Normative Bounds: Death and Dying

People’s belief in their own value is contingent on being able to desire to survive and to avoid injury more than anything else.  But they can sometimes desire other things more.

Someone who desires to avoid pain or indignity may desire it more than anything else and may commit suicide when they believe that suicide is the only way to fulfil their desire to avoid them.  In this kind of situation, their belief in their own value is shut down and they do no wrong.

One of the oddities of evolutionary intuitionism is that we are not morally obligated not to kill someone who does not value themselves.  But we should not expect a naturally selected morality to have the precision that philosophers often demand.  What matters is not whether it is perfect but whether it is good enough.  It does not follow that we can kill suicidal people.  Often there is a period of time when the desire to commit suicide competes with the desire to continue living.   We can be sure that suicidal people have ceased to believe that they are of value only when they are actually committing suicide.  Hence, there is seldom a real window of opportunity in which we are free to kill the suicidal.

Physicians can assist people who want to die.  Providing the means to commit suicide is not always wrong because suicide is not always wrong.  Also, it is permissible to accelerate the process when someone is actually attempting to commit suicide.

The problematic cases are those in which someone desires to die but cannot kill themselves even when provided with the means to do so.  But people can specify in advance the conditions under which they would want to die.  If they do so and if the specified conditions exist, it is reasonable to infer that they have a desire that is stronger than their desire to survive, in which case it would be permissible to bring about their deaths.  It would also probably be permissible when people have not specified the conditions but the conditions that obtain are ones such that many reasonable people have specified that they would be want to die if they obtained.   So medical assistance in dying is permissible in principle, although there can be practical difficulties when it comes to deciding whether the conditions of permissibility really obtain.

Living the Ethical Life: Why Do People Act Morally?


The default option is acting as though others are of value, given our other beliefs.

If we don’t act as though others are of value, given our other beliefs, then we are committed to believing that we ourselves are both of value and not of value.

In that case, we can act only in ways that consistent with both.  (As already pointed out, in the sixth paragraph of “The Origin of Morality,” this is possible.  Drinking coffee is compatible with “Socrates is mortal.” It is also compatible with “Socrates is immortal.”) But if we can only act consistently with both, then there is no advantage to believing that we are of value.  So, we treat others as being of value in order to keep the advantages of believing that we are of value.

Instead of doing the right thing, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are acting consistently by describing our actions to ourselves inaccurately.  Thus, there is not just ignorance and error; there is also motivated ignorance and error.  Self-deception does not change the moral facts, as already noted.  Moral facts are constituted by the relationship between actions and the belief that we are of value.  Believing falsely about the nature of actions does not change the true nature of the actions.  Rape is rape even if the rapist falsely believes that his victim consented.

Self-deception does not always succeed, primarily because it is in the interests of others to keep us believing truly and we cannot get away with it but also because it can be difficult to come up with a plausible rationalization in some cases.

We vary in our ability to deceive ourselves.  People without much ability to deceive themselves are the people who become moral saints and heroes.

Thus, by being rational and seeking the truth, we not only satisfy a precondition for acting morally but also increase the probability that we will do so.  Right belief results in accurate intuitions and right action.  Being rational is not one virtue among others but a pre-condition for all other virtues.

Living the Ethical Life: Why we can’t believe whatever we want

In order to discover what we ought to do, we need to discover the relevant material facts.

If we ought to maximize happiness as utilitarians claim, for instance, then we have to know what promotes happiness and what reduces it, and the extent to which various actions promote or reduce it.

In fact, knowing all the relevant facts is necessary no matter which moral theory is true.

We have to acquire all the relevant truths and avoid every relevant falsehood.  We have moral intuitions but they are not reliable when we lack information or mistake falsehoods for truths.  Ethical theory gives us general guidelines but does not tell us which institutions we should build, who is a free-rider, whom we should tax or at what level, whether a pregnancy endangers a woman’s health, whether a potential sexual partner is capable of consent, or whether someone desires something more than they desire to live.

It is easier to try to avoid relevant falsehoods than it is to acquire relevant truths.  We can do the former by trying to avoid believing without sufficient evidence.  Avoiding believing without sufficient evidence is not particularly difficult.  It is no more difficult than a physician’s professional responsibility to avoid making a diagnosis in the absence of symptoms, or contrary to the observable symptoms.

As for relevant truths, we do not always have time to acquire them, we do not always know which truths are relevant, and we do not always have sufficient evidence.  All we can do in such circumstances is, sincerely and seriously, try our best.

Since acquiring relevant truths and avoiding relevant falsehoods is a necessary condition for acting morally, the doctrine that we have the moral right to believe whatever we want is both false and pernicious.

Living the Ethical Life: WEIRD and Probably Right

We know that different societies will have different moral codes, as mentioned in paragraph of the section entitled “Evidence.”  Is there any reason to think that the moral codes of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies, societies that are WEIRD, to use Joseph Henrich’s acronym, are better than more traditional ones?

Of course, it is impossible to use moral codes themselves to show that they are better.  That would be question-begging.

If the observable variation in moral codes is not a brute fact but can be explained in terms of distorting factors impinging on a shared moral basis, it is possible to imagine that one code could be subject to fewer distorting factors than another.  Such a code would probably be a better code.

If so, we would have reason to think that the code of an “advanced” society could be better if there were fewer distorting factors affecting it.

The two main distorting factors are ignorance and error concerning material facts.  “Advanced” societies know more than “primitive” ones.  They also have more ways of correcting mistakes.  Hence, it is likely that their moral codes are better.

Consequently, it is a point in its favour that evolutionary intuitionism supports norms that are congenial to many contemporary societies.

It does not follow that the moral codes of WEIRD societies are always better, however.  Different circumstances can mandate different responses despite the same underlying principle being involved.  For instance, to use an example that has already been used, if we should minimize loss of human life, then modern societies should provide care homes for the elderly while hunter-gatherers should let their elderly die, or even kill them to minimize their suffering.

Living the Ethical Life: The Upshot

The best thing to do to ensure that we live morally decent lives is to do our utmost to believe truly and to avoid believing falsely.  In other words, we should do our best to be rational.

Here is how we can do that.

We can develop expertise in particular areas and acknowledge that we do not have the expertise to make judgments with respect to other kinds of issues.

We can investigate as thoroughly as possible before reaching our conclusions.  Sometimes, we must act before completing our investigations but not always by any means.  Generally, if we don’t have time to investigate, we don’t have time to believe, as W. K. Clifford pointed out.

We can try to avoid self-deception.  Discussing matters with others helps.

We should be willing to change our minds in the light of the evidence.

We need to take other people’s perspectives into account.

We need to know about logic, statistics, and scientific reasoning, particularly how scientific explanations are tested.  We need to learn about commonly committed fallacies.

We should learn about cognitive biases like confirmation bias, which is the natural human tendency to look for confirming evidence and not to look for equally important disconfirming evidence.  If we don’t, we risk deluding ourselves.

In short, all of us should act like physicians fulfilling their professional responsibilities.  We should reach judgments only after examining the evidence, we should be aware of the limits of our abilities, and we should strive to become better at being rational.  To repeat, this is the best we can do.

Again, rationality is not one virtue among many but is the foundation of all other virtues.

Appendix: Freedom and Responsibility

Do we have enough freedom to be morally responsible?

In the light of evolution, the question is:  Can you be free when you are an organism with a number of characteristics, an individual history as an organism, and an evolutionary history as a member of a species?

The question of freedom arises only when an organism exists, and an organism cannot exist without possessing characteristics and both kinds of histories.  It is a mistake to try to use an organism’s own properties or its own histories against it to prove that it is not free.  Trying to do that is like trying to prove that it is not free because it exists.  Its freedom or lack of freedom is a matter of its relationship to other organisms and its environment, not a matter of its properties or histories, which it possesses in virtue of its existence.

If we exclude arguments that appeal to our characteristics or our histories, as we should, it is obvious that most of us are free enough to be morally responsible.   We react to others but we are not controlled by them.  We react to features of our environment but we are not controlled by them either.

You cannot get started on an argument against free will unless you reduce yourself to something less than an organism.  If you reduce yourself to a soul stuck in a body, you are obviously not free, because the characteristics and histories of your body can be used against you – they cease to be you and become part of your environment.  But if you are your body, it is the reverse.

Because we are organisms rather than souls,