Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 4

By | December 20, 2010

John – 4: John requests that I explain more my earlier refusal to concede that Kant discovered a moral law which an intelligent space alien would recognize:

I would be interested in some additional comments about your view (“Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 3”) that you “doubt that this alien from outer space would appeal to Kant’s moral law” and that you “have good reasons for this doubt.”

My reply-4:

John, I will try to elaborate my skepticism of the possibility that an alien society could appeal to Kant’s moral law. But I’m not sure that by doing so I’m referring to the same thing that you have in mind, since you never spelled out in detail the moral law which you think is an objective feature of the world and something that Kant discovered.

I suppose there are aspects of our moral life which can be said to be things that we discover. For example, I can imagine a society of people, maybe a hunting-and-gathering tribe, coming to ‘discover’ after decades of trial and error that cooperation among members of the tribe works better than aggression and hostile competition. So they come to ‘discover’ the value of cooperation, which eventually might lead to ‘moral rules’ like one that requires that one respect the rights of neighbors instead of stalking them and clubbing them to a bloody death. Eventually these might evolve into moral principles like the Golden Rule. So, in a sense, an anthropologist could say that they indirectly ‘discovered’ the Golden Rule.

Given that human cultures — no matter how widespread — share some similarities, we can imagine a number of different cultures ‘discovering’ the utility of cooperation, and imagine further, that this utility of cooperation evolves into a moral principle. So different cultures ‘discover’ the same type of moral principle. Could an alien, intelligent culture of a remote galaxy also discover similar rules? I suppose we could say that, if the alien culture is made up of creatures who gain by cooperating with each other, can learn to cooperate, and — hence — recognize the utility for the culture and for individuals of such cooperation, then we could imagine that under those conditions that culture would ‘discover’ something akin to our Golden Rule. (But is a just-so-story; I would not stake too much on it.)

But (and this is a big “BUT”) generally discovery is not something that happens in philosophy or is accomplished by philosophers as they work out their philosophical systems. Discovery is something done by real explorers, by scientists, by workers and tinkerers; discovery implies that there is something out there in the world to be discovered, such as a new passage to the Pacific, or a new way of powering a machine to grind grain, or the DNA molecule, or galaxies beyond the Milky Way, or the cause of a disease like Cholera, etc. Generally, artists and literary writers don’t discover things; they create imaginative works. Shakespeare did not discover Hamlet; he wrote it. Likewise with Cervantes and his Don Quijote, Mozart and his 39th Symphony, Michelangelo and his David. An alien, intelligent far-off in another Galaxy might have artists and writers equal or better than those of Earth; but it the chances of an alien Shakespeare (with the works of Shakespeare) or an alien ‘twin’ to any of our great artists, poets, composers — are so remote as to make it a virtual impossibility. However, their scientists (natural sciences) and mathematicians would probably make the same discoveries that ours have made, although a Galileo, Newton, Niels Bohr, or Einstein would not be found, as such, in that alien world.

What can we say about a philosopher like Immanuel Kant (or Plato)? If you would not be surprised to find that the alien culture, in-a-remote-galaxy society might ‘discover’ the moral laws which Kant wrote about, you must assume that these laws were things that could be discovered (here by Kant and in the alien society by some individual who happened upon them in some way — probably not the same way that Kant discovered them).

So I ask, does it really make sense to say that moral law was discovered by Kant? I have never thought so. Kant’s work, like the work of most philosophers, is more akin to the work of creative artists than it is to the inquiry and discovery of scientists, explorers, inventors (who discover new ways of doing things). Yes some philosophers carry out types of inquiry in their work; this is especially true with modern philosophers. But generally traditional philosophers developed systems and imaginative perspectives (on any number of topics) which they offered as answers or solutions to certain questions and problems. In the area of ethics and moral philosophy, it is fairly obvious that — except for analytical philosophy and meta-ethics — philosophers develop certain ‘theories’ on matters of value, not fact, which they elaborate and defend. But there is no discovery taking place in the sense of discovering objective moral truth. I have never found reason for thinking that Plato or Kant discovered those famous features of their philosophies; they created them. Was Kant’s categorical imperative sitting out there somewhere waiting to be discovered? Were the forms subsisting somewhere in the realm of the eternal waiting for Plato to discover them? I hardly think so.

I’m not sure what exactly you would advance as that moral law which Kant discovered; but I’ll assume for now that you mean the categorical imperative.

One version of the Categorical Imperative reminds us of the Golden Rule: Act so that you treat everyone as an end in themselves, and never as a means only. This could be a version of those rules calling for cooperation and recognition of the rights/dignity of fellow humans, which I said can be said to be ‘discovered’ by a society in certain circumstances. But the problem with arguing that Kant may have discovered the categorical imperative in this version is that a rule like that in important respects was ‘discovered’ by different peoples long before Kant developed his philosophy. Can the other version of the Categorical Imperative, ‘universalizability’ (Act so that the maxim of your action could be a universal law) be the moral law that Kant discovered? And would it be something that an alien other-galaxy civilization also discover it? Here I am very doubtful that this is tenable, even in a thought experiment. This is not much of a moral law. As many basic texts in ethical philosophy point out, this law does little or nothing to help us distinguish moral action from that which is not. It is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for morally good action; and many actions which are clearly absent of moral good can satisfy the imperative. I hardly think that this categorical imperative would be an example of a moral rule that diverse people ‘discover,’ even the weak sense of “discovery” used above.

Hence, because it is not plausible that an alien society would discover Kant’s moral law, it is not tenable that such a culture would appeal to them. Should that marvelous thing really turn out to be the case, I would be stunned beyond anything words could express!

(I’m not sure this clarifies anything. Maybe I’m just adding to the confusion. If so, I consider myself as working the grand tradition of much of philosophy.)

One thought on “Space Aliens and Moral Truth – 4

  1. Firooz

    It is not that we somehow don't know the moral rules. If we live in a society, somehow it pervades our thinking on, if nothing, but punishment and reward. The real question is adhering to the moral laws no matter what the consequences are to our personal or national etc. well being! To accomplish that needs strong belief system that transends all other reasons. And in my humble opinion that is only possible in a God centered, unifying, all acceptable morality. Only and only that makes us to go to Hell for a Heavenly cause. Love to hear from you folks.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *