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Muddling through Morality

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Thinking about the basis for moral action as a result of Stuart Sutherland’s interesting lecture earlier this evening on “Hume and Civil Society”. Hume skeptically examines various putative bases for moral action, and finds many of them wanting—religion, social norms, rational thought.

I was wondering whether, in practice, there is a single “base theory” like this, though. Perhaps there are a number of different bases, and the consequences of these all largely coincide. Groups might seem to be acting in a coherent moral fashion, but each individual’s morality might have a different basis; or, more likely, combination of bases. Some might be driven by emotional repugnance, some by rationally thinking through the consequences of their action, some by social norms, some by fear of (spiritual or temporal) authority, most by some mixture of them all. In the end they all do more-or-less the same thing. This has a flavour of the “swiss cheese” theory of risk: most of the time at least one of our moral bases kick in to prevent us acting immorally, and it is only when all of the bases are absent, or else miscued in a particular context, that morality fails.