This guest article written by Isaiah Becker-Mayer was originally published here.
It is commonly thought that while human reason can be used to discover fundamental, universal truths in the physical realm (commonly referred to as ‘science’), it is unable to penetrate the realm of human belief that is most essential to our day to day interactions - the moral realm. David Hume is oft (somewhat erroneously) cited on this point, which is summarized as “one cannot get an ought from an is”.
Arguably, this is where we are as a civilization. While all but the most irrational admit that some things really are morally true – they are not relativists in the strictest sense of the word – a vast majority of secular thinkers regard moral truths as vague and unsettled in comparison to the cold hard facts of science. For example, most would agree the statement “one ought not cause needless suffering” is true, but would contend that this is not the same kind of truth as “snow is white”, and is more related to innate preferences and intuitions rather than anything clear and rational.
I speculate that this insufferable moral uncertainty we are living through is a residual effect of a religious stranglehold on moral philosophy that stretches as far back as we as a species can remember.
While religious superstition still captivates much of the non-Western world, religious belief has been in steep decline in the West for quite some time and the trend only seems to be accelerating. I think it uncontroversial to say that this decline is in part traceable back to one Galileo Galilei, whose discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun marked the beginning of the end of the Church’s monopoly on natural philosophy (science). More broadly, Galileo uncovered what the Greeks had discovered over 2000 years earlier: that we can know things for ourselves, through our reason. This seedling eventually blossomed into the Enlightenment, a movement which is said to have cast aside superstition and made reason the primary source of authority and legitimacy.
Three hundred years on, however, a revision of that story is in order. The Enlightenment certainly did much to demonstrate that religious superstition held no legitimate authority, and the wonders of modern science attest to reason’s primacy in our understanding of the physical world. It was this application of reason to the physical realm that brought down the Church, and naturally reason filled in the gaps that the Church left behind. But only to an extent.
While the Church can no longer make claims about the motion of the planets, reason has been unable to penetrate religion’s stronghold on claims about how we should behave. At this point in history, humanity has bifurcated into those that hold on to the religious superstitions in their moral understanding, and those who reject religious legitimacy on all truth, but fail to fill the moral gap with anything less superstitious.
As conscious, living human beings, we each must make choices about our actions. There is no escape from this condition: to choose to do nothing all day is a choice about actions, to choose death is a choice about (a whole series of) actions. It is clear that “to live as a human” is synonymous with “to make choices about one’s actions”, so the moral question (How should one act?) is really a question of how one should come to conclusions about what actions to take. In this sense, the values underlying a rational morality are no different from those underlying a rational science or mathematics: one should form conclusions on the basis of one’s reason. The authority for determining what is true about how one should act is the same authority for determining what is true in all other realms, which leads us to the metaethical truth underlying all of moral philosophy: one ought to follow reason.
Once we recognize this as the fundamental axiom of a rational moral philosophy, a “moral mathematics of the rational man” emerges, which we can use to derive higher level moral truths. For example, we might ask if the moral (i.e.: rational) man would punch a peaceful person in the face, and preform a logical analysis to determine the answer:
In order to punch a peaceful person in the face, the rational man would have to interfere with that person’s actions. But the rational man originally holds that one’s actions should follow from one’s reason. By subjecting another person’s actions to a coercive authority other than reason, the rational man would be contradicting his original statement. Therefore, the rational man would not punch a peaceful person in the face.
In fact, through this careful and precise moral reasoning, we arrive at the more general moral principle “the rational man does not interfere with the peaceful actions of other people”. A similar argument to the one just described can be found in this chapter from Shayne Wissler’s REASON and LIBERTY. The moral mathematics of rational human action also have profound implications for the development of a rational political philosophy, which are outlined in Wissler’s 2010 book For Individual Rights. To be rational is to respect Individual Rights, and therefore a political system based on the defense of Individual Rights is agreed upon by all rational people. This truth is discovered by the same means that all the other truths in math and science and philosophy are discovered: following reason.
For many, having grown up in a culture of moral confusion and relativism, the notion of a correct moral philosophy is a strange pill to swallow. In a letter to Kepler in 1610, Galileo complained that some of the philosophers who opposed his discoveries had refused even to look through a telescope. Such is the nature of human bias. But I encourage the reader to read again through the reasoning, to look through the telescope, and if he can find no objection, to accept the truth of these arguments.