Sunday 8 January 2012

In search of the Absolute Shouldness Scale

Now that the holiday's frenetic activity is over (giving way to the new year's frenetic activity), I've found time to catch up on some older blogposts marked for later reading. One such is from the excellent coelsblog by Coel Hellier, Professor of Astrophysics at Keele University. In "Science can answer morality questions" he gives a clear explanation of why any attempt to ground morality in some kind of transcendent power is doomed to failure.
Perhaps the biggest red-herring in mankind’s history has been the quest for the false grail of Absolute Ethics, the idea that there is an Absolute Shouldness Scale, and that if we could consult the scale we would know for sure whether we “should” do X or “should” do Y or “should not” do Z.

Well, there isn’t. At least, no-one has ever found one, nor has anyone produced a coherent account of how such a scale could have arisen or even what it would mean. While some might want to regard “shouldness” as one of the fundamental properties of the universe, along with gravitational mass or electric charge, they have produced no good reason for so thinking.
Naturally this won't sit well with those who believe morality is God-given, but the evidence for transcendent morality just isn't there.
Thus there is nothing Absolute about our moral senses, they are cobbled together to be effective enough for the job, in the same way that our livers, lungs, immune systems and visual systems have been cobbled together as effective enough to do their job. Further, we do not need an Absolute ethical system, any more than we need an Absolute immune system or an Absolute liver; a functional one is quite sufficient.
Morality, it seems — much to the annoyance of the religious — is actually about what works, and nothing to do with any gods.
The commonest attempt to establish an Absolute Shouldness Scale is to embody it in a god: “It is right because my god says so”. Since our moral senses are human moral senses, it makes sense to try to embody them in an Absolute version of a human, imagining God in man’s own image, as a idealised tribal patriarch. By doing so one can ignore the reality — that religions get their morality from people — and claim instead that people get their morality from religion.

Unfortunately, any attempt at establishing Divine Ethics suffers from fatal flaws, the most blatant being that there is no evidence for any such divine being. Equally problematic is that it doesn’t actually explain morality. Just saying “it’s a property of god” is not an explanation, it is accepting morality without explanation. By contrast, an emergence of morality in social animals, as evolutionary programming to facilitate cooperation, explains what morality is and where it comes from.
It's heartening to read honest attempts by concerned individuals to establish the nature and origins of morality, in contrast to the dismissive attitude of those religionists who just want to crib their morals from a dubious book. I consider coelsblog to be one of the best discoveries of 2011.