A kind of normativity: What all well-informed, rational people would endorse as universally moral


In Found: a universal moral principle I argue science reveals 1) the ultimate source of morality is the species independent cooperation/exploitation dilemma and its solutions, and 2) there is a necessary component of all those solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma relevant to human morality. That necessary component of all these solutions is the cross-species universal moral principle we can express as “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

If the above claims are true, would all well-informed, rational people endorse this principle as universally moral? It seems they must do so; to do otherwise would be irrational.

Now consider Bernard and Jason Gert’s definition of “normative” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Morality”:

“… the term ‘morality’ can be used … normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward (endorsed) by all rational persons.”

By the Gert definition, “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others” is “normative”. This principle provides an objective definition of what ‘is’ universally moral regardless of the needs, preferences, and opinions of people or any other being.

However, as described in Found: a universal moral principle, this normativity – this principle’s scope of moral authority – is limited. This bit of science is silent on critical elements necessary for defining well-functioning cultural moral codes.

The principle is silent on who ought to be included in “others” (the people in our “circle of moral concern” as Peter Singer describes them) who are not to be exploited. Are “others” just your family, your tribe, everyone, or everyone plus all conscious creatures? Singer summarizes human moral progress as “expanding the circle of moral concern”, and this moral principle from science does not appear to even address what size that circle of moral concern ought to be.

The principle is also silent on what benefits of cooperation we ought to pursue. For example, should that benefit be well-being or flourishing for all, or ought each person cooperate with and not exploit others with the goal of increasing their personal well-being and flourishing?

Of perhaps special concern to philosophers, the endorsement of this principle as universally moral by all rational people is not due to it having innate binding power or moral authority. Its moral authority must come from cultural enforcement in societies that choose it as a moral reference for refining their moral codes and from the motivating emotional power of the moral sense of people who practice the principle. Endorsement of the principle as universally moral also does not imply that following this moral principle will always be rational or best meet the needs and preferences of the individual.

Endorsement also does not imply agreement by all rational people on what constitutes “exploitation” or any of other the other innumerable aspects of implementing the principle in a specific society’s moral code.

Looking at the big picture, science only tells us about what ‘is’. Given human needs and preferences, science can inform us as to how we can be most likely to achieve them. What we ‘ought’ to do regardless of our needs and preferences – what morality is commonly thought to be about – is a different category of thing. What the moral principle “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others” does is ground discussions about what morality ‘ought’ to be in what science tells us morality ‘is’.

Readers may be thinking this moral principle is just too vague to be of much use. But arguably the most powerful cooperation strategy known is indirect reciprocity. And perhaps the most effective heuristic for initiating indirect reciprocity is “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. Note this form of the Golden Rule, like the moral principle, is silent on what benefits will be and who is included in “others”. Nevertheless, societies that follow the Golden Rule can do very well even when individuals may have different goals for moral behavior.

As an example of its potential utility, this science offers a new understanding of the normative power (the moral authority) of the Golden Rule. When acting on it will increase the benefits of cooperation, all well-informed, rational people should (I argue) endorse it as universally moral.

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