Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

A Rational Basis for Morality and Why It Matters

August 10 2019

Proviso: The following is a guest article by Isaiah Becker-Mayer, based on a “Memocracy” talk given at Ephemerisle 2019. This is a brief introduction to some of my ideas, but if they could really be condensed down this far without losing anything important, I’d have not written the three chapter buildup to the conclusions given here. – Shayne Wissler

The following talk is based in part on Reason and Liberty, by Shayne Wissler.

In contemporary American culture there exists an unhidden but unresolved contradiction in our institutionalized theories of knowledge. We are told that there exists one branch of human knowledge named “science”, and we discover truths in this domain by applying rigorous logical analysis to empirically derived evidence. But then, we are told, there’s this inherent cleavage between the sciences and the humanities, where inexplicably we are meant to lead with our intuitions, or our emotions, or else we are to defer to “democracy”, or pursue vague sentiments like “human well-being” in order to come to correct conclusions. We still use reason in the humanities, but it’s allegedly a mere handmaiden to other masters.

My proposal here is that this narrative is dangerously false, and that the future of human progress depends on correcting it. Although the ultimate consequences of the following argument are radical by contemporary standards, in fact the reformation I’m proposing is actually just a fulfillment of what Francis Bacon had in mind when he founded the philosophical institution we call science with the publication of Novum Organum. As he wrote: “[Some may raise the question] whether we talk of perfecting natural philosophy alone according to our method, or the other sciences also, such as logic, ethics, politics. We certainly intend to comprehend them all.”

So without further ado, the argument for a rational basis for morality is as follows:

  • Morality is how one ought to act.
  • Actions are consequences of conclusions about how to act.
  • The question “how should one conclude about how to act?” is a subset of the question “how should one form conclusions?”
  • The true answer to “how should one form conclusions?” is the same for ethics as it is for science, mathematics, engineering, and philosophy in general: namely, one should form conclusions based on logic and evidence, or one ought to follow reason.

In other words: Reason is how one comes to justified conclusions, therefore one ought to follow reason.

I posit that that statement there is philosophic bedrock — there’s no way to challenge it without either tacitly admitting you already accept it, in other words, without being self-defeating. For example consider the demand: “Prove that reason is how one comes to justified conclusions.” The only coherent response to that is: “Prove it with what?” Either you accept logic and evidence as valid, or else no logical, evidence-based answer I give you would convince you otherwise. Similarly, you could demand I substantiate that “one ought to follow reason”, but then I would be wasting my time providing logic and evidence to a questioner that chooses not to value such things.

Alternatively, you might accept that the metaethic in question is true, but only because I’ve constrained the terms of the conversation to fall within allegedly “arbitrary” axioms. Such a challenge, too, is self-defeating: consider carefully what it means for a concept to be arbitrary — what sense does it make to accuse a foundation of logic and evidence of lacking in logical connection to the evidence (arbitrariness)? You can discover that logic and evidence are valid by examining the nature of your own thoughts; that’s what makes such foundations “self-evident.” But I can only encourage you to carefully examine your own mind, there’s no argument or demonstration I can force-feed you if you don’t accept logic and evidence as the valid currency of discourse.

It’s impossible to address every possible objection to any argument within the confines of a single article; I encourage the reader to follow the consequences of any challenges that come to mind, and see for themselves that meaningful conversation is and can only be founded upon the metaethic that one ought to follow reason. Based on my experience with this exercise, you will find that the solutions to your criticisms generally come in retorts similar in nature to the three detailed above.

Now I can already sense some readers thinking “Alright nerd, perhaps your friend solved some esoteric philosophy problem, but who cares? Why does this matter?” Well, as Wissler goes on to discuss in detail in his book, this ethical foundation forms the basis for a theory of Natural Law that precedes government, and should ultimately become the theory of Law our governments and courts are beholden to.

Law is backed by the threat of violent force, and ultimately violence will have its way in human affairs; our only choice is to discover and implement theories of the ethics of the use of force that make sense, all the way down to justified philosophical foundations, or else we are destined to forever rule and be ruled by authoritarian fiat. Without such a theory, we can’t even coherently define what “rights” or “crimes” mean, let alone build institutions that defend our rights.

Furthermore, beyond the direct abominations our culture’s philosophical negligence routinely inflicts upon innocents, it is the lack of this breed of radical clarity in the humanities that significantly explains the scientific and technological stagnation that some have begun to recognize. So much capital – financial, intellectual, moral, and otherwise – is tied up in unaccountable institutions run by the wrong people with the wrong values building and exploring the wrong things for the wrong reasons. The moral opportunity cost of unreconciled injustice is infinite; the economic cost is not far behind.

I’ll leave you with another quote by Bacon that captures the spirit he brought to science and that a new school of visionaries must bring to the humanities: “It is idle to expect any great advancement in science from the superinducing and engrafting of new things upon old. We must begin anew from the very foundations, unless we would revolve for ever in a circle with mean and contemptible progress.” That ultimate foundation is philosophy.