People worry about a “grounding” for morality. There’s really no need to. As Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce pointed out in Wild Justice – The Moral Lives of Animals, there are analogs of moral behavior in many species besides our own. Eventually some bright Ph.D. will design an experiment to scan the brains of chimpanzees as they make morally loaded decisions, and discover that the relevant equipment in their brains is located more or less in the same places as in ours. Other animals don’t wonder why one thing is good and another evil. They’re not intelligent enough to worry about it. Hominids are Mother Nature’s first experiment with creatures that are smart enough to worry about it. The result of this cobbling of big brains onto the already existing mental equipment responsible for moral emotions and perceptions hasn’t been entirely happy. In fact, it has caused endless confusion through the ages.
We can’t just perceive one thing as good, and another as evil, and leave it at that like other animals. We’re too smart for that. We have to invent a story to explain why. We perceive Good and Evil as things independent of ourselves, so we need to come up with some kind of myth about how they got there. It’s an impossible task, because Good and Evil don’t exist as independent things. They are subjective impressions. It is our nature to perceive them as things because morality has always worked best that way, at least until now. That fact has led to endless confusion over the ages, as philosophers and theologians have tried to grasp the mirage.
We are much like the patients described in Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain, who had their left and right brain hemispheres severed from each other to relieve severe epilepsy. According to Gazzaniga,
Beyond the finding…that the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs. I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.
Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patients’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”
We constantly invent similar stories to rationalize to ourselves why something we have just perceived as good really is Good, or why something we have perceived as evil really is Evil. Jonathan Haidt describes the same phenomenon in his The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Noting that he will present evidence in the paper to back up his claims, he writes,
These findings offer four reasons for doubting the causality of reasoning in moral judgment: 1) there are two cognitive processes at work — reasoning and intuition — and the reasoning process has been overemphasized; 2) reasoning is often motivated; 3) the reasoning process constructs post-hoc justifications, yet we experience the illusion of objective reasoning; and 4) moral action covaries with moral emotion more than with moral reasoning.
The most common post-hoc justification, of course, has always been God. Coming up with a God-based narrative is a piece of cake compared to the alternative. After all, if the big guy upstairs wants one thing to be Good and another Evil, and promises to fry you in hell forever if you beg to differ with him, it’s easy to find reasons to agree with Him. Take him out of the mix, however, and things get more complicated. We come up with all kinds of amusing and flimsy rationalizations to demonstrate the existence of the non-existent.
Consider, for example, the matter of Rights which, like Good and Evil, exist as subjective impressions that our mind portrays to us as objective things. The website of the Foundation for Economic Education has a regular “Arena” feature hosting debates on various topics, and a while back the question was, “Do Natural Rights Exist?” The affirmative side was taken by Tibor Machan in a piece entitled, “Natural Rights Come From Human Nature.” If you get the sinking feeling on reading this that you’re about to see yet another version of the naturalistic fallacy, unfortunately you would be right. Machan sums up his argument in the final two paragraphs as follows:
We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits (a class of some kind of beings) and games (another class) and subatomic particles (yet another class) and so on. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified, but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chickens and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, or when there are some oddities involved.
So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us—we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights, and as they do so they must also respect them.
Is it just me, or is this transparent conflation of “is” and “ought” sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old? Well, it must be me, because according to the poll accompanying the debate, 66% of the respondents thought that Machan “won” with this argument, according to which Natural Rights “evolved” right along with our hands and feet. Obviously, since people “know in their bones” that Rights are real things, it doesn’t take a very profound argument to convince them that “it must be true.” In a word, if you think that the world will sink into a fetid sewer of moral relativism and debauchery because there is no “grounding of morality,” I have good news for you. It ain’t so. If our moral equipment works perfectly well even when the only thing propping it up is such a flimsy post-hoc rationalization, it can probably get along just as well without one.