Morality: Who Gets to Play Evaluator?

Amoebas react to light.  Mimosa plants react to touch.  Humans react to other humans.  As all three species are presumably related, although their common ancestor lived at a remote date, biochemists and neurophysicists might well be able to discover subtle similarities in the biological processes involved in all three cases.  However, unlike amoebas and mimosas, humans are conscious beings, and can observe and think about their reactions.  Sometimes those reactions fall within the sphere of what is commonly referred to as moral behavior.  In other words, they involve the perception of what we call “good” and “evil.”  However, Mother Nature did not bother with anything so impractical as causing us to perceive these intuitions as what they actually are; the result of physical and chemical processes with no existence outside of the brains of individuals.  They promoted our survival much more effectively when perceived as things that existed on their own, independent of the will or consciousness of particular individuals.  We have been involved in a hopeless search for the basis of this illusion ever since.  Like wanderers in the desert seeking a mirage, we seek to establish the legitimacy of Good and Evil.  It is a hopeless quest.

It is an interesting idiosyncrasy of our species that we can easily see through the flimsy rationalizations others use to establish some basis for the powerful perception that their own versions of Good and Evil apply, not just to themselves, but to others as well.  We’re just not quite so perceptive when it comes to seeing the flaws in our attempts to establish the legitimacy of our own versions.  An interesting example just turned up on Instapundit, in the form of a paper published by Arthur Leff in the Duke Law Journal back in 1979, entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.”

The opening paragraphs of the paper are worth quoting in full:

I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously.  I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be.  What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.

I mention the matter here only because I think that the two contradictory impulses which together form that paradox do not exist only on some high abstract level of arcane angst.  In fact, it is my central thesis that much that is mysterious about much that is written about law today is understandable only in the context of this tension between the ideas of found law and made law:  a tension particularly evident in the growing, though desperately resisted, awareness that there may be, in fact, nothing to be found – that whenever we set out to find “the law,” we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.

With that preamble, Leff announces that he will, “…try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.”  In fact, he does an excellent job of it, in terms both simple and brief.  Noting that,

A statement in the form “you ought to do X,” “it is right to do X,” or “X is good” will establish oughtness, rightness, or goodness only if there is a set of rules that gives the speaker the power totally to determine the question… it is precisely the question of who has the power to set such rules for validating evaluations that is the central problem of ethics.

He then goes on to consider the circumstances under which anyone might gain that power.  However, before doing so, he does not leave us in suspense as to his own position.  In his words, “There are no such circumstances.”  Noting that God was once the evaluator of last resort, he continues,

The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises.  What Kurt Gödel did for systems of logic, deicide has done for normative systems…Put briefly, if the law is “not a brooding omnipresence in the sky,” then it can be only one place:  in us.  If we are trying to find a substitute final evaluator, it must be one of us, some of us, all of us – but it cannot be anything else.

Thus, once it is accepted that (a) all normative statements are evaluations of actions and other states of the world; (b) an evaluation entails an evaluator; and (c) in the presumed absence of God, the only available evaluators are people, then only a determinate, and reasonably small, number of kinds of ethical and legal systems can be generated.  Each such system will be strongly differentiated by the axiomatic answer it chooses to give to one key question:  who ultimately gets to play the role of ultimately unquestionable evaluator, a role played in supernaturally based systems by God?  Who among us, that is, ought to be able to declare “law” that ought to be obeyed?

Leff then goes on to demonstrate that the possible answers to this unsettling question are both few and transparently fallacious.  He first takes up what he calls “Descriptivism.” Again, quoting Leff,

It (Descriptivism) goes like this:  it is not at all necessary to specify who is generating the legal system, much less to describe how that generation is being effected.  A legal system is a fact.  It is something… that exists.  The way to discover its existence is to discover what rules are in fact obeyed.

However, Descriptivism really accomplishes nothing.  Defined in that way, according to Leff,

“the law” describes not good behavior or right behavior, but behavior… Under Descriptivism, it is impossible to say that anything ought or ought not to be.

A possible alternative to Descriptivism is what Leff calls “Personalism,” according to which,

Everyone can declare what ought to be for himself, and no one can legitimately criticize anyone else’s values – what they are or how they came to be – because everyone has equal ethical dignity… If the difficulty with Descriptivism is that it validates any normative system, the problem with the “God-is-me” approach (“Personalism”) is that it validates everyone’s individual normative system, while giving no instruction in, or warrant for, choosing among them.

In other words, it becomes necessary to decide who will get to play philosopher king:

The next move, one would guess, would be to find some way to distinguish among the individuals either quantitatively through some aggregation principle, or qualitatively.  One might choose to stand, that is, on the most evaluations or the best ones.

However, neither choice solves the problem.  In the first case,

All one has is the assumed conclusion that in cases of conflicting perfections, the largest number wins.

But, according to Leff, the second is no better:

Can we then get out of our bind by deciding after all to pay attention to the quality of the ethical boxes?  No, we cannot.

The moment one suggests a criterion, then individual men have ceased to be the measure of all things, and something else – and that necessarily means someone else – has been promoted to the (formally impossible) position of evaluator-in-chief.

One would think that a fully considered moral position, the product of deep and thorough intellectual activity, one that fits together into a fairly consistent whole, would deserve more respect than shallow, expletive, internally inconsistent ethical decisions.  Alas, to think that would be to think wrong:  labor and logic have no necessary connection to ethical truth.

Should one not in such a situation give more weight to A’s position than to B’s?  Only if someone has the power to declare careful, consistent, coherent ethical propositions “better” than the sloppier, more impulsive kinds.  Who has that power and how did he get it?  …Bluntly, intellectual beauty is not a necessary prerequisite to ethical adequacy unless someone declares it to be.

Leff next moves on to demolish what one might call the Sam Harris school of validation:

There remains, then, only one considerable approach to the validation of ethical systems.  Under it no search is made for any evaluator, but rather some state of the world is declared to be good, and acts which effect that state are ethical acts.  Merely to express this approach is, or course, to refute it, for a good state of the world must be good to someone.  One cannot escape from the fact that a normative statement is an evaluation merely by dispensing with any mention of who is making it.  Hence the description of a particular end-state – human happiness (or “human flourishing”, ed.) or wealth – as a validator of a system, is just another evaluator-centered approach, but with blinkers added.  Wealth is good, and makes our acts good, if someone, or some collection of someones, says so.  But which someone or someones count still has to be accounted for.

There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system.  There is no way to prove one ethical legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final uncontradictable, unexaminable word.  That choice of unjudged judge, whoever is given the role, is itself, strictly speaking, arbitrary.

And so, just as Kant demolished the existing proofs of God’s existence, Leff polished off the secular bases of moral legitimacy. Unlike Kant, however, he did it briefly and coherently. By all means, read the whole paper.  It is a fine little nail in the coffin for all secular systems that seek the holy grail of objective Good and Evil, whether past, present, or yet to come.  Its conclusions have always been obvious to fundamentalist Christians and Moslems who fondly believe that the fantasies on which they base their own moral systems provide a better support.  However, they continue to slam against a brick wall of cognitive dissonance, against all odds and the accumulating mounds of evidence about the real nature of morality, in the minds of agnostics, atheists and “Godless” moralists who simply can’t believe that there is no basis for the legitimacy of moral intuitions that they feel so strongly “in their bones.”  Far be it for me to offer any moral conclusions, but I do think it would behoove us all to put these delusions behind us.  Whatever whims any of us might have, moral or otherwise, I suspect we will be more likely to satisfy them if we base our actions on that which is true rather than on that which is not.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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