A Note On Moral Consistency
A little over a year ago I found myself exposed to a some ideas and paradigms that were mostly new to me. I won’t get into the specifics of those ideas – they form the majority of my topics here anyways. It all got me thinking that I should take a close look at my morals, ethics, and beliefs, as I had never really followed any sort of guiding principle in building them initially. What I ended up doing, essentially, was breaking down my existing set of beliefs and convictions and rebuilding them on a solid, logical foundation – a sort of Peano Metaphysics. This is a work in progress, and it’s not exactly a formal process, but it has turned out to be a far bigger task than I had anticipated.
My beliefs about existence in the natural world – my ontology and epistomology – haven’t changed very much. I’ve always been more or less scientifically minded, so I have a pretty good grasp of what constitutes evidence, what it is reasonable to believe, etc. I have certainly rounded out my knowledge of evolution, psychology, and philosophy of science, which has helped strengthen some of my beliefs, weaken others, and given me a great deal of insight into the nature of belief itself.
Building an internally consistent moral framework has been much trickier. What I would like to end up with is a relatively small and simple list of axioms that can be plugged into any situation and worked through to their logical conclusion to arrive at a satisfying solution. I used to operate on a case-by-case basis, judging each moral dilemma as unique, and full of shades of grey – not the kind of thing you apply rules to. On the surface, that sounds like the more reasonable position, but it often leads to contradictions, and I have come to think that a moral system without a logical, prescriptive nature is difficult to distinguish from an ad hoc, anything goes, whatever feels good right now system.
The problem with this endeavour is that a small and simple list of axioms followed to their logical conclusion often lead to quite unsatisfying answers. The choice then is whether to accept the seemingly objectionable conclusion, or modify the axioms. My usual approach is to try out the conclusion for a while, to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Sometimes I’m surprised by the result, and sometimes I end up looking like a lunatic and have to drag my tail between my legs back to the drawing board. I imagine this can be very frustrating for my friends, the unwilling participants in my personal experiment, who are being subjected to this madness.
I really do think that consistency is important. I can think of three people who really embody a truly consistent morality: Peter Singer, Penn Jillette, and Fred Phelps. They certainly don’t share the same morality; their underlying axioms are quite different. For example, Singer is a utilitarian who thinks we should offer certain ‘human’ rights to non-human apes, Penn is a fervent humanist who has said he would gladly kill every chimp on earth with his bare hands to save the life of a single heroin addict, and Fred Phelps says God Hates Fags.
Generally I tend to agree with Penn (though on the above example I’m with Singer), and Peter Singer offers some novel ideas that have really made me think (Dawkins has called Singer “one of the most moral people in the world“). Phelps has an ontology and epistomology so far removed from my own that we might as well be speaking different languages. Still, I have a certain kind of respect for people who are willing to follow the logic of their principles no matter where it may lead. When Penn says his heart lies with the kooks, I think this respect for moral consistency is what he means (the theatrical and scripted ‘Bullshit’ notwithstanding).
[Note: I use Phelps more as a representative of all religious fundamentalism. There are individuals whose theology is far more consistent than Phelps’. When I say I respect him, it is very heavily qualified. Given his assumptions, his conlusions are logical. It’s the fact that he accepts the premises he does that makes him a monster. Perhaps those who accept the same premises, but reject the necessary conclusions are no less monstrous, they just lack the conviction to carry out monstrous acts.]