MORALITY RELIES ON KNOWLEDGE
To know what is right, first know what is
In order for a human to be moral, it seems neccessary that it must first make sense of the world. Suppose a human holds a moral sentiment that can be described by the proposition “murder is wrong”. This requires us first of all to understand something about “murder”. We must have had some experience of it in the world. We must have either seen it occur, or have absorbed a description of it in some form. Without this knowledge, it seems impossible to hold any moral position on “murder”. By removing any knowledge of “murder” we render the position entirely meaningless. This principle of reference seems to apply in any moral proposition. A moral proposition must refer to an object or event, or category of object or events, and without some knowledge of the events or objects, it is impossible to hold the moral position at all. In this way, morality depends on knowledge.
Just as morality depends on knowledge, knowledge relies on perception. If something is not perceived, directly or indirectly, then it cannot be understood at all, and certainly knowledge of it is impossible. Without the perception, the belief ceases to exist, but without the belief perception still stands to be reinterpreted as a new belief.
Perception is neither true or false, correct or wrong, accurate or innacurate. Imagine if, lost in the desert, you see a shimmering haze of blue colours ahead and believe you have reached an oasis. As you walk on, however, it becomes clear that there is no oasis nearby, but that it was a mirage – an illusion. It is not our sight, our perception, that is “wrong”, but merely our belief that an oasis is nearby; our perception of a shimmering blue remains. What we perceive stands independent of this belief.
Even if, as philosophy asks us to consider, our entire life is an elaborate illusion created by a powerful yet deceptive being bent on deceiving us at every turn, our perception is not wrong, only the belief we construct from these perceptions. If the world in which we live is actually a computer simulation of some kind, our perception is no less real – the signals that are being fed to us are very real. While our beliefs outside the context of the simulation may appear misguided, our perception is never wrong, it simply takes place.
Belief, on the other hand, can be imperfect. It is limited by our perception, and we are often surprised by events or objects that we previously did not perceive, predict or expect. New events occur outside our previous understanding. This would be impossible with complete knowledge, therefore belief must always be incomplete. Belief can also be wrong or innacurate. Error and disappointment seem impossible without inaccurate beliefs. What we believe to exist, sometimes does not exist. What events we predict to occur, do not always come to pass. Thus belief is flawed.
If our beliefs can be flawed, then perhaps our moral statements can be too. Yet we have already consider the fact that a moral statement can be neither true or false. There is something very different about a moral statement such as “Jack ought to give Jill the water”, from a statement that says “Jack gave Jill the water”. At least since the time of David Hume philosophers have been aware of this difference of moral statements, sometimes called the “is-ought distinction“, and how morality exists separate from the world of fact.
It seems intuitively possible that two humans with identical knowledge on a topic may develop very different moral positions. It also seems true that it is possible for us to have complete knowledge of a topic, and yet have no moral opinion towards it. If the is-ought distinction is sound then we can reason that morality is not merely a subspecies of knowledge. It is something different. Morality seems to be of a different form of thought to beliefs and knowledge.
However, before we disappear into the relativist crevasse, let us consider that all moral statements retain a vital relationship with beliefs. A moral statement must be “about something” in order to carry any kind of meaning. So I can state “killing a Yeti is wrong”, but if the listener has never seen nor heard of Yetis, the statement will have no moral significance at all. As such a moral statement is totally dependent on its factual claims to allow it to carry weight. This also implies that a human’s morality is limited in scope by their beliefs.
Another interesting consequence of this relationship between beliefs and morality is the dependence of morality on the accuracy and truthfulness of the beliefs. Where a moral position relies on inaccurate beliefs rather than knowledge, the position appears to be rendered totally meaningless or empty. This is not to say that innaccuracy renders a moral statement untrue – moral statements can never be true or false. However, if the moral statement relies on innacurate beliefs, then it is seems impotent, hollow and meaningless.
Suppose we hold that “killing a virus is morally wrong”. If we can prove that a virus, by definition or observation, is not alive, then it follows, logically, that it cannot be killed. The statement is not a meaningful moral statement, because it relied on untrue assumptions. The factual innaccuracy has destroyed the moral potency of the statement. This leads us to some vital conclusions.
Firstly – Moral statements are limited in their scope by beliefs
Secondly – Any moral statement is potent only to the degree that its factual components are accurate.
Thirdly – A human’s moral positions are limited in potency by the accuracy and breadth of their beliefs. An increase in knowledge increases the potential for morality.
If knowledge is neccessary for and underpins morality, then in order for a human being to be highly moral, they require a have a highly developed knowledge of their world. Their beliefs must be accurate and broad enough to help them navigate their environment in a moral way.
Knowledge is not a sufficient condition for morality – it is certainly possible for knowledgable humans to lack morality. However, knowledge is a neccessary condition for morality. That is, without accuracy, without knowledge, there can be no morality. Knowledge is a fertile soil in which morality can grow, and given the favourable conditions, morality will have the best opportunity to take root and thrive.
This gives us a basic princple of being a moral human – aquire the most accurate knowledge available concerning the world you live in. Resolve to constantly re-examine all your factual beliefs, seeking out knowledge wherever you can. Get access to new information that can help you discard hollow, meaningless or illusionary moral positions, and build new moral positions of real substance, based upon the truth of the world you strive everyday to understand. Let knowledge be the first cornerstone of your moral life.
Before we go further, let us briefly consider structure of moral statements. Moral positions, as well as relying on beliefs, also often appear to rely on other moral positions. A person may state a moral position they hold saying “Jane is bad because she is a murderer”. This moral position appears to relies on, among other things, the moral position that “murder is bad”. It seems impossible for someone to hold the first position while opposing the second. If a human was to claim to do so, then it seems they are either lying or their meaning has become confused in its expression. Confronted with apparent contradictions of this kind, most humans will strive for consistency in their moral positions. It seems impossible for them to willingly hold contradictory moral positions.
However, if all moral statements relied upon other moral statements, then digging deeper we would always find another statement requiring justifcation of yet another statement. To hold a single moral position, a human would need to adhere to an infinite number of supporting moral positions. It seems impossible for a human to hold an infinite number of moral positions, and it certainly seems impossible for an infinite number to all be consistent with one another.
Given the neccessity for consistency in human morality, then we can reason that not all moral positions are derived from other moral positions. Some must be more fundamental and exist at the core of a human’s moral justifications. These core moral beliefs provide a starting point for other moral positions to grow from – a kind of root for all the branches of a moral tree structure. If for some reason these core moral principles were problematic, then large parts of the moral trees are rendered invalid.
So, we can imagine moral positions structured in one or more “tree” structures, with moral positions having in most cases “parent” positions and “children” positions. These are arranged in branches leading back to those core moral positions which are without parents, without further dependancies. Part of understanding a moral proposition is to explore the connected moral branches and trace its dependencies back to its moral roots. The beliefs implied in root position could be examined carefully to allow one to identify the validity of the moral tree.
The core morality is also useful to identify because it is usually more stable than its children. In addition to its moral dependancies, a child branch is reliant on both the factual beliefs it makes reference to, and all of the factual references of all of the moral branches along its parent lines in the tree. If any one of these factual references is innacurate, then the moral position risks becoming morally meaningless, just as it would if the position itself relied on an innacurate belief. If there is a fault at the root, then even the most carefully considered branches can collapse.
Even more vital is that if our knowledge changes, the only way hollow or meaningless moral statements can be corrected is if we are aware of the root of our morality is clearly understood. In a way, the means become the ends. Flawed moral branches get in the way of insight into matters of great moral significance if we do not search for the core principles of true weight.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
A deep desire for the truth and a belief in the physical reality of human morality – these are two of the foundations to investigating how we can lead a moral life. The principle of knowledge tells us that we must search out the truth and investigate our world, in order to be moral. And our understanding of ourselves, as humans, as physical creatures possessing physical morality, informs our search.
At the heart of our moral trees we often find reference to ourselves. For example, we might reason “I must not kill another person, for they are like me”. This indexical reference to ourselves, while it may appear to relativise morality at first, in fact provides a clue to the very real garden in which a truely potent morality must grow. It is in knowing what we are. An accurate understanding of ourselves is absolutely vital in investigating our moral foundations. We must know the truth of this, searching without sentiment and seekly tirelessly the most accurate knowledge available.
Consider what we humans really are. Humans are a part of life on Planet Earth. We are primates, mammals evolved amongst countless species flourishing and evolving over a period of billion years. We are a product of the apparently amoral forces of evolution. Yet you, and I, and countless others are moral. How can this be so? In answering this we can unlock the truth about ourselves, a truth that lies at the heart of human morality. This is the next step in our journey.
Next – Dynamic Cooperation