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Question of the Month

What Grounds or Justifies Morality?

Our readers give their reasons, each winning the right to a random book.

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature… Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell the truth.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Would you consent? Bentham’s utilitarianism justifies the morality of an action on the principle of ‘maximising the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ of people. Kant insists that one’s actions possess moral worth only when one does one’s duty for its own sake, and in this sense consequences are morally irrelevant. What matters, according to Kant, is what we ought to do, which reason alone can establish. Kant believes morality is grounded in reason: we are not only sentient beings, governed by the pleasure and pain delivered by our senses; we are also rational beings, capable of freedom. We must be capable of acting according to laws other than the laws of physics. If our actions were governed solely by the laws of physics, then we would be no different from objects or animals. Kant further argues that we must be capable of acting according to the moral law we give ourselves, and this law is determined by reason.

However, his conception of reason is different from that of the utilitarians, who view human beings as capable of only instrumental reason. The job of instrumental reason is to figure out how to maximize satisfying our desires for pleasure and happiness. But for Kant, reason is not just the ‘slave of the passions’ as David Hume called it, but of ‘pure practical reason’ – “which legislates a priori, regardless of empirical ends.” If reason was simply an instrument to achieve our desires – “if that were all reason amounted to”, Kant says, then “we would be better off with instincts.” Moreover, unlike individual feelings, emotions and desires that are chaotic and based on self-interest, reason is universal and so establishes our moral duties as categorical imperatives that must be demanded of all rational beings. Therefore, I believe that morality can be justified only by reason, regardless of how many people we make happy or unhappy. And our moral duties are… Well, every reasonable person knows what they are!

Nella Leontieva , Randwick, New South Wales

Those examples which comprise the vast history of ethics are what potentially ground or justify morality. It’s up to us to discover from this considerable history those instances sufficiently cogent to provide a foundational, even universal basis – as was ambitiously approached by Parfit in On What Matters (2017).

Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) is an apt starting point for considering this question. Kant argues that making moral choices and judgements presupposes, even necessitates, that we are free agents; that our choices and judgements are not beyond our control. This forms the basis of our duty to take moral responsibility, and so “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

These rational grounds are undermined by those who deny free will, claiming that all our motives and behaviour are determined and best understood through reductive scientific explanations, from the psychological to physiological, then chemical, and ultimately to those of physics. To logical positivists, for example, the claims of metaphysics, ethics, and theology, were meaningless. However, their disdain for mystery and metaphysics was met with a joint "No!" from those Metaphysical Animals featured in MacCumhaill and Wiseman’s recent book (2022) – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch. This group of four Oxford friends are credited with breathing new life into philosophy and ethical thinking. PN’s own review of the book calls them “leaders in demolishing the logical positivism and moral relativism that dominated English-language philosophy in the mid-twentieth century.” (Issue 151).

In ambiguous contrast, the American pragmatist Richard Rorty, though eschewing the relativism simplistically associated with him by critics, nevertheless implies a version of moral relativism when claiming that “belief is caused by nothing deeper that contingent historical circumstance” (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, 1989). However, this claim presumably applies equally to his own position, too.

Colin Brookes, Loughborough, Leicestershire

Western philosophy offers three major justifications for morality, associated with three well-known philosophers. Followers of Plato would say the basis of morality is self-interest; those of Hume’s school of thought claim it is other-regarding interests, wants or intentions; and Kantians argue it is justified in terms of the requirements of practical reason. Of course, every moral theory claims that its method for determining right and wrong is correct.

Kant argued that reason must be at the heart of any moral action, despite any natural desires to the contrary. His categorical imperative is a necessary and non-negotiable principle.

Moral relativism further complicates the issue by denying any universal moral values; saying, rather, that different cultures and sub-cultures often have markedly differing values, and these can change depending on opinion, social context etc. Nietzsche challenged that there is no objective or transcendent justification for moral claims. A kind of moral relativism first arose in ancient Greece, but didn’t really take off until Montaigne’s writings in the sixteenth century. If one is religious, then God/Allah/Jehovah lays down absolute moral truths to live by. Other moral absolutists argue from a non-religious standpoint that there are universal principles that ought never to be violated, regardless of context or consequences.

I think we each have our own moral principles based on our individual upbringing and social context. However, I would argue that the majority of people in most cultures would agree on some basic morals, such as treating others how you wish to be treated, do not hurt or kill others, etc. I would defy anyone to argue that murder, or child abuse, for example, is not universally wrong. (I allow that it’s not always clear cut : I’m firmly pro-women’s rights in the abortion debate, but it could be argued that termination of a foetus is murder, and thus wrong).

My personal morality is not based on religious belief but on humanism – the principle that every individual has an equal right to live a full life and be free from harm. So in that sense I am somewhat of an absolutist, although I also feel that many aspects of moral relativism are valid. Moral principles of some kind are clearly needed for society not to descend into anarchy. But there are many shades of grey between right and wrong.

Rose Dale, Floreat, Western Australia

I start with the premise that organisms such as ourselves have been formed via a process of evolution by natural selection, and further, that any altruistic tendencies we possess have been formed due to the complex of behaviour including those tendencies having a net benefit to our ancestors. If one adds the further premise that morality has arisen due to an attempt to rationalise or formalise our sense of altruism, this leads to the conclusion that morality is grounded in our nature, formed through evolution by natural selection.

Someone might argue that morality was arrived at purely rationally or, notwithstanding the origins of the moral sense, that there is a rational grounding and justification for morality, or perhaps morality is a diktat of some sort of supernatural agency. However, the acceptance of such reasons or diktats would itself still need to be grounded or justified. The rational approach articulated by Kant, is the idea of a moral imperative that any rational intelligence would acknowledge. Or as per utilitarianism, might there be a moral imperative to consider the maximising of a measure such as general happiness or flourishing? Another attempt at asserting a rational justification for morality is Aristotle’s contention that being moral or virtuous will tend to lead to a better life. Thus, morality becomes rational on the premise that wishing for a better life is rational.

I think all such approaches rely on further premises regarding the intrinsic worth of others, and some judgement as to what makes a better or more sustainable life or society, and of the means to achieve that. These further premises themselves contain value judgements, which are not intrinsically rational. Values may be shaped by rationality, but, as Hume pointed out, they cannot be derived by logic purely from facts about the natural world.

If one accepts this then whatever their merits in helping guide our actions, rational approaches can never be the grounds or justification for morality. Instead, morality is grounded by our nature, by our feelings. Justification independent of our feelings, is not available.

Lawrence Powell, London

Morality would have no meaning in a universe without conscious beings. A thermostat might be faulty, but we do not literally claim that it lies. A forest fire may be all-consuming, but it is not actually greedy. Hence, morality is absent from a strictly objective account of the world. Rather, morality is something that arises from conscious experience. In this sense, morality is necessarily ‘subjective’. However, that does not for a moment mean that moral right and wrong are a matter of personal opinion or taste. If it did, there could be no moral debate, or indeed any possibility of revising one’s moral judgement, since according to the subjective view, whatever one judged to be right initially is therefore right by definition. A similar objection applies to the more widespread view that morality is nothing more than the current collective preference of a community. The way we debate moral questions implies necessarily that there are grounds outside our current communal judgements to which we need to refer. So where in our experience can such grounds be found?

Suppose that my mind was so constructed that, although conscious myself I was unable to recognize consciousness in anyone else, and simply regarded other people as moving parts of my environment, in the same way that I regard a wristwatch or a river. Moreover, suppose that I had no conception of a future self. There are indeed creatures with just such a consciousness – possibly including new-born human babies. With such a mind, I cannot see how I could have any idea of right or wrong. Indeed, babies are not usually regarded as morally responsible for their actions; nor most non-human species, for that matter.

Now relax that idea. To identify with others, and imagine the pleasure or distress that could result from kind or unkind actions on my part, I now find myself passing critical judgement on myself for neglecting the former or performing the latter. Thus, the morality of altruism depends crucially upon the experience of identification with others. Likewise, the morality of self-discipline depends crucially upon the experience of identification with a later self.

In short, the fact that our minds our constructed so that we are prone to experience actions as if we were another self, or a later self, gives us the motivation that is the starting point of morality.

Roger S. Haines, London

Like it or not, religion is morality’s anchor. It grounds morality, and tells us what we ought to do.

Why? Ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics such as Sextus Empiricus argued for moral skepticism by introducing the concept of isostheneia or ‘equipollence’ – the idea that every moral argument point has an equally rational counterpoint. This concept was never disproven. But moral skepticism, like an ultra powerful solvent, dissolves categorical imperatives and utilitarianism calculations alike. Once applied, the skeptical critique cannot be unlearned, leaving no moral absolutes, and morality merely becomes taste.

Secular readers scoff at the idea that God gave the tribe of Israel eternal moral truths codified as the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop in the Sinai desert millennia ago, or that Jesus Christ reiterated as the Son of God that we are to ‘love the neighbor as the self’ (Leviticus 19:18). Yet divine communications to the sages through the ages has had a huge impact on morality. Moral truths cannot be proven, but they resonate through our lives, since we always act or try to act as if they are true. As Rupert Shortt notes in God is No Thing (2017), “Christianity’s stress on the radical equality of all, and the founding of hospitals, schools and other philanthropic institutions, were [sic] genuinely revolutionary.”

A sailor was asked what the most important piece of equipment on a sailboat is. They replied “A good anchor!” When the wind blows hard in the wrong direction, you need a source of moral absolutes and a good anchor. And as Henry Bergson writes in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), “through religion all men get a little of what a few privileged souls possess in full.“

Carl Strasen, Petaluma, California

Guidelines ruling out negative behaviour between a society’s members, are justified and grounded both in practical considerations and in those one might call spiritual or emotional.

It is less likely people will respect you and seek to do you good if you do not respect them. It is therefore prudent to promote moral behaviour. But morality is of even more value when derived from virtue, that is, a genuine desire to benefit one’s fellow creatures. Practising benign emotions leads to happiness – your own or others’ – whereas the negative emotions, or indifference, lead to unhappiness through their harmful effects. And happiness gives purpose to life, being therefore rational. One can only either ‘just live’, or have a reason for living which one is seeking to actuate. So to live without a reason, a purpose, would be illogical. In fact only a lower organism could simply live. A fully conscious, sentient being would seek a purpose for living and identify it as emotional gratification. That gratification should include the uplifting feeling we experience when treated to the milk of human kindness, and the sense of wellbeing from knowing you have saved a life or done something to improve a life’s quality.

One might object that if happiness is the crucial thing, the virtues which promote it are devalued. But to think the virtues to be more important would be like maintaining that a paint brush mattered more than the painting it was used to create. This we don’t do; at most we will say that for practical purposes, the paint brush is as important as the picture, since you can’t have the picture without it. Admittedly not everyone behaves ethically from truly virtuous motives, rather than from pragmatic social conditioning, and some people are amoral or cruel. But this doesn’t invalidate the point that we have good reasons for behaving well.

Guy Blythman, Shepperton, Middlesex

I believe that the foundation and justification for morality is Guilt. The anticipation, avoidance and presence of guilt are the most constant single basis I can offer for morality. Guilt, as Heidegger might say, discloses itself to us ‘as is’.

In individual moral judgement, are we not trying to minimise guilt? ‘Did I do the right thing?’ can often be seen as,’ Am I guilty?’ And guilt can succeed where argumentation fails. Humans can reason themselves into awful things. Evil can be utterly calculated, and in this sense, rational, but no amount of reasoning or smooth-talking can cover our guilt at our own wrongdoing. When we try, anger and confusion overtake us.

Guilt comes from within, and that’s what grounds and justifies it. Facing someone we have wronged, or intend to wrong, may have no effect, or illicit an indignant rage. But guilt itself must be self-generated. Someone else cannot be guilty for us, and no one can confer guilt onto us. The justification for morals may be logical or traditional to others; but to us, if we feel guilty, then we cannot morally justify ourselves.

Morality is communal through guilt too. In Old English, ‘gilt’ was something’s price – what was owed for it – specifically, what was owed as a result of transgressions. This aspect to guilt, this feeling of ‘owing’, is necessary for moral justice. For justice to transcend mere force, the transgressor must feel contrite: they must feel guilty, and act accordingly. Moreover, morality must be reciprocal in a functioning community, and not only operate at the individual level. This feeling of ‘owing’ others for our wrongdoings provides us the image of justice as balanced scales. Punishment must function as a tool, the ends being the realisation of guilt in the subject and their desire to absolve it.

Do we not feel a bit revolted when someone, no matter how prosocial otherwise, is incapable of guilt, of remorse? True guilt is what tells us the person can be forgiven, that trust in them can be restored, and that they are moral.

Andrew Keiller, Angus, Scotland

Why should someone be moral if they know that by breaking the law they will be able to escape the consequences? If I’m sure that by robbing a bank I’ m going to get rich and that nobody’s going to arrest me, why wouldn’ t I? In the Republic, Plato says that even if they escape human law, an offender must face the possibility of punishment after death.

Some philosophers agree with Plato that when one follows the dictates of reason and conforms to the moral law, one acquires a form of inner harmony, a mental health that makes happy. Otherwise, inner imbalance makes one deeply unhappy. Aristotle for example considers that only by observing the moral law is a person led to happiness, as people reach their telos, completing the purpose for which they were created. So for Plato and Aristotle, moral behavior contributes to the life of humans in harmony with their inner world and their fellow human beings, identified with happiness or mental balance.

Morality also guards the coherence of societies, outside of which we cannot live. Selfish motives are not always predominant: very often there are positive feelings of compassion, sympathy and love towards others. This comes from a mental need for communication and solidarity amid the hard trials we face in life. This is the most essential answer to the question of why one should be moral.

Since we accept that we must maintain an moral attitude to life, we must consider the following principles. Any moral judgment has a practical character. In essence, it guides us on how we should act in our lives. Moral judgments are universal by nature. The same principles apply in similar circumstances, and to people with similar characteristics. In making and acting on moral judgments we must consider the rights and interests of other people, as our behavior always affects them too. We must understand certain values as essential components of justice; for example, the common good, impartiality, equal treatment, and respect for basic individual rights and freedoms. Finally, we must cultivate the virtues which will allow us to act correctly in situations of moral dilemmas.

Stylianos Smyrnaios, Crete

It’s actually two different questions. As far as what grounds morality: pretty much nothing. That’s the bad news, and why people feel so free to be so immoral. It’s the nihilistic perspective we all potentially share even if we resist or pose philosophical principles against it – principles that ultimately prove to be little more than human constructs based on assumptions that float on thin air or upon the underlying nothingness of things. The nihilistic perspective is why most of our discourses break down to basic assumptions that have nowhere to go and result in standoffs. Take, for instance, the debate over abortion, which always breaks down to arguments about when human life begins. I mean, to what criteria are we going to turn to adjudicate the argument? Nature? If we went by that criterion, we would still be primates guiltlessly killing anything inconvenient that didn’t belong to our immediate tribe. Maybe religion, then? After the Inquisition and the burning of supposed witches, we can all see where that can potentially lead.

The good news and upside of the nihilistic perspective is that there is nothing about nothing that requires a negative outcome. So while it might undermine any solid ground for embracing a given transcendental moral principle, nihilism also undermines any grounds for not embracing that principle! This allows for the pragmatic fallback of embracing it simply because it works better than not doing so. In other words: mere practicality justifies morality while not offering an ideological grounding for it that some potential despot might use to oppress others. This is why we have to practically embrace certain transcendental principles such as compassion, equality, liberty, and whatever respects the worth of the other, while taking the ironic stance of recognizing this acceptance for what it is: an attitude that just makes us feel better about being in the world.

D E Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What Is Time? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 13th February 2023. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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