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Morality: Philosophy vs Biology

This semester I’m taking an introductory course through the Philosophy department called Biomedical ethics. After four classes, I’m convinced I’m insane for taking this class “for fun.” So far we’ve just been learning about ethics in general, and my brain is already melting. Somehow my mind manages to agree and disagree with about every topic we’re presented, no matter how contradictory they are. I admit I’m totally unfamiliar with philosophy, but right now it just seems like a whole lot of bullshit that grad students pull out of their ass while at the pub.

I’m fine on understanding sound and valid arguments – those are based on logic, which I understand – but my mind explodes when we start talking about various moral theories. I think my problem is that I view things as a scientist and a biologist, and I have a really hard time getting into the mindset of a philosopher.

For example, our professor has spent the last two classes talking about how moral subjectivism (moral statements are true and false, but their truth is determined by the attitudes and beliefs of society and culture) and emotivism (moral statements are neither true nor false) are piles of crap. I don’t know if this is the common opinion of the philosophical community, but it doesn’t sit well with me.

As an atheist, I don’t think moral codes were carved into stone or written in a book. Rather, evolutionary biology and instincts explain most of our moral behavior (I recommend Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds). We automatically and rapidly come up with moral decisions based on instincts and emotions, and then after the fact we come up with reasoning to support our opinion. So are we really all just emotivists, but trick ourselves into thinking we’re being rational?

I also don’t understand how you can prove something to be morally right or wrong without invoking evolved behavior/emotion/instinct. Let’s say my professor is right and moral subjectivism and emotivism are totally and utterly wrong, and we’re just little logical machines. Whether you subscribe to consequentialist or deontological moral theories (or other ones, I have no idea what I’m talking about), it still doesn’t seem right to me. Let me play the annoying child for a bit:

Philosopher: Stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because it lowers the happiness of others/causes harm to others, and that is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because that’s the moral theory we’re using.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: *fails Jen*

Alright, yes, I think stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong. And if you asked me to outline the certain moral “rules” I follow, they would generally be to reduce harm to others. But why should that be my rule? Why do we label reducing harm as good? The way this class is teaching it, it seems like right and wrong are some sort of voodoo mysterious universal constants that simply are.

But the way I see it, morality evolved. We want to reduce harm to others because we evolved in a group situation, and the only way we could survive is if we stopped killing our family and tribe members long enough for us to all cooperate. If we evolved in a more independent environment, we may have a totally different moral system. Maybe the moral rule that would have evolved would have been caring only about your own children, and killing other children would be seen as a moral act.

Of course, maybe I’m totally wrong. I’m not familiar with philosophy, and it’s quite possible that I’m over thinking it by wondering where morals even came from to begin with. But that seems like a really important point to me. If instinct decides what’s morally right and wrong, what value do all of these various theories have? They’re not merely trying to predict what humans do do, because we don’t always act morally – they’re trying to say what we should do. I have a hard time accepting that my professor 100% rejects emotivism when everything seems to start there, and then get tweaked by a cognitive theory.

Aannddd I’ve gotten to the point where I think I’m self contradictory and my brain has oozed onto the floor. I really don’t know what I’m talking about and none of this stuff makes sense to me. As this is an atheist blog, I have a good feeling that I have a fair number of philosophers (amateur or otherwise) in my readership. Maybe you all can help explain this to me, because I’m not even making sense to myself.