We are, as a species, remarkably preoccupied with making rules about how people ought to behave. This moralistic tendency is not an inherently good or bad quality, it's simply a fact of human nature. But it would be nice if people could be more rational in the way that they create moral rules. Although human rationality is foundational in some domains (like science and technology), it often falls by the wayside when it comes to the production of morality.
Not that there's anything wrong in general with passion and intuition. Many of the most satisfying things in life (art, love, sex, food, etc.) would be impossible to enjoy dispassionately. But because the moral beliefs we espouse have grave consequences for both other people and ourselves, morality should not ultimately be just a matter of impulsive intuition, aesthetic judgment or personal taste. Moral rules are, after all, efforts to control the behavior of others (as well as ourselves), and in any culture that values personal freedom, this kind of imposition shouldn't be taken lightly. Cross-culturally, moral beliefs determine who is celebrated, who is ostracized, who is worshipped as a hero and who is put to death. They govern how we think about ourselves--what shames us, what we take pride in--and how others judge us. And moral beliefs don't operate only at an individual level. Whether a society as a whole can provide for its citizens, and compete successfully against other groups, may come down to the content of its moral system.
To understand what Harris' approach is missing, consider the arguments made by Richard Alexander in The Biology of Moral Systems. Alexander notes that people strive for goals that would have promoted their individual genetic fitness (survival and reproduction) in ancestral environments, and that an important way in which they do so is by cooperating in groups of people with whom they share common interests. By cooperating in groups, individuals can achieve their goals better than they could by acting alone, so it's in the individual's interest to cooperate. (Cooperation also presents individuals with dilemmas like the "free rider problem", but we can leave these aside for now). While cooperating in groups, people use moral rules in order to influence the behavior of group members in ways that will promote group success. This, Alexander argues, is a primary evolved function of moral rule-making: it enables individuals to more effectively pursue the interests they share with others in their group. For example, if people are cooperatively building a dam to protect their village from a flood, they might use rules like "all adult villagers should work on the dam for a minimum of X hours per day", "those who contribute above this minimum should be honoured", and "those who contribute below this minimum should be shunned". (Note that the promotion of shared interests is not the only evolved function of moralizing. Another important function is to signal to other people--honestly or not--that you have an altruistic or otherwise upstanding disposition. But that's a topic for another post).
In situations that do involve coalitional conflict, moral dilemmas cannot be solved by applying the "welfare of conscious creatures" rule. A primary reason why people cooperate in groups is so that they can compete more effectively against external groups, and moral disputes tend to arise out of these coalitional conflicts. In these contexts, you can't resolve moral debates by identifying the solution that would benefit all conscious beings, not only because this will often be difficult if not impossible, but also because that's not the goal that either side in the conflict will actually be fighting for. Consider, for instance, a conflict between loggers and hikers about whether the loggers should be allowed to cut down trees in a particular forest. The hikers might argue that this deforestation is morally wrong because it would deprive families of opportunities to enjoy nature, whereas the loggers might argue that it is morally good because it would create jobs for the support of families. Even if identifying the solution most beneficial to conscious life were possible in this situation, it wouldn't be the goal that either coalition would really be seeking. The loggers would be seeking the solution that most benefited loggers, and the hikers would be seeking the solution that most benefited hikers.
Although it may seem cynical to see morality as a strategy that individuals use to pursue their coalitional interests, this perspective actually points to the most effective way to overcome coalitional moral conflicts: by appealing to the interests of a larger group to which two competing coalitions belong. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett use this strategy in their book The Spirit Level, which focuses on the effects of economic inequality in developed nations. Economic inequality creates coalitional conflict within nations, because it advantages some citizens (the upper class) and disadvantages others (the lower class). The upper class tends to argue that inequality is morally good (e.g., "it's the result of rewarding people who work harder than others"), whereas the lower class tends to say it's bad (e.g., "it's the result of unequal opportunities"). Wilkinson and Pickett make an effort to transcend this coalitional conflict by focusing on inequality's impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: they present evidence that developed nations with higher economic inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, and debates about the virtues of reducing inequality will, of course, continue. Still, Wilkinson and Pickett have the right idea about how to be rational about morality, because they attempt to assess the moral value of a practice by demonstrating its statistical relationship with measures of group performance and well-being. In doing so, not only do they appeal to our evolved tendency to make moral judgments in terms of our own coalitional interests, they also show how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) can help transcend conflicts between lower-level coalitional interests (socioeconomic classes).
Copyright Michael E. Price 2011. All rights reserved.