Notes on Secular Ethics

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 3/17/2015

Logical positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer stated in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) that moral judgments are pure expressions of feeling. They are unverifiable and cannot be true or false. Also Hume's fork, the idea that all items of knowledge are either based on logic and definitions, or else on observation, makes morals unknowable. If the is–ought problem holds, then "ought" statements do not seem to be known in either of these two ways, and it would seem that there can be no absolute moral knowledge.

To act on reason alone, gives justification to both Kant’s Morals and Nietzsche’s ethics. Both are totally opposite to each other. In his legendary Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein Argued that All propositions are of equal value from our point of view. Anything transcendental can’t be said because there is no perspective external to the world from which we can talk about the world or its contents generally. For Wittgenstein, ethical `propositions' are absolute judgments of value of the form, ethics pervades all of life; Thus, we cannot talk about ethics since logical language can only reflect the world, any discussion of the mystical that which lies outside of the metaphysical subject's world, is meaningless. Actions are not good or bad because of their consequences, but because of the overall attitude toward life that they embody.
6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it did it would itself be accidental. It must lie outside the world.
Rousseau says we need an absolute principle (God) to make our ethics absolute:
“Reason alone is not a sufficient foundation for virtue; what solid ground can be found? Virtue we are told is love of order. But can this love prevail over my love for my own well-being, and ought it so to prevail? Their so-called principle is in truth a mere playing with words; for I also say that vice is love of order, differently understood. Wherever there is feeling and intelligence, there is some sort of moral order. The difference is this: the good man orders his life with regard to all men; the wicked orders it for self alone. The latter centres all things round himself; the other measures his radius and remains on the circumference. Thus his place depends on the common center, which is God, and on all the concentric circles which are His creatures. If there is no God, the wicked is right and the good man is nothing but a fool”.
Yet they are self-evident. Even studies show that babies are capable of ethical judgment, so how is this possible?

God is the Source of Morals

Religious people claim that God has favored us with faculties above all other beings.
“What being here below, except man, can observe others, measure, calculate, forecast their motions, their effects, and unite, so to speak, the feeling of a common existence with that of his individual existence? What is there so absurd in the thought that all things are made for me, when I alone can relate all things to myself? The more I consider thought and the nature of the human mind, the more likeness I find between the arguments of the materialists and those of the deaf man. Indeed, they are deaf to the inner voice which cries aloud to them, in a tone which can hardly be mistaken.”
Among those faculties, the natural law which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which he has endowed us. It has the form of instinct and emotion thus it isn't controlled by us.
“The morality of our actions consists entirely in the judgments we ourselves form with regard to them. If good is good, it must be good in the depth of our heart as well as in our actions; There is therefore at the bottom of our hearts an innate principle of justice and virtue, by which, in spite of our maxims, we judge our own actions or those of others to be good or evil; and it is this principle that I call conscience.”
In this article we will try to investigate if it is possible of moral judgment to exist without God’s influence?

Evolutionary Ethics

Some evolutionary biologists believe that morality is a natural phenomenon that evolves by natural selection. In this case, morality is defined as the set of relative social practices that promote the survival and successful reproduction of the species, or even multiple cooperating species.

Descriptive evolutionary ethics is empirical research into moral attitudes and beliefs (humans) or moral behavior (animals) in an evolutionary framework. The underline principle that guides evolution is self-preservation (survival and reproduction). According to the theory of evolution, every living organism formed meaningful associations between stimuli (visual, taste) and their effects (dangerous, poisonous) because such associations are vital to survive and reproduce. For Example, in the Paleolithic environment of our ancestors, incest led to the very real problem of genetic mutations from close inbreeding.

A key issue of has been how altruistic feelings, behaviors and selfless acts could have evolved when the process of natural selection is based on the multiplication over time only of those genes that adapt better to changes in the environment of the species. As Rousseau puts it:
“Self-interest, so they say, induces each of us to agree for the common good. But how is it that the good man consents to this to his own hurt? Does a man go to death from self-interest? No doubt each man acts for his own good, but if there is no such thing as moral good to be taken into consideration, self-interest will only enable you to account for the deeds of the wicked; possibly you will not attempt to do more”
That led to expansion of the previous principle to include: theories of reciprocal altruism (both direct and indirect, and on a society-wide scale), “Kin Selection”, which is the evolutionary strategy that favors the reproductive success of an organism's relatives, even at a cost to the organism's own survival and reproduction or the survival of a more general group, not restricted to relatives, known as “Group Selection”. It is obvious that more is to be gained by cooperating with others than by acts of isolated egoism. One man with a rock cannot kill a buffalo for dinner. But a group of men or women, with lots of rocks, can drive the beast off a cliff and - even after dividing the meat up among them - will still have more to eat than they would have had without cooperation. As human beings, we are social animals. Our sociality is the result of evolution, not choice. Natural selection has equipped us with nervous systems which are peculiarly sensitive to the emotional status of our fellows.  It is in our nature to seek happiness for our fellows at the same time as we seek it for ourselves. Our happiness is greater when it is shared.

Now we are able to explain the emergence of a few moral virtues in the name of “Group Selection” as:
  1. Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. We have evolved a deep sense of empathy and sympathy for others as we imagine ourselves in their position and what a situation would feel like if it were to happen to us. This foundation underlies such moral virtues as kindness and mercy.
  2. Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism, in which “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” This eventually evolved into genuine feelings of right and wrong over fair and unfair exchanges leading to ideals of justice and rights.
  3. In-group/loyalty, related to our long history as a tribal species able to form shifting coalitions. We evolved the propensity to form within-group amity for our fellow tribesmen and between-group enmity for anyone in another group. This foundation creates within a tribe a “band-of-brothers” effect and underlies such virtues as patriotism and self-sacrifice.
  4. Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. We evolved a natural tendency to defer to authority, show deference to leaders and experts, and follow the rules and dictates given by those above us in social rank. This foundation underlies such virtues as leadership, fellowship and respect for traditions and authority.
  5. Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. We evolved emotions to direct us toward the clean and away from the dirty.
But also we face problems like
  1. It allows for propositions of the following kind: The human species can survive more efficiently, if we let severely physically and mentally handicapped infants and children die. Therefore: we ought to let severely physically and mentally handicapped infants die or Eugenics which is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics) like what Nazism did or the acceptability of the use of human embryos for stem cell research.
  2. It doesn't explain virtues which have nothing to do with survival of a living organism or his group, like beauty and the feeling of transcendence, mainly the Aesthetic judgment.
  3. It doesn't explain acts of altruism done by a living organism outside of his group.
  4. There is no meaning for the phrase "moral ought", If I'm strong and able to survive better by abusing the weaklings of the group, why I'm ought to follow ethics proposed by the group to shackle me? There are no valid reasons for me to follow them. Each should create his own morals (Nietzsche) which leads to Ethical Relativism. Without an ontological absolute grounding (a God for example), morals become pragmatic in nature leading to subjective reasoning instead of an objective one.
  5.  Moore’s Open Question Argument (Good is undefinable, can only be shown and neither described nor deduced)

The "Open Question" Test

British philosopher Moore (Principia Ethica) demonstrated that all systems of naturalistic ethics, including evolutionary ethics, are flawed.

The property of 'goodness' cannot be defined because it is simple and has no parts. It is one of those innumerable objects of thought which are the ultimate terms of reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined. That there must be an indefinite number of such terms is obvious, on reflection; since we cannot define anything except by an analysis, which, when carried as far as it will go, refers us to something, which is simply different from anything else, and which by that ultimate difference explains the peculiarity of the whole which we are defining: for every whole contains some parts which are common to other wholes also. There is, therefore, no intrinsic difficulty in the contention that good denotes a simple and indefinable quality. There are many other instances of such qualities.

Any attempt to define “goodness” (X is good if it has property Y) will simply shift the problem (Why is Y-ness good in the first place?). Therefore, we cannot define "good" by explaining it in other words, we can only point to an action or a thing and say "That is good." It can only be shown. Similarly, we cannot describe to a blind person exactly what yellow is. We can only show a sighted person a piece of yellow paper or a yellow scrap of cloth and say "That is yellow."

Yet a mistake of this simple kind has commonly been made about good. It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light. Consider yellow, for example. We may try to define it, by describing its physical equivalent; we may state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it. But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to show that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow. They are not what we perceive. The most we can be entitled to say of those vibrations is that they are what corresponds in space to the yellow which we actually perceive.

A test of whether goodness is identical to X:
X is not identical to goodness if the question, “Is X good?” is open.
Applying it in a few examples:
  1. The question, “Is pleasure after all good?” is open and meaningful. It makes sense to wonder about this.
  2. The question, “Is pleasure pleasure?” seems settled and pointless. It doesn’t make sense to wonder about this; the answer is trivially “yes.”
So all of the complex candidates will fail the test, but not all of the simple candidates will fail.

And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining “good”; that these properties, in fact, were simply not other, but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view Moore calls the naturalistic fallacy.

Moore pointed out that the view that "we ought to move in the direction of evolution simply because it is the direction of evolution" was invalid because it was an example of the naturalistic fallacy, that is the fallacy of defining 'the good' by reference to some other thing, and in this case we define Good by the direction of Evolution, but isn’t proved that Evolution is good in the first place.

Because of his hostility to ethical naturalism Moore denies that ethical knowledge is a matter of empirical inquiry. But he is equally hostile to Kant's rationalist thesis that fundamental ethical truths are truths of reason. Instead he holds that ethical knowledge rests on a capacity for an intuitive grasp of fundamental ethical truths for which we can give no reason since there is no reason to be given.

As a result of the previous, Group Selection, became more abstract to include all humans with the addition of a goal ensuring their welfare. Also the study of Normative evolutionary ethics flourished which aims at answering the previous question by defining which acts are right or wrong, and which things are good or bad in an evolutionary context. It is not merely describing, but it is prescribing goals, values and obligations. For example eugenics is a form of normative evolutionary ethics, because it defines what is "good" on the basis of genetics and the theory of evolution.

Humanist ethics

They are a set of universal morals based on the commonality of human nature, and that knowledge of right and wrong is based on our best understanding of our individual and joint interests. The humanist ethics goal is a search for viable individual, social and political principles of conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility, ultimately eliminating human suffering. Humanism affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. So ethics become a law whose purpose is “the flourishing of conscious creatures".

So a pair of scissors that cannot easily cut through paper can legitimately be called "bad" since it cannot fulfill its purpose effectively. Likewise, if a person is understood as having a particular purpose, then behavior can be evaluated as good or bad in reference to that purpose. In plainer words, a person is acting "good" when that person fulfills that person's purpose.

This Humanists solution to the Evolutionary ethics problems, resulted in the following:
  1. The First problem was solved.
  2. The Second problem remains in-explainable.
  3. The Third problem remains in-explainable.
  4. Problem four was partially solved by putting morals it in the form of law applied on all society’s inhabitants. People will fear punishment by law of the society, instead of believing in an absolute good. so "moral ought" is equated with "following the law". The law is the new absolute source of value (God). But as a result, the problem was just moved to higher level, instead of each man creating his own morals, now we have each society to create its own morals according to its culture, which eventually leads back to Ethical Relativism. Without an ontological absolute grounding (a God for example), morals become pragmatic in nature leading to subjective reasoning instead of an objective one.
  5. Problem five remains valid.

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