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One Will to Rule Them All

Steve Neumann on morality, games and Bilbo Baggins.

There is a pivotal scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins is lost and alone deep under the Misty Mountains, and by happenstance finds the infamous One Ring and puts it in his pocket. Soon after, he encounters the creature Gollum, and is forced to play a riddle game to determine whether Gollum will show him the way out, or eat him instead. Bilbo wins the contest, but Gollum realizes that Bilbo has his ring, which confers invisibility upon the wearer. As Gollum moves to attack him, Bilbo puts on the ring, evades Gollum, and escapes.

But there’s an important caveat here: Bilbo wins by breaking the rules of a game that in Middle-Earth is considered to be “sacred and of immense antiquity.” Bilbo was at a loss to come up with another riddle, and as he fidgeted and fumbled in his pocket he said aloud to himself, “What have I got in my pocket?” Gollum assumed this was a riddle, but of course there was no way he was going to be able to answer it correctly. Yet Bilbo’s question wasn’t a “genuine riddle according to the ancient laws,” as the narrator tells us.

Bilbo finding the One Ring
Hobbit still © Warner Bros Pictures 2012

“Sacred and of immense antiquity.” Sounds a lot like human morality, doesn’t it? In a recent essay collection, Thinking, John Brockman observes that “everyone seems to be studying morality these days.” But why are so many devoting so much time to it? Perhaps because moral norms pervade every aspect of our lives, from the most mundane to the most profound. The peculiar thing about morality, however, is that we expect the truly moral person to submit to its demands regardless of her own interests or desires. She should do what morality commands because it is her duty to do so. We want to know why that is.

Natural versus Supernatural Morality

At one time, morality was considered the province solely of religion, and there remains today a considerable contingent who refuse to allow religion to relinquish its monopoly. But an ever-growing number have jettisoned a religious worldview while still desiring a solid foundation for morality. This split has created the two main moral realist factions we have today. For simplicity’s sake, we can call them ‘Moral Naturalists’ and ‘Moral Supernaturalists’. Despite their differences, both agree that, regardless of its source, morality is real, and it possesses a unique normative force, that is, it obliges us to behave in certain ways. But where does such authority come from?

The Supernaturalist seems to have the easier task in coming up with an answer, claiming that it comes from God and that we should do what He desires because He only desires what’s good. That’s the ultimate argument from authority. Alternatively, for the Naturalist, it’s obvious that humans aim for well-being; so we should do what leads to our well-being or flourishing.

The Naturalist is eager to establish the grounds for an objective morality that doesn’t succumb to the dreaded charge of ‘moral relativism’. But this presents a riddle for the Naturalist: how do we ground moral facts in natural facts? This is the current project to establish a science of morality. If, as writer Sam Harris claims, questions about morals and values really are questions about the well-being or flourishing of a particular sentient animal, the human being, then determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of morality. And since science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature, this becomes an empirical question, and its answer should be discoverable by science.

However, in the past decade or so, some Naturalists have taken things a step further, which has caused a bit of a hullabaloo even within their own camp. On the one hand, a small but vocal range of scientists and other thinkers insist that the sciences will eventually have ultimate and final authority on all questions of morality and value. Moral science will not only be able to tell us what we should value, but why we should value it. On the other hand, there are philosophers who say that all this moral theorizing is just theorizing, and thus morality is the proper province of philosophy. These philosophers don’t believe that science plays no role in moral philosophy, of course, they just locate the project at the center of a Venn diagram, the intersection of ‘ethical reasoning’ and ‘empirical evidence’ being ‘morality’.

The most avid researchers of this new moral science, such as Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene, have made great strides in establishing a kind of genealogy of morals, as well as uncovering the background processes of our moral reasoning. But both Haidt’s Social Intuitionist model and Greene’s idea that humans have an automatic mode and a manual mode when it comes to moral judgment, are still description and not prescription. They’re excellent candidates for why we do what we do, but not for why we should do one thing rather than another in any given situation.

There’s another problem. The idea of well-being or thriving that the Naturalist says is the aim of morality sounds sensible on the face of it, but on closer inspection proves to be a bit fuzzy. In fact, this aim goes by several names: life-satisfaction; happiness; even Aristotelian eudaimonia, and each of these terms sounds straightforward and desirable. I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy? But how is happiness to be defined and measured? What does it mean to flourish? After all, one person’s flourishing could very well be another person’s hell. Nevertheless, I think there are certain general things we can say about human flourishing, which Sam Harris tried to articulate in his book, The Moral Landscape (2010), and which Aristotle enumerated centuries ago.

However, a science of human flourishing will never be able to give each of us boots-on-the-ground guidance on the ethical decisions we make every day, because even if our best science can identify the general conditions which enable human beings to flourish, it can’t tell you whether or not it’s right or wrong to cheat at a riddle game, for instance. Is cheating always wrong? Or is it okay to cheat if it’s in your best interest – if it increases your well-being? What about the interest and well-being of your opponent? Try putting yourself in The Hobbit’s characters’ respective shoes. In Gollum’s case, he was neurotically bound to the One Ring, and it’s clear that he would endure a tremendous amount of suffering if he were to lose it. But it’s equally clear that Bilbo would have lost his life if he hadn’t cheated. If I were Bilbo, you’re darn right I’d cheat. But if I were Gollum… Do you see the problem? We quickly get confounded when we try and decide from whose perspective we should judge the rightness or wrongness of actions. There’s no bird’s-eye vantage point from which to judge impartially.

Is the Naturalist’s attempt to ground morality in human flourishing worthless, then? No. While it can’t answer every objection an amoralist or immoralist might raise, it can, as philosopher Owen Flanagan put it, “do everything we can reasonably expect from the fully naturalistic picture of persons that contemporary science advances.” In other words, it’s the best we Naturalists have. Still, if you want to try and further bolster the science of morality, another recent but less well-known approach that might bear some fruit goes by the cumbersome name of ‘constitutivism’. Say that five times fast.

Gollum being cheated by Bilbo
Hobbit still © Warner Bros Pictures 2012


Constitutivism attempts to ground moral commands in facts about what is constitutive of individual action, or what philosophers call ‘agency.’ The constitutivists try to show that all morally good actions have features that make them good actions. They just disagree on what exactly those features are.

Philosopher Paul Katsafanas likens constitutivism to the game of chess. He says that just as we can move from the fact that all chess players aim at checkmate to the claim that they have reason to capture their opponents’ pieces, we can move from the fact that all the moral actions of agents have some constitutive feature to claims about what those agents have reason to do. For instance, if flourishing is your aim, and so the constitutive feature of all your actions, then that will generate reasons for you to act toward that aim.

Katsafanas’s version of constitutivism is inspired by the extensive reflections on morality by Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically Nietzsche’s controversial, and frequently misunderstood, claim that all human actions manifest a ‘will to power’. Drawing on Nietzsche’s texts and notes, Katsafanas says that according to Nietzsche power is not brute force and dominance, but the drive to seek out and overcome obstacles and resistance to one’s ends. In Agency and the Foundations of Ethics (2013), Katsafanas attempts to show that all human actions have this sort of will to power as their constitutive aim. One will to rule our actions, one will to bind us. The connection to the Naturalist project is that since the Naturalist tries to show that flourishing is the aim of action, and Nietzsche believed that a kind of ‘happiness’ is a by-product of increases in power (as Katsafanas understands the term), then an empirical investigation into the structure of human activity might further refine and augment a science of morality in these terms.

A further connection comes from the late John Rawls’ ‘Aristotelian principle’ from his influential A Theory of Justice (1971). This concept of human motivation is that normally, people find that activities that utilize their developed capacities are more interesting and preferable to simpler tasks, and their sense of personal satisfaction increases the more their capacities are realized. That sounds a lot like what the Naturalists (and Aristotle) call flourishing. We can also connect John Rawls to popular author Daniel Pink. In his book Drive (2009), Pink summarizes research in behavioral science indicating that ‘autonomy’ ‘mastery’ and ‘purpose’ are the Holy Trinity when it comes to finding meaning in one’s work. Autonomy is about having the opportunity to choose which tasks to focus on, and how; mastery is the process of, well, mastering a chosen activity; and purpose relates to the desire to improve the world in some way. So here we have ethical reasoning and empirical science converging on the apparent essentials of human motivation, and so on what human beings have reason to do. The picture that emerges from combining the argument of Rawls and the research of Pink shows human beings naturally seeking out activities that utilize and enhance their innate drives and talents, with the ultimate aim being a world-changing life. Compare this with the picture of human motivation as seen through Nietzschean lenses: human beings continually seek to increase their Katsafanian ‘quantum of power’ by engaging in activities that challenge them and also change the current state of the world in some way. The result? Happiness. Satisfaction. Eudaimonia.

Is this really a satisfying answer to the riddle of morality for the Naturalist? Does this way of thinking help us ethically deal with drone strikes, abortion, or universal healthcare? It would seem we need more of a dialectic between science and philosophy in order to provide details. We should be clear about one more thing, too. Just as Bilbo beating Gollum was a bit of a cheat, so is replacing traditional morality with a science of morality. It’s a little like saying that the game of chess isn’t really about checkmating one’s opponent but capturing as many of your opponent’s pieces as possible. Even though we’re playing on the same board, and with the same pieces, we’re not playing “according to the ancient laws.”

The Supernaturalist will never go for it.

© Steve Neumann 2014

Steve Neumann is a contributing blogger to Massimo Pigliucci’s Rationally Speaking blog by night, and a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor for The Seeing Eye by day.


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