Sharp Blue: Moral systems as tools


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One of the deepest and hardest problems in philosophy is the relationship between the “world of values” and the “world of facts”. The latter is the everyday world which can be investigated empirically, for example using the methods of science. In the world of facts the issue of the truth or falsity of statements is if not entirely unproblematic at least fairly tractable. The world of values, where reside, amongst other things, good and evil, is a much more slippery place. The methods we should use to assess such statements as “X is morally good” are far from obvious. In this essay, I will outline my own views on such matters.

One fairly common attitude is that there are “transcendent” truths, which somehow exist beyond the everyday world of objects and facts. However, this is an especially useless position to take if one cares about such practical concerns as how one should act in a given situation. If we’re discussing which things are good and which are evil then believing that there are transcendental truths doesn’t aid our decisions if different people have different positions on what those truths actually are. So far as I can tell people who attempt to anchor their moral systems to transcendental truths are reduced either to an argument from authority (whether that of a priesthood, a holy book, one or more historical figures, or the “general sentiments of society”) or an argument from what makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. At best, I suppose, it’s possible to argue that some of those priesthoods, holy books, historical figures or warm and fuzzy feelings are divinely inspired rather than ultimately reducing just to opinion, but once again we can argue endlessly about exactly which of those things are touched by the ineffable mystery of the transcendental.

If one isn’t willing to anchor one’s morality to guesses about a collection of unknown and unknowable transcendental truths then the obvious alternative is to try to somehow anchor it to the world of facts. In doing so it is very easy to fall into the “naturalistic fallacy”, the belief that what is natural is also good. This is an especially seductive option when one is involved in the scientific study of the nature of the innate moral tendencies possessed by humans, and how that innate morality evolved and so forth. This investigation is clearly a fascinating and worthwhile endeavour and while it’s certainly producing interesting theories about why people tend to hold certain moral beliefs it doesn’t have anything to say about which moral beliefs one ought to hold. The idea that what is morally right reduces to what tends to make genes into more successful replicators might be a coherent position but it seems to me a deeply unsatisfying one. It’s only one step from there to “might makes right”.

However, there’s a third stance that I find much more compelling than either of the two approaches I’ve previously described. Before I outline it, however, I will have to discuss a third “world”: the “world of desires”. This concept is useful as there’s a smaller gulf between the world of desires and the world of facts than between the world of values and the world of facts. Indeed, there may be no gap at all: “Alice acts as if she desires X” is certainly something we can investigate empirically and if that turns out to be true in a wide range of situations and if Alice herself claims it and we have no reason to doubt her then we might as well use the helpful shorthand “Alice desires X”. Desires, goals, needs and preferences are not really so far removed from charges, masses, energies, momenta, entropies and so forth in their ontological status. Furthermore, statements about what people believe are also close to the world of facts. “Alice believes moral assertion X” is, given some assumptions about Alice’s state of mind, very close to “Alice acts as if moral assertion X were true” or more precisely “Alice wants to act as if moral assertion X were true” or, yet more precisely, “Alice acts as if she wants to act as if moral assertion X were true.”

All of which is a longwinded way of saying something obvious: if people hold certain beliefs then this will make them tend to act in certain ways in certain situations. These actions will then tend to make people more or less likely to achieve their goals. If people want to achieve goals, then amongst other things it will be advantageous for them to possess certain moral beliefs that make them more likely to act in ways that tend towards achieving those goals. We can thus view moral systems as tools that one uses - consciously or subconsciously - to shape one’s behaviour to further one’s progress towards one’s goals. A moral system is a set of distilled precepts that serves a little like a set of precomputed values in a computer program: by performing computationally intensive calculations in advance, we have the results available later when response time is more critical. If we use morality as a guide then we don’t have to try to figure out how to act from first principles every single time.It’s not much of a step from there to the idea that people ought to hold moral beliefs that make it more likely that they achieve their goals. Of course, each person has a wide range of goals of varying importance, some of which conflict with each otherm so decisions will necessarily sometimes be difficult even with the best moral guidance. Equally, sometimes morality don’t provide any help in choices between different courses of action, but a tool doesn’t have to be universally applicable for it to be useful.

In my view, there’s even a strong possibility of moral progress: if morality is a type of technology, then it can be studied and improved just as other technologies can be. We can study scientifically - although this is a very difficult problem - the likelihood of various outcomes in populations that adopt certain moral systems and compare those outcomes with the goals and desires of the people in those populations. Some moral systems will have a detrimental effect, some will be neutral, and others will tend towards the achievement of our individual and collective goals. If we take our goals and desires seriously, we should adopt moralities of the latter types. This, then, is what we really ought to be discussing: not whether some moral assetion is true but whether it’s useful to us to act as if it were true.

(The desires which can be addressed need not be purely for material circumstances. Indeed, if one’s goals include achieving a sense of being touched by the numinous, then one can even view religions as tools and then one has a relatively objective if imperfect apparatus for choosing one religion over another.)

(I’m writing this quite late on a Friday night at the end of an especially tiring week, so it’s probably even more than usually unclear if not downright murky. I’ll try to rewrite it for clarity when I’m less tired. But for some reason I woke up this morning wanting to write about these ideas, so I have.)

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