Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 3

By | December 20, 2010

John sets the scene for his argument for objective Moral Truth – 3

Juan, indulge me in a brief fantasy requiring that you imagine the following:

(1) The Nazis won the war, used atomic weapons to conquer the rest of the world, and imposed a rigid set of laws which included the death penalty for Jews, homosexuals, outspoken philosophers, and a few other pesky groups.

(2) A highly intelligent space visitor (not human, but very evolved) observed the Earth and these quaint traits. In his report to his superiors he must check off the level of moral development of the Earth’s culture. The scale was an advanced variation of Kohlberg’s scale, ranking from low, to various degrees of medium, high, or Ideal. What would be an intelligent basis for that highest level of evaluation? Is there a rational foundation for a trans-cultural or even a trans-species moral code? Does Kant’s Moral Law qualify for that role?

I propose that there is a correct point of view about ideal conduct, and that Plato was a bold explorer who showed the path to later thinkers like Kant who discovered (NB, not invented) the Moral Law. Yes, we find the Golden Rule present in some early human cultures, and as an ideal it was a remarkable advance for civilization, but it was not formulated with the depth of thought given to it by Kant. My imagination allows me to think that there will be advances and developments in the future on some of Kant’s insights, but he had the correct idea of the Moral Law. What I read (and perhaps it is an inaccurate understanding) in your words is that there isn’t much sense in saying that there is a correct point of view independent of human critters. Would you continue to maintain that position if we do discover and have contact with more advanced species in the future, in a galaxy not too far away? Would it surprise you if the most advanced species held a belief in Kant’s Moral Law?

My reply-3:

John, you pose a number questions some of which I may not be able to answer (you really have me up against the wall, right?); but I’ll try to deal with them. I might just reject some of them as based on faulty assumptions, but let’s see what we can do with them.

I don’t have any way of knowing what the intelligent space visitor would say about the situation you outline, since I have no idea what kind of morality his kind would have evolved. Maybe he would not see any moral implication in rigid Nazi laws imposed on minorities. But you assume that he would have some moral beliefs similar to ours and would rank cultures in terms of moral development. Given this assumption and allowing that our alien visitor recognized moral values similar to ours, I imagine that he would rank the moral situation as a very bad one; but I haven’t the least idea how to answer your questions (What would be an intelligent basis for that highest level of evaluation? Is there a rational foundation for a trans-cultural or even a trans-species moral code?). Our space visitor might have some intelligent basis and a rational foundation for his moral judgments; but how can I say? I doubt that this alien space would appeal to Kant’s moral law. (I have good reasons for this doubt, but that would take us too far afield at this time.)

A real world situation similar to the imagined one you present actually can be found in our history: Western Nations’ treatment of the new world natives. Their cultures, religions, moral beliefs and practices were destroyed by the European invaders. Then the European invaders justified this murder and destruction on the basis of a perceived moral-religious superiority. The survivors were treated badly, their needs and interests ignored or even rejected; and this was quite acceptable from the Western point of view, some of which was supported and defended by Western philosophers as morally acceptable. How would an intelligent, morally developed visitor rate that moral situation? I submit that he would give Western humans a very low rating. And he would probably have an intelligent, rational basis for his judgment — not Kant’s moral law and surely not a vision of Plato’s form of the good! Maybe it would simply be a judgment rooted in what experience teaches regarding the optimum development of sentient, intelligent creatures: respect for the lives and dignity of other sentient, intelligent creatures. Who knows?

Since I’m not as impressed by Kant’s moral theory as you are (there are many problems when one tries to apply his “moral law” to real world moral situations), I don’t accept your statement as the Golden Rule was not developed with the “depth of thought” that Kant’s moral law enjoys. How can you say what “depth of thought” went into the development and application of the Golden Rule? In terms of an expression of the value of human justice, the Golden Rule (stated in negative terms) is a far better statement than Kant’s law, especially when we consider his claim that violation of the law implies a contradiction, and thus implies that immorality always involves a contradiction. We have no reason for holding that morality and rationality always work together this way.

The notion that there’s a “correct point of view (regarding morality) independent of all critters” strikes me as a hangover from the idea that God is the ground for moral good and the idea of moral knowledge as that which would be manifested in God’s eye-view of the Truth. This is that age-old hunger for a transcendent basis for morality. There are many problems with this perspective of which I’ll mention only two:
1) we have absolutely no basis for thinking that there really is any such thing (neither Kant’s moral law nor Plato’s form of the good will do).
2) Even if you found such transcendent reality, it is hard to see what relevance it would have on human moral beliefs, moral judgment, and moral behavior.

Moral good is not a form of knowledge, not even a putative knowledge of a transcendent moral reality. A good part of what we understand by “moral good” is manifested in the certain behavior and the development of certain character; and the expression of certain values and judgment. It is manifested in the context of not knowing some putative transcendent truth. There are a number (probably a large number) of morally good people in many places; but there is no evidence that anyone really has knowledge of some transcendent moral truth. Some people (including some philosophers) believe they have this type of knowledge and claim they do; but this is just what they claim; it is not anything they can make good.

Speculation as to the possibility that a morally superior culture of a remote galaxy would have discovered Kant’s moral law might have some value as a thought experiment. Yes, I would be shocked if that were so; since I don’t think that Kant’s law is something that can ever be discovered. I seriously doubt that Kant discovered anything. He came up with a ‘theory’ of morality or a way of thinking about morality. This has been given a place of honor in Western philosophy; he had some good insights on a few aspects of morality. But I don’t agree with your characterization of him or of Plato as bold explorers and the implied suggestion that they discovered something of high importance. They were just humans trying to work out some problems and coming up with their ‘solutions.’ But in both cases, their so-called solutions have limited value.

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