Friday, 7 June 2013

Our theory on Morals slowly takes shape

My Answer Pt. 2

As I pointed out last week if the state of the universe is that there is no God, morals become just an arbitrary social construct.

On the other hand, if the state of the universe is that there is a God with a moral being, morals are not arbitrary constructs. There is an absolute standard consisting of this God's moral being.

The existence of such a God was my first hypothesis. It may or may not be correct, at the moment I am just exploring what would follow if it were the case. That is what one does with hypotheses.

My second was that we humans had inherited at least some remnant resonance with this nature. Well that would explain why for instance we can be passionately affected by say injustice, even when we are not the victim. Evolution cannot explain that. It also explains why we can quite often discuss moral issues with people of quite different socialisation, culture or world-view.

Modern readers can at least find say Plato or Aristotle intelligible when they deal with ethical issues. More than that, considering the difference in our society to theirs we find a surprising amount agreement with them.

I am a bit more familiar with the Bible, so I will give some examples from there. Abraham going down to Egypt because of a famine expects the people there to kill him to take his beautiful wife. He finds instead a strong ethical abhorrence to such behaviour. (In fact Pharaoh comes out of the story on the high moral ground compared to Abraham!)

Jonah finds the foreign (and heathen) sailors unwilling to throw him into the sea, even after he tells them that he is the cause of the storm that is threatening their lives and that they must throw him overboard to save themselves. Then when he tells the people of Nineveh that they will be destroyed because of their murders, thefts, cruelty and other evil deeds, his words are intelligible. They are a cruel rapacious culture, but there is a shared moral awareness that lets them understand that they have done evil, and to repent of it. (much to Jonah's surprise and chagrin.)

Ruth was a Moabite, a foreigner to Israel's culture and religion. Yet her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi touched the hearts of the Israelite people of her day and still to us today.

My point is that we see – brighter in some people and dimmer in others – a sort of shared humanity that makes at least a degree of moral understanding possible across huge cultural, experiential and historical divides.

The instance of this phenomenon that set me off on the above train of thought was this:

I enrolled in a free online “ethics 1.01” course offered by a prestigious overseas university. It had videos of the lecturer interacting with a theatre full of bright eyed youngsters. I didn't keep going with it very long – but long enough to make this observation: The lecturer was a brilliant showman, and to be fair he tried to be even handed dealing with various moral theories. But his whole approach was to throw up difficult moral situations and discuss them back and forth with students who put their hand up to answer. But, and here is the big thing, he relied on their having an innate sense of right and wrong. He then produced these hypothetical situations which seemed carefully designed to bring this innate moral compass into conflict with a “common sense” course of action.
It became apparent to me that it was actually a mental conjuring trick. This strengthened when I was recounting one lecture to my elder son and he replied that his lecturer in ethics at Melbourne university had used the exact same scenario.

A clever conjurer can delight his or her audience with tricks that defy explanation. Indeed some are so obviously impossible under the laws of physics that they “must” be magic. Of course they are not really magic at all.

These scenarios are similarly so cleverly constructed that they seem to show up commonly held moral feelings as “wrong”. Clever, yes: but in no way helpful!

To be fair to the overseas lecturer and his very prestigious university he eventually graduated from these smoke-and-mirrors set pieces to some real cases.

The last lecture I watched involved a real case from the 1800's. The surviving members adrift in a lifeboat killed and ate the cabin boy. The interesting comparison to my mind was how the lecturer teased the innate moral feelings of his students on one hand, and how the English justice system coped with the case on the other.

The students were, understandably, conflicted. Did the cabin boy give informed consent? No? Well then it was wrong of them to kill him. But one died and three were thus kept alive until rescued. One instead of four, the maths are on the side of the cannibals. And so forth.

The case went to court in England so there were official records one could consult (which I did). The jury washed its hands by bringing in a verdict that they were not competent to decide the case. Fair enough. The case then went to be decided by the leading judges of the land. This was interesting. They were not students having an academic discussion. They were the best and most experienced judges in their land, and lives hung in the balance.

Crack lawyers on both sides argued why it should or should not the called “murder”. The moral arguments were thus meticulously teased out.

The judges decided as follows: They had every sympathy for the desperate plight that led the men to kill and eat the cabin boy. They said “Who in that terrible situation might not act as they had”. Nevertheless, they said it was the duty of the court was to apply the law: and where in a specific case there were unusual extenuating circumstances it was the prerogative of the crown to pardon. The actions were indeed murder and the men were convicted. A week or so later they all received a Royal Pardon.

This had a finesse and a depth of understanding that made our lecturer pale by comparison.

I draw two conclusions from this.

First: carefully crafted hypothetical scenarios are basically a conjuring trick. Don't go there!

Secondly: armchair (or podium) ethicists are just kidding themselves. We have a heritage that leaves them back in the stone age. For over a thousand years judges in the British court system have been wrestling not with hypothetical cases, but the real thing! Their judgements have been considered and revised by succeeding generations of judges to get solutions that work for real people in the real world and they are still being honed and revised. Why would one academic or even one generation of academics ever think they can beat that?

NEXT WEEK I hope to pull these threads together! 

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