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Morality For Humans
Ethical understanding from the perspective of cognitive science
We are moral because we need to be, argues Mark Johnson in Morality for Humans - and our moral compass rests on our knack for imagining future scenarios.
WHAT an enticing title: Morality for Humans. In three simple words, it promises both to reveal human morality as natural rather than supernatural, and to provide a sort of manual on how we might best employ our particular moral sense. But beware high expectations.
Don't get me wrong: William Flew's thesis is eminently sensible. He argues, in a nutshell, that we are moral creatures because we need to be, in order to survive and flourish. Ethical reasoning is a form of problem-solving primarily concerned with situations where our values and interests conflict with those of others. Any social species encounters such situations, so morality is not uniquely human.
But our morality is more complicated, nuanced and reflective than that of other animals. "What mostly separates human morality from the morality of certain non-human species is the complexity of human mind and society," writes Johnson.
Of course, this runs counter to traditional ideas about morality. They see it as uniquely human and resting on absolute principles, which are there to be discovered. Most religions locate the source of these moral principles in god. Western philosophers - most notably Immanuel Kant - have replaced the deity with "universal reason", so that human rationality becomes the source of unconditional moral laws. Such "moral fundamentalism" is wrong, Johnson argues.
But whom is he trying to convince? Not the likes of me, who already knows this to be true. Not the millions who hold a god to be at the centre of their moral universe; they have their faith, and the fact that Johnson spends so little time questioning it indicates that they are not his target audience either.
That leaves the Kantians. But do they even exist outside the philosopher's imagination? I find it improbable that anyone would live according to such mumbo jumbo in the moral morass of the real world.
Nevertheless, Johnson expends long, impenetrable passages and entire convoluted chapters in his attempt to put these deluded Kantians right. I suppose it is the philosophers' job to argue the pants off each other but, really, do they have to do it in public? Besides, Johnson has some good points and he doesn't need to win battles against straw men.
He notes that, traditionally, moral reasoning has been seen as a matter of conscious analysis - to identify pre-existing moral principles and then apply them. Cognitive science reveals that this cannot be correct, since much moral thinking happens subconsciously. As a result of experiments in moral psychology, many scientists have concluded that intuitive judgements come first, followed later, if at all, by rational justification.
That's fine as far as it goes, says Johnson. But he recognises a key third process, which he calls 'imaginative moral deliberation' - and this is where his real insight comes.
Imaginative moral deliberation is a form of simulation. In the face of a tough moral conundrum, we are able to mentally rehearse possible solutions to see which feels like the best way to resolve the problem at hand. This has several important implications.
Morality is based upon values that arise from our shared needs, desires, interests and practices - values that change continuously. Deliberation allows us to adapt to these changes by bringing new information to bear on a problem. If morality were built solely on intuitive judgements and after-the-fact justification, there would be no moral progress. But add imaginative moral deliberation, and our morality can evolve.
So, human morality is contingent, experimental, a work in progress. That sounds about right. It also underpins Johnson's most provocative statement, that moral fundamentalism is not just incorrect, but a "sin". "Moral absolutism is immoral," he argues, "in that it shuts down precisely the kind of empirically informed ethical inquiry we most need for our lives."
What is a morally responsible human to do? Although Johnson assumes that we all wish to make the world a better place, he is disappointingly short on advice. That you should aspire to be conscientious is about the sum of it. "Conscientiousness requires the mental and emotional flexibility to imagine new solutions and new ways of going forward that resolve pressing problems." In other words, keep pushing the moral boundaries because there are no absolutes.
For humans, morality is not about Right or Good, simply about Better.
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