“Natural Law” and Other Rationalizations of Morality

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.


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.

7 thoughts on ““Natural Law” and Other Rationalizations of Morality”

  1. You have to back up and look at yourself saying this and why people should believe your claims. Do you think people should believe your claims because they are true? But why prefer the truth over a lie? The only reason for preferring the truth over a lie we have hitherto accepted was because accepting the truth is Good and that preferring falsehood is Evil. But you say there is no Good and Evil. You have undermined the whole basis for believing anything you say.

    Based on intuition, I suggest the formation of a fascist political party with the stated policy of lining up everyone who says that there is no Good and Evil against the wall to be shot. All they would have to do to avoid this fate would be to admit that what is being done to them is Evil.

    What are you gonna do? Say that my desire to do this is evil? That I shouldn’t do it? (which is another way of saying it’s evil) Or that it is unjust? (justice is a rationalization according to the above argument)

    No. Just no.

    “You cannot hold a pistol to the head of the Tao.” — C. S. Lewis

  2. Oh, I suppose one might say that we should prefer the truth over a lie because the truth contributes to our survival. But why survive? Why not accept a falsehood and die? Is it because survival is good? You can’t use that if there is no such thing.

    Is it because we happen to have evolved to prefer survival over death and truth over lies? But David Hume would tear that to shreds. That is not a value, that is only a fact. From premises about facts alone, no practical conclusion can ever be drawn.

  3. Ben,

    I prefer truth over falsehood because I have concluded that, if I seek to satisfy some desire, even if it is merely the desire to understand something, the probability that I will succeed is greater if I base my actions and reasoning on the truth rather than falsehood. In other words, my preference for the truth is based on utilitarian rather than moral considerations. I don’t confuse my own whims, things I happen to want, with any transcendent Good.

    You can evoke moral emotions by lining people up and shooting them, and in many other ways. All you have demonstrated in the process is that humans experience the emotional responses that we associate with morality. You have certainly not demonstrated that objective Good and Evil exist, even if every human on the planet experiences exactly the same moral emotions in response to one input or another. It is not necessary for me to conclude that being shot is Evil in some objective sense to avoid being shot. I will avoid being shot even if you can demonstrate to me, based on Aristotle, Plato and Hume, that it is Good for me to be shot.

    You seem to think that I can’t desire anything, such as survival, unless I have somehow demonstrated to myself beforehand that it is objectively good, regardless of my personal whims in the matter. I’m sorry, but I don’t consider it possible to demonstrate the existence of things that don’t exist, and objective good is one such thing. I will continue to desire certain things and avoid other things regardless.

    You can certainly claim that, if I really, really want something, it must be “good” for me. All that amounts to is conflating my personal whims with universal moral goods. It merely begs the question of how my personal wants, desires, and moral emotions can climb out of my skull and gain normative power over other human beings. No such mechanism exists.

    It’s quite true that, as Hume might have said, our desire to survive is merely a fact. That doesn’t alter the fact that the desire exists. I don’t require a demonstration of the objective Good or Evil of survival in order to continue seeking to survive, any more than any other animal.

    Facts remain facts whether one finds them aesthetically pleasing or not.

  4. Utilitarianism is a moral system making claims of objective good and evil like any other. What you propose isnt utilitarianism: it is nihilism.

    You can certainly desire whatever you want to desire. What you can’t do is logically justify anything to anybody else on any subject without the claim of a real good and evil. Your position has built a wall of silence between people who disagree such that differences cannot be settled through rational argumentation or discussion, since you deny there being any objective reason to prefer the truth. The answer to this is bullets. “We will kill you” is the only counter argument, since there are no common premises for any other, So we will meet on the battlefield until the streets run red with blood. And that is all.

  5. The first definition that comes up when you Google “utilitarian” is: “designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive. synonyms: practical, functional, pragmatic, serviceable, useful, sensible, efficient, utility, workaday, no-frills.” I used the term according to its common definition, and did not imply nor intend any connection with morality. As far as utilitarianism as a moral system is concerned, John Stuart Mill explicitly denied in his book, “Utilitarianism,” that he made any claims about objective good and evil. I would say he can claim to be an expert on the subject.

    The rest of your comment is simply the result of your failure to read my earlier reply. I repeat, “Facts remain facts whether one finds them aesthetically pleasing or not.” If something is true, your opinion that the truth will have bad consequences will not transmute it into a falsehood. It will remain true whether you like it or not.

    As I’ve pointed out over and over and over again, morality will continue to function just as it always has, whether you or anyone else thinks it’s properly “grounded” or not. Moral emotions have caused bullets to fly far more often than they’ve prevented them from flying. Communism was a moral system. Nazism was another. Perhaps by finally understanding morality instead of attempting to deify it, we would give ourselves a fighting chance to avoid more such catastrophes in the future.

  6. That’s odd … I seem to remember Mill being more intelligent than to make such a stupid blunder as that, because he certainly does articulate a system which is making a claim of objective good and evil, even if he denies that he’s doing this in some obscure passage.

    Anyway, as I said, the only rational response to your argument is violence, because you’ve built the wall of silence. You’ve got to tear that wall down from your side before you get anything other than violence as the response.

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