After my wordy post about whether infinity is real, I plan to continue the discussion about what it means to be real, or to exist (are they different?) by discussing morality. Regular readers will already know that I think morality can be objectively described, but so can numbers. I think I concluded that numbers aren’t real. (Seriously.) There is ambiguity about what morality is and, as I’ve already alluded to, it’s not immediately clear whether being real and existing are different.
Morality is commonly defined as “what one ought to do” (at least, in conversations I have with the students of William Lane Craig, it is). But I don’t accept that definition. What one ought to do depends entirely on what they wish to do. For example, if one wishes to win the lottery one ought to play. But it is rare to find a person who would agree with the sentence “buying a lottery ticket is a moral action”. Muslims, who believe gambling should be banned¹, would believe that buying a lottery ticket is immoral.
My dad is of the view that morality means ‘to do what one ought to do, on their own principles’. I can see some merit to this. Red Dwarf once did an episode where the characters met another spaceship where the people on it judged the crew of Red Dwarf. The people on this new ship judged the narcissistic character The Cat and the self-important character Rimmer as doing good. Whereas they judged the (seemingly) morally astute but lazy character Lister and the obedient robotic character who always looked after his shipmates, Kryton, as doing wrong. The reason is that Lister and Kryton knew better than what few transgressions they had made, and both recognised the need to do better but didn’t. This idea should be familiar to anyone who plays attention to a jury-based legal system; judged by your peers. These should be people who share your values and judge you so. For most people this system seems effective. But if you are a paedophile then the people in your paedophile ring are your peers, and they share your values. This is why I also reject my dad’s definition of morality.
It should come as no surprise to my readers that I still believe that morality is best defined as actions that affect our wellbeing. An action that safeguards our wellbeing is ‘morally good’. I think this definition best describes what people mean when they use the word. I also maintain that an action that fails to safeguard wellbeing cannot be said to be morally good.
Am I describing something that exists? That is a difficult question. I find it hard to define what it means to exist, but I can articulate characteristics I think mean something does not exist. Carl Sagan’s incorporeal dragon is my favourite example. This is a dragon that is defined in such a way that it evades all of our investigations: it is invisible, breathes heatless fire and is not made from nor dependent on matter and energy. If you think carefully about what the difference is between that dragon and a dragon that simply doesn’t exist, I think you will come to a considered conclusion about what it means to exist.
Ideas do exist. Ideas are an experiential result of a physical state. What I mean by that is ideas are a thing we experience because our physiology is arranged in a particular way. An idea cannot exist independent of the material world. Your idea of a unicorn exists, the unicorn does not (and so it is with numbers). Wellbeing exists for the exact reason that ideas exist; your wellbeing depends on a very particular arrangement of your physiology.
The reality of morality, if it is so, must be contingent. Ideas, numbers and wellbeing are contingent on the material arrangement from which they arise. Morality, as I’ve defined it (or plagiarised from Sam Harris), is contingent on wellbeing. A universe without wellbeing is also devoid of morality. Justifying morality exists is harder. At the moment, I say it does not. The idea of morality does exist. But as an actual thing which exists, I say it does not. Please don’t lose sight of the fact is can still be expressed and objectively measured in the material world.
As a separate question, is being real different from existing? It is clear that all things that exist must also be real. But can things which do not exist be real? Numbers don’t exist (I feel comfortable saying that), but I’m not sure whether they are real. Numbers and language have a purpose that can apply to the real and material world. Numbers and language articulate ideas (which exist; they have a material foundation).
Is ‘that which is real’ a bigger set, of which ‘that what exists’ is a subset? Here’s my proposal, that I would love your reaction on (regardless of whether that feedback is ‘this is nuance to the point of meaninglessness and intellectual masturbation): that which exists can be defined as that which is composed of or effectively described by the material and energetic world. That which is real can be described as all that relates to the material and energetic world. Numbers are not composed of or effectively described by the material world, and do not exist, but they do relate to the material and energetic world and are real. Morality does relate the material and energetic world, so it is real.
1 – the commas here are actually very technical. If I had written it as “Muslims who believe…” then I would have described a subset of Muslims, implying there is another subset of Muslims who believe differently. But including that comma–“Muslims, who believe…”–means that I am describing all Muslims. It is an independent relative clause. (For Hifzan). That is a mistake, as not all Muslims believe the same. However, according the Koran, they should (on this issue).
(Bonus points for anyone who noticed that morality both exists and is real by the definitions I ultimately give, which means I changed my mind halfway through writing this post)