Friday, August 28, 2020

The inhumanity problem for morality

When a state legislates, it often carves out very specific exceptions to the legislation. Sometimes, of course, one is worried that the exceptions are a sign that the legislators are pursuing special interests rather than the common good, but sometimes the exceptions are quite reasonable. For instance, you shouldn’t possess child pornography… except, say, if you are involved in the law enforcement process and need it as evidence to get the child pornographers. There is something ugly about carving out exceptions, but the point is to make society work well rather than make the laws elegant. Special-case clauses seem to be unavoidable in practice, given the messiness and complexity of human life. Elegant exceptionless legislation—with some important exceptions!—is apt to be inhuman.

I kind of wonder if an analogous thing might not be true in the case of morality, and for the same reason, the messiness and complexity of human life. Could it be that elegant exceptionless moral laws would necessarily have to be inhuman?

What solutions are available to this problem?

Well, we might just dig in our heels, either optimistically or pessimistically.

The optimistic version says: yes, we have elegant exceptionless moral laws, and they do work well for us. One way of running the optimistic variant is to make the moral laws leave a lot to human positive law. Thus, there are going to be exceptions to any prohibition of theft, but perhaps morality leaves the specification of this to the state. Or perhaps one could be really optimistic and have moral laws that do not leave a lot to positive law, but nonetheless they work. Act utilitarianism could be thought to provide this kind of solution, having a simple rule “Maximize utility!”, but its problem is that this rule is just wrong. Rule utilitarianism provides a nicer solution by having the elegant meta-rule “Do those things that fall under a utility-maximizing rule”, but I think the technical details here are insuperable.

The pessimistic variant says: yes, we have elegant exceptionless moral laws, and we’re stuck with that, even though it doesn’t work that great for us. That might be a better way to take act utilitarianism, but such pessimism is not a very attractive approach.

But what if we don’t want to dig in our heels? One could think that there are just brute (perhaps metaphysically necessary) facts about the moral rules, and many of these brute facts have specific exceptions: “Don’t lie, except to save a life or to prevent torture.” I think bruteness, and especially inelegant bruteness, is a last resort.

One might think that moral particularism is a solution: there are general elegant moral laws, but they all have unspecified exceptions. They say things like: “Don’t torture, other things being equal.” There is still a fact of the matter as to what to do in a particular situation, a fact that a virtuous agent may be able to discern, but these facts cannot be formulated in a general way, because any finite description of the particular situation will leave out factors that could in some other case trump the described considerations. There are exceptionless moral rules on such a view, but they are infinite in length. Unless some story is given as to where these infinite rules come from, this seems like it might be just an even worse version of the brute fact story.

Divine command theory, on the other hand, could provide a very nice solution to the problem, exactly analogous to the legislative solution. If God is the author of moral laws, he can legislate: “Thou shalt not kill, except in cases of types A, B and C.”

Natural law could also provide such a solution, at least given theism: God could select for instantiation a nature that has a complex teleology with various specific exceptions.

Where do I fall? I think I want to hold out for a two-level theistic natural law story. On one level, there is a simple, single and elegant moral rule embedded in our nature: “Love everything!” However, the content of that love is specified in a very complex way by our nature and by the circumstances (love needs to be appropriate to the specifics of the relationships). This specification is embedded in our nature by much more complex rules. And God chose this nature for instantiation because it works so well.

1 comment:

Philip Rand said...

Natural Law is an oxymoron, i.e. bad men ruled by good laws...ridiculous...