In my last post, I ended by asking this question: What we really need is a way to justify (i.e. explain) morality without having to appeal to morality via a circular argument.
I wanted to take a bit of an aside now and give some interesting thoughts from physicist and philosopher David Deutsch. Don’t expect any perfect answers here, but he does (I feel) point us in the right direction so I’m going to include an extended quote from him. (All quotes taken from The Fabric of Reality, p. 359-362)
Bear in mind that David Deutsch believes strongly in objective morality. But here, he muses about the problems of trying to work it into a scientific framework.
It is not only scientific knowledge that informs people’s preferences and determines how they choose to behave. There are also, for instance, moral criteria, which assigns attributes such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to possible actions. Such values have been notoriously difficult to accommodate in the scientific world-view. They seem to form a closed explanatory structure of their own, disconnected from the physical world. As David Hume pointed out, it is impossible logically to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Yet we use such values both to explain and to determine our physical actions.
Morality as Utility
The poor relation of morality is usefulness. Since it seems much easier to understand what is objectively useful or useless than what is objectively right or wrong, there have been many attempts to define morality in terms of various forms of usefulness.
Morality and Biology
There is, for example, evolutionary morality, which notes that many forms of behavior which we explain in moral terms, such as not committing murder, or not cheating when we cooperate with other people, have analogues in the behavior of animals. And there is a branch of evolutionary theory, sociobiology, that has had some success in explaining animal behavior. Many people have been tempted to include that moral explains for human choices are just window-dressing; that morality has no objective basis at all, and that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are simply tags we apply to our inborn urges to behave in one way rather than another. Another version of the same explanation replaces genes with memes, and claims that moral terminology is just window-dressing for social conditioning.
But Does It Fit the Facts?
However, none of these explanations fits the facts. On the one hand, we do not tend to explain inborn behavior – say, epileptic fits – in terms of moral choices; we have a notion of voluntary and involuntary actions, and only the voluntary ones have moral explanations. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of a single inborn human behavior – avoiding pain, engaging in sex, eating or whatever – that human beings have no under various circumstances chosen to override for moral reasons. The same is true, even more commonly, for socially conditioned behavior. Indeed, overriding both inborn and socially conditioned behavior is itself a characteristic human behavior. So is explain such rebellions in moral terms. None of these behaviors has an analogue among animals; in one of these cases can moral explanations be reinterpreted in genetic or memetic terms. This is the fatal flaw of this entire class of theories.
Free Will, Choice, and Morality
Could there be a gene for overriding genes when one feels like it? Social conditioning that promotes rebellion? Perhaps, but that still leaves the problem of how we chose what to do instead, and of what we mean when we explain our rebellion by claiming that we were simply right, and that the behavior prescribed by our genes or by our society in this situation was simply evil.
Utilitarianism was an earlier attempt to integrate moral explanations with the scientific world-view through ‘usefulness’. Here ‘usefulness’ was identified with human happiness. Making moral choices was identified with calculating which action would produce the most happiness, either for one person or (and the theory became more vague here) for the ‘greatest number’ of people. Different versions of the theory substituted ‘pleasure’ or ‘preference’ for ‘happiness.’ …as an attempt to solve the problem we are discussing here, of explaining the meaning of moral judgments, it too has a fatal flaw: we choose our preferences. In particular, we change our preferences, and we give moral explanations for doing so. Such an explanation cannot be translated into utilitarian terms. Is there an underlying, master-preference that controls preference changes? If so, it could not itself be changed, and utilitarianism would degenerate into the genetic theory of morality discussed above.