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by Dave E. Matson

The question of morality, of how we ought to behave can only be answered if we agree on what we mean by that slippery word “morality.” If we are asking how we should behave, then we must complete the question by adding “to achieve goal X,” where X is specified. In failing to properly complete the question, we have an open-ended question that cannot be properly answered. A good example is: Is it right to kill? Try as we might, we will find no clear, scientific answer because the question is incomplete. We need to translate “right” to some meaningful phrase, and we need to complete the question. “Is it helpful to kill to achieve goal X?” might be one translation. Will killing some of your neighbors to achieve goal Y cause your neighbors to dislike you?” is another possible translation. Once we have removed the ambiguous words and fully expanded the question we find that answers are possible.

One view of morality might be to ask how one should behave in order to maximize one's happiness — with the proviso that you must trade places with others affected by your ruling from time to time on a randomly selected basis. Thus, if you make the greater part of humanity your slaves for the benefit of a few friends, then the odds of trading places would place you (most of the time) among the slaves. This morality question would be asked of everyone affected, and if a certain behavior got, say, 90% of the votes then it is deemed moral for that world.

There are no rules in nature to tell us “how to behave.” We have not asked a proper question! We must specify our goals. If our goal is to get along with others, to live a happy life, to keep a good conscience (our conscience having been created and honed by group evolution), then our choice of behavior is definitely not arbitrary! A good deal of it will be culturally determined of course. Going around in the nude, for example, was okay for Pocahontas when she was a girl of 10 or 12 because of the views of her society. Reportedly, she did naked cartwheels around the settler's newly built stockade! That part got left on Disney's cutting-room floor! Asserting that a lot of morality (maybe most) is culturally determined is not the same thing as saying it is arbitrary. It is not arbitrary for you once you have selected your goals. In asking what good behavior is, we must ask “Good for what?”. How the goal can best be met, of course, depends a lot on the society in question. The concept of morality cannot be defined in a metaphysical vacuum, an isolated splendor, from God on high to all. It has no meaning in that sense. It's like asking what strategy works best in poker. Well, it all depends on your hand and the probable hands of the other players, and on their psychological states. In that sense it is relative, but it is not arbitrary. General rules for good play can be worked out, but they are a generalization, a kind of imperfect summary of the rules applying to specific situations. Thus with morality. Its meaning is to be found in the specifics of human interaction and not in universal proclamations.

What is it that we really want from morality? What good is it to us? Do we need it as a grease to lubricate the wheels of society? Does it safeguard our happiness and the happiness of those around us? Should it apply to all conscious life? Or, is it merely a list of arbitrary rules for getting to “heaven”? A properly formulated question as to what we expect of morality will, in principle, allow a clear answer as to our course of action, but it is up to each of us to decide what our goals will be. Nature can't tell us what we ought to do until we have a specific goal.

Moral rules can be viewed as solutions to the problems of group living. If we want a group to function smoothly without repressing those individual freedoms we value, then the solutions we seek are not arbitrary. On certain critical matters, such as murder and theft, solutions are pretty much constrained to a few close choices. Morality is basically absolute. On other matters, such as dress codes, a wide variety of solutions may be possible. Moral codes become rather arbitrary.

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