Whence Morality?

Where does morality come from? I believe that there exists three possible vectors for morality in one of two categories—objective and subjective. Absolute objective morality derives from some single source outside of the subjective experience. Monotheistic religions have the propensity to adopt this ontology. Subjective morality is a human social construct and may be subdivided into logical and emotional subcategories. As a non-cognitivist, I feel that I am biased toward the emotional vector.

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In my view, emotion always proceeds logic. I’ve been told for as long as I remember that I am hyper-logical and can be as dispassionate as Mr Spock or the Data character from the Star Trek franchise. As an economist, I was trained to stand back and objectify problems. However, the impetus for attention in the first place is always emotional. Or at least I can claim it to be alogical or prelogical. Even so, there would be a chain of events that moved from prelogical to emotional to logical. One may claim that applying logic to 2 + 3 requires no emotional content, but this has been habituated. Neither is there emotion nor logic. It’s a simple rote recitation.

I am going to take literary licence and dismiss objective reality out of hand as excessively unlikely. I think it’s fair to categorise the logical view as Kantian. In this view, humans employed reason and I suppose a consequentialist framework to arrive at the notion that it just made sense to construct moral underpinnings. Of course, by the time of Kant, the Enlightenment was firmly afoot, so we could just borrow and advance the same moral notions. I feel he’d be OK accepting the claim that some classes, say religious, if we follow the money and power trail, and realised that they could exert control and manipulate the playing field if they were the arbiters of morality. I am neither a deeply-read Kant scholar nor an anthropologist, but this is how I see it.

I feel that the emotional impetus for morality might best be characterised by David Hume. In his view, morals would have been made on sentiment and empathy. Then they were interpreted and amended by different cultures and societies. I feel this adjustment is actually the logical element in play.

Fundamentally, animals want a sense of fairness. This is well-documented even in monkeys, so morals are an attempt to codify fairness and fair outcomes. Of course, fairness means different things to different people, so that makes for an unstable foundation. I think Nietzsche takes a more instrumental stance but would side more with Kant with the addition of the power plays that caught Foucault’s attention in the last century.

I’ve shared my perspective here several times. As a non-cognitivist—in the manner of Ayer, Stephenson, and Hare—, morals are entirely emotive responses that then become prescriptive as a template for a civil society. However, as Nietzsche points out in Genealogy of Morals, this template is on the one hand not neutral and, on the other hand, applied differently to different cohorts.

This is not an attempt to provide a deep discourse on morality. Rather, it is just documenting my current perspective on a yet unresolved topic. I’m not sure there that the Kantian or Humean perspective will be the definitive answer. Evolutionary biologists have been tossing their proposals in the hat, but I don’t think we’ll ever get beyond speculation and opinion. This reflects mine.

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