Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Perceiving Moral Prescriptions

Ken, over at "Open Parachute" says that we experience moral prescriptions.

(See: Open Parachute: Philosophical Justifications for Morality")

This is false.

The claim that we experience moral prescriptions is like the claim some people make that they experience God. the experiences are real enough, but the assertion that one is experiencing God or a moral prescription goes far outside the bounds of that experience.

I have told this story before of collecting signatures on a ballot initiative when I encountered a man who strongly opposed interracial marriage. We were standing in front of a grocery store when an interracial couple came out. That man could tell, just by looking at this couple, that this was wrong. He would say that he was experiencing a moral prescription. I would say that he was experiencing a learned prejudice.

How was it that the moral prescription against slavery was hidden from our sight for so many millennium? And the prescription that women be given the right to vote?

Now, Ken makes an odd comment about animal morality that suggests that he is applying the term "morality" to all causes of behavior.

Consider also the very different “moral” behaviours of different species. The females of some insects will kill and eat the male after coitus – our species doesn’t. Doesn’t this suggest that morality is at least species specific, perhaps not objective. Perhaps more to do with the actual organism or group of organisms.

This is an odd use of the term "morality" and deserves to be put in quotes. It is unlikely that these insects are experiencing anything remotely like a sense of obligation, guilt, pride, and shame. Using the term "morality" in this sense would be like using the term "cat" to refer to all mammals.

This shift in terms is bound to create confusion when used among people who are accustomed to using the term in its more restricted sense.

The former would feel justified in saying that some cats lay eggs. While those using the term in its more conventional sense would think that such a claim is absurd.

Indeed, if this is how Ken is using the term morality, then it would explain quite well why I view his claims to be absurdly false. What he calls "morality", I simply call "behavior". "Morality" refers to a subset of behavior focused on features such as guilt, shame, praise, condemnation, what agents "deserve", rights, responsibilities, duties, and obligations.

I have a taste for chocolate. This has a biological and cultural explanation. But I do not eat chocolate out of a sense of duty - I just like the taste. Applying moral terms to my choice of snacks is, at best, odd.

The popularity of interpreting a perception as being a perception of a moral prescription does not make it true - any more than interpreting a perception as being a perception of God proves that God exists.

Proofs of this type tend to be very easy. I can prove that the time from the formation of the Earth to the rise of humans took less than 6 days and that this has been verified by empirical scientific testing. First, I will define "day" to mean "1 billion orbits around the parent star". Now, the proof that the Earth was created in less than 6 days becomes easy, since scientific evidence puts its creation at less than 6 billion years ago.

Certainly, our behavior is caused, and science can investigate those causes. However, I would deny that scientists studying the causes of behavior are saying anything at all about morality as the term is understood. And while we may have the ability to perceive, in some sense, the causes of behavior, this is quite far from claiming that we have an ability to perceive moral prescriptions as the term is commonly understood. If we look at the more common understanding of the term, it is still the case that no person has ever perceived a moral prescription.

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