Monday, December 15, 2008

Assumptions in moral debate

I have written a bit recently on what philosphers call meta-ethics. In other words I have been talking about what morality is in the abstract rather than discussing a particular moral dilemma (such as whether or not abortion is right). Scheule has made the interesting point, however, that we not only bring assumptions to discussions of ethical dilemmas but we also bring assumptions to our meta-ethical deliberations. So if a Leftist says that is it absurd to believe in the reality of something that has no known place or position and cannot be detected by any instrument, we could answer in the usual religious way or we could do something much more radical: We could say, "Why is absurdity a bad thing? Absurdity can be entertaining". We could, in other words reject absurdity as an evaluative criterion. So then we have to find a way of examining what we should think of absurdity. At that point we have obviously fallen into an infinite regress and the discussion cannot go on.

Sadly, I think Scheule is right. Meta-ethical discussions are every bit as much a matter of opinion as are ethical debates. So where can we go from there? The usual philosophical response in such circumstance would be something along the lines of saying that a rejection of absurdity as a criterion makes discourse impossible so therefore we cannot do it. But that is in itself arguable -- as is the nature of what is absurd. So I think that the entire discussion is not a universally available one but rather one that can only take place among people who have certain agreed asssumptions. And asking for shared assumptions between Left and Right is a tall order, and an order that will often not be met.

It is for instance a common Leftist assertion that there are many realities. That seems to me simply confused but it would nonetheless seem to rule out shared assumptions. In fact, it seems to me that "There are many realities" is a deliberate denial of any common assumptions. The Leftist is happy with his emotionally-dominated life and nothing will be allowed to interfere with his emotionally-dominated conclusions. And the denial of common assumptions would appear to be basic rather than a mere stratgem. The Leftist is surely aware that there is a glaring inconsistency between "There is no such thing as right and wrong" and "racism is wrong" yet that inconsistency does not seem to bother him in the least. He sees no problem with inconsistency-- to the point where inconsistency is almost a hallmark of Leftist argument. So the Leftist is quite happy to deny the possibity of rational argument. Making self-contradictory assertions is not rational. The Leftist is quite happy merely to emote.

Leftist argumentation does however remind us that we DO make some assumptions in meta-ethical debates and that could be seen as unsatisfactory. I think a very rough and ready way out is to note that despite our philosophical entrapment, people do nonetheless continue to make morally-influenced decisions and often care deeply about such decisions. So if we must give up asking philosophical questions there are still important questions there to ask, so why not instead ask scientific questions: Something I myself turned to in this area long ago. It is surely at least of interest to do studies of various sorts which detect how people do arrive at moral judgments in real life even if attempts at philosophical simplification have hit a wall.

Morality thus becomes a field of study for psychologists and anthropologists rather than for philosophers. And there have now of course been many research studies of that nature. Pinker offers a useful summary of them. And what such studies tend to show is what I have said above: That we do as human beings inherit certain moral instincts. So morality again emerges as quite solidly founded in the real world and a worthy and important object of discussion. It is a discussion of human instincts or responses to instincts. It is not wholly arbitrary and can be of vital importance. And the criteria we use in such discussions are not arbitrary either. They too are part of what we inherit. So I find it rather encouraging that both scientific enquiries and meta-ethical deliberations can arrive at essentially the same conclusion.

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