Thoughts on morality and utilitarianism

“Morality is subjective.”

If you’re about to drop that bomb on someone trying to have a logical argument on morals or ethics, don’t do it. It kills the discussion without any productive outcome. There’s nothing wrong with the statement itself, but it’s ultimately a useless assertion.

Subjectiveness is mostly seen as a shapeshifting blob that can be molded according to our whims. But subjective philosophies – moral or otherwise – don’t work that way. They are logical frameworks that start with some basic axioms and grow through precise arguments. Contradictions in such frameworks can be proved – almost mathematically – and such contradictions are unacceptable irrespective of objectiveness or subjectiveness.

Therefore, when someone says “morality is subjective”, he does nothing to defend against moral criticism. Legitimate moral disagreements can only be on the axioms themselves. It’s essential to make our axioms explicit at the beginning of a debate for it to be productive. Unfortunately, most of us are unaware of our own axioms.

I feel – and this may seem cynical – the majority of us have no consistent underlying moral framework. An individual typically takes a top-down approach: he starts with the assumption that he and his loved ones are moral beings and then builds his moral principles around that belief. Thus the very purpose of moral philosophy – i.e. to look beyond the biases of the society – gets defeated. The individual typically ends up adopting the predominant values of his time.

This highlights the vastly different standards that we have for scientific and non-scientific pursuits of philosophy. No one claims to be a physicist before learning the existing theories of Physics. Yet most people think they understand morality without any academic exploration on the topic. We feel we can arrive at insightful moral conclusions on our own. In reality, we’re no taller than the metaphorical cavemen unless we stand on the shoulders of giants; without the incremental knowledge of previous generations, we’ll be reinventing fire over and over again at best.

Improvement can start by introducing courses on morality in the mainstream curriculum. I don’t mean ones that say “Be good. Do good.” We need to know about the major schools of moral thought and their stances on the issues of conflict in today’s society.

My knowledge on moral theories leaves a lot to be desired, primarily because I learned them off the internet.

The initial years of my undergrad were transformative in many ways. I remember I was obsessed with the ideologies of an anime character called Kiritsugu Emiya. Someone had described him as a “utilitarian” in an online community, and I looked it up.

I had explored few other moral philosophies by then. But reading about utilitarianism was a significantly different experience. It condensed many of my beliefs in a straightforward and coherent way. I have been a subscriber to “rule utilitarianism” ever since.

When Jeremy Bentham came up with utilitarianism in 1789, he became a champion of several modern values such as freedom of speech, women’s rights, animal rights, the separation of religion and politics, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital and corporal punishment, legalizing of homosexuality, etc. He championed these in 1789. I see it as a display of the power of a good framework.

But as good as it is, I don’t agree with utilitarianism completely. Maybe I’ll write about that in detail someday. For now, the search for better philosophies must continue.


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