Saturday, March 24, 2007
What if we didn't know anything about morality? I mean, if we went totally blank slate. If we put on the Christian theologian hat, and pretend we're God, and have to discover what this morality stuff is.
Even if we knew nothing about morality, would we be able to guess what a moral person would be like?
Part of this thinking was inspired by a person who insisted that he had proof that God didn't exist. I was puzzled, because generally speaking, the question of the existence of a deity or some deities is considered unanswerable. The deist version of God - the watchmaker god, who created the universe, "wound up the watch", and then walked away from it - is something that can't be proven or disproven.
Ah, but this gentleman had an additional condition. He didn't consider the Deist's God to be worthy of the title "god".
See, he said that before you could call something a "god" or God, it had to have certain conditions. I never asked what those conditions were, but I can guess. Many people look at the world, and decide it's pretty messed up. Why doesn't God do anything about it? It's certainly defensible to say that, with the world in the condition it's in, then the kind of being who could be called "god" doesn't exist.
(As a side note: I think that's wrong. But now is not the time to go into that. Maybe I'll don the Christian theologian hat to explain the problem of pain someday soon.)
I decided to do this with morality. What if there was something worthy of being called morality? What would it be like?
Moral relativism gets a bad rap; at its root, moral relativism lets you say that Thomas Jefferson wasn't an enemy of human freedom and dignity, even though he owned slaves. He grew up in a society that allowed ownership of slaves, and while that doesn't mean that it was okay for him to own slaves, it does mean that it's unreasonable to expect him to have known better.
But there's another branch of moral relativism, known as strong moral relativism, which say that the only moral judgment one can make is based upon the society a person grew up in. Thomas Jefferson owning slaves was just fine because it was in accordance with the dictates of society.
I decided that if morality was determined by strong relativism, it wasn't worth being called morality. In fact, I went further. I decided that something could only reasonably be called "morality" if it dictated the correct thing to do, no matter how you looked at it.
The other thing I decided was necessary was that morality was accessible, in some way. If morality isn't accessible, if you can't use logic and reasoning to help figure out what is moral and not, then there's really no point in going further, since we're trying to use the tools of logic and reasoning to discern what's moral.
So, I decided that morality exists, and follows some kind of reasoning. So, the next thing I thought about was, "well, what if the only way to prevent the entire universe from being destroyed was telling a white lie, and lying was immoral?"
Well, there's two places you can go with that; you can figure that sure, it might be okay to refuse to tell a white lie even if that results in the destruction of the entire universe. However, if that's true, it seems that we've lost the ability to use logic and reasoning to determine morality. So, I took the other option: morality depends on circumstances. Even if telling a lie is normally wrong, it's okay to tell a white lie to save the universe.
What comes next?
Well, I decided that it was likely that our hypothetical moral person would decide that
1) there were moral decisions to be made
2) what was moral is at least somewhat amenable to logic and reasoning
3) morality was somewhat dependent upon circumstance (or we lose 2) )
4) one must have some method of making moral decisions, and
5) one should demand a certain level of consistency to that method; it's much easier to correct a mistake if one is acting consistently than it is to correct a mistake if one is acting at random.
This last two bits are actually stolen from ideas about finding one's way in an unknown area - finding a path literally, not metaphorically. Before you can travel very far, you want to have a way of finding directions, and you want a way to stay on course. If you don't know where you're going, you can at least start mapping your territory if you have a way of determining your direction of travel.
I also decided that we could probably add
6) Morality is mostly determined by how one's actions affect other living creatures; there's no need to apologize to rocks.
(You might need to apologize to a person for what you did to an important rock, but not to the rock itself.)
And thus, after a great deal of thinking, I'd come up with the idea that morality, for us humans, mostly came down to how we treated each other, and other living creatures.
However, you might notice that I've cut away a lot of what's traditionally thought of as morality.
Blasphemy might be immoral, but only insofar as it affects another living being, and the same can be said for many other sins that don't seem to cause harm to others. While the word "morality" is often used to refer to sexual behavior, you have to point to harm being done before morality can come into the picture.
Well... not "harm being done", exactly... but I'm a bit too tired to go into drunk driving and peanut butter sandwiches. I'll try to hit those tomorrow.
I did a piece similar to this, though not on morality. It was more of a "why neocons can't be Christains" piece.
Morality is an interesting subject because it means many things and different things to different people. The right hide behind the word never really understanding it. I know athiests with a better set of morals than my some of my Christian friends.
I need to think on this a bit more. I'll stop back.