The Is-Ought Problem
IV. Ethical Egoism
Up until now, I have written about looking at things from different perspectives and trying to figure out descriptions of what they are and what they do. We humans are curious, always trying to understand the world and predict future possibilities from our understanding. Yet there is another dimension I have barely touched on, the idea of should. We prefer some actions and outcomes to others. We believe there are a collection of ways of life that all people should follow, and we call the actions that are in accordance with these ways of life, as well as their consequences and things that encourage these actions, good. And the entire system, we call morality.
As the atom opens the world of physics to chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and beyond, so a study of morality opens wide the space for discussions about humanity, politics, religion, and philosophy. To really get to the meat of these topics, we first need a solid intellectual grounding in the many colors and facets of morality. That is why I am starting this series, which will take us through the landscape of ideas and establish my own views so that you may understand where I am coming from.
In my second year of college, my class had a discussion. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember raising my hand and saying something that I believed was so obvious that it did not need to be said, “what is wrong is wrong.” Everyone turned to look at me with strange expressions, and the professor said, “that is a bold statement. Can you back it up?” I was taken aback. I had believed it was logically trivial, the law of identity, that a thing is itself. The possibility that anyone could disagree had not even entered my mind.
So what did I miss? Well, I had a subconscious assumption that right and wrong are basic elements of reality, that actions are simply right or wrong, and that is the end of the story. I did not realize that there was more, that nuance, context, and circumstance change the game.
This was an example of the most common and naive theory of morality, Intuitionism. It is naive because it is what people follow before the philosophical question of morality enters their awareness. Intuitionism is the idea that morality is common sense. Everybody knows it, and simply has to pay attention to their conscience to live a good life and get along with others.
At first glance, there seem to be moral truths that are commonly accepted and understood the world over, like murder. But if you look closer, you will find that we have different ideas on what murder is. Does it count if it is self-defense, military action, abortion, honor killing, suicide, or capital punishment? It seems we don’t agree on the morality of killing after all, but only the semantic statement that the word for “killing that is wrong” should be “murder.”
Ask a random person if some action is right or wrong. For example, drinking alcohol. Some people will say it is good, and some people will say it is bad. But if you ask them why, you may find something intriguing: that they will either fumble around for an explanation they have never bothered to search for before, look at you as if you are stupid for not knowing, or even suspect that you are trying to corrupt vulnerable minds just by asking the question. Few will have made the effort to come to their view by starting from deeper principles.
The fact is, if we look at the way people act and the things they believe, we will see that everyone has different intuitions regarding morality. Should government support go to those who have gambled their lives away? Do men and women have specific roles to play in the household, or should people be free from gender-based constraints? Different people’s consciences tell them different things. Intuitionism as a moral theory leads directly to Relativism, the idea that morality has no objective basis, but depends only on the feelings of the person making a decision.
In light of this, we might be tempted to look down on Intuitionism. But in the heat of the moment when we don’t have time to weigh all the consequences in accordance with rational principles, we are all Intuitionists. If we want to be principled, then we must examine morality from a philosophical perspective in the times when our heads are clear, in order to train our intuition for the moments of decision. To find such a moral theory, we need to ground it in something outside of ourselves, which does not change and is universal to all of humanity. This is what the rest of this series is going to be about.