07 January 2009

The Nature of Morality

The Objectivist
Morality is Not Objective
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 5, 2008

A widely held view is that morality is objective. On this view, moral questions (for example, is genocide wrong?) have right answers. Despite the centrality of this view to the way in which we see the world, it is probably false.

In general, there are two types of objective facts. One type involves a relation between concepts. Examples include mathematical truths (for example, 2 + 3 = 5) and definitional truths (for example, triangles have three sides). These facts are discovered by abstract reasoning or by grasping self-evident truths. A second type involves objects having certain properties. Examples include the fact that whales are mammals and the fact that the speed of sound is 767.58 mph. These facts are discovered by observing what goes on in the world and are what science focuses on. Moral ideas do not fit into either category.

Morality does not involve a mere relation between concepts. Consider M.I.T. professor Judith Jarvis Thomson’s example about George. George is on a footbridge over the trolley tracks. He knows trolleys, and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control. On the track back of the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. George knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control trolley is to drop a very heavy weight into its path. But the only available, sufficiently heavy weight is a fat man, also watching the trolley from the footbridge. George can shove the fat man onto the track in the path of the trolley, killing the fat man; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die.

There are two traditions that address what George should do. On one tradition, the ends do not always justify the means. On this tradition, George should not push the fat man because it is wrong to sacrifice one for the benefit of others, even when doing so brings about the best outcome. On a different tradition, we should judge an action by its consequences. On this tradition, George should push the fat man because doing so will allow more people to live. Most people report thinking that George should not push the fat man and thus have intuitions that support the first tradition.

In other cases, however, people report having intuitions that support the second tradition. Consider the following Thomson example. Edward is the driver of a trolley, whose brakes have just failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Edward can turn the trolley onto it. Unfortunately there is one person on the right-hand track. Edward can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, killing the five. Here most people report thinking that Edward should turn the trolley and are thus sympathetic to the second tradition.

The general point is that the right answer is not something that we can discover through abstract reasoning similar to how we solve math problems. Nor can we arrive at the answer by considering the definitions of the relevant terms (for example, the definition of “right,” “wrong,” and “killing”). Hence, moral ideas are not facts that involve relations between concepts. On a side note, the two trolley cases are similar, so if Edward should turn the trolley then George should push the fat man.

Moral facts are also not discovered through observations about the world. When we consider the heart of morality it involves a few central notions. First, morality involves reciprocity. Examples of reciprocity involve benefiting those who benefit us and harming those who harm us. This notion is common in the Old Testament. Second, certain sexual acts are wrong. For example, incest is wrong. Third, we have special duties to family and friends. For example, a son has a duty not to let his mother or daughter starve but has no similarly strong duty to save Sudanese women and girls.

The fact that human beings hold these ideas and frequently act on them is best explained by evolution rather than the ideas being true. These ideas are found in all human cultures. They are also found in apes, our closest evolutionary relatives. For example, Emory University primatologist Franz de Waal points out that Chimpanzees, who share 99% of human DNA, behave in ways that indicate that they are concerned about reciprocity. For example, when it comes to coalitions, Chimps help those who helped them and punish those who allied against them. De Waal points out that they act as if they adopt the following beliefs “one good turn deserves another” and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” When it comes to sexual morality, famed primatologist Jane Goodall points out that chimps in general avoid incest. Third, favoring family and fellow group members is extremely common in the ape world. For example, chimpanzees viciously attack chimps who are neither family nor group members and trespass on their territory.

When there is general pattern of behavior or emotions that is universal in human cultures and found in our closest evolutionary relatives, there is good reason to believe that it results from evolution. The notion that our moral ideas come from evolution is strengthened when we realize that these behavior patterns increase reproductive fitness, that is, increase an individual’s ability to put his genes into future generations. This notion lies at the heart of evolution. Reciprocity helps an individual survive and reproduce in a social setting, sexual ethics help increase the production of healthy and fertile offspring, and favoring kin helps to increase relatives’ reproductive success. The notion that these moral ideas are true plays no role in explaining why human beings and apes accept and act on them.

If this is correct, then human morality is nothing more than a set of beliefs and emotions that have resulted from evolution. They are not true and, instead, are similar to other genetically caused beliefs such as the one that fashion models are better looking than female gorillas. This result is disturbing because it suggests that slavery, genocide, and incest are not really wrong. Science sometimes changes our worldview in ways that are highly disturbing.


The Objectivist said...

Note that it is unlikely that intuitions about particular cases (e.g., Jones should not torture a child just for fun) because this only works when the different normative ethical theories align. But when we look at intuitions that explain why such acts are wrong our intutions are no longer self-evident.

The Objectivist said...

I think that the best theory of truth-values for moral statements suggests they are false.

For example, "abortion is wrong" is false. This is because it asserts the following.

(1) There is a property of wrongness.
(2) Abortion exemplifies this property.

Because (1) is false and this is a conjunction, the statement is false.

For the same reason, "abortion is permissible" is also false.

The Objectivist said...

Similar reasoning suggests that aesthetic judgments (for example, women with symmetrical breasts and eyes are more attractive than ones without these features) are also false.

The Objectivist said...
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