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Last night, I gave a talk to the Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub with fellow ATP writer, Alan Duval. We had a great time and I can’t thank Pompey Skeptics enough (especially as they donated all proceeds to my appeal – totally brilliant of them). It was great to meet Phil Rimmer, a commenter here at ATP, who came down to see the talk. Awesome, and just a shame the venue closed after the talk and we couldn’t grab a beer! Damn!

The talk consisted of Alan and me splicing our views over an hour, talking about the different philosophical approaches to morality (as in the big three: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics) and how these translate into psychology.

We first talked about building philosophical frameworks up from the bottom rather than top-down, as I set out here. This means working out what the basic building bricks of philosophical ideas are. In other words, what are abstract ideas? As per my personhood talk and views, it comes down to expounding conceptual nominalism. Abstract ideas only exist in our heads. Without any sentient life forms on earth, the ideas of a hero or a chair, or indeed morality, would die. They do not exist outside of our minds.

Don’t worry, God doesn’t help here since claiming God solves the problem simply moves abstracta into another mind, the mind of God.

Excuse the missing brick.

Given this, and showing the strengths and weaknesses of all the big three, we concluded that the big three, on their own and individually, don’t really cover the necessary ground, although they have their functional use. From an action point of view, consequentialism does seem to have a benefit of having a non-derivative value currency in some kind of satisfaction / happiness / pleasure / lack of pain. This is a decent axiom from which we can start. Happiness is self-evidently good, it seems. But as a whole system, it’s still not perfect.

Alan, in looking at the work of Schwarz, Maslow and Kohlberg, equated each philosophical outlook with a psychological and moral development in people, as you can see above.

In the meantime, we dismissed Divine Command Theory and Natural Law (upheld by various theists) and established how psychology could account for these moral systems from an individual and then societal point of view.

A more complex form of which can be seen here:

I really like the way it fits into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

We look at individual actions, learn from them, and formulate rules that knit together societies. When these work well, they allow for safety and security, out of which blossoms self-actualisation.

In a sense, this doffs a cap to Richard Carrier and others who have said that consequentialism derives to deontology, deontology to consequentialism, and both to virtue ethics. See Carrier’s excellent piece: “Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same“.

On Carrier’s piece is the following image:

My conclusions, in general, were:

  • Morality does not exist outside of our minds
  • We construct it with a psychology evolved to fit our environment
  • …both the physical and the social
  • Morality is built on intentions, empathy and rationality
  • …and good knowledge of the world
  • But, there is no perfect model, so there are grey areas.
  • Animals have it to differing degrees.
  • It is evolutionarily beneficial – empathy, consolation, prosocial tendencies, reciprocity and fairness
  • In order to set out a moral framework, you need to carefully set out a goal, a vision for the world

That covers a lot of ground. The last bit is important. I have often said the following:

So, what is an ought? Well, oughts should be seen in their larger context. All too often, we use language sloppily in a way that we take linguistic shortcuts. For example, if I say “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” then most people understand what I mean by implication and inference. This this is actually an apodosis, the part of a conditional sentence that usually starts with then. The problem is, we are missing the protasis, which is the first part of the conditional sentence that usually starts with an if. This is because we are clever enough to make the correct inference and work out what the speaker is meaning.

However, if we were being specific and accurate, we would include the protasis. In this case, the protasis would be “If I want my car engine to work well, then I ought to change the oil in my car engine.” Without the protasis, the sentence “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” is essentially meaningless. This is because you can place anything as the protasis and completely change the overall meaning of the sentence or, indeed, render the apodosis incorrect. In this case, if I said “If, as a scientist, I am testing how well engines work without oil in them” then adding the apodosis, “then I ought to change the oil in the car engine” will not make sense, and the whole sentence is problematic.

Thus the point to make here is that, although we often do it and can make sense of it, if we are to be precise, then we should always include the protasis in a conditional statement.

The problem is that when we make moral proclamations involving prescriptive morality concerning the world, that one should do such and such, then we often miss out the protasis. The statement is oddly devoid of a goal. If we want this kind of world to eventualise or maintain, then we should do X. All too often, we hear “You should do X” devoid of any clear idea of what the goal actually is.

The first step in working out a sound moral framework is to work out the sort of world you want to live in, a process itself laden with moral dimensions. Then you will start constructing morality that will eventually look like the sort of pyramid set out above, if it is successful. Morality is one of those tools that regulates social interactions and is functionally necessary for social beings to create communities and societies.

End result? We both had a great time, stimulating a fabulous Q & A (my normal favourite part where we go round the houses talking about anything. In fact, it was suggested a bring a talk where I have no talk, and we just do a massive Q & A!). Thanks to organisers and all who came, and very much to Alan for making a great double team.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...