Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Simple Theory of Morality

The average person operates on the assumption that the moral sphere is somehow quite separate from the ordinary concerns to which we apply the language of “right” and “wrong”.

We speak of the right way to cook rice and the wrong way to carve a roast, the right way to kick a football and the wrong way to throw a baseball, or of the right time of year to pick blackberries and the wrong time of year to plant sunflowers, and so on. We find these everyday uses of terms like “right” and “wrong” useful to refer to things that are correct or incorrect, reasonably efficient or not very efficient, best proven practices or not likely to produce desirable results.

We use the concepts of right and wrong hundreds or even thousands of times each day to guide our most pedestrian acts, including the literally pedestrian acts of where to place one’s feet when walking, or whether to jaywalk or cross the street at the intersection.

And yet when we apply concepts of right and wrong to questions like when to speak the truth and when to lie, when to steal and when to show generosity, when to offer peace and when to quell with violence, we seem unconsciously to enter another realm, the realm of morality, which is apparently immune to the logic of efficiency, effectiveness, and best practices.

This split, the dividing line, is reflected in moral philosophy unquestioningly. One apparently does not decide moral questions on the basis of what works best – works best for what? Instead we consult the oracles, we ask the Gods for guidance, we attempt to define oughts, and universals, and the greatest good for the greatest number – we search for a morality gene!

Why can’t moral decision-making be as simple as the other daily decisions we make in our waking lives? Is it a matter of weight?

A common argument from religious moralists is that there is no scientific basis for morality. Theologians typically contend that Darwin and evolutionists see no point in existence, see it as just an accident of evolution, and see therefore no underlying principle and no rock on which morality can be built.

Unfortunately there are some prominent evolutionists who agree with them – Dawkins being the prime example.

But of course humanity does have a point, and does operate according to very visible and very profound principles, as does every species on earth. The point of life, as I have argued in an earlier post, is to persist. What living creature is not motivated by the desire to persist and not to perish? What species is not motivated by desire to reproduce and therefore to create the conditions for its genetic materials, the very blueprint of its existence, to persist through the generations?

The over-riding principle of existence is persistence. This is the rock of ages upon which the strong foundations of morality can be built.

In real terms, this principle guides our every action – we seek to persist as individuals as well as to persist as a species. Tellingly, those acts which are interpreted as supporting and advancing the long-term persistence, survival, and flourishing of the human species are those that are regarded by our culture as moral.

A maxim for a scientific theory of morality would therefore be: to act everywhere and always in the best long-term interests of humanity.

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