Thursday, August 27, 2020

The coincidence between the right and the beneficial

One of the earliest and most important discoveries in Western philosophy was:

  1. Doing the right thing is sometimes bad for you (in non-moral ways).

This precludes any easy reduction of morality to self-interest. But at the same time, the philosophers could see that:

  1. Doing the right thing is usually good for you (even in non-moral ways).

This leads to an interesting problem that has occasionally been discussed, but not as much as one might hope:

  1. What explains why acting morally well tends to be good for you (even in non-moral ways).

Living in accordance with one’s conscience, while having that conscience be well-formed, tends to lead to a kind attractive happiness that we can often see in people. There is that smile which reflects both a kindliness of nature and an inner joy. Why is there this harmony between the right and the beneficial?

If we were non-realists about morality, we might give an evolutionary explanation: our moral beliefs evolved to benefit us. But if we are realists about morality, then that only makes it puzzling: why is it that the true moral beliefs are the ones that tend to benefit us?

Divine command ethics has a plausible story grounded in God’s loving desire that we live under moral rules that are good for us. Natural law ethics has a different story: our natures are harmonious, and hence the many ends we have are mutually supportive. That story, of course, only shifts the problem to the more general question of the mutual support of our ends, and I suspect that this more general question cannot be answered without bringing in theism, either by positing that God is more likely to instantiate harmonious natures or that because created natures are way of participating in the God whose inner life is a harmony of love, they tend to be (or maybe even all are) harmonious.


SMatthewStolte said...

Two vague thoughts that we could have before we pin down the specific moral system we are working in:

(1) It seems like morality (somehow) requires us to promote the happiness, either of other human beings or of our community or our own individual happiness. (Something like this seems to be held by most moral systems.) And since we are social animals, it should not be too surprising that the promotion of the kind of happiness we are required to promote is positively correlated with our own individual happiness.

(2) Most people seem to want there to be a positive correlation between doing the right thing and being rewarded for it. And human institutions are shaped, in large part, by what people want. So it should not be too surprising if the human institutions that develop over time tend to result in this positive correlation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good points!

Regarding (1), it's not clear to me that we should expect social animals to have a correlation between their own happiness and their promotion of the happiness of others, apart from some sort of a reward mechanism, whether social or evolutionary as per point (2). So I think (1) depends on something like (2).

I think both points depend on a connection between happiness and the right. On utilitarianism or rational egoism that connection is not at all surprising, but those theories are also clearly wrong. :-) But there are other, more plausible theories where that connection may not be that surprising.

I am personally inclined to find five moral theories most plausible: Kantianism, brute moral truths, atheistic natural law, theistic natural law, and divine command. Of these, the first three have trouble explaining the happiness-right connection.

danielm said...

> Doing the right thing is sometimes bad for you (in non-moral ways).

Presumably it would be more accurate to say that doing the right thing may have bad effects? I'm thinking in natural theoretic terms, specifically the principle of double effect. Following that reasoning, we must conclude that if any given act is ever the right thing to do, then it must also be good for us (or neutral), even if that good is not knowable through unaided reason. Otherwise, we would have no reason to believe that such an act is morally justified.

Given all that, if a nature entailed ends contrary to the good of the thing instantiating it, it would indeed introduce a disharmony into the thing. In some sense, vis-a-vis the good, it seems it would also be a vain end.

So could an argument be made that appeals to some contradiction between the good of the thing and the end opposed to it? I.e., could a nature even exist in the first place that contained such a contradiction? If we could make such an argument, it would seem that we wouldn't need to make direct appeals to God as guarantor of said harmony.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is true that doing the right thing is always good for us. But it is good for us *morally*. It might, however, be unhealthy, unpleasant, etc., and hence bad for us in other ways than morally.

Our various ends do in fact conflict. But not much! And that's what makes me think theism is needed. If there was zero conflict, it would be reasonable to say that some sort of logic of natures forbids conflict. But there is some.