Friday, August 22, 2014

Morals without worlds

If there hadn't been a world, if there had been just nothing, would there still have been a basis for morality? Some philosophers seem to think there would. For example: there would still have been reasons to do the right thing regardless (i.e. regardless of whether anyone existed to do it). But, this is hard to make much sense of: reasons drifting around outside of space and time, unattached to anything?
   Dissolve the universe leaving no physical remainder, then, or so the idea appears to be, this would have no effect on the existence of, say, moral principles. Here, we might agree up to a point. We might accept that such principles cannot be destroyed in the way the thought experiment envisages. But instructive puzzles remain.
   Suppose there is a world in which the existence of certain moral principles is recognized and that world ceases to exist. Here, we might want to say that the principles in question have some kind of latent operational status. In such circumstances it still remains true, for instance, that it would be wrong to do X. This has to mean something like: if beings capable of moral judgement and behavior were to exist, then it would be wrong for them to do X.
   If we go along with this, we end up with a world filled with all possible moral principles. For from each instance of 'if there were to be creatures who lived in such and such ways', we can derive the existence of moral principles relevant to their behavior. This encourages us to think of moral principles sitting there waiting to be discovered. We might also wonder whether we can ever to sure about our own moral status. Might we not fare very badly in that respect when scrutinized in the light of moral principles that we have not yet discovered?
   But, if you think about it, the chances are that we are already faring badly. For moral principles that we are unaware of already exist. Ignorance will not get us off the hook.
   Recall, however, that we were originally thinking of the case where there is simply no world in the first instance. Doesn't even latent operational status becomes nebulous in this case? Can we say "no" without having to lean on platonic myths as support for so saying? Are we happy to allow that moral principles can neither be created or destroyed, but are just there?
   A pragmatist can agree that all sorts of new moral principles might be 'discovered' in the future, and even that we might look bad in the light of them. But, these will be created at the time, out of the social circumstances that happen to exist then. To think of them already being there in splendid isolation, waiting to be found, is the kind of mistake that the philosophical imagination has been prone to for far too long.

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