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  • No, All Things are Not Permissible, and All Things are Not Not Permissible

    Posted on July 9th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    IMHO it is a fact that good and evil do not exist as independent, objective things.  If they do not exist, then the moral properties that depend on them, such as “permissible,” have no objective existence, either.  It follows that it is not even rational to ask the question whether something is permissible or not as an independent fact.  In other words, if there is no such thing as objective morality, then it does not follow that “everything is permissible.”  It also does not follow that “everything is not permissible.”  As far as the universe is concerned, the term “permissible” does not exist.  In other words, there is no objective reason to obey a given set of moral rules, nor is there an objective reason not to obey those rules.

    I note in passing that if the above were not true, and the conclusion that good and evil do not exist as objective things actually did imply that “everything is permissible,” as some insist, it would not alter the facts one bit.  The universe would shrug its shoulders and ask, “So what?”  If the absence of good and evil as objective things leads to conclusions that some find unpleasant, will that alter reality and magically cause them to pop into existence?  That hasn’t worked with a God, and it won’t work with objective good and evil, either.

    I just read a paper by Matt McManus on the Quillette website that nicely, if unintentionally, demonstrates what kind of an intellectual morass one wades into if one insists that good and evil are real, objective things.  It’s entitled Why Should We Be Good?  The first two paragraphs include the following:

    Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ …Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere.  For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty.

    The author goes on to cite what he considers two motivations for the above, one “negative,” and one “positive.”  As he puts it,

    The negative motivation arises from moral dogmatism.  There are those who wish to dogmatically assert their own values without worrying that they may not be as universal as one might suppose… Ethical dogmatists do not want to be confronted with the possibility that it is possible to challenge their values because they often cannot provide good reasons to back them up.

    He adds that,

    The positive motivation was best expressed by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind.

    Well, I wouldn’t exactly describe Bloom’s book as “positive.”  It struck me as a curmudgeonly rant about how “today’s youth” didn’t measure up to how he thought they “ought” to be.  Be that as it may, the author finally gets to the point:

    The issue I wish to explore is this:  even if we know which values are universal, why should we feel compelled to adhere to them?

    To this I would reply that there are no universal values, and since they don’t exist, they can’t be known.  This reduces the question of why we should feel compelled to adhere to them to nonsense.  In fact, what the author is doing here is outing himself as a dogmatist.  He just thinks he’s better than other dogmatists because he imagines he can “provide good reasons to back up” his personal dogmas.  It turns out his “good reasons” amount to an appeal to authority, as follows:

    Kant argued, very powerfully, that a human being’s innate practical reason begets a universal set of “moral laws” which any rational person knows they must follow.

    Good dogma, no?  After all, who can argue with Kant?  “Obscurely” would probably be a better word than “powerfully.”   Some of his sentences ran on for a page and a half, larded with turgid German philosophical jargon from start to finish.  Philosophers pique themselves on “understanding” him, but seldom manage to get much further than the categorical imperative in practice.  I suspect they’re wasting their time.  McManus assures us that Kant read Hume.  If so, he must not have comprehended what he was reading in passages such as,

    We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason.  Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it: and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound.

    Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason…

    What Hume wrote above isn’t just the expression of some personal ideological idiosyncrasy, but the logical conclusion of the thought of a long line of British and Scottish philosophers.  I find his thought on morality “very powerful,” and have seen no evidence that Kant ever seriously addressed his arguments.  We learned where the emotions Hume referred to actually came from in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of Species, more than half a century after Kant’s death.  It’s beyond me how Kant could have “argued powerfully” about a “universal set of moral laws” in spite of his ignorance of the real manner in which they are “begotten.”  No matter, McManus apparently still believes, “because Kant,” that we can “know” some “universal moral law.”  He continues,

    While we might know that these “moral laws” apply universally, why should we feel compelled to obey them?

    According to McManus, the 19th century philosopher Henry Sidgwick made some “profound contributions” to answering this question, which he considered “the profoundest problem in ethics.” Not everyone thought Sidgwick was all that profound.  Westermarck dealt rather harshly with his “profound” thoughts in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In the rest of his article, McManus reviews the thought of several other philosophers on the subject, and finds none of them entirely to his liking.  He finally peters out with nary an answer to the question, “Why should we be good?”  In fact there is no objective answer to the question, because there is no objective good.  McManus’ “dogma with good reasons” is just as imaginary as all the “dogmas without good reasons” at which he turns up his nose.

    The philosophers are in no hurry to wade back out of this intellectual morass.  Indeed, their jobs depend on expanding it.  For those of us who prefer staying out of swamps, however, the solution to McManus’ enigma is simple enough.  Stop believing in the ghosts of objective good and evil.  Accept the fact that what we call morality exists because the innate mental traits that give rise to it themselves exist by virtue of evolution by natural selection.  Then follow that fundamental fact to its logical conclusions.  One of those conclusions is that there is nothing whatsoever objective about morality.  It is a purely subjective phenomenon.  That is simply a fact of nature.  As such, it is quite incapable of rendering “everything permissible,” or “everything not permissible.”  Furthermore, realization of that fact will not change how the questions of what is permissible and what is not permissible are answered.  Those questions will continue to be answered just as they always have been, in the subjective minds of individuals.

    Acceptance of these truths about morality will not result in “moral nihilism,” or “cultural relativity,” or the hegemony of postmodernism.  All of these things can result from our attempts to reason about what our emotions are trying to tell us, but so can moral absolutism.  On the other hand, acceptance of the truth may enable us to avoid some of the real dangers posed by our current “system” of blindly responding to moral emotions, and just as blindly imagining that the result will be “moral progress.”  For example, if morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, those traits must have been selected in times that were very different from the present.  It is highly unlike that blindly following where our emotions seem to be leading us will have the same effect now as it did then.  In fact, those emotions might just as well be leading us over the edge of a cliff.

    If morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, then arbitrarily isolating moral behavior from the rest of our innate behavioral repertoire, sometimes referred to as human nature, can also be misleading.  For example, we have a powerful innate tendency to distinguish others in terms of ingroup and outgroup, applying different versions of morality to each.  This can delude us into seriously believing that vast numbers of the people we live with are “bad.”  In the past, we have often imagined that we must “resist” and “fight back” against these “bad” people, resulting in mayhem that has caused the death of countless millions, and misery for countless millions more.  From my own subjective point of view, it would be better to understand the innate emotional sources of such subjective fantasies, and at least attempt to find a way to avoid the danger they pose.  Perhaps one day enough people will agree with me to make a difference.  The universe doesn’t care one way or the other.

    Nihilism and chaos will not result from acceptance of the truth.  When it comes to morality, nihilism and chaos are what we have now.  I happen to be among those who would prefer some form of “moral absolutism,” even though I realize that its legitimacy must be based on the subjective desires of individuals rather on some mirage of “objective truth.”  I would prefer living under a simple moral code, in harmony with human nature, designed to enable us to live together with a minimum of friction and a maximum of personal liberty.  No rule would be accepted without examining its innate emotional basis, what the emotions in question accomplished at the time they evolved, and whether they would still accomplish the same thing in the different environment we live in now.  Generalities about “moral progress” and “human flourishing” would be studiously ignored.

    I see no reason why the subjective nature of morality would prevent us from adopting such an “absolute morality.”  There would, of course, be no objective reason why we “should be good” according to the rules of such a system.  The reasons would be the same subjective ones that have always been the real basis for all the versions of morality our species has ever come up with.  In the first place, if the system really was in harmony with human nature, then for many of us, our “conscience” would prompt us to “do good.”  Those with a “weak conscience” who ignored the moral law, free riders if you will, would be dealt with much the same way they have always been dealt with.  They would be shamed, punished, and, if necessary, isolated from the rest of society.

    I know, we are very far from realizing this utopia, or even from accepting the most simple truths about morality and what they imply.  I’ve always been one for daydreaming, though.

     

    1 responses to “No, All Things are Not Permissible, and All Things are Not Not Permissible” RSS icon

    • Your first Hume quotation contains quite the ought-statement: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions …” And yet, I recall him being skeptical that one can ever draw out an ought from an is. It seems as if Hume is reacting to a specific form of reason-based morality: that which Kant formalized and that which MacIntyre criticizes in After Virtue. We are not disengaged minds; Descartes was wrong. We grow up in a particular context with particular values and social imaginaries. Social atomism was, is, and will always be wrong.

      You talk of objective good and evil being a problem, and I think I can agree in the same sense that scientists who think that they’ve found how reality truly works at the core are a problem. This kind of person has learned what works well for certain purposes in certain contexts and wants to generalize that to the entire universe and/or all humans. Contrast that to the person who knows [s]he needs to impedance-match his/her understanding with that of others, with neither understanding emerging unscathed from the process. Belief that such impedance-matching is possible is belief in a kind of objectivity rather different from what I generally find out there.

      Have you come across Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis? One of the things he argues is that the context-free nature of the Enlightenment (“Let’s find universal truths!”) was birthed in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, fought at least in part due to differing dogmatic convictions. Local particularities can give one sufficient motivation to massacre the Other; it is not surprising that a bunch of smart people would want to try to prevent that from happening, at a foundational level. That being said, the Renaissance 100 years earlier was quite happy to be sensitive to context—e.g. in jurisprudence. But then it is easy to accrue quite the tangled mess of common law; similar messes were the target of Descartes and Bacon. When regional dysfunction based on unreconciled particularities persists for long enough, they become ripe for conquest of one kind or another.

      We seem to be rather bad at maintaining unity while encouraging the growth of diversity. The temptations seem to be toward uniformity or fractured pluralism. I would be inclined to look for who benefits by pushing us toward one of those extremes.


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