There IS such a thing as right and wrong
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.) -- December, 2008
I have been writing -- sporadically -- on topics in moral philosophy for many years now (See here) so I think it is time for me to ask if I have learnt anything over the years. I think I have. In particular, I think I have now arrived at a complete answer to what Leftists say about the matter. "Complete answer" is a very bold expression for a philosopher to use but readers will be the ultimate judge of whether I have achieved that, of course.
The Leftist argument
The nub of the Leftist argument is that "right" and "wrong" language is incoherent. Saying "X is pink" and "X is right" seem on the surface to be the same sort of statement but we can immediately see that they are not. Pinkness is an objective property that we can point to whereas rightness exists only in the mind of the speaker. "Who says?" is a complete refutation of any claim that something is right. Religious people can say that "God says" but since religious people do differ considerably on moral questions (e.g. abortion) it is immediately obvious that it is only an opinion about what God says that we are dealing with. And how can an opinion have any objective reality? So the Leftist concludes that there is no such thing as right and wrong, just different opinions and value judgements. You cannot find rightness under a rock and you cannot find it anywhere so it does not exist as such.
A better argument
I did three successive courses in philosophical analysis in my years as a university student and was always exposed to the above analysis. And up until fairly recently I accepted it as describing at least one sort of moral statement. I was always aware, of course, that nobody ever talks as if they believed it. Leftists are in fact very quick on the draw with moral language. They can say that there is no such thing as right and wrong and then immediately and with a straight face go on to say that "racism" or "intolerance' is wrong. And George Bush is of course EVIL!
So what the heck is going on? I think the first key is, as I have previously argued, that moral language is not used in one way but rather in several ways. And I have SHOWN that usage of moral language differs from person to person by way of psychological research. Philosophers are like physicists: They are always looking for a "unified field" theory of what they study but what if such a unified field does not exist? Perhaps the closest anybody has come to a single explanation of what moral language does is the formulation that "is good" or "is right" statements simply commend. R.M. Hare is associated with that view. But if we go on from there to unpack "commend", I think we can be in trouble. Surely "commend" simply means "is good". Other objections to Hare's claims are summarized below (From Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century By Scott Soames. p. 137)
"What is it to commend something? Although Hare doesn't say very much about this, he does say that "when we commend or condemn anything it is always in order, at least indirectly, to guide choices, our own or other people's, now or in the future."' So if to call something good is always to commend it, to do so must always be to guide choices in some way. This emphasis on guiding choices fits many cases quite well. If we are trying to decide what movie to go to and someone tells us that Ed Norton's new film is a good movie, then it would be natural to take that remark to be an attempt to guide our choice. However, not all cases are this direct. We often say that certain things are, or were, good so and so' s even though we don't envision ourselves or others having the opportunity to make choices on the basis of that information. Personally, I would say that Ronald Reagan was a good president of the United States, even though I don't expect anyone to have the opportunity to vote for him again-- or even for anyone very much like him. Or, to use a nice example due to my former student Rebecca Entwistle, I would say that when the College of Cardinals selected Pope John Paul II, they chose a good pope. I am willing to say this to people despite the fact that I know that none of them is in the College of Cardinals, and they will never have any occasion to choose a pope, or even to influence such a choice. How does this square with Hare's idea that to call something good is always to commend it, where to commend it is always to guide choices, directly or indirectly?"
I don't think that is a final objection to the use of "commend", however. I think we can also unpack it to be an empirical (if very relative and subjective) claim -- as interpreting "rightness" or "goodness" statements to mean "This makes me happy and I think it will make you happy too", or "This satisfies me and I think it would satisfy you too" or "This gets me results I like and I think you would like its results too" -- and so on.
I have previously set out what I think are the main uses of moral language but I will repeat them here as a preliminary to an important update. It seems to me that statements such as "X is right" (or "X is good" or "You ought to do X") can be unpacked in only four or perhaps five basic ways:
1. I like it when people do X
2. Doing X generally leads to widely desired results
3. It is the will of God that you do X
4. X has an inescapable, universal "moral" quality.
5. X is the prevailing rule around here (though if the person was asked why that rule exists he would almost certainly reply by referring to some version of one of the preceding three statements).
I think most people would agree that "You ought" or "is right" statements can mean 1, 2, 3 or 5 above. I do. You might dispute the truth of any of them but you would understand what is being said and understand that it is a factual claim. I would for instance dispute an "ought" statement that is unpacked as 3 above because I am an atheist but I accept that the person making the claim is trying to make a statement of fact that can be proved or disproved in some way. So. at least in the senses 1, 2, 3 or 5 above, there clearly IS such a thing as right and wrong.
Interpretation 4 above however is the difficulty because it is apparently untestable and undemonstrable -- and is hence the one that Leftists focus on. They claim it is gibberish even though the usage does seem to be widespread. And I think that the widespread nature of such statements is the key to understanding them. I think that such statements arise because human beings do have inborn, hardwired moral instincts. So a person who uses "is wrong" statements of that ilk is expressing an important instinct. He is in fact referring to something quite objective: Normal human feelings and instincts. He is saying: "That goes against normal human feelings and I know it does because it goes against feelings deep in me". He could of course be wrong. His own feelings might not be a reliable guide to what is general -- but it is nonetheless a factual claim that can be disputed. Such a person might, for instance, say "murdering babies is wrong" and mean that as a universal and unquestionable claim about how normal people respond to the idea of murdering babies. But we can argue with him about the matter by pointing out that the undoubtedly brilliant civilization of ancient Greece routinely allowed the killing of babies in some circumstances. So the argument is an empirical one, not an unfalsifiable claim. And that is what I have only recently come to see.
I am not of course saying that the unpacking I have offered above is always high in the consciousness of the person making such statements. Most people use the word "dog" with great confidence but would be rather hard put to define a dog when you remark that dogs can be of many shapes, sizes and colours. So what defines a dog? When pressed the person might say a dog is "tailwagger" -- but is a boxer dog with an amputated tail not a dog? And so it goes on. Similarly, "is right" statements can be used with considerable accuracy and meaningfulness even though the person using such statements might not be able to unpack them readily or at all.
Because the standard psychological measures of moral attitudes (e.g. Kohlberg's) are profoundly contaminated by the Leftist assumptions of their authors, I have not even tried to look up inheritance data about morality in the behaviour genetics literature -- though there is some supportive evidence mentioned here and here (referring to the work of Hauser and Haidt respectively) and the idea is to be found in the work of various well-known writers -- e.g. Steven Pinker and James Q. Wilson. So suffice it to say that most important human characteristics seem to show very substantial genetic inheritance (See e.g. here and here and here, and some work on a genetically-coded social abnormality reported here, here and here). If morality were an exception that would be most surprising.
And from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, it would be even more surprising. Man is both a social animal and an animal that falls very readily into conflict with his fellow humans. So ways of regulating behaviour to enable co-operation and forestall conflict must necessarily be of foremost importance. And that is largely what moral and ethical rules are all about. To forestall conflict there HAVE to be rules against murder, stealing, coveting your neighbour's wife etc. And that is why there are considerable similarities between the laws of Moses (ten commandments etc) and the much earlier Babylonian code of Hammurabi. The details of moral and legal rules are of course responsive to time, place and circumstances, but there are some basics that will almost always be there. And given the importance of those basic rules for social co-operation, it should be no surprise that such rules became internalized (instinctive) very early on in human evolution. So many if not most of our social instincts are in fact moral or ethical instincts. Ethics are the rules we need for co-operative existence.
Obviously, however, the rules are not so well entrenched as to produce automatic responses. We have broad tendencies towards ethical behaviour but that is all. This is probably due to their relatively recent evolutionary origin. Most of what we are originates far back in our evolutionary past whereas the social rules that we use became needed only with the evolution of the primates.
Additionally, we are the animal that relies least on instinct. So all our instincts can be both modified and defended by our reasoning processes. Just because a thing is instinctive to us it does not mean that the behaviour concerned is emitted in any automatic way. We think about why we do what our instincts tell us and generally conclude that our instincts are thoroughly wise! And we do generally explain our rules of behaviour in a thoroughly empirical and functional way -- generally starting with: "If everyone did that .... ". And moral philosophers are of course people who specialize in such talk. But, as Wittgenstein often pointed out, all such talk is largely epiphenomenal (an afterthought). It is predominantly their set of inherited dispositions that make people behave ethically, not any abstract rationalizations.
And that realization does explain why philosophers so often back themselves into absurd corners. You might guess what is coming next at that point: Peter Singer. Peter Singer (a former student of R.M. Hare) is undoubtedly a very able and influential philosopher and in good philosophical style he starts out with a few simple and hard-to-dispute general rules from which he logically deduces all sorts of conclusions that are greeted with horror by normal people -- his view that babies and young children may be killed more or less at will, for example. As a theoretical deduction, his views are defensible but seen in the light of the biological basis of morality, they are counterproductive. A society that killed off its young more or less at will would not last long.
So we come back in the end to the good Burkean principle that theories are to be distrusted and and continually tested against whether or not they lead to generally desired outcomes. Philosophers judge an argument on its consistency, elegance and comprehensivesness. Conservatives judge it on its practical outcomes. And Leftists judge it on whether they can use it to make themselves look good.
A famous objection to any claim that moral statements are at base empirical and hence rationally arguable is the objection by David Hume. David Hume contends that there is an unbridgeable gap between "is" and "ought" statements -- so that you cannot justify "ought" statements by "is" statements. Yet that is precisely what people normally do. An "ought" statement always suggests some course of action and when people ask WHY that course of action is suggested the reply is often in terms of "is" (empirical) statements (e.g. the suggestion that you ought to do X can be explained as: "X leads to generally desired consequences" or "X leads to consequences that you would like" or "I like X" or "X is the prevailing rule in this culture"). So in my view the fact that an "ought" statement can be explained in that way shows that it is an empirical statement to begin with. Statements in general have all sorts of influences on people (for example, if someone said to me: "Your son has just died", it is clearly an empirical statement but it would also have an enormous influence on me if true. It would cause me to take many actions that I would not otherwise take) and an "ought" statement is an empirical statement with what is expected to be one particular sort of influence -- it is meant to cause you to behave in the way described (Something that Hare also saw). So an "ought" or "is right" statement is simply a shorthand (compressed) "is" statement that can be expanded in some way if desired. It might be noted however that there seems to be a gradient in "good", "right" and "ought" statements, with "ought" statements being most intended to incite action and "good" statements least so.
The arbitrariness of meta-ethics
What I have written above is what philosphers call meta-ethics. In other words I have been talking about what morality is in the abstract rather than discussing a particular moral dilemma (such as whether or not abortion is right). Scheule has made the interesting point, however, that we not only bring assumptions to discussions of ethical dilemmas but we also bring assumptions to our meta-ethical deliberations. So if a Leftist says that is it absurd to believe in the reality of something that has no known place or position and cannot be detected by any instrument, we could answer in the usual religious way or we could do something much more radical: We could say, "Why is absurdity a bad thing? Absurdity can be entertaining". We could, in other words reject absurdity as an evaluative criterion. So then we have to find a way of examining what we should think of absurdity. At that point we have obviously fallen into an infinite regress and the discussion cannot go on.
Sadly, I think Scheule is right. Meta-ethical discussions are every bit as much a matter of opinion as are ethical debates. So where can we go from there? The usual philosophical response in such circumstance would be something along the lines of saying that a rejection of absurdity as a criterion makes discourse impossible so therefore we cannot do it. But that is in itself arguable -- as is the nature of what is absurd. So I think that the entire discussion is not a universally available one but rather one that can only take place among people who have certain agreed asssumptions. And asking for shared assumptions between Left and Right is a tall order, and an order that will often not be met.
It is for instance a common Leftist assertion that there are many realities. That seems to me simply confused but it would nonetheless seem to rule out shared assumptions. In fact, it seems to me that "There are many realities" is a deliberate denial of any common assumptions. The Leftist is happy with his emotionally-dominated life and nothing will be allowed to interfere with his emotionally-dominated conclusions. And the denial of common assumptions would appear to be basic rather than a mere stratgem. The Leftist is surely aware that there is a glaring inconsistency between "There is no such thing as right and wrong" and "racism is wrong" yet that inconsistency does not seem to bother him in the least. He sees no problem with inconsistency-- to the point where inconsistency is almost a hallmark of Leftist argument. So the Leftist is quite happy to deny the possibity of rational argument. Making self-contradictory assertions is not rational. The Leftist is quite happy merely to emote.
Leftist argumentation does however remind us that we DO make some assumptions in meta-ethical debates and that could be seen as unsatisfactory. I think a very rough and ready way out is to note that despite our philosophical entrapment, people do nonetheless continue to make morally-influenced decisions and often care deeply about such decisions. So if we must give up asking philosophical questions there are still important questions there to ask, so why not instead ask scientific questions: Something I myself turned to in this area long ago. It is surely at least of interest to do studies of various sorts which detect how people do arrive at moral judgments in real life even if attempts at philosophical simplification have hit a wall.
Morality thus becomes a field of study for psychologists and anthropologists rather than for philosophers. And there have now of course been many research studies of that nature. Pinker offers a useful summary of them. And what such studies tend to show is what I have said above: That we do as human beings inherit certain moral instincts. So morality again emerges as quite solidly founded in the real world and a worthy and important object of discussion. It is a discussion of human instincts or responses to instincts. It is not wholly arbitrary and can be of vital importance. And the criteria we use in such discussions are not arbitrary either. They too are part of what we inherit. So I find it rather encouraging that both scientific enquiries and meta-ethical deliberations can arrive at essentially the same conclusion.
Some 2007 research by Haidt would seem to be of considerable interest in connection with the above. Haidt argues that the basis of morality is instinctive but that conservatives display greater cognitive complexity in dealing with moral questions. Given the frequent Leftist assertion that "there is no such thing as right and wrong", that is not inherently surprising. Although they often use moral talk in an attempt to influence others, Leftists would seem, on their own admission, to have no serious interest in or committment to morality of any kind. That does make the invariable brutalities of Communist regimes rather understandable.
Part of a summary of Haidt's research:
"Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of -- and constrained by -- a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity."
There is a longer account of Haidt's research here
As it seems particularly interesting, I reproduce below a press report of the genetically encoded social abnormality I mentioned above:
Nature wins in nurture debate
Scientists have raised new questions about free will, with some of the first evidence that the way people behave towards each other can be controlled by their genes rather than their environment and upbringing. They have found that people with a rare genetic mutation known as Williams syndrome have brains that work abnormally in social situations, producing erratic and inappropriate behaviour. The finding implies that humans' social interactions are pre-programmed to some extent and that external influences - "nurture" in contrast to "nature" - may be less important.
The researchers, at the National Institute of Mental Health in America, will publish their findings today in Nature Neuroscience. The institute's director, Thomas Insel, said: "Social interactions are central to human experience and well-being and are adversely affected in psychiatric illness. This may be the first study to identify functional disturbances in a brain pathway associated with abnormal social behaviour caused by a genetic disorder."
The researchers compared brains of people with Williams syndrome with those of healthy volunteers. People with Williams syndrome are missing about 21 genes on chromosome 7, a deficit that makes it hard for them to judge how to respond to social situations. They are impulsive in their behaviour towards others, often starting conversations with complete strangers and acting in an over-friendly fashion. Conversely, they often become anxious and agitated in non-social situations where there is no real cause for alarm.
Researchers have suspected such behaviour is linked to abnormalities in the way information is processed in the amygdala, which lies deep in the brain and plays an important role in governing social behaviour. In the normal volunteers, researchers found a complex neuron network through which the amygdala was controlled. For people with Williams syndrome, by contrast, these networks had been disrupted. One implication of the study is that genetic testing could pick out children with Williams syndrome.
(From "The Australian" of July 16, 2005. The original journal article is here)
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