On the foundations of morality
There aren’t any. Nor can there be. And if anyone can refute me on this, I’ll be delighted. [Update: discussion arising from this post has convinced me that we all use multiple foundations, that they are mutually inconsistent, and that there is no way of choosing between them. My position here is very similar to that taken by Alex Rosenberg, of Duke University, who argues that moral judgments are not factual claims but emotional responses and spurs to action, and that there is no way of arbitrating basic disagreements.]
I have just finished reading Kenan Malik’s superb The Quest for a Moral Compass, which I am not competent to review, beyond questioning the judgement of those commentators who have compared it to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell is concerned primarily with timeless questions of epistemology, Malik with our present moral confusions. And unlike Russell, Malik doesn’t ignore the existence of China.
Let me add, however, that Malik is not to blame for what follows here.
There are some questions which of their nature cannot be answered. A notorious example is Heidegger’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This can never be answered. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of the totality denoted by “something”, or it is not. In the first case, part of the explicand is being invoked as the explanation, which is absurd. In the second, X itself remains to be explained, and we are no further forward. There are various ways of cheating at this point, either by allowing X to be eternal, and thus not requiring explanation (Aquinas), or by claiming that X is, in some mysterious sense, “necessary”, and therefore exempt from the need to be explained (William Lane Craig, Plantinga), but neither of these would convince anyone who did not already have faith in the implied First Cause.
I have come to the melancholy conclusion that the question “On what can we base our morality?” comes into the same category. This is not news. It was, in a sense, spelt out by Plato in Euthyphro’s notorious dilemma. Are things good because the gods love them, or do the gods love these things because they are good? In the first case, the moral code is merely a by-product of divine whims, and would change if those whims happened to change. In the second, the gods themselves must be appealing to some higher principle; what is it?
As Malik points out in his masterly demolition of Sam Harris’s philosophical pretensions, the argument generalises. Harris would have us derive morality from science, and in particular from the principle of maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Thus he would in principle justify torture, if it could be demonstrated as an effective way of extracting information, provided the gain in well-being achieved through our possession of the information extracted by it outweighs the victim’s sufferings.
But why should we regard maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures” as our measure of morality, even if we could quantify and define “well-being,” foresee how this would be affected by our actions, and accurately subtract one creature’s loss of well-being from another creature’s gain? As Malik points out, there is no reason why someone who accepts different principles – who regards, for example, inflicting torture as an insult to the nature of humanity that cannot be justified under any circumstances – should regard Harris’s arguments as the least bit convincing. As Malik puts it, Euthyphro’s dilemma applies with as much force to the appeal to the results of science, as it does to the appeal to the will of the gods.
Nor can we derive a solution from appealing to evolution, or to the nature of our humanity, or to the dynamics of history. It is perfectly possible to maintain, indeed I myself do maintain, that xenophobia is the result of evolutionary hardwiring, but nonetheless morally wrong. And few would maintain that to explain, for example, Stalin, or the Islamic State, in terms of historical forces is in any way to justify them.
And we can generalise. The same argument applies to any purported criterion for distinguishing right from wrong. We cannot live without moral principles, any more than we can live without confidence in the constancy of the laws of nature, but in neither case is it possible to justify our position without circularity. Perhaps we simply need to live with these uncomfortable truths.
To return to our starting point, the question “How do we justify our morality?” does not admit of an answer that does not beg the question. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of our moral code, or it is not. In the first case, we are invokingas justification part of what we are seeking to justify, and the most we can achieve in this way is consistency, not validation. In the second, X itself remains to be justified, and we are no further forward.
Which is simply an involved way of saying that there are no moral facts, only moral choices. And those who think otherwise scare me, even when they share my code.
The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik, hardback Atlantic Books, May 2014; paperback April 2015. Disclosure: I bought the hardback version, but I’m a slow reader. Extracts from the book are being made available on Kenan Malik’s onw website, starting, coincidentally, today.