Posts Tagged ‘utilitarianism’

What is the basis for morality?

October 12, 2018

This question has vexed philosophers through the ages. My humanist book group is reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass a Global History of Ethics. Wherein of course this question is central.

For some the answer is simple: God’s word. But this merely begs another question, which Socrates expressed: is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is holy? In other words, is stoning to death a disobedient child right because God says so (in Deuteronomy), or does God say so because it is right? And in either case, how does God know? If he’s just making it up, we can do better by applying our reason rather than his arbitrary rules. If he arrived at rules by using his own reason, so can we, with no need for him.

And passing the buck to God doesn’t change the reality that responsibility for morality remains ours alone. To follow his laws is a choice we ourselves make. Indeed, even believers who say God decrees morality still pick and choose among his decrees. Few kill disobedient children.

David Hume said you can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” That is, no facts, including about what people do, can tell us what we should do. Nor can moral truths be “self evident.” Female genital mutilation seems self evidently wrong to me, but not to millions of others.

Thus later philosophers, notably A.J. Ayer, have posited that moral ideas are only expressions of personal taste, not objective facts. As Malik puts it, “the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ express not information but feelings.” So the statement “murder is wrong” stands no differently from “I like beer.”

But what would Ayer think of the statement “murdering A.J. Ayer is wrong?”

Malik notes that physicists used to believe the Universe was filled with an invisible substrate they called ether. But ether doesn’t exist, so any assertion about its nature is meaningless. Malik quotes philosopher J.J. Mackie that for morality to be objective it would have to be an “intrinsic part of the fabric of reality” — like ether supposedly was. But no such “moral ether” exists either, hence any statements about it are likewise meaningless.


Malik goes on to discuss Alasdair MacIntyre’s “brilliant, bleak, frustrating, and . . . provocative” 1981 book After Virtue. It says moral thought is in “grave disorder.” How so? Thanks to that old culprit, The Enlightenment which, we’re told, destroyed Aristotelian notions of humans as embedded in roles, in favor of (horrors!) seeing us as autonomous agents creating our own roles. Morality, MacIntyre says, can only have meaning if there’s a distinction between “man-as-he-happens-to-be” and “man-as-he-could-be.” Otherwise, there’s no roadmap. MacIntyre, Malik notes, was a Marxist who ultimately became a Roman Catholic.

And, says Malik, that book owes much to Elizabeth Anscombe’s “seminal” 1958 paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which said it’s all foundationless. How so? Because any “law” requires a legislator. That used to be God. But we’ve fired him; so whatever moral rules or laws any human posits, there is no legislator behind them.

Excuse me? “Seminal” my ass. No, this is literally an insult to intelligence. As I explained at the start, God’s role as legislator is nonsense; there’s no alternative to choosing our own moral rules.

Likewise absurd are MacIntyre’s burblings about the blight of The Enlightenment. They’re the product of a mind whose Marxism-cum-Catholicism bespeaks profound intellectual confusion. His “man-as-he-could-be” implies aspiration to some imagined higher state; yet “man-as-he-happens-to-be” has always been abundantly capable of morality. And indeed MacIntyre’s conception is not aspirational but the opposite. His “Aristotelian” view of the human role might be descriptive for bees in a beehive. But we are rational creatures, not automata, and the entire meaning of our lives comes from how we ourselves choose to use our rationality to shape our living of them.

The Enlightenment did not destroy the basis for morality. To the contrary, it freed us from false conceptions about it — conceptions rooted in a nonexistent god (like MacIntyre’s Catholicism).

I will tell you the true basis for morality.

The cosmos is indifferent, but we are not. My “murdering A.J. Ayer” line was not a joke, it goes to the heart of the issue. There is only one thing in the cosmos that matters, only one thing that can matter. That is the feelings of beings that experience them. Nothing can matter unless it matters to someone — to such a being. Like A.J. Ayer. That’s why murdering A.J. Ayer would be wrong.

Now, in some circumstances, it might not be. Murdering Hitler, for example, would not have been wrong. You have to consider the effect on the feelings of all sentient beings. Killing Hitler would have inconvenienced him, while benefiting a vast number of others.

This sounds like utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). Utilitarianism has been critiqued for violating Kant’s dictum that people should only be ends, not means. For example, if you’re a doctor with a patient needing a heart transplant, and another needing a liver, why not grab a bystander and take his organs, sacrificing one life to save two? Kant would say this violates a moral absolute. But there is a better answer that actually accords with utilitarianism: nobody would want to live in a society allowing such organ confiscation. So we see the utilitarian calculus may not be so simple. And moral dilemmas may indeed be more complex than that example. But the point is that utilitarianism gives us not a blunt tool, but a touchstone, a baseline, a measuring tool, for analyzing them.

That is all the basis for morality we need. Our reasoning minds can take it from there.