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Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Anyone who's read moral philosophy will notice that, apart from some fringe philosophers like Peter Singer, the basis that most people use for whether or not someone or something deserves moral consideration is rationality. A general version of the theory, on some level, goes like this: to be a moral actor, one has to have the ability to elect to take some actions and not others. If one is confined to a specific set of actions, and they cannot choose between other actions, then we as a society find it very difficult to ascribe 'fault' to someone. On some level, 'fault' is inextricably tied up in the notion of choice. Of course there are more specific theories - utilitarianism would suggest that one needs to choose the most 'utile' path, social contract theories (take your pick) talk about an individual's need to contract into a set of social rules, and so on and so forth.

The more I think about it, though, the more I have a problem with choice being used as a basis for any important moral calculus. First of all, 'choice' is a very poorly understood phenomenon. The philosophically elucidated process by which a person comes to a choice is, at the least, implied as thus: situation arises, person evaluates the various courses of action and inaction according to whatever moral rubrik, and then the philosophy would suggest that one of the courses of action is preferable to the others based on the tenets of said philosophy.

This is, needless to say, not how the vast majority of people make decisions.

But maybe a philosopher would say that people should choose this way. There are a couple things there. First, this process is automatically flawed. Apart from common objections like information asymmetry, just biologically, it's not particularly clear that people are capable of making choices via rational, objective consideration. There are studies that have been done which would suggest that people's rationality doesn't even work as a way to make decisions - it exists as a way to justify decisions. Which is to say, the decision a person makes happens within the brain prior to the rationality cortex being invoked. The problem is - these people remember making the decision as if they had rationally come to the choice. Their memory of the event is not chronologically accurate. If this is true, there is no reason to think that people are even capable of following a logical process to the point of making a moral decision. The second problem with the belief that people "should" choose this way is that, if your morality requires people to violate their core intuitions, the moral thing is pretty much always going to lose out. Moral codes with resonance are invariably reaffirming ones, not those that would challenge people's preexisting programming.

Morality exists as an evolutionary tool. The things that are 'universally' moral are those things that allow a group to thrive while another group would not - things like not harming your own species and so on. Beyond that, we've evolved a social consciousness that makes it so that intuitions can be built in - so if, in your specific circumstances, resources are scarce and it's necessary to have multiple people caring for each child, monogamy might be an intuition that is socially constructed and built into people as they grow up. This makes it so that people feel guilty about the idea of cheating, and are more likely to value finding a single mate with whom they can make children. Hence, the society in question constructs a somewhat arbitrary, self-preservational rule that alters the unconscious decisions people make about how to act.

cranked out at 2:46 AM | |

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