Saturday, 4 May 2013

Morals Post.3 : where do Morals come from Pt. 1

Well, where do morals come from? Seriously.

Now if you have studied a bit (or a lot) of philosophy you might start talking about great moral theorists, Kant, Locke, Bentham, Mill, etc. Yes I've read them too, but there were morals long before any of them came on the scene trying to create a theoretical platform for them. So I want something better than the tired old 'well there's utilitarians, absolutists and so forth' explanation.

After all Locke managed from his theory to 'prove' that slavery in America was morally tight. Most of us today would feel that casts a bit of a pall over his theory!

The utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill as worked out in the modern 'cost-benefit analysis' gives some unpalatable results. If 'the greatest good for the greatest number' is your rule you have to put a price of human suffering and human life. A cost benefit analysis may (and historically has) let manufacturers conclude that a certain number of people dying as a result of a defect in their product is preferable to incurring the cost of rectifying the problem. However this tends to apall most but the most devout adherents of utilitarianism.

Hobbes is famous for his description of life without society as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. His theory is that morals are so against human nature and self interest that they must be imposed by some authority – to the great benefit of all.

In the two earlier posts I talked about the human aptitude for learning complex social responses – both as manners and as morals. Is that all morals are? Are they a social construct a sort of accident of society, or imposed at the whim of 'the powers that be'? Possible, but people do act as though 'right' and 'wrong' were more than that. The Nazi commanders had no compunction running the gas chambers, but they did record the victims as dying of 'heart failure' in their records, and did at for instance Sobibol, try to obliterate all evidence of what they had done. In short they acted as though there was a 'wrong' that stood above their Nazi creed and culture, and even above the Fuhrer.

Plato in the fourth century B.C. Had some clear ideas of 'right' and 'wrong'. Most still resonate with us today, some we would reject. Certainly I for one hope we would reject his view that a woman's soul was part way between a child's and a slave's! Plato is also interesting for his rejection of the idea that morals cam from the gods with his famous: “ do the gods command it because it is right or is it right because the gods command it.” Another philosopher of about that time looking at the Greek pantheon of gods remarked that most of what the gods were reputed to do was considered shameful behaviour in human terms.

Homer could write (maybe 8th century BC) aboyut life, love and war in the 11th century BC and we today find his moral viewpoint at least intelligible. So there is something here that spans the ages.

Now I am a devout Christian and I do think Plato's dilemma has a way through the middle and I do think there is an answer to the whole question. But that must wait for later.

The point I want to get to today is this: we in the English speaking world do have views on morals, do consider them important and do try to impose our views on others. That is why I pose the question “where do our morals come from?”. Or to come at it another way: we do say 'this is good behaviour' or 'that is bad behaviour' how can we justify making this judgement?

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