When you’re raised around something you sometimes completely fail to think about it at all. People absorb the world around them at an early age and generally assume that this is just how the world is, rarely questioning their basic assumptions. To give a trivial example, I must have been somewhere in my teens before I realised that the name New York implied that there had been an Old York. I was much, much older before I started questioning why I believed that certain things were morally right.
When I posted my question last week about people taking an objective point of view on what I considered to be entirely subjective areas, I expected more people to disagree that those areas were subjective. As it is, only octopoid_horror
pointed out what they saw as a contradiction in my argument – that I was saying that there was no absolute right and wrong and that people who believed there were, were wrong. Surely if it’s all down to belief then I only _believe_ there’s no right and wrong?
My answer, of course, is no (I bet you’re all shocked).
It all boils down to what the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean, and how they mean different things in different contexts. Those three contexts are:
- Statements regarding abstract systems.
- Statements about physical reality.
- Statements about the way people feel about things.
The first context is the easiest – abstract systems define internally whether things are true or not – in the system of mathematics, for instance, “2+2=4” is definitively a true statement while “2+3=4” is definitively not. Similarly, computer code either does what you want it to, or it doesn’t – there’s no middle ground.
The second context is theoretically as simple. All one has to do is compare the statement to reality and decide if the two match up. For instance - the statement “Andrew lives in Edinburgh” seems to be obviously true, while the statement “Andrew can Fly” seems to be obviously false. However, in real life there are always quibbling points – what if Andrew lives in Livingstone (a small town just outside Edinburgh proper) – some people might think of this as really part of Edinburgh, other people might not think of it that way all all If Andrew sleeps in Edinburgh, but works, drinks and dances in Glasgow, then where does he actually live? If Andrew straps on a jetpack, can he fly? How about if he gets on a plane? All of these complications come down to semantics, and once you agree on the meanings you are using you are then left with a system, which means that you can make definitive statement. Of course, reaching the agreement is not always so simple…
And all of that is assuming that we we are correct in the first place. Our senses are imperfect, causing us to make small mistakes on a frequent basis. The information coming in through our senses undergoes massive amounts of interpretation before it reaches our consciousness. In fact, studies have consistently shown that witnesses called to trials make assumptions, inaccurate observations, fill in blanks according to what they want to believe and are easily led into confusing what actually happened with what they are told happened.
However, the inaccuracies are generally not so large as to cause most people to lose contact with reality, and so we can at least be vaguely happy to make simple statements about the grosser, more obvious parts of the world. So “The cat sat on the mat” is semantically simple, concerns only gross physical matter and would be hard to be mistaken about, and so is likely to be a statement you can have confidence in. “The United States invaded Iraq to get cheaper oil.” is a somewhat more complex statement regarding the intention of complex entities, almost impossible to prove even if true, and therefore hard to have confidence in. “Contential Europe is different to the UK in fundamental ways.” is a statement so nebulous and undefined as to be able to cause arguments that go on for decades.
The third context is different to both of the above, and initially caused me the most trouble when sorting through this myself. What system could be used to tell when something was morally right? Well, there are a variety of moral systems (or systems with a strong moral content), from Libertarianism to Socialism to Christianity to Utilitarianism, and they tend to disagree with each other wildly. What method was there for deciding which one of these was the right one? Was there a meta-system that could be used to tell which system was more correct than the others? I had endless problems with this for months, trying to find some way of bringing it all together. If only I could do so, I could reduce this difficult question down to a version of the second one (or even the first), meaning that moral questions would be simple to answer.
The breakthrough happened when I tried to define what I actually meant by ‘right’ in this context. When I said that “Killing people is wrong.” What did I actually mean by that? And the answer hit me – what I meant was “I don’t like it when people are killed.” Or “Killing people produces a kind of society that I don’t like.”
Taking this on, I realised that all my moral beliefs basically boiled down to statements in that form. Either I didn’t like something in and of itself, or I didn’t like the effect it was going to have on my environment. This was a bit shocking. I mean, if the basis for my morals was what I didn’t like, then that gave me no right to impose it on others – my morals were no more right than anyone elses. For someone with severe hang-ups about being right, this was definitely a problem. However, I wasn’t able to find a way round it – I was stuck with either being right that all morals were merely subjective wants (which did, indeed, seem to be right), or claiming that my moral system was better than other people’s even though I couldn’t show it be so. Forced, eventually into taking the logical choice, I accepted that my morals were just my own personal wants.
There are, of course, numerous moral frameworks that can be built up – one can say that if everyone believes something is morally right, then surely this _effectively_ makes it morally right, and there’s a point to be made there. Although if public opinion later changes to the point where people hold different opinions, then you’ve lost your moral principle (and if you can find anything that every person on the planet agrees is morally right, I’ll eat my hat).
You can argue that morality stems from an omniscient creator, to which the obvious reply is – “Why is their opinion of my behaviour any more important than anyone elses?”, the standard response to which is “It just _is_.”, which I find less than satisfactory.
You can argue that certain behaviour is more natural than other behaviour, but the spectrum of behaviour found in nature is so wide that almost anything can be justified as being natural, in addition to which it’s hard to argue that people aren’t also part of nature.
And there’s a useful fall-back position of liberalism, where we agree that everyone’s morals are equally valid, and we should all be allowed to believe what we like. Except that this leaves you with no moral defense against people who think that female circumcision is a reasonable course of action.
My eventual point of view comes down to this: Objectively, my morals are no more right than any other moral system. However, I like mine a lot more than pretty much anyone elses and while I will compromise with the people around me, in order to achieve a quiet life and the general spread of happiness, I also have no reason to _not_ attempt to spread my morals, as there’s no absolute moral imperative to do so. I’d be happier if more people felt as I do, therefore it makes sense to achieve this, providing it doesn’t cause more harm than good to the wellbeing of the people I care about.