You know a conversation is headed sideways when the topic turns to morals and ethics. For any major social issue of our time – gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, freedom of speech, religion in public schools, even climate change – you can find normally reasonable people who reach contradictory conclusions on the ethical choice. In this post, I explain six reasons for this moral confusion.
1. Most Moral Reasoning is Arbitrary
Most people seem to think of morality as simply whatever feels intuitively right to them in a given situation. These individual, contextualized, intuitive impulses toward right and wrong comprise “ad hoc morality”. Since everyone has a different personality, set of experiences and personal historical context, two sane, reasonable people can reach contradictory moral conclusions in a single situation. “Ad hoc morality” is nothing like honest, thoughtful moral reasoning.
Morality has at least three meanings (wikipedia). I think of the three meanings as follows.
1) An Ethical Framework: An arbitrary code of conduct regarding right and wrong (e.g., The Ten Commandments, the AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics).
2) Descriptive Morality: An ideal or universal code of conduct regarding right and wrong; i.e., one that a typical person would agree with, if he thought about it.
3) Ethics: the philosophical and empirical study of morals.
No universal code of morality has been discovered – at least as far as I, or the editors of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, are aware. Since we have no universal code, we create ethical frameworks to assist in our moral reasoning. The development, analysis and use of these frameworks is the subject of ethics.
An action is “moral” if it is acceptable according to said (unknown) universal code of morality. Thus, the morality of an action is a property of the action, which may be difficult or even impossible to ascertain. In contrast, the ethicality of an action is a relationship between the action and a particular ethical framework. Hence, an action is always either moral or amoral, but an action can be ethical in one framework and unethical in another.
In summary, disagreements regarding morality often arise because people rely on arbitrary (ad hoc) moral intuitions.
Ad hoc moral reasoning is sort of like illogical logic. It has no framework. No system. No rules. No way to reject nonsense. No way to resolve disputes other than to agree to disagree.
2. Unsophisticated Approaches to Morality are Obviously Flawed
Then next problem is that, of those who bother to argue from a particular ethical framework, almost everyone chooses an unsophisticated approach. I have previously outlined the problems with the two most common Christian approaches: The 10 Commandments and the Golden Rule.
Here I’d like to take this one step further. Religious people often claim (or act as though) they have access to “moral authority” (a universally correct moral code) through the teachings of their religion. This is utter hogwash because even the most fundamentalist believer constructs his or her values by cherry-picking the religious teachings they agree with… or worse, the teachings that support their present arguments. When evangelical Christians, for instance, decide to oppose gay marriage, they pull from the bible those verses that support their argument (the Sodom and Gomorra stuff). They conveniently ignore all the turning the other cheek / be kind to everyone stuff.
Let me say this as simply as possible: if someone says ‘X is immoral because God said so in the bible,’ then demand that they also accept that slavery, rape and murdering gays, fortunetellers, adulterers, atheists, and WITCHES are virtuous, but eating shellfish is forbidden. If they do not, they are full of shit. If they do, they’re just evil motherfuckers. Same goes for the Koran and the Torah.
It is a logical fallacy to claim that X is true because it’s in the Bible, but those other parts of the Bible we don’t agree with are just metaphors. Who the hell are you to decide which parts are literal and which aren’t? Same goes for any religious text. Even if you ignore the rampant contradictions in various religious texts, practically everyone agrees that some of the statements in said texts are downright mental.
That means that values drawn from holy books are just another ad hoc approach to morality.
3. Sophisticated Approaches are also Problematic
To summarize the above, most people use an ad hoc approach to morality, which is useless because it’s impossible to reason from an arbitrary foundation, i.e., debates will just endlessly circle among baseless arguments because the debaters are pulling everything out of thin air. Most people who bother to ground their moral rhetoric in a particular framework use childishly unsophisticated frameworks like the Golden Rule.
In contrast, philosophers, ethicists, academics, advocates of social justice and the leftwing parts of the media tend to adopt more sophisticated approaches to ethics. These come in two flavors: absolutism and consequentialism. Both of these approaches to ethics have incontrovertible problems.
Absolutism is the belief that certain actions are inherently good or bad, usually as set out in a guiding document. Prominent examples include the Christian Ten Commandments, Islamic sharia law, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Absolutism is plagued by a plethora of gob-smacking stupidities. Here, I will content myself with the most obvious: the rules conflict with each other. It doesn’t matter which set of rules, or how many rules, or what exactly the rules are. They always contradict each other. As I’ve argued before, practically every right in the UDHR conflicts with every other right – freedom of religion even conflicts with itself!
Consequentialism is the belief that the ethicality of an action is determined by its consequences. The best known example outside of philosophical circles is utilitarianism. Consequentialism also suffers from several migraine-inducing contradictions. Again, sticking to the most obvious: humans suck at foresight. We don’t know what the consequences of our actions will be. What’s worse, we can’t even agree on causes of actions after the fact. Just look at the disagreement over the causes of global warming or the continuing financial crisis. Saying that something is moral if it causes more good than harm is meaningless if you can’t foresee consequence or agree on causation.
In summary, the two main flavours of sophisticated ethical frameworks are based on assumptions that can’t possibly be true.
4. Sophisticated Approaches Contradict Each Other
Aside from the problems within these more-sophisticated frameworks, their use is further confounded by inter-framework contradictions. For instance, when Dick Cheney defends torturing prisoners ‘because it worked,’ his argument is consequentialist. When his detractors argue that effectiveness is irrelevant because ‘torture is wrong’ and ‘people have a right to freedom from torture,’ their argument is absolutist.
As a second example, consider a person who uses rhetoric to incite a revolution. Under an absolutist framework that guarantees free speech, such as the UDHR, or Canadian Charter, the ethical response is to leave this person alone – he is simply exercising his right to free speech. In contrast, under a consequentialist framework, the consequences of not intervening may be much worse than the consequences of arresting the revolutionary; thus, arresting him would be the ethical response.
What’s worse, the same person will readily contend that torture is wrong using an absolutist argument, while abortion is not, using a consequentialist argument, or vice versa.
The contradictory conclusions reached through different types of sophisticated ethical frameworks explains why reasonable people so often talk past, rather than to, each other in ethical debates.
5. Ethical Frameworks Based on Cracked Foundation
More generally, every code of moral conduct, be it religious, national, criminal or organizational is some combination of absolutist and consequentialist principles. Since both absolutism and consequentialism are deeply flawed, so are the moral codes based on them.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Bullshit.
Criminal Code of Canada? Bullshit.
English common law? Bullshit.
Constitutions of the E.U., U.S., Canada, U.K., Japan? Bullshit.
Ten Commandments? Golden Rule? Sharia Law? Precepts of Buddhism?
Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!
It’s not that these codes are imperfect, it’s that they are fundamentally invalid. Human beings cannot anticipate or agree on consequences. Systems of absolutist rules are forever filled with contradictions. It’s like building free market economics on assumptions like “people act rationally” and “no companies are big enough to affect prices on their own”. It’s not even ‘in question,’ it’s absurd!
These ethical frameworks make assumptions that are manifestly, obviously, observably, demonstrably false! This is what happens when people simply ignore reality.
6. Differing Moral Foundations
To add a further complication, Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Social Psychology, has empirically identified five foundations of human morality. The “five pillars” are:
These pillars are evident in nearly everyone, regardless of ethnicity, cultural, religion or philosophy. Although two reasonable people may disagree regarding what constitutes harm, fairness, etc., in a particular instance, practically everyone understands the concepts of harm, fairness, etc., and agrees that they are important components of morality. Every language has words for these concepts. Every culture observes them.
Unfortunately, just like the rules of absolutist ethical systems, it doesn’t require much imagination to conceive of situations in which two or more moral pillars are in conflict. The issue of gay marriage, for instance, pits fairness (“We should be able to marry, too”) against purity (“We don’t want to change the definition of marriage”). War crimes pit harm (“He ordered people tortured”) against loyalty (“But they were bad people and he’s one of us”). Whenever an innocent person refuses to cooperate with a police officer, authority (the police) is pit against fairness (“why should I move? I’ve done nothing wrong!”).
Therefore, the moral principles that are genetically preprogrammed in human thought conflict with each other.
Conclusion: All Prominent Ethical Systems are Garbage
To summarize, the public discourse on ethics is so confused because: most people apply moral reasoning in an ad hoc or arbitrary way, or (at best) apply some bogus ethical principle like the golden rule; moreover, even if we try to apply sophisticated ethical frameworks, these too are fundamentally flawed and yield contradictory results; meanwhile, our genetics are working against us by way of pre-programmed yet contradictory moral foundations. I haven’t covered all of the problems with the above principles (e.g., absolutism seems at odds with our empirical moral foundations), or all existing ethical principles (e.g., rational self-interest, moral relativity, nihilism); however, I have tried to discuss enough of the mainstream thought on ethics to demonstrate my overall point: the way we think about ethics is broken.
In my next post in this series, I’ll describe a new foundation for ethics – one that solves many of the problems identified here.
8 Reasons Why Freedom of Religion is Impossible
Golden Rule FAIL – Top 6 Examples Where Reciprocity Does Not Apply
United Nations Hijacked by Religious Whackjobs… jumps shark
Discrediting the Christian Core: The Ten Commandments as a Pathetic Basis for Morality