Moral doubts - 2018-11-16

modified 2018-11-20

I rashly decided to read a book on meta-ethics and fell back into a state of moral doubt.

I don’t think all that many people actually sit down to work out what the correct ethical system is. I imagine that I am in the minority. I am the sort of person who will change their behavior if I read an argument that convinces me of the morality of a particular behaviour.

In the past, I considered utilitarianism to be correct. I am not sure exactly why, I did not write down my reasoning. Looking back at past writings, I seem somewhat unsure and often wrote things like “Assuming utilitarianism is correct..”.

I found this note in my review of Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for example:

Utilitarianism is based on care/harm however. If there are many moral foundations as Haidt suggests, then does this invalidate utilitarianism? Assuming we are trying to capture human values in a consistent system of morality, should we not try to incorporate all the foundations?

One could say that, since care/harm seems to be universal (all cultures recognize this moral foundation) and the first acquired foundation (children recognize harm as immoral before other foundations), might it not still make sense to prioritize care/harm?


It looks like I can see an argument for a morality based on harm to be correct still, but is this not just rationalization on my part again? Many progressives seem to put equality above care (ie. they seem to want equality more than growth, if growth would result in increased inequality), this is a common moral foundation, I have no objective basis to say it is wrong, and we end up right back at the beginning. Of course, I should not have expected thinking about moral intuitions to simply pop out an objective moral system!

Despite this uncertainty, I felt utilitarianism was probably correct, became vegetarian and increased charitable donations. I used this utilitarian framework when considering the morality of situations I encountered in life or when judging the choices of others.

As I started to think about morality again (always a bad idea) and doubts started to bubble up, my first thought was “oh no, do I have to start eating meat again?”. As always, it comes down to the fact that morality is not routed in reality. The is-ought problem. The issue of how do we get from ‘the world is like X’ to ‘therefore.. you must do Y’. I have never seen a good argument that managed this feat, I do not see how it would even be possible to manage. I just read Rand’s “The virtue of selfishness” in which she claims to dissolve the is-ought paradox. After trying and failing to grasp her argument, I found myself moving towards moral nihilism again. Error theory. “There is no morality, quick, kill thy neighbor!” territory.

There seem to be a few common way of living (not normative theories, there are far more of those):

In the absence of a good reason to choose 3, it seems like the rational choice would be to live according to 2. Might there be some unpalatable consequence that stems from this choice? Possibly, but it seems less likely than the usual issues with utilitarianism, since egoism is based on my own desires in the first place, so if the is a state of the world that I would prefer, then egoism would cause me to try to bring about that state. This seems robust at first glance.

Why should I beggar myself to help the poor, after all. What justification is there, other than my belief in utilitarianism? If it is not possible to falsify utilitarianism, then how can I be sure that it is correct? If I have no way of knowing it is correct, then why would I accept a theory that causes me to be worse off? Surely rational egoism is better. The consequentialism of self-interest. One can’t get better than that, by definition.

Of course this does not imply selfishness in the usual sense of the word, for example I desire that poverty end, animals not be tortured, people have full and happy lives, therefore I may align myself with utilitarians in many cases, however I am not morally bound to be altruistic to the point of giving all my money to the poor, as I believe I would be under utilitarianism.

As the stoics teach us, the good life is a virtuous life, I agree, based on anecdotal evidence from my own life, that I am more happy (tricky word that) when I feel I am living virtuously – ie. doing good for others, being productive, being a good father, etc. It is therefore rational for me to have these preferences over pure pleasure-seeking (ie. this is not hedonistic self-interest).

The big difference is that utilitarianism entails sometimes acting out of duty, even if I know it harms my own self interest.

To say that egoism is the best way to satisfy my interests is a tautology though. It is not a normative claim. Is it immoral to behave against my own self interest? No. It is irrational. What I am espousing is not ‘ethical egoism’ or ‘objectivism’ which seem to claim that it is a moral imperative to serve my own self interest, instead I am just rejecting all ethical claims (ie. rational egoism not ethical egoism).

On the other hand, psychological egoism (the idea that people act always in their own interest) seems to go too far. Clearly, people do act out of duty all the time, although it is an exception rather than the rule (this is apparently called predominant egoism – based on all these names it seems I am retreading a well-worn path here!)

Ok, so then what? Might it still be useful to push utilitarianism in the world as it is? Probably, yes. If more people were utilitarians the world would undoubtedly become more like my preferred one. In this way, utilitarianism is instrumentally useful.

Oh no! Might philosophers all be in on this? Maybe Singer is a moral nihilist who is simply using his influence to try and make the world better for his own selfish means.

This actually seems likely! (30% that at least one influential philosopher this century pretends to be utilitarian despite being a moral nihilist because they believe it will result in a better world, which is what they desire. Damn egoists.)