At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”
It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.
I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.
I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.
As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.
He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.
As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.
Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.
In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.
This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.
I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.