Ontology of a Secular Morality
Written over two days and finished at Great Bear Coffee on August 8th while listening to “Blink 182” station on Pandora and drinking a Cafe Americano.
I recently drove up to a 4 way stop with no stop signs and no properly functioning traffic lights. It was obvious that, for some reason, there was something wrong with the traffic lights. The boulevard I was on was heavily populated, so I wondered if any sense of value driven morals would kick in once cars pulled up to the intersection, or would mass chaos ensue. I pulled off to an adjacent parking lot that was perpendicular to the intersection so that I could see how people would react to the poorly defined expectations of what one ought to do at the intersection. I mean, what does the car traveling south owe to the car wanting to go east bound through the intersection? Who is obligated to stop? And if you’re feeling rushed, why not roll through the intersection since, technically, you are not breaking the law since the traffic lights are not enforcing the rules? Perhaps, most importantly, what’s the impetus and ontological reason for acting morally in this situation? This is critical given this real life situation reveals desires, values and expectations of society that will manifest into a moral context in which right and wrong become objectively true.
As I observed the intersection for around 20 minutes, it appeared that civility prevailed and people displayed typical evolutionary and cultural traits of respect and consideration for the group. But this should not surprise us. We are in situations every day where the opportunity to cause someone’s loss will in turn be our gain. Yet more times than not, mutual respect wins out. The evolutionary and cultural trait of mutual respect is seen in every country and observed in remote tribes. Sure some defect and live duplicitous lives of greed with complete lack of regard for other people, but this is the exception and not the rule. Furthermore, just about all societies have done their due diligence to set up norms to punish and deter the defectors who choose to live duplicitous lives. But what is the basis of these “norms”? Is it a divine commander in the sky? Is it relative to the context you’re in so what is considered cruel in one place is a virtue in another? This pushes the conversation towards to the root of the matter: the ontological basis of morality. I believe, however, that it is clearly evident that objective moral facts can be known.
First of all, we are surrounded by physical relationships [that can be known empirically]. Physical relationships are objective realities that encompass how things physically relate to each other. Physical systems can be reduced to properties that can be understood objectively. Take for example the scariness of a tiger: a tiger is scary to a person (because of the horrible harm it can do) but not to Superman, even though it’s the very same tiger, and none of its intrinsic qualities shave changed. Thus the tiger’s scariness is relative, but still real. It is not a product of anyone’s opinions, it is not a cultural construct, but a physical property about tigers and people. Thus the scariness of an enraged tiger is not a property of the tiger alone but a property of the entire tiger-person relationship. This scariness is also not simply subjective. Our emotional experience of fear is subjective, but the ability of the tiger to harm us is an objective fact of the world. The tiger “ought” to scare you.
Second of all, it’s important to note that there is a neurobiological and social aspect to the statement: the tiger ought to scare you. Stimuli in the brain, specifically norepinephrine in the amygdala, engage the receptors that indicate fear, anxiety and stress. So yes, science can help us to understand what situations trigger panic or joy for the sake of our well-being. Science, based on neurological responses in our brain, can say: you ought to be afraid of tigers. Contrasted to panic, dopamine and oxytocin within the brain help us to understand feelings of bonding and happiness. Thanks to fMRI imaging, we are quickly learning how the brain reacts to ethical dilemmas and situations to either panic or bliss. Science can tell us that engaging with a wild tiger or forcing women to wear burqas does not transmit dopamine in our brains. All this to say, evolution has created neural pathways in our brains to provide indicators of how should feel in certain situations that might not be advantageous. This is a physical relationship that helps us understand our relationship between us and tigers.
The social aspect is not so apparent in the tiger analogy, but is nevertheless a physical relationship that provides objective imperatives. If, for instance, you are working with a group of around 10 people, is there an objective moral duty that you should have within the group? The answer is yes, if your goal is to provide a net positive contribution to the group. Virtues such as respect, trust and cooperation play into the physical system of human relationships. Therefore, it objectively behooves those who demonstrate trust and cooperation. For those who defect by demonstrating selfishness and dishonesty, however, will inevitably be ostracized. Before moving on to my next point, I want to reiterate: the ontology of morals has an objective basis due to the physical relationships around us that invariably cultivate moral pretexts in which to act.
But what separates moral facts from personal opinions? Moral facts consist of imperatives about what we “ought” to do. But why should I do anything? Take for example, “you ought to change the oil in your car” which means “if you knew your car was running low on oil, and you don’t want you car’s engine to seize up, then you would change the oil in your car (as long as you were able to without harm).” If you don’t want your engine seize up, then “you ought to change your oil” is objectively true. My opinion is irrelevant to it being true.
(1) You ought to be scared of tigers because they can harm you.
(2) You ought to demonstrate trust and cooperation in groups or you will be ostracized.
(3) You ought to stop at a 4 way intersection if the lights are not properly functioning because you may get hurt or hurt someone else if you carelessly speed through.
In these three examples, both my opinion and cultural factors are completely irrelevant. All three examples function within physical relationships that demonstrate how they relate to each other in an objective and empirical way.
But we can go deeper and bolster moral objective facts with the concept of well-being. I suggest that it may be best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point is this: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like. A healthy lifestyle, thus, can be known in an objective way. [Sam Harris expands on the concept of well-being in “The Moral Landscape”]
Let’s keep unpacking well-being. Most people would describe a good life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the bad life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the good life is preferable to the bad life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?
I conclude my point on well-being by reiterating that it is critical to underscore the fact that the concept of well-being within the framework of morality can give us an objective foundation to scrutinize morals. Well-being can provide a lens to look through when it comes to common ethical conundrums that I, for instance, experienced last week. A man in a coffee shop dropped a clipped wad of cash on the floor as he stood up to leave. Through the lens of well-being, my moral duty is made clear: get the man’s attention and inform him that he dropped his cash. But what does this have to do with well-being? First, given that this has happened to me, I would want someone to inform me if I dropped a wad of cash. Second, it feels good to help someone and to know that I assuaged a potential frustration for the stranger. Lastly, I am cultivating a virtuous character – rather than duplicitousness – by quickly acting to help someone, irrespective of anyone else’s opinion or what another culture thinks. All of these foster an objective standard of well-being within my life which I can point to and say, “I ought to help this stranger.”
So what did I, as an atheist, do at the 4-way intersection that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I proceeded slowly to the intersection and stopped, then allowed the car to my right to go because she stopped 2 seconds before me; then the car to my left gestured for me to turn, and so I did. Darwin was right, mutual respect feels really good and benefits the group.
This post in a nutshell:
Physical Relationships > Creates Moral Constraints > A Moral Context is Formed