Epilogue to Question of Morality


It was only after writing the post on Question of Morality, that i realized that i was in fact dealing with the two questions, which had been treated as one by many previous thinkers. i.e. the question "What is Good?" and the question "How do we ought to act?", which i believe to be independent of each other. It was previously assumed(/defined) that a good act is intrinsically equivalent to an act which we ought to do. However, when the matter is seen from an evolutionary point of view, this dichotomy between the two becomes apparent. A good act is no longer an act which we ought to do... a good act becomes an act which satisfies our moral sense, which is a product of our (biological plus social) evolution. Crudely speaking, good has been reduced to a mere feeling. And in a sense, it has pushed the issue of "what is Good?" out of the domain of ethics. If we assume that we ought to follow our moral sense [i.e. we ought to do what is 'good'], this would be an assumption which cannot be proved rationally... it lacks philosophical necessity. So, even though i may have answered "What is Good?", and the major problem of ethics remains unanswered, "How do we ought to act?"

Even if we do assume that every one ought to follow his moral sense, i still do not believe that it provides a comprehensive or satisfactory model for ethics. There are many instances where we do have to go against our moral sense, over-riding it with our intellect. Take a simple example... nearly every person feels an impulse to give some money to a begger who is sitting on a street corner in a very pitiful condition. This is the normal response of the moral sense; it is designed to generate altruistic impulses. However, do we really ought to give money to that beggar? Maybe he is just a pretending to be in a pitiful state? Maybe he has been hired by some mafia group who would snatch all the money people donate to him, the money which would never reach him? Do these questions do not matter in how we should respond to the begger's cry for help? Yet, our moral sense is blind to these questions. It is not designed to "think". However, it would be wrong to say that the moral sense is futile... at minumum, it has provided us with a bare guidline that we should at least try to help the beggar. Our intellect intervenes and tells us that giving money to begger is not likely to improve his condition, and so we must think on a larger level... the level of society. Something must be done on the social level to eradicate beggary... but this must involve something of a sort of government. And now we have entered into the "legal" domain.

As can be seen, the ethical issue has been made much more complex... and i confess, i do not have any proper satisfactory answer to the ethical question. We do not have any utopian model of ideal behaviour... some fundamental principle which we can follow in all instances, without exception. I tend to feel that the utilitarian principle of "maximum happiness for the maximum number" does provide us with an ethical axiom which we can follow in most instances. Because the welfare on an individual is what matters most... in most cases. There are exceptions. The Kantian ethical imperative, which is just a technical version of the Golden Rule ['Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you’] seems to be me to a part of our moral sense, already encoded in our brain. [So, in a sense Kant was right, the imperative is apriori!]

At present, i can only say that i believe in a society that is governed by laws which loosely follow the Utilitarian principle and moral Zeitgeist, and which provides maximum personal liberty to people. I know this is not a satisfactory answer, and it is not immune from objections, but in the absence of any ideal ethical model, this does seem to me to be one of the better options.

[P.S. On a social level, perhaps the negative utilitarianism of Popper is better than simple utilitarianism. Popper writes, "Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle — the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative."]