Thursday, December 11, 2008

There IS such a thing as right and wrong

I have been writing -- sporadically -- on topics in moral philosophy for many years now (See here) so I think it is time for me to ask if I have learnt anything over the years. I think I have. In particular, I think I have now arrived at a complete answer to what Leftists say about the matter. "Complete answer" is a very bold expression for a philosopher to use but readers will be the ultimate judge of whether I have achieved that, of course.

The Leftist argument

The nub of the Leftist argument is that "right" and "wrong" language is incoherent. Saying "X is pink" and "X is right" seem on the surface to be the same sort of statement but we can immediately see that they are not. Pinkness is an objective property that we can point to whereas rightness exists only in the mind of the speaker. "Who says?" is a complete refutation of any claim that something is right. Religious people can say that "God says" but since religious people do differ considerably on moral questions (e.g. abortion) it is immediately obvious that it is only an opinion about what God says that we are dealing with. And how can an opinion have any objective reality? So the Leftist concludes that there is no such thing as right and wrong, just different opinions and value judgements. You cannot find rightness under a rock and you cannot find it anywhere so it does not exist as such.

A better argument

I did three courses in philosophy in my years as a university student and was always exposed to the above analysis. And up until fairly recently I accepted it as describing at least one sort of moral statement. I was always aware, of course, that nobody ever talks as if they believed it. Leftists are in fact very quick on the draw with moral language. They can say that there is no such thing as right and wrong and then immediately and with a straight face go on to say that "racism" or "intolerance' is wrong. And George Bush is of course EVIL!

So what the heck is going on? I think the first key is, as I have previously argued, that moral language is not used in one way but rather in several ways. And I have SHOWN that usage of moral language differs from person to person by way of psychological research. Philosophers are like physicists: They are always looking for a "unified field" theory of what they study but what if such a unified field does not exist? Perhaps the closest anybody has come to a single explanation of what moral language does is the formulation that "is good" or "is right" statements simply commend. R.M. Hare is associated with that view. But if we go on from there to unpack "commend", I think we are back to square one. Surely "commend" simply means "is good". Other objections to Hare's claims are summarized below (From Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century By Scott Soames. p. 137)

I have previously set out what I think are the main uses of moral language but I will repeat them here as a preliminary to an important update. It seems to me that statements such as "X is right" (or "X is good" or "You ought to do X") can be unpacked in only four or perhaps five basic ways:

1. I like it when people do X
2. Doing X generally leads to widely desired results
3. It is the will of God that you do X
4. X has an inescapable, universal "moral" quality.
5. X is the prevailing rule around here (though if the person was asked why that rule exists he would almost certainly reply by referring to some version of one of the preceding three statements).

I think most people would agree that "You ought" or "is right" statements can mean 1, 2, 3 or 5 above. I do. You might dispute the truth of any of them but you would understand what is being said and understand that it is a factual claim. I would for instance dispute an "ought" statement that is unpacked as 3 above because I am an atheist but I accept that the person making the claim is trying to make a statement of fact that can be proved or disproved in some way. So. at least in the senses 1, 2, 3 or 5 above, there clearly IS such a thing as right and wrong.

Interpretation 4 above however is the difficulty because it is apparently untestable and undemonstrable -- and is hence the one that Leftists focus on. They claim it is gibberish even though the usage does seem to be widespread. And I think that the widespread nature of such statements is the key to understanding them. I think that such statements arise because human beings do have inborn, hardwired moral instincts. So a person who uses "is wrong" statements of that ilk is expressing an important instinct. He is in fact referring to something quite objective: Normal human feelings and instincts. He is saying: "That goes against normal human feelings and I know it does because it goes against feelings deep in me". He could of course be wrong. His own feelings might not be a reliable guide to what is general -- but it is nonetheless a factual claim that can be disputed. Such a person might, for instance, say "murdering babies is wrong" and mean that as a universal and unquestionable claim about how normal people respond to the idea of murdering babies. But we can argue with him about the matter by pointing out that the undoubtedly brilliant civilization of ancient Greece routinely allowed the killing of babies in some circumstances. So the argument is an empirical one, not an unfalsifiable claim. And that is what I have only recently come to see.

I am not of course saying that the unpacking I have offered above is always high in the consciousness of the person making such statements. Most people use the word "dog" with great confidence but would be rather hard put to define a dog when you remark that dogs can be of many shapes, sizes and colours. So what defines a dog? When pressed the person might say a dog is "tailwagger" -- but is a boxer dog with an amputated tail not a dog? And so it goes on. Similarly, "is right" statements can be used with considerable accuracy and meaningfulness even though the person using such statements might not be able to unpack them readily or at all.

Because the standard psychological measures of moral attitudes (e.g. Kohlberg's) are profoundly contaminated by the Leftist assumptions of their authors, I have not even tried to look up inheritance data about morality in the behaviour genetics literature -- though there is some supportive evidence mentioned here and here (referring to the work of Hauser and Haidt respectively) and the idea is to be found in the work of various well-known writers -- e.g. Steven Pinker and James Q. Wilson. So suffice it to say that most important human characteristics seem to show very substantial genetic inheritance (See e.g. here and here and here, and some work on a genetically-coded social abnormality reported here, here and here). If morality were an exception that would be most surprising.

And from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, it would be even more surprising. Man is both a social animal and an animal that falls very readily into conflict with his fellow humans. So ways of regulating behaviour to enable co-operation and forestall conflict must necessarily be of foremost importance. And that is largely what moral and ethical rules are all about. To forestall conflict there HAVE to be rules against murder, stealing, coveting your neighbour's wife etc. And that is why there are considerable similarities between the laws of Moses (ten commandments etc) and the much earlier Babylonian code of Hammurabi. The details of moral and legal rules are of course responsive to time, place and circumstances, but there are some basics that will almost always be there. And given the importance of those basic rules for social co-operation, it should be no surprise that such rules became internalized (instinctive) very early on in human evolution. So many if not most of our social instincts are in fact moral or ethical instincts. Ethics are the rules we need for co-operative existence.

Obviously, however, the rules are not so well entrenched as to produce automatic responses. We have broad tendencies towards ethical behaviour but that is all. This is probably due to their relatively recent evolutionary origin. Most of what we are originates far back in our evolutionary past whereas the social rules that we use became needed only with the evolution of the primates.

Additionally, we are the animal that relies least on instinct. So all our instincts can be both modified and defended by our reasoning processes. Just because a thing is instinctive to us it does not mean that the behaviour concerned is emitted in any automatic way. We think about why we do what our instincts tell us and generally conclude that our instincts are thoroughly wise! And we do generally explain our rules of behaviour in a thoroughly empirical and functional way -- generally starting with: "If everyone did that .... ". And moral philosophers are of course people who specialize in such talk. But, as Wittgenstein often pointed out, all such talk is largely epiphenomenal (an afterthought). It is predominantly their set of inherited dispositions that make people behave ethically, not any abstract rationalizations.

And that realization does explain why philosophers so often back themselves into absurd corners. You might guess what is coming next at that point: Peter Singer. Peter Singer (a former student of R.M. Hare) is undoubtedly a very able and influential philosopher and in good philosophical style he starts out with a few simple and hard-to-dispute general rules from which he logically deduces all sorts of conclusions that are greeted with horror by normal people -- his view that babies and young children may be killed more or less at will, for example. As a theoretical deduction, his views are defensible but seen in the light of the biological basis of morality, they are counterproductive. A society that killed off its young more or less at will would not last long.

So we come back in the end to the good Burkean principle that theories are to be distrusted and and continually tested against whether or not they lead to generally desired outcomes. Philosophers judge an argument on its consistency, elegance and comprehensivesness. Conservatives judge it on its practical outcomes. And Leftists judge it on whether they can use it to make themselves look good.

A famous objection to any claim that moral statements are at base empirical and hence rationally arguable is the objection by David Hume. David Hume contends that there is an unbridgeable gap between "is" and "ought" statements -- so that you cannot justify "ought" statements by "is" statements. Yet that is precisely what people normally do. An "ought" statement always commends some course of action and when people ask WHY that course of action is commended the reply is often in terms of "is" (empirical) statements (e.g. the commendation of X can be explained as: "X leads to generally desired consequences" or "X leads to consequences that you would like" or "I like X" or "X is the prevailing rule in this culture"). So in my view the fact that an "ought" statement can be explained in that way shows that it is an empirical statement to begin with. Statements in general have all sorts of influences on people (for example, if someone said to me: "Your son has just died", it is clearly an empirical statement but it would also have an enormous influence on me if true. It would cause me to take many actions that I would not otherwise take) and an "ought" statement is an empirical statement with what is expected to be one particular sort of influence -- it is meant to cause you to behave in the way described (Something that R.M. Hare also saw). So an "ought" or "is right" statement is simply a shorthand (compressed) "is" statement that can be expanded in some way if desired. It might be noted however that there seems to be a gradient in "good", "right" and "ought" statements, with "ought" statements being most intended to incite action and "good" statements least so.

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