The goal of this post is to bring out a fundamental logical contradiction in our moral thinking. By moral thinking I am referring to ways of thinking about right and wrong, what is good and how to get it apart from any effort to avoid inconsistencies. Our ordinary ways of thinking about morals take both rule following-deontological thinking and good pursuing -teleological thinking- as fundamental. Holding deontological and teleological thinking as fundamental produces the inconsistency.
Here I want to show that having this inconsistent way of thinking is based on our having free will because free will requires rule following.
Our moral thinking is logically inconsistent because we are free agents obligated to pursue what is truly good for us.
( Note that there is an assumption that some conditions are the genuine goods for humans.)
Having free will presupposes a need to be obligated to pursue what is truly good for us.
Consider a conjecture about the thought process at work in free will. We have the opportunity to exercise free will when we have a a choice between the following alternatives. We weigh the benefit of gaining a true good, e.g., life, over the costs of pursuing a path to attain a true good where benefits and costs are characterized in terms of satisfaction of inclinations. Suppose that it turns out that the costs of pursuing the true good outweigh the satisfactions of having the true good.
This is a real possibility.
A clear case of this occurs when a patient is suffering a painful terminal illness. Certainly, any characterization of the genuine human goods will bring out that they satisfy desires and inclinations. Still, it cannot be guaranteed that in all conditions the inclination satisfaction of true human goods outweighs the pains required to get them. This is especially the case when the probability of getting the satisfaction of the true human good is low.
Back to free will.
The alternatives for a free will choice are
1. to pursue the true human good
2. follow our inclinations
which almost certainly will not be for sacrificing inclination satisfaction for sake of the true human good.
What might make the pursuit of the true human good choice worthy? Assume pursuit of a true human good is commanded by a moral rule. A true human good is desirable. But just in case we do not desire enough we are commanded to choose it. So, under my conjecture our capacity for free choice is the capacity to choose to obey a moral rule to pursue a true human good regardless of inclinations left unsatisfied.
The reality of free will as characterized here is well established in everyday life. It seems that people are faced with a choice of obeying moral laws when doing so is challenging. Frequently people seem to meet the challenges. I am almost certain that I have done so. Note that free will as here characterized makes no assumptions about universal causal determinism or divine omniscience.
But I do not want to digress into an examination of the problem of free will. My goal has only been to show that free will understood in a common sense way involves the concept of obligatory goods.
Elaborating on assuming true human goods would also be a digression from my goal of making explicit a contradiction in moral thinking. I admit that I am assuming that moral thinking does involve acceptance of some conditions as what makes for a good human life.
(I have been strongly influenced by the so-called New Natural Law theory of Grisez, Finnis et. al.)
The obligatory goods are various conditions which constitute a full human life. They are conditions such as knowledge, meaningfulness, enjoying beauty, liberty, sufficient food. It is a task for philosophers, where “philosophy” is to be understood as wisdom, to elaborate on the conditions which make for a full human life. Most people will have deficiency in enjoying these basic human goods. Maybe everyone will always have some deficiency with respect to these goods.
Once we have specified what is good we can specify what “harm” means when I write of “moral harm.” To produce harm is to bring about a deficiency in these basic goods.
This definition of “harm” brings us close to bringing out the inconsistency once we recall that the first principle of natural moral thinking is
Do good, avoid evil.
This principle tells us:
Promote the basic human goods and never produce harm.
A corollary is:
There ought never be harm. Or
NO HARM OUGHT TO BE.
However, we have not only the first principle of natural law as a moral rule but several moral laws commanding that basic human goods be promoted and never deliberately inhibited.
But laws, which are not mere words, carrying sanctions. They specify that harm ought to result upon their violation.
So, assuming that some moral laws have been violated we have
SOME HARM OUGHT TO BE.
So, here we have uncovered the inconsistency in everyday uncritical moral thinking.
The next post sketches out ways of avoiding this inconsistency.