One of the problems I’ve personally encountered in trying to justify my humanist moral principles is that it is impossible to justify humanist moral principles. This was a pretty big problem for me, actually, but I’ve found that hypocrisy has allowed me to move past it. I’ve got good friends who are still struggling with it, though, and I think they – and anyone else facing a similar struggle – would benefit from my perspective.
Here’s the problem: I’m a cosmopolitan, liberal person who wants everyone to have great freedom of choice, opportunity, and thought. Wanting something isn’t, of course, a moral position on its own. But my feelings go beyond that. When I see a person’s freedom curtailed – when I see people lose autonomy over their body in the most comprehensive and painful of ways, for example – I feel moved to condemn that curtailment. It isn’t just that I would prefer things to be otherwise. It’s Wrong. I feel bad in a very certain way when I am confronted with such Wrong things, and that feeling seems different from the feelings I get when my own particular interests are not realised (unless my failure seems unjust, but let’s save that for a moment).
I can talk about it being Wrong very easily. I can use language that treats right and wrong as though it were similar to truth and falsity. I can apply the principles of reason to determine whether an act or an outcome is good or bad, once I’ve been able to figure out how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ should be defined. And of course, I have figured that out, very generally, because I’m the sort of person who thinks about such things.
So I’ve got this ethical system. It happens to be a kind of ‘rule utilitarianism’, in case you haven’t noticed from all of my little essays on the subject. It works pretty well for me. It helps me navigate difficult moral dilemmas, and it has so far proven quite robust. I mean, I have my self-serving biases and I certainly could see that other ethical systems have their merits, but I’m usually able to reconcile these things with my working understandings of how people behave and how we all should act.
But it’s all false. Well, actually, it’s not even true or false. It’s absurd. I’m treating a proposition – ‘an outcome is good directly proportional to the extent to which it facilitates human wellbeing/happiness – as though it were true when there is no possible way that it could ever be so. I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with the fact-value distinction or the is-ought distinction. There is no way to derive what we should be doing from any understanding of what is the case. There is no way for our particular desires to hold some kind of metaphysical status as universal, or otherwise to be ‘real’ except contingent upon us happening to hold them. All moral principles are equally impossible because there is no part of reality in which they could exist as anything more than our own thoughts and feelings even if we treat them as though they are propositions with truth value.
Now, since we’re good rational thinkers, we cannot abide by the thought of investing our confidence in, and shaping our behaviour based upon, absurd and clearly untrue beliefs. We hold others to high standards of epistemology, and we’d be hypocrites if we exempted ourselves from the same standards. In fact, it’s those very standards that have freed us from our own ignorance and foolishness!
Most people who see The Problem in these terms, myself included, are able to give a plausible account of why they are humanists. They explain that they were genetically and environmentally conditioned to feel empathy, and that a society full of humanistic people is likely to be peaceful, prosperous, and pleasant. So of course being humanist is the most rational, as well as the most predictable, moral position for them to hold. This account allows one to justify humanistic ethics in self-interest and affect, and therefore dispense with the impossible metaphysical commitments of moral realism.
And yet there’s that pedantic voice in the back of our head going ‘hypocrite!’ It’s saying ‘you know that this is still no justification’. If you’re not a psychopath, anyway. And it bothers you. You would really like to satisfy your inner pedant.
You can’t. You never will. We are ineluctably driven to morality and cannot by force of will or argument abrogate that.
You have evolved to reason deontically about social behaviour and to feel a whole host of emotions related to the forms of it which you encounter in others and in yourself. You necessarily must have some standard of fairness, compassion, of in-group and out-group. You will always feel that transgressions upon these standards are Wrong in the sense that the violate some kind of universal and universalisable principle. No matter how much you ruminate on the absurdity of it all, you will still have these things.
So just embrace it. Realise that you can be part of a vibrant moral discourse even without some kind of epistemic warrant for those claims you and others defend so passionately. Apply all the Reason you can muster to debate and articulate the particulars of righteousness. Start with what ‘feels’ right to you – you are, after all, already a humanist, more or less – and let your intuitive and trained commitment to coherence guide you to constantly critique and resolve the discrepancies between what you claim to value and what you actually see and do. Make morality intersubjectively real, and you won’t have this crushing feeling of nihilism.
Simply engaging in the process of moral discourse will satisfy you. Try it. Try really hard to start not at the level of questioning what warrant you have for your moral beliefs and instead just start at the level of discourse, of intersubjectivity.
I’m not saying that you should just be an ethical anarchist and assert whatever moral claim pleases you. Well actually, I am saying that, but I’m assuming that you find it painful to assert contradictions or rely too much on tautologies (in the non-trivial sense) when at all possible. Keep being reasonable.
But of course, in the end you will have to have at least one tautology, one axiom on which to base your calculations of right and wrong. I will suggest that you try to find a small set of very flexible, broadly consequentialist principles such as I have done, if starting from intuition in every discussion seems sloppy or difficult for you. The simpler and more general the principle, the easier it will be for you to assimilate and apply it without feeling the pointlessness of it all. But this is, of course, simply a bit of advice on how to turn morality into a good habit, more than anything.
Yes, it’s absurd. Yes, it’s hypocritical. But it doesn’t matter. Because nothing matters, and this will make you happy. It will let you focus on navigating the dilemmas of social life. So make an exception just this once.