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Moral Intuitions

Humans have moral intuitions. We feel that actions vary from being very wrong to very good. These feelings are derived from evolution and culture. Some cultures imbue different feelings in their inculcates: Haitian Christians are “righteously” murdering homosexuals while Americans feel it morally necessary to give them the right to marry. Moral intuitions aren’t consistent across humanity.

Still, strip away the layers of cultural development and something is left: Human universals — of which anthropologists have cataloged dozens. I suspect for any secluded tribe of which there has been little cultural development what remains is humanity’s moral universals. For instance, I doubt murdering at a whim is considered morally good, anywhere. No doubt that random killings happen, but is it considered a moral good? Actually, the more I think on it, the less sure I am. I can imagine cultures where random killings are considered morally neutral — even killings amongst their own. This might be the case in war torn areas of Africa where child soldiers roam the country sides pillaging and murdering. At the least, if there are moral universals, I’d be surprised if they weren’t easily overridden by culture. Or perhaps moral universals are less obvious from a Western perspective. Perhaps something like acquiring status is a moral universal. Perhaps, universally, it’s morally good to execute higher status actions. High status does seem to be universally defined as a good. Even in communist and socialist circles there is status. Whatever the case, morality isn’t immutable, and culture is the dominating factor.

What does this say for normative ethics? Can there be a consistent and coherent way of morally evaluating an action? Is there a complete system of morality from which our current intuitions approximate? I suspect not. I suspect moral intuitions are developed by a cultural system of heuristic building. “This heuristic works well enough for our society, and so our citizens should be expected to adopt it lest they lose status.” And ad infinitum. What you’re left with is a patchwork of heuristics that help society flourish — this may be what evolution brought to the table. But, wait, can’t this process be optimized? Can’t it be turned into math?

The answer is “yes, but.” But once you take this process into the realm of math and make it optimal, it takes on another shape. A shape that humans weren’t evolved to intuit, like quantum-level effects. Maximizing average or total preferences, happiness, ideals, and so on becomes the goal and consequently leads us to strange conclusions. Conclusions we won’t accept. But, wait, average and total utility? Does that make any sense given what we know about morality? Morality is a system for guiding interactions among people. It’s not meant for individuals. What’s good is what’s good for society — not for all the individuals in that society. We’re doing the wrong math!

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