Morality as though it really mattered

A large share of the public, and even an outright majority of professional philosophers, claim to be ‘moral realists‘. Presumably, if this means anything, it means that there are objective rules out there that any being ought to follow and doing the ‘right thing’ is about more than just doing what you want.

Whatever surveys say, my impression is that almost nobody acts as though they were actually realists. If you really believed that there were objective rules that we should follow, that would make it crucial to work out what those rules actually were. If you failed to pick the right rules, you could spend your life doing things that were worthless, or maybe even evil. And if those are the rules that everyone necessarily ought to be following, nothing could be worse than failing to follow them. If most acts or consequences are not the best, as seems likely, then the chances of you stumbling on the right ones by chance are very low.

Does this imply that you should spend your entire life studying morality? Not exactly. If you became sufficiently confident about what was good, it would then be more valuable to go out and do that thing, rather than continue studying. On the other hand, it does imply a lot more effort than most people put into this question today. The number of ethicists with a public profile could be counted on one hand. Research on ethics, let alone meta-ethics, is largely ignored by the public and considered of ‘academic interest’, if that. To a realist, nothing could be further from the truth. It is impossible to go about forming other life plans confidently until you have worked out what is morally right!

Simple probing using questions well known to philosophers usually reveals a great deal of apparent inconsistency in people’s positions on moral issues. This has been known for thousands of years, but we are scarcely more consistent now than in the past. If we assume that any of the rules we ought to follow will be consistent with one another, this is a disaster and calls for us to down tools until right and wrong can be clarified. In other cases, popular intutive positions simply do not make sense.

A moral realist should also be trying to spread their bets to account for ‘moral uncertainty‘. Even if you think you have the right moral code, there is always the possibility you are mistaken and in fact a different set of rules are correct. Unless you are extremely confident that the rules you consider most likely, this ought to affect your behaviour. This is easily explained through an example which occurred to me recently concerning the debate over the ‘person-affecting view‘ of morality. According to this view, it would only be good to prevent a catastrophe that caused the extinction of humanity because such a catastrophe would affect people alive now, not because it ensures countless future generations never get to live. People who could exist in the future but don’t are not well-defined, and so do not quality for moral consideration. The case for putting enormous resources into ensuring humanity does not collapse is weaker if future people do not count. But how much weaker? Let’s say the number of (post-)humans we expect to live in the future, in the absence of any collapse, is a modest 1 trillion. The real number is probably much larger. If you thought there were just a 10% chance that people who weren’t alive now did in fact deserve moral consideration, that would still mean collapse prevented the existence of 100 billion future people in ‘expected value’ terms. This still dwarfs the importance of the 7 billion people alive today, and makes the case for focussing on such threats many times more compelling than otherwise. Note that incorporating moral uncertainty is unlikely to make someone stop focussing on collapse risk, because the consequences of being wrong in the other direction aren’t so bad.

This demonstrates that a moral realist with some doubt they have picked the right rules will want to a) hedge their bets b) focus disproportionate attention on plausible rules under which their choices have a bigger potential impact on the desirability of outcomes. This is just the same as uncertainty around matters of fact: we take precautions in case our model of how the world works is wrong, especially those errors under which our preferred choice could lead to a relative disaster. Despite this being a natural and important consideration for all moral realists, moral uncertainty is only talked about by a handful of moral philosophers.

Uncertainty about moral issues is scarcely a fringe concern because the quality of available evidence is so poor. Most moral reasoning, when we dig down, relies on nothing more than the competing intuitions of different people. The vast majority of people I know think the moral intuitions of the billions of people who lived in the past on matters such as racism, gender, sex, torture, slavery, the divine right of monarchs, animal cruelty and so on, were totally wrong. Furthermore, intuitive disagreement on moral questions remains vast today. Without a compelling reason to think our intuitions are better than those of others – and I don’t see one – the chances that we have all the right intuitions is frighteningly low.

I would go further and say there is no obvious reason for our moral intuitions to be tethered to what is really right and wrong full stop. It is almost certain that humans came about through the process of evolution. Evolution will give us the ability to sense the physical world in order to be able to respond to it, survive and reproduce. It will also give us good intuitions about mathematics, insofar as that helps us make predictions about the world around us, survive and reproduce. But why should natural selection provide us with instinctive knowledge of objective moral rules? There is no necessary reason for such knowledge to help a creature survive – indeed, most popular moral theories are likely to do the opposite. For this reason our intuitions, even where they agree, are probably uninformative.

I think this shows that most people who profess moral realism are in fact not. This is yet another obvious example of human hypocrisy. Professing objective morality is instrumentally useful for individuals and societies, and our minds can be easily shielded from what this implies. For anyone who actually does want to follow through on a realist position, I can see two options,

  • Hit the books and put more work into doing the right thing.
  • Concede that you have almost no chance of working out what is right and wrong, and could not gain much by trying. Moral skepticism would get you off the hook.

Personally, I would like to think I take doing the right thing seriously, so I am willing to offer a monetary prize of £300 for anyone who can change my mind on a) whether I ought to place a significant probability on moral realism being correct, or b) help me see that I seriously misunderstand what I subjectively value. Such insights would be a bargain!

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