Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Genuine Morality 3

I have a paper slowly taking shape in my thoughts, many of which are in these posts.  The paper would argue 1) that Darwinian explanations of cooperative behavior can support a genuine conception of morality and 2) that such a conception will be Aristotelian and perhaps even Platonic in character. 
Here I am thinking a bit more about the question of what constitutes genuine morality.  I can see three approaches to the question that focus entirely on the moral action without regard to moral consciousness. 
One holds that an action is genuinely moral if it accords with a prescribed list of moral actions.  The prescription presumably requires some authority.  The authority may come from tradition or from the fact that it is held sacred by the tribe or is issued from the members of the tribe that speak with authority.  It may come, of course, from some more or less divine legislator.  Thus it is moral to obey my father because “honor your father” is an authoritative prescription and obedience is a necessary form of such honoring. 
In this view, all that matters is the consonance between the action and the prescription.  Thus someone might be considered a perfectly observant Jew if he perfectly keeps the commandments, even if he is an atheist and keeps the commands out of some kind of ethnic pride.  Likewise, Oedipus is in deep trouble because his actions violate proscribed rules even though he himself had no idea that he was doing wrong. 
A second view is that of utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right if its beneficial consequences outweigh any harmful consequences.  Returning a wallet full of money to the proper owner is right if it is better for each of us if people behave that way.  It is largely irrelevant whether the person returning the wallet does so because he has a sense of personal honor or because he hopes to be admired for his display of honorable behavior. 
Third is my argument concerning the moral logic of an action.  In a case where a number of actors will benefit from cooperation but are tempted to cheat, cooperating is the right thing to do.  It doesn’t matter in this account whether the actors are conscious of the moral import of their actions or whether they are conscious at all.  Cleaner fish and the predators whose jaws they clear of parasites are involved in a relationship which is logically moral, though I doubt that they experience anything like guilt or righteous indignation.  Even computer programs can play games which are logically moral. 
I think that all three of these accounts bring something to the table.  We often judge behavior solely by a set of rules, if only for practical reasons.  Morality is surely utilitarian, as much of moral behavior is necessary for the smooth functioning of social interaction and cooperation.  Likewise I regard moral logic as something like one of Socrates’ ideas: a pattern that is written up, if not in heaven, at least in a larger ledger than human law. 
It seems obvious, however, that something is lacking in all three.  If the first were a complete account, then someone who doesn’t eat shellfish because he is allergic to it would be just as moral as someone who declines because of God’s commandment.  The person who saves someone from a burning house solely because he hopes to build a reputation that will serve him in the next election seems scarcely moral in the same way as someone who acts because he cares about other people more than himself.  A computer program can behavior morally only in the most robotic sense. 
Here the notion of genuine morality helps make sense of Divine Command theory and supports the Biblical notion of God.  Why, one might ask, should we do as God or the gods command?  The most obvious answer is that we should do so for the same reason that we ought to drive the speed limit when we are being followed by a state police vehicle: guns and dungeons.  The obvious problem with that answer is that it reduces moral behavior to merely self-interested exchange and all of us to well-policed scoundrels.  If I do the right thing only because I desire heaven and fear hell (even if the right thing involves merely a silent confession of faith) I am simply making a deal with a powerful partner. 
In the Biblical view, God is by definition the perfect lawgiver.  I may win an eternal reward by faith, but I believe and act in accord with that belief because what God commands is necessarily the right thing to do.  Doing what God commands solely because God commanded it, and not for any benefit that may come to me or others thereby, strikes me as a more mature version of the Jewish faith.  St. Paul was willing to sacrifice his own salvation for the salvation of the gentiles, or so he wrote. 
A satisfying account of human morality needs to be consonant with our moral emotions.  These tell us that the motive for an action is key to its moral character.  We want our spouses and parents and children and friends to provide us with attention but we also want them to genuinely love us.  We are more suspicious of apparently moral behavior when it has an ulterior motive than we are of openly immoral behavior. 
Understanding the evolutionary origins of the moral emotions can help us understand why motives are essential to morality.  A partner who is genuinely motived by a sense of justice will be more reliable than one who acts out of mere expediency.  A community of people who nurture and enforce moral rules out of a genuine moral consciousness will inherit the earth. 
While Darwinian theory can explain why we are capable of and admire genuine moral behavior, it cannot quite tell us why such behavior is genuinely admirable.  That will require some consultation with Plato and Aristotle. 

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a great paper. Plato, Judaism, Oedipus and Darwin all in one treatment!

    Suppose, though, that there isn't any sort of authoritative figure giving divine laws.

    Are we absolutely sure that there is such a thing as morality? Maybe there are acts that are unreasonable or not beneficial to society or even to the individual who is acting. But maybe that only makes them unwise or unpleasant. Does it necessarily mean that there are rights and wrongs?