On Morality

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On Morality

Postby Amir » Fri May 18, 2007 4:54 pm

Part 1


No issue has sparked as much curiosity and been so instrumental in understanding human nature as that concerning morality. Its importance is so profound because it defines humanity. It sets and defines the codes by which we are judged, and by which we judge others. At its center are the justifying principles that hold an action or inaction in the light of pride or shame, embrace or censure.

Morality is so paramount, that it is directly or indirectly invoked when one pleads one’s case in front of an audience, or when society defines the rules to which all members must abide.

Such an important topic has not been overlooked in history. Since ancient times, philosophers have entangled with the issue, with mixed results. Such a vital topic has produced scores of opinions and publications through the centuries. Nonetheless, it is discomforting to notice that the overwhelming majority of citizens accept a moral code and embrace the idea of morality without ever truly examining its essence or its implications. It is particularly distressing and dangerous when such citizens, through lack of contemplation and independent analysis, simply accept a moral standard that is handed to them by those in position of power or esteem. Such complacency towards thought and analysis has led many societies down the path of barbarity, fascism, and inhumanity. The irony is that vehemently immoral paths are carved in the name of morality.

It is for that reason that this article is written regarding morality. It is an understanding that is not complete, but has gained a foothold after extensive analysis. In an endeavor to understand, it is futile to re-invent the wheel. Therefore, it is always best to first familiarize oneself with the work of others, and then to build upon that foundation. A number of works exist on the matter, but the author which has to date shed the most light on the subject is David Hume – the greatest of all moralists. Therefore, his contribution to the study of morality will be at the core of this essay.

A Few Words On Hume


David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian. He wrote the History of England, which is one of the most prominent texts on British history. He was also an atheist, and because of it he was passed over for many academic positions in his life. His writing has within it skepticism (in Enquiry concerning Human Understanding) and sentimentalism (in Enquiry concerning the Principle of Morals). His initial work was entitled A Treatise of Human Nature, but was not embraced because of what later Hume called literary rather than material deficiency. He later rehashed it into the EHU and EPM, which were widely successful, probably because of a more fluid literary style. Of all his works, he himself considered the EPM his most noteworthy achievement, and declared that of all his works this was the one for which he wished to be most remembered.

Hume was influenced by John Locke. Hume in turn influenced many great successive scholars, including Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and countless others. He was a giant in the world of philosophy, and a genius of an ethicist. Among the eighteenth century philosophers, he is the most noteworthy.

Although Hume bears a great influence upon the explanations set forth in this essay, this essay remains by no means strictly within the framework of Hume. The bulk of the material presented here is independent of Hume. Direct quotes from Hume will be presented in blue font.

An Overview of the Major Moral Theories

There are four major theories regarding the nature of morality. They are: Natural Law, Rationalism, Moral Sense, and Egoism. These theories all gained great momentum during the Eighteenth Century, and soon a heated debate followed among philosophers pertaining to these theories. A brief description as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each will be presented below.

Hume briefly touched upon all of these theories (except the natural law theory) in the EPM, and his input will be discussed regarding those 3 theories. The comments regarding the natural law theory is unrelated to Hume, although he has addressed and annihilated a different but related theory in one of his dialogues – that concerning Natural Religion. As the topic of natural religion would deviate from the current topic of morality, it will not be discussed further in this article. The topic of natural law as it pertains to morality is best addressed by Russell, whose input is reflected below.

1. Natural Law

The natural law argument puts forth that morality is inherent within nature itself; whatever one may take “nature” to mean. The natural law argument is a broader one encompassing many other aspects than morality, and morality is only one subset of this argument. This view is extrapolated from man’s observation of what he perceives as certain physical laws to the universe. A repetition of phenomena becomes interpreted as “law.”

The strength of this argument is in its implication that morality is absolute in its fundamental nature, and that certain moral rights are in place in the world that cannot be shaken or altered. Incidentally, this is also one of its weaknesses, for an unchangeable moral inclination leaves no room for adaptation or growth.

Its greatest flaw, however, is in its logical weakness, the same as that of any natural law. To view natural phenomena as natural laws implies that there is a lawgiver. This begs the exploration of the relationship between a natural law and that lawgiver. Is the moral law, that is deemed “good,” inherently good because the lawgiver recognized it as such and deemed it a natural law, or because it is a law that was given by a good lawgiver?

If it was inherently good, and the lawgiver only placed it forward as a natural law because of that fact, then morality existed independently from and prior to the lawgiver. In that circumstance, the lawgiver isn’t really even a lawgiver, but a law enforcer. If so, then a true lawgiver cannot exist, and without a lawgiver there can be no natural law.

If, on the other hand, the moral law is good because it has come from a certain lawgiver, and that it has acquired its essence of goodness simply because of its origin from that particular lawgiver, then it follows that the lawgiver himself exists outside of that moral law. It follows that a natural moral law does not bind the lawgiver himself, making him morally neutral. If so, the natural moral law he has made is whimsical and arbitrary. What’s more, the lawgiver himself cannot be seen as good (or evil), as he is unbound by morality. The further implication of this is that since he is not good (or evil), then there is no reason to consider the moral law that he created to be good, thus dissolving morality altogether. As morality is dissolved, so is the concept of a natural moral law, and subsequently the need to invoke a lawgiver.

Both possibilities encircle themselves in such a way that the natural moral law argument becomes impossible, and refuting an original lawgiver.

Therefore, although the natural moral law can be quite inspirational to men, invoking a fundamental written cosmic law that is above all, it can also be extremely rigid. However, what is worse is that it is logically flawed.

The logical refusal of the natural moral law argument’s consequence is that a supreme being is taken out of the equation of morality. It becomes evident that not only is such a being not necessary for morality, but that it is incompatible with it.

It seems that the natural moral law argument had the opposite intended effect. In an effort to formulate an argument that ties morality in with a higher power, its logical completion yielded the incompatibility of such a being with morality, thereby separating morality from him.

What is left is the logical understanding of morality that must necessarily exclude God.

Such is the consequence of the natural law argument if it is interpreted in the manner that it is an actual law, as we understand the term: that a lawgiver formulated it. However, if a different interpretation is given to the term, then it need not become logically incongruent. That is, if it is meant that morality is a part of the nature of man, that it is found with universal repetition within all members of mankind, and that as man is himself a part of nature, and that as “law” is in fact just an observed pattern, then morality is in fact tied into nature via what humans perceive as a “law.” The greatest strength of the natural law argument is therefore in this alternative interpretation. In its conventional interpretation (as previously explained in the preceding paragraphs) it is doomed to inconsistency and fallacy.

2. Rationalism vs.
3. Moral Sense

These two theories are addressed together because they are in direct opposition, and each implies the opposite of the other.

In the age of enlightenment, or Renaissance, it was only predictable that ration would be induced to explain everything, including morality. The theory of rationalism does not imply that rationality be used in order to understand the concept of morality (which is true), but that rationality can and will tease out the dictums of morality, and that rational thought guides morality. It follows that given rational thought and calculation, the concept of morality can be explored and the general principles of morality will become evident.

Rationalism states that reason can be the guide as to what is moral and what is immoral; that moral inclinations are conducted by rational thought.

One overlap that this theory has with natural law is that they both contend that morality is tied into the fabric of the universe, and that one only needs to seek out that knowledge in order to obtain it. Furthermore, they both imply that the concept of morality is a fixed and stationary one, as well as predetermined.

Similar to mathematical calculations yielding a specific answer, so too does the rationalistic theory explain morality in terms of reaching the correct moral answer after rational thought. The answer is out there, and only needs to be found via reasoning. Consequently, this theory holds that emotions are unimportant to morality, and it is only reason that does and ought guide moral inclination.

This theory’s strength is in the historical context of philosophy itself. Philosophy has, through the ages, attempted to discern morality through reason and argumentation. It is inherent in every philosophical work, including this one, to appeal to reason in order to find a truth. That quest also includes the quest for the understanding of morality.

As Hume says:

“ Moral distinctions, it may be said, are discernible by pure reason: Else, whence the many disputes that reign in common life, as well as in philosophy, with regard to this subject: The long chain of proofs often produced on both sides; the examples cited, the authorities appealed to, the analogies employed, the fallacies detected, the inferences drawn, and the several conclusions adjusted to their proper principles. Truth is disputable; not taste: What exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgment; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment. Propositions in geometry may be proved, systems in physics may be controverted; but the harmony of verse, the tenderness of passion, the brilliancy of wit, must give immediate pleasure. No man reasons concerning another's beauty; but frequently concerning the justice or injustice of his actions.”

Its weakness becomes evident upon fuller contemplation of observances regarding moral inclination. Moral judgement is rendered via a system of approval or disapproval, of tenderness or disgust, of embrace or aversion. It depends, therefore, ultimately on emotion to render such judgements. Hume provides the argument for the alternative viewpoint, that it is not reason that is at the root of morality, but emotion:

“ On the other hand, those who would resolve all moral determinations into sentiment, may endeavor to show, that it is impossible for reason ever to draw conclusions of this nature. To virtue, say they, it belongs to be amiable, and vice odious. This forms their very nature or essence. But can reason or argumentation distribute these different epithets to any subjects, and pronounce before-hand, that this must produce love, and that hatred? Or what other reason can we ever assign for these affections, but the original fabric and formation of the human mind, which is naturally adapted to receive them?

The end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duty; and, by proper representations of the deformity of vice and beauty of virtue, beget correspondent habits, and engage us to avoid the one, and embrace the other. But is this ever to be expected from inferences and conclusions of the understanding, which of themselves have no hold of the affections, nor set in motion the active powers of men? They discover truths: But where the truths which they discover are indifferent, and beget no desire or aversion, they can have no influence on conduct and behavior. What is honorable, what is fair, what is becoming, what is noble, what is generous, takes possession of the heart, and animates us to embrace and maintain it. What is intelligible, what is evident, what is probable, what is true, procures only the cool assent of the understanding; and gratifying a speculative curiosity, puts an end to our researches.

Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favor of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice: Render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.”

The crumbling weakness of the theory of rationalism is that it fails to explain the drive that man has toward morality. Without emotion, there can be no disgust or satisfaction, and moral power is reduced to simple facts and truths that prompt no other reaction in men than does a mathematical formula.

Obviously, the theory of moral sense implies the opposite of that of rationalism, in that morality is based entirely on emotion. It is dependent on a “sense,” similar to the concept of beauty. As it is based upon an innate sense, similar to beauty, it cannot be deduced using reason. The above arguments that show the strength and weakness of the rationalistic theory also show the strength and weakness of the moral sense theory, as the strength of one is the weakness of the other.

4. Egoism

This theory explains that morality arises from a natural inclination towards self-preservation. It states that although moral thought is on the surface usually unselfish, it is in fact powered by selfish motives.

For example, one may disapprove of murder in general because he wants others to be discouraged from committing murder so that he becomes sheltered from becoming a potential murder victim. This example can be applied to all the vices – rape, stealing, dishonesty, etc.

Being a social creature, man must create rules of acceptance and censure so that he may live in an orderly fashion with his fellow man, without the threat of physical, emotional, or financial harm.

As Hume puts it:

“ It has often been asserted, that, as every man has a strong connection with society, and perceives the impossibility of his solitary subsistence, he becomes, on that account, favorable to all those habits or principles, which promote order in society, and insure to him the quiet possession of so inestimable a blessing. As much as we value our own happiness and welfare, as much must we applaud the practice of justice and humanity, by which alone the social confederacy can be maintained, and every man reap the fruits of mutual protection and assistance.

This deduction of morals from self-love, or a regard to private interest, is an obvious thought, and has not arisen wholly from the wanton sallies and sportive assaults of the skeptics.”

Its strength is in its utilitarian perspective (more on utilitarianism later). It is the utility of egoism that explains why it should work. People have observed this fact throughout history, and a simple review of sociology confirms that laws (which are an extension of morality) have societal purposes that make them a necessary requirement for civilization.

Be that as it may, the egoistic theory’s greatest weakness is that it fails to explain other (though rarer) circumstances whereby the observation of morality is in stark contradiction to it. The instances where moral judgement is rendered when one cannot himself possibly be in any way influenced by that outcome, as well as instances where such judgements are in conflict with one’s self-interest serve to undermine this theory.

For instance, consider the competent, brave, intelligent, resourceful warrior who is also your enemy. Although he is bent on your destruction, you may nevertheless admire him and hold him in high esteem because of those qualities, even though all of those qualities work against you.

Hume says:

“ We frequently bestow praise on virtuous actions, performed in very distant ages and remote countries; where the utmost subtlety of imagination would not discover any appearance of self-interest, or find any connection of our present happiness and security with events so widely separated from us.

A generous, a brave, a noble deed, performed by an adversary, commands our approbation; while in its consequences it may be acknowledged prejudicial to our particular interest.

Where private advantage concurs with general affection for virtue, we readily perceive and avow the mixture of these distinct sentiments, which have a very different feeling and influence on the mind. We praise, perhaps, with more alacrity, where the generous, humane action contributes to our particular interest: But the topics of praise, which we insist on, are very wide of this circumstance. And we may attempt to bring over others to our sentiments, without endeavoring to convince them, that they reap any advantage from the actions which we recommend to their approbation and applause.

Frame the model of a praise-worthy character, consisting of all the most amiable moral virtues: Give instances, in which these display themselves after an eminent and extraordinary manner: You readily engage the esteem and approbation of all your audience, who never so much as enquire in what age and country the person lived, who possessed these noble qualities: A circumstance, however, of all others, the most material to self-love, or a concern for our own individual happiness.”

An admiration of qualities and acts in others that bestow no apparent advantage upon the contemplator therefore seems contrary to the theory of egoism. As this theory is in direct contradiction to what is observed regarding morality, its weakness is colossal.

(to be continued)
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