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16 September 2014 06:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

The conditionality of morality

  • Jacques Rousseau
In the final chapter of our discussion on morality, we ask the essential question: Does morality serve any useful purpose? The answer would seem to lie in evaluating morality in a naturalistic way using the tools of science. How would such assessment hold up?

Various metaphysical questions have enjoyed the attention of philosophers, whether amateur or professional, ever since we became able to articulate complex thought. From questions regarding the point of our existence to wondering about the nature and existence of a soul, we have spent much time pondering these and other questions that frequently seem insoluble, and for which it remains unclear what – if anything – should be taken as evidence for or against any particular conclusion.

It’s certainly possible, even probable, that much of this has been wasted time, at least in the sense of its likelihood of resulting in answers that can assist us in dealing with practical problems that are (at least in principle) soluble. And we do have practical problems to address. The concept of moral luck highlights the fact that some of us are simply born on the back-foot, and that no matter how hard we work, or what our natural talents might be, we will always be less well-off than someone fortunate enough to be born into more fortuitous circumstances.

This is a moral issue. While libertarians are comfortable with the idea of desert, whereby your life choice to be slothful could rightly correlate with a lack of wealth and opportunity, it’s less easy to say that you get what you deserve if accidents of geography have resulted in your being born in a township with no access to quality schooling. And this is also a moral issue which is generated by entirely practical considerations, namely issues which include the proper allocation of state resources and government policy on class and race.

But when we think about morality, we often fall into a trap of subjectivity. Part of what makes H. Sapiens as interesting as it can be is our ability to engage in self-reflection, and to indulge ourselves through complex narratives that reinforce our specialness. The very activity of thinking about the metaphysical questions gestured at above is a privileged activity, in that it’s a luxury that those who are worried about where the next meal might come from would indulge in less frequently than the average reader of The Daily Maverick. It is, however, also an activity that is distinctly and definitively human, as we would most likely continue engaging in it even if there were no answers to be had.

As a starting point to resolving non-subjective moral dilemmas, we could usefully remind ourselves that there are a number of clear correlates between flourishing on the one hand, and economic and social policy on the other. We should also remind ourselves that subjective welfare – my perceived happiness, and what I believe needs attention – is absolutely unreliable as a guide to what we should do, whether in a moral sense or any other. Perceptions of personal welfare are massively state-dependent, in that what I report today might be entirely different to what I report tomorrow, simply because of the cognitive biases of which we are all victims.

This means that morality should be informed by objective measures of welfare – if not completely, then at least substantially. At the macro-level of societal good, this means that where we can know that the provision of sanitation, water and electricity to a certain level results in a clear aggregate increase in health, it becomes a moral imperative to provide those goods. Where we can know that gender or racial equality, whether in terms of voting rights, access to education or any other measure results in social good in some measurable form, the provision of these rights also become a moral imperative.

Morality is, therefore, at least in part an issue of sound policy. Not only because we would see increases in economic and intellectual productivity if more South Africans had access to the relevant markets, but also because it seems plausible that many of our moral problems might be minimised through redress of these macro-level problems. It is no accident that violent crime, rape or spousal abuse simply doesn’t happen as often in places like Sweden. People are simply not given the incentive to take what is not theirs in jurisdictions such as these where basic needs are met. They have less reason to, and they also have more reason to work towards the common good.

This is because the relationship between self-interest and maximising the common good becomes clear in situations where you regularly experience evidence of your welfare being resolved by collective action, rather than by the experience of occasionally winning what you perceive as a zero-sum game involving a competition between yourself and a hostile other, whether the other is state or society.

To some extent, objective considerations such as these can also inform morality on a personal and subjective level. We can extrapolate various well-justified moral norms or rules applicable in personal environments from what we can know from our high-level conclusions regarding what is good for a society. If corruption, deceit and violence are negatively correlated with flourishing on a societal level, it’s certainly likely that the same relationship exists on a personal level, whether the tenderpreneur experiences it in this way or not. While free-riders can never be eliminated, they are no obstacle to our reaching agreement on calling certain actions “good” or “bad”, because we know them to be either conducive or not to objectively desirable states of the world.

Of course, some might object to any claim that there are objectively desirable states of the world. I struggle to make sense of this objection, in that it seems obvious that the vast majority of us prefer certain common goods, such as health, financial security and our preferred level of social engagement. If someone were to make the claim that the most desirable state of the world instead involves privation and violence, I see no reason not to simply exclude them from the conversation, in the same way that we can justifiably ignore the opinions of young-earth creationists when we talk about cosmology.

But if we are to take such objections seriously, it seems clear that they lead to an impasse of one sort or another. We could say something like, “Okay, I can’t prove that you are right, while I am wrong about what is good, but I can know that I don’t want to be part of a society in which you are well-represented”. In other words, even though our social contract might be entirely pragmatic, it will tend to exclude or discount these views, and it further seems to be the case that even on your standards, your own prospects of a good life will be compromised by your minority status, making your view somewhat self-defeating.

Or, one might object that morality is about something else entirely, and that these measures of objective welfare are not the issue at all. If this is the case, the task is then yours to explain what morality is for, if it is for anything at all. Certainly, moral debate could simply be one of the sorts of noises that humans make, and only that – it could perhaps just be one of the social and intellectual habits that we have developed for our own entertainment, or to buttress our narratives of self-identity, much like our desperation to believe in free will or souls despite there being no evidence for the existence of either.

But again, even if this is true, it remains rational for us to desire to live better lives as opposed to worse ones, and to seek out ways to make this the case. It also seems clear that most of us agree that measures such as our health and financial security are good proxies for knowing when lives are better or worse. And if there is any data about what makes a good life more rather than less likely, it makes sense to say that moral theory has to take that data into account, and that aggregating this data into “rules” is what morality is for.

The position sketched above is not relativistic, in that moral principles are derived from objectively measurable data. It is also not an absolutist position, because the preferences of individuals and societies are not necessarily immutable, and if different sorts of lives become desirable in the future, we should be ready to accommodate observations to this effect. Instead, what I’ve outlined is a position that is naturalistic, and for which we already have well-developed tools to separate sense from nonsense. If moral claims are not subject to the only successful tools we’ve ever developed for evaluating truth-claims – the tools of science – then there is truly nothing we can know in morality, and there seems little reason to discuss it any further. DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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