In Your Own Eyes: Towards Rational Morality

In those days there was no king. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
– Judges 17:6

After my most recent blog, I’ve received some backlash, which tends to happen when you deliberately violate cultural taboos. I recounted an altercation with a professor who insisted that moral judgments cannot be made across cultural lines. I argued that we cannot afford to have our world balkanized into separate moral communities that in principle can never communicate with each other. Building a rational, objective basis for moral judgments is important, because when people disagree, reality arbitrates.

The classic rebuttal to my position is the is/ought or naturalistic fallacy. The argument goes that no fact about the way the world is could ever imply anything about the world ought to be. Therefore, our values cannot come from facts about the world. I don’t think this by any means proves what my opponents think it does.

First of all, it does not make any sense to claim that our values will not be determined by our perception of reality. Our values are determined by our underlying human psychology and facts that we perceive about the world. Ideas about what we “ought” to do are things that we develop in ourselves. They do not exist out in the ether somewhere. Just like moral “obligation”, I don’t think “ought” is a very useful way to view moral questions.

I raised a lot of interesting questions about morality which I did not deal with directly, because the point I wanted to communicate was that western liberals were failing in their responsibility to critically examine and explore moral questions, while systematically protecting their enemies from criticism. I’m afraid I may have confused or misled some readers, so I’ll take a minute to try to lay out my approach to morality.

  1. Well-being as a basis for morality.

    I believe that morality must ultimately come down to concerns about human well-being. I think that well-being is the only rational basis for morality. People who doubt this need only try to imagine something, somewhere which does not and could not ever affect any consciousness. I think you would find it is, by definition, the least interesting thing in the universe. The well-being of conscious creatures seems like the only thing even worth talking about when discussing moral questions. Human well-being will ultimately come down to facts about the universe that relate to it, which is why I think it is in principle possible to discover things that really are morally true and to improve our moral codes.

    Sam Harris finds it useful to imagine human well-being as a spectrum, with “the worst possible misery for everyone” at one end and “the good life” on the other. Any action that moves us away from the worst possible misery for everyone is therefore a morally beneficial act. While we might reasonably disagree about what constitutes ideal well-being, what is not in dispute is whether there is a difference between living in unimaginable mental and physical suffering and living a healthy and happy life. Harris frequently compares well-being to physical health, in that both have tricky, shifting definitions that change over time.

    This doesn’t make the concept of health useless to the practice of medicine, however, nor does it invalidate well-being as of foundation for morality. If we do accept that the basic moral concern is human well-being (rather than, say, appeasing an angry deity with animal sacrifices) then we have to concede that what is “right” and “wrong” will turn out to relate to facts about human psychology and the state of our consciousness. Conceding this forces us focus on discovering facts about the world that will affect our subjectivity.

  2. Self-interest and evolutionary psychology as a foundation for moral concerns.

    Once we establish that morality must relate to concern about human well-being, the question then becomes “whose well-being?” I’m sure reasonable people will disagree about where exactly we should draw the beginning and end lines. Again, this is tricky, and everyone will come to slightly different conclusions. Such lines will probably shift over time, both culturally and individually.

    My conclusion is that concern for well-being has to start with oneself, in order to be consistent with what we know about human nature. Even if we begin with concern for ourselves, this does not mean we will be strictly selfish. In fact, people do take into account the needs of their family, friends, and community. Peter Singer calls this idea the “circle of ethical sentiments,” which begins with ourselves and our basic concern for our material well-being and moves outward to include mates, family, friends, and so on.

    Michael Shermer and Pat Linse* modeled this as a “Bio-Cultural Evolutionary Pyramid”–a cross between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Singer’s circle of ethical sentiments–which progresses upward, following the upward trend of human evolutionary history which imbued us with concern for ourselves, our kin, those we depend on, our community, and then moves into the period of modern cultural development, in which human culture developed explicit concerns for unrelated individuals and people outside our clans and class.

    This “bio-cultural transitional boundary” demarcates where our ethical concerns shift from being determined by our ancestral environment, through biological evolution, to being determined by our modern environment, through cultural evolution. Therefore, our moral concerns will start with satisfying our own material well-being and will grow more complex as we satisfy our most basic needs. This is why people in the West, having satisfied the primary desires for prosperity, psychological bonding, and social cohesion, tend to be able to afford greater concern for unrelated and unknown individuals. It is primarily cultures that have largely solved the problems of basic personal needs that can focus on more modern and esoteric concerns, like animal welfare and protecting the environment. This circle of sentiments has shown a tendency to expand, not contract, based on the well-being of those near the center.

    *This pyramid and accompanying explanation are found in Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil”, pages 47-50, but are not available on the internet.

    Chart of genetic relationships in kin altruism.
  3. Provisional ethics and developing morality.

    Taken together, these two ideas point toward a system of morality composed of provisional rules and general principles that take into account humans’ ethical nature and its limitations. Provisional ethical principles mean nothing more than rules that are true until they’re not.

    For example, principles like “lying is bad” may hold true in most circumstances, and as a general rule are indispensable for most social relationships, because most human relationships depend on trusting others and being trusted. However, it could have exceptions, both big and small, in atypical situations where being honest could be have severe negative consequences.

    The provisional nature of our ethical conclusions (e.g., that it is okay to eat animals), admits the possible of error and opens the door to gradual improvements based on new information, wider empathy, and better comprehension. We have a sliding scale of confidence in our decisions, based on how sure we are that certain actions will be detrimental or beneficial to the well-being of those in our circle of ethical sentiments.

    This system of morality does not depend on self-conscious Randian selfishness or Bentham-esque hedonic calculus, because evolution has already pre-programmed us with empathy and ethical intuitions, while experience has equipped us with emotional heuristics to help us quickly decide what is the right thing to do. Most of the time people already know right from wrong, thanks to evolutionary psychology and social pressures. As Michael Shermer points out, if you’re not sure if it’s okay to cheat on your wife, just ask–she’ll let you know. If you’re not sure if it’s wrong to embezzle, pitch the idea to your boss or stockholders.

    One of the reasons lying is so universally frowned upon is that people typically lie to conceal doing something they knew was wrong. If you’re ever on the fence about an ethical proposition, you can always just ask the people affected if they approve. This is not to paper over real moral conundrums–for example, would it be wrong for a woman to shoot her husband if he was drunk and beating her daughter?–but those circumstances are by their nature extremely rare and often may admit no clear answer. Moral questions can be difficult and sometimes impossible to answer convincingly, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be right answers.

  4. Simple rules governing social interaction of self-interested people.

    This brings us to laws and social rules, enforced by institutions such as governments and markets. In my view of morality, these rules should be designed to govern and regulate the interaction between individuals. These rules are generally or mutually stipulated conditions of social intercourse. Laws should be designed to facilitate peaceful interactions between people whose goal is to increase their own well-being.

    Laws and other formal rules need to be informed by the facts that people are self-interested, that their desires sometimes conflict, and that their goals are sometimes mutually exclusive. The purpose of having such rules is to help self-interested people cooperate in a shared environment to achieve separate ends. “Lawless” societies are ones that are perceived to be chaotic and violent places where trust is restricted to kin and clan, corruption is widespread, and the only way to get what you want is to take it from someone else.

    Rules for governing the social interaction of millions of unrelated individuals will, by the nature of their differing conditions, differ significantly from the mechanisms that evolved for settling disputes between related individuals in a small tribe, the conditions in which human psychology* developed. Principles for governing societies with millions of unrelated members will have to be simple, widely understood, and widely respected. Laws that are not rules for the “general welfare” (that is, laws that do not apply to everyone equally) do not exist to govern social interaction and are merely edicts from the government declaring their intention to use force on behalf of certain parties against other parties.

    This kind of arbitrary governance is a problem because it tends to lead to mutual parasitism, where everyone competes to use the state to expropriate wealth or extort special treatment on their behalf. This is simply a higher order example of lawlessness, where everyone uses force to take what they want from someone else, rather than trying to cooperate with others to create the things they each need. These types of kleptocracies and lawless societies are, of course, highly detrimental to human well-being and force everyone to take a giant step towards the worst possible misery for everyone, because they tear up the fabric of trust that mutual cooperation depends on. If everyone is scheming to rip you off, you can’t afford to be very trusting.

    Under this interpretation, law is not a mechanism for coercing “good” behavior from people. It is merely an institutional arrangement that allow us to separately pursue our goals in parallel with other self-interested people and groups. Ideally, functioning rule-making and arbitrating institutions allow for the maximum amount of individual discretion and personal liberty, without leading to the breakdown of trust and social order.

    Over time, we evolved principles that recognize these facts and regulate creation of law and the exercise of state power; we call these principles “rights” (e.g., the rights to life, liberty, and property). An important principle to any legal system is the “rule of law,” meaning that rules should be applied equally and generally without exceptions, in order to reduce arbitrary judgments and prevent corruption, both of which undermine trust. Countries with general equality, rights-based legal systems, and a stable rule of law tend to have less violence and greater prosperity than countries that don’t, which is good news for everyone who wants to improve their well-being. These adaptive systems will not lead to Utopia, or guarantee everyone will achieve comparable levels wealth or happiness. They merely allow everyone to pursue their happiness as best they can.

    *To be clear, human psychology did not evolve, as though out of nothing, during the last 6 million years or during the Paleolithic environment of our most recent ancestors. Our psychology has been continuously adapted and modified from the psychology of all of our conscious ancestors, which is why we share so many traits with chimps, other apes, and monkeys.

I’m not a philosopher, but this is how I view moral concerns. Some will object that my summary is overly descriptive, that it spends all its time describing how people do behave and what they do experience than how they should. These are people who are still enamored with the idea that there is an external set of ironclad, geometric rules about things people ought to do hanging out there in the ether, waiting to be discovered, like the rules of mathematics.

My response is that all we have are facts about human nature. I don’t believe moral “obligations” are a useful guide for human behavior. Unless you have some preconceived list obligations that you received in a divine book, that just degenerates into everyone creating obligations on everyone else, things that other people or “the universe” owes them. That’s not a useful way to design a universal system of moral behavior.

I think once you concede that well-being is the relevant standard for morality, and that it is in general preferable to be materially and psychologically satisfied, you have all the foundation you need to create a secular moral and social system, discoverable through rational inquiry. I don’t argue this gives us all the answers, just that it provides a useful framework in which to discuss moral questions, free from religious dogma and whinging complaints about “respecting” everyone’s moral beliefs and “cultural traditions.”

Update: [After discussing this with a friend, he said that my argument rested on a faith-based claim that is better to live than to not live, and that you can’t rationally prove that it is better to exist than to not exist. I don’t understand this argument. Is it better to exist? Better compared to what? Existence is not a characteristic like color or shape or speed. If you’ve decided to have this conversation with me you’ve concluded that you prefer to continue existing rather than going quietly into the long good night.]
The Mind of the Market | Michael Shemer
The Science of Good and Evil | Michael Shermer
The Believing Brain | Michael Shermer
The Moral Landscape | Sam Harris
The Expanding Circle | Peter Singer