Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Ground of Morality

The English philosopher John Locke is well known for arguing that we have no innate ideas. That is, we are not born with any ideas of our own, we develop them as we develop. This yields a problem for morality, in that society needs a population with a moral outlook and behaviour, but there is no innate understanding of what that might be.

Locke, thus, needs morality, in the form of laws and ideas about duty and good, to come from somewhere. For him, that somewhere is God. Duty cannot be understood without a law, and a law must have a lawgiver. Since the human race is not born with laws, the lawgiver must be outside the human race and must, therefore be God (Locke, 2014 [1690], pp. I, 3, 12).

This of course leads to another problem, in that to ground morality we need to prove the existence of God. This was not too much of a difficulty to Locke, given the society he was living in, but is more of a problem for us. According to Locke we are intelligent dependent beings under the direction of God. We cannot be independent because then we would have no law.

There is a gulf here between Locke and more recent ideas of morality. Recent accounts of humans argue that we are independent individuals, and our moral standards are those which we have chosen. Locke would argue that such a project, to choose our morality and live by it, is doomed from the start. We are politically autonomous, in that we cannot be governed without our consent, but not morally autonomous, and nor would it be desirable for us to believe we were (Locke, 2006, p. 45).

Atheism, therefore, is a problem for Locke, but is, of course, rife in society today. According to Locke there cannot be any grounds for morality as a consequence of this. We simply act as we see fit, having chosen our moral rules. If we look around the world today, we can perhaps see the consequences of this in, perhaps, senior politicians imposing rules on the population while ignoring them themselves. This makes perfect sense if you have chosen a morality that exempts you from obeying rules and if you are in a position not to be caught breaking the ones you have imposed on other.

The problem is that this approach can say nothing about anything being actually right or wrong. An action only fits or does not fit with my chosen set of moral rules, and given that they are my set of rules, I can change them as I wish. The fact that others are forced to obey some rules other than their own is due to the coercive power of the state. If I am in a position to avoid detection and punishment by the state then I can ignore the rules which others cannot.

The philosophical problem here is the objectivity of morality. By this we mean that if behaving in a certain way is right, then that way must be findable by everyone. That is morality, being good, goodness itself must be ‘out there’. Otherwise, our morality is just that, ours, and it is ‘in here’ that is, a matter of my choice as to what I think is right or good to do.

Philosophers have a hard time proving anything is objective. Everything passes though our minds before we perceive it, and so there is no good reason to believe that anything exists. This is the sort of problem that gets philosophy a bad name, admittedly, but it does throw up a problem which is usually ignored in everyday life. I walk around the furniture because it is there, but my perception of the chair is not that simple.

If we have a problem with material objects in the world, we are clearly going to have an even worse problem with non-material objects. So, things like God and morality, being, by definition, not things in the world, are going to have a hard time being proved to exist. I cannot prove the chair I am sitting on exists or continues to exist if I leave the room. How on earth am I to prove that the good exists?

Critical realism can come to our help here, at least partially. We do not have reasons to doubt the existence of the chair, or its continued existence when I am not in the room. There might be some unusual circumstances which might cause the chair to no longer exist when I return, but these would be exactly that – unusual circumstances. Perhaps the chair was destroyed because I left it too close to the fire. There are explanations as to why the chair might not be there, but they suggest unusual occurrences.

Many people would say that morality exists and that they follow it, at least most of the time. Most people would claim that they seek the good for everyone, at least most of the time, while admitting that often there are conflicting claims about what the good is, exactly. That does not make morality objective, admittedly, but it might at least suggest that morality and the good are available to most people if they seek it. We live among real people in real situations, making real decision about what is right or best to do.

The problem is, as Irish Murdoch seems to have noted, is that to make decisions about what to do for the good, we must see things clearly. By things I mean other people as well as objects in the world and (in these days of climate crisis) the world in its fullness. We have to navigate the world by seeing clearly, even if we see the world through pictures or metaphors. Otherwise, we live in a fantasy world of our own creation, in which case we can choose our morality to suit us and ignore the reality of other people and their lives.




Locke, J. (2006). An Essay Concerning Toleration and Other Writings on Law and Politics 1667-1683. Oxford: OUP.

Locke, J. (2014 [1690]). Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ware: Wordsworth.


Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Retrieval of Virtue

Alasdair MacIntyre starts After Virtue with a parable, taken from a post-Second Word War science fiction novel, where a catastrophe has befallen the world and science has disappeared, leaving only a few scraps of text books strewn around, which are carefully collected and preserved. No-one, however, can bring the bits together and restart science.

The point MacIntyre is making is that something similar has happened to ethical thinking and moral philosophy. There is no such thing as doing the right thing for the sake of it being right anymore. Morality, such as it is, is based on rights and they are, at heart, related to power and holding resources, and therefore, ultimately, to the threat of the use of violence.

It was not ever thus, the argument suggests. In previous centuries morality was related to virtue and vices. Since, perhaps, the late Nineteenth Century, moral philosophy had moved away from doing the right thing to arguments which, basically, suggest that the only approach is to choose your precepts, state them and try to stick by them consistently. There is no ground for morals; there are only choices.

This sort of approach can be found in logical positivism. The Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic it is at least strongly implied that moral philosophy (along with other things like theology) is meaningless. Logical positivism insists that statements, to be meaningful, should be verifiable or tautologies. ‘All single men are bachelors’ is acceptable as a tautology. ‘The far side of the Moon has impact craters’ is also acceptable, even though we cannot see the far side of the Moon, because it is verifiable in principle.

However, ‘Murder is wrong’ or ‘Mass killing of Jews is evil’ are not acceptable statements under logical positivism. They are formally meaningless, at best only saying ‘I don’t like murder’. Ayer’s book was published in the 1930s and rapidly took hold in academic circles; few people could manage an argument against it. The problem was that it has nothing to say about, say, the Holocaust. We can only not like it, according to this account.

Most people would think that response inadequate. The interesting question is ‘what can be put in its place?’ And here we have a problem because the framework of logical positivism is an all-encompassing one. A statement such as ‘Herding people onto cattle trucks to take them to extermination is evil’ has no grip on the world, according to logical positivism.

A different response is called for, and this was suggested by four women educated at Oxford before and just after World War Two: Phillipa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, and Irish Murdoch. The choice theory of moral philosophy was widespread and follows from logical positivism. If all a statement about moral right and wrong is a statement about how I feel, then all I need to do is choose the right things that I feel good about (or bad about) and state them. There can be no argument about them, at the end of the day, because they are my free choice.

The attitude regarding your moral outlook as a free choice is, at heart, the view of the individual as a romantic hero, as Murdoch observed. The universe is meaningless, just a collection of scientific facts and tautologous statements. The individual chooses to imbue their lives with meaning and morality. The hero stands alone against the facts of the universe, the empty pointlessness of life and the fact that it will soon be extinguished whatever choices are made. This attitude is still widespread; Lipscombe quotes Richard Dawkins as holding it (he calls it the ‘Dawkins Sublime’).

If morality is simply a matter of choice, then there can be no arguments about who is right and wrong. For example, if I choose to think that abortion is always wrong, but that executing criminals guilty of heinous crimes is right, then no-one can argue that my views are inconsistent. I could come back and say my views are not inconsistent – one regards the unborn and therefore innocent, the other adults who carried out, say, a premeditated murder. But that indicates that moral argument is possible. I can claim my views are not inconsistent; you can argue that as both actions take a life, to be consistent I must oppose the death penalty as well as abortion. My free choice of my morality is not quite as free as I thought.

Therefore, there are other constraints regarding how we construct our moral universes. It is not just a free for all, a free choice. Society, for example, constrains what I can and cannot do. Most people think that stealing something is wrong. There is little argument about that; only exceptions for cases of extreme need – a loving parent might be excused for stealing food for their starving child. Morality and meaning are not just matters of our choosing. We are not the romantic heroes of the Dawkins Subline.

In fact, quite a lot of the things we know and believe to be the case are not verifiable or tautologies. Science, while it does proceed by a principle of verification, does not really do so by stating hypotheses and then testing them. It is a nice simple way of viewing science and progress, but the reality is a lot messier than that. If logical positivism does not work for science, then we really cannot posit that it works for anything else. How could a child verify that their parents love them? How can I verify that you will meet me at St Pancras station, under the clock, at five PM tomorrow?

In essence, we do not stand alone against a meaningless universe, and we do not determine our own moral views. People who do tend to get found out, one way or another. Although the moral code of humanity, or a nation or society might not be spelt out, and there are always grey areas, those who transgress undefined but specific boundaries often land up paying some sort of price for that. They might have chosen their own rules, but they have to be close enough to everyone else’s for them to count as ethical.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...