to tend to act in ways that benefit others and to avoid acting in ways that do others harm, can abandon this primitive sense as a moral half-truth; as an evolved rule of thumb that should now be replaced with more precise rules of fact.

Moral sense theories – whether attributed to God or nature – that continue to give the illusion of legitimacy to “eye for an eye” retributivist claims, simply get in the way. It is not the case that we can determine right and wrong by looking inside our own hearts. When we do so, we do not find a mysterious cosmic moral order that we have somehow evolved a connection to through divine intervention or evolved dispositions. The only thing we find are our own desires.

It may be tempting to think that God or nature has given us moral permission to act on those desires – that they represent a moral sense. It is not always the case that what we are tempted to believe corresponds to the truth.


Anonymous said...
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Luke said...

Could you post some quick thoughts on rationality and practical rationality and their relation to ethical thought? Contemporary ethicists are absolutely obsessed with these topics, and it seems to be because they are trying to pull the rabbit of moral realism from the hat of some kind of rationality, or they try to base moral realism on the actions that a hypothetical rational and fully informed agent would perform. But this seems unnecessary to me. Why bother proposing a hypothetical rational and fully informed agent when you can just say that what is moral is what actually DOES tend to... fulfill the most desires or whatever. (Many of these ethicists defend a desire-based theory of morality, though not desire utilitarianism in particular.)