Monday, April 13, 2009

How Do You Define Morality?

I’m curious how people out there ontologically define morality. By “ontologically” I mean what morality actually is, not simply how we come to our personal moral beliefs (unless you believe subjective belief is all there is). The latter would be speaking epistemologically, and we all may agree that there are certain cultural influences, etc., that influence what a person comes to morally believe. My question is not about what is believed, but rather what is true.

I had a discussion recently on another board with someone who was basically advancing a similar notion to Sam Harris; i.e., a form of utilitarianism based upon harm. The morally correct action is the one that does the least harm, or in which the harm is most outweighed by the benefit. I pose the classic response to this of a homeless person with no family or friends to speak of, doesn’t have a job, isn’t giving anything to anyone or doing any service for anybody, but he is actually expending resources by way of food, volunteer time, etc. being given to him. Suppose I could euthanize this person painlessly while he slept (unbeknownst to him and without his consent). Should I do it? I believe an argument could be made under utilitarianism that I should.

If someone responds, “But there is great harm in the act of ending his life” I would simply ask, “Why?” At least if you hold to a purely naturalistic framework, I see no difference between killing this man and shooting a deer during hunting season. They are both simply biological machines that result from blind undirected evolution. Why is it acceptable to kill one but not the other? If anything, we could argue that the homeless man is more of a draw against society than the deer, who wanders quietly in the back forests of our country where few humans will ever see him.

Is it because blind evolution has bestowed greater intelligence upon the human? If so, does this mean that people with higher IQs have superior moral rights to those with lower IQs?

A few years ago I was engaged in a discussion with another gentleman who favored ethical nihilism. The problem I find with these views, however, is that inevitably the so-called evidence always ends up detailing how we arrive at moral beliefs. But that is a matter of epistemology, not necessarily ontology. In other words, we may sincerely believe that the moon is made of green cheese, and I can offer all the evidence in the world showing how we came to that belief. But this does not mean that the moon is actually made of green cheese. Not only that, but the particular viewpoint on moral origins being advocated by this individual (and by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion) was based upon so-called “reciprocal altruism”; i.e., where members of a society realize that it is to their benefit to help others because they may get something in return. But this is not true altruism. This is selfishness. So those theories fail to explain the moral origin of truly self-sacrificing acts.

What about Kant’s categorical imperative that we should always act in such a way that our actions could be taken as a universal rule? This sounds good on the surface. We should not murder anyone we wish because our society would not survive long if we allowed willful murder to be universally permissible. Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant provided a rebuttal to this point, however. Under Kant’s rule, lying is immoral because we cannot wish that lying be universally allowed. But what if a murderer is chasing his prey and asks us which way his prey ran? Are we allowed to lie to that murderer in order to keep him from consummating his intended crime? Kant says no. Lying is always wrong because we would not wish for it to be a universal rule. Some people respond by saying that we could simply refuse to answer and therefore not break Kant’s categorical imperative. But that is small consolation to someone with a gun held to their face and a murderer demanding an answer. Are we not allowed to defend our own lives and the other person’s by a simple deception, or must we accept our own end simply so as not to deceive a killer? By making everything universal, Kant fails to provide an adequate resolution when two ethical mandates come into conflict with one another.

The Christian worldview answers some of these questions by placing an inherent value on human life (to quote a certain famous American document, “All men are created equal”). All humankind is created in the image of God, and certain moral value is bestowed upon them as a result. It is wrong to kill the homeless man, regardless of what benefit society may see as a result, because there is value in his human life and it would be wrong to erase that value when the man has done nothing to warrant it. It would be okay to lie to the murderer because by doing so we are defending the value of the lives of both the innocent victim and ourselves.

The point of this post is not to provide a detailed defense of the Christian moral view. Instead I am asking for your opinions. If you do not accept the Christian worldview, how do you ontologically define morality? What (or who) determines what is right and what is wrong? God bless.

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