Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Moral Philosophy

I've been thinking a lot about morality lately, and here are some conclusions that I have come to.

The root of morality is concern for the well-being of other people. This is the only clear definition of morality I have found which matches our use and intuitions about the word. A truly moral concern for other people is not valuing people because of what they can do for you or because caring for other people fulfills some selfish desire on your part. Rather, a moral concern for other people is valuing people for their own sake.

We've all heard the saying "The buck stops here." We often value things because of deeper values that we hold. For example, I value Subway sandwiches because of the pleasure I get from eating them. Why do I value pleasure? Is there some reason to value pleasure? No. The buck stops there. Pleasure is a basic, primary desire (or value).

Likewise, if you ask yourself why you value other people, there are only two possible answers you can come up with: Either "the buck stops there" and valuing other people is one of those basic desires you have, or you value other people because of some deeper, more basic desire you have. If you value other people for some deeper desire, then what, we may ask, might that desire be? Is that desire a selfish desire or an unselfish one? Since an unselfish desire is, by definition, a desire that values other people, then it wouldn't make any sense to say that you value other people because of a more fundamental desire to value other people.

So if you value other people because of some other desire that you have, then you could only be doing it because of a selfish desire (so that you won't go to prison, let's say). If that's true about you, then are you really moral? I mean, if a criminal decides not to commit a crime because he's being video-taped at the moment, could we really call such a person moral? He did the right thing by not committing the crime, but it was for the wrong reasons. Such a person is immoral. On the other hand, someone who chooses not to commit a crime, even when they know that they can get away with it, because they want to avoid the damage it will cause other people, is a moral person.

William Lane Craig, I think, spends much of his philosophizing about morality thinking about arguing with a hypothetical extremist moral skeptic (someone who doesn't believe in morality). Craig deeply wants (I might even say needs) for morality to be grounded in something higher than animal minds. The moral skeptic may point out that he has his opinions, and his desires, and we have ours, and by what authority could one claim that one is better than the other? That one is right and one is wrong? Craig's answer, I think, is that his morality is endorsed by God, an infinitely great and wise being, and that settles the whole issue. Craig seems to believe this is the only answer possible, or that it is at least the best answer anyone has come up with so far, therefore that means that his answer is probably correct. Since his answer includes the existence of God, we must conclude that God exists.

In reality, there is no way at all to answer the moral skeptic. What does it mean for something to be better than something else? When something is better than something else, it satfisfies some assumed goal. Example: I may be a better swimmer than anyone else in my family, if by "better at swimming" we meaning faster which is essential just saying that my swimming satisfies the goal of speed more fully than any other member of my family. When the moral skeptic asks "Why is your set of opinions better than mine?" What end goal is, or could he, be talking about? If he is asking why valuing others actually works to help other people, then it is quite obvious how could be answered. And if the happiness of other people is not among his set of end-goals, then he could only be asking how valuing other people would help him. Well, there are benefits to behaving in a way that shows value (staying out of prison, creating enjoyable friendships, and so on) But if the moral skeptic only acts like he values other people in order to recieve those benefits (staying out of prison, friendship, etc.) and he does not really and truly hold the happiness of others amongst his basic values, then he is not, and can not, be moral, as we have established earlier.

Nor can we persuade the moral skeptic to adopt the happiness of others amongst his basic values. For the only way you can persuade someone to do anything is by appealing to values which they already hold to. Think about it: when have you ever convinced something that they ought to do something without showing them how it fulfills their goals? How could you? Further, Richard Carrier and Alonzo Fyfe have both (independently, I think) proposed that the word "ought" simply designates what must be done in order to fulfill an assumed desire (example: If you want to eat a good hamburger, and McDonald's sells good hamburgers, then you ought to go to McDonald's). Since I believe that they are correct, that makes the statement that "one cannot persuade anyone without appealing to values they already have" true by definition.

Now, since we can't get the moral skeptic to be really and truly moral by appealing to his selfish values, and since the moral skeptic, if he really is one, has no unselfish values, then it follows that the moral skeptic cannot be persuaded. This conclusion is logically necessary, as it follows from the premises, and the premises, as I have argued, are indisputable. And notice that this conclusions makes no reference to theism or atheism. The conclusion applies regardless of which position one takes, which means that Craig cannot claim that his moral system is greater in light of its being able to answer the moral skeptic, because it can't.


theVOID said...

Right off the bat you say "The root of morality is concern for the well-being of other people", while I could go into great detail about why I believe this is wrong I'll for now offer some 'intuitive' coutner-examples - Keep in mind I usually place little to no value on intuitions (who's intuitions? The intuitios of the majority?), but since you said you want a morality that matches our inutitions (which honestly I consider about as credible as trying to find science that fits the bible) they may be of use to you.

Firstly, let's consider drug use - Someone using marijuana or cigarettes is partaking in an activity that generally has a net negative impact on their general welbeing, if what we are concerned with in morality is increasing wellbeing and thus we have a moral autority to legislate and enforce that which increases said wellbeing then it would be a legitimate use of government to ban marijuana, cigarettes and other drugs - This 'intuitively' (but I can make a case for it without intuitions should you request), seems to be massively overstepping one's authority - Do we really have the authority to punish people for partaking in activities that they chose to do of their own accord, even those where no other people are harmed, simply because it tends to decrease the wellbeing of the person in question? Surely someone's soverignty over their own lives and minds must be part of the moral equation, wouldn't you think?

Second issue, you were equating pleasure and desire, "Pleasure is a basic, primary desire" but that is not the case, while wanting (desire) and liking (pleasure) are very similar at both an experiential and biological level they are in fact different systems -

Thirdly, and this may or may not be an issue depending on whether or not you would agree with the following: 'Morality is a subset of a theory of value, one dealing with shared and/or conflcting desires' - Assuming you agree with this statement you should first lay out a theory of value before dealing with questions of morality - You very well could have addressed this previously but from memory I couldn't recall such a post - What do you consider to be the source of value?

As for your 'subway sandwich' example, I feel you are oversimplifying the values involved - For instance, you value subway sandwitches 'instrumentally' relative to their ability to satisfy your hunger, you value them for the pleasure their interaction with your taste-buds brings, you may value them relative to your desire to see a more healthy population, you may value them relative to their price etc - simply 'stopping the buck' as soon as you can make a pleasure statement is insufficient, though it is tempting seeing as subjective claims of like and dislike do not need to be justified.

As that follows into your next point: "there are only two possible answers you can come up with: Either "the buck stops there" and valuing other people is one of those basic desires you have, or you value other people because of some deeper, more basic desire you have" - Not only do I feel your terminology is confused here but you're making a false dichotomy, 'either you value someone for the sake of it' or 'you value someone because of some desire' - I can think of several others, 1. You value someone relative to their ability to fulfil other desires you have, 2. You value someone because they bring you pleasure, 3. You value someone relative to someone else, 4. You value someone based on prior instances of desire fulfilment they have given you and feel obligated to return said desire fulfilment 5. You value someone as a representation of a state of affairs that you desire to be true (for example I value Noam Chomsky not so much because he fulfils my desires or gives me pleasure, but because he represents a worldview that I desire to be true).

theVOID said...

I would also argue that there are no unselfish desires, If you desire that everyone in the world be happy or everyone in poverty have food, even though these desires are not ones that only serves the interests of the person in question they are still desires that serve the values of the person who holds them - This i believe is true of all desires and unselfish is a term that is unrealistic and takes away from the important question of whether or not these desires are morally good.

You also say in your example of the theif who chose not to steal because of security cameras that he is immoral not because he chose not to steal, but because he chose for the wrong reasons - Firstly, at best we could say that the action is amoral - It was not morally good to chose not to steal in light of the reasons for his decisions yet it was not morally bad because he did not thwart any values of any other peopel, Secondly, the person in question being immoral depends on the sum of his person, Thirdly, this has nothing to do with wellbeing and yet you are making statements about this person being immoral - This lends further support to the notion that by reducing morality to wellbeing and not formulating a theory of value to deal with in light of share/conflicing values that you are missing large portions of the moral calculus necessary to talk about any form of objective morals.

I agree with you entirely on the point of Craig's analysis - I should also point out that Craig's definition of 'objectivity' is self-serving, objective is usually defined as being 'independent of the opinions/attitudes of persons' where as Craigs is more along the lines of 'independent of the opinions/attitudes of certain persons but not God' - His entire rebuke of most atheistic morality is contingent upon his sneaking in a false definition of objectivty that contains the special pleading he needs regarding God's opinions/attitudes.

As for moral skeptics, I have to say I agree with many of their concerns about much moral philosophy being invalid, but that some being wrong does not mean all are - I contend, as I said above, that morality is a subset of value theory dealing with shared/conflicting values and if one is to share this view of morality then the only way one would be able to deem themselves moral skeptics would be in their skepticism of our ability to make legitimate evaluations, a concern that is true under some circumstances.

AIGBusted said...

Hi theVoid,

I didn't mean that I wanted a morality BASED on intuition, what I meant is that when we define a word (like "morality"), the definition must cohere with how we use that word and our intuitions about what that word means.

On smoking cigarettes: we could intervene in people's smoking, but I suspect that would cause a lot more harm and trouble than it would be worth.

You brought up the point that freedom should also be a part of the moral equation, that freedom ought to be a basic desire as is pleasure, happiness, etc. I disagree. I think freedom is valuable precisely because it brings us happiness, that is, its value is reducible to another value, and so it isn't a basic desire. That being said, even though we may differ in our moral theory, our moral practice is the same - we both agree that you shouldn't force an adult to stop smoking. You do it because you value that person's freedom as fundamental, while I value that person's happiness as fundamental -- and I think that taking away that person's sovereignty would cause a lot of unhappiness for them. Not to mention that watching an adult 24 hours a day would be exhausting and would make me unhappy ; )

Re: desire and pleasure, that's a very interesting point. When I say that one of the things we desire is pleasure, I don't mean to equate the two. Though we often desire things that don't turn out to give us pleasure, I suspect that we believe that those things would have given us pleasure, or happiness, or alleviated pain, etc. We just happened to be wrong in that instance.

I intend to keep responding to you, thought it may take some time since I'm usually busy and your comments were thought provoking (nothing to be ashamed of there!).

andy.scicluna said...


Very interesting. I am curious to know more of your philosophy (I'm not a philosipher, but it looks an aweful lot like desire utilitarianism).

Do these values exist in some physical way (like electric signals in your brain), or are they a kind of force that exist in non-physical way (like the mind to a dualist?