Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Origin of Ethics

On Wednesday, my good friend Peter Hurford wrote a short post on his excellent blog titled "Questions for Moral Realists." In this post, Hurford asserts that there are three categories of moral realism, with each category assuming the last. The first category, "success theory," holds that moral statements point towards a real moral standard. Success theorists who believe that there is only one "true" moral standard fall into the second category: "unitary theory." And the unitary theorist who argues that the one true moral standard is the only path for a rational human being partakes in the third category, "absolutism theory."

As someone who sympathizes with claims of moral realism, I decided it would be valuable to shed my perspective on this discussion. In particular, I will try to answer Hurford's three questions from his post:

(1) Why is there only one particular morality?

(2) Where does morality come from?

(3) Why should we care about morality?

I will begin with (3). Ethics is the science of choice. The fundamental question of ethics is "what should one do?" This is what grounds ethics as both the most practical and also the most fundamental philosophical field. While Descartes saw "do I exist?" as the fundamental philosophical question, the question that precedes his epistemological foundation is "should I concern myself with existence?"

The skeptic could take a step backwards and say "do I not need to know if I exist in order to ask myself what I should do in the first place?" One can see how the reasoning can get circular at this point. So the question that presents itself after this is "which is a more important question for me to consider, 'what should I do?' or 'do I exist?'" I tend to think that the pragmatic method needs to be turned to here.  I can go on for years worrying about my own existence, but if I do in fact exist then that is time wasted and if I don't exist then there was not much to gain from discovering such a fact in the first place.

In short, my answer to (3) is that morality is something that we have to concern ourselves with first if we are to take part in our lives as human beings.

I will now backtrack to hit (1) and (2). Since I am now asking the question "what should I do?" The question of who "I" am becomes essential. Ruling out metaphysically interesting but practically irrelevant "brain in the vat" theories, I am fairly certain to say that I am a man, but that I am also different from other men. So the question arises: what do I owe to that of myself that is like others and what do I owe to that of myself that is unlike others?

When I think of how I am like other men, a lot of things come to mind. I share 99.9% of the genetic code of all other men. I need to eat, drink water, stay healthy, and I have a desire to flourish. This last piece is probably the most important of them all.

While I may like different sports and spend my free time differently than others, I share that desire to make my life worthwhile. While I was strongly resistant to this strand of moral philosophy until less than a year ago, I find it hard to deny that morality has an evolutionary basis.

If there is anything that has given human beings the ability to persist as a species, it is our complex system of collaboration. The ability of language and our capacity to develop society and hierarchy has given us a leg up on evolutionary competition that expanded the species from 2,000 individuals in western Africa to over 7 billion people across the world. This has occurred because human beings have rules that allow them to collaborate with one another and to respect one another within cultural systems. The ability to work together through problem solving to hunt, to specialize between architects, engineers, managers, and electricians to build a house, to replicate a system of agriculture from Europe in America, these are the social tools that have fueled our survival, and they are built on an evolved sense of duty, respect, and collaboration. Thus, this is my answer to (2): morality is an evolved concept that occurs within a species.

The reason I think this does not qualify as a case of the Is-Ought Fallacy will also provide an answer to (1). The question "What should I do?" has a specifically transcendental nature to it. This is because no one can ask the question "what should I do?" besides a human being, so who we are has a necessary bearing on what we should do. This is why Nussbaum's capabilities approach makes so much sense. As a human being, I have certain human needs. Those provide a constraint on my menu of actions that can allow me to flourish.

As for the categories of realism listed above, I would have to say that the above take on the origins and nature of morality take part in all three: success, unitary, and absolutism. Morality is a real concept that applies to all human beings and are a rational end to human flourishing. Is it a real concept outside of human existence? No. Does that fact have any bearing on that fundamental question "what should I do?" The answer to this is also "no."  Morality is not "absolute" in a way that transcends humanity, but man cannot transcend humanity, and therefore morality is practically absolute. And in the realm of practice, that is the only thing that matters.

1 comment:

  1. Given your theory on morality being a feature of evolution (if I understand that correctly), then I think this would be the one break in the "Prisoners' Paradox". In no way, does acting morally give the individual a leg up in the genetic rat race, so if morality is to thank for our continued existence, then (maybe subconsciously) people have been acting in the best interest of the whole without a guarantee of personal benefit.

    That would be a pretty substantial counter-example to a paradox. Interesting read.