Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Intersubjective Morality

I periodically revisit some of the questions raised by meta-ethics in an attempt to better understand morality per se. This is one such occasion.

Suppose that there is general agreement that by "objective" we mean "existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality" and by "subjective" we mean "existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought." Put another way: objective reality is in some sense unitary, existing outside the mind, whereas subjective 'reality' is in some sense unique to each individual mind. So, where does this leave morality? That is, are there impartial morals facts (e.g., rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness, etc.), or are moral sentiments and judgments just the result of personal preferences that are based in emotion? (the inspiration for this particular iteration of my moral musings is this diavlog between a couple of moral philosophers.)

At the moment, I'm inclined to say that talk of objective "moral facts" is misplaced; that morality may be neither objective nor subjective; that morality is neither independent of nor dependent on an individual human mind. I tend to think that morality is a type of property that delimits certain actions; or rather, morals just constrain one's behavior vis-à-vis other people.

Additionally, "moral facts" (if you will) are coexistent with rational agents, human beings. But not merely coexistent. Morality obtains if, and only if, there are two or more people in a certain relationship (broadly conceived). I'm thinking specifically of the actual and potential interaction among individuals.

On this view, morality is analogous to logic in that, while logic modifies and constrains propositions, morality serves the same purpose for human behavior, insofar as such involves individuals other than the actor. Similarly, morality is analogous to language, in that both emerge and are useful only in the context of human interaction.

Moral intuitions are not uncommon. They are universal; they transcend culture. Take an extreme example: we naturally intuit that murder, say, is wrong. But why, exactly? We need to justify--or explain the reason for--such intuitions. In other words, what makes it the case that murder is wrong? What about suicide--is it wrong? How about the death penalty? While all are clearly examples of taking a human life, it's less clear that all three share a common moral status.

My view is that the determining variable with respect to "moral facts" is the theoretical sovereignty of individual persons. In other words, each person is the sole legitimate owner of his/her life and, by extension, the rightful owner of all property acquired via mutual trade (i.e. absent force or fraud). Thus, the acquisition of property is also governed by moral principles, in that the taking without consent would violate the sovereignty of the individual from whom it is taken, whether by force or fraud.

It's reasonable to assume, then, that the nature of morality is grounded in the requirement of individual consent. So, justifiable moral acts (i) are those that conform to, and are constrained by, individual sovereignty; (ii) are adequately respectful of the right of consent of those at whom said action is directed; (iii) are neither objective (independent of minds) nor subjective (unique to individual minds) but are rather "intersubjective"--meaning that moral facts are wholly dependent, not on single individuals, but on a plurality of persons (literally two or more) interacting in some social context.

Now, while it's true that God is conspicuously absent from my view of morality, there's a logical explanation. The primary reason is that I just can't accept so-called Divine Command Theory (DCT), according to which "things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands."

Before jumping to conclusions, let me explain. Consider Plato's famous Euthyphro Dilemma: “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?” To choose the first option--that God's commands simply conform to a preexisting moral schema--is to face the Independence Problem:

If morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then it seems that they must be morally good prior to God’s willing them, otherwise God would not will them. If morally good acts are morally good prior to God’s willing them, though, then they must be morally good independent of God’s willing them. For if morally good acts are morally good prior to God’s willing them then God’s willing them is not a necessary condition for their being morally good. Rather, it is possible at least for acts to be morally good without their being willed by God.

Moral goodness, then, would be independent of God’s will, and divine command theory would be false.

However, choosing the second option--that morality just is whatever God happens to command--is to suggest that God's commands are arbitrary or capricious. Neither option is acceptable to a serious theist, so DCT must be rejected. But that in no way entails that God ought to be rejected. Quite the contrary! It just happens to be the case that morality--that which guides intrahuman behavior--is a uniquely human phenomena. After all, the bible is replete with instances in which God's commands and actions appear to be highly immoral, at least from a human perspective. This is evidenced by the palpable difficulty even the most able philosophers of religion had in trying to defend God in a recent conference at Notre Dame entitled My Ways are Not Your Ways. The title comes from a well-known phrase from the bible: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8) I might continue the thought by suggesting that God's morality is likewise not our morality.

Lastly, Mark Murphy, one of the theist philosophers participating in the conference, offered an interesting distinction between an anthropocentric (human-centered) conception of goodness vs. a non-anthropocentric conception of goodness. I'm paraphrasing him here: is expecting God to be subject to anthropocentric morality equivalent to humans being judged by insect-centric morality or plant-centric morality? Good question indeed! The failure of DCT, as well as Mark Murphy's concern, seems therefore to reveal the need for a secular conception of morality. Unless I'm mistaken, I think I've found a plausible one: Intersubjective Morality.