AN EMPIRICAL APPROACH TO MORALITY Essay, Research Paper 1. Introduction In this paper I wish to consider the following related questions: (i) Can a system of morality be justified?; (ii) Why should one act morally?; (iii) How can others be persuaded to act morally? Clearly none of these questions is new, and moral philosophers have proposed a variety of responses to them over the centuries without reaching any general agreement.


1. Introduction

In this paper I wish to consider the following related questions: (i) Can a system of morality be justified?; (ii) Why should one act morally?; (iii) How can others be persuaded to act morally? Clearly none of these questions is new, and moral philosophers have proposed a variety of responses to them over the centuries without reaching any general agreement. Nevertheless, because these questions are fundamental to any practical application of moral theory, it is worthwhile to continue to reflect upon them.

For Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies, the justification of morality is the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and Koran. Given an authoritative text containing basic moral premises, the appropriate method for obtaining rules of conduct is a process of logical deduction from those premises to conclusions. However, if we focus our inquiry on European and American societies in the present century, the decline of belief in religious authority has undermined this approach to moral theory for many people. This monumental change-for morality-may be attributed to many factors. An increase in multicultural studies has emphasized the wide variety of beliefs that human beings hold, which may have led more people to doubt that any one of them is authoritative. A number of writers over the years have commented on the correspondence of specific religious beliefs with one’s society of birth, again leading thoughtful individuals to question the authority of their childhood religious beliefs. As a general sociological observation, one can point to a positive correlation between increasing educational level and a diminished belief in the authority of religious texts.

When thoughtful persons reject religious authority as the basis of morality, it becomes necessary to find another basis for moral beliefs. One of the few statements about contemporary moral philosophy which is unlikely to encounter opposition is that no moral theory enjoys wide acceptance. At present the most widely discussed theories of morality in the British-American literature are utilitarianism, deontology and social contract theory.

The well known utilitarian approach to ethical (note 1) decision making was proposed by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and elaborated by John Stuart Mill in several books, e.g., Utilitarianism (1863). In Chapter 1, Bentham defines utility as that which “tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing)”. Utilitarianism is then based on two premises (which are not always sufficiently separated in discussions of the theory). The first premise is the belief in consequentialism. Specifically, that morality is concerned with the effects of actions on the happiness of individuals. The second premise is a belief in a maximization principle. Specifically, the right action is the one which has as its consequence the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is not easy to realize in today’s society what a radical departure the first premise was from the conventional wisdom of its time. The second premise is a foundation of todays ubiquitous use of cost-benefit analysis.

Deontological theories of morality take as their premise the belief that human beings have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. Associated with this approach is the belief that human beings have certain rights, and that actions which adversely affect such rights are morally wrong. Historically, one immediately thinks of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; currently, one is aware of the demands for woman’s rights, gay rights, and a variety of economic rights. Since most of us do have strong feelings of right and wrong, there surely is a psychological basis for the deontological approach to morality.

Social contract theory as developed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau takes as its premise that there is an agreement between an individual and society in which the individual agrees to submit to the authority of the government and its laws in return for the government’s protection of the individual’s life and property. These theories were primarily concerned with the moral obligations of citizens and governments. An influential, modern variant of the social contract approach to morality is given in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Rawls (1971, p. 12) considers a hypothetical initial situation in which “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like… [thus] the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance”. He then deduces what principles of justice would be agreed to by rational individuals in such an initial situation. Rawls notes that his book is not a complete contract theory, but that the contractarian idea can be extended to an entire ethical system.

What are some of the major objections which have been raised against each of these theories? The maximization principle of utilitarianism gives a clear theoretical basis for moral decision making. However, it takes little reflection to conclude that its practical implementation presents grave difficulties. Before deciding upon a course of action, the utilitarian is asked to consider its effects on the entire population and-although this is not explicitly mentioned-over an indefinite period of time. It is doubtful that many pure utilitarians exist. Practical difficulty aside, the basic objection to utilitarianism is the refusal of most people to agree with the premise that maximization of happiness for the entire population should be the basis for all moral decision making. The hypothetical situation created by John Harris in “The Survival Lottery” (1975) provides an extreme example of the conflict between happiness maximization and individual rights. Two patients, Y and Z, are dying. Y needs a heart transplant and Z needs a lung transplant to survive, but their doctors tell them that since no organs are available they will die of natural causes. Y and Z then insist that the proper moral decision is to kill one healthy man, X, to save the two of them. However, observation suggests that most members of our society would disagree. Why? Because most would agree with the deontological view that X has a “right” to life which must not be abrogated to increase total happiness. Thus while it is conceivable that a society of humans (or post-humans) might someday exist whose moral sense was in innate agreement with utilitarianism, that is not the case at present.

A number of objections have been raised to the version of social contract theory developed by Rawls. By a series of arguments Rawls (1971, pp. 60, 302) deduces that rational persons operating under a “veil of ignorance” would choose two principles. (First) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for all. (Second) Economic inequalities are to be arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. While there is little argument over the first principle, the second principle (which is Rawls’ contribution to the theory of distributive justice) is controversial. The argument for the second principle uses a maximin rule for choice under uncertainty (Rawls, 1971, pp. 150-158). It assumes that rational persons will agree to a system for distributing economic goods whose worst outcome (for any person) is better than the worst outcome of any alternate system. While many persons (particularly those of mature years and conservative instincts) would choose the economic distribution system Rawls suggests, it can be objected that many others (particularly the young and daring) would not. Unless one defines a rational person as one who follows the maximin rule, the question of whether real persons would agree with Rawls could only be decided by a sociological survey. A more general objection to Rawls, and to any social contract theory based upon a hypothetical or historical agreement, is: Why should such an agreement be morally binding on contemporary individuals who are not choosing a moral system under conditions of ignorance?

A basic moral question debated in the philosophical literature is illustrated in an extreme form by Judith J. Thomson in “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” (1976). In this paper the author constructs a series of cases in which an agent (the driver of a runaway trolley) must choose between either killing/letting die an innocent person or saving five other innocent persons. This problem, of which there are many variations, highlights the conflict between the deontological and consequentialist approaches to morality. The deontologist believes that individuals have certain moral rights which cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of others; the consequentialist believes that morally correct action depends on its effects. The primary objection to the deontological view is that, in the absence of religious authority, its adherents provide no alternative basis for their choice of moral rights. Their final appeal, as expressed in many papers, is to “moral intuition” or “what we know is right”. In the next section we discuss the sources of our moral intuition and suggest an alternative approach to morality using elements of systems described above.

2. Analysis

The moral system we propose takes as its premises (i) a belief in consequentialism, viz., that the morally correct action depends upon its effects, and (ii) a belief that the effects desired are those which promote happiness. In choosing happiness as the goal of morality, we are in agreement with Mill’s assertion in Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism “that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end”. Note, however, that our formulation will differ from utilitarianism in not adopting the maximization of happiness as a premise. A philosophic question of immense importance to individuals living in a society with a common moral system is whose happiness is considered of moral importance. Historically, most societies did not believe the happiness of slaves to be of moral importance. At an opposite extreme, Nietzsche proposed that only the welfare of the Superman is significant. We propose, in agreement with the almost universal prevailing opinion, to assume that the happiness of all men/women is of equal moral importance.

We noted in section 1 the practical difficulty in using a moral system in which all decisions are made ab initio. Our proposed system includes moral rules which confer rights on individuals. It differs fundamentally from pure deontological systems in that these rights are not absolute. Using philosophical terminology they are prima facie rights in the sense that ” ‘the right to X’ is always to be understood as ‘the right to X unless some stronger claim shows up’ ” (Feinberg, 1973, p. 73). These rights are to be derived from moral rules which give the best consequences over an extended time period. Exercise of such rights may decrease the happiness of some individuals or even of most of society in the short term. In this sense we agree with the objective of utilitarianism on a long term basis, but not as a system for making short term decisions. As an example of the application of this approach to the moral question raised in “Killing, Letting Die, and The Trolley Problem”, one would be justified in killing one innocent person to save five other innocent persons because there is no absolute right not to be killed. As applied to “The Survival Lottery” one can uphold X’s right not to be killed against the needs of Y and Z for organ transplants because there is no maximization principle to be satisfied.

As mentioned in Section 1, most people do have strong feelings of right and wrong. Where do moral rules come from? In many societies most moral beliefs come from a religious tradition. Some moral rules are common to the major religions. Notable among these is the prohibition against killing-with exceptions for self defense, wars and execution of criminals. Other moral rules differ among religions. An example here would be the Jewish-Catholic-Protestant limitation to one wife and the Muslim-early Mormon approval of multiple wives. While the traditional religious basis for these rules is the authority of a sacred text, we would suggest that their origin is consequential in that they represent the rationalization of experience accumulated over time. Those moral rules which are common to nearly all societies (both religious and non-religious) we believe to result from something which is common to “human nature”, i.e., nearly all societies find their consequences to be more positive than negative. From the consequentialist viewpoint, moral rules which differ among societies are cultural decisions based upon each society’s historical evolution.

History shows that moral rules evolve over time. A most striking example is slavery. It is now almost universally agreed that the institution of slavery is immoral. Yet almost up to modern times citizens who considered themselves to be highly moral owned slaves. At present only “animal rights” advocates, a small minority, consider it immoral to kill animals for food or use them in medical research. In future times will the present majority who disregard animal rights be considered to be as immoral as those who formerly accepted slavery? The morality of slavery and animal rights is fundamentally related to the question of who are members of the social group to whom the rules of morality apply. One way in which the evolution of morality can be viewed is as the expansion of the concept of society-defined as the group to whom one’s moral rules apply-from family, to clan, to city, to country, to all persons, and (perhaps) to animals.

At the beginning of this section we proposed two premises for a moral system: (i) a belief in consequentialism, and (ii) a belief in the promotion of happiness. To complete the logical basis of the system, we propose (iii) a belief that moral rules should be choices made by a society to promote the happiness of its members. In making these choices members of the society will be guided by experience-thus we have called this system “An empirical approach to morality”. This approach to morality views rights as group decisions codified in law and custom. In order for the system to be viable, a large majority of its members must be in agreement with the moral rules of their society. In this sense we are proposing a contractualist type of moral theory. It differs from the approach of Rawls in that the agreement is between the current members of a society who have knowledge of the real world.

Under this system individuals will choose moral rules for society which they believe will promote their happiness. These choices depend on innate factors-what makes human beings happy-and on conditions in the society in which the choices are made. In an “unfair” society, an oppressed minority/majority may subscribe to a different set of moral choices (which could be called a sub-group contract). As an example, the tale of Robin Hood comes immediately to mind. An empirical approach to morality explicitly recognizes that moral rules should change with time as societies evolve. In section 3, for an imperfect democratic society such as our own, we will suggest how an empirical moralist would approach some of our present moral controversies.

We are now in a position to respond to the three basic moral questions raised at the beginning of this essay:

Can a system of morality be justified? In any logical argument in which conclusions are deduced, some propositions must be taken as premises. In science these are called axioms, and they are justified (but, as Hume showed, not proved) by induction from experience. Moral conclusions have been deduced from three major types of premises which can be abbreviated as the sacred text premise; the intuitive knowledge of right and wrong premise; and the dependence on consequences premise. We would argue that none of these premises can be “justified” by arguments from more basic principles, and should therefore be characterized as “beliefs” as we have done in proposing empirical morality as a consequences based theory. To recapitulate, the premises we propose as a basis for moral choices are: What is morally correct depends upon consequences; the desired consequences are those leading to happiness; moral rules should be choices made to promote happiness.

It follows from the previous development that in a society that is functioning with an empirical system of morality, a typical person will be happier, in at least most situations, if he/she acts morally. Here a typical person is defined as a member of the predominate group in the society that agrees with the moral rules which have been chosen. In any society, however, there will be non-typical persons who do not agree with certain moral rules. Since, as has been stated, the empirical approach recognizes that moral rules evolve over time, it should be expected that such a minority of non-typical members will try to persuade the majority to modify those moral rules with which they disagree. In urging these changes, the minority would appeal to empirical evidence which (they would argue) shows that the majority would be happier if the modified rules were adopted.

Why should one act morally? In the philosophical literature the question has been put in the form, “Why should an individual act in accordance with moral rules when it conflicts with self-interest?” Here the concept of self-interest is of crucial importance in discussing real behavior, but it does not appear to have received much analysis. In analogy with the previous discussion of “rights”, we propose a distinction between prima facie self-interest and overall self-interest. An action is defined to be in an individual’s prima facie self-interest if its immediate consequences increase the individuals happiness. In order for an action to be in an individuals overall self-interest, its cumulative effects over the lifetime of the individual must result in a positive balance of happiness over unhappiness. In literature and in life there are numerous examples of people who commit murder because it is in their prima facie self-interest, but discover at later times that the action was not in their overall self-interest. As an opposite example, people who engage in civil disobedience are aware that such action is not in their prima facie self-interest, but may believe that it is in their overall self-interest because its long term beneficial effects on society will increase their personal happiness. Civil disobedience is an (extreme) example of the ethically important observation that many people have developed a “conscience” that leads them to feel happiness when their actions increase the happiness of others (note 2). (It should be recalled from the beginning of this section that we and using a broad definition of happiness as “the only thing desirable as an end.”)

A society which has adopted an empirical approach to morality has chosen moral rules which a large majority believe will promote the happiness of its members. It therefore follows that it will be in the overall self-interest of most of its members to act morally most of the time. In those situations when this is not the case, however, we must agree with other ethical writers that consequentialist morality does not support an argument that persons should act against their overall self-interest.

This leads to the third question, “How can others be persuaded to act morally?” From the preceding discussion it is clear that the way to persuade others to act morally is to convince them that it is in their overall self-interest to do so. What are some of the factors that affect an individuals overall self-interest?

We consider the general problem of corruption as an example. An individual is offered a bribe to take an action which violates the moral, and possibly the legal, rules of his society. (For grammatical simplicity we assume it is a male.) He may feel that it is in his prima facie self-interest to accept, since spending the money could give him happiness. However, as a rational person he knows that other factors must be considered in determining whether acceptance of the bribe is in his overall self-interest. These factors are of both an internal and external nature. The dominant internal factor is his conscience. How much unhappiness would the knowledge of such an immoral action cause him over an extended period of time? Clearly, future pangs of conscience are a rational consideration in contemplating moral actions. There is also an indirect, internal consideration. Participation in corrupt practices is likely to encourage corruption by others. Rational persons will include the negative effects of living in a more corrupt society on the happiness of themselves, their children and other loved ones in their evaluations of overall self-interest. A number of external factors would affect a decision on accepting a bribe. These would include the probability of exposure, the degree of social condemnation which would result from exposure of the action, and potential punishment by fines or jail if the action was illegal. While acceptance of a bribe has been used as an example, the factors affecting overall self-interest in that case would apply to a variety of moral decisions, e.g., using public funds for personal purposes or disseminating false accusations about a political opponent.

We have argued that in a society which has adopted an empirical approach to morality, most persons will act morally most of the time. The discussion of overall self-interest above suggests a number of moral positions an empirical society would adopt in order to persuade even more of its members to act morally more of the time: (a) It would emphasize an approach to education which results in children developing a conscience which causes them happiness when they act morally. (b) It would promote as a societal norm the condemnation of actions which violate the moral rules. (c) It would allocate appropriate resources to increase the probability of detection of immoral actions which affect the public welfare. (d) It would devise a system of penalties which tries to achieve a balance between deterrence and rehabilitation.

3. Applications

In section 2 we gave premises and arguments for the adoption of an empirical approach to morality. We concluded that moral rules should be choices made by society (note 3) to promote happiness, and that these choices will depend upon both innate factors and conditions in the society in which the choices are made. While it is not the aim of this paper to determine the content of the moral rules which would be chosen, we shall conclude by illustrating how an empirical moralist would approach some contemporary social problems. For this purpose we consider the issues of sexual relations, abortion, and distributive justice.

It is useful to divide a discussion of sexual relations into premarital and postmarital phases. With exceptions for peculiar circumstances, consensual sex is a pleasurable activity. Thus it is in the prima facie self-interest of the persons involved. Is it in their overall self-interest? How does such activity affect other members of the society? In a society in which premarital sex is strongly condemned, the adverse effects of discovery would lead some individuals to conclude that such activity was not in their overall self-interest. This appears to have been a majority opinion in the United States before World War II. In recent decades there has been both an increase in premarital sex and a decrease in its moral condemnation suggesting an interplay between such activity and society’s attitude towards it. In the absence of moral condemnation what is the long term effect of premarital sex on happiness? Here our empirical knowledge is inadequate. Literature about the Victorian period in England suggests that their negative attitude toward sex caused considerable unhappiness. Current literature presents a mixed picture of the results of sexual freedom on individual happiness.

Other members of society are affected when premarital sex leads to pregnancy. It is especially clear at present that the quality of care which children receive has a major effect on them and on their relations with other members of society. There is strong evidence that children conceived in premarital relationships receive poorer care on the average than those produced after marriage. Thus it is in the self-interest of society to adopt policies to reduce the incidence of premarital sex leading to childbirth. Two divergent approaches can be proposed. One approach would attempt to strengthen the moral condemnation of premarital sex in order to reduce its frequency and associated accidental pregnancies. The other approach would concentrate on preventing accidental pregnancy by improving sex education and access to contraceptives. The moral rule in a society taking the latter approach would condemn the production of children who would not be well cared for.

After marriage, fidelity to one’s spouse is an important moral issue. The orthodox moral view in Western societies has always strongly condemned adultery. However, the degree to which many members of a society have subscribed to this view has varied in different societies at different times. The degree of condemnation has also differed with gender. As in the case of premarital sex, adulterous relations have flourished because they give intense short term gratification. What are the long term consequences? The current evidence is that infidelity is frequently discovered leading to adverse effects on overall self-interest. Because it exposes a serious violation of marital trust, discovery generally causes the betrayed partner severe unhappiness. The degree of unhappiness may be sufficient to lead to divorce; even if it does not, there are strong negative effects on the marriage relationship. When there are children, they too are frequently adversely affected. What approaches could society take to promote the overall self-interest of its members? One approach is to attempt to strengthen the moral condemnation of extramarital sexual relations with the aim of reducing the incidence of infidelity and the resulting stresses on marriage. As a hypothetical alternative, a society might choose not to condemn extramarital relations while urging marriage partners to consider the long term effects of such activity. (As with premarital relations, accidental pregnancies would continue to be condemned.) Could marriage stability be separated from sexual fidelity, and would this be in the overall self-interest of the members of such a society? Since that approach to sexual morality has not been used, no empirical answer to these questions can be given.

The historical record shows that independent of a society’s moral system unwanted pregnancies occur. A rational society will adopt policies to minimize their number. The use of abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is the subject of intense moral debate. The central arguments of the opposing views are well known. The opponents of abortion cite the moral rule against killing innocent persons, i.e., the right to life. Those who would permit abortion cite a woman’s right to choose. A consistent application of the right to life argument does not allow exceptions for rape or incest, and applies as soon as an egg is fertilized. The broadest application of the choice argument permits abortion up to the time of birth. Neither argument satisfies most members of our society. When moral condemnation has been unsuccessful in preventing an undesired pregnancy, how would an advocate of empirical morality approach the issue of abortion?

Such an advocate would consider the effects of abortion on the self-interest of pregnant women, their partners and members of society in general. One would first determine whether there is evidence that most women who choose to have an abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy find that their decision resulted in an overall increase in happiness. If that is true (as it appears to be), consideration should be given to the long term effects of abortion on the woman’s partner. The main issue of contention, however, is the morality of terminating the life of an embryo or fetus. Although almost all human beings agree that there is a basic moral prohibition against killing, they differ in their approval of exceptions to this general rule. Killing of animals for food is generally accepted, while killing animals for sport or for medical research has some opponents. Killing human beings in time of war is generally accepted, while the killing of human beings as a punishment is a current topic of vigorous debate. Individuals have an obvious self-interest in living in a society which agrees upon a basic prohibition against killing human beings. In those cases where killing is accepted, an individual must believe that a special consideration makes it in their overall self-interest to approve an exception to the general prohibition. For the case of abortion this special consideration is the increase in happiness resulting from the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. A critical factor in balancing the happiness of those desiring an abortion against the basic prohibition against killing (except for those holding extreme opinions) is the time at which the abortion occurs. Most members of our society would accept the killing of an embryo when it was a fertilized egg, but would r