Moral imagination as the foundation of ethics
Floris van den Berg
What argument could possibly convince someone of bringing a person within the scoop of another person’s moral concern? Many traditional ethics and value systems are exclusive systems: some people are in and some are out. Those who are set apart in a different moral category are submitted to a different, lesser, moral concern. In traditional ethics women have such a position. The best position to be in, in most traditional value systems, is of that of the group of males who hold power, like the native male citizen’s of Athens 500 BC, when women, slaves and foreigner had much lesser freedom. Traditional ethics can no longer be rationally justified. Without god or any other transcendental skyhook for moral justice (more often, injustice), ethics can no longer be grounded in supernatural causes. Ethics should look for common ground which binds all human beings and perhaps even all sentient beings.
Therefore ethics will be in conflict with many traditional value systems which do not look for a common ground of all humanity, but only for their own well described group.
It is not possible to find enough common ground for morality in evolutionary theory.
The evolutionary approach to ethics can explain why people discriminate against others, because people want their culture, their group, and, subconsciously, their genes to spread and flourish. Evolutionary ethics is descriptive but not of very much value in solving normative problems. To behave ethically is a choice. Fundamentally it is an individual choice embedded in a social context. People can choose to behave ethically or not. There is a difference between acting in accordance with the law and acting morally. Not all laws are morally sound. It is fortunate to live in a society in which the law is to a considerable degree morally justifiable. In Nazi Germany there was a strong difference between acting according to the law and acting morally.
Why should people be moral? There is no categorical imperative that people should be moral. To be moral is a choice. The choice to be moral or not is of fundamental importance for one’s character. Sartre has argued for the importance of individual choice of morality in his famous essay Existentialism and Humanism (1946). Sometimes being moral has a positive influence on the actor’s life, sometimes not. I do not think there is any basis or foundation of deontological values, such as the notion of duty or dignity. People can choose
to attach value to the notion of duty. People can act as if human life has dignity – though it is unclear what the word means. To be moral is an individual choice which is not directly related to that person’s wellbeing or happiness.
Game theory has a solution for the problem why people should act morally. Richard Dawkins wrote a chapter ‘Nice guys finish first’ on this in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He concludes that it pays off to be nice. If everybody, or at least most people, are nice (i.e. behave morally), then all would be better off. Game theory gives a utilitarian basis for moral behaviour. This leads to the essence of the problem of evil: the free rider problem; those who take advantage of the benevolence of the system, for example those in The Netherlands who take advantage of the welfare state. When many people take ‘a free ride’ there is the risk that the system might collapse. Many people egoistically care for their own short term well being and in order to gain an advantage for themselves, they harm other people. However, if they would have chosen to act in accordance to the best overall outcome they would have behaved morally.
Can a sane person rationally want to be in an underdog position? What if it was you who were in the position of the underdog? To be in a position of being hungry, enslaved, maltreated, discriminated against? Try to imagine being in the worst off position in a society: what if you were a homosexual who was denied the right to marry or even denied the right to have a sexual relationship? It will be hard to imagine for some who have strong opinions against homosexuality. But if you really were to imagine yourself to be in the position of a homosexual denied access to life fulfilling goals, you would not want that yourself. If everybody in principle imagined being in a worst off position, these positions could be improved.