Logic and morality

April 5, 2010 at 10:58 pm (Articles) (, , , , )

I’ve written a detailed article, and an argument map, explaining why I think vegetarianism is a logical conclusion for people trying to be moral.  So far, I’ve succeeded in convincing exactly zero people.

Why is it that people are not convinced?

The first explanation is that I’m wrong.  It is certainly possible that there are aspects of my argument that can be mitigated.  Obviously, I’ve started with the concept of vegetarianism and argued from there – perhaps if I had to refute an argument for eating meat written by a meat-eater, I would have a harder time making it seem so incontrovertible.  However, it’s never a logical response that people reject my arguments with.  Somehow, logic is irrelevant in convincing people.

A second explanation is that people don’t really want to be moral.  I’m partially convinced that this is true, to a point: we are certainly willing to compromise our morality.  I often get “But meat tastes so good!”, which is an argument made either in jest, or with the implicit assumption that its OK to be amoral if it pleases us. But most people I know are genuinely good people.  They go out of their way to help others at no personal gain and they believe in animal rights.  I don’t think we can simply disregard morality.

A third explanation is that people haven’t got time or energy to fully take it in.  This makes them sound pretty lazy – after all, who could say that they support killing because they couldn’t be bothered to think about whether it was bad?  But actually, it is a complex problem.  My argument map shows how complicated the arguments get.  I’m asking people to understand this whole map, and figure out exactly how they disagree with it.  Or alternatively, to create an equivalent argument for their own position that I can think about.  This is a huge intellectual undertaking.

But actually, there is a fourth explanation (which to some extent encompasses the second and third): Human logic is an insufficient tool for morality.

What is logic for?

In practical life, logic tells you how to solve a problem.  If you want to cross a river, it can tell you how to do it based on your knowledge of how the materials at hand behave: for example, that wood floats.  If you want to be “be moral” it tells you what actions you can take to bring about things that you think are good.  What logic can’t do is tell you what to want to do; which problems to solve. It can’t tell you that you want to cross the river, or that you want to be moral, unless these are part of some greater “want” that itself cannot be explained by logic.

So far it would appear that logic can tell you how to be moral.  But the problem is that we aren’t inherently logical creatures.  We don’t sit and figure out every nuance of a problem logically before embarking on it – we just figure out what to do next, and do it.  We might make a simple raft to cross a river, and if that is good enough then we cross and don’t think any more about it.  If it’s not good enough, then we think about how to make a better raft, or perhaps a bridge.  So our logic gets repeatedly tested until it works.  As a scientist, I know from long experience that this is exactly how people proceed with complicated problems, even if they know everything they need to get the right answer in advance.  It’s simply too difficult to get the logic right first time. Human logic is an empirical process of testing ideas, rather than a deductive process.

Now think about how we solve the problem of “what is moral behaviour?”.  We think of some things that we want to do achieve with morality: a better world for all, fairness, treating others as we wish to be treated.  Then we think of how to do it, perhaps by charity, vegetarianism, or kindness.  But what test can there be for each individual action?  Everything we might choose to do makes us feel better, because we feel like we are being moral.  Unless we can perceive a clear wrong brought about by our actions, they are affirmed as being moral.  There is no way for us to tell if the world really is a better place, or if we are being truly fair.  There is no way for us to test our morality.

Some evidence for the lack of logic in moral codes

There is plenty of evidence that many systems of morality will lead to happy satisfaction that we are being moral.  Victorian society believed that all implications of sex were amoral: it was apparently amoral to use the word leg when talking to a lady.  In Muslim Dubai kissing in public is amoral, and even being raped can be a crime against morality. Such strict taboos on public behaviour are rare today, but of course all societies have an element of arbitrary morality.  We shouldn’t think that this is restricted to other, unfair societies: an example that western culture embraces the taboo on is public nudity.  Is public nakedness really amoral?  If so, why?  A more difficult issue is criminal punishment.  Is punishment primarily for the benefit of the victim, taking the form of restitution or retribution, for society in the form of incapacitation or deterrence of criminals, or is for the rehabilitation of the criminal?  All of these purposes rub against each other and we must make value judgements, e.g. about when to release criminals, or what a prison should be like.  Essentially, people purposefully obeying a moral code think they are good people for doing so, even though others may consider the same behaviour as immoral.

People believe they are moral if they are personally satisfied that their actions are moral.  Logic doesn’t come into it much, until people have a reason to question an aspect of the moral code.  If an illogical moral restriction impinges on a person they quickly realise that it is wrong, but its hard to think deeply about issues that nobody is actively making noise about.  Why question the public nudity taboo if everybody is happy anyway?  Why question eating meat when animals don’t complain?

So what does this mean for morality?

I’m forming the opinion that true morality, in the sense of encompassing all logical consequences of what we want from morality, is impossible in a real society.  Unless the code was enforced from the top down, even “good” people will not conform to such rules because they will not be able to accept the necessity for all of them.  This is because if a person mentally skips the deeper layers of thinking about the implications of their choices, there will be no consequences for them.  Such a person feels exactly as happy as a person fulfilling all the logical implications, both believing they are truly moral. And any system that is enforced from above is not morality, but just a system of society. (Though some society systems will clearly be better than others).

I make it sound like we need to be lazy and thoughtless to fail to be fully moral, but this is not really true.  We sometimes simply don’t know what is the most moral choice.  For example, I don’t give charity to beggars, because I’m told that its better to give to charities for the homeless instead.  However, I’m pretty sure that the jury is still out on which is truly better.  For example, if nobody gave to beggars then anyone who didn’t fulfil the requirements of the shelters would simply starve or freeze if they don’t turn to crime.  Alternatively, if everyone gave to the shelters directly, then they may have enough money to take everyone in.  So who should we give our money to?  The reality is that such uncertainties exist in all aspects of morality.

Rounding up: vegetarianism

I’m fairly depressed about morality after concluding that logic can’t help change people.  It seems as though we need to enshrine morality in our rules (either social or legal) for them to be fully accepted by all.  Although there is capacity for rapid society change (for example, smoking has gone from being common with a positive image to rare and disapproved of in only one generation), such changes require a concerted effort from all aspects of society.  Additionally there needs to be some motivation to the average person for change.  I hope for a fairer, more moral future, in which people genuinely consider their actions morally.  But the argument above has convinced me that it won’t happen simply by explaining the logic to people.

There is a parallel to the anti-slavery movement here – and I do believe that it is possible that future generations may view eating meat with the same level of repugnance that we view slavery.  Ending slavery required several things: it required a viable alternative (advances in machinery made slave labour less necessary), and a concerted effort by anti-slavery advocates to make slavers realise that it was immoral.  The viable alternatives to meat exist now: there is no need to eat meat any more.  But there is no body of people that find vegetarianism to be a very important subject, worth ruining lives over.  This is partially because it is a less important topic, but partially because there are no humans that it strongly affects.

This leads to a quandary to someone like me, who hopes to encourage vegetarianism.  On the one hand, I think the world would be a better place if more people embraced vegetarianism.  However, to bring that about I can’t just use logic and argument.  This has been done for thousands of years and achieved little.  Instead I have to advocate vegetarianism, to make a real detrimental impact on peoples lives if they don’t accept it, because that is how people will come to realise that the change is necessary.  This can mean anything from an aggressive political movement to strongly stating my point when people eat meat around me.  Such aggression goes against another rule of morality that I think is important: we should live and let live.  We should respect each others opinions, even when we believe them to be wrong.  For example, although I believe vegetarianism is an extremely important part of a truly moral society, others think other things, many of which I don’t want forced on me.

So should I become a more vocal vegetarian?  My argument above leads me to believe that no societal change can come about unless vegetarians are more vocal.  Yet to become vocal will strain friendships, cause tensions and generally make for a less happy life for many.  And unless I convince many other vegetarians to do the same, it would be for nothing anyway. Does morality require that I try to change others, or  is it enough to satisfy my own moral code?  Which is the greater good?

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