The Enquirer finds that the moral opinions and practices of mankind form a confusing jumble in which, while strong convictions reign, it is hard to see why any moral claims can claim to be true or to be known by anyone. She decides to doubt everything she has assumed hitherto about moral good and moral evil and her understanding of them.
Tot homines, quot opiniones—as many opinions as men! as the saying goes. Ever since I came to know something of the wider world, I have been curious about the variety of beliefs and practices that human beings have accepted and engaged in. I have been impressed by their variety but also sometimes troubled by their character.
Many of the things people do from time to time for the sake of others strike me as noble and heroic. Firemen rush into burning buildings to save the lives of children and animals. Reporters travel to battle zones in war-torn countries to inform the world about what is happening there. Politicians defy opposition to demand civil rights for disfavoured groups, and middle-class people sacrifice luxuries to send their children to school or to donate to famine relief. In ordinary life, people go out of their way to help friends and even strangers, giving each other rides to the airport, assisting with the dishwashing, cheering up the depressed and calming the anxious amongst them.
Yet just as many of the things people sometimes do seem cruel and shocking, and this has been noted and lamented by philosophers for centuries. For thousands of years, people have enslaved their fellow humans to build walls and palaces, to weave textiles, and to farm their fields.1 Now they are enslaved to manufacture sportswear and electronic equipment. From my readings, I have learned that torture was acceptable judicial practice throughout the 17th century, and that only a few hundred years ago in Europe, a criminal could be publically hanged, disembowelled, drawn and quartered. I know that cockfights and bullfights have been considered amusing by many cultures and that ancient people would cut slabs of flesh off their living cattle to eat.2 Massacres and child armies are widespread in the contemporary world, as is sex trafficking. The newspaper brings constant reports of corrupt police officers and politicians. I have read that the ancient Greeks, with their brilliant mathematicians, poets, and sculptors, left their unwanted babies on the hillside to die or to be picked up and raised by strangers.3 Detailed reports of the abuse of children and old people in nurseries, orphanages, and care homes hit the papers on an alarmingly regular basis. It seems their caretakers, or some of them anyway, think that what they are doing is absolutely fine.
I suspect that future generations will look back at some of our current practices—perhaps the prison system, factory farming, and the treatment of workers in the garment industry–with the same disapproval with which we look back on the flogging of sailors and draft animals, the slave trade, the mutilation of women’s feet, and the guillotine. Many of these practices and institutions have been abandoned in parts of the world in which they were formerly common. But did people discover that there were human rights nobody had known about before? Will people of the future discover more rights—perhaps the rights of plants, landscapes, or insects—in addition to ‘human rights’ and ‘animal rights’? Could we decide some day in the distant future that we were actually mistaken about some human rights and come to recognise torture, infanticide, and human sacrifice as morally acceptable?
Meanwhile, there seems to be considerable disagreement about what is acceptable practice right now. Whenever I open a newspaper, columnists seem to be arguing about moral issues. Can doctors assist people who say they want to die, or induce abortion in the second trimester of pregnancy? Is there anything wrong with creating animals with human genes, and are quotas for disadvantaged groups fair or unfair? On a personal level, there is the same controversy and confusion. My vegetarian friends disapprove of my carnivorous habits, while I think they are being sanctimonious. We argue over whether one-night stands are fun or hurtful, whether smoking and heroin addiction are just personal choices or morally irresponsible. Some of the moral beliefs I held in the past have changed over the years. I used to be indifferent to charity appeals, now I think I should contribute some money. I have become more tolerant about some matters, less about others.
I am aware that I and most other people have visceral responses to the behaviour of others. I sometimes feel scorn, disgust, horror, admiration, and approval when witnessing or reading or hearing about others’ behaviour. Such reactions may be accompanied by confident verbal declarations such as ‘That was an utterly heartless thing to do’ or ‘It was absolutely right of her to resign under the circumstances’ or ‘He is fundamentally untrustworthy and should be shunned.’ Such utterances are considered to express ‘moral judgements’; they are ubiquitous in conversation and appear in editorial writing. Sometimes they are said to express people’s ‘moral convictions.’ But I have to wonder whether people who say and write such things are doing more than venting their feelings. Are they actually making claims that could be true or false about the actions, events, situations, and persons they seem to be commenting on? And, if so, are they ever fully justified in making such claims? Indeed, I am led to wonder about moral knowledge—whether there is any such thing, and if so, what is involved in having more or less of it.
Does anyone actually know that it is ‘morally good’ to risk one’s life to save a baby from a burning building and ‘morally wrong’ to leave a baby alone and unfed? Or are we just in the habit of applauding the former and feeling shocked by the latter? And what about those people in history? Did they think they knew that it was right and proper to flog their exhausted carthorses, though they were in fact mistaken about this and it was neither right nor proper? Is there a set of moral truths or moral facts that is partly known by some people but fully understood by no one? If so, how it is possible to get to know more of them? And what would be the point of acquiring more moral knowledge anyway? Is it so important just to ‘be right’?
I feel strongly that the current treatment of prisoners is morally indefensible and that assisted suicide is justifiable if the person asking for it is in intractable pain, or facing that prospect, or if no one has ever emerged from his or her present condition to go on to live a pleasant life. I am reluctant, though, to say that I ‘know’ these things. Perhaps I should say that I ‘conjecture’ that the treatment of prisoners is morally indefensible? But this seems to imply that there is a fact of the matter and that someday I may come to know whether I am right. Really, all I am confident of is that I feel strongly about certain things, weakly about others, and I notice that others feel the same or differently about them.
The variety and changeableness of moral opinions, then, leads me to doubt that I really know anything about what is morally right, wrong, permissible, forbidden, and obligatory–or indeed what this term ‘moral’ really applies to. It also leads me to doubt that anyone else knows better than I do. People argue about these subjects, but I find myself sceptical about whether we can get to the moral truth by discussing and debating. In the arguments I have with people about moral subjects, we seem to be giving reasons that explain our feelings about things. Sometimes these feelings change as a result of what was said in the discussion, but discussing and arguing don’t seem to me much like proving or demonstrating as they are done in mathematics or like amassing evidence from historical records or like performing and interpreting scientific experiments.
I can appreciate at the same time that the fact that other people believe things that I do not and do not believe things that I do, or that they have different feelings and dispositions from mine, does not imply that everyone is at sea when it comes to moral matters and that no one’s convictions are better than anyone else’s. The fact that people believe different things and are not always persuaded by moral arguments might be no more surprising than the fact that few people can follow mathematical proofs beyond some elementary level or understand a scientific paper or medical article establishing some important conclusion. There may be actual proofs of moral claims in the theoretical literature that have not filtered down to me.
Moreover, despite my sense that moral arguments don’t really establish the truth or falsity of moral judgements in a knock-down way, some judgements strike me as better supported by arguments and considerations, whereas others seem to express mere prejudices or superstitions, akin to other non-moral prejudices and superstitions. On matters of health—what is good for the body—I know that many people are misinformed, believing for example that eggs and butter are dangerous to them, that getting their feet wet can bring on a cold, and that everyone needs to drink two litres of water a day. I know these beliefs to be poorly supported by the evidence. Many people are misinformed as well about such matters as climate change or the effects of punishment. For example, many people doubtless believe that the threat of capital punishment deters would-be murderers, although evidence for this claim is lacking. Perhaps some changes in moral opinion, in individuals, or in entire societies are definitely changes for the better, replacing moral error with moral knowledge.
Yet the observation that people can be misinformed about health matters, the planet, or how society works gives me a second reason, besides the sheer variety of opinions held by intelligent people past and present, for being uncertain as to whether there can be moral knowledge. Where convictions about nutrition or the efficacy of punishment are concerned, there are methods of getting to the truth. Experiment, observation, and analysis of the data can eventually determine what is the case. Either eggs are conducive to heart attacks, given the existence of certain preconditions, or they are not; either global warming is principally man-made or it is not, and we will eventually know which, or at least some particular opinions on these matters will come to seem outlandish. I do not see, however, how we could make experiments or observations to establish whether capital punishment was right or wrong. Moral convictions do not seem to be causal beliefs about what happens if, or whenever, something else is done or occurs, or about the powers of certain substances like eggs, butter, and pomegranate juice. If I believe that capital punishment is wrong, I don’t think that its ‘wrongness’ can be detected by meters or test-sticks or by the effects of the wrongness on the human organism.
But perhaps I am being overhasty in supposing that experiment and observation, combined with analysis, cannot enable us to decide who is right in any moral dispute and that experiment and observation will never be able to do so. After all, it took physics and chemistry thousands of years to get off the ground. Perhaps we have slowly been developing methods for distinguishing moral truth from error, or perhaps we are just on the verge of developing them. Alternatively, perhaps no complex methodology is needed. There may be people who are gifted with a particular kind of moral sensitivity and insight that enables them directly to perceive the moral qualities of actions, such as their acceptability or their wrongness, in the same way that I directly perceive the blue colour of the sky. Then all we would need was a method for discovering who these oracular beings amongst us were. However, I see no way of identifying these experts, especially since those who make a profession out of speaking and writing about morality tend to disagree with one another.
At this point, a third reason for doubting that I have any moral knowledge, besides the variety of opinions and the absence of any agreed upon experimental method for deciding between them, occurs to me.
I can imagine various ways in which my individual existence within human society could have come about. A supernatural Being, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, may have fashioned me or my first ancestors in Its image and equipped me with the limbs, organs, and physiology that would enable me to survive at least for a time and to perpetuate my kind. Perhaps this Being has also equipped me with a mind that was stocked with or able to acquire various beliefs about better and worse situations and so to look to its own self-interest. It is possible that this Being has laid down and revealed moral commandments that correspond to Its preferences about how I ought to behave and that my intuitions about moral right and wrong have also been instilled in me by this supernatural Creator.
However, this supposition about the origins of my moral feelings and impulses raises many questions. Why should a supernatural Being have both the power and the desire to do exactly this? Why create a vast universe of billions of solar systems and then, on one tiny planet, create human beings to judge, reward, and punish them? Perhaps filling the universe with living creatures expresses this Being’s love of creative activity and Its desire for variety, while Its creation of only one Earth and only one set of humans expresses a special focus and interest? But if so, it must be admitted that Its tastes are peculiar. Why do all creatures have finite life spans and why is death either preceded by old age and decrepitude or expedited by painful illness and disastrous accidents? A Being powerful enough to create this vast variety of species is surely capable of making life healthy and of infinite duration. Perhaps the love of variety requires death, so as to make room for more different species and it amuses the Being to outfit each species with beliefs and desires conducive to its preservation only until it can be replaced with the next generation. Or perhaps this Being knows that every creature will sooner or later tire of experience and wish for death as for a long sleep? Another hypothesis4 that would better explain this situation is that there are many supernatural beings, each creating, in different parts of the universe, what they can. The Creator of our world is amusing Itself as children do when playing with their dolls, sometimes tenderly and sometimes cruelly.
These hypotheses are possible, but I do not judge their probability to be high. For the great age of the earth, the evidence of multiple extinctions, and the similarity of humans and apes lead me to doubt that human beings were created from nothing and for some purpose fully understood only by a supernatural Being. I prefer to search for other explanations of how my species came into the world, explanations which can perhaps shed some light on how I know a few things about what I ought and ought not to do and what is good for me, and also on why I have the moral feelings and make the moral judgements that I do.
Here is another possibility. In the beginning, there were only particles and forces, or some unknown substrate of both that produced them. Some of the particles combined into atomic and molecular clumps under the influence of the laws of physics and chemistry. As crystals, though non-living, possess the power to draw materials out of solution that replicate their structure, I can imagine that such clumps and strings grew and that pieces broke off and grew into new clumps and strings. Some of these would have had slightly different shapes and physical and chemical properties to others, rendering them better able to grow and split off and so perpetuate their type. While many of these simple entities would have fallen apart or failed to grow or to split, each small difference that conferred stability and the ability to copy itself would have been found in greater numbers. By such a process I can imagine that, from crystals, simple forms of ‘life’ should have arisen—forms that took in nourishment, grew, reproduced themselves and, inevitably, worn down by the wear and tear on their bodies, ceased to function.
As time went on, these entities could have developed various tropisms—some moved towards the light, others moved away from it for safety. And eventually, over the more than four billion years we know the earth to have existed,5 more complicated living things appeared which had appetites—they felt a sort of pleasure when satiated and an anxious, unpleasant sensation otherwise that motivated them to hunt or forage for food, or to graze, when their bodies needed nourishment. Those that did not feel uncomfortable and did not seek shelter when it was very cold or very hot perished. Those with certain desires and appetites for union with others reproduced their kind. In this way, I can imagine that nature has fashioned certain of my basic beliefs about what is good for me, and instilled in me certain desires and patterns of behaviour, without culture and education coming into it. I share certain dispositions with other mammals—such as the tendency to retreat from a very hot fire, to seek food when hungry, and to care for my young. No one needs to teach me that the blazing sun or the bitter cold and wind are uncomfortable—though as a child I was always being reminded to put on a coat—and that I should seek the shade or the warmth of a fire. No one needs to teach me that I need food, water, and rest. Indeed I must be cajoled and persuaded by others to brave the sun and wind when something makes this necessary, or to endure hunger, thirst, and tiredness for the purposes of culture.
Perhaps my basic moral feelings in response to occurrences I am involved in or observe are, like my other basic emotions, wired into me by nature. My primate ancestors have been found to punish antisocial behaviour in their fellows, and to react with gratitude and indignation to others who treat them in particular ways. These reactions are not true or false, they just are what they are and mine may be no different in that respect. Of course, I have received a more extensive education than apes and monkeys, thanks to the existence of language and cultural experimentation and learning taking place over more than ten thousand generations. But then perhaps my moral convictions and my tastes and preferences are only the results of my education as a person growing up in a Western European environment.
I have had something of a scientific and mathematical education. I have read certain novels and have been exposed to the opinions of parents, teachers and newspapers. I have been indoctrinated since childhood with other people’s views about right and wrong, as well as their views about how the world works. I was punished for actions my elders frowned upon, and I was commended for behaviour of which my elders approved. The books I read and that were read to me planted in me the idea that children who behaved in certain ways were naughty and deserved punishment. Later, I heard sermons and read newspaper editorials and encountered moral philosophers who praised certain traits as good and noble. If I had had a different upbringing in some other part of the world, most of the contents of my mind, including my beliefs, convictions, tastes, and preferences, would be altogether different. Even my visceral reactions and my dispositions to act would undoubtedly be different. All I really seem to know is that other people in my culture are anxious for me to behave in certain ways and willing to back this up with praise or punishment.
Perhaps, then, the contents of my own mind and my reactions and dispositions are the products of my particular culture, as everyone else’s are of theirs. Perhaps we simply go about in the world with different cultural and personal standards that overlap to some degree with other people’s, but that are as different as the various national cuisines and formal dress styles. Perhaps we can articulate certain rationales for our standards, rationales that sound plausible to others in our culture or even subculture, but not necessarily to those outside it. The ‘explanation’ for why it is right to hang, disembowel, draw and quarter enemies of the regime convinced or would have convinced, had it been presented to them, my17th-century English ancestors, but it does not convince us, any more than the ‘explanation’ for why foot-binding as the correct practice for young girls convinces us.
However, the recognition that my beliefs, feelings, and attitudes have been formed by my parents, teachers, and reading materials still does not quite persuade me that there is no such thing as moral knowledge.
When I was young, and when the grown-ups of my culture told me what was the case in the world, or what was the right way to do something, or that I ought to do something, they were often—though not always—right. For example, they impressed on me that I had better get 81 when I multiplied 9 by 9; that when beating egg whites, I ought to stop when the peaks were stiff; and that I ought to understand the material if I wanted to pass a difficult test. They imparted knowledge—useful knowledge—to me in this fashion. Perhaps through long experience and practice, my elders were also able to accumulate moral knowledge, which they have passed on, along with some moral errors. So I do not see that the fact that I have acquired my beliefs through instruction by my elders and by reading their books implies that no one knows anything about morality. Their experience has given them knowledge of mathematics, cookery, etc. So why not morality too? While their understanding of these subjects may be fallible or incomplete, it seems absurd to maintain that no one knows how one ought to do a long division problem or put together and bake a soufflé, or how to operate a blowtorch safely. And if many of these how-to-do-its are known to experienced people, why should all other instructions about how to behave, the ‘oughts’ and ‘must nevers’ of morality, be unknown to everyone?
A fourth and final reason for scepticism now occurs to me. Perhaps, despite having acquired such moral knowledge from books and teachers, no one ever acts out of motives other than self-interest. If I help old ladies across the street, it is because I derive pleasure from doing so, or because I am pained by seeing them stumble. If I give money to charity organisations, it’s because it relieves my unpleasant guilt about starving children. If tell the truth it’s because I am a poor liar and fear the consequences of being found out in a lie. If I had the Ring of Gyges that, according to Plato, made its wearer invisible, I might be tempted to get up to all sorts of thieving behaviour that I now regard as too risky. If all my actions are performed out of self-interest, of what conceivable use would it be for me to ‘know’ that action A was morally wrong, or that person P was immoral? For if it was in my self-interest to do A or to associate with P, I would do it, regardless of whether it was ‘moral’ or not, and if it was not in my self-interest, I would desist from A and shun P. Knowing their moral properties would not influence my behaviour one jot. Perhaps there is a whole raft of moral truths, including some that various people know, but they make no difference to anything because no one is actually motivated to act by knowing them.
This strikes me as a very strong and compelling argument for doubt—not just about the truth of any moral claims, but about the very practices of moral discussion and debate that surround me. Perhaps I should simply ignore them and carry on living, seeking my own advantage and moderating my behaviour just enough to avoid retaliation from others in case seeking my own advantage proves disadvantageous to them.
Yet however tempting this position seems, something in me rebels against it. When someone deceives me, or deliberately sets out to harm my reputation, I feel anger and resentment, and sometimes a desire for revenge which seems to be justified by the fact that the other party ought not to have hurt me in the way they did. I am sure the offender felt they were getting something out of it, even if it was just sadistic pleasure rather than some material or competitive advantage. Harming me was in their self-interest—but it was not right! Conversely, it occurs to me that I could be angry and resentful about someone’s behaviour when they had done nothing wrong, and that my punishing them in that case would be wrong on my part. So even if I often or even mostly act out of self-interest, deriving pleasure from actions deemed ‘morally good,’ and avoiding actions deemed ‘morally bad’ out of fear of punishment, it still seems possible that a reason or a motive for doing something could possibly be that it is the morally right thing to do.
As a result of these reflections, I can see no way of deciding whether my moral convictions and opinions bear any relationship to ‘knowledge.’ Some considerations speak for the possibility of moral knowledge, others against it. I think that to make any headway in this subject, to discover whether anything can be known about morality, I shall have to cast aside decisively all the moral beliefs that I have ever held and begin my reasonings from scratch. This is the only way I can now see to try to gain clarity about these confusing issues and to establish whether moral knowledge is possible, whether it would be worth having or make a difference, and if so why and how.
Putting aside all my moral beliefs and beliefs about morality will not be easy. I shall need to dispense with my most firmly held convictions about torture and slavery, as well as with my beliefs about how friends ought to behave towards one another. But I shall also need to cast aside all my suspicions about how morality is related to self-interest and adopt an agnostic stance on that question. I shall have to suppose as well that I do not have a clear idea of what morality is—what makes something a moral issue, rather than a question of etiquette or a question of practicality.
To clear the ground, I shall even doubt that what I am inclined to call ‘moral convictions’ or ‘moral opinions’ or ‘moral judgements’ actually are or express beliefs—beliefs like the conviction or judgement that it is raining, or the opinion that the sun will rise tomorrow. I shall suppose only that I experience certain feelings—including hope, fear, disgust, admiration, contempt, worry, foreboding, and joy—when I observe or contemplate actions, events, situations, and persons, and that these feelings sometimes prompt me to utter sentences of the type usually regarded as moral judgements.
That I have these feelings as I move around in the world is undeniable. I contemplate with a mixture of pleasure and foreboding the long drive I am about to undertake; with admiration, the graceful movements of skaters on the canal; with disgust, the mess at the bottom of my rubbish bin. I feel uplifted when I see the first leaves unfurling on the trees in the spring. I also feel shock and horror when I read about a particularly lurid murder and resentment when one of my superiors denies what I feel to be a perfectly reasonable request. But I shall have to persuade myself that although I see actions, situations, events, and persons—the usual targets of moral evaluation—as having evaluative qualities, as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in all kind of respects, and although I sometimes feel quite emotional about what goes on in the world, nothing that happens or that anyone does is really morally good or bad.
I shall suppose that all moral judgements reflect illusions of a certain sort, that none of the targets of evaluation really possess the qualities of the contemptible or admirable, right or wrong, permissible or impermissible or obligatory, that no actions are virtuous or vicious. I shall suppose that the moral valuing and disvaluing of particular targets that I experience are only subjective and personal reactions to the world, and that none of the moral beliefs and convictions in my mind reflects reality.
This total suspension of belief in moral knowledge is going to be difficult. How can I doubt that I hold beliefs about what is morally prohibited, that these beliefs represent something in the world, and that at least some of them are true? I find it hard to doubt that if I were to create a spectacle by dousing my kitten with gasoline and setting her alight, this would simply be wrong, and wrong regardless of what I or anyone else thinks or feels about it. It will be difficult for me to get into a properly sceptical frame of mind, ignoring what my emotions seem to tell me, and difficult to set aside all my deepest moral convictions about warfare, sexual and economic exploitation, and political corruption. But I can see no other way forward unless I can manage to clear the ground of all my confusions and find a proper starting point for enquiry.