Rational morality

Here’s a great video. It’s not short (31 mins) but its well worth watching right through – or downloading and watching later. Even watching several times, the speaker is so eloquent and precise with his language.

In it Scott Clifton gives a thorough critique of the Christian apologetics understanding of morality. He also gives a good outline of secular morality – a rational, objectively-based morality.

Treatise on Morality. – YouTube.

Clifton stress morality is important because it determines how we behave and how we interact with others. In the video he sets out to answer four questions:

  1. What do we specifically mean by words like “right,” “wrong,” “moral,” “immoral,” etc.?
  2. Why our definitions are useful and applicable and why they represent how the vast majority of people see these words, whether they realise it or not?
  3. How can we objectively determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” without appealing to personal taste or subjective opinion?
  4. Why we ought to do right and ought not to do wrong?

He answers the first question by defining “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse.

Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.

I suspect you might find that you do in the end agree. I do.

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9 responses to “Rational morality

  1. Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.

    And, if you disagree, preferably provide your own definition and argument that is coherent, reasonable and does not appeal to a book which commands the murder, rape and enslavement of woman and children.

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  2. Scott Clifton’s definition of right and wrong may be adequate to conform to a reasonable code of conduct. I fail to see that he has demonstrated that it is object, (unless by objective he means “nearly universal”). And I don’t see why it is better than similar approaches such as: That which is right is that which is conducive to the long term survival of society and does not violate our innate social instincts and emotions as gifted to us by natural selection.

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  3. Scott’s definition is definitely not an object, Gordon. But the definition does result from the objective facts of our human nature and rational consideration.

    Also, of course it may not be better than others. You may well come up with a suitable definition, derived from these same objective facts.

    It’s interesting, though, despite the different definitions we may each come up with, or we may even refuse to supply a definition, we can very often come to an agreement, upon rational consideration, that certain things, in specific situations, are “right” or “wrong.” This is because of the objective facts of our human nature.

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  4. “Scott’s definition is definitely not an object” – Sorry about the typo.
    Despite the increasing access to objective facts about the real world I don’t believe our agreement on what’s “right” need be anything other than common cultural values, common real world factual knowledge and common social emotions and instincts.

    The Pakistani who commits an honour killing has a different view because he has picked up different values from his culture. We may reasonably declare our values to be “better” than his but I don’t think we can declare them to be more objective. The Pakistani believes that the slight to his family honour and possibly the challenge to his patriarchal authority will be a greater harm in the long run than the killing.

    If one moral code is better than another I think only the long view of history can give an objective assessment. I think the purpose of a moral code is to oil the machine of societal co-operation. If a society survives it is likely that one of the factors will be effective societal co-operation facilitated by a suitable moral code.

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  5. Gordon, if we understand “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse. Then I think we can judge the actions of a Pakistani honour killer as wrong.

    In a sense we have an objective basis for these moral standards in human nature, arising from biological values of protecting our existence and avoiding pain.

    it may be true that “only the long view of history can give an objective assessment.” Because, after all we are not a rational species. We rely on emotion and intuition when making moral decisions.

    But there are always individuals who have been able to stand for a more reasoned, rational understanding on moral questions – even when society around them has not. Attitudes towards slavery, apartheid, racism, homosexuality, the rights of women, etc., come to mind.

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  6. Your assumption that the Pakistani is not also looking at the long term health, happiness and the reduction of suffering is not merited. He may merely believe in a different set of conditions that will bring that about.

    So I don’t believe that reliance on the existence of our social emotions and instincts introduces objectivity. And I have to say that I don’t understand this hunger for objectivity in a field that, in the end, is bound to rely on subjective assessment in all but the simplest of cases for making individual decisions.

    I don’t rule out objectivity completely. I just think that there seems to be an irrational hunger for it in explanations of human morality. I am content to believe that our decision making, moral and otherwise, has been significantly improved in modern times by our access to objective facts about the real world.

    If we go back to the Pakistani, we might infer that our moral code is better than his because we can see that his society is a lot more dysfunctional than ours, although there might be many reasons for this in addition to an inferior moral code. In the end there is too much temptation to judge the Pakistani by our mores and then rationalise the decision on the basis of specious claims of objectivity.

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  7. Gordon – do you really believe that a Pakistani, or any person, who commits honour killings of his/her daughter, is considering “long term health, happiness and the reduction of suffering” in the way I suggest?

    If so, do you think honour killings should be made legal in the UK? (As some people might like it to be).

    Granted – there may be different ways to achieve “long term health, happiness and the reduction of suffering.” We may have different “correct” moral decisions to some situations – along the lines Sam Harris suggests in his moral landscapes.

    Again you are confusing things with your use of the word “objectivity”. Just because there are objective facts does not mean that humans think “objectively” about them,. We clearly don’t.

    But these objective facts (and the objective fact of our human nature) do provide a possibility to use evidence and reason to come to agreement on an acceptable moral code. And we do that all the time. And we do it across cultures – hence the International Human Rights documents.

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  8. I have no idea what a Pakistani honour killer actually thinks. I make two points:
    I am certain that the Pakistani is not acting amorally or, according to his moral tenets, immorally.
    Also, I don’t believe it would have helped him come to a different decision if a commitment to “long term health, happiness and the reduction of suffering” had been behind his moral deliberations.” We all accept that in certain situations we must choose between the lesser of evils.

    The reason we come to a different decision to the Pakistani is not necessarily because we have different long term moral objectives but because we come from a different culture and have different knowledge about the real world.

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The formidable Eleanor Roosevelt achieved agreement by browbeating the signatories. Only a small minority outside the Western style democracies actually stick to them.

    I do agree that better facts about the real world have led to massive improvements in behaviour.

    I am not sure that you don’t have a false idea about the degree to which you are a free agent in moral decision making. You are of course free to think what you like and to arrive at your moral decisions by whatever means seems appropriate to you. But when it comes to what you actually do, if you are not constrained by the moral code of behaviour of your society you can expect to suffer the consequences.

    The code of behaviour of society is not that easy to change. Even a change in the law will not suffice unless it is backed by strong enforcement. Honour killings are illegal in Pakistan but enforcement is inadequate.

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  9. Sure Gordon – a person who murders his/her daughter as an honour killing may well be acting according to his/her moral tenets. Just as the priest in the church next door may be when he rapes your son/daughter.

    But those moral tenets are not objectively based or concerned about the heath, happiness and protection from harm of sentient humans. They are driven by “divine commands” or cultural constraints.

    As you say “we come from a different culture and have different knowledge about the real world.” Part of that culture has been to apply reason and evidence to moral questions like these and to find them abhorent. Not just now, but they were, like slavery, discrimination against women and homosexuals, and racism, always abhorent – despite acceptance by the culture of the time.

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