For almost a hundred years, philosophers have largely given up discussion of morality in terms of objective values. Yet public and political appeals to moral ideals are growing louder than ever: witness the recent reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Clearly, morality still matters. But on what grounds?
In this issue of IAI News, author and outsider philosopher Chris Bateman argues that the foundation of Western morality is an arrogant faith in rational truths. In practice, morality is far from rational, and therefore its truths cannot be universal. Dismissing the relativist rejection of all moral truth, Bateman finds a middle ground in the idea of an Ethical Multiverse – in which objective moral truths are created within their own conceptual frameworks. Such a concept has important consequences for multiculturalism.
Bateman goes on to argue that morality rests on imagination – the ability to conceive relations between entities and experiences – a quality we share with other animals. Like Bateman, neuroscientist Molly Crockett also suggests that morality might not be unique to humans. She suggests that, in practice, moral behaviour may based on deep-seated evolutionary instincts and therefore unrelated to rationality.
Evolution is significant too for anthropologist Daniel Everett, who understands human values as the result of evolutionary needs. This makes our values highly culturally specific, and more utilitarian than idealist. Where Everett differs from Crockett is in arguing that evolutionary psychology will never be enough on its own to explain human behaviour. The moral decision-making of the individual stems from what he calls the “Dark Matter of the Mind” – an unconscious aggregation of experience, interpreted by the individual within the values of their culture.
Both Crockett and Everett are concerned with questions of behaviour. The fundamental nature of morality remains an open question. This is where philosophy is arguably more important than ever. Nicholas Maxwell defends the idea that philosophy (and, by implication, morality) is based on rationality, and must continue to be so. However, philosophers should stop paying so much attention to the history of philosophy and start asking humanity's most fundamental questions.
It is within this context that one of the great moral issues of our time is confronted by Sarah Goode. In the UK, one in six people are survivors of child sex abuse, she says. It’s time to stop responding hysterically, she argues, to taboo of paedophilia and adopt sensible and effective strategies. It is an issue of “how we choose to act in the world as moral agents”.
Meanwhile, social entrepreneur and founder of the Big Issue, John Bird, recounts how a chance meeting on a train led to a long-running discussion of morality and literature. How different, he wonders, is the moral world of Jane Austen from modern best-sellers such as Fifty Shades of Grey?
Image credit: Mikko Saari