Have you ever considered where your ideas of “good” and “bad” come from?
I think most people don’t give it a second thought. Simple answers quickly come to mind like God, common sense, or mom and dad. Philosophers have discussed ethics for millennia, but sadly most Facebook comments today are completely void of them. All of our ideological battles of individualism vs. collectivism, capitalism vs. socialism, statism vs. anarchy and so forth can be judged by a single metric: Is it good?
Useful philosophy should be as universal as possible. Sadly, we’ve lost our way in even defining good. It’s normal for language to change over time, but some words are so foundational to our motivations and actions, if we change them, we change what it means to live a life worth living.
While on this ride, we should also think about what logical fallacies we might encounter along the way, something I hope to do with many of the posts on this blog. If you’re not familiar with YourLogicalFallcyIs.com, please make it part of your studies. Your search for truth will be greatly improved by knowing these concepts. Thoughts on this post will include No True Scotsman, Appeal to Authority, and Bandwagon.
Now that we’re geared up to avoid logical fallacies, let’s take a look at some common mechanisms I think people use to determine what is “good” and what is not.
I’ll stick with the religion I know best and spent 30+ years of my life in before losing eternity (though other religions could illustrate this point just as well). Most forms of Christianity claim to follow the Bible for just about everything, including morality. The challenge modern, moral Christians face, from my perspective, is how to live true to what they actually believe about morality in contrast to what they are supposed to believe according to the God of scripture. The truly devout (some would say, “fundamentalists”) will argue God can do and say whatever he wants because he created everything and our primitive minds can’t possibly understand him. They come up with (IMO) some rather creative mental gymnastics to justify and do away with the cognitive dissonance caused by exploring morality in the Bible.
From my perspective, the Bible (or the office of the Pope, if you prefer) gives us some pretty conflicting (i.e. not universal) perspectives on things like:
- Child Abuse
I could link out to many sources for my concerns above, but they are obvious to those who don’t see the scriptures as divinely inspired, and they are irrelevant for those who do since there’s always another interpretation and justification. You can Google for the same sources I did, but please don’t exclude results from RationalWiki.org or the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible if you’re truly looking for understanding, not just confirmation bias.
No True Scotsman fallacy shows up with regards to religion if someone replies with “But no real Christian believes that…”
What about using the law for our understanding of morality? On the surface, this might seem like a good idea and be the framework for civilization we all enjoy. Unfortunately, I’m too personally steeped in Voluntaryism to objectively explain how crazy I think this is (I’ve been on the roady to anarchy for a couple years now).
If you desire to be a good person and government law tells you what’s right, how many laws have you actually entirely read? Come to think of it… how many politicians who vote on the laws have actually read them? Yes, in theory, laws can and do change over time to be more adaptive to the consent of the governed, but the track record isn’t so great for things like:
The monopoly on the use of force within a geographic region (how I and others describe government) often uses the cover of “law” to do very immoral things. It’s amazing to me how in the United States in 2016 we actually lock people in a cage for growing a plant. We’re looking for universal philosophical principles here, so don’t even get me started with how screwed up law is in other countries around the world.
To me, some laws can be within the subset of morality, but they are not equivalent. There are laws that attempt to uphold moral ideals (don’t murder, don’t steal, etc), but the idea that morality can come from law is to me a classic Appeal to Authority fallacy as well as circular reasoning.
We might also call this category common sense. So much of our understanding of what is right and wrong comes to us in our early formative years. Those first five years of life are crucial as our brain may be wiring itself to respond to either a hostile, violent environment or a cooperative, peaceful one. Check out bombinthebrain.com for more info on the roots of human violence.
Here are some examples we get from our parents/tribe:
- Corporal Punishment (i.e. Spanking)
- “Because I said so”
- “Everyone is else is doing it”
This is basically the Bandwagon fallacy. We go along with whatever we see everyone else doing. If our parents thought spanking was a valuable form of discipline, and we “turned out okay” (in our own minds with no comparison set to use for justification), then we’ll probably be okay with spanking our kids (regardless of the studies which argue otherwise).
Now, I have to be fair. Of the categories we’ve looked at so far, this one at least seems the most reasonable to me. We do things which reward us with pleasure and avoid things which cause us pain. As social creatures, our communities provide for much of our pain and pleasure. The part where it loses universality, for me, is when it condones things which can provably be shown to decrease human well-being. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Why should human well-being matter?
Philosophy and Reason
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! I mentioned human well-being above because I think it might actually be a more universal framework for many of the other systems we’ve already explored.
If there is no God, why did humans independently, all over the world, (subconsciously?) create religions? Why did civilizations all throughout history form governments and create laws for their citizens to follow? Why do moms, dads, and tribes raising children attempt to instill morals?
I think the answer to all of the above could be summarized by it increases (or at least attempts to increase) human well-being. My personal favorite description for why morality based on human well-being matters is because this morality creates the world we want to live in. The philosophically minded readers here will recognize this as a form of Utilitarianism and should be quick to point out the many criticisms of Utilitarianism. That’s completely fine because utopia doesn’t exist in this world. Every few steps forward will involve a step or two back as we further refine and define what it is we’re talking about and, importantly, what we as conscious beings want out of life.
There are literally thousands of years of content to read when it comes to the philosophy of ethics, morality, and virtue. This is the hard stuff. To understand these concepts on a deep level takes many years of study, a journey I’m personally just beginning. Worse yet, understanding the philosophy of morality may disrupt the status quo in terms of our religions, our laws, and our view of our parents’ opinions.
It is worth it! Studying history, I would argue, suggests human progress depends on our pursuit of sound moral philosophy and communicating those ideas to each other.
The wikipedia page on Ethics outlines some key ideas which are worth getting familiar with:
- Meta-ethics: How we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong
- Normative ethics: The study of ethical action
- Virtue ethics
- State consequentialism
- Pragmatic ethics
- Role ethics
- Anarchist ethics
- Postmodern ethics
- Applied ethics: Attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations
- Business ethics
- Relational ethics
- Machine ethics
- Military ethics
- Political ethics
- Public sector ethics
- Publication ethics
- Moral Psychology: The intersection of ethics and psychology (moral development and the philosophy of mind)
- Descriptive Ethics: A value-free approach to ethics
Whoa there! That’s a lot to read through! It sure is… not only that, it’s only a subset of philosophy in general. So why bother with all that work? Well, as we’ve explored above, there are problems with other mechanisms for determining what’s good if we don’t have an internalized consistent framework of our own. Religious morality can lead to holy wars and inquisitions. Legal morality can lead to authoritarianism, world wars, and, as the Nuremberg trials showed us, “just following orders” is not a valid defense. Parental and tribal obedience doesn’t create forward moral progress and would still have us all owning slaves or condoning husbands beating their wives (to use just two examples from the last couple hundred years).
Doing the hard work of defining where our morality comes from and seriously questioning those foundations helps create a world for ourselves and our children we want to live in. It’s easy to complain about what’s wrong in society or politics or business but it’s much harder to define exactly what is “good” and what is “bad.” Without doing so, our complaints and the actions that stem from them many not lead to any improvements.
Without a solid foundational moral philosophy, our actions to bring about good might actually promote what is bad.
I’m tempted to end this post here, but I’d like to dive a little further into what personally interests me most right now concerning moral philosophy. I’m a big fan of the non-aggression principle (NAP):
The principle asserts aggression is always an illegitimate encroachment upon another individual’s life, liberty, or property, or attempt to obtain from another via deceit what could not be consensually obtained. For example, the NAP prohibits the initiation of force by one individual or group of individuals against another individual or group of individuals.
The NAP, for me, leads nicely into the concept of Voluntaryism which is a “philosophy which holds that all forms of human association should be voluntary.” I also value self ownership and the philosophy of liberty which comes from it. More on that in this 8 minute video, if you’re interested:
Another, more controversial aspect of morality I’m interested in is where it came from.
What roll does nature play in forming morality?
On a basic, biological level, what is the purpose of life? It is to survive long enough to reproduce the species. For conscious beings, survival involves being in a pleasurable state of consciousness. We have the ability to end our own life… so why don’t we? Because we’re happy. How do we stay happy? Well, that’s a unique thing for many individuals, but it’s easier to talk about the opposite and what makes us not happy. We don’t want to be aggressed against, and we enjoy autonomy to pursue things which increase our well-being. Did natural selection bring about this mechanism which seems to keep conscious species going?
The evolution section of morality on Wikipedia quotes some who argue morality as:
“a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups.” This suite of behaviors includes empathy, reciprocity, altruism, cooperation, and a sense of fairness.
There’s even a whole page on the evolution of morality. We can also get into the neuroscience aspects of morality and mirror neurons. The science of morality and ethical naturalism are two other aspects I’m really interested in, along with virtue ethics.
The takeaway here is we should all be exploring what “good” and “bad” mean to us. Before we judge, we should have a solid framework justifying our position. If not, others might easily manipulate us into promoting the very things we’re trying to change.
Where does your morality come from? Leave some comments below to keep the conversation going.