I know it has been a long time since my last post, but I am back–I think. I want to preface this post with a couple of things: first, this post is inspired by recent blog posts from Dan Fincke, most notably this one on his new blog. Second, I am no philosopher, at least if we are going to understand that term as meaning someone who has extensive training and experience in thinking about topics like the one that I am going to butcher today. So given the latter point, please be easy on me; I am just a guy trying his best to work through a complicated issue that has vexed philosophers since philosophy was invented.
To begin, I want to try to define what I am going to be writing about here. What do I mean by “Atheistic Morality”? To put it simply(stealing somewhat from the google definition), it is a set of principles that distinguish between right and wrong that is not based on a God. I suppose to be more technical, more broad, I could call it “Naturalistic Morality”, but I think that “Atheistic” is more provocative and more easily understood by the general society. Anyway, speaking of the way that society understands things, in my experience most people see morality as a religious or spiritual enterprise, so I think explicitly labeling my topic as something completely counter to that could be useful.
Just like Dan, I don’t want to be lazy and just start with my “common sense” view of morality as a given reality, rather, I want to find rational justification for morality. If I am not going to allow a theist to declare that morality at bottom is just based on God’s commands because that is either absurd or arbitrary, I cannot allow myself to just declare something like our “common sense” as the starting point, especially given that “common sense” is highly influenced by many factors.
But if not common sense, then what grounds morality? In my view, two things taken together: rationality itself and human nature. I think what makes correct moral proclamations real and binding is that they are based on rational assessment and are in line with human nature. What do I mean by “rational assessment”? I mean to examine what argument(s) form the basis for a moral proclamation and see if it holds up to logical scrutiny. Is it coherent? Is it based on correct inferences, etc? Are the premises reasonable to hold?
Now, if I were to simply take the first criteria alone, rational assessment, and say that is what grounds morality I think that it would lead to some problems. For one, it doesn’t tell you who you should care about. Without anything but rational assessment, one could perhaps develop a moral code that is all about self-interest at the expense of others and society at large. I don’t see anything obvious about rationality alone that will drive one to be either selfish or selfless.
With the addition of human nature, I think that the above problem fades. It should seem obvious that if morality is about human behavior, then it should take into account human nature. Humans are social and empathetic creatures, so any real moral system is going to have to take in those facts and be in line with them. What would a perfectly rational human being(who is empathetic and social by nature) do in any given situation? That is my equivalent of WWJD.
One could of course point out that there are those without empathy like sociopaths, but I do not see this as a problem. It is just an exception that does nothing to invalidate the rule. Part of being human is to speak languages, but there are those that cannot speak, so are we to eliminate that? If that is the case, I am sure for any given trait of human nature one could find at least some exceptions so that we are left with really nothing to define us, besides some really vague definition like “humans are a mass of cells” or something. Instead, what we can do is look at what is common amongst the vast majority of humans and work from there. I certainly believe that empathy and sociability are present among the vast majority of humans.
One could also point out that there are other facets of human nature that seem counter to empathy and sociability. I would say that humans are selfish by nature, for instance. The reason I do not see this as a problem is because I think that for any moral code to be real it also has to be universal among humans and rational. We could easily see that if it were universally morally right for humans to act selfishly all the time that everything would break down. No one could trust anyone, no political system could possibly work, and other facets of human nature would go unfulfilled. On the other hand, if a moral system is empathetic and social and universal it could lead to a good political system, to other parts of human nature being fulfilled, even the selfish ones.
Now, I will not go so far as Kant and say something like for any act to be moral you should will it to be universal. For instance, if you think that telling the truth is moral, you would will that everyone told the truth all of the time. I think that focusing on the particulars and universalizing them is the wrong approach, especially since it leads to certain absurd situations like the Nazis at the door example. What I think is the right approach is to universalize the process, so to speak. I think that for any given act to be moral, the reasoning and human nature under-girding it you should will to be universal. So instead of the Kantian saying “you shall not lie even to the Nazis at the door because no one should lie ever” I would say, “please lie to the Nazis at the door because given human nature and rationality, lying to them would be something that every human should do in that situation.”
I also happen to think that human experience is far too complicated and varied for a simple moral code like “actualize the greatest utility(whatever that means)” or “be this kind of person” or “always do/don’t do this” to be true. For every moral guideline, there are plenty of ways to demonstrate how they fail in particular situations so I think that we should, given our limited epistemic situation, embrace the ambiguity of it all. Perhaps in one situation it would be more rational and in line with human nature to be a Kantian than a Consequentialist, and in another it would be better to be a virtue ethicist than either. I think that instead of seeing these moral theories as things to follow consistently, we should instead see them as helpful models that can guide our thought process in situations that are obviously going to be more complicated than those systems allow for. Perhaps one system is more often correct than another, or there is some ideal system that, if we knew it or could know it would replace every other system, but in our current situation it is far too ambiguous.
Anyway, forgive the rambling. This is a bit of an unscripted stream of consciousness kind of post. What do you think?