The Source of Moral Obligation


Letter to the Editor of Philosophy Now (sent in under one of my pseudonyms, Jack Jones - I had an uncle of the same name who lived in Cardiff, although I don't think that he would have agreed with any of my current views!)

Published in issue 111

Dear Editor

I was surprised to read that there is still a debate as to the source of supposed moral obligation. Amy Cools suggests (Issue 109) that science cannot tell us what to do because, as David Hume pointed out, ‘is’ does not imply ‘ought’. However, surely the same difficulty applies to philosophical strictures.  Socrates told us that the good life – the one to which we ought to aspire – was one in which we strive to make both ourselves and those around us happier and better off.  He told us that the only way to achieve this is to pursue wisdom and self-knowledge. Now it may be that being happier is very nice, but I’m not sure why that entails having a duty to try to produce happiness all around us. Neither am I sure that research shows that the pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge actually beats other ways of increasing the sum total of happiness.

By highlighting the numerous biases to which our thinking is subject, science is beginning to be able to tell us how our decisions can be arrived at in a more rational way.  Science can also confirm, for example, that we have an innate tendency to cooperate and an inbuilt sense of empathy. Philosophy can tell us how to reason, and can encourage us to think more clearly.   Neither philosophy nor science can tell us what we ought to do, though.  Nor can I see how they can somehow be combined to produce what neither can produce on its own – a binding moral code.   So in the absence of a divine being insisting on a particular type of action, there is no moral ‘ought’ or ‘should’.  I may confuse my habitual way of thinking with a moral imperative, but ultimately what I do is my decision.  How I try to achieve my aim is also my decision.  The same is true at group and national level.  All this explains why it is that so-called ‘moral codes’ change with time.  We have seen the results of previous versions of these various codes, and have decided that they are wanting.

Jack Jones, Cardiff

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