Friday, November 11, 2005

Morals and politics

One of the more hairy issues is the moral foundations of politics and society.

It would appear that any consistent and compelling social or political theory needs to get its morals straight and then draw logical lines of argument up the line to justify its higher social principles, such as justice.

As such, I think it might be worth revisiting morality to establish a solid and consistent foundation before building up a social and political framework.

Before outlining a moral theory, the first question we must ask is: upon what is morality based? After all, if we start barrelling forward and suggesting moral principles that are based on fictions, falsehoods or which are simply arbitrary, we'll not get far.

Many existing moral theories are also constructions of convenience that are laced with unsubstantiated assumptions, seemingly for the reasons of practicality. For example, Rawls at one point states:

a person's good is determined by what is for him the most rational plan of life given reasonably favourable circumstances

I know he has developed this theory beyond this single sentence, but even so, there are still assumptions that are left unexplored, such as human rationality. Is morality, and 'the good', related to, or dependent on, rationality? There are good reasons (no pun intended) to believe rationality plays a role, but to characterise morality as entirely rational seems to be overly dependent on an idealised model of a human rational agent.

I have much more to say about this point, but I'll leave it at that for now and move on.

I'd suggest that our morality is determined by what we are. By this I mean our properties, and the properties of the world around us.

To give a fairly trivial example, it's commonly accepted that inflicting pain is immoral to some extent. I'd suggest that if we didn't feel pain, or if pain was not an unpleasant sensation - or even further, that if we were not destructible organisms - then inflicting pain would not be considered an immoral act.

The good, and its converse, the bad, are determined by what we are, and how we operate. This includes physically, biologically, psychologically etc.

In the pain example, we need to understand what pain is, why we feel it, and why it is unpleasant. To continue the simplistic analysis, pain is a device that has evolved in us to alert us to dangers that could threaten our survival. It operates using aversion and conditioning etc. It's also not perfect - as many evolutionary devices aren't. There are times when we feel pain for no purpose, and times when we should probably feel pain, but don't.

These kinds of facts should play a role in our formulation of morality, as it would seemingly be overly simplistic to simply say that all pain is 'bad', or that a lack of pain is 'good'.

Perhaps, in the case of pain, it would be better to characterise damage to the body that could threaten our survival would be a better foundation for determining good and bad. This itself is based on the assumption that survival itself is a 'good'.

This brings me to a very important consideration. We might do well to look at evolution in terms of understanding not only human nature, but also to build up our moral theory.

It appears to be the case that evolution has built into us a number of devices that have served us well in terms of the survival and proliferation of our species. To deny these things would be to deny the very things that have got us where we are today, and to deny fundamental human nature.

This in itself raises another hairy issue. What if some of these evolutionary devices are destructive? For example, selfishness. It's possible that a device, such as selfishness, which can cause what we would consider to be immoral acts, is an essential feature of humanity. As such, denying, or blacklisting, selfishness could be denying a fundamental part of human nature, which could lead to an idealistic and impractical theory of morality.

This could, in fact, be part of the common conservative criticism of left thinking that it's too idealistic, and unrealistic - that it's all about people loving each other, and this simply isn't the case, because many people will happily screw over their neighbour for their own advantage.

Ayn Rand (to present one controversial example...) considered selfishness to be a fundamental underpinning of human rights - hence her fanatical adherence to the mutual self interest theory of capitalism. She also considered altruism to be evil because it flatly contradicted selfishness.

Perhaps Rand wasn't entirely off the mark (controversial, I know...). But perhaps upholding a moral theory entirely based on altruism, and which demonises selfishness, is similarly naive?

Perhaps both selfishness and altruism played a role in our evolutionary development, and are both hard wired into us - and as such, perhaps both need to be taken into account.

One possible theory of this is that without selfishness we would never have survived in the dog eat dog (or neanderthal eat homo erectus) world. If it weren't for a passionate ambition, coupled with an ability to seek personal gain at the expense of others', actually helped us to get where we are.

Furthermore, perhaps without altruism we would never have learned to be effective social animals, and would never have developed all the good things that came along with civilisation that helped us become the dominant species on the planet. Perhaps altruism evolved to temper some aspects of our inherent selfishness and let us make the occasional sacrifice for the 'common good' (which Rand hated so much), which in turn served our self interest by allowing us to survive.

If there is an element of truth in this theory, then it's possible that both the selfishness and altruism are still a fundamental part of us today, and perhaps there is no perfect way to reconcile them.

Still, it might be possible for us to sketch both driving forces out, what motivates them, how they work, and in what places they're useful, and we can then look more closely at where they cross over and come into conflict - so we can then deal with these conflicts in a more informed.

Then we'll be in a better position to look at ideas such as hard liberalism, mutual self interest, communitarianism, etc.

I certainly don't know what the outcome of this enquiry would be, but I suspect that the end result would emphasise the altruistic, but acknowledge selfishness - if you get my drift (that could be a good motto...). This would, in turn, result in a moderately communitarian, left politics, but would also acknowledge the role of capitalism, free market etc.

The spanner that comes out of this is that some of these more selfishness-based ethics could lead us to a society which is more destructive to the environment, or which is more inclined to get into conflict with other societies and start wars etc. There's no guarantee that the logical and pragmatic outcome of this enquiry won't result in a society that could quite likely destroy itself. However, the alternative - creating a 'softer' society - might also get destroyed by a more aggressive rival society. As such, there might be no 'right' answer.

In any case, we won't know until we flesh out the morality that is a result of 'what we are' and 'where we're from'. Once we've done this, we can start building up a more robust and consistent social theory and politics.

In a future post I'll put up a possible framework of morality that is based on our properties, and see whether it makes sense.

Also note that this concept of morality, as being based on our properties, which can be (arguably) objectively determined, undermines a fundamental tenet of moral relativism. I'll talk more about this later, but I would like to stress again that moral relativism could be one of the biggest weakness of liberal thinking at the moment, so it's probably not a bad thing to 'revise' it, to some extent.


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