Ask a Philosopher, Part One: What are Morals?

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Ask a Philosopher, Part One: What are Morals?

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philsopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He kindly agreed to allow me to pester him with misspelled, sophomoric questions. This week, I delved clumsily into the origins of morality itself.

PMF: Hello Mr. Johnson! Thank you allowing to me ask a philosopher. Here goes. Veganism, as opposed to a vegan diet, is a fundamentally moral practice. In other words it’s something that we do because it’s ‘right’, or because not doing it would be ‘wrong’. Often the initial impulse to behave morally is emotional: something feels right or wrong, even if we don’t exactly know why.

Clearly we, as a species, don’t agree on the status of non-human animals or how we should behave toward them. Where, then, do our morals come from? Do we make them up on an individual basis, or receive them from our society, culture and religions? Is there a more philosophically rigorous reason to think about what morals are and where they come from?


RJ: Firstly, this question explores a lot of really interesting areas; whilst this section is called ‘ask a philosopher’, many of them may not be best answered by philosophy. For instance, where morals come from is something which can be explained via science. We see signs of empathy in other animals, whom we deem cognitively well below ourselves, which supports the theory that morals are - to some degree - evolution’s way of achieving beneficial social cooperation. In human beings we have been able to consciously examine and create improved forms of morality, to protect one another, which has led to improved forms of cooperation and increased chances of survival, etc. When your neighbour doesn’t need violence to survive, you are safer for it.

At this point philosophy does become useful, in the form of logic. It’s irrational, for instance, to claim that because morality exists for evolutionarily selfish reasons, we must therefore take up a Darwinian, selfish view of morality; one in which, perhaps, mentally disabled orphans could be legally murdered. Just because morality does exist of an essentially selfish benefit, it doesn’t mean this should be how we judge the morality of acts. Which is where the previously ‘rational ethicists’ fell down: they believed that morality was a way of getting what you want, in essence, and therefore we should play it as such.

This breed of rationalists (people like the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand) were taking evolutionary truths to an illogical conclusion. They were falling foul of what philosophers know as the ‘is-ought’ problem, that says the way something is can not justify the way something ought to be. Because a pencil is red, for example, does not mean that it should morally be red, it just is red. Similarly, because morality is selfishly formed, doesn’t mean it should continue to be so.

Many philosophers believe that this is-ought paradox means that we can never base morality in rationalism. They believe that because the way something is can not logically decide the way something should be, that morality requires extra and often unfounded assumptions in order to be justified. This is mostly true. Some take this method of assumptions down the intuition line, claiming that our strongest intuitions can tell us what is or is not universally right. But of course anything can be true if you say the truth value of something can be derived from intuitions; religious facts become plausible, as does any concept where one can have a ‘feeling’ or ‘intuition’ about something. Including completely made up concepts (which, in some ways, morality is one of). Similarly, what about evolutionary facts? Lions seem to have a pretty strong intuition about what morality involves, why are they wrong and we are right? Why shouldn’t we be following their more pure, less conscious, application of moral intuition? If intuitions are important, the purer the intuition the better. Never the less, some of the more well known animal rights philosophers (namely Francione) take this route as their preferred theory of moral philosophy.

It will perhaps be no surprise to readers of this site that intuitionist accounts of morality are not often the favoured positions of rationalists. However rationalist AR theorists, like Peter Singer, fair little logically better. As a utilitarian, his position is similarly meta-physical in form: he believes that which causes least suffering is the correct moral decision. At face value it certainly seems more sensible, but the devil is in the detail. The is-ought problem, remember, says that we can’t derive moral facts from physical facts. Therefore if pain and pleasure simply are what morality is about…it’s that ‘simply are’ bit of the sentence that needs explaining. Why is morality about pain and pleasure? Why is the moral act that which causes least suffering? It’s just plucked out of thin air. Sure, we each strive to avoid suffering, but that doesn’t mean that we should, or that we should help others to. There’s not a rational connection between those concepts of the way things are and the way they should be.

Of course there is a very simple and effective answer to this problem, though mine (and a growing number of others’) is probably not as exciting as those theorists previously mentioned! It’s this: morality does exist for evolutionary reasons, but so long as we have majority agreement in society that we want a moral code, and about what our basic moral beliefs are, then we can create a consistent, expandable theory of morality that is accountable to reason. This is a social situation in which moral facts can be justifiably extracted. A situation in which an ‘is’ (majority agreement) can allow for an ‘ought’ (consistent moral facts). Certainly not the same kind of facts as usual scientific facts, but they are facts of moral code – which is as close as reality can come to defining moral facts.

We largely already have a moral system like this in society, we just don’t think about it that way. Things become outlawed when it becomes accepted by the majority that we’re acting irrationally by allowing them (all be it often after lots of protest and grievance). We currently often forget that we can and should be improving morality, and thus we forget to progress and we make mistakes, but other than that we already have a reasonably rational form of morality in society. Ironically, what we currently have – which we’ve accrued almost by accident, and without any conscious organisation – is much more rational than the vast majority of theories of professional moral philosophy, which posit and defend the ideas of universal truths based on unjustifiable assumptions.

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philsopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing.
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