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Monday, October 26, 2009

Responses on natural-objective ethics

Thomas Hobbes (left) and Gautama Buddha
(right). Natural law + Metta is about right.
(cc) Wikipedia.
In his blog, The Tentative Apologist, Randal Rauser claims that within a naturalistic context, there can be no objective measure of ethics, morality, right, or wrong. This is, of course, what the Humanist Contemplative concept I work on is all about, so I will take some time to answer some of his points.

In the post, "The games people play with morality" (October 21, 2009), Rauser is himself responding to the point that, in naturalistic ethics, "we are playing a game called 'human flourishing' or 'human happiness'". This point was made to him in response to his question-begging claim that if we know moral facts as objective, then somehow naturalism cannot be true.

I can't speak for the original person making the point, but in describing the position, Rauser touches only the most base and surface-level aspects of it:

"By cooperating with others, we improve our own lives. I enjoy living in a house that I could never have built by myself, and eating food that I could never have grown by myself, and using a computer that I could never have built on my own, and listening to music I could never have composed, and so forth."

Real happiness is not about materialism. True happiness is about a contentment that comes from other more deep rewards - but these rewards are also based on certain behaviors, which have to do with cooperation and empathy for others.

Next, Rauser questions whether or not humans are similar enough in "fundamental desires and capabilities that a basic 'universal moral framework' is possible":

"For instance, most of us would agree that getting killed and eaten by a cannibal is losing the game. But a few years ago two blokes in Germany made the headlines because they had a pact where one killed and ate the other."

The ethical norms of behavior exist to provide happiness and fulfillment to the vast majority of normal human beings, and are compatible with general human nature. The people he describes above are so aberrant, that an overarching system for human ethics need not take them into account. They clearly have issues, and would have issues within a society of any philosophic or religious persuasion. Aside from that practical point, the fact is that if killing and eating one another were the ethical norm, it would undoubtedly be less effective for the survival and flourishing of humanity as a whole. This alone, by natural definition, makes the act unethical.

Rauser also seems to believe the point of a flourishing-based ethical system is about actions alone. He addresses what he calls "the moral monster problem":

"...But this is consistent with an individual who acts *morally* externally and yet has an inner life where he fantasizes about killing, dismembering and eating infants... Surely however this is wrong: the interior life of a person is as fundamental for their moral character as their exterior actions."

Yes it is, which gets to the point made above. Inner motivation is key to a moral character. Outward moral action may have a general tendency to provide outward material and relational benefits, but usually only if applied consistently in the long-term. However, focusing on outward reaction and material gain, attempting to be moral when it gets us our way and immoral otherwise, is a formula for failure and an unsustainable fantasy. We do not have perfect perception when it comes to the timing of such things, nor a perfect ability to hide misdeeds. Therefore, we are best off, in outward terms, adopting moral action consistently. In order to achieve this requires the development of moral character. It is moral character that makes committing moral action easier and more 'automatic', and committing immoral action harder.

But even then, we have not addressed the ultimate nature of morality or its best rewards. All of the preceding is speaking only of outward statistical material rewards over time. Those things which are moral are not so simply because they engender mutual behaviors that will get us "stuff". Rather, they are moral because they are compatible with the human psyche - the human sense of compassion, self worth, and empathy. These are our natural proclivities as social animals and when we act morally, and build a moral character, we are acting in accordance with our nature as social animals. We are living emotionally and psychologically healthy lives, and we flourish internally for having done so. All of this is objectively true about Homo Sapiens, and the best course of action for members of that species. The truest and deepest rewards of a moral life are not outward but inward, and that reward comes not from any one action, but from a moral, compassionate character of integrity. We know this to be objectively true from first hand experience and the life experience of countless wise human beings over history.

"...there is no objective basis to judge which game is superior or inferior because there is no fact about that. As a result, superiority is wholly relativized to the individual."

Rauser claims there is no objective basis to judge which game is superior. However, there is a difference between no objective basis existing and one existing which Rauser does not prefer. The basis is: which standard of behavior, if made the norm in a human society would be more or less beneficial to human beings in the long haul. This, in fact, is quite likely to be the natural selective standard by which our species evolved its current instinctive social responses to various behaviors, which forms the underlying motivations for our creation of ethical standards and institutions. Not only that, but I submit that this is the true standard currently in use and which has been used by all people and all societies throughout history, including religious ones. Although, certainly the standard has been unspoken and perhaps subconscious - it is apparent in the unstated premise of nearly any specific argument for or against any ethic or behavior, and always has been.

"This game account of the moral life could be taken to be consistent a form of utilitarianism: always act so as to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If this were the view, it would beg the question of why we should think that the greatest good for the greatest number is a binding criterion of the moral life."

Because when we say that the greatest good is the criterion for the moral life, we are not stating an "ought" (or a prescriptive). Rather, we are stating an "is" (a descriptive), based on an impartial observation of the human species. When we say "the moral life" this is a concept under the field of ethics, and ethics is a human invention. It is a phenomenon that exists in the human species. No matter where you take humans, how you cut them into different societies, they will always develop "norms of behavior" which they encourage between one another. These norms may vary, but the fact that humans have an inborn inclination to do this is telling. It means that it stems from our deepest instinctive motivations, and instincts are evolved. If they are evolved, then they are likely the result of natural selection. This means that we have a tendancy to form and encourage moral norms among one another because this inclination is beneficial to our survival. Therefore, we don't have to decide whether ethics is based on survival and benefit for humanity - any non-human extra-terrestrial intelligence passing by our planet would impartially observe that to be the fact of the matter about human beings. Knowing the functional purpose of the human ethical impulse, we thus have a standard of moral measurement. Therefore, there *is* a right answer to moral questions, which are as true as 2+2=4. This is based on naturalism alone.

Thomas Hobbes outlined a natural law and believed that people could reach a broad consensus on how to behave for their mutual prosperity. This may have a very Westernized consequentialist tone, but when "prosperity" is more subtly understood to include what is psychologically healthy and befitting our nature as social beings, then the importance of empathy, inner motivation, compassion, and attitude becomes apparent, as Buddha prescribed Metta, or 'loving kindness' and mental/intentional purity as a means to avoid suffering.

Having said that, always knowing what that right answer is - that's the hard part, and where we will unfortunately sometimes make mistakes or willfully distort truth for selfish ends.

Note: For a full essay on this subject, please see my essay: Natural-Objective Ethics

Comment: EH
In general I agree with the idea of there not being an objective right or wrong except based on principles of not harming people, etc. But, like you said, people will use this idea of there not being a right or wrong to justify whatever they want to do.... I know of one person in particular who was using this philosophy to justify stuff like napalming a bunch of people (in theory only). But then again, maybe that is just human nature. Throughout history people have used even the objective morality systems to justify doing whatever they want to do too... like using the Bible to justify going to Jerusalem and killing a bunch of Arabs during the Crusades. So... lol maybe it's inevitable either way.

Comment: DT Strain
True EH, and that brings up another matter I should have included in the article, that being: Even systems claimed to be 'objective' which are based on faith are truly not, because there's the matter of whose faith (or interpretation of a faith) is correct. With no way to prove faith-based claims, whose standard wins out is largely subjective, based on who can yell the loudest or kill the most. So, no matter how you cut it, it's going to boil down to humans trying to figure out how to live with one another and reaching agreements. I say ethics is objective because there is a 'best way' for humans to interact for most efficiency in happiness and prosperity. But knowing what that best way is, is a process of discovery and imperfection.

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