Back when I used to debate Christians for sport one of my favorite plays was the cannibalism maneuver: Is cannibalism immoral? Most Christians would say it is. And yet there is no support for this in the Bible. To the contrary, in Jeremiah 19:9 God Himself threatens to force the Jews to eat their own children as punishment for something or other.
And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.Logically, then, cannibalism cannot be a sin because if it were then either 1) God would force people to sin, which means that He is not Perfect, 2) God makes empty threats, which means that His Word is not trustworthy.
It is, of course, not fair to pick on Christians. It isn't easy to come up with a codification of our moral intuition, and secularists fail as often as people of faith. There is no shame in failure, only in not trying. That is what drives me to take my best shot at this problem.
Let me start by defining the problem with a little more precision and a little less lulz. It is, of course, not about kitten torture, it's about how do we decide what is moral. It is indisputable that we have intuitions about morality. For proof we need look no further than the fact that Jeremiah 19:9 causes Christians serious cognitive dissonance. If Christians were really serious about their theology there should be no problem: the whole point of the Bible is that our moral intuition is unreliable, so we need the Word of God to set us straight. Disconnects between what we intuitively think is moral and what God says is moral is exactly what we should expect under such circumstances. And yet, the Christian reaction to Jeremiah 19:9 is almost never to concede that cannibalism is moral but rather to invent all kinds of excuses why the meaning of this verse is something other than what it plainly says.
Relying on our moral intuition is actually not such a bad plan. It has, after all, gotten us this far. Flawed as we are, humanity has nonetheless racked up some impressive and laudable accomplishments, and so far we have managed to avoid incinerating the planet. Somehow, despite the fact that we have not found a way to agree on a principle for deciding moral behavior, we nonetheless manage to behave morally more often than not.
No one can deny, however, that there is room for improvement. But can we do better? I believe that we can. But it's not easy. To illustrate the difficulty, let's look at a few ideas that don't work.
One proposal is that because moral intuition seems to be pragmatically effective as a guide to moral behavior that we adopt that as a principle: what is morally correct is what we intuitively feel to be morally correct. The problem with this is that it leads to moral relativism, and no way to resolve disputes when our intuitions happen not to coincide. For example, people who oppose gay marriage generally don't do it out of wanton cruelty, they do it out of a sincere, visceral, and deeply held belief that homosexual conduct is immoral and therefore should not be endorsed by society. Moral relativism offers no possibility of reconciling such opposing views, and is therefore unsuitable as a principle. At best, it is a concession of defeat.
A second possibility is utilitarianism or consequentialism: actions are judged by the desirability of their effects. Utilitarian arguments are commonly raised in moral debates, e.g. gay marriage should be banned because it is bad for children to be brought up by gay parents. The problem with consequentialism is that it begs the question. Instead of deciding what is moral, we now have to decide what is desirable, and different people desire different things.
Notwithstanding, consequentialism does represent some progress. We have mechanisms (like the free market) for resolving differences in desires in ways that everyone feels like they've come out ahead, and so adopting a consequentialist position at least has the potential for transforming the world in a way that everyone agrees is better even if we can't agree on what "better" actually means. This is the white magic of trade. It nevertheless grates on most people's moral intuitions to apply free market principles to questions of morality. The answer to the question of whether it is morally wrong to torture kittens should be independent of how much one might be willing to pay for the privilege. On the other hand, one can concoct consequentialist scenarios where kitten torture is arguably moral. We (humanity) actually have tortured kittens in the name of scientific research, so this is not just an academic question. (Here's a link. WARNING: This video contains some very disturbing images. Do NOT watch it unless you are prepared for that.)
One can attempt to rescue consequentialism by postulating some universal quality metric, like the minimization of pain or the maximization of pleasure. The problem is that either of these in isolation leads to absurd conclusions. If the moral quality metric is the minimization of pain, then the most moral thing one can do is to euthanize every sentient living creature. If the moral quality metric is the maximization of pleasure, then you have to deal with the problem of the hedonic treadmill. If you try to combine the two somehow then you have to deal with the fact that pain and pleasure are incommensurate quantities. If causing a kitten a tiny bit of pain gives someone enormously greater pleasure, does that make it moral?
One can adopt the Golden Rule, but this has the same problem: different people want to be treated in different ways. For example, I like it when people challenge my beliefs, but apparently most people don't (a hard life lesson that took me many years to learn).
One can postulate some other basis for morality, like the Humanist credo that "ethics are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience" (whatever that might mean). But why should species-ism provide any sounder a basis for morality than (say) class-ism (in either the biological or the economic sense) or racism?
It's a very hard problem. I think science actually does provide an answer. I'll describe how in the next installment.