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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, April 06, 2007

No skyhooks

This post is meant to sketch very quickly how I "do" moral philosophy.

To adapt a phrase from Daniel Dennett, I aspire to do work in moral philosophy, and related areas of inquiry, with no reliance on skyhooks. I am committed to philosophical, or metaphysical, naturalism.

Putting it another way, I endeavour to analyse the relevant issues without invoking anything Out There or Up There: no gods to issue divine commands and reward the virtuous; no moral facts, properties, or entities that form part of the fabric of the universe; no spiritual principles, such as that of karma, to which we are somehow constrained to conform; nothing that falls outside a strictly naturalistic perspective.

In my view, morality is an important, virtually inevitable, and in many ways desirable social institution. I.e., some kind of morality can be justified. The justification, however, is of a non-epistemic kind. That is, we cannot provide epistemic justification for claims that assert the existence of objectively prescriptive properties and facts, but we can show how the widespread institution of morality has a point and a place in human social life. The next question is, "What point and place?"

Morality arises in response to our nature and our situation. We are rational and sociable, but in many ways vulnerable, animals; we are neither unreasoning brutes nor invulnerable gods. It is unsurprising that creatures like us find reasons to consider certain things valuable — and to fear certain other things. For us, the institution of morality, and particular moral traditions and norms, can be justified by their ability to promote outcomes that we have reason to value, and their ability to reduce the threat of outcomes that we have reason to fear.

We may not all find ourselves with precisely the same reasons - and different equally rational creatures might have reasons very different from ours. But we are sufficiently similar to find many of the same things "good" (and worth preserving and promoting) or "bad" (and worth trying to prevent or ameliorate). Morality is particularly useful in guiding our actions in ways that tend to avert or ameliorate outcomes that most of us would agree in seeing as "bad".

This leads to further, more specific questions about what, specifically, we have good reason to accept or reject.

This account of morality provides the fundamental basis on which I will defend many controversial technologies and practices, and reject the views of bioconservatives, who tend to rely on irrational fears and values.

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