I was scheduled to do a blogalog with Undercover Librarian, but he's come into a tremendous amount of work and so we'll have to postpone for a while. I had already written up my opening arguments on what our moral standard should be, along with a few additions. You can read them below the fold.
In order to understand morality, we must first do our best to understand what it means to be human. Have you ever cried during an emotionally trying film? Have you ever noticed that you maintain distress vocalizations even into adulthood? It is also true that the facial expressions we use to convey happiness, sadness, anger, etc, all transcend our various cultures, and that we all understand what those expressions mean.
I'm talking about empathy. It is so second-nature to us that anybody who appears devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill. Our morality depends on it. After all, what motivation is there to abide by the golden rule without the ability to mentally exchange places with someone else? It is what makes us and our ape ancestors social species, comprised of creatures driven to cooperate for greater achievement rather than scraping by on our own.
So how did we come into this inborn sense of empathy? Evolution does not produce a trait unless there is benefit for the organism. There are many steps in the development of our sense of empathy (which I will discuss later if need be), but we need not pretend that even the most selfless of acts do not convey a benefit to us individually. They either ease our conscience or make us feel good about what we have done. Not only does our empathy allow us to feel happiness when we create happiness for others, but it also prevents us from acting in a cruel fashion. For instance, everybody knows what it feels like to have something stolen from them. Were I to steal, I would unavoidably become a person I would despise. Essentially, I would hate myself. This is all the reason somebody who has thought the scenario through would need. If life would suck without a moral code, that is all the reason we need to invent one, and we cannot invent a sound moral code without understanding what we are and how the world affects us as humans.
All of this seems to imply that morality is about doing what gets us what we want the most. It's our motivation for working as a group (notice how the bad guys in movies are the ones doing what is best for themselves rather than the group?). I believe this holds true even for religious people. If you ask a religious person why you should follow the ten commandments, and then ask why that should matter, and then ask why that should matter on down the line, eventually you're going to arrive at the axiom that you'll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don't - about getting us what we want the most. In fact, morality must be about doing what will get us what we want the most: what else can we possibly do? What other impulse could compel us to obey? Can you recall ever performing as action that you didn't think would achieve the outcome you most wanted at that time?
But what about sociopaths and people who lack empathy? What about people who steal and kill? Well, if their behavior is detrimental to the group, and purging them from our ranks would augment everybody's happiness, then we have all the motivation we need to expunge them. And if they wish to stay inside our society, they'd best play nice. So morality is doing what will get us what we want the most. This begs the question, "What do we want the most?"
It's actually more simple than you may think. It's what drives every action ever performed by any human, and it is one of the few things that every single person on this planet has in common: we all want to be happy. Think about it. Everything you do is in the interest of achieving a state of happiness or comfort, or to alleviate discomfort. Everything. This means that our morality, the ultimate arbiter of what we ought to do, rests on what will make us happy. And because we are bound by a sense of empathy, our own happiness is necessarily tied to what will make others happy. This is a question that, though nowhere nearly completely understood at the level of the brain, can be tackled scientifically. In fact, I will go ahead and assert that the only moral truths we can claim to know are the ones discoverable through science.
If morality is about what produces the most happiness, that means that a question of morality is dependent first on what is true about the world. The very fires of the inquisition were stoked with the assumption that enough torture in this life in order to produce a cofession of faith would secure eternal paradise for the victim. If that fact were true, then such actions make sense. Of course, if it is not the case that confessing Jesus will get you eternal paradise, thus saving you from eternal torment, then Torquemada and his men were some of the vilest lunatics imaginable.
Here's another example: imagine you awoke one morning to find your entire town infested with zombies. You decide that rather than running for safety, that you need to protect the survivors. You grab the shotgun and go to work and by mid-day you have destroyed every last denizen of the living dead. The town is saved.
Consider for a moment how a single fact can radically alter our circumstances. If they really were zombies, you are a hero for the ages. We should begin constructing a life-size statue of you, a monument to your heroics. But if you were wrong, and they weren't zombies, then you have just joined the ranks of some of the worst people to ever live. Good intentions do not rescue you. We all have good intentions (even the 9/11 hijackers believed they were doing a good thing). The problem is when we have failed to accurately map out reality, and our good intentions turn us into monsters. If we want our moral choices to achieve the ends we desire, we must do everything in our power to determine what is actually true about reality. This is a responsibility that every human being has, and one I argue that most people fail to live up to (particularly, every time someone begs for the privilege of maintaining their brand of delusion because it's comforting under the pretension of faith's nobility...quite the contrary, I can envision few things more shameful than willfully ignoring your responsibility to ensure you have good reasons to believe the things you do).
Even if you reject the idea that morality is about doing what will get us what we want the most, it seems conclusive that morality is entirely dependent
on what is true
. After all, if Allah exists and demands the death of the infidels, then flying a plane into a building is
a moral action. If microwaving a potato will kill a kitten, then you should
just have cold cereal. And if your town is infested with zombies, you should
go save the others. Therefore, morality is contingent upon only what we can establish with evidence - and that's the real dilemma, since many people have kicked themselves loose of the Earth in that regard. While science is our best method for conforming to the evidence and drawing reasonable inferences from it, conversely nothing disdains what is reasonable or what can be evinced from the evidence as casually as faith. Therein lurks the very core of our inability to reconcile our systems of morality: one is based upon a set of truth claims that are immune to reasonable standards - which almost always make the beliefs it generates immune to alteration.
In summation, moral questions are questions about happiness and suffering. Our moral standard derives from what produces the most happiness for us individually, which comes from working with our fellow human beings cooperatively - our own happiness being increased through a symbiotic connection with others. This means that , for us and for those around us. Finally, we can only conclude what will make the most people happy by adhering to the evidence, and embracing what it tells us about the variables we have to work with here in this universe.