Monday, July 06, 2009

Reason and Morality

I argued here that our senses alone are not the source of all knowledge. In a reply to a comment, I extended the argument (in a way that I should have to begin); I now take it to prove that some knowledge cannot be traced back to the senses. Some of what we know we know by reason alone; reason does not always act upon the contents of sense.

Thus a certain possibility opens. Perhaps not just a little can be known by reason alone. Perhaps reason makes much known.

Below are a number of principles that seem to me rational in nature. They are not gotten out of the contents of sense by an inference either mediate or immediate. Indeed them seem to dictate which sorts of inferences made from the contents of sense are good ones and which are not. Some are stated. Others are merely referenced. (I would guess that none of the principles below is stated adequately. A lesson learned early on in philosophy is just how difficult it is to say something in a way that's not open to decisive, and in hindsight obvious, objections.)

1. Of all the possible explanations of a certain phenomena that present themselves, choose the one that is simplest. (What counts as simplicity in explanation is a matter of controversy, but most will agree to this: if two explanations are similar except that one posits more entities, or more kinds of entities, than the other, then the one that posits fewer is simpler.)

2. The principles of deductive and inductive logic (taken to encompass the injunction not to commit any fallacy).

3. The principles of probability, e.g. Bayes Theorem, a principle much beloved by philosophers

Let me add another to the list, one that might just have relevance to moral theory. (“F” is for “fair”. The principle is a principle of fairness.)

F. Treat similar cases similarly in ways demanded by their similarity; treat dissimilar cases dissimilarly in ways demanded by their dissimilarity.

An example will make the principle clear. Say that I have two figures before me, quadrilaterals let us say. I consider the first and find that, since it has four sides, it can be decomposed into two triangles; and from this I conclude that the sum of its interior angles must be 360º. (I know to begin that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180º.) What then must I say about the other quadrilateral? It is similar to the other in respect of number of sides; thus it too must have interior angles that sum to 360º. The figures are similar in a respect relevant to the total degree measure of their angles; and thus the total degree measure of one must equal the total degree measure of the other.

Why might F have to do with moral theory? Here's my idea. I think that I matter (as you think that you matter). If you were to run roughshod over me, if we were to treat me as a mere thing to be used in any way that suits you, I would object. Indeed I would act to protect myself if necessary. But you and I are similar in a respect that is relevant here. You have needs and desires just as do I and would object if they were systematically disregarded. Thus principle F requires that I think that you matter too and so requires that, when I act, I don't discount how my actions will effect you.

My point is this: I don't think I matter just because I'm me. Being Franklin Mason is not what makes me value myself. Instead I value myself because I am a being with needs and desires, i.e. insofar as I am a being that places value on this or that, I count myself valuable. But sheer consistency then demands that I count you as valuable too, for that which makes my valuable in my own eyes is found in you just as much as in me.

If I'm right about this, then what seems to me the fundamental dictate of morality – that others are to be treated as if they matter just as much as me – seems to follow from a rational principle.

This conclusion has obvious consequences for the debate between moral relativists and moral absolutists. If some moral principle can be given a purely rational derivation, then it cannot be relative. I suspect that when relativists assert that all morality is relative, they have in mind the particular moral principles embraced by different peoples at different times. (Pork is verboten, a woman must walk 5 paces behind her husband, etc.) Such principles do seem relative; they likely have no foundation other than variable, idiosyncratic cultural practice. But I suggest that the relativist turn her attention from these particular principles to something more fundamental. I suggest she consider the principle that all are to be treated as if they matter just the same. This, it seems to me, has a claim to being absolute. (And it is my experiences that relativists come to their relativism out a deep respect for difference. But a deep respect for that seems to me to imply a deep respect for those people who hold those different opinions. And so it seems to me that relativists embrace, even if only tacitly, the very principle that I've articulated.)

1 comment:

Steven Stark said...

I still think the examples you have listed could be seen as inferences that have developed after much observation of natural laws.

I think that there are few moral relativists out there - people believe in absolute morality, but we must acknowledge that we get to our sense of absolute morality by means of our relative perceptions and experiences. Natural selection may have "honed" our sense of right and wrong, but obviously we still have real choices in front of us - and environment and memes can definitely change things around completely.

Is there absolute good? I see no way to argue that logically - but we can argue that, in a sense, everyone's practical morality is derived from a sense of absolute good that they maintain - both from our natural, evolved feelings about it and from the choices we make. Basically, we can explain how we got here, with these instincts, but we can't prescribe how to move forward without some sort of metaphysical assumption about what is good from now on.

As to the morals of the golden rule you referenced - I agree with you, BUT what if someone does not accept the idea that others are the same? Perhaps a person thinks, "I am different. Why? Because I am me, not somebody else."

How would we prove to this person that she is wrong? Should we use empirical testimony to show her that she is indeed equal to others? I'm not sure it would be a compelling reason, given the completely logical statement she presents. I think the best approach is utilitarian. A person must see the personal benefit to identifying with others, - the retraction (or expanse, depending on how you look at it) of self. The emotional satisfaction of a sense of connection. But what if a person just doesn't respond? I suppose if they commit a crime, we lock them up. But does this mean they are evil? or chose evil? I reject the term "evil" because it implies an independent force. I like the Buddhist term "unhelpful". Is this person's choice, point of view "unhelpful"?

I say yes, but how can I prove it logically without a metaphysical assumption about morality moving forward? Personal experience seems the only "proof".

thanks for the thoughts and the opportunity for me to ramble.