Morality and Truth

by Jonathan Wallace

For a long time I used to participate in debates on Internet mailing lists on a wide variety of issues including freedom of speech, gun control, etc. In recent years I have become more of a bystander to these kinds of discussions. They are mainly conducted by people on both sides who seem immune to further education, and who complacently commit most of the classic fallacies of debate (the ad hominem attack, circular argument, appeal to doubtful authority or statistics, etc.) Putting aside these problems, if you analyze most of these discussions carefully, you will inevitably conclude that the parties cannot agree on the most basic premises. In other words, there is no common language, no shared idea which would make their debate useful or even comprehensible.

For example, gun control. I made the mistake once of accepting an invitation to debate an NRA board member on a libertarian mailing list. One of my arguments was that the Second Amendment is a somewhat ambiguous statement of the Founders' intentions which has been held by the federal courts to create only a right of the states against the federal government. The federal courts are the final arbiters of the meaning of the Constitution; you may disagree with the ruling, I said, but unless the Supreme Court overrules the appellate judges who made this decision, there is no individual right to bear arms under the Constitution, as it would be meaningless to speak of an individual constitutional right not recognized by the people our system has established as the authoritative interpreters of the Constitution.

This resulted in scads of email couched in language of extreme insult, from people who believe that the right to bear arms is engraved in the fabric of the universe and was merely affirmed, not created, by the Second Amendment. It quickly became evident we were debating the wrong issue. We couldn't even begin to talk about a legal, moral or practical basis for gun control until we had settled the issue, "Do natural rights exist?"--an issue most of my interlocutors refused to debate because they held it to be "self-evident"--the way the founders did in the Declaration of Independence.

I believe that most moral debate on any topic fudges or avoids the fundamental question of the foundation of moral rules in general and the one we are disputing in particular. Again, if you believe the rule you are propounding is God's commandment, and I am arguing it is impractical and of little human utility, we are talking completely at cross-purposes. To avoid a massive waste of time, all moral debates ought to begin with a metadebate or collective investigation and rule-setting: what are we really talking about? Do we have any understandings in common from which to begin our discussion?

One of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read was Alfred Ayers' Language, Truth and Logic, in which he says that most statements can only be evaluated for their semantic consistency--compliance with a semantic rulebook, such as the one which rules the word "irregardless" out of bounds. Moral statements in particular he says cannot be evaluated for any "truth" beyond their compliance with the semantic rules:

[F]undamental ethical conceptions are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgments in which they occur....[T]hey are mere pseudoconcepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money,", in a particular tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.

For most of human history there was no distinction drawn between moral and empirical statements; "Theft is wrong" and "The sun rose today" were considered to be the same kind of statement. Hume was probably the first to point out that these are two completely different types of assertions and that there is no way to root a moral assertion in an empirical one:

In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason ought to be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.

This fallacy, detected by Hume two centuries ago, is still prevalent in most moral discussion. We have made immense technical progress--Hume never dreamed of the Internet--but our confusion about the source of morality and about the use and meaning of our own language is as intense as it was two hundred years ago.

In June 1995, I published an essay called What I Learned From Auschwitz in which I said that the fact of Auschwitz was incompatible with the idea of a personally interventive God, unless he was a mass murderer. In November 1995, I published an issue of the Spectacle entitled A Shaggy God in which I examined what God means to us as a moral and semantic stopsign--and also discussed the possible sources of morality without God.

These two essays have resulted in hundreds of email messages over the ensuing years, taking me--mostly gently--to task for not believing in a Deity. I soon came to the conclusion that arguing with people about God's existence is useless: First because it is no kindness (as in the case of the woman whose belief began when she lost her young child.) Second, because we are not arguing on the same plane, as in the example of the gun debate. The smartest and most logical believers, such as Walter Lee, freely acknowledge that a belief in God is a matter of faith, not reason. Most people, however, simply do not see the distinction between the is and the ought and engage in arguments which can be reduced to the following: "God must (ought to) exist because the alternative is unthinkable." (I call this the "Dostoyevski" argument because he was terrified by the insight that "Without God, everything is permitted.")

Compare Einstein's propositions concerning the speed of light, conversion of mass to energy, etc. which could be reduced to mathematic proof, with his famous remark that "God does not play dice with the universe," which cannot. Einstein himself was frequently surprised by the extent to which people placed extraordinary credence in statements of his on topics about which he freely acknowledged he knew little.

Proofs of a proposition which rely on a prior assumption of the truth of that proposition are known as "circular". For example: "Benevolence is a virtue. God has all the virtues. Therefore, God is benevolent." Trying to argue in a straight line with people who are arguing in a circle and don't see it (or don't see anything wrong with it) is a waste of breath.

More interesting are several groups of thinkers who, uneasy with founding all morality in God, have worked hard to find alternative sources. In that November 1995 issue of the Spectacle, in an essay called Morality Without God, I examined several variations on this theme, including the psychological, the sociological and the sociobiological. While work has been done in each of these fields which I believe has some validity (for example, the rule against incest has strong roots in all three areas), all are too reductive to present a "final theory" of morality. The more one reads these kinds of works, the stronger the impression that (like many "victims" of modernity) the author is somewhat panicked by the nonexistence of God and eager to find an alternative cornerstone for morality. Here is an amusing example: Richard Dawkins suggesting a genetic explanation for altruism:

A gene for suicidally saving five cousins would not become more numerous in the population, but a gene for saving five brothers or ten first cousins would. The minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents), or more than four half-siblings (or uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren) or more than eight first cousins, etc.

Dawkins is realistic enough to acknowledge that some "evil" strategies are also evolutionarily successful (the bluegill which fertilizes the nests of other males or the cuckoo which lays its eggs in other birds' nests). Nevertheless, he and other sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson seem to depart from the insights of Darwin's contemporary, Thomas Huxley, who warned (in an insight closely related to Hume's) that evolution and ethics have nothing to do with one another. Huxley said that in fact they are contradictory; that ethics involves a putting aside of evolutionary considerations in much the same way that morality involves a negation of the "is":

"Fittest" has a connotation of "best", and about "best" there hangs a moral flavor. In cosmic nature, however, what is "fittest" depends upon the conditions. Long since, I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the "fittest" that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its color...They, as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive.

Huxley's analysis justly explodes the idea of "progress", that things automatically get better over time, not because man wills them to be so but as part of a natural process (evolution).

Darwin himself ceased to believe in God towards the end of his life; he noted that a benevolent God could not have invented the digger wasp, which lays its eggs in the body of its living but paralyzed prey.

The most thought-provoking letter I ever received about my moral views was from a correspondent who angrily commented that, if there is no God, the statement "I prefer a moral system" is no different than "I like ice cream".

Note that this is a variant of the Dostoyevski argument. Assume for a moment that the assertions about morality and ice cream are the same: that would in itself provide no proof whatever of the existence of God.

However, the two statements, "I like morality" and "I like ice cream," are not really equivalent. I have already described some differences between them:

"I prefer a moral system" is more similar to the statement "I would rather use Robert's Rules of Order," uttered in a chaotic meeting. The speaker would be proposing the consensual adoption by all members of the group of a rulebook which would greatly streamline the conduct of a meeting, saving everyone valuable time and energy.

I concluded that "Morality is a rulebook, or rather a scheme of competing rulebooks proposed because they advance utilitarian goals."

I added that a second strong source for the appeal of moral rulebooks are that they are beautiful. What I mean by this is that the appeal of a moral action is similar to the appeal of a beautiful sunset: we get the same feeling of chemical satisfaction from both.

This second underpinning of the appeal of moral rulebooks is necessary to provide a full explanation, because not all moral actions are utilitarian. Acts of self-sacrifice which violate Dawkin's "ten first cousins" rule, for example.

Here is a trivial example from my own life. Around 1981, I sublet my apartment for a few months to a woman whose boyfriend I did not trust. When I moved back in, I could not find my backpacking tent and I asked the woman if her friend might have stolen it. Many years later, I found the tent buried under some other belongings in my parents' basement, where I did not remember having left it. Some time after that, I ran into the woman again. After an internal struggle, I told her I had falsely accused her friend.

Why did I tell her? I could have kept the information to myself and neither she nor anyone else would ever have known. Nor could the information have been of any current value to her, as she had not seen the man in years.

I told her the truth because if I had not my own idea of myself would have been implicated. Once I did, I felt an intense satisfaction. I carried around with me an idea of the person I wanted to be (which included a rulebook which said that this was a right action.) Deeds consistent with that idea made me feel good regardless of their utility (telling the truth in that situation was not empirically useful at all.)

Someone will write me, based on the foregoing, to say that I too am deriving an ought from an is: if the moral is beautiful I am also planting morality on a cornerstone outside ourselves. Not at all. There are many actions considered evil under my rulebook which are undoubtedly beautiful to psychotics or serial killers. I think of the character in Thomas Harris' Red Dragon who enjoyed the way blood shone in moonlight, or the military man in Apocalypse Now who loved the smell of napalm in the morning.

I agree with Huxley that humans are not wired for morality. At most, I believe we may be wired to enjoy rulebooks. What these rules are is a matter of complete indifference to the universe.

Nevertheless, I will also hear from some correspondent that the human appreciation of beauty (whether of a sunset or a moral rulebook) is itself evidence of the existence of God. But this is also a circular argument, closely related to the assertion that humans could not exist without an intelligent designer (ably dealt with by Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker.)

Most moral philosophy suffers from the fallacy Hume detected. The author writes as if he is proposing a useful or beautiful rulebook, then hops the track by arguing that this rulebook is somehow engraven in the fabric of the universe. Kant's categorical imperative is an example:

Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

OK, lets think. In the classic example from introductory ethics textbooks, I'm about to hop the subway turnstile and avoid paying a fare. But wait! Under Kant's rulebook, I should only do so if I am willing for everyone to hop the turnstile! But if everyone did, there could be no subway, because there would be no money to pay for it! I head for the fare booth.

Imagine a group of us sitting around on a new planet we have just been assigned, debating the rulebook we want to institute for ourselves and our descendants. This would be a highly interesting discussion. Kant's imperative has some appeal as a way of thinking about things. But suppose in this case the subway rider is a nihilist from New Jersey, who is only in town for the day and will never need the subway again? I argue that Kant's imperative is not really so categorical as he thinks. Perhaps we should incorporate it only as one of a series of thought-provoking "views" in our rulebook. Maybe, as in software development, our rulebook requires a permanent quality assurance function, and part of the test of an action (after determining whether it is apprently consistent with the rulebook) is whether it satisfies the Kant rule.

But I think Kant disagrees about morality being a voluntary rulebook, because he spends the rest of Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals trying to found the categorical imperative in murky concepts of "Good Will" and "Pure Reason".

The most scathing criticism of my argument that morality is nothing but a collection of competing human rulebooks is the one made by the correspondent I feature on the top page of this month's Spectacle: that I am a moral relativist. (He also calls me a hypocrite, but it is hard to see how that could be true as long as I am being absolute about my relativity.)

His argument, had he made it using logic instead of insults, would run something like this: If morality is nothing more than a series of human rulebooks, with no empirical reasons for one being favored over another, then the criteria for evaluating one rulebook against another are either nonexistent or weak. An example of a weak criterion would be the argument that "my rulebook is more utilitarian than yours," both because we have already established that utilitarianism is not always the most important feature of a rule, and because there are simply too many cases in which you can argue that it is more utilitarian to break the rule (for example, "Thou shalt not kill" is disregarded daily for utilitarian reasons). An example of a nonexistent criterion would be beauty, because everyone has their own standards and an argument about the relative beauty of rulebooks is no different than an argument about the superiority of chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

Once more we have the Dostoyevski argument. The fact that all rulebooks are equal, if true, would not be a proof of the existence of God. It would actually be the opposite. All critics of moral relativism are really saying is, "I don't dare think that way," like Dostoyevski.

My critic's logic breaks down, though, when he says that I am a moral relativist because I see no proof of God's existence. A moral relativist is one who believes that all rulebooks are equal, and who lives that way. Thus, even though rape and child molestation are prohibited in our kingdom, as a violation of the rights of individuals, we will not intervene in the kingdom next door, where both acts are perfectly acceptable under the prevailing rulebook.

But I have never said we should not intervene. We merely must understand the grounds of our intervention. Under my rulebook, we do not have a God-given right to invade the kingdom next door. But we nonetheless have two possible grounds for involvement, based again on the arguments from utility and beauty.

The utilitarian argument is that the victims next door have appealed to us, saying that they would rather live under our rulebook than the one under which they are suffering, and it is useful to grant their request. (It may also be beautiful to do so.) Under my rulebook, this would have justified the North's invasion of the South to end slavery, but not forcing the South to remain as part of the Union afterwards.

The argument from beauty is that, regardless of whether the victims have asked for help, our idea of ourselves compels us to intervene. The victims may be masochistic and accepting of their mistreatment, or they may not be sentient (perhaps the people next door are cutting down old wood forests or strip mining mountains.)

I understand how potentially dangerous both arguments are. The argument from utility has been used to justify many actions which are horrifying under my rulebook, while the argument from beauty is potentially even worse (it can be used as the basis for a holy war to force you to worship my God instead of yours.) Both approaches at least encourage a thought process, while all too often the "God-given right" theory of morality requires none at all. The Old Testament says it is acceptable to slaughter homosexuals and disobedient children, and there are at least a few people in the world today who believe this is the literal truth. My rulebook as part of its quality assurance process requires that we ask whether the proposed action is humble and tolerant. Humility is what Jesus appealed to when he said, "Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone." Tolerance means that your actions must exceed a significant threshold before I will intervene (I must completely sit still for the most violent rhetoric on your part, freedom of speech being a very important tenet of my rulebook.)

In any event, the assertion that morality is a collection of competing rulebooks is merely a recognition of the "is". Any attempt to derive a higher set of rules from empirical conditions is merely an attempt to derive an "ought" from outside ourselves. "Ought" is internal, and we must make do with that the best we can.