Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Bad Theories, Good People

Having a bad moral theory does not make somebody a bad person.

In other words, there are a lot of people who, in trying to understand morality, adopt some odd moral theories. Moral nihilism, subjectivism, act-utilitarianism, relativism, Ayn-Rand objectivism, Christianity, Islam . . . all of these are incorrect moral theories. They are mistaken, in some way, about the nature of right and wrong, good and evil. However, the person who adopts them is not necessarily a bad person.

This is because morality (and immorality) is grounded in our sentiments – our desires and aversions – and not in our beliefs.

I don’t think you could even find a real act-utilitarian. A real act-utilitarian would have to have only one desire – a desire to maximize utility. If the agent had any other desire – even so much as an aversion to pain, a concern for her own children, a preference for butterscotch over chocolate – if she had any other desire at all, then there would be circumstances where she would fail to do the act-utilitarian. There would be some set of circumstances where the desire to maximize happiness would be nearly balanced between two near equal options, and the aversion to pain or preference for butterscotch will tilt the balance in favor of the side with the lower overall utility.

And people with only one desire – a desire to maximize happiness – do not exist. The act-utilitarian (regardless of her devotion to this moral theory) is constantly acting on a whole set of desires – including her aversion to her won pain, culturally provided aversions to lying and breaking promises, desires to repay debts, aversions to killing the innocent, affection for friends and family members, and a whole host of other interests constantly pulling them away from performing the act-utilitarian best act.

There isn't a Christian who reliably follows the Bible. Indeed, any who did would be in jail. And few people (though not few enough) who profess the selfishness ideology of Ayn Rand are genuinely selfish.

The same is true of the moral subjectivist, the moral relativist, and the moral nihilist. No matter what they claim to be true about morality, their behavior is still governed by these innate and socially constructed preferences, motivating them to tell the truth, repay debts, to refrain from taking the property that belongs to others without their consent, against murder, and against rape.

We see the same among people who claim to get their morality from scripture. They claim that their morality comes from god as expressed in whatever book they use for scripture. However, when you watch their behavior, you see them counting as “wrong” things that scripture does not prohibit, and refusing to follow commands found in scripture we have since learned to be wrong. They either reinterpret scripture so that it fits the moral facts, or simply ignore it and focus only on the parts that seem right.

This is not to say that bad theories are harmless.

Bad theories are harmful in several ways.

First, we acquire (through culture) a desire to do that which is right and an aversion to do that which is wrong. A false belief that X is right (when it is in fact wrong) motivates people to do X – to do that which is in fact wrong. False beliefs about the permissibility of slavery provide an example.

Second, bad theories serve to motivate praise for that which the theory says is right and condemnation of that which the theory says is wrong. This praise and condemnation, in turn, acts on the sentiments. This praise and condemnation brings about desires and aversions that people with an understanding of the facts (unhindered by the bad theory) would realize they have no good reason to promote. The bad theory causes them to praise what they should condemn, and to condemn what they should praise. When this praise and condemnation acts on the reward system, it produces effects that people generally have reason to avoid.

Third, not only does a bad theory motivate praise for things that are bad, it sometimes causes people to refrain from praising things that are good. An Ayn Rand Objectivist fails to motivate the praise of charity and kindness that helps people to survive and get along in the world when fortune turns against them.

So, bad theories are not harmless. There are reasons to try to get the moral theory right.

I have often used the analogy of riding a bike. Many people who can ride a bike - and do so quite well - cannot accurately explain what it is they do when they ride a bike. They think they keep their balance by shifting their weight back and forth. In fact, they keep their balance by turning the front wheel slightly and allowing momentum to carry them back and forth over the center of gravity. The fact that they have a bad theory does not prevent them from being a good bike rider. Similarly, a person with a bad moral theory might - just might - do a very good job of identifying and promoting good desires, have those desires that a people generally have reasons to promote, and lack desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

Any direct inference from, "Your moral theory is mistaken," to "You are evil and worthy of condemnation because you have the moral facts wrong," is not necessarily valid.

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