Thursday, October 4, 2012

Comment on UPB page 30

On this page (4th paragraph) Molyneux defines ethics as "any theory regarding preferable human behaviour that is universal, objective, consistent - and binding." So is his example that appears higher on the page "If I want to live, [...] I must eat" an ethical theory?

Perhaps Molyneux is ignoring the question of moral nihilism, which denies that the categories of good and evil have any significance. Hence he would be assuming that people want to know what is good and what is evil, and their goal is to gain this knowledge, and he has things to say about what sort of approach can succeed. So, what does he have to say to actual moral nihilists (see L. A. Rollins, "The Myth of Natural Rights"), or persons who think that atheism implies moral nihilism? To my mind, a defense of secular ethics needs to address the question of why anyone should care.

Paragraph 5: "preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired." Molyneux refers to this desired goal again on page 32. At some point in the text, Molyneux must reveal to us the desired goal or goals of the participants in the UPB discussion. Could it be that it is obvious that we all wish to be good, and Molyneux is just helping us figure out right from wrong? I am willing to believe something not too far from that, but the more obvious it is, the less reason there is to leave it out of the text. We argue, therefore we seek truth?

Let me take a casual whack at the idea. I shall steal from Jonathan Haidt again ("The Righteous Mind"). (Geez, can I think a thought without quoting this guy?) Actually there are two ideas struggling in my brain that both came from Haidt. One works against Molyneux by claiming that our reasoning is mostly rationalization, that we make up our minds first (quickly, intuitively) and then use reasoning to justify our behaviour. We could interpret this to mean that we do not want to know right from wrong, we want a way to justify doing what we want. But the other idea, in the same book, claims that our moral intuitions evolved to help us overcome problems of cooperation that other species have failed to overcome, hence laying the groundwork for language, technology, and human domination of the other species. So we all want to think of ourselves as good. Well, except for the pyschopaths. So the argument is less about making a logical case for the necessity of striving for the good, it's more an empirical observation and evolutionary explanation of why (nearly) everyone prefers to obey morality. 


David Burns said...

Violations can't be justified without self-contradictions. Why does a moral agent choose to embrace the conditional imperative? To be moral? To live in truth and justification? Goodness truth reason happiness?

David Burns said...

If I say that something is “morally good” – in other words, if I propose an ethical theory – then clearly I am arguing that human beings should act in a particular manner, or avoid acting in a particular manner.
Why? They should act in a particular manner because they want X? Because it's true? Because they contradict themselves if they try to justify acting otherwise?
What is X? How do I know they want it?