When people disagree with me on matters of morality, they often ask, "why do you think that's a sin / duty?" This question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of morality. To illustrate I'll play devil's advocate: why is it wrong to steal? There are a few possible responses I've heard or can think of, but none of them actually answer the question.

The point is that there is no why. All reason can do is go from one proposition to another that it entails, and for factual matters this is fine since we get factual information to start with from sensory experience; but statements of fact alone can never entail statements of morality. So to get our moral system started we have to get a foundation from conscience.

I'll describe how this process works. Conscience is a built-in mental faculty all people have that judges possible actions from the person's current situation. From these case-by-case judgements, there are two ways to derive a moral system:

getMoralSystem = do
    judgement <- conscience
    return $ inductiveReason judgement
How to derive a moral system in Haskell

Conscience itself, though, must necessarily be infallible because every other source of moral judgements is flowing from it. Arguing that conscience is not infallible is the same as arguing that the source material for a work of fiction is not infallible on the canon of the story.

But, just like reason in its domain, the accuracy of conscience depends on having the correct inputs. Of course an infallibly wise person could be 'wrong' on a practical judgement if you lied to them about the facts of the case. Conscience, similarly, depends on being fully aware of how everyone involved will be affected by a given action. For example a newborn likely doesn't realize that the other people around them have feelings like they do, and so neither they nor their consciences are to blame if they act selfishly. Hypotheticals are even more so. Since you're not actually in the situation, your mind might fill in some details the statement of the scenario left out (such as the motive for a crime), and if you didn't realize you were doing this, you could get a bad reading from your instinct on what your conscience would say. I catch myself doing this all the time.

For the purposes of merit and blame though, conscience is infallible without any caveats (just like reason), because of course you can't be at fault for doing what you had no way to know was wrong.

You might ask me at this point whether I believe that all people's consciences are in agreement. After all, if I didn't then universal morality the requirement that the correct moral system is the same for everyone would be broken. My answer is an unhesitant yes. Everyone's conscience is infallible and operates according to the same underlying principles. I need to point out that there's an apparent inconsistency in such an objection: no one seems to deny that what is logical or rational is the same for everyone (provided they aren't misinformed), and we make that judgement using our own individual reasoning. Why does nobody think it's a problem that this means either everyone's reasoning is the same or universal rationality is broken?

But even besides what I've explained about needing the correct inputs and having to go through instinct for hypotheticals, it might seem that people can be wrong about morality while listening to their conscience. This is due to the further complication that most people aren't even talking about the same thing I am when they say "conscience" or even "morally good". We were all trained to observe certain rules as kids - don't hit people, don't steal, don't be mean, don't break the law (note that all of these rules are at least missing two exception clauses) - and told that these behaviors were what the word "good" meant. So now all of the morality-related vocabulary in most people's minds has been corrupted to refer to this preconceived system instead of the actual voice of conscience. When most people ask their "conscience" whether a given action is "good", they're really asking their instinct whether the action is in accord with the contradiction-riddled ideology they were raised with - because that's what they've been told these words mean. It's not easy to tell them the real definition of conscience either, because if you just say "it's the voice that tells you what's right and wrong", they think, "Oh, it's that thing I'm already using", but they haven't actually internalized what you were trying to convey. I had to write this whole article to explain it, and I'm still not sure that I succeeded.



This page was last modified 2020 May 28, Thursday, 16:28 (UTC)