Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Morality of Aliens, Dragons, and Dead Philosophers

or, Disorganized Thoughts on Moral Foundations Theory

A Moral Foundations Theory post

In this post I'm just catching together the topics that I want to bring up but don't have a coherent through-theme which might hold them together.

1. If moral intuitions can be wrong (which is a truism these days), should we even be talking about Moral Foundations Theory? Shouldn't we be talking instead about deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, moral nihilism, immoralism, divine command theory, or other logical bases for morality? Aren't moral sentiments (for that's what the Moral Foundations are), well, sentimental?

On the one hand, yes. Moral Foundations are moral sentiments/intuitions, and since people disagree about them (that's the whole idea behind Moral Foundations Theory), they must sometimes be wrong for some people. Probably a rigorous and consistent moral philosophy would be better. But...

On the other hand, no. We can talk about morality not as moralists or moral philosophers but as psychologists and anthropologists and culture critics. I can take as my object of study not what I should do, but how people try to work out what they should do. An anthropology of morality is valuable. But I also think that Moral Foundations Theory, or anyway the sorts of things we might figure out when thinking about Moral Foundations Theory, can help in asking the moralist's questions. I cannot act morally without investments (see this post; as usual, Beck is my touchstone for all questions about the psychology of morality). It is good to consider what those investments are and how they operate. Moreover, my response to other people's morality is itself governed by morality; Moral Foundations are then data for my moral decision making.

2. The Moral Foundations tests I took (I took a few) all had a question which asked whether a person's mathematical ability might influence your moral decision. I'm curious about that question. I assume it's a question to determine whether a person is answering randomly; anyone who says that they do think a person's moral worth is linked to their mathematical prowess must either be answering randomly, lying, misunderstanding the questions, or morally alien. But that got me thinking: could there be a morality--an alien, orange-and-blue morality to be sure--that does value math in this way? Some sort of technocratic or narrowly meritocratic society? Actually, now that I write this out, it doesn't seem so absurd; fantasy novels assure me that some people (and cultures) assign a moral value to physical strength. Perhaps another person or culture could assign moral value to mathematical ability?

3. On the topic of orange-and-blue moralities, is such a thing possible? What would a truly alien morality look like? How could one identify it? Would we be able to even tell that it is a morality? (I suppose this might not be too far fetched; for a long time, existentialism struck me as really alien and Nietzsche's immoralism still does.)

4. I wonder how (and if) Moral Foundations Theory meshes with the classic Dungeons and Dragons' alignment system. This is the first time I realized it, but I suppose it would be best to think of Good/Evil as being moral and Lawful/Chaotic as being political; I've always thought of both axes as different ways of measuring morality, but perhaps they are the different branches of axiology. So are the Moral Foundations all subsumed under Good/Evil? This seems unlikely: freedom/oppression and authority/respect look like Lawful/Chaotic--that is, political--virtues as much as Good/Evil--that is, moral--virtues. As far as gameplay goes, it might make sense to replace the moral alignment chart with a simplified version of Moral Foundations Theory, but I suspect we would be even better served to overlay them. You could work out your alignment, and then work out your Moral Foundations. After all, "Evil" doesn't exist in the Moral Foundations; if you are an Evil character, perhaps the Moral Foundations you hold are the principles you fight against? How does acrasia (when people act against their own better judgement) fit into all of this? I'm at times tempted to dismiss the Good/Evil alignment axis on same grounds that Plato would: we cannot will evil. But at other times I know better: I do what I do not will, and I do not do what I will, and sometimes it seems that I do not will what I will, either.

5. And while we're talking about ancient Greeks and moral philosophy, I want to talk about the Euthyphro dilemma. The only reason I scored as highly as I did in the purity/sanctity measure is that I said that what God wills is good. They asked if whether God's feelings about my behaviour influences how moral that behaviour is, and I said yes. But I said yes because God wills what is good; I was not agreeing that what God wills is good simply because God wills it. So the creators of the quiz embedded the Euthyphro dilemma into this quiz: is the Good good because the gods admire it, or do the gods admire the Good because it is good?
But more simply, I think the question is misleading; God's will is not clearly accessible to us, so all we have to work it out is our morality anyway. The question isn't going to illuminate that reasoning at all. (I suspect. But there are tests you can do to see whether a question in a questionnaire contributes to the measure for which it is designed, so maybe I should reserve judgement until those tests are done.)

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