Friday, April 22, 2016

George Mavrodes On the Weirdness of Moral Obligations in a Russellian World

Notes on George Mavrodes' essay "Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” (Also in Pojman and Rea, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology).

Former (now retired) University of Michigan Professor of Philosophy George Mavrodes writes: “Many arguments for the existence of God may be construed as claiming that there is some feature of the world that would somehow make no sense unless there was something else that had a stronger version of that feature or some analogue of it.”

Which means: Noetic structures must account for experiential realities.

For example, morality. Some have claimed that if there was no God, then there would be no morality either. As Dostoevski said, “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” 

Sartre echoed this idea.

Mavrodes’ purpose: “The suggestion that morality somehow depends on religion is rather attractive to me. It is this suggestion that I wish to explore in this paper.” 

Mavrodes’ method: “I will outline one rather common nonreligious view of the world, calling attention to what I take to be its most relevant features. Then I shall try to portray some sense of the odd status that morality would have in a world of that sort.” 

Mavrodes looks at Bertrand Russell’s nonreligious worldview – a "Russellian world." What would that be like? He quotes Russell’s famous statement from “A Free Man’s Worship”:

"That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

Mavrodes asks: What if the world was like this? What would be the status of morality in such a world? To get at this Mavrodes lists the “most relevant features” of a Russellian world.

They are:

1) Phenomena such as “minds” and “consciousness” “are the products of entities and causes that give no indication of being mental themselves.” 
a. The causes are ‘accidental collocations of atoms” with “no prevision of the end they were achieving.”
b. What we call “life” is a latecomer in the long history of the earth.
2) “Human life is bounded by physical death and each individual comes to a permanent end at his physical death.” 
3) “Not only each individual but also the human species is doomed to extinction “beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” 

Those are the main features of a Russellian world.

Next Mavrodes introduces the idea of “Russellian benefits.” “A Russellian benefit is one that could accrue to a person in a Russellian world.” 

E.g., to live to a contented old age.

Or, to have sexual pleasure.

Or, to have a good reputation.

BUT… “going to heaven” is NOT a Russellian benefit. It does not fit in a Russellian world.

Mavrodes next asks: Could the actual world be Russellian?

In the actual world human beings do exist, and they have moral obligations to act in a certain way.

If they do not act in those ways, then they are judged adversely. (Such as, e.g., the young man who killed 9 people in a church yesterday.)

“People who do not fulfill their obligations are not merely stupid or weak or unlucky; they are morally reprehensible.” 

“Morality ascribes to particular people an obligation to do a certain thing on a certain occasion.” If such a thing is not done (what Mavrodes calls a “final obligation) then this subjects the person to adverse judgment. 

“Pleasure, happiness, esteem, contentment, self-realization, knowledge – all of these can suffer from the fulfillment of a moral obligation.” Which means: following a moral obligation can cost you such things. You may, e.g., suffer.

Mavrodes' point is: in the actual world people experience, not simply moral feelings, but moral obligations or, in Kant's sense, moral duties.

But does it logically follow, necessarily, that following a moral obligation will have some corresponding personal benefit for me in a Russellian world? The answer is: no, it does not follow. In other worlds, it could follow; i.e., moral obligations could always bring some personal benefit.

While it does not logically follow, it still is false that it does follow. In other words, moral obligations do not in fact always lead to personal benefits.

“In the actual world we have some obligations that, when we fulfill them, will confer on us no net Russellian benefit. – in fact, they will result in a Russellian loss.” 

“If the world is Russellian, then Russellian benefits and losses are the only benefits and losses, and also then we have moral obligations whose fulfillment will result in a net loss to the one who fulfills them.” This is what Mavrodes finds “queer,” or weird, or strange.

Namely, that in the actual world we do have moral obligations. And, such obligations do not always lead to some personal benefit; indeed, there could be personal danger and loss as a result of acting morally. If the world is Russellian, then “the world that included such a fact would be absurd – we would be living in a crazy world.” 

Mavrodes goes on to explain why that would be absurd, or weird. He makes a distinction between moral “feelings” and moral “obligations.” In a Russellian world moral feelings would not be weird. But moral obligations would be. (Mavrodes acknowledges his indebtedness to Kant here.) Or, in a Russellian world morality as having a survival value would not be weird. But, again, moral obligations would be weird in a Russellian world.

Mavrodes writes: “An “evolutionary” approach… cannot serve to explain the existence of moral obligations, unless one rejects my distinction [between moral feelings and moral obligations] and equates the obligations with the feelings.” 

The argument: “Morality… seems to require us to hold that… human beings have in addition to their ordinary properties and relations another special relation to certain actions. The relation is that of being “obligated” to perform those actions. And some of those actions are pretty clear that they will yield only Russellian losses to the one who performs them.” 

In the actual world persons who do NOT perform them are considered “defective in some serious and important way and an adverse judgment is appropriate against them. And that certainly does seem odd” [if the world is as Russell says it is].