Sunday, 22 April 2012

The possibility of other moral systems

In my last post, I discussed some potential problems with the axiom chosen by Sam Harris as the basis of his system of morality. I showed why I believed this axiom was not sufficient to explain our intuitive sense of morality, and I explained why I believe Harris would need to show that such a simple axiom is possible in order for his argument for the objective reality of morality to hold together.

In this post, I suggest that even if we did manage to patch the problems with Harris's axiom, it would be hard to accept it as an objective basis for morality because it may contradict moral views held by various significant subsets of the human population. If Harris derives his axiom from human moral intuition, as I believe he does, then it seems problematic to claim it as objective when such differences of opinion exist.

To nationalists and patriots, the highest moral concern is the well-being of one's own country and countrymen. To loyalists, the highest moral concern is obedience to rightful authority. To the religious, the highest moral concern is obedience to God, and for the Nazis, there may have been elements of all three.

Many of the most evil acts in history (by our reckoning) may have been committed by men and women who viewed themselves as paragons of morality. How can we argue that our morality, based on the wellbeing of all conscious beings, is any more intrinsically valid than theirs?

I don't think we can. However that doesn't mean we can't condemn acts we see as evil. If we hold Harris's axiom to be correct, then we can show that others are behaving immorally according to our system of morality. We call them evil because this is how we define evil. Simply put, we reject the basis of their morality, even though we cannot prove objectively that they are incorrect.

Harris argues that all other moral systems have as their ultimate basis the belief that wellbeing should be maximised. For example, religious morality is based on the reward offered to the good and the punishment meted out to the bad. If we believe in God, and we wish to maximise wellbeing, we should obey God and encourage others to obey God also. While we may suffer in this life, the wellbeing we seek will be found in the hereafter. Harris notes that Judaism does not necessarily always preach of rewards in an afterlife, yet Jewish morality is stilll grounded in the belief that punishment and rewards may yet accrue somehow. I suppose he could make similar arguments for why morality based on patriotism or obedience to authority are ultimately grounded in his philosophy of wellbeing.

However, I disagree. I think the rewards and punishments offered by religion perform an ancillary role, albeit perhaps a necessary one for most people. It seems to me that the essential basis of religious morality is the belief that God's commands should be obeyed for no other reason other than that they issue from God. I believe that if God asked a sufficiently religous Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and yet stipulated that there would be no reward for compliance, yet no punishment for non-compliance, Abraham would comply, or at least would be sorely tempted to comply.

Similarly, I believe that if an incompetent commander asked a sufficiently dutiful officer to engage in a suicidal charge, to the detriment of the war effort and his comrades, that sufficiently dutiful officer would comply. Even though the officer believes the action would be harmful for the wellbeing of conscious beings, that officer's morality would not allow him to consider any action but obedience. As such I do not believe that Harris is justified in claiming a privileged basis in reality for his own particular choice of moral axiom.

Simply put, while Harris is correct that in the absence of any context, all normal people would agree with his premise that a world of universal well-being is preferable to a world of universal suffering. However, when you look at specific scenarios in detail, there will be much more disagreement. Some nationalists may prefer universal suffering to universal well-being if the latter scenario involves the dismantling of their nation, for example to create a single world state.

I think the moral consensus promised by Harris's axiom is illusory. Furthermore, I doubt whether any truly uncontroversial system of moral axioms is possible. If this is the case, there can be no basis for the claim that morality has an objective reality.

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