GOOD FOR WHAT? A sceptical look at the rationalising of morality.


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Thinking about morality is one of the more practical pursuits in philosophy – it can be, and is, applied in “real life” all the time, in law and politics, on ethics boards and in codes of conduct everywhere.

Which works ok up to a point - but despite thousands of years of systematic thought by some of the best brains in history (and believe me they are THOROUGH) there is still no final consensus on how we can define what is right and what is wrong.

Most systems of morality focus on trying to turn it into something rational, objective and universal – to get rid of emotion and the personal out of moral choices.

And yet isn’t “evil” just “stuff we REALLY don’t like?”

Thomas Morton will talk about why the holy grail of a purely rational morality may be a dead end – that morality is necessarily centred on human wants and feelings; and any attempt to divorce ethics from empathy is never going to be adequate.

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GOOD FOR WHAT? A sceptical look at the rationalising of morality.

  1. 1. GOOD FOR WHAT? A sceptical look at the rationalising of morality
  2. 2. Moral Philosophy • Thinking about morality is one of the more practical pursuits in philosophy – it can be, and is, applied in “real life” all the time, in law and politics, on ethics boards and in codes of conduct everywhere. • We can draw on a massive amount of thought and work on the subject to ensure all angles are covered.
  3. 3. THE ISSUE: The role of personal feelings/emotion in morality 1
  4. 4. • Most systems of morality focus on trying to turn it into something rational, objective and universal – to get rid of emotion and the personal out of moral choices. • Morality can’t just be left to whim and opinion • Morality can’t just rely on individual emotional responses (which are massively biased and vary considerably) • It must be higher, nobler, something outside of ourselves that we can agree on.
  5. 5. The tension between moral duty in general and moral duty to loved ones
  6. 6. Is morality fact or opinion? 2
  7. 7. Moral Realism • There is moral truth – good and evil is a matter of FACT. • Morality is OBJECTIVE, “out there” in the world and can be reasoned out and measured. • Morality transcends us and our opinions, it would exist even if there were no humans in the world. • Plato: Goodness is a single, perfect standard to live up to. Evil or badness = anything that fails to live up to that standard. • Think of an athlete – there is a standard of perfect physical fitness that they are trying to live up to, and the more they achieve that physical fitness, the better athlete they are. The further away from that peak of physical fitness they are, the more rubbish (bad) they are. Morality is like this.
  8. 8. Objections • JS Mill: Perfection is not one, rigid, clinical order, it comes in many forms. Morality is about people finding their own way, making their own decisions – not being forced into one person’s vision of perfection. • We cannot know what perfection is or what the ultimate moral truth is – that knowledge is beyond mere humans – so anyone who claims they know it and tries to force other people to follow it is mistaken, and should be treated with suspicion.
  9. 9. “There are no moral facts” The Prime Minister wears suits VERIFIABLE The Prime Minister is the head of the Government LOGICALLY NECESSARY The Prime Minister has a good soul NEITHER – no way of proving this Hume says:
  10. 10. The Is/Ought Gap
  11. 11. Moral Relativism The idea that morality is relative – what is right or wrong depends on your situation, your circumstances, your culture, your background. Problems: It’s easy to say “Oh, we shouldn’t judge other cultures, what’s right for them is right for them” – but then we would have to say that stoning to death rape victims in Somalia was ok, because it is “right for them”. Or executing protesters for demanding freedom of speech in totalitarian states is fine, because “it’s right for them”. Or even, if a serial killer is convinced that his killing is morally justified by God, that it is ok, because it is “right for him”. Moral progress (eg from medieval times) is logically impossible – all there is is a change. If you think you’re morally right, you are – there is no way of being morally mistaken.
  12. 12. A smorgasbord of moral thinking 3
  13. 13. Religious! 1: Divine Command Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son" Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on" God say, "No." Abe say, "What?" God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but The next time you see me comin' you better run" Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?" God says, "Out on Highway 61." ~ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisted God is a tyrant – the only reason we obey Him is because He is most powerful. What is good is whatever God decrees - no rhyme or reason to His whims. No barometer of good outside God. How does God decide? Cannot say “God is good” – if Satan was more powerful, we’d bow down to His Satanic Majesty instead.
  14. 14. Religious! 2: Natural Moral Law St Thomas Aquinas - what is good is what is in line with its purpose in nature (what God created it for). • Nature is massively varied (and God moves in mysterious ways) – almost anything that happens/exists can be said to have a purpose or be “natural” • The infinite “why?” regress – ultimately “nature” could be purposeless!
  15. 15. Rules and Duty!! Kant • You should only do things if you can say that everybody should do the same. Ask yourself “Would it make logical sense to turn what I decide to do into a rule that everyone would have to follow?” If you can say yes, then that is what you should do. If you can’t say yes, then you should not do that thing. • “If I can help somebody who is drowning, then I should help them” • “I should not kill another rational being” • “It is wrong to lie” • “It is ok to keep an item of lost property if no one claims it after 6 months”. An attempt to show moral decisions are ultimately just a matter of logic. • The categorical imperative: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law”.
  16. 16. More Kant Please • What matters is that the rule does not contradict itself or stop the willing of other rules. • Respect for rationality is key (The ability to make rational choices should be respected in yourself and in others). • The consequences of your actions, or people’s feelings, don’t matter so much – what’s important is duty to logic and rationality. • No room for emotion and empathy – too strict and cold?
  17. 17. Consequences!!! Utilitarianism The greatest good for the greatest number! • Bentham’s “Felicific Calculus” (From the Latin for “happy”: Felix ) The first 4 should be considered for every individual who might be affected: • Intensity: How strong is the pleasure? • Duration: How long will the pleasure last? • Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur? • Propinquity or remoteness: How soon or how far off in the future will the pleasure occur? The next 2 consider possible side-effects of the pleasure or pain caused: • Fecundity: The chance that the pleasure will cause more pleasure (or the pain, more pain) • Purity: The chance that the pleasure will cause pain (or the pain cause pleasure) Finally the overall total is considered: • Extent: The number of people sharing in this pleasure or pain.
  18. 18. A smorgasbord of Utilitarianism Act and Rule utilitarianism • Making such a calculation every time we act is often practically impossible, so others have suggested we use utilitarianism to develop rules, and then stick to those rules. Problem is, you can end up following rules for the sake of it – utilitarianism falls back into duty and rules. Hedonistic and Ideal utilitarianism • Isn’t there mare to happiness than just maximizing pleasure (hedonism)? Some pleasures are more valuable than others, so they should carry more weight. Eg. Pleasures to do with love, creativity, freedom, truth etc. are ultimately more rewarding (ideal) than fleeting physical pleasures. Negative utilitarianism • Simply that it is more important to minimize pain than it is to maximize pleasure – “the least pain for the greatest amount of people”. Preference utilitarianism • Not about happiness and pleasure, but about people’s preferences – which is not the same thing. I may have preferences and wishes that do not necessarily bring me joy, but that I feel are important - “The greatest fulfillment of preferences for the greatest amount of people”.
  19. 19. Also for mention Social Contract Theory – morality as a pact by those living together in society: • Hobbes (the nasty version – nature is brutal, morality stops civilization from collapsing into dog-eat-dog horror) • Locke (the nice version – we are born free and with natural rights, morality stops us from treading on these) • Rawls (the modern version – focussed on equality, impartiality and fairness). Virtue Theory – morality as developing a virtuous character: • Plato (there is an ideal of good that we should live up to) • Aristotle (focus on practising “living well”, all things in moderation, a fully functional, balanced, rational existence).
  20. 20. What is missing? 4
  21. 21. Empathy • Putting yourself in others shoes and feeling what they might feel • Not just emotional – requires high level of awareness and understanding of the way you and others work and interact – SELF AWARENESS and ABILITY TO ABSTRACT • More awareness = more empathy = more moral?
  22. 22. “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”
  23. 23. Empathy Missing Paradox • You cannot rely on people having a high level of empathy, so rules and systems set up as a “fail safe”. • Problem – REPLACES need for empathy. • PARADOX 1: Aims to take any need for compassion and caring out of what is fundamentally about compassion and caring. • (Would we recognise a cold, dead machine inhumanly calculating “moral” choices as moral at all?)
  24. 24. Empathy Missing Paradox • If you never had a personal relationship with your moral choices (feeling guilty/warm/ empathetic pain/joy) there would be no reason to act morally – actions become purely functional (what “works best” for a chosen end). • If looking at things rationally, there is no reason why we have to be “moral” or “good” - The IS/OUGHT gap! • PARADOX 2: Reducing morality to a set of objective systems or rules gets rid of any purpose to morality.
  25. 25. Good for what? • If morality is just functional, about what “works best”, we have to ask ourselves “Best for what? Best for who?” • Why shouldn’t pain and suffering and selfishness and oppression and deception be a valid part of the way the world works “best?” Why should we value order over chaos, or anything over anything? • So what IS being “moral” for? In whose interests is it “best”.......
  26. 26. Morality is necessarily ANTHROPOCENTRIC
  27. 27. • We have duties to all these spheres, as well as ourselves – it’s this constant struggle of competing needs and values that makes life what it is. • Moral systems are tools to use to examine the issues from different angles and increase our awareness – not the final word in moral debate. • Nature is dynamic, not static: WHY SHOULD THERE BE ONE SINGLE, FINAL RIGHT ANSWER?
  28. 28. Anything goes...? • Just because morality is a human creation, doesn’t mean “anything goes” • The economy is a human creation – money only has the value it does because we all agree on it – but that doesn’t mean we can act as if £1 is £100, or that it doesn’t matter if we have any money or not . The economy is living, uncontrollable system that arises out of the massively complex interactions of billions of human beings (and the societies and cultures they are part of), and has a massive effect on our lives. There is no objective value to money, but whatever we think of it, we need to pay it attention – morality is the same.