Foundational Postulates for Ethics
Part Four: Innate Moral Capacity
We have some innate capacities as social animals that provide a core source of moral reasoning that lies at the crux of both the theory of mind and social learning. That is, there is an innate skill set that allows us to judge the likely intentions of others, choose to identify them as friend or foe, plan responses for their likely future behavior, and interact, based on theory of mind. This interaction takes the form of social exchanges regarded as fair or foul, dedicated to knowledge sharing, activities of grooming and setting hierarchy, and so on.
Innate empathetic abilities supply the basis for recognition of other. Innate ideas about the fairness of exchanges among equals in hierarchy do show via experiment there is a fundamental recognition of sameness (equal standing) underlying fairness (justice). The inability to utilize these innate skills fully leads to many of the pathologies in interpersonal relations that psychology deals with, such as autism or sociopathic behavior.
The key thing to bear in mind is that this capacity does not provide a lockstep derivation of specific ethical formulations in a scientific or logical manner, rather baseline shared concepts that are then shaped by culture and belief.
This innate set of traits is not like that of language, however. There is no mental engine for constructing “well-formed statements,” as there is no innate ethical “grammar,” only the core sense of self and other that enables social behavior among intelligent agents: the theory of mind. Perhaps philosophers and logicians would dispute that, and lend us a grammar of all good thought they have handy. [This is a bit of an inside joke.]
(Caveat: I will use the term “empathy” imprecisely as an umbrella concept for innate moral capacity when it arises; I feel there is no need to be overly detailed if the conclusions or statements made remain faithful to the underlying facts and reasoning.)
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If the definition of an enlightened proponent of an idea is “someone who will not even defend his or her own position unequivocally,” which in intellectual due diligence is and ought to be the norm, how do we deal with ethical questions with enough conviction to act?
The reluctance to act in difficult moral situations, especially for those who do not derive their ethics from religious canon, can be a source of unnecessary equivocation. In a sense, our training to always start with an unshakable postulate and argue from there in science seems to leave us uncertain and unable to affirm our moral decisions with the vigor they may deserve.
Proofs are not needed in the same way they are in science. Although this rubs against learned practice, I hope the readers identifying with science or faith will agree that in treating ethics as a matter of social preference, we do not betray but can promote our views, and do not cross into the fallacy of appeals to nature or theocratic impositions we like to avoid.
For this reason, in future articles I will simply declare some ethical positions as just being so, but not as proven in the formal way our habits might lead us to want. But that is the nature of preference, and the statements can prosper only on the basis of any consensus they may lead to.
In other words, an ethical position cannot be “built from zero” using only science and logic, but it can indeed be “grown” from preference, and stem somewhat formally from a core ability to recognize other, and/or be inspired by articles of faith.
Each is free to express moral reasoning, and each free to agree or disagree. We do not need any deeper foundational postulates, perhaps having sought them all along in unconscious imitation of traditional argument in science.
Those of us identifying with science do not need to see a lack of meaning or direction in the physical world as a show-stopper for formulating and organizing strong ethical statements.
Religious moral reasoning enjoys of course the same legitimacy as any other, when and as it pertains to ethical behavior in society, which for me raises no red flags, as it might in other areas. Imposition of beliefs on others is another matter entirely. Using religious beliefs as a basis for moral reasoning is no different than using any other source of ethical preference, and is as legitimate; no more, no less.
We need a way to discuss moral issues without comparing specific doctrines in an endless loop of mutual recrimination. Most importantly for the case at hand — current militant Islamic terrorism — I am of the opinion that some valuable advances can be made with this overall approach, once we move all parochial or partial religious arguments into the general domain of ethics in society.
So to answer the oft-stated lament in science that there are no “foundational postulates” to form ethical positions: We don’t need them!
Certain Violence: Toward an Ethical Response to Extremism
I do not need to argue much, sadly, to convince anyone we are facing a difficult situation with religious extremism. However, when believers and unbelievers need to reach a consensus without reliving centuries of stormy argument, some difficult waters need to be charted carefully for a steady course.
Already I strain against these constraints, as there is a port of call in our convictions we must reach soonest, somewhere safe harbor and shelter for the innocent can be furnished. To reach this destination we need to tack carefully in our sailing, but also prepare meanwhile to row to shore and make good on our plans.
Skipping the metaphorical language, what is needed is to:
• Relieve the ethical tension between respect for the religious beliefs of others and the moral imperative to protect the innocent
• Find grounds for action that do not slip out from under us any time we wish to find solid purchase, and do not come back to bite in other form
• Avoid being drawn into the unnecessary distraction of deciding which canonical religious beliefs should be classified as moderate or extreme
• Establish clear policy and protocols for political action based on ethical consensus
• Act confidently in all ways needed to protect the innocent, both in prevention of and response to violence
Before navigating those waters, I wanted to provide the caveats and cautions herein. This concludes the first series, Foundational Postulates for Ethics. I think some clarification was needed before wrestling with some fairly slippery stuff.
If there is a call for war coming, it is for one against unreason and hubris, not people. But there will be a call for specific policy and step-wise actions that could create no small amount of tension. As mentioned earlier, there will be a consistent bias toward linking considered word to justified action in consensus, increasing as we progress.
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New Series: Certain Violence: Facing Extremist Threats
Prior Post: Does Consensus Open the Gates of Hell?