What is Morality?: David Deutsch on Morality

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.

10 thoughts on “What is Morality?: David Deutsch on Morality

  1. Yes, as modern-day prophets have repeatedly said, *human choice* is the basis of everything. The also applies to economics as well, but that is a subject for another day.

  2. Well, that was good brain exercise, but otherwise useless, in my opinion. Morality=golden rule. And sometimes, what Joseph Smith said ie that which is wrong in one circumstance can be and often is right in another.

  3. Very interesting quotes Bruce. I was very happy to hear that Deutch seems to believe morality can best be understood as a uniquely human trait:

    “Overriding both inborn and socially conditioned behavior is itself a characteristic human behavior. None of these behaviors has an analogue among animals.”

    That’s a great way to define morality. It is not an instinct. Rather, it is the power to override an instinct, the ability to choose! Morality is what separates us from the animals, from whence we came. We have animal instincts, inherited from evolution, and morality from the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, which gives us the power to harness and bridle our animal instincts. The missing link.

  4. Bruce N.,
    why do we need a way to justify or explain morality? It seems to me that morality is a basic, a fundamental, a given. Like existence, love, qualia, or physical laws.

  5. Adam G, I don’t think you and I disagree significantly on this issue. I agree that morality is a basic, a fundamental, a given. The issue I bring up in comment #1 is that the variable is human choice. Deutsch wrote that “we choose our preferences.” I was agreeing with that point.

  6. Adam,

    That is a very good question. More to come on that.

    But for what it is worth, I do think we should eventually be able to explain qualia, existence, and physical laws. (Not that I can at this time.)

  7. If you can explain existence, e.g. (I beg leave to doubt it extremely), all you are doing it explaining it in terms of some even more fundamental thing. Here’s where I join hands with my Catholic friends and say that eventually you get to ultimate fact beyond which you cannot go. The only other alternative is infinite regress, no? Oh, we have morality because of gozimush! And gozimush is because of snailtopsy. And snailtopsy was begat by Hepzithatch . . .

    Its well known that you can’t do logic without premises or postulates which can’t be proved logically but must simply be taken as given.

    Some of this stuff might have a deeper explanation. Qualia, for instance, probably has something to do with the properties of spirits. I bet that morality doesn’t have a deeper explanation. We may be able to reduce morality to some fundamental moral principle or principles but I wouldn’t go farther than that.

  8. “The only other alternative is infinite regress, no?”

    I don’t know yet, I’m still working on it. 😉

    I wonder though, what if the basic postulates of existence and morality turned out to be the same as the ones for logic?

    If this is the case, then you are right that there was some point that had to just be accepted but I’d also be right that they can be explained (since explanation is breaking things down into logic.)

    So our views might not be mutually exclusive.

    Or at least that was the best I could come up with off the top of my head.

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