Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Moral Intuition

Occasionally I feel the need to revisit (and refine) my thoughts on morality—or ‘moral intuition’. My last attempt was this post, in which I wrote:
• Moral Equivalence: the position that, in a conflict, there can be no “hierarchy” with respect to the ethical nature of the actions of the parties involved.
• Moral Relativism: the position that there are “no absolutes” with respect to moral propositions and that all moral codes are “relative” to specific cultures and customs.
• Moral Absolutism: the position that there are, in fact, “absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged”.
• Moral Objectivism: “the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion.” (ala Ayn Rand)
• Rational Morality: the position that “it is possible to rationally conceive of our view of right and wrong, and that this is extremely necessary because our choices and actions have larger consequences than we often imagine.” (ala Chris Wilson, the Enlightened Caveman)

The moral concepts above are only a few examples of the ways in which concepts of morality diverge. So how does one divine the correct position, if indeed one is correct? To find out, a bit of deduction is in order. Considering that, at the root of morality, there lay two very specific and mutually exclusive ideas: right and wrong, it's only reasonable that they should have a concrete and discernable meaning. If so, then it follows that Moral Equivalence and Moral Relativism are empty and meaningless concepts, in that they are both open-ended and ultimately subjective. Therefore “right and wrong”, if they are to be defined, would fall outside the scope of “morality” as such.

On the other hand, if “right and wrong” do exist (e.g. an absolute, objective standard), then the remaining propositions apply, but another question arises: what is the standard? It seems to me that, for a standard to be truly objective, it must necessarily by universally applicable. Without question, such a standard cannot be specific to this faction or that. Therefore, political parties, religious sects and all manner of “interest groups” are precluded from tailoring the standard to their tastes.

If the aforementioned premises hold, the only conclusion to be drawn is one that my fellow Classical Liberals and I subscribe to. Specifically, the proposition that a right to life, liberty and property is inherent, natural and unalienable, and as such are not granted or sanctioned by another, nor do they need to be recognized by others in order to be realized. Therefore, since everyone, regardless of status, possesses these rights by virtue of existence, the only reasonable measure of morality is found in a supreme respect for the sanctity of individual rights. All other concerns (partisan politics, religious beliefs, ideological particulars, etc.) are altogether distinct from authentic morality, inasmuch as there are innumerable possibilities of sets and subsets of each.

As I re-read this old post, I was struck by how Randian, i.e. ‘Objectivist’, my conception of morality was…just a few years ago (I had just read Atlas Shrugged, after all). That’s not to say that I completely reject objective standards of moral behavior; I just have a somewhat more nuanced view these days.

So, what is this supposed nuanced view of moral intuitions? Well, it’s actually both simple and profound: simple, in that it’s essentially mirrors the ‘Golden Rule’ and profound in that it presupposes the existence of universal, inherent rights that every human being possesses, regardless of class or creed.

First, let’s take the so-called ‘Golden Rule’. It basically states that one ought to treat others the way in which one would like to be treated. Seems straight-forward enough. But is it, really? It seems that it can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand—and this seems to be the most popular view—the GR is taken be both negative and positive: that is, one is obligated both to refrain from intentionally and gratuitously causing harm as well as to offer meaningful support at every opportunity. After all, isn’t that what one should reasonably expect from others?

Another way to view the GR is rather more one-sided—namely, in a purely negative sense. On this view, one’s moral obligation consists solely of refraining from intentional, gratuitous harm. And this is where the aforementioned ‘inherent rights’ come in. That is, every human being is entitled to live unmolested (assuming reciprocation, which is implicit in the GR).

I favor the one-sided, strictly negative interpretation of the GR. Why? Because hypocrisy is unacceptable. Think about it. The dual interpretation of the GR is necessarily egocentric (i.e., I would do for another exactly what I would want done for me…but not necessarily what another might want me to do). In other words, the desire to be ‘left alone’ (negative) is universal, whereas the desire to receive benefits from others (positive) is specific to each individual and therefore cannot ultimately conform to the GR in a meaningful way.

So, in order to avoid hypocrisy, true morality (i.e., the Golden Rule) must be seen as negative…’do no harm’.

Finally, a word about the metaphysics of morality. I used to conflate ‘objective’ and ‘universal’. That was a mistake. I recently read Ken Wilber, who characterized morality in a way that really resonated with me. In criticizing the “industrial ontology” of Modernity, which took Nature to be the “ultimate reality” because the observable world has “simple location”, Wilber suggests that moral intuitions, though they do not have location in space-time, are nonetheless “real”.

So instead of thinking about morality as objective (an object with simple location) or subjective (peculiar to a knowing subject), it ought to be seen as intersubjective (an abstract, though real and universal, emergent property that arises in the presence of two or more human beings, each of whom being obligated to respect the inherent rights of others).