Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Objective Morality

Is there any such thing as a moral universal? Something which everyone, or at least normal representatives of every human culture, will recognise as being right or wrong? Is there, in short, any fundamental moral system that will serve as a basis for human relations? In behavioural terms, is there anything at all that we all do the same?

What would it mean? Where would it come from? Outside us or inside us? Is it imposed by some form of God, or is it part of our nature, discernible by examining ourselves?

(Regular readers will getting rather tired of seeing the following observation, but I think it needs to be made again, as a preface:)

It should be remembered that even the most primitive, uncontacted, or uninfluenced, hunter-gatherers live, like us, in a conceptual world almost entirely of their own making. Their social behaviour is not instinctive, like that of monkeys, but has been created by them, and by generations of their forebears. This includes all aspects of social interaction, hierarchy, general morality, 'good manners', and sexual practice. All of this is defined, in an almost completely arbitrary way, and hedged about with strictures, taboos, punishments and justifying legends to hide the fact that it has, in the end, no basis in anything but custom. There are almost no underlying constants to be found. Every conceivable aspect or variant of sexual behaviour, in particular, is forbidden somewhere, permitted somewhere else, and compulsory in yet another place.

Possibly the only thing that comes close to be a universal value across cultures is the value of human life, but even this is subject to so many exceptions that it is not ultimately clear whether it is anything more than a reflection of how much each of us values his own life. Societies, and subgroups within those societies, are always willing, even eager, to recognise characteristics which disqualify people from the operation of this supposed moral instinct. Usually this is done by excluding them from the condition of human, as it is neater, and psychologically very easy to accept. Thus there are societies and groups who believe that the unborn, the very old, the sick, the criminal, those who have certain beliefs, live in certain circumstances or support certain political views, earn their living in certain ways, belong to certain organizations, come from certain places, entertain certain aspirations, or that any individual or group, for any reason whatsoever, is excluded from the condition of human and therefore their life is forfeit to the fully human. We all, without exception, distinguish degrees or classes of humanity, and know who we count as human and who we do not.

It appears that every single thing that we hold to be the right or wrong way of doing things comes from some combination of our own experience and the customs that exist around us.

There are instincts we all share, physical things, the instinct for self-preservation, for food and drink, for comfort and warmth. But these cannot serve as the basis for a universal morality, because they are not moral, but physical, and they are personal, not social.

The only instinctive social behaviour which we might all be said to share- all individuals in all societies, tribes, cultures- is the understanding that there is ‘them’ and ‘us’. And as a basis for a universally shared understanding of morality it is not a good place to start.

Individually, one-to-one, many, probably most, people will be saddened or shocked by death, will try to help those in clear and immediate need, will feed the hungry, water the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the sick (as Christ, and others, said we should)*. These reactions are almost certainly instinctive, not socialised. The attitude of a mother to her child is certainly instinctive. But the limits are very narrow, far too narrow to be universal, although it is these things that religions and other social movements try to work with, but they usually fail. (The success of religions and other movements, where they are successful in some sense, may well come not from the harnessing of these instincts but from another couple of instinctive needs- to belong and to understand our life).

None of this means that I don’t believe in right and wrong. I have my own ideas about what I and others should and shouldn’t do, how things should and shouldn’t be, how to judge other people’s motivations, and so on. Some of these ideas are truly my own, most I have inherited, at least in part, from the people around me at different times in my life, and others are a bit of a mess that probably shouldn’t be looked at too closely. But if they are to serve a social purpose, rather than just allowing me to judge my actions and those of others, they need to be socialised, in the sense that I need to negotiate with those I form a society with, to agree criteria to determine how our actions will be guided and judged. This is an extremely complicated process, which usually, in any kind of society, of any size, is achieved largely by imposition.

If there is an objective morality, where would it come from? Is it external or internal? Whether it is imposed from outside, by God, or it is a part of our nature, integral to being human, how can we know what it is? Can it still exist even though there is no agreement on what it is? What use would it be, if imposed from Outside, or what use is there in discussing the concept, if it is impossible to ascertain? We only have our own personal convictions, and we battle among ourselves to impose them on others. What is the point?

Is it even desirable to seek an objective morality, and to establish its universal acceptance? Much of the suffering in human history has been caused deliberately by people who couldn’t get their understanding of morality accepted other than by violence. We clearly cannot know what values are intended to be universal in humanity, and more harm seems to be done by believing that we do know, than by accepting that we don’t and can’t know. Individual morality, a personal understanding of right and wrong, on the other hand, is almost certainly a good thing.**

(By chance, I’ve just come across this quote from Nietzsche: “ of morals are only a sign language of the emotions... ...every system of morals is a... tyranny against nature and also against reason; that is, however, no objection, unless one should decree by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful.”
Like most of what he wrote, this seems to be an off-the-cuff remark [he was having a pop at Kant, who he despised] that he would at other times have disputed, and I’m not suggesting it sheds any light on the question, but it is at least relevant.)

*Love Thy Neighbour just about sums up what a universal morality should be, but is it true to say that it is objective in any way?

**Up to a point it may not matter very much what that code is, as long as we a) try to make our behaviour consistent with our belief, b) accept the consequences of our actions, and c) understand that this code is ours alone.


Vincent said...

I think "objective morality" is somehow a contradiction in terms. And I would answer "no" to your idea of a moral universal, in terms of any detailed unanimity across our species.

Despite this, though, I think we can identify some principles which do apply, even though they produce variations in practice. I will put them in the first person, not because they are peculiar to me, but to express their subjectiveness.

1) I am responsible for my own survival and welfare, but if I am too weak to do it, I hope and expect someone else will aid me.

2) I am responsible for the survival and welfare of other creatures (of my own species or others) so long as there is some bond (blood, neighbourhood, obligation or sentiment) which inspires me to act when appropriate. When the creature concerned is particularly weak or vulnerable, I stretch the normal bond boundaries. For example I may help a kitten descend from a tree, even if I don't like cats, simply because it is cute.

3) On the basis that I can't be expected to care about every creature in the world, I put limits on the effort I make to help others. Those who are distant from me, physically or in some other way, I may ignore. (I might for example be indifferent to the plight of animals in general because I feel no kinship with them.)

4) Those creatures of whom I disapprove will receive no rescue from me. But in general I will make no particular effort to eliminate them.

5) Those who harm or threaten to harm me are my enemies. I owe them nothing. I wish them to be deterred, restrained and punished by the most effective means. So for example I may be an animal-lover but consider rats in the category of vermin, to be killed in the manner which inconveniences me least.

Without even venturing into the deep waters of nature vs nurture, the individual or the group, I would say that all morality is based on the five principles above.

The differences arise entirely from how they are calibrated; I mean, which of the five types applies in a given case.

Summary of the five types of creature:

1) my own self
2) my nearest and dearest
3) those who are too distant from me to worry about
4) objects of my disapproval who I don't see as endangering me personally
5) those who threaten my life or welfare.

Another thing to be calibrated would be the range of actions considered appropriate to deal with types 4 and 5.

CIngram said...

I had got as far as concluding that I cannot conceive of any objective morality, nor of any universal agreement on what moral principles we should recognise (whether they originate within us or outside us), and that one of the reasons we will never agree is that 'I am more important than you', if I may so summarize your typology. I hadn't gone into such detail, but I broadly agree with your categories.

It should also be stressed that this difference in how we perceive categories of creature, and thus how we determine our behaviour towards them, is both natural and right. Any attempt to create a shared morality which ignores this fact is going to fail.