Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Source of Morality

There have been several conversations in the blogosphere (sorry, I'm too lazy to link) about the source and foundation of morality, and specifically about whether morality has a divine or a naturalistic source. I just can't get interested in this (despite this post), perhaps because this strikes me as a false dichotomy. Certainly, evolutionary biology may offer interesting accounts about the natural history of our social norms and gut reactions, but this does not justify those norms or reactions. (It may help us in thinking about how to overcome or modify normative behavior and inclinations that we judge to be no longer trustworthy or, indeed, ethical. It may help us understand why, psychologically, we often judge as we do.) On the other hand, I guess Plato's Euthyphro pretty well convinced me that it's implausible to hold that X is good (or right) because the gods love (or command) it. I can understand the idea of God as an "ideal observer," who has a perfect understanding of the good and the right (and the virtuous), but such a conception doesn't help us justify any particular moral claim because we are not the ideal observer (and can't know how the ideal observer would judge).

Of course, some hold that there is no reason to "be moral" if there is no God, and thus that the basic reason to be motivated to act morally is divine in nature. But I think there are cases where the idea that we "need" a reason seems strange. Do I need a reason to love and care for my children? Indeed, would warning me that God will punish me if I do not make me love and care for them more? If the question then becomes, "But what is the point of doing one thing rather than another, if there is no eternal reward or justice in the universe?" I would be inclined to respond that some of the "rewards" are internal to the relationship itself, and some arrive when you see your child becoming a marvelous person. I would also suggest that anyone who's worried about "what's in it for them" probably shouldn't have children in the first place. For the most part, it isn't about you. Christian ethics generalizes this point in certain ways (as does the Buddhist ethic of universal compassion). "It" is about no one and everything. I guess I might say that "it" is about being in sustained (and sustainable) harmony with the universe. (That's a bit abstract, and a bit hippie-ish.) There are surely different ways of doing that, but there are also surely many ways of being out of tune. Seeking a reason to live a decent, dignified, and beautiful life ultimately doesn't seem much different from looking for a reason to get out of bed every day. But I'm sympathetic with the thought that things can matter now even if they don't matter "forever" (or, "in the grand scheme of things"). The person in search of a reason to "care" shouldn't be given a reason; there may be no ultimate reason. Rather, they should be shown how to care for something, or given something to care for, in a way that may restore their sanity and, with that, their capacity to understand and imagine the possibility of a basic (and in some ways unreasoned, unintellectualized) love, care, and respect for other things.


  1. This all seems very well said to me. But there is so much bad philosophy (or is it just sloganeering?) out there (Ayn Rand/fundamentalism/new atheism) that perhaps it's important to keep talking about these things until everyone is cured. Of course, if the chatter is just rationalization and propaganda then I don't suppose anyone will really listen.

  2. Sure. I could just say that since we all have to choose our battles, I'm choosing to leave this battle to others. But maybe if this "third" option isn't well-represented, that's irresponsible of me?

    Maybe one day when I have other things of interest cleared out of the way I will have time to make the case. It seems hard because there's a sense in which what I said above takes the form of suggesting that both "sides" in the debate about religion (and evolution) and morality are trapped by a picture about dependence.

  3. I don't think it's irresponsible. You can't do everything. I just meant that a case could be made for trying to help both sides see the error of their ways, if anyone felt like doing that.