The Universality of Morality

So, I’ve been working my way through Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and while I’m not going to quote it, at one point he essentially argues that morality cannot be based on personal preference or interest because that would make moral principles individual instead of universal. They would depend on the individual and not on a universal principle that everyone could accept and believe in. Now after my discussions with Coel, I suspect the response from him and from a number of others who favour relativism would be to dismiss this as a circular argument: Kant thinks that morality must be universal, and so at least dismisses some options on the basis that their answers would make morality not universal. But I think this does tie in to a deeper notion, and that Kant’s statement would spawn this response pretty much explains why they don’t get what objectivists are worried about, even after they tell them about it over and over again, which inspires them to make up lots of psychological reasons for the objectivist stance that have nothing to do with their main concern, which is this:

These systems make it so that there cannot be any universal moral principles at all, but morality seems to be all about universal principles.

Think about this example: murder. If the morality of murder is based on a calculation of personal interest, then you can never say that murder is just plain and simply morally wrong. Worse, the morality of murder would be based on whether or not the person has correctly calculated whether committing that murder will benefit them or not. Thus, if someone is contemplating murdering someone, the onus will be on them to prove that it really will benefit them to commit that murder. They will have to outline the benefits they will get from that murder and show that they can get away with it, or that whatever punishment they will receive will be outweighed by those benefits. These … do not seem like moral calculations at all. In fact, looking back at how morality has been used for the thousands of years that we have been aware of it, it seems like morality’s main use is to avoid everything devolving to those sorts of calculations. But reducing morality to personal interest must lead to those sorts of calculations. This is a prime reason to reject Ethical Egoism: it cannot help but reduce moral calculations about the things that we instinctively consider the most heinous to “Does it benefit me and can I get away with it?”, which doesn’t seem like morality at all.

Now, relativists will be quick to point out that Ethical Egoism is not a relativistic morality. But not only does any kind of relativism leave the door open for someone to about that as their moral stance, their view has arguably even worse consequences on that score. We think that morality, in general, is a calculation so that everyone in the same situation will come up with the same answer. So if we are going to differentiate between simply killing someone and committing a murder, we will all come up with the same answer if we are placed in the same situation. Relativism abandons that, so if we place a different person in the same situation the morality of the action may change. It may become murder depending on the view of the person placed in that situation. This makes the use of morality for any external purpose unworkable. You cannot insist that what the person did — or wanted to do — is murder based only on your opinion that it would be murder. If they disagree, you need some kind of objective criteria by which you can convince them they are wrong, and that sort of criteria is exactly what relativists deny we have.

If morality is to be a shared judgement, then we need some sort of shared or objective criteria to make that judgement on, which relativists deny we have. But if it’s just to be a personal judgement, then we cannot share it and so cannot shame or punish others for lacking it or having made the “wrong” judgement. In both cases, we end up with a view of morality that seems totally unlike what morality is as we know of it and care about it. It is, in my view, supremely difficult for relativists to come up with a relativistic view of morality that either doesn’t smuggle in objective judgements or become a morality that no one has any real reason to care about if we actually all took it seriously and made the societal morality that sort of morality.

But in musing on this, I also returned to another point that I had made, which leads to the idea of universality: one of the key capabilities required for morality is the ability to sacrifice your own personal interests for some sort of higher principle. Human beings are possibly the only species that is capable of doing this, and morality, as noted above, is all about choosing to be moral regardless of your own personal interest. This is arguably the main if not only purpose for morality: to constrain our acting on our personal interest in favour of acting on moral principles. So we cannot be capable of morality until we are capable of doing this.

This gives us at least one a priori reason, then, for acting on morality if we could figure out what it is … or, at least, for rejecting the idea that we shouldn’t act on morality because it doesn’t benefit us personally. We would be rejecting one of the main capabilities that sets human beings apart from lifeforms that are not as cognitively advanced as ourselves for … what? A little extra pleasure? How sad would someone have to be to indeed reduce themselves to animals by rejecting outright the idea that we can act for principles that stand above our own personal self-interest. And many of those who push for these lines are atheists, and they insist that we don’t need a purpose designed into us by God, but instead can find our own purpose for life. How sad for them if the only purpose they can come up with is personal self-interest. If you ever are willing to sacrifice your own interests for a principle greater than yourself, then you are capable of desiring morality as a principle greater than yourself, which is what we consider morality to be.

So this, I think, disposes of the requirement that morality must motivate you in terms of personal interest. We are capable of valuing things other than our own personal interest and valuing those things more than we value our own personal interest. We need no contorted explanations for why those things really are in our personal interest to value them. We are capable of valuing them for what they are in themselves without having to justify them on the basis of personal benefit.

So the question “Why should we be moral?” does not mean “How does it benefit me personally to be moral?”. Instead, it really boils down to this: “Why should morality be one of those principles that I value above my own personal interest?”. We all tend to presume that it should be and that that’s how it works intuitively — yes, even most relativists — but there are a number of such principles and morality is, it is argued, one of them. Why should we choose that one, or add it to the list?

I think that recasting the question in this way could be quite productive in help us come up with what morality really is. We would no longer be rejecting moral systems on the basis of “I don’t want to do it”, but instead on the basis that they are not sufficient for a principle that we can hold above personal interest. As already noted, Ethical Egoisms are eliminated out of hand, as is one of the more common arguments from relativism. It also places morality in the company of things like patriotism or love, which are analyzed quite a bit differently than psychological or behavioural mechanisms aimed at another end. And it seems to me that if we look at those other principles we can see that morality is above them because we can ask for all of them “Is my patriotism moral?” and note that we can achieve those things morally or immorally … and that the pursuit of a higher principle in an immoral ways seems to cheapen and corrupt that higher principle, making our attainment of it tainted and unsatisfying. We would not find that acting morally but unpatriotically would taint our patriotism, and might indeed insist that patriotism achieved immorally is no patriotism at all. We do not, however, judge morality on the basis of how patriotic it is.

To the extent that we are capable of acting for principles above and beyond our own personal interest, morality must be seen as being in the category of those principles. And since we tend to judge all of those other principles by how moral our methods for achieving them are and at least always put our satisfaction from them at risk if we believe they were attained immorally, it seems like morality is the highest of these higher principles. Since all higher principles will be objective and universal in important ways — at least in us being able to recognize what they are — this puts the relativists back on their heels. Either they reduce morality to personal interest or something akin to it which is completely at odds with how we view morality, or else they have to show how a higher principle is nevertheless relativistic. Neither seem like very good prospects.

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