Monday, April 25, 2011

A foundationalist moral philosophy?

Blogger Matt Zwolinski over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians has an article on how our emotions cloud our moral judgments. He writes specifically concerning the libertarian belief in open immigration. I appreciate his argument, since I'm inclined to favor his conclusions. But ultimately, I wonder about the merits of moral foundationalism, by which I mean the belief that all moral truth can be expressed in the form of consistent abstract propositions.

For instance, Zwolinksi uses this argument against critics of open immigration: "If we are justified in using men with guns to stop poor people from crossing the border, are we justified in using them to stop poor people from having children as well?" The argument being made is that both immigrants and newborn children fall under the same abstract principle: people should be free to live wherever they wish, so long as they do not infringe on the basic rights of others. Our sense of repugnance, Zwolinski argues, clouds our minds from seeing the same abstract principle at work in both cases, and thus we come to the wrong moral conclusion.

Another example he uses, perhaps just as provocatively, is an argument by Janet Radcliffe-Richards in favor of permitting people to sell their organs. If all people have the right to their own bodies to use as their own property, why should that not apply to organ sales? He applies the same reasoning to a string of other controversial issues: "Much the same, I suspect, could be said about objections to the legalization of certain drugs, for the repeal of laws against price gouging, for the toleration of sweatshop labor, and so on."

The following complaint is legitimate. Quoting Radcliffe-Richards, he says,
"If we allow the feeling to direct our actions, the effect will be that we will try to get rid of whatever causes it. If it is not reliably connected to anything that ought, morally, to be eliminated, the only systematic benefit of removing its cause will be the elimination of the feeling as an end in itself. This is, of course, a great advantage to all those sensitive Westerners who suffer from it. Prohibition may make things worse for the Turkish father and other desperate people who advertise their kidneys, as well as for the sick who will die for lack of them; but at least these people will despair and die quietly, in ways less offensive to the affluent and healthy, and the poor will not force their misery on our attention by engaging in the strikingly repulsive business of selling parts of themselves to repair the deficiencies of the rich."
He then goes on: "If, then, exploitation of the poor triggers repugnance, but neglect of the poor does not, then a repugnance-driven morality will lead us to prefer the latter over the former even when the former is better for everyone involved - especially the poor."

The libertarian, then, would like to think of himself as someone so committed to absolute moral principles which apply equally to all people that he is willing to follow moral reasoning to its appropriate conclusions, in spite of the emotional difficulties. He is convinced, too, that following these rigid moral laws will have the best overall impact on society. It is a good argument, in many ways, one which openly challenges our assumption that all of our moral choices can be palatable and that the world can be made better through the power of idealism. But I'm questioning the argument's foundations. How can we ever say which abstract principles are the correct ones?

I suppose I don't really think the issue is between emotionally-driven and rationally-based morals. Emotions and reason work together, and the totality of this relationship can be described as a certain disposition. The disposition I favor is what I would call an open disposition, rather than a closed disposition. A friend of mine candidly admitted that he felt he was actually more conservative in his socialist views than I was in my free market views; he believed that if people found a way they liked to live, they should stick to that and not change. My view is that we ought to be more open than this. We ought to be willing to embrace change, and so our system of morality ought to be abstract enough to apply in a whole host of new situations which have never been seen before.

Part of this comes from how I think morals come into being. Fear and wonder are both essential parts of our being, but they are at odds with one another. We see something new, and initially our inclination may be to fear it. This is often a good thing, of course, since it protects us from things which may actually pose a threat to us. But if applied exclusively, fear will cause us to embrace a very closed system of morality, which resists change in spite of its inevitability and discourages experimentation which could be vital to long term survival. Wonder, on the other hand, encourages experimentation. When we are in awe at the enormity, the complexity, and the beauty of the universe around us, it almost becomes a duty to go explore it. Our morals become more abstract, allowing for most particular decisions to be left up to individuals or small groups. We more readily embrace the other. We are defined by our flexibility rather than our rigidity. We are characterized by tolerance, yet we are not without skepticism.

An open system of morals will ironically be much less subject to change than a closed system. In a closed system, morals will have to be decided on an ad hoc basis in many cases. Hence the inconsistency: obviously it's okay for poor people to have children, but how can we let all those illegal immigrants across our borders? A people with closed morals will be much less willing to apply abstract principles equally to all. On the other hand, a people with open morals will have a relatively stable set of abstract principles which they freely apply to every individual, even if it appears to have some unintended consequences. The sense of wonder and openness to change will free them from having to constantly change their system of moral precepts.

That doesn't mean those precepts won't change. As we contemplate the consequences of our morals, we can't help but desire changes that address the consistent problems we've seen. But again, this kind of moral change can either be based on fear or on openness. A fearful people will not stop to think about what long-term principles are really desirable, but only what they can gain in the short term. A people characterized by openness will think carefully about how best to embrace the change which is inevitable.

I suppose it really comes down to what direction your love points. If it points only to particulars, that is, to what you know and fully understand, then it makes sense for your moral decisions to be based mostly on your initial gut-level reactions. If your love is directed toward the general, that is, the world as a whole, then it makes sense for your moral decisions to be based on abstract principles. But a serious question is whether any of us really have much love at all, either for particulars or for the general.

My hope is that our love might be directed toward the general, and not just the particular. This is not to say we should all be idealists blind to the realities of life--on the contrary, we can't have a perfect outcome, which is exactly why we need to think in terms of moral precepts rather than outcomes. There is, then, a great need to shape our moral desires and our habits of thinking toward the world as a whole, rather than toward what we in our limited position can truly understand and appreciate. The goal can't be to understand the world as a whole--that is impossible. The goal rather should be openness toward the world, and a set of principles which can guide as toward a healthy long-term response to its complexities.

If this makes me closer to a libertarian than anything else, I suppose that's great. On the other hand, I would challenge other libertarians to think about the foundations of their own moral philosophy. It will not do to espouse certain abstract moral principles as if they are to be accepted as axioms beyond questioning. That would be akin to the very same rationalism which has brought us so close to socialism in the first place.

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