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Letting go of Intuition: An Essay on How we Ought to Understand Morality

Updated on March 20, 2012

Letting Go Of Intuition

1. Introduction
The purpose of this paper is to argue against robust moral realism. To do that, we must first define what exactly robust moral realism is. Robust moral realism is the claim that there are objective facts about morality. Robust moral realism also claims that these facts are mind-independent, meaning that morals are not dependant on our feelings or interests or anything else inside of us, but are rather a part of the nature of the universe. Under this theory, moral principles could be likened to scientific facts. According to robust moral realism, we can use reason and experimentation to discover the facts about morality much in the same way that we use reason and experimentation to discover that e=mc^2.

I intend to argue that it is unlikely that the claims of this version of moral realism are true. While there would seem to be a lot of common sense behind the claim that morality consists of objective facts, I will argue that this claim is subject to many criticisms, many of which are based on the works of John Mackie. I will start by considering one of the most popular arguments for robust moral realism: the argument that our shared intuitions about morality suggest that robust moral realism is true. Finally, I will argue that if the claims of robust moral realism were false, our intuitions about morality could still be explained by evolutionary pressures and natural selection.

II. The Argument from Intuition
I'd like to start by examining one of the most widely used arguments in favor of robust moral realism. A commonly given reason to believe robust moral realism is true is that most people naturally think of morality as consisting of objective principles. We seem to be making statements of fact when we make moral judgments. When we say that something is immoral, we don't generally mean that it is bad for society, or that we dislike it, or that we find it cruel. We say that some things simply are wrong. This kind of language seems to imply that we are making statements of fact. While individuals and societies disagree about what makes an action moral or immoral, almost every individual or society would agree that there are certain objective moral truths. If so many of us naturally think about morality in terms of objective facts, it would seem to indicate that morality probably does consist of objective facts.

III. Arguments against Moral Realism

However, before we depend on our intuitions as a source of knowledge, no matter how strong or widespread they might be, we must first assess how reliable they are. Part of this is recognizing that our intuitions are very susceptible to our personal biases. For example, consider the first century of the history of the United States. For most of this time, many Americans believed that it was perfectly acceptable to enslave or discriminate against other humans simply because of the color of their skin. Of course, they had no rational reason to believe this. However, they did have a very strong, unexamined intuition. To them, the value of a human being was intrinsically linked to their race. It was taken as a given. While a handful of people did propose a few quasi-scientific and rather laughable theories that attempted to show the superiority of the white race, most of them simply assumed that because they shared such a strong intuition, it must be true. They never considered that they might think that way because of cultural influences or social pressures. If they had examined all the possible reasons for their shared intuition, early American history may have been very different.

I bring this up not to compare robust moral realism to racism, but rather to make a point: we can't be sure of our intuitions unless we carefully consider all the possible explanations as to why we have them. So, let's consider our shared intuition that morality consists of objective facts. The first explanation as to why we have this intuition is that there actually are objective moral facts about the world. While this hypothesis would definitely explain why we share this intuition, there are some problems with it. In the book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong John Mackie makes an argument against robust moral realism called the argument from queerness, which is divided into two parts. Because I believe his arguments are strong, I'd like to go over them now.

The first part of Mackie's argument notes that our conception of moral properties, of right and wrong, are very different from other properties in the world. If we say that an action is moral, we aren't referring to any measurable physical properties of the action, but we still seem to be referring to some sort of objective property. Then, the question is, if the properties of moral rightness and moral wrongness exist, what exactly are they and where do they come from? Modern science is aware of two main classes of things in the universe: matter and energy. It's very difficult to conceive of any possible combination of matter or energy that could somehow form moral properties. So, if moral properties do not consist of energy or matter, and if moral properties do exist, they must be something incredibly different from anything else in the known universe. While this does not necessarily disprove moral realism, it does show that if robust moral realism is true, then our understanding of the natural world must be flawed, or at the very least, terribly incomplete.

The second part of Mackie's argument from queerness comes in the form of a question. If these moral properties do exist, how can we be aware of them? Generally, we become aware of things through our five senses, all of which perceive physical properties of things. However, a moral property is not a physical property. We can't look at an action and see that it is right or wrong. Nor could we determine the rightness of an action by smelling it, listening to it, tasting it, or touching it. So in order for us to be aware of moral properties, we would need some very strange kind of way of perceiving them, different from how we perceive everything else in the world. Again, this doesn't necessarily disprove moral realism, but it does show that if we accept moral realism, we must also accept some very strange consequences that would seem to undermine our understanding of the natural world.

In addition to Mackie's argument from queerness, there is also the problem of evidence. When it comes to robust moral realism, there is no physical evidence to support it, a fact which I believe should make us skeptical of the theory. However, to be fair, it's important to note that many philosophers would argue that moral properties are not the kinds of things that would have physical evidence. Many philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant, believe that the objectivity of morals can be proven by reason alone, without the aid of physical evidence. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this paper to outline and discuss Kant's argument and others like it.

IV. Evolutionary Pressures as an Alternative Explanation for our Moral Sentiments
Now, I would like to consider an objection that a robust moral realist might make to Mackie's argument from queerness. If Mackie is right in saying that there are no objective facts about morality, where do our moral intuitions come from? If there aren't objective facts about morality, why is this belief so widespread?

One possible explanation for our moral intuitions is that they are products of evolution and natural selection. But what evidence do we have for this explanation? Admittedly, it would be near-impossible to find any physical evidence of such a thing. However, we do know that traits which make their possessors more likely to survive are also the ones that are most likely to be passed down. Therefore, if it can be shown that having the intuition that there are objective moral facts about right and wrong, as robust moral realism claims, it could provide an explanation as to why we naturally consider some actions to be morally right or wrong in an objective sense.

Let's consider early humans. Like us, in comparison to other animals, they weren't very strong, they weren't very fast, and they didn't have powerful claws or teeth. Physically, they were pretty unremarkable. Their strongest assets were their intellect and their ability to cooperate. Early humans that could rely on one another for protection, food and other resources were the ones that were most likely to survive. So, if a moral sense would have helped early humans cooperate with each other, it would have also probably helped them survive. How might having the intuition that there are objective moral facts have helped early humans cooperate and survive?

Group cooperation is kind of like a contract in which all the members of the group agree to help one another in times of need. For example, if a wild animal attacks a member of the group, or if someone is unable to find food, the group will step in to help the person that needs it. That way, they serve as a kind of insurance policy for one another. They can make minor sacrifices that will have major benefits for their group-mates knowing that their group-mates will later do the same in return. That way, everyone gets a pretty large net benefit.

However, there's a catch. This system needs a lot of trust in order to work because it requires every member of the group to make sacrifices in the present in order to get a better pay off in the future; and that future pay off is uncertain unless you have very good reason to believe that other members of the group will keep their end of the bargain. If every individual in the group is only looking out for their own welfare, if they don't feel any guilt about letting other members of the group suffer and die, some individuals could easily choose not to hold up their end of the contract whenever it would be in their perceived benefit not to. For example, an individual might refuse to help a group-mate fight off a wild animal because he knows he might get hurt if he joins in the fight and believes that he will probably not need the help of the group-mate that is in danger. As more people refuse to hold up their end of the bargain it becomes riskier and riskier for any individual to honor the contract because their present sacrifice is giving them a smaller chance of getting a future payoff. This in turn makes more people less likely to enter into the contract, which then makes the contract riskier, etc. Eventually, the contract falls apart and the group loses this net benefit of cooperation.

However the idea that there are certain objective moral facts would have given these kinds of contracts better odds of survival. For example, let's consider our shared intuition that it is wrong not to help others when they are in need. If we were in a position that we could help someone who really needed help and failed to do so, we would feel that we've done something wrong, and would thus feel guilty. Likewise, if we saw someone do something like refuse to save a drowning person because they didn't want to get their sleeve wet, we'd be pretty outraged. If this same kind of thinking, this idea that it is objectively right to preserve human life, was present in early groups of humans, it would have made prolonged cooperation almost inevitable. When any individual had to make the choice of whether or not to put themselves at risk to help another person, they would have had reason to do so, not only because they would probably later get help in return, but also because it is something that they believe to be morally right, which is a very powerful motivator.

So, if it's true that prolonged cooperation would have made our ancestors more likely to survive and if it’s also true that believing in objective moral principles, such as helping other humans in need, would have made prolonged cooperation more likely to occur, it would also be true that having moral principles would have helped our ancestors survive. If having moral principles would have helped early humans survive, it’s probable that this trait would have spread by the process of natural selection and survived into the present day.
However, before I move onto the conclusion of my paper, I would like to consider an objection to my claim that the intuition that there are objective moral facts could have resulted from the process of natural selection. So far, I have argued that having moral concerns for one another could have helped groups of early humans survive. However, what about individuals? Isn't it possible that certain individuals could fail to believe in objective moral principles, and actually increase their chance of survival by taking advantage of those who do?

I do believe that it's very likely that many individuals increased their chance of survival in this way. However, I also believe that in most situations, it would benefit almost any individual more to follow the moral codes of the group. If most individuals in the group believe that there is something objectively right about certain rules, it then follows that they should try to get others to follow them too. So, if one of our ancestors had done something that broke the moral code, say harming another person, the group would likely have punished him in some way as to provide an incentive for others to refrain from similar behavior in the future. In this situation, if an individual tried to take advantage of the group without making any sacrifices of his own, he might end up injured, exiled, or even killed.

V. Conclusion and an Objection
So far, I have argued that the claim of robust moral realism that morality consist of objective facts is unlikely to be true because if we accept this, then we must also accept very strange things about the natural world and the way we interact with it. The claims of moral realism are also in jeopardy because one of the most popular arguments in their favor, the argument from intuition, fails to prove that that morality consists of objective facts as our intuitions about morality can be explained by evolutionary pressures. Now, I would like to end the essay by considering one final objection to my claim that robust moral realism is wrong in claiming there are objective facts about morality.

The objection goes something like this. If it's true that there are no objective moral facts, then what separates evil acts like murder and torture from altruistic acts that involve helping others? If there are no morals, why not do whatever we like, even if it means harming others or blatantly ignoring human suffering?

I think the answer to that question lies in the moral philosophy of David Hume. Because of time restraints, it would be impossible to do justice to Hume's work on ethics, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. However, the main idea of his work is fairly simple. According to Hume, reasons to act morally towards one another do not come from anything outside of ourselves, but rather from our sentiments. We have reason to act morally towards one another simply because we value the lives and the happiness of other people. If the happiness of others is important to us, we therefore have reason to act in such a way that will promote the happiness of other people. Under Hume's theory of ethics as well as other similar theories, morality can be explained and the rightness of acting morally can be argued for in the absence of objective principles of right and wrong.


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