I want to preface this post by saying I’m a scientist and not a philosopher. But I did a little research in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries) to ensure I had the relevant terminology and definitions reasonably correct.
Morality talks about good or virtuous behavior. Moral philosophers from Plato to modern thinkers have argued about what that entails. The Stanford Encyclopedia says, “Most of the Greek moralists think that, if we are rational, we aim at living well…or happiness…Living well or happiness is our ultimate end.”
Aristotle defined virtuous character as “a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean…between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.” So being virtuous requires avoiding extreme excesses or extreme deficits of behavior, neither gluttony nor starvation but a balanced diet (metaphorically speaking).
On the other hand, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, “The Stoics assume that the good life for human beings is a life in accord with nature.…to find what accords with nature, they look to the development of the human being’s rational powers. They think that as a person begins to use reason instrumentally to satisfy and organize his desires and appetites, he…realizes that conduct that exhibits a rational order is far more valuable…”
There are, of course, many other common interpretations of where “morality” comes from besides rational thought. Morality can be a code of behavior determined by society or based on individual freedoms. Some religious believers say things like, “Morality is following what God wants you to do.”
In “The Reality Thief” Darian Leigh is the epitome of the Empirical Physicalist. He tries to base all his beliefs on evidence in nature plus rational thought to reason from what is observable. As seen in the following passage, this can lead to some surprising and unusual ideas:
Excerpt from The Reality Thief
“As to your second question, how are we to know right from wrong? There are many moralities possible without God. Secular humanists and moral philosophers of many stripes have addressed this issue for centuries. Moral codes, a sense of right and wrong, pre-existed Christianity, pre-existed the Old Testament. Christianity overlaid many of its practices and celebrations onto earlier pagan worship and events. The fact that societies without the Christian God, or any gods at all for that matter, were capable of arriving at moral codes, not too different from those of the Old or New Testaments, would suggest that morality may have other bases besides the Christian religion. We don’t have time to go into evolutionary sociobiology here, but many scholars have written about it.
“Instead, I’d like to suggest that the universe encodes moral laws just as much as it encodes physical laws. The universal moral laws work on a larger scale: the species level. The fact that there are biologically unbreakable moral laws at the species level is as evident as the physical laws we readily accept. One simple example might be: ‘Thou shall not eat all your young.’ Clearly, this law cannot be broken by any mortal, sexually reproducing species if that species is to survive. Just as one cannot jump off a cliff in defiance of the law of gravity, a species cannot defy such ‘moral laws’ and survive.
“Notice how nature enforces moral law. When moral law is broken uniformly by a species, that species becomes extinct. The physical punishment for breaking a natural moral law is much harsher than the eternal damnation in a burning hell specified by Christianity. It is the subsequent non-existence of the species.
“Natural moral laws are similar to the laws of quantum mechanics in many ways. At the subatomic scale, individual particles are capable of all kinds of strange behaviors that seem to break the laws of nature. Take electron tunneling as an example, where an electron seems to ‘jump’ across an insulating barrier. One instant, it’s on one side of the barrier; the next it’s on the other side, without ever traveling through the barrier. It appears to defy natural laws of motion.
“But as discussed earlier, in the aggregation of all these particles into larger-scale lumps of matter, things that we can hold in our hands, those many small-scale oddities average out and matter ‘behaves’ itself. All kinds of behavior might be possible for individual members of a species but, if that species’ aggregate behavior deviates too far from that dictated by nature, the species cannot survive.
“Other examples of natural moral law might go something like, ‘Thou shalt not contaminate your environment to uninhabitable levels’; or ‘Thou shalt not overly limit diversity.’ The first of these is rather obvious, but the second one is very interesting. Nature needs genetic diversity in a species because the environment is unpredictable. Levels of moisture, available food sources, changing light levels, and so on, mean that no species is ever completely safe from their environment because environments aren’t stable.
“The way that species adapt to change, in an evolutionary sense, is to encode variability right into their DNA. Individual members of any species are slightly different from other members. As an environment changes, some members will be better able to adapt to the change than others. In biology, we say these traits are ‘selected’ but, really, we mean that some of the variations are more suitable than others. So nature says species must be capable of adapting or they run the risk of becoming extinct.
“So how does this apply to individuals? It turns out that nature does not care too much about individual members of any species except as they may contribute to the survival of the species as a whole. However, as individuals of an intelligent species, we can choose to synchronize our individual behaviors with behaviors that are important to the species as a whole. We can attend to the needs of our young; we can be responsible shepherds of our environment; we can develop diverse skills and talents; and we can appreciate diversity in others, even if we don’t like their behavior very much.
“Does any of this require an overarching God, to threaten us with punishment if we stray? No, not at all. Nature will deal our species the ultimate punishment, non-existence, if we are immoral and behave contrary to the types of behavior that select for species survival.
“Children require the guidance of an adult to help them select and practice behaviors that fit with that survival over the long term. We learn to share, to cooperate, and to care about the well-being of our fellow humans. Much of infant behavior is guided, if not directed, by their ‘omnipotent’ parents. But, there comes a time when we develop the ability to think rationally, to reason on our own about right and wrong. We no longer need the threat of punishment to determine what kinds of behaviors are good for us and what kinds are bad.
“If, as a society—as a species—we can learn to become aware of the behaviors that are good for our species over the long term, we can begin to take steps where we don’t need the threat of eternal punishment to select good behaviors from bad ones. We don’t need the idea of a God or gods anymore.
“Personally, I believe that it is time for humanity to grow up, to finally claim its adulthood and begin to take conscious responsibility for its future development.”
Some may recognize this approach has something in common with “natural law” philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia notes this approach claims, “that any rational person in any society…can know the general kinds of actions that morality prohibits, requires, discourages, encourages, and allows. In the theological version of natural law theories…this is because God implanted this knowledge in the reason of all persons. In the secular version of natural law theories…natural reason is sufficient to allow all rational persons to know what morality prohibits, requires, etc.” There’s also a fair bit in common here with the stoics’ appeal to being in accord with nature.
Survival is the only fundamental basis upon which to build a valid objective morality.
Darian defines virtuous or good (at the species level) as synonymous with survival. If a kind of behavior doesn’t help the species survive, it is not virtuous. Why survival? Let’s imagine that a dinosaur species managed to evolve intelligence some sixty-seven million years ago. Today, following the extinction of dinosaur species, there is no trace of them. It’s as if they never existed and they are irrelevant on nature’s stage today. That’s why survival is important; it is a natural measure that the species is still doing the right things and is still relevant in the universe.
But there’s a lot of complexity and uncertainty in this. How are we to know if certain kinds of behavior or certain kinds of societal systems are more likely to lead to our long term survival? Darian proposes two obvious ones (don’t kill your young and don’t destroy your environment) and a more subtle one (encourage diversity).
There will be those who claim this approach would legitimize such abhorrent behavior as rape. After all, doesn’t it confer species survival for a male member to force as many females as possible to have his children? This is overly simplistic and has missed the mark completely. Just as over-exploitation of the environment can lead to its poisoning (and reduce human viability), so can over-exploitation of other humans lead to a poisoning of the human society on which we all rely. Rape is as inherently self-destructive as dumping uranium into our water supply.
Species survival is an objective basis for morality (behave in ways that are good for the long term survival of your species—nature will tell you whether that works or not). It is objective because it is pragmatic; if it works according to the natural universe, it will be rewarded with survival of the species. Even those who claim “objective morality can only come from God” are talking about morality according to an opinion, even if that opinion is from a Supreme Being. This makes it subjective rather than objective.
Implementing objective morality
Even if there is an objective morality, it is still exceedingly difficult to determine what behaviors can be called moral. The best we can hope for is to reason about what is likely to work well, examine what works for other species (e.g. diversity), and extrapolate.
It is admittedly difficult for most individuals to work at this level. This is why we need to look to those who specialize in reasoning about these things. Their work can help guide us in our day-to-day actions. But the experts need to change their approach as well. It’s impossible to argue what is “good” or “virtuous” if you can’t demonstrate how it contributes to survival of the species, or at least, a subgroup of that species (e.g. a specific society). For example, taking “human rights” as a fundamental given and arguing from that point is only valid if including those human rights can be shown to contribute to survival of the species or, at least, of a specific society.
But what do we really mean by “species survival”? What is our species? Are we human by our biology only? Do we need to exclude any kind of genetic modification or cyborg-like implants in humans? Is altering the human species the same as destroying it?
I think we need to look at the essentials of being human: intelligence, emotion, family, community, and world. We can embrace changes in any of these: we can enhance our intelligence; we can improve our emotional sensitivity and empathy; we can redefine family and community in a changing world; we can expand our definition of community and world to include people from all human societies, even going beyond this one planet.
In many ways, human survival entails the survival of what human societies see as most essential to their character. The substrate (biological or machine, for example) that carries forward is not as important as what is most essential to us: our knowledge, our beliefs, our approach to living in the universe.
Why is this an issue? One day, we’ll either encounter other intelligent organisms or we’ll create intelligent machines. Much of humanity (particularly white males) has an extensive history of not easily recognizing others as fully human (e.g. other races or females). This tendency to be miserly with allowing other groups into an exclusive club has hurt all of humanity again. If we try to pull that same crap with “humans” that might actually be superior to us, it could threaten our species survival.
There are a lot of unanswered questions in this article. Things like:
- Who bears the moral responsibility for actions?
- How does free will and non-determinism affect responsibility?
- How does a society encourage good behavior?
- How does a society discourage bad behavior?
- How does a society determine what’s good and what’s bad?
But this post is already long enough. I will address all of these in future discussions. Thanks for reading.