Sunday, May 16, 2010

Morality vs. Truth vs. Happiness

Another criticism of rationalism or atheism that's increasingly coming from within the movement is that the problem of morality doesn't get enough airtime. Many "nones" are people that have no use for religion, but aren't particularly bothered by epistemology either; they, like most people, just want to be good people and live the best life they can. This is true of most religious people as well.

That religious and non-religious people largely make the same moral decisions, and that non-religious parts of the world are safer and more stable, strongly suggests that religion is not the source of morality. But it's still not obvious how we do determine right and wrong. Not only is this philosophically important, it's the question that (I suspect) is probably most likely to hold back nascent atheists.

Our current moral intuitions insist that pleasure alone can't be the only moral principle. To take the extreme case, most of us believe that you can't just give everyone opiates and say that the path to the most moral life is to short-circuit our reward systems and sit there drooling on ourselves until we die of dehydration (but having greater pleasure than would otherwise be possible). Importantly and conversely, many of us do believe this is acceptable in people who would otherwise be in pain and will shortly die anyway; this is a real world decision that affects people every day. Marx quotes notwithstanding, are comforting false beliefs different? Why or why not?

This opens up to the more general question of whether happiness and truth can be in conflict, and their relationship to moral behavior. Humans are imperfect, irrational creatures, and it's anything but obvious that happiness, truth and morality (however you define it) always covary. If they conflict, which one wins? I realize that supposing that there is a serious conflict there is to undermine the whole Enlightenment program, and feeds into the one version of the (usually poorly formed) objection by theists that reason leads us astray, so come back to God. I suspect that atheists have until now intuitively avoided these kinds of questions for exactly that reason. At the same time, it has to be said that theists' resorting to this objection (that always insisting on rigorous investigation of truth claims is not the way to a good life) is a bit precious, since it necessarily acknowledges that their own beliefs are nonsense.

Now see, just since my previous post I already relapsed into epistemology. I could have been doing some kind of outreach to softcore theists with similar political aims or donating a few dollars to the Secular Coalition for America, which would make a bigger difference.


Teleprompter said...

But, as a philosophy major, I do get a serious kick hearing you talk about epistemology...and I do agree with your contentions in this post that truth and happiness and morality may definitely clash, and that as human beings (and more narrowly, as non-theists), this tension needs to be explored.

Michael Caton said...

Absolutely. This is a much more important question than all the other stuff that typically occupies our discussions, even our "internal" ones.

TGP said...


If you're not reading this guy every day, you ought to.

Puzzling over is/ought really at the center of the whole morality/truth/happiness triad. Any oughts that don't come from an is are really just baloney. Any morality not based on real-world evidence is negligence.