A couple of days ago I was forwarded a link to this article in the New York Times (you might have to sign in to read the whole thing, but i think the process is free; just one more annoying internet password). From one of my favourite nerd authors, Steven Pinker, it's called "The Moral Instinct", and presents a scientific perspective on the way the human moral sense may have evolved.
Having identified moral behaviour as a "product of brain wiring", the piece grapples with a big question - whether or not right and wrong have real existences, or are just as subjective as our perception of the difference between red and green and whether particular foods taste good or revolting.
This is where Pinker starts to flounder. His handwaves become larger and more urgent, and although much activity is present, all he really seems to generate is noise and foam. He's not really getting anywhere, and it becomes clear he's drowning in his own confusion.
Here's an excerpt:
It's a simple idea: if you and i are both nice to each other, we're both better off. Der. But that's not morality; it's pragmatics. It is testing the results of our activity against a pre-defined axiom, a universal truth which is apparently immune to questioning; specifically, that actions which leave all of us better off are right and those which leave all worse off are wrong.
Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.
Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.
One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.
Problem is, all it does is replace one question with another. "Who made murder 'wrong' and feeding the homeless 'right'? is swapped for "who made collective advancement 'right' and 'stagnation and regression 'wrong'?"
'We hold these truths to be self-evident' might well prove to be the effective answer. 'It's just obvious'. And it may well be obvious to you and i that we're better off cooperating, but it's not so obvious to the average sociopath, or he/she wouldn't be defined as such. And when self-evidence and pragmatism become the only battlegrounds for moral truth, then exactly what right does civilisation have to question anyone who begs to differ? It has already argued against itself.
So rather than face up to the logical conclusion of the argument, they play mental and linguistic tricks: pragmatism is redefined as morality, some ideas are arbitrarily given axiomatic status, and lo and behold right and wrong exist after all. Because those who dismiss God as a source for objective ethics still need a way to feel good when they frown at a smoker in a restaurant, tut at the housewife driving a landcruiser, and wag a righteous finger at a poor person buying an egg laid by a chicken in a cage.
As a constructed philosophy for life it might make some people feel better about futility, have walls and a roof and look like it will provide some sort of mental protection in a tough world. But it has no foundation other than the shifting sands of popular opinion and political expediency.
Here's a better idea: build it on rock instead.