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Monday, June 16, 2014

Response to Shuggy: On Morality and Personhood

There's one more post I want to respond to from Jerry Coyne's blog.  Shuggy writes:

"So what are the alternatives to well-being as a goal of ethics? I see “virtue” but how would virtue be defined without involving well-being? Isn’t the point of not raping, to quote a recent example, to maximise the well-being of those not raped?"

It's a good question:  What could be the goal of ethics, if not the maximization of well-being?  I assume the question is, what is the point of morality?  Why do people make ethical judgments at all, if not to promote well-being?

Of course, even if I cannot give a persuasive answer, it doesn't mean no answer can be given.  We should not assume that the goal of morality is to maximize well-being just because we cannot think of a different one.   That would be argumentum ad ignorantiam.   However, I do have an answer.

If we were going to approach this scientifically, we might consider an evolutionary perspective.  How might moral judgments be adaptive?  How might they increase our chances of successful reproduction?

It might be that moral judgments help solidify community bonds, establishing complex forms of reputability and trust.  The goal of ethics, then, might be to strengthen social interaction.  The goal, in that case, is not to maximize the well-being of all or even most conscious creatures.  It is not even to maximize human flourishing.  It is to maximize the chances of successful reproduction.  It may just be that moral judgments improve the chances of successful reproduction by promoting suffering.  Throughout history and even today, many moral judgments lead to suffering.  From an evolutionary point of view, this need not be considered a mistake.

I think of dignity as the fundamental moral property.  Morality, as a sociobiological process, is all about fostering dignity.  But there is no fact of the matter about how dignity can or should be fostered.  Dignity is not quantifiable.  Dignity is the property of having moral excellence, where moral excellence is a matter of social value.  It is normative, a matter of what is or is not considered just.  There is no fact of the matter about what is or is not just.  There are various reasons, and these can be agreed upon or not, but there is no metric for determining which are correct and which are incorrect.  There is no such thing as an incorrect moral judgment.  Dignity is not the sort of thing that can be scientifically measured.

You might say dignity is therefore an illusion.  If that is so, then so are the concepts of earning a living, deserving fair treatment, and being guilty or innocent of a crime.  These are concepts we live by.  You can call them illusions if you want.  You can, like the moral error theorists, claim that all moral judgments are false, and that all thought of dignity is an error.  I, however, prefer noncognitivism.  This is the view that dignity is real, but judgments about it are not truth-evaluable.  We can't talk about the elements of personhood--dignity, guilt, rewards, etc.--and expect anything to make our judgments true or false, but we should still take such talk seriously.  There is no conceivable alternative.