Is morality a natural phenomenon?
Is morality a natural phenomenon? My first reaction to the question (voiced in the following somewhat whimsical lines jotted down before I had read a single word beyond the title) is to feel a little dumb. I don’t seem to understand what the question means. Presumably there is such a thing as morality; and we meet with that thing in our world, which, to my understanding is the natural world; ergo, morality is a natural phenomenon. Oh! Perhaps the question means: Does morality arise in the natural course of things or could it not have come into the world unless it were introduced from some supernatural source? That would seem to make it a more interesting question. But then I hear the Socrates of the Euthyphro asking: Is morality moral because the supernatural source wanted it that way or did the supernatural source opt for it because it is moral? With Socrates I feel that if I were to accept the first alternative I would lose all self-respect. Once that alternative is removed, then however morality may have come about, I find that it is the moral sense that gives me the finest experiences I ever have in life. In the same way, however our enjoyment of beauty in sound and shape may have come about, that enjoyment of beauty is among the most precious treasures that make life worthwhile. [On reading further I found that Professor Byrne also refers to Socrates’ seminal question in the Euthyphro.]
Professor Byrne seems to brush aside Kant’s well-known remark about “the starry firmament above and the moral law within”. I should be very much saddened if my knowledge of the composition of the sun and the distance of the Horsehead Nebula were to expel the sense of sublime awe that I experience at the spectacle of the starry firmament, which, begging Professor Byrne’s pardon, is still “above”. Above and below are ideas created by the mind and they are real and remain real for the mind.
Professor Byrne writes: “arrange bits of matter a certain way and you have … a lively lobster” (or, he could have said, a Shakespeare or an Einstein). But the lobster is not “bits of matter”. That is the reductionist sleight-of-hand the empiricists play in all innocence. The lobster is a new reality, an original form of being, whose coming into being may be described but never explained. The only way I can find the coming of the lobster into being intelligible is through the idea of the creativity of Reality or Nature or whatever you may call the First Principle which we have to think of as the ultimate ground and source of all “stuff”. We – you and I – are intelligent beings, there is no denying that. And your intelligence and my intelligence have come out of “physical stuff” arranged in a certain way, but this intelligence is not just “stuff”. Stuff, matter, neutrons, neurons, quantum, light years, are all creations of the mind: the mind is the reality, the one reality, of which we have immediate knowledge, and yet we turn our back to it and, with Plato’s cave captives, seek to find reality in shadows.
Hume’s puzzle about the derivation of ‘ought’ from ‘is’ finds its solution in the same way. ‘Is’, as Hume rightly saw, will not explain ‘ought’; but ‘ought’ is an undeniable reality, a true daughter of the intelligence that we have to acknowledge as the one final reality we know of. To obviate a possible misunderstanding, I do not equate that final creative intelligence with a personal God. We can say no more of that ultimate creative intelligence (which elsewhere, in a purely metaphysical orientation, I call Creative Eternity) than that it is the one reality we are immediately aware of and that is the source of all intelligibility.
Thus I cannot accept without qualification the view that “moral facts can be squeezed into the natural world with no effort at all” and that “if this is right, Hume was completely wrong. ‘Ought’ does not express ‘a new relation or affirmation’: an ‘ought’ turns out to be a kind of ‘is’.” Hume may have been the greatest founding father of empiricism, but he did not share the empiricists’ gravest error, reductionism. He understood that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’ just as he new that the idea of the cause cannot be derived from any succession of events. It is because he was not deluded on that count that Kant could find in him the impulse that shook him out of ‘dogmatic slumber’ and led to his transcendental system that reinstated the mind as the source of all intelligibility: an insight that had been amply expressed by Socrates-Plato but had been lost sight of in the interval.
Marginally, I am uneasy about the term ‘meta-ethics’, along with all the other ‘meta’s that have been proliferating lately. To my mind Ethics considers fundamental problems and first principles of the moral life. Discussions about the application of ethical principles in practice may be referred to simply as moral discussions. I would not even speak of applied ethics because that suggests that there can be fixed, final principles and rules in that area. Earlier in his paper Professor Byrne alludes to controversies around such questions as: “Should we give more to charity than we actually do? Is torture permissible under extreme circumstances? Is eating meat wrong? Could it ever be permissible to kill one innocent person in order to save five?” To my mind, it is a sad feature of the present philosophical scene that such questions are debated as if there can be a unique, definitive answer to such questions. Each side tries to prove by argument that it is right and the other side wrong. This is wrong. In our actual imperfect world there can be no perfect solutions. While there are things that are clearly right and things that are clearly wrong, over large areas of the imperfect world of practice different values and different principles can and often do clash. And the proper, civilized, and morally responsible way to deal with such questions is to be sympathetic and understanding towards the opposed viewpoints and to know that practical solutions always involve losses and sacrifices. Only abstract principles are absolute. In practice there has to be give and take and sympathy and understanding. This is the way it should be in discussing such questions as those relating to abortion and euthanasia.
Who is the author of the moral law? Socrates in the Crito emphatically affirms that we must never wrong another; we must never injure another, nor return injury for injury, nor ever do evil in return for evil. Socrates did not receive that injunction from a supernatural source, nor did he acquire it from the conventional morality under which he was reared. He drew that principle from within himself because he felt that not to comply with that rule would be to injure his own integrity. This, I blelieve, is also the point of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and of his insistence on the value of moral autonomy and his assertion that the only absolutely good thing is a good will. Kant’s fondness for grand and intricate theoretical superstructures may have obscured the great insight at the foundation of his position, but if “in the juggernaut of contemporary meta-ethics [Kant] has not been in the driver’s seat”, so much the worse for contemporary meta-ethics.
I am not commenting on Professor Byrne’s survey of various meta-ethical theories. I have always maintained that it is not the proper task of philosophy to prove or disprove any theoretical position. Philosophy is not concerned with establishing the truth of any statement or discovering any fact relating to the actual world but with attaining and giving insight into our own proper inner reality. But I will put in a word about a sentence Byrne quotes from John Mackie, that if there were moral facts “they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Well, so they are. Those who find this queer do so because they have a very narrow conception of what is in the universe. In the universe there is beauty and love and humour and sadness, which are all “utterly different from anything else in the universe”. I call these realities as opposed to actualities or phenomenal existents. I know that my linguistic usage here sounds queer, but I find my unconventional terminology necessary to give expression to my non-mainstream philosophical position.
I do not agree that “once all the naturalistic facts about suffering, enjoyment, and so on are in place, the moral facts are implicitly settled: an ‘ought’ does follow from an ‘is’.” The facts of a situation do not generate or dictate the ‘ought’ but, the ‘ought’ being independently given, determine the specific form in which the ‘ought’ is to be applied.
“Concerns about the status of morality soon spread like spilled ink: if there’s no room for ethics in a disenchanted nature, most of our distinctively human form of life is also excluded”, says Professor Byrne, and I couldn’t agree more.
One final trifle: Professor Byrne refers to “about 100 years’ worth” of philosophizing that helps to show naïve moral judgements “might even be right”. I risk disclosing a blameful personal prejudice: I do not feel that the philosophy of the past 100 years or so, on balance, contributed much that is positive to our understanding. For “more philosophy” to cure the harm done by “a little bit of philosophy” I would rather go some twenty-four centuries back. Would that the philosophers of the past 100 years did not think themselves so much wiser than their ancient predecessors. Professor Byrne concludes by quoting Bertrand Russell’s statement that “philosophy removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.” For myself, I know no one who did that better than Socrates-Plato (one cannot really split these).
D. R. Khashaba
Some papers on this weblog which amplify on or clarify certain points raised here: “Must Values Be Objective?”, “Free Will as Creativity”, “Five Notes on Relativism”, “Explaining Explanation”. Also, “Is There Mind in Nature” where I reproduce a passage from my recently published Hypatia’s Lover.