Monday, July 11, 2011

Premises, Part 2 - Objective Morality

In part one of this series, we discussed why it is essential that we take it as a premise that there exists an objective reality in which we are living.  Saying that reality is relative posits that it cannot be measured and interpreted. That it is impossible to achieve knowledge in the world because my knowledge can be different from your knowledge, and yet they can both be equally valid. In such a world, there is no value in science, the scientific method, or even reason for that matter. Rejecting the premise of an objective morality has similar consequences. The alternative to accepting an objective morality is to take some kind of moral relativist perspective that not only has no scientific plausibility, but also makes it impossible to prescribe actions, pass judgment, and deter "bad" behavior.

Humans are not a very genetically diverse species. We have an effective population size of about 10,000, which means that the entirety of the genetic diversity of our species can be captured in about 10,000 individuals. Despite the population boom that we have experienced over the last 12,000 years from a few million to well over 6 billion, the amount of genetic diversity has remained the same, though previous iterations of our species have been significantly more diverse. As a side note, genetics are by no means the only relevant element when it comes to heredity. Still, the small effective population size is at least suggestive of the idea that not only are we very similar to each other, but we are very similar to our ancestors going back at least 1.2 million years. There has undoubtedly been selection pressure during this time period, but I suspect that most of this has been as a result of pathogens, leading to selection for immune function (including the passing of antibodies and gut flora from other to child) rather than genetic mutation.

As we've discussed before, our drives, our desires, our needs are all shaped by evolution to keep us alive and pass on our genetic material. So unless you reject life as a standard of value, it follows that those drives that keep us alive are good. If we are all very similar; as the above discussion suggests; and our moral compass is largely shaped by our evolutionary experience, it follows logically that we all have a nearly identical sense of morality, at least on the genetic level. So there is a template of morality that is hard coded into our brains that is very similar, if not identical, in all of us, with the exception of the very rare genetic mutation. This template is the objective morality.

There is no question that culture plays a huge role in morality. The objective morality is a template, and various symbols in culture will always come to represent different aspects of that template. There was a time when being overweight represented value because the foods that made people fat (and still make us fat today), were too expensive for poorer individuals to procure in large enough quantities. There was even a market for foods that fatten people, though for most of the rest of modernity weight loss has been a much larger market. Anyway, the point is this: yes, culture can influence how our minds interpret the virtue of a particular action, but this interpretation can change as new information comes to light and the rational brain refocuses its attention, causing the emotional brain to respond differently to the same action. When people say that "ignorance is bliss," this is a product of the rational brain not having certain information; i.e. being ignorant;  and as a result making different value judgments from what it would have made did it have more complete information.

So when you have moral disagreement with someone, there are two primary areas in which the disagreement can occur. The first is the moral premises, which is why it's important to think about these things, tease out the disagreement, and come to some sort of conclusion or at least agree to disagree on a certain point. The other place that two people can disagree is on the information or the relative weight of the information. These differences are much more easily resolved, as they are not steeped in beliefs, which are obviously very hard to change. The goal of this blog is to start from the ground up and build a rational and scientific morality based on the best evidence available today. So if you disagree with any points on this blog, which I welcome, and would like to argue the point, please make it clear what type of disagreement you are putting forth. If it is one of information, we can discuss the specifics, if it is one on moral grounds, figure out where we break off, i.e. where you agree with my premise but disagree with my conclusion from that premise.

In saying that there is an objective morality, I am saying that there is only one right course of action in any dilemma given perfect information and a perfect understanding of morality, and that is the course of action that is the one that is most likely to keep us and our genetic material alive. There is a similar idea to this in poker, which is known as the fundamental theorem of poker. Any deviation from this course of action is as a result of either:
A) false premises e.g. religion and all the immoral behavior that it prescribes
B) bad or incomplete information (regarding the facts of the particular situation as opposed to morality in general)
C) overtly immoral choices e.g. robbing a bank because you want to live a certain lifestyle, knowing that it is immoral and should be immoral, but doing it anyway because you want to. This drive to have the money is a moral drive, but the action that you are taking violates the rights of others.

The purpose of the study of ethics is to prevent these "Type A" disagreements. Type B disagreements are just about getting the person the right information, and Type C actions can only be prevented by the threat of force from a governing body. We need to define the template of the objective morality, independent of societal influences, in order to design a moral government. Any level of restriction that goes beyond that prescribed by the hard coded morality will inevitably result in someone's freedom of choice being infringed upon.

To be clear, morality is emotional first. It's a backwards rationalization. An attempt at mapping rationally that which we feel intuitively. Because the emotional template does not evolve quickly enough to keep up with our changing environment, we evolved a rational element to our brain that is capable of teasing out how environmental changes influence our survival ability. So if we define rationally the parameters of the emotional template, we can use that template as a framework within which we can make decisions about overruling our emotions. Since the rational framework can influence the emotional response in this way, morality can also be looked at as emergent system.
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment