Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Irrelevance of the Status of Oughts

Philosophy can be a hard slog but moral philosophy is nonetheless something of a must for those of us who wish to combat the constant nihilistic chant "There is no such thing as right and wrong" that comes from the Left. So I think that the short post below by Scott Scheule should have a wider audience. I add some further comments of my own at the foot of it
Much is made of whether morality is objective or subjective. While it's an interesting ontological question, when it comes down to the question of which moral system is right or preferable, the question is entirely irrelevant.

To wit, some seem to think that if they can prove morality subjective, then utilitarianism wins over rights theories. This is bullshit. If morality is subjective, then even the basic axioms of utilitarianism are subjective. There is no objective command: Thou shalt increase utility. Rather, there is only the preference of the individual for a world with more utility, which is just as subjective as the preference of an individual for a world with strong property rights, or no capital punishment, etc. By the same token, if morality is objective, then one can equally well believe that it is objectively right to increase utility or that it is objectively right to respect deontological rights.

Some also seem to think that believing morality subjective leads to moral relativism. This is just as wrong. To be sure, my subjective moral preference may be for a world where right or wrong is decided by community standards. But my subjective preference may just as well be otherwise. And by the same token, moral relativism could easily be true, if morality is objective. It would be a fact of the matter that whatever the community standards are, they fix right and wrong. Or not.

There is a tendency for some to pass off a particular morality as objective, while others are just baseless opinions. Economists love this. It gives one side a rhetorical punch--they can claim to be the one who doesn't believe in spooky disembodied moral commands. Rather they believe in cold hard scientific fact--that is, of course, they believe in their personal moral preferences. This leads to the same conversation again and again, where the other side has to point out that the ontological status of morality cuts both ways. But there's no winner in this game of More Materialist Than Thou.

In sum, the question of whether morality is subjective or objective, like the blogosphere, has theoretical but no practical import.

More here

I think it is hard to disagree with Scheule's point that all moral discourse is ultimately reducible to personal feelings, preferences, beliefs, opinions etc. Scheule correctly points out however that this is not all that important. What he does not go on to say, however, it what IS important.

My basic comment on the matter is that morality is largely genetically inherited. We behave in various moral ways because we have evolved to do so over many hundreds of thousands of years. But no genetic inheritance in human beings is a set of mental railroad tracks. It is more of a general tendency that can be modified or redirected to some degree -- by reason, circumstances etc. So while all human societies perceive some wrongness in killing others, for instance, exceptions are often made to that -- as in warfare.

So the Leftist rejection of morality is of a piece with their usual rejection of all things genetic -- except in the case of homosexuality, of course. The hollowness of their rejection is however very much in evidence all the time -- in the many moralistic utterances they make about "the poor", "the planet", "racism" etc. They are living testimony to the falseness of their own claims. They too are in the grip of moral feelings. They can't talk any other way.

One imagines that it would be a much happier world if Leftists faced reality and entered into an honest discussion about just how present-day circumstances might modify or channel the moral impulses that we all have. What they in fact do is refuse to have any discussion, just as they so often refuse to look at the full facts of a matter. Quite clearly, they do all they can to avoid the irrationality in their arguments being exposed. They are in deep fear that they would lose a rational argument. In short, morality is just one of the many realities that Leftists ignore -- to our almost certain detriment. It is only the fact that we DO live by rules that makes civilized life possible.

I have written at greater length on the inborn nature of morality here Readers may also be interested in Steven Pinker's comments on the matter.

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