Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Purpose of Morality

Ronald A. Lindsay, of the Center for Inquiry, asks, What is the purpose of morality?

Here's my answer:

In my understanding, the primary function of morality is to foster the dignity of persons, which I would define as self-aware, rational agents. The principles underlying any such process or practice would, by definition, be moral principles. Any principles which do not foster the dignity of persons could not be considered moral.

I didn't have this answer a few days ago, when I first read Lindsay's post. I had some vague idea that, from an evolutionary perspective, morality probably helps people function together. But that is too general to be of value. It doesn't get at what is unique to morality. Also, I was never persuaded by the idea that morality is functionally limited to any species, or any definable biological group. After all, we can have moral dilemmas about sentient robots. This is not to say that morality has no basis in evolutionary biology. It surely does, but those roots do not limit the scope of its functionality to any set of biological organisms.

I like the answer I came up with. I'm not sure what made me think of it, though Kant was an influence. I've always liked his idea that morality requires that we treat rational agents as ends in themselves, though I was never sure it had a firm theoretical foundation. It occurred to me that, if morality is just about fostering the dignity of rational agents, then Kant's idea logically follows.