Moral ‘isms’ and relevance

Jimmy asked:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply too? Should we only consider the intuition of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the human. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’re obviously well read and knowledgable about this subject matter. Therefore it occurs to me that half your questions already contain the answer, inviting little more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response. However, you might have considered the anthropological aspect to counteract the overly intellectual preoccupations with morals which incur your displeasure. You are perfectly right in asserting that all arguments about morals are arbitrary, as all reflect the presuppositions at work in any given society for which they are framed. Moreover there is no absolute standard, as the idea of a ‘residual observer’ or independent judge (“God”) is also a matter of mere opinion, given the number of gods that have populated our minds and passed moral legislations over historical times.

However, I have to take issue with your first two sentences, where you throw ethics and morals into the same basket. This is impermissible under your own criteria. Ethics are portable, whereas morals generally refer to a closed society — “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Consider that offence against morals is often severely punishable, while many approved moral practices would find a man of good ethics spewing in disgust. For instance, in some societies, the most brutal institutional murder is/was morally sanctioned (e.g. witch burning, public stoning to death), whereas a doctor has an ethical duty to heal any patient, whoever they might be. This is based on the recognition that human life is dominated by one constant, namely suffering. Ethics tends to be about these constants of humanity, rather than the particulate interests of closed communities. So let us not confuse and commingle morals and ethics!

Bearing this in mind, more credible arguments accrue to anthropological than to philosophically tinged criteria, as the ‘primitive’ behaviour patterns we deprecate in ourselves have never diminished over the 4000+ years that we have talked about morals. For this, there is a short and a long answer. The short version is simple: ‘Morals’ comes from the Latin and means ‘customs’. I don’t need to spell out what they are.; it is sufficient take note of customs, cults, traditions and rituals being bedfellows with morals, whereas ethics take a larger conspectus on desirable social behaviours.

But the longer answer is so long that I have to curtail it into a small handful of sentences and leave the ramification for you to look into on your own initiative. A first approach would have to acknowledge the dilemma that morals are pretty much ingrained in us, as a legacy from our hominid ancestors; but their variety and arbitrariness militates against them ever becoming (as noted) a collective constant in human societies. Instead they are consistently answerable to the particular needs of closed communities. And so the emergence of conscious moral dictates is most likely a reflection of the conditions under which any tribal conglomerate strove to maintain itself against adverse circumstances, whether it is the weather and climate, the resources of the habitat or the hostility of other tribes.. It stands to reason that individualism cannot flourish under such conditions, the two exceptions being the ‘champions’ (as Hobbes calls them) whose prowess lifts them above the common denominator, and the appointees of the gods, who may from time to time announce principles of obedience to the champion’s clan and the gods.

My word ‘ingrained’ is therefore a reminder that we still carry this baggage — predominantly instincts and anthropomorphisms — in our survival kit; and it is plainly in sight of every thinking person that this kit is woefully inadequate, and never more so than in the modern industrialised world.

If you accept my meaning, you might be inclined to disqualify both academic disputation and the divine commandments thesis, since both effectively defend a position of “Do as I say, not as a I do!” Concerning metaphysical beings, we know nothing more about them than what the myths tell us; and the level of morality in those stories is hardly to be commended to humanity as models for our strivings. Can we doubt, then, that we humans never felt a real compulsion to obey their strictures, but on the contrary simply kept up their inhumane practices? I am reminded here of Leibniz’s argument, that God must allow some evil in the world, as otherwise ‘The Good’ cannot be identified as what it is. Does this mean our evil deeds are necessary for us to understand what morality really is? Now this is a typical intellectual position; it’s very presupposition cannot help leading to incoherent arguments and conclusions.

Against this ‘difficult’ position, it can easily be urged that threats to a tribe, community or state from hostile natural as well as human forces demand organisation, which evidently relies on honesty, trust and authority overriding personal self-interest and ambition. This may be called the bedrock of moral behaviour, though it cannot qualify as a constant due to the infinite variety of possible collective perspectives. But now the butcher of any such community may be used to blood and slaughter, yet murder is a different story, and likewise with theft, rape, adultery and so on. Moreover, parents in common with authority figures teach their children about gods and spirits, how they influence the weather, bring disease, or tilt a battle against another tribe. We can easily flesh out this little picture and deduce the origin of moral codes as well as explaining why there are so many. Not to forget that morals under the burning sun would have to differ from those practised in ice-bound habitats. All these and many more comprise criteria for survival, in which morals tend to be joined by the aforesaid customs.

Which only brings us back to your initial questions. There is no possible “best” moral code; all morals are to some extent restricted to time and place (which does not exclude sound reasoning behind them); meanwhile sentience, rationality etc. are prized intuitively by those who feel themselves addressed by those notions. Accordingly your observations on race (to which we must add religion, politics, warfare, trade etc.) show up the morals in question as non sequiturs. At the bottom of them we find fear and self-interest, advantage and privilege, individual as well as societal agency. I think it goes without saying that deontological, utilitarian and other trademark arguments (including nihilism) are creatures of the same ilk, though they may wear other stripes.

Having earlier sounded the word ‘suffering’, however, reminds us of the constant on this horizon. What we all seek is a diminution of suffering; and this means not only illness and disease, but even more so servitude, slavery, injustice, inequality, lovelessness, loneliness, hunger and deprivation, plague and pestilence. Ah! Now we know what all these moral codes purport! We want these ills remedied by the gods; and we want the fiercest enemies we know, other human beings, to be restrained by a superior power. But every such code supposedly originating ‘up there’, beyond the clouds, is on any close scrutiny a hotchpotch of prejudices. Which means nothing other than that laws are made by men, and men are often forgetful of crucial elements. E.g. the commandment “thou shalt not kill” contains no sub-clause for exceptions, so does it mean that we must not kill a flea that bites us, a bison while we’re on the hunt, another human being who threatens us? Conventionally we would claim that self-defence as well as killing for food are implied exceptions, but evidently Moses forgot or ran out of space on his tablets to make an appropriate list. In any case, “laws are made to be broken”, because circumstances change and laws can become obsolete. Meanwhile we are aware of codes in other cultures which take the injunction not to kill literally, even at their own inconvenience.

I think this is pretty much the gist of it and as far as I can go in this forum. A neat summation to end on: “The Thrakians paint their gods with fair hair and blue eyes, while the Ethiopians depict them as dark skinned and snub-nosed.” Thus spake Xenophanes. His point is all too easily transferred to the domain of morals, as I think your own stress on the arbitrariness of all moral injunctions indicates well enough.

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