I was eating Chinese food with some pretty girls the other day. I should note (beyond my innate inclinations for sexism) that when I say pretty, I don’t just mean physically attractive, these were highly intelligent and educated women. The best kind, and pretty.
Some days, being a man is just awesome.
We were talking law, one is a law student, and that led to my own fanboy-like obsession with Michael Sandel and his Harvard Justice series, and then to the Philosophy Bites podcast, another personal favourite. The conversation moved along nicely… then the bomb dropped.
PG1:…but that just leads to relativism.
Me: Well, yes, I’m a relativist.
PG1: You’re a relativist? Really? But…
And so we discussed the relative merits of Utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. I’m afraid I may have mangled a few of Sandel’s points on Aristotle, but it was interesting conversation, none the less. Sandel is of course a big fan of the Virtue ethics, whereas being a relativist, I view them all as ‘useful’ strategies for making moral decisions.
But that brings me back to Philosophy Bites. Today, I got around to listening to the podcast that includes: Professor John Mikhail from Georgetown University.
He talks about universal moral grammar, hypothesizing that humans have a system of innate principles or rules that guide our morality. “Young children are intuitive lawyers” able to distinguish acts based on the intent of the person committing the act.
He uses the example of the idea of Universal Human Rights, but also distinguishes between ‘acquired moral grammar’ and what he considers more basic and innate. So ‘freedom of speech’ might be the acquired, more complex idea that depends more on culture and ‘nurture’; whereas the more basic idea ‘freedom from harm’ may be the universal.
I should say, I find the use of the word ‘universal’ problematic, but mainly because of the philosophical problems that the word implies, not so much because I think his actual position is a bad one. To describe what Mikhail is talking about, I’d prefer the word ‘instinctive’, as in evolved reflexive behavior. I think modern science has put the lie to the idea that as children we are simply blank slates, although obviously how we are raised can have a huge influence on our beliefs.
I’ve stated before that I’m not a fan of Sam Harris’s warmed over utilitarianism, but I do think one can study human morality with science, both from behavioral observation and via neuroscience. In that sense I think we can come to describe certain common features of human moral behaviour, but I don’t think observed commonalities or averages tell us anything more than ‘what we think’ is moral. Ultimately right and wrong are up to the individual to decide, and as much as we are going to agree, we are also going to disagree.
Mikhail also has an interesting take on the trolley problem.