What can Provide an Objective Justification for Morality? (and what IS morality?)

Last post I mentioned being away for the period around the weekend – I was at a philosophy conference and got back yesterday. The paper I was presenting was on meta-ethics, and in particular the topic of how moral claims might be objectively valid.

I won’t paste the whole thing up here, and I may not even put a whole summary up here (though if not I’ll try to complete it in other posts). But since it’s a topic I find abidingly interesting, and that has on occasion come up in discussions, I did want to open up some sense of what I’m about.

My starting assumption is that the content of any correct moral system is, boiled down, caring for others in the same way we naturally (though not inevitably) care for ourselves. The basic idea is to look out for the intersts of others as we do for our own, and in particular to refrain from harming them, just as we would try to avoid harm to ourselves.

I certainly don’t think all moral systems ever have fitted this pattern – many have substantial alien parts (purity, obedience, and group loyalty are three prominent values that seem opposed) – though it’s rare to see one that doesn’t incorporate this element among others. But that’s fine – they’re just wrong!

Now, what’s striking is that this sort of care-for-another isn’t restricted to what we would call ‘morality’ – it’s also something that often occurs spontaneously, when we simply learn about or consider other people, and of course something that occurs much more reliably in many sorts of inter-personal relationships.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know that someone is being hurt by our actions, and just don’t care. Sometimes, moreover, we perform that action because it hurts someone, because we are motivated to see them unhappy.

How do these phenomena differ from the moral? One difference is that they usually have more of a ‘feel’ to them – we empathise in a way that makes us cry or smile and which generally seems ’emotional’. But this isn’t actually always the case. Often in relationships, we act to care for someone but don’t ‘feel like it’. We can act as though we empathised, but without actually going through the experience of empathy – not necessarily out of ‘duty’ (in the sense of something ‘moral’) but becaue we value the relationship – we value it, and this motivates us in a constant way, regardless of the temporary variations in our emotions.

So that’s not the difference. The difference, rather, seems to be their particularity – it applies to some people, at some times, but not to everyone. Whereas morality is something that’s supposed to apply universally (at least, might be thought – and I happen to think it does). Relatedly, morality is necessary – we don’t just happen to value some particular thing or person, but we must; it is in some sense obligatory (one might almost say ‘categorical‘).

What we have, then, is two ways of thinking about/relating to other people (I’m lumping indifference, malice, and anything else other than empathy under one heading, for the sake of brevity). And we have the demands of morality, which seem to say: privilege one of these ways of thinking (empathy), and always act as you would if you were relating to them in this way.

And now we wonder, what validates this moral demand? I mean, we are surrounded by people telling us how to act, how to think, how to feel, what to be attracted to, what to be contemptuous of, what to find funny. What’s so special about this claim for universalised empathy?

Well, it might be that some external force somehow ‘backs it up’: God, or the self-subsistent ethical Principles off in Platonic heaven, or even something like ‘evolutionary imperatives’ that didn’t look like it would go in for this kind of activity. But this, if you’ll let me assert major conclusions without further discussion, doesn’t work. Either that backer-up doesn’t actually justify anything, or we have no reason to think it exists.

Another way, though, would be to say that there’s something simply confused or incorrect about any way of relating to other people other than empathy. That is, morality doesn’t give us any real ‘new facts’, it is just the codified expression of what actually follows from the existence of other people – which we habitually forget, lapsing into a false way of thinking. That is, just to say that “person X is miserable” is already to say “how unfortunate, we should do something to cheer them up”, and just to say that “doing action X would leave three people dead” is already to say “action X is terrifying, let’s avoid it at all costs”.

This would be remarkably convenient were it true, but it doesn’t look true, does it? In particular, it looks as though people can quite easily know that X is miserable and care not one whit. The existence of psychopaths is the extreme form of this apparent counter-example. Psychopaths are, after all, apparently devoid of empathy, or concern for morality, but apparently ‘rational’.

So the task that I’ve been taking a stab at is trying to undermine this last claim – that psychopaths are perfectly rational. This involves analysing, and criticising, the way that we habitually think about other people, and in particular trying to show that what looks like a correct factual awareness of some other person (without empathy) is actually something else – a sort of simulacrum, a fake mental construct that’s useful for predicting people’s behaviour but which is actually deeply confused and distorted when properly dissected.

After all, there are lots of ways of thinking we habitually use that don’t actually make sense if we take them as really true. We think of geography in terms of an upright two-dimensional plane marked with blocks of solid colour – but not only is this false if taken literally, it’s not even really coherent – because a two-dimensional plane can’t exist in physical reality as a thing. Everything which exists (and certainly such solid items as continents and islands) are three-dimensional.

Indeed, most of the things we encounter every day are to some extent ‘falsified’ in our thoughts about them (objects are made ‘solid’ and not empty space peppered with occasional atoms, the earth’s surface is treated as flat, etc.) for the simple reason that this is convenient. And suppressing empathy, finding ways to know who’s suffering without ourselves being distressed, etc., is obviously convenient, if we want to be able to have any emotional stability at all, and not just sit on the floor simultaneously laughing for joy and weeping with grief all the time.

What matters in cases like this is that when it makes a difference to our actions, we ‘remember’ that the image we’re using is false and act in accordance with the correct image. I consult a map and find that my desired journey is marked as a 5-centimetre line upwards – but I don’t then jump 5 centimetres in the air, but walk however many kilometres North.

So it might be that our everyday way of relating to other people  – that which diverges from empathy – is actually like that map. ‘Immorality’, then, would amount to something like jumping 5 centimetres in the air: acting as though a convenient way of thinking was a correct way of thinking. And there’s nothing in the least ‘subjective’ or ‘relative’ about that.

Of course I haven’t yet said why the non-empathising view is conceptually confused. I’ve held back both because I want to limit length of post, and because it gets somewhat technical. So I’ll round off here, having just explained where my efforts on this topic are being directed and what my plan is, with a query – does this sound interesting to readers? Are people interested in the more substantive part of how the argument runs? What difficulties would you anticipate, or objections might be urged?

8 Responses to “What can Provide an Objective Justification for Morality? (and what IS morality?)”

  1. Pejar Says:

    I’m certainly interested in where this is going, although I think your attempt is doomed to failure. Such a Kantian approach always seems to boil down to something like the idea that it is irrational to prejudice oneself above others. This just doesn’t work, because *of course* it is rational – one directly experiences what occurs to oneself!

    It seems to me that there are two problems which need to be overcome. The first is explaining how rationality can demand ethical behaviour (and how to square this with the fact that sometimes irrational behaviour is ethical and rational behaviour in unethical). This requires some kind of answer to Hume’s point that rationality finds means to ends, rather than determining ends themselves. The second is explaining how, even if rationality did demand ethical behaviour, this would come close to the form of a moral obligation. We do not normally feel obliged to act rationally just because it is rational: There are usually contingent reasons why it would be a good idea to do so. So how can ‘rational obligations’ be turned into moral obligations?

    As I said, I’m very interested in how you will try to solve these problems.

  2. Abigail Says:

    I have no idea where you’re going with this, but I’m fascinated.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “*of course* it is rational [to value one’s own good above that of others] – one directly experiences what occurs to oneself!”

    Can you explain why this follows? I mean, I’m just wondering if there’s reasoning behind this or if it’s just taken as axiomatic.

    “square this with the fact that sometimes irrational behaviour is ethical and rational behaviour in unethical”

    Is it? It sounds like you have a rich, contentful notion of what counts as ‘rational’ behaviour that you’re deploying here, maybe something like ‘promotes one’s own good’ – whatever ‘one’s own good’ is supposed to mean (which I honestly don’t know).

    “Hume’s point that rationality finds means to ends, rather than determining ends themselves.”

    But now you seem to have an entirely empty notion of rationality, that it implies nothing about ends. Which I again wonder about the backing for (beyond ‘Hume said it’ – after all, Hume’s theory of the mind was pretty atrociously bad, and incapable of really accounting for a lot of pretty basic things, like the difference between holding a belief and considering a belief).

    I know it seems like I’m turning this all around onto you, when you’re not the one making any positive claims, but I am just pointing out that the conception of rationality you seem to have here isn’t automatically justified – it *makes perfect sense* if you start out with it, but that shows nothing. Hume’s radical empiricism, or Spinoza’s radical rationalism, or any number of things, make perfect sense, and seem undeniable, if you’re signed up to it already, but that doesn’t justify it.

    “even if rationality did demand ethical behaviour, this would come close to the form of a moral obligation.”
    That’s a more interesting question, and I’ll admit that I haven’t given it so much thought. I’ve tended to focus on just getting the edifice off the ground by saying ‘look, there are objective reasons why acting this way is the correct way to act’, and less at filling in the gap between how strongly we feel about rationality and about morality. I do think that task can be accomplished, though it may be put off a little until after the other – I guess it seems to me that most of the stuff people usually say about ‘the sanctions of morality’ is correct, *except* that they leave it without ‘grounding’ or ‘justification’, and its that gap that I want to fill.

  4. Mute Fox Says:

    I’m certainly interested to see where you go with this. The question of what constitutes objective, universal morality is one that many people seem fairly satisfied has been figured out; but of course, if the question had been answered to everyone’s satisfaction, we wouldn’t still be here arguing about it. I think that it is a difficult question, but not outside your ability to solve, and I look forward to seeing the more substantive part of this argument.

    I think your starting assumption is correct: “…the content of any correct moral system is, boiled down, caring for others in the same way we naturally (though not inevitably) care for ourselves. The basic idea is to look out for the interests of others as we do for our own, and in particular to refrain from harming them, just as we would try to avoid harm to ourselves.” I would only add the rational motivation for this being true to your assumption (itself an assumption) – which is that humans are social animals and can’t survive without each other…or something along those lines. I’m thinking of Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid.” Your first task now consists of finding evidence to support your assumptions.

    Then you would have to refute the counter-assumptions, such as that irrational behavior can be ethical, and that rational behavior can be unethical. I think that is what you said you were trying to do, anyway: “So the task that I’ve been taking a stab at is trying to undermine this last claim – that psychopaths are perfectly rational. This involves analysing, and criticising, the way that we habitually think about other people, and in particular trying to show that what looks like a correct factual awareness of some other person (without empathy) is actually something else – a sort of simulacrum, a fake mental construct that’s useful for predicting people’s behaviour but which is actually deeply confused and distorted when properly dissected.”

    So you would have to explain *why* certain behavior that appears self-interested and rational (assuming that the two are the same, which is debatable), like that of a psychopath, is in fact a “simulacrum, a fake mental construct.” In other words, you have to explain why certain “rational” behavior is illusory.

    Anyhow, good luck figuring that out. *returns to the hole he dug in the last post*

  5. Pejar Says:

    I don’t think anything that I wrote implies a belief in rationality as anything more than a means to an end. There is a rational (rather than arbitrary) distinction between oneself and others because one will want to achieve one’s own goals (a statement which I accept I regard as axiomatic, if not tautologous). Therefore whatever those goals are, impositions on oneself are going to be viewed negatively while impositions on others will only be if those goals involve them in some way.

    As with some irrational behaviour being ethical and vice versa, I don’t think this is controversial. Mathematics is generally seen as inherently logical. But imagine doing the calculations for the death ray on the Death Star. Here, being rational is probably unethical. Meanwhile, being irrational and sabotaging it (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps because you are being forced to do the calculations) is probably ethical.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “one will want to achieve one’s own goals…Therefore whatever those goals are, impositions on oneself are going to be viewed negatively while impositions on others will only be if those goals involve them in some way.”

    Well, impositions on oneself will be viewed negatively when they impinge on our goals, and impositions on others will be viewed negatively when they impinge on our goals. So far there’s no big difference.

    “imagine doing the calculations for the death ray on the Death Star. Here, being rational is probably unethical.”
    You really think this is a problem? It seems pretty simple to say that it’s rational to correctly work out the right answer (though in an unrelated sense – it’s process that uses reason, which need not mean that it’s an action we have rational grounds to engage in) but immoral to use that answer in the construction of the death star.

  7. Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] What can Provide an Objective Justification for Morality? (and what IS morality?) […]

  8. Awais Aftab Says:

    Very promising work! Feed us more! 😀


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