Every set of moral principles of which I am aware can be made to look ridiculous. All that is needed is to construct a hypothetical scenario – a ‘thought experiment’ – in which the set of principles (I will call the set a ‘framework’) leads, via an unassailable logical argument, to a conclusion that recommends a morally repugnant act.
Utilitarianism can usually be made to look silly via a thought experiment in which cruelty to one innocent individual will save many others from great suffering. Kantian ethics, with its absolute rules such as ‘never lie’ can be made to look silly by hypothesising a mariticidal spouse at the door that wants to know where her fleeing husband is. Divine command ethics is made to look silly by the story of Abraham and Isaac, or any of the Old Testament genocides. Virtue ethics might escape the silliness charge, but only by being so vague that it avoids making any moral recommendation in a case where all alternative actions are unpalatable to our moral intuitions. Such indecisiveness seems to me even sillier, as to not act is itself an act, and often has worse outcomes than taking one of the unpalatable actions.
But we are moral creatures, living in a world beset by moral dilemmas. We must act, so we need some basis for deciding. How can we decide about actions when we feel that every possible moral framework is flawed in some way?
One response is to insist that moral reason over-ride intuitions. Under this approach, we would decide on our fundamental moral principles via a period of intense reflection. Once decided, we would make all moral decisions by reasoning from those principles, and we would stick with the decision even if we found it repugnant to our intuitions.
This approach has the advantage of logical consistency in the sense that all decisions are consistent with the principles, and hence with each other. However there is troubling inconsistency in the fact that the whole system rests on principles whose sole justification is our moral intuition, yet we then reject our moral intuition when it conflicts with the rational application of those principles. If our intuition is good enough to serve as the foundation for our entire framework, why is it not good enough to over-rule that framework when there is a conflict?
At the opposite extreme is a variant of Moral Particularism, in which we reject all moral principles and moral reasoning, and judge every potential action based solely on our intuitive moral feelings about it. I don’t like the sound of that, as it allows very little scope for moral development. If we have an intuitive dislike for certain people or actions, based on some combination of our natural dispositions and our upbringing, we will never find any reason to challenge and reject that dislike. It could be a belief that women should always obey men, or that other races are less worthy of respect and kindness than my own race for instance.
If we wish neither to always let moral reasoning over-rule moral intuitions nor to always let moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning, we need a basis for deciding which of the two should win when there is a conflict. For a long time this seemed to me an unsolvable problem, leaving us in a state of potential moral confusion. But now I think there may be some hope of a solution. To present it, I will first consider two examples. The examples both relate to utilitarianism, because that is the framework I know most about. But similar examples could be developed for other frameworks.
Example 1. Fred and the Father-son chat
Fred was brought up in a fundamentalist religious family, and one of the moral rules he imbibed from as early as he could understand it was that sexual acts between two men were an abomination – one of the worst possible sins. Coincidentally, Fred also has a genetic disposition to feel a slight aversion towards the idea of sexual acts between two men, in the same way that many animals have a natural aversion towards sexual acts with close blood relatives.
Fred discarded his religious beliefs when at university, has adopted a utilitarian moral framework and is completely persuaded by arguments that consenting, caring sexual relations between two male adults are entirely morally acceptable. Yet, because of his natural inclinations, and the residual effect of his upbringing, from which he will never be able to completely free himself, he still feels intuitively that there is something wrong with male homosexual acts, even though his reason says there isn’t.
Fred is now happily married to a woman and has a ten year old son who is starting to ask questions about sex. Fred wonders whether he should portray all types of mature, consenting, respectful sexual activity as equally acceptable, or whether he should subtly imply that heterosexual sex is preferable. His reason recommends the former, but his intuition recommends the latter.
Example 2. Sheila and the Terrorists
Terrorists have hijacked a commercial plane with fifty passengers on it and are planning to crash it into a nuclear power station on the outskirts of a major city. Engineers have advised the Prime Minister, Sheila, that if the plane crashes into the reactor there will be a radioactive cloud released that will kill millions.
Sheila is told that the air-force jets shadowing the plane can fire missiles to destroy it, but without that there is no way of diverting the plane from its target, and there is no way of averting the disaster if the reactor is struck. The pilots only need Sheila’s command to fire the missile.
Sheila is a utilitarian and her conclusion from her moral framework is that she should order the jets to fire. Yet she finds the idea morally repugnant. How can she order the death of fifty innocent people?
My proposal for resolving conflicts like these is to investigate the moral intuition, to try to understand why we hold it. If we are able to find a convincing reason why we feel that way, then we can decide whether we wish to over-rule the moral intuition, based on whether we like that reason and on whether we would like to feel differently if we could.
In Fred’s case it would be fairly easy for him to trace at least part of the source of his negative feelings about homosexuality. He would be well aware of the permanent effect the inculcation of dispositions in young children can have. He would be able to see that he was trained by his fundamentalist parents to feel negatively about homosexual acts, in the same way that he was trained to fear eternal punishment if he ever ceased to believe the dogmas of his parents’ religion. Chances are he has been unable to completely rid himself of either feeling, notwithstanding all the rational arguments he has for their invalidity.
But when he realises that the source of his feeling is a childhood indoctrination that he deplores, he will feel confident about rejecting the feeling, and allowing his moral reasoning to over-rule the moral intuition it provides.
The other criterion is whether he would wish to feel differently if he could. Because he rejects his moral upbringing, he is likely to wish that he did not feel negatively about homosexuality, and to regard that negative feeling as a cross that he reluctantly has to bear. This realisation again supports a decision to over-rule the moral intuition.
What about the other source of the intuition – Fred’s genetic aversion to the idea of homosexual acts? I have no idea whether such a genetic aversion exists and if so whether it is common or very rare. But it is at least plausible that an aversion to homosexual acts could be a trait that is selected for in some species, in order to focus all of the animals’ efforts and energy on sexual activity that propagates the species. If Fred thinks that he may have such a trait then, unless he is prone to the Naturalistic Fallacy (the belief that whatever is natural is morally right), he is likely to conclude that this natural trait is something he would rather suppress and try to eliminate, in the same way humans try, through the process of civilisation and education, to suppress the natural tendency to kill or injure rivals for mates, food or social status. Just as we might wish to be free of our natural tendency to anger, Fred would wish to be free of his aversion to homosexuality, if he could.
All this considered, I feel confident that when Fred has his father-son chat, he will over-rule any inclination to imply that homosexuality is best avoided, and present a picture entirely consistent with the recommendations of his moral framework.
For Sheila it is not so easy. She knows that whatever she chooses will cause her and others enormous anguish. Her moral reasoning is clear – she must destroy the airliner. Her moral intuition tells her that would be a barbaric act.
Sheila can follow the same process as Fred, to try to identify the source of her moral intuition.
She might conclude that her revulsion against killing stems from the same source as her utilitarian principles – her empathy for fellow sentient beings. If she concludes that’s all it is, her choice is easy. The revulsion against killing is there because killing is usually gratuitously cruel. So in a case like this where the killing is not gratuitously cruel (it is cruel, but it is not gratuitous) the justification for the revulsion disappears and it is reasonable to over-rule the revulsion.
But what if Sheila concludes there is more to the revulsion than the fact that killing is usually gratuitously cruel? What if she feels that there is something more that is wrong with killing, beyond its cruelty? If she can positively identify what that ‘something more’ is, then she has discovered a new moral principle, and she can reflect on whether she wishes to respect it or whether she would like to reject it if she could. If it is something she wishes to respect then that opens up the door to allowing the intuition to over-rule the moral reasoning – in other words to not destroy the airliner. What this discovery does is suggest that Sheila’s moral framework is flawed in some way. It may be fundamentally flawed and need wholesale replacement, or it may need to become more nuanced, more complex – perhaps just by adding the new principle to the existing ones or perhaps by more complex changes. Since in this case Sheila has managed to identify the missing principle, it is likely to be possible for her to deduce what changes are needed to her framework to remove this conflict, without introducing any obvious new conflicts. This process has a weak but interesting similarity to the way that scientific theories are refined when new discoveries are made.
Equally possible though is that Sheila is unable to locate the source of her intuition against killing. She is convinced it’s more than just an aversion to gratuitous cruelty, but she can’t work out what that ‘something more’ is. This is different from Fred’s case, where he identified the source and concluded he wanted to reject it. And it is different from the case where Sheila identified the source and concluded she wanted to respect it. To continue the scientific analogy of the previous paragraph, this is like the conflict between observations of the constancy of the speed of light that was demonstrated by the Michelson-Morley experiment and the equivalence of frames of reference (Galilean Relativity). Physicists in the late nineteenth century knew there was a conflict in their theory. They knew there was ‘something more’ needed, but they didn’t know what it was. It was several years before Einstein resolved the conflict with his theory of relativity. That was in one sense a refinement of the existing Newtonian theory. It had new principles that, in most but not all situations, gave very similar answers to the Newtonian theory.
If Sheila can’t pinpoint the source of her intuition then she may well need a new theory. But she can’t be sure of that until the source is pinpointed and a resolution found. In the meantime she just has to do what humans do all the time, in love and war, in cricket and in business – make a decision in the presence of inadequate information. She will go one way or the other, and either way the decision will cause agony for her and for others. The only consolation is that, whatever decision she makes, at least she did her best to work out the right thing to do.
We haven’t developed a way of always choosing between the dictates of moral reasoning and moral intuitions. That would be too much to expect. If there was any moral framework that was completely free of dilemmas we wouldn’t spend so much time debating and comparing moral issues.
We have however identified a way of proceeding when such a conflict arises. In some cases, maybe even most, that approach can lead to a resolution, either via rejecting the intuition as Fred did, or by respecting it as Sheila did in the first instance, and following that by a revision and update of our moral framework.
In the last case, where the source of the intuition cannot be identified, the dilemma remains. But at least in that case we will have highlighted a flaw in our moral framework, and we can stay on the lookout for insights that may enable us to refine the framework to correct the flaw.
And what do I think? Well I think Fred should reject his moral intuition and give his son the even -handed account. And in Sheila’s case I just don’t know. None of the moral frameworks I can think of have an answer to that dilemma that convinces me. I feel there is indeed ‘something more’ that is wrong with killing the people on the plane in that case, but I am hopelessly unable to identify what that ‘something more’ is. So I don’t know what I would do if I were placed in that situation. I’ll just have to hope I never become Prime Minister.
Many people believe that everything must have a cause. I argue elsewhere that the notion of cause is highly problematic, and either ambiguous or meaningless in most of its uses within philosophy. But let’s leave that aside, assume we know what a cause is, and consider where it leads.
If everything has a cause then all our actions have a cause. Say I lift my arm to hail a taxi. We might imagine a chain of causes, working backwards from the physical action of my arm, to nerve impulses, to brain commands, to brain processing (deciding do I really want a taxi? Do I want that taxi?), to sensory stimuli (seeing the taxi).
Hailing a taxi can happen with our brain entirely on auto-pilot. What about a more deliberate and conscious decision, one with grave moral repercussions? Consider the anti-hero Meursault in Camus’s novel L’Etranger. He shoots a man dead for no very good reason. Is there a similar train of causes leading to this action as there was to hailing the taxi?
What, if anything, was the cause of Meursault’s brain reaching the decision to pull the trigger? We might suppose it was because he was mean or vicious, or perhaps he had a suppressed love of violence. Why did he have those characteristics? Was it his genes, or perhaps a product of his early environment? Perhaps it was a history of past cruel and callous acts he has done that has lowered his inhibitions to pulling the trigger. But then what caused those acts?
We can go back and back and back. If we can trace the causes back to events that occurred before Meursault was conceived, then free will cannot have played any role in his decision. What are the alternatives? I think the following list is exhaustive:
- The chain of causes ends with an event in Meursault’s brain (or ‘mind’, if we prefer) that was uncaused. It just happened without a cause. Perhaps that is what libertarians mean by free will.
- The chain of causes ends with an event outside Meursault’s brain/mind, while he was alive, that was uncaused.
- The chain of causes ends in a causal loop of events that occur while Meursault was alive.
- The chain of causes does not end. It undergoes an infinite regress. As we have assumed there are no causes prior to Meursault’s conception, this regress must occur within the finite time of Meursault’s life.
Of these options, 1 and 2 require denial that every event has a cause. 3 requires acceptance of causal loops and 4 requires acceptance of an infinite regress.
The usual notion of causality requires that a cause happens at a time earlier than its effect, which rules out causal loops (option 3) and requires that there is some time t0 to which the times of the causes in option 4 asymptotically approach (but never reach) as we trace backwards through the infinite causal regress. Further, t0 must be no earlier than the moment of Meursault’s conception. But then we can combine all the events in the causal chain occurring between t0 and t0+1 nanosecond and call that a single event. That event is not caused by any prior event, and hence is uncaused.
So this analysis presents us with a stark choice: either the action was caused by events before Meursault’s conception, and we must deny libertarian free will, or the action can be traced back to an uncaused event, in which case we must deny that every event has a cause.
What makes this interesting is that many Christian apologists try to assert both the existence of libertarian free will (as part of doctrines about original sin and salvation) and the necessity of every event being caused (as part of a classical cosmological argument for the existence of God). Based on the above analysis, it appears impossible to hold both beliefs. Either one must ditch universal causality (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’ as it is sometimes called) or one must discard libertarian free will.
My current position is that I suspect neither belief is true. I can’t prove that, but I don’t need to – it is a perfectly plausible hypothesis. Equally, it seems plausible to believe one of the two but not the other. The problem arises when you wish to believe both.
There is nothing new in any of these arguments. They have all been made before, many times. But it strikes me as particularly stark and concise that belief in libertarian free will requires asserting a break in the chain of causality, whereas many of those that wish to hold that belief also assert in another context that everything must have a cause.
Now the preceding paragraph is equally valid for a fundamentalist Christian. They may wish to live in a world in which people act, under compulsion or otherwise, according to their interpretation of the ‘law of the Bible’, so it is rational for them to campaign to bring that about. Neither I nor the fundamentalist is being inconsistent, nor can we be validly accused of hypocrisy.
These two views will often come into conflict. A common source of conflict is where some Christians (certainly not all!) wish their religion to be taught, or other Christian activities such as prayers to occur, in a publicly-funded school, whereas freethinkers such as myself do not wish that to occur. Let us assume that there are no laws either requiring or forbidding such activities (unlike for instance, the USA where the first amendment of the constitution bears on many of these cases). If I campaign against school prayer by saying that the Christians are imposing their values on others, and ‘should not’ do so, they can validly reply that, by trying to prevent the prayers, I am trying to impose my values of tolerance on them. I am implicitly trying to get an ought from an is, asserting that my value system is more valid than theirs.
What I can do, however, is to argue that our society will be ‘better’ in some way if the prayers are not allowed, than if they are. I might argue for instance that a society that does not officially sanction any particular religion will be more tolerant than one that does, that a tolerant society will be a less conflict-ridden society, and that people will generally be happier if the level of conflict is lower. This is an essentially utilitarian appeal, and will cut no ice with the fundamentalist, but they are not my target. My target is the undecided voters, lawmakers and law implementers such as judges or education department officials. For my argument to succeed I need to do two things:
- I must persuade those undecided people to value what I value – general human happiness; and
- I must persuade them that my proposal will be more likely to satisfy that value than the alternative.
Essentially, I am doing a ‘sales job’, selling my worldview to the undecided people, in the hope that they’ll ‘buy’ it. The fundamentalists will do the same on their side, perhaps telling people that school prayers will bring more people to Jesus, which will lead to more people escaping eternal torment in Hell. Neither of us is necessarily inconsistent or hypocritical. What we have is not a contest of logic, but a contest of values, trying to persuade the undecided to value what we value. I hope I win.
Not all disputes about religion are like that. It is often the case that both sides claim to hold the same values, in relation to the issue at hand, but reach different conclusions. In such cases, accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy do become possible. Take for example the Vatican’s attempt to argue that condoms should not be promoted in Africa as a defence against HIV transmission, because they do not work. Here the Vatican is claiming to hold the same values as its opponents, viz a concern for the physical welfare of the people engaging in sexual activity. Such a claim can be rebutted on purely logical grounds, using scientific evidence. This then lays the Vatican open to a charge of hypocrisy on the grounds that it is pretending to be motivated by a concern for human physical welfare, when in fact (we allege) that is a smokescreen to hide its true concern which is about compliance with what they believe to be God’s laws.
Likewise, in the school prayer case, if the fundamentalists had made an argument that there would be more kindness and less crime if we had school prayer (a la Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted), that could be attacked on logical grounds, as it implies the same value as the nonbeliever – a happier society.
So, in summary, I think it is possible to argue for a tolerant society in two ways that maintain integrity and consistency:
- by appealing to the undecided to share values, such as minimising suffering, that I hold, or
- if those values are already shared, to argue that the values are likely to be better satisfied in a tolerant society than an intolerant one.
The first is an appeal to the passions, the second is an appeal to reason.
Common sense is very useful, in fact essential, for checking the reasonableness of ideas or conclusions. However it can only ever be effective as a screening technique, not as a final determinant of what we believe. If we only believed what common sense supported we would never have had flight, electricity, steam power, space flight or the internet. Common sense should always be invoked as a challenge to new ideas, but only as an indicator of when we need to reinvestigate the reasoning behind the idea and the assumptions underlying it. If, no flaws are found in that reinvestigation, we should accept the new idea. As Sherlock Holmes said ‘when all other possibilities have been excluded, the remaining possibility, however improbable, must be the truth’. Or something like that.
So next time you hear someone claim that something can’t be true because it doesn’t agree with ‘common sense’, tell them that, if that’s the only argument they have, then they have no argument at all.
The value of common sense is that by causing you to reinvestigate reasoning and assumptions, it can lead you to find the true reason why a conclusion is not correct. If it doesn’t lead you to that then you need to update your idea of what constitutes common sense.
Shock jocks like Alan Jones love to appeal to common sense as their argument, whether it be that climate change doesn’t exist, that shifting the focus from prohibition to harm minimisation will increase drug use, or that lowering taxes will be good for the economy. Remember, valuable as common sense is, if that’s all you have then you have nothing.
A proper use of common sense is to say that if an idea isn’t consistent with historical observations and generalisations, then there’s a high probability that it’s wrong. An abuse of common sense is to say that the idea must be wrong. Most of humanity’s greatest advances have come from ideas that defied common sense. A society that insists on abusing common sense in this way will never make any new inventions or discoveries. It will wither and die.