Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.














2 thoughts on “Is morality rational?

  1. Thanks for the response Zac.

    I guess the question I was asking was indeed the question “how does the intellect know what is good?” and furthermore whether knowing what was good required a rational justification. As you’ve pointed out this is where the is/out problem comes into play whereby the moral skeptic can challenge the validity of the conclusions reached by intellection and as you say stymie the will (“appetite for unknowable good”).

    I think there’s much to be said about this “unknowable” good because when I’ve thought about how the natural law theorist might address the is/ought problem one manoeuvre might be to emphasize that “the good” is a metaphysical notion, and that whether we can fully understand or know “the good” and thus provide a rational justification for it, is an epistemological issue. In other words it may be a metaphysical fact that “the good” contains the moral/normative imperative within it (i.e. “is” implies “ought”) but the fact that we cannot “see” this, which is to say provide a rational justification for it (to satisfy the moral rationalists and the rest of the “orthodoxy”), is merely due to our own limitations. Perhaps you might have some thoughts about this idea or about the “appetite for unknowable good” as you put it.

    With regard to the “deeper issue” that you mention, I’m not too sure about the historical figures (but I’m guessing Descartes and Kant) but either way the benchmark was set for what counts as moral knowledge as well as what counts as moral facts (moral realism). This is why moral rationalists regard moral sense theories (e.g. Hume’s) as a version of moral “anti-realism” implying that we must therefore be under systematic error when we speak about moral facts (because for the moral rationalist it’s all about reasons and justifications).

    Anyway, these are interesting topics which I hope to gain a better understanding of as time goes by.

    • What I’m reading is that thinkers from Aquinas to Hume studied how DOES reason decide what’s good rather than how SHOULD reason decide what’s good, and it’s only until later that ethics shifted towards the prescriptive and coercive.

      You’ve both touched upon how important historical context is. These thinkers were probably responding to an environment that no longer exists. To my mind, Descartes and Kant were working in societies full of superstition and tradition. They may have been trying to streamline the moral burden, rather than add to it.

      Much of this highly technical discussion though, is beyond me. Much respect though, for starting it. I’m just happy that is-ought is known as false.

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