School teachers, preachers, parents, and even a few philosophers often claim to be authorities on the dictates of morality. But where does morality really come from?
posted by Alex Miller
During the program on Sunday July 1st I drew a distinction between two ways in which this question might be taken. First, we could take it as a question about the *causal origin* of morality: how does it originate? (Compare: where did Stonehenge come from? This would be answered by telling a story about how those prehistoric people managed to get those huge stones from the west of Wales to Salisbury Plain). This is an interesting question, but I suspect that it is not quite the question that philosophers have in mind when they discuss the issue. The answer about causal origin is presumably that morality comes from *us*, or from the way we have evolved through history, or something roughly along those lines. However, philosophers are interested less in the empirical-cum-anthropological question about the causal origins of morality (which is not to say that it is uninteresting) and more in the question about the source of the *authority* of morality. Given that morally right actions are the actions that we ought to perform, what grounds this “ought”? One answer would be that the authority of morality stems from the fact that right actions are, by definition, the acts that God approves of. If being kind to Granny Smith is approved of by God, then it is no wonder that I ought to be kind to Granny Smith, no wonder, in other words, that the prescription to be kind to Granny Smith is authoritative. God, the supreme authority, approves of it, so what more could you want by way of a ground for the authority of the claim that you ought to help her?
This is the kind of story about the source of morality’s authority that many philosophers consider to have been destroyed by the argument that Socrates gives in Plato’s dialogue *Euthyphro*. In that dialogue, Euthyphro claims that the rightness of right acts consists in the fact that they are approved by God: by definition, an act is right if and only if it is approved by God. I take it that an updated version of the argument Plato has Socrates deliver against this suggestion goes something like this. God is supposed to be omnibenevolent as well as omniscient and omnipotent: in other words, he’s supposed to be infinitely good in addition to being infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely powerful. But what is it for an agent to be good? An agent is good if they do the right thing *because* it is right: if you are kind to Granny Smith because you want to be left a large sum of money in her will, that is not the action of a good person. A good person, therefore, is a person who performs right acts for the right sorts of reasons. And now for the killer blow against Euthyphro. If being right consists in being approved by God, if being right is by definition a matter of being approved by God, then the claim that e.g.
(*) God approves of kindness because it is right
becomes empty of all content. Since being right consists in being approved by God (*) turns out to be an empty truism along the lines of
(**) God approves of kindness because God approves of kindness.
On Euthyphro’s position we thus lose the capacity to hold on to claims like (*). And if we lose the capacity to hold on to claims like (*) we lose the idea that God is good, because being good is a matter of doing the right things (or at least approving of the right things) because they are right. And if we lose the claim that God is good, we lose the claim that God is omnibenevolent, or infinitely good. So, in conclusion, in order to retain Ethyphro’s theory according to which being good consists in being approved by God, we would have to see God as an essentially *amoral* agent, an agent who may well approve of the tings that are right, but not *because* they are right.
So, God is of no help to us if we are seeking to answer the question “Where Does Morality Come From?” construed as a question about the source of morality’s authority. If we are to make a serious attempt at accounting for the authority of morality we have to jettison God, and for all intents and purposes restrict ourselves to the sorts of materials that would be acceptable to an atheist.
How about this. Right actions are those that tend to promote the well-being of sentient creatures, taking into account values such as integrity, veracity, impartiality, and so on.
Suppose that if I’m kind to Granny Smith her well being will be promoted: she’ll feel less lonely, for example. Suppose also, that my being kind to Granny Smith does not involve my lying to her or to anyone else, does not involve any violation of anyone’s integrity, and is not performed at the expense of anyone else’s well-being, and so on.
So being kind to Granny Smith promotes her well being in an acceptable sort of way. That’s why I ought to be kind to her. No God involved there. So why isn’t this a plausible story about the source of morality’s authority?
Note that the authority of morality doesn’t depend on us, in the sense that whether being kind to Granny promotes her well being and so on is independent of whether I *think* that it promotes her well being (and probably also independent of whether *she* thinks that it promotes her well being).
So, as far as questions of causal origin are concerned, morality at least partially depends on us. As far as questions of authority are concerned, the authority of morality is tied up with the effects things have on us, because the effects things have on us can crucially affect our well being. But this doesn’t mean that it is up to us whether a particular act or course of action is right or wrong, because it isn’t just up to us whether a particular act or course of action affects our well being.
Some good introductory level books on related themes:
Simon Blackburn *Being Good* (Oxford: OUP 1999).
Russ Schafer-Landau *Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?* (New York: OUP 2004).
Michael Parenti *The Culture Struggle* (Seven Stories Press 2006)
Parenti’s book is more on politics than philosophy, but his chapters on cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are excellent. He'd be a great guy to have on Philosophy Talk!