PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Are there moral principles?

Are there moral principles?

Flanking one side of this topic we find the question: ought there to be moral principles? And on the other side there is the question: are moral principles followed?

We all love moral principles. They are relatively easy to formulate, they are very easy to follow, especially if we invented them, and the easiest thing of all is that we can accurately apply them to others. This line of argument or face value observation, at least, confirms the existence of moral principles. It might not say much about the quality or nature of these principles but that's another question. However, we can at least save the day by pointing at who is formulating the principle which might add legitimacy or authority to an otherwise frivolous enterprise.

If we assume that the person formulating moral principles to be good and responsible we assume that the principle itself is good. However, there is a very fundamental and basic problem here. Are these principles good because they are in themselves good, and therefore recommended by a good person, or do we accept them as good because we can identify with the source of the principle, i.e. another human being with authority? For example, does the categorical imperative gain currency because Kant and other illustrious thinkers advocate its validity or because it is a very rational principle? Would it have made any difference to the history of the categorical imperative if it was Kant's pet gerbil who argued the validity of the Golden rule?

If we take a quick look at history the last question won't sound so ridiculous as it does at face value. In ancient times people derived their moral laws by worshiping foxes, wolves, calves, bulls and stars. We can safely assume that all these creatures had difficulty communicating with people directly no matter how good their intentions were. Having said that, some of these civilizations were quite productive and successful for a long time. Of course, for empirical reasons, we cannot determine whether their moral frame work stayed intact because they were good at interpreting the instructions of the sun or whether they were good at improvising at what the sun might have wanted.

For whatever reason, this animal or object model was basically replaced, by the super being model. The new model had at least two things in its favour. People, can easily identify with a super being; in other words a super being is just another human being but with, bigger, better, stronger and more mysterious qualities. The other thing going for this model was that it is quite feasible that this super being could communicate with us using our language. After all, there is so much a fox or a sun can tell us directly. But this is not a real problem for a super being hence why some of the oldest books we have relate to this subject. Over the ages even this model had some structural changes made to it. In particular, the cult of the personality became very common. It was not enough to have a super being, but it became necessary for the super being to have a direct representative who was very much like us if not one of us.

Closer to our time we find that moral principles are as likely to be derived from some super being as from some intellectual genius scribbling away in a library. Although, I might be wrong on this one, the tendency today seems to be heading back towards the trinkets and the object school of thought. Except this time the cult figure instead of preaching and writing about these trinkets he or she only has to endorse them.

Whatever the system or model we look at for moral principles, we find one common factor: human beings. Between the fox and the city dweller were the temple priests, between the super being and the nation there were the princesses of the faith, between the scribe in the library and the factory workers we find the party members and finally between the single currency and the consumer we find the shareholder.

My point is not, that given the above cynicism moral principles have lost their legitimacy or validity, but rather, irrespective of the moral principle there is always someone else between the source and us. Could it be that the source of moral principles and the intermediary are one and the same thing?

In reality we only have access to moral principles through human thinking and rationalising. We can only discover things about moral principles by looking at ourselves and if there are any moral principles they must come because of our nature. Of course, some might object to this position on the grounds that although it is true that we only have access to moral principles through our thinking this is not evidence that they are not objective or due to some objective source.

If we can prove that moral principles are objective, not only can we claim them to exist objectively, but we also get the added bonus of studying them using the scientific method. If moral principles are real we can study them in the same way we study bacteria, radio waves and whatnots. If we compare moral principles to distant stars and galaxies, for example, our evidence of these celestial bodies is indirect. I mean, we cannot touch them directly in the same way we can touch some things on Earth. Our evidence of a galaxy is usually a beam of light, a radio signal or deflected gravitational pull, but none the less they still offer objective proof of the galaxy’s existence. I shall call this the secondary evidence argument.

Usually, the secondary evidence argument is used to prove the existence of moral principles ; to wit, through us we can discover a deity or a rational principle. However, there is a fundamental and fatal difference between objects and moral principles. We have evidence of objects in the real universe because the evidence we have that makes sense to us emanates from them, but our only evidence of moral principles is available to us because we are here. We can prove the existence of a galaxy by many independent ways, but not moral principles . We can prove that a moral principles is rational, using one of the logics we have at our disposal, but we cannot say anything about moral principles unless we first look at people. Someone had to tell us about the categorical imperative, it just does not grow on trees or agar medium.

In my opinion, this argument is fatal to any attempt at analysing moral principles using the scientific method; we would be looking at the wrong dataset. Fatal, in other words, in the same way if we looked at the movements of storks to predict human population demographics. This however does not mean that moral principles do not have their rightful place in the scientific method as I will try to show later. I suggest that the argument implies that we stop looking at moral principles per se and start looking at human beings as a rule. So now we can ask a very different question: what is the human source of moral principles? And then we can move on to the other question, ought we to have moral principles?

If there is anything positive that can be said about moral principles it is that they provide the means for us to lead a just and fair life. But of course there is a wide gap between: a) there ought to be moral principles because they provide us with justice and 2) justice is actually found everywhere. That moral principles have the characteristic of universalisability is not in doubt, but it is also not in doubt that moral principles are not universally applied. Why?

Let us start with the source of moral principles: human beings. Looking back at the characters in history, we find two important features. Whether is was the temple guardian interpreting the thoughts of a fox or the revolutionary writer in Russell Street, they all needed a body of knowledge and information to arrive at the moral principles they were proposing. We can even take this point as given and self evident.

The second thing that is common with all these people is that they all needed to communicate their message or their moral principles to everyone else. There is no point in discovering some wonderful moral principles and not communicate them to others. Unlike knowledge and information, communication needs explaining a bit. We mustn't fall into the trap here and say that the means of communication are not that important, and what matters is that we get the message. Unfortunately, this is not like the news, when it does not matter whether we get the news from the radio or TV. In our case we only have one means of communication: language. I suggest that our language plays an important role in the meaning and significance of the moral principles that are communicated to us. Is it by accident, for example, that those who wield unreasonable political and moral authority over peoples also assume quasi monopolistic controls over their language? Since this essay is not about the moral implications of language I will keep it at that. I would, therefore say that the need to communicate is also a given and also self evident.

By default then, our state of knowledge and our means of communication make up the bulk of the source for our moral principles . But can we divorce the rational being from the emotional being, the physical being, the being who feels pain and who needs to survive in the hostile environment we live in? I don't think so, or at least not much more than what we can survive by just taking a deep breath. So how much does this third factor, the human being as a physical entity, influences the nature of moral principles ?

Maybe, it is not by coincidence that moral principles tend to address this imbalance created by a hostile environment. Take the concept of justice, what is justice if not a redress to our status in a win-win strategy game? What is altruism if not an insurance should we find ourselves in difficulty? If the moral principle, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, make sense, by the same token a moral principle that says thou shalt always wear a blue jacket, is completely absurd. Moral principles address things that matter in life.

That moral principles are useful and help us survive suggests that there ought to be moral principles. This does not mean we also have to like the reasons why we ought to have moral principles . I agree with you that giving survival as a reason to have moral principles is neither interesting nor intellectually sexy. But at least some of us can relate to survival, but few of us can relate to some high powered logical principle.

That there are moral principles is not in doubt. There are libraries full of books telling us that there are moral principles . Thousands if not millions of people have died or gave their life to such principles as freedom, democracy, rule of law and what have you. What is more interesting is whether all moral principles have the same status. Are there moral principles that are more fundamental and basic than others? Is there a moral principle that is the holy grail to all, or at the very least, first amongst equals?

I have argued that knowledge and information are one of the sources of moral principles . We also know that that knowledge and information are some of the few things that are very resistant to degenerative principles known by us, such as the law of diminishing returns which does not seem to apply to knowledge and information. The issue of information overload is a problem with us and not with knowledge and information. I will leave it to scientists to tell us whether determined chaos, thermodynamics and black holes irrevocably destroy information.

For our purposes, what matters is that as far as we are concerned knowledge and information are limitless and basic. Limitless in the sense that we can never know enough and limitless in the sense of knowledge is non ending. Basic in the sense that DNA is information and in the sense that without DNA there won't be life as we know it. From my point of view, if there is to be a master moral principle, it ought to be a right and the freedom to knowledge and information; I shall call this moral principle, intellectual freedom. This does not mean the freedom to say whatever we want, but the freedom to argue the truth without hindrance or malice and with complete access to knowledge and information as required.

Finally, how should we understand the empirical question: are moral principles followed? Earlier I suggested that although moral principles are universal they are not always universally applied. But universalisability should not be understood with the strong meaning of not having instances of negatives. For example, no injustice, no poverty, no war and so on. The way we should read universalisability is by applying moral principles without prejudice, bias and in all applicable cases. If, therefore, we all had access to the same unbiased knowledge and information we'd all be in a better position to know what ought to be done. It is not a coincidence that totalitarian states tend to be secretive, manipulate and control information and now a days also prevent access to the internet. I suggest that this is evidence enough on how important information and knowledge are.

So the way we answer the empirical question depends on how we treat moral principles. If we treat moral principles as some ingredient in a recipe for utopia then it shouldn't come as a surprise if moral principles are not regularly followed. However, if we treat moral principles as a theoretical standard, a sort of gold standard or benchmarking, then we have a model to compare reality with the gold standard. In a way, we can perform a hypothesis testing between the gold standard and the empirical evidence from the field on how moral principles are applied. This clearly and firmly puts moral principles to the rigors of the scientific method. In this way we know for sure how much and by how much moral principles are being followed and if needs be do something about it. For example, if we take the hypothesis that all nations ought to have a state and then go and see how many nations do actually have a state, we can then see how well the evidence fits the hypothesis. Once we have full access to unbiased information, in the same way we have unbiased information about black holes, we can systematically analyse our results to account for any discrepancies. Any alternative would be the equivalent of building a mare's nest with woolly thinking.

Take care

Lawrence JC Baron

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