Wrong about Wrongs.

One of the bizarre pleasures of philosophy is being proven wrong. In fact, so far as I can tell, this is one of the chief pursuits of the philosopher. This puzzling lust for a humbling argument may be tantamount to intellectual masochism, but it’s the name of the game.  If you want to do philosophy, you’d better get used to being schooled by people who are much smarter than you (and often enough, long-dead too).

Unfortunately there are not as many Eureka! moments in philosophy as one might imagine. It seems that the further you get in your training, the more finely tuned your appreciation for shades of grey becomes. Combine that with a greater ability to waffle, qualify and hedge and it’s hard to imagine how even flat-out contradictions might derail an astutely stubborn philosopher. But it happens often enough. Some, like Hilary Putnam, reverse their positions so often that this flip-flopping becomes a central part of their reputation. Unlike in politics, this needn’t be a bad thing. Chances are that if a philosopher hasn’t changed her mind in the time between her university years and the culmination of her professional career, she was doing something quite wrong.

So it was with some happiness that I was quite recently disabused of a notion that I had long held (and indeed come to affirm quite stubbornly in the last several years). And she’s a doozy. In the course of about a week, as I have read two books by a man named Richard Joyce*, I have become a moral skeptic. A long story short,  I no longer believe that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the moral sense actually describe anything in the universe. Moreover, I have been compelled to doubt that there is any such thing as moral obligation or moral imperatives. There are plenty of rules that I think we should all follow, but I can’t say as I once could that there are objective moral truths that apply to everyone. I have become something of a weak moral relativist, which I find a little awkward to admit given my past rants against Nietzsche in particular and post-modernists of all stripes more generally.

An aside: There is a principal known on the Internet as Godwin’s Law, which basically states that as a thread on a message board increases in number of posts, the likelihood of someone invoking Hitler and the Nazis approaches a mathematical certainty. In my thousands of hours lurking on such message boards, I can confirm this Law firsthand. I think Godwin’s accurate observation can be expanded beyond its original context to apply to moral conversations broadly. The deeper a conversation delves into morality, the more certain it becomes that someone will demand a judgement concerning the Nazis. For the record, I still think the Nazis suck. End of aside.

But moral judgements like this are much slipperier when you can’t just go with your gut and say that killing innocent people is morally wrong. In the (fortunately) unlikely situation where I would find myself arguing against a Nazi, I would be hard-pressed to conclusively argue for the evil of Hitler’s schemes. It is easy enough to argue why they were not nice, why they were not fair, why they were not economically or politically expedient, why they were an embarrassment for a proud country and so forth. But why they were morally indefensible is a different story.

When we say that torture, murder, stealing and deception are wrong (especially when they are for personal gain), our gut backs us up. We really feel that such acts are wrong not only in a particular case but indeed across all cases. Our intuitions align behind the notion that a core of morally impermissible acts are forbidden by some difficult-to-define, if not ineffable, universal moral principle that is sustained in all situations.

Unfortunately there are plenty of problems with ascertaining what kind of principle would actually confirm our intuitions. Richard Joyce argues that it simply cannot be done; nothing we will discover about the world will lend us reason to believe that such moral facts exist, much less that they do AND that they match our intuitions.

What we can discover about the world, however, is how and why we might have those intuitions in the first place. The evolution of such moral norms makes sense in light of the logic of animal co-operation, reciprocation and altruism. The framework developed in books like The Selfish Gene actually provides us with one of our best opportunities for explaining how we came to have moral intuitions and thus why we find the notion of unfettered selfishness so unpleasant and, crucially, morally wrong. This is yet another quasi-paradoxical inversion of reasoning made possible by Darwinian evolution.

I do have one major concern, although it is more political than philosophical. Darwin’s theory has often been distorted in the public imagination because of its pernicious political interpretations (again with the Nazis!).  Given that the naturalist (or New Atheist) movement relies in no small part on the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory to account for the origin of life on Earth, it is vital that the theory be understood as widely and as accurately as possibe.  Given its troubled past, proponents like Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett (to name just two) have had to go to great lengths to maintain Darwin’s good name and separate the theory from its abuses in history.  The (ad hominem) charge of being Godless and immoral (or maybe amoral)  will have a lot more rhetorical clout if Joyce’s arguments begin to trickle out of academia and into popular discourse. Joyce acknowledges this briefly and with optimism that borders on naiveté.  Without the proper spin, packaging, or whatever you want to call it, the concept of moral fictionalism will muddy the waters of rationalism and naturalism for some time. Like Joyce, I reluctantly acknowledge that this may be the price of telling the truth in open society.


* Richard Joyces’ books: The Evolution of Morality and The Myth of Morality

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