Moral Reasoning - A Convergence
By Steve Gillman
This is a continuation from the page, Moral
Sometimes moral reasoning that starts from very different
premises arrives at the same place. For example, in the story
of the mother with the tied-up child, it is possible to argue
for saving the one child instead of the four from either the
morality of self-interest or that of "the greater good."
This convergence of moral thought happens for at least two reasons.
1. Different Moral Reasoning Leads to Common Values
First, sometimes a given reality or conclusion fits the values
of more than one moral system. For example, if one looks at economic
systems, many who start from either a morality of self-interest
or "the greater good" arrive at a free-market system
as the best choice. A look at history makes it tough to argue
that the more communism is better for a society than freedom
and free markets. The latter has proven itself to be better for
human freedom and human well being.
It makes sense that self interest normally coincides with
the interest of others, and this becomes clearer as we come to
better understand what is in our own self interest. To begin
with, we want things which require satisfying the needs and wants
of others, even if that wasn't our intention. But we also come
to identify more strongly with others as we mature, and so we
want to help others more directly. This might be called spiritual
self interest, and is harder to measure, but the "profit"
is just as real.
Consider a simple example. You're stranded on a desert island
with ten people. They each have a little bit of food. Now, using
a crude understanding of self interest, you could kill them all
and take their food. Of course, you'll only get a temporary gain.
Meanwhile you will have killed the man who knows how to fish,
the woman who might be your lover, and others who could be of
some benefit to you.
Killing these people is obviously not in your self interest.
You want them to survive, and you even want them to thrive. If
they're well-fed, healthy and happy, they can all contribute
to and cooperate in your little "world," making it
richer for them and for yourself. Simple examples like
this on show how self interest leads to an interest in the welfare
of others, and there is no reason the principle would change
when applied on a larger scale.
An understanding of the deeper or more spiritual aspects of
this doesn't come as easily, but it is just as real. It is the
sense that "he is part of me." It is identification
with other life. A personal morality proceeds from personal values,
and these grow to include other people, and even beyond humans
to other animals.
This is not something that is easily explained to someone
who hasn't experienced it, but fortunately we almost all have
experienced this to some degree. When you see yourself in another,
or see a common struggle or any kind of commonality that you
identify with, you want the best for that person with the same
kind of selfish feeling that leads you to the kitchen to feed
your own stomach. That identification, and any generosity that
comes from it, makes you feel good, so it is in your self interest.
(If you think that feeling good is not a part of surviving
and thriving, you just haven't kept up with the latest research
on human health.)
A more common expression of this is the respect we feel in
general for others. For example, we've all been tired while waiting
in lines before, so we relate to the feelings of others in line
and don't cut in front of them. In fact, if someone is struggling
with a disability, we might even give him our place in line.
This may appear altruistic, but if we value others and are happy
helping them, it is entirely selfish and healthy.
Actions like these psychologically create the kind of world
that you want to live in. That is a matter of profound self interest.
Whether we call this psychology or spirituality may not be important,
but the phenomenon is real for any who experience a "do
unto others as you would have them do unto you" moment.
YOUR world improves as much as the other person's. Thus we can
see that many common goals can be arrived at from either view
2. Natural Reason and Rationalization
There is another interesting theory for why differing moral
systems can lead to common ground so often. It is the idea that
we have a "natural reasoning ability" that exists outside
of language and logic, and so we would naturally tend to agree
more often than not on what is "good." Logic, then,
steps in only to justify what we "see" as true.
In other words, if we two of us "see" the truth
of a situation, we agree from the start about what is "good"
or "evil" about it. We just argue about "why"
it is good or evil. We have common values from the start, and
our infinitely powerful minds find a way to fit those values
into our moral reasoning.
This, by the way, suggest that we might be lead in the wrong
direction by logic as often as it helps us. Certainly, in the
case of the stated beliefs of the various religions out there,
we would prefer that people follow their "natural reason"
rather than the logic of their beliefs. Consider the common belief,
"the Bible is the word of God and we should follow it,"
and then think about some of the horrible lessons of the old
testament. We certainly don't want believers logically putting
those into practice.
To summarize: Our moral reasoning starts from different premises
and arrives at similar conclusions. This is because the logic
of either moral system actually results in shared values, or
because we have "natural reason" which gives us some
common values, and then we each rationalize them to fit our particular
moral beliefs. Either way, it does suggest the question of whether
it matters how we define morality...
Continued here: Moral Relativism?
These pages are speculative, an attempt to look at things
in new ways. Experience tells me there's a "natural morality"
which is experienced as our "conscience", and that
with few exceptions, this is universal in humans.
Furthermore, we can see that it is in our own self interest
to "do the right thing." But the particular ways in
which we describe these things may evolve. In other words, I
may change my mind on some points here.