Putting (more) Values to Values

By: Philip Trammell (Vol. II, Issue I)

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31, ESV

Self-Portrait (By: Philip Trammell)

Self-Portrait (By: Philip Trammell)

Christianity claims that individuals are gradually sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Last spring I wrote a piece for this publication which argued that if this is true, it must follow that a person’s virtue (or “morality of person”)—that is, the extent to which the Holy Spirit has sanctified him—is not a social construction like his criminality or a subjective preference like his attractiveness but is as real and quantifiable a property as his height or skin pigmentation. More specifically, it could best be understood as the ratio between the extent to which the person values his own happiness and the extent to which he values the good for its own sake. A person’s moral number, by this measure, is independent of how well he manages to accomplish what he considers to be good, what he believes to be good, and what actually is good in the first place.

The Search for Morality of Result.

The need for this article stems from the observation that we use the word “morality” for two very different properties, which might be called morality of person and morality of result. When two people of equal character each attempt to shoot an innocent victim for selfish reasons but one of the two potential killers is endowed with better eyesight, the results of their actions may be utterly different: life and death, one certainly far “better” than the other. Likewise, when one person is killed by a tornado and another by a murderer, the result of the tornado’s action is morally equivalent to that of the murderer’s; but as most of us intuit, there is something ridiculous about comparing the moral character of the murderer to the moral character of the tornado. But if morality of person and morality of result are distinct and independent properties, then even after we have defined morality of person as precisely as we will ever define anything in this world, we are no closer at all to quantifying morality of result. We are still left to imagine the scale against which results themselves—or “possible states of the universe,” if you like—are to be ranked from best to worst. Good people may seek to do what they think is good, but how do we establish what actually is good? If we have decided we are going to be good people, answering this question is the first task before us. In the process, we had better hope that the answer is in fact discoverable, and that the reason so many different moral philosophies exist in the world is not because the answer is unknowable but because people voluntarily possess incomplete moral information; to put it plainly, because they just haven’t thought about it enough. Also, we had better be darn sure we answer it right.

An aside: some may ask that if it is possible to be a good—even infinitely good—person with incorrect moral ideas, why would anyone bother to reform his understanding of morality? But this is simply the problem of the value of additional information, a problem that faces selfish individuals just as directly and that economists have studied in great detail. Naturally, a person would not truly be maximizing his happiness if he only acted rationally on what information he had and were unwilling to sacrifice some happiness in exchange for information on the basis of its expected value. In precisely the same way, a truly morality-of-result-maximizing person must be willing to risk some resulting evil (even if only in the form of foregone charity), if necessary to clarify his moral ideas, until he is confident enough that they are correct enough that the expected moral cost of continuing to philosophize all day outweighs the expected moral benefit. In the general case, a person of morality c is willing to pursue information of any kind if his expected utility of doing so—E[u] = E[happiness] + c × E[morality of result]—is positive.

Contradictory Moral Philosophies.

This is not a new question, to be sure, but it is one that never seems to reach a universally accepted conclusion. Almost everyone has a clear sense that some states of the world really are better than others, but we never come close to agreeing about which are which. Why is this? Let us not conclude that morality does not exist at all and that moral arguments are therefore meaningless, like arguments about the biology of unicorns. Almost everyone seems to have some sense of color perception, even if it is difficult to talk precisely about colors with other people, and the philosopher who concludes from this that color isn’t real and we are all actually colorblind can speak for himself, as far as I’m concerned.

A blind man could not simply deduce the spectrum by thinking hard enough, for color theory is simply a clarification or precise definition of our sensory experiences with light. Likewise, we possess some moral faculty with which we evaluate everyday scenes, but moral philosophy will never be able to build its yardstick out of nothing; it can only clarify and precisely define certain moral intuitions which to almost everyone are innate. And so let us conclude that the reason moral philosophers rarely prove anything universally accepted, or convince each other of anything at all, is that many of the sets of intuitions that seem to be written indelibly into the minds of people of every age and land are unequivocally contradictory.

It is almost universally accepted that making people happier is, at least by and large, a final good. Exploring this intuition leads one to some form of utilitarianism (usually total or average). It is also almost universally accepted that there is such a thing as justice—that people have duties and that it is a final good to punish those who violate them, and to reward those who fulfill them. Exploring this intuition leads one to some form of deontology. It is almost universally accepted that there is such a thing as property—material to the use of which particular people have an inviolable right, regardless of other people’s desires for it—and that its protection is a final good. Exploring this intuition leads one to some form of libertarianism. The list goes on. No two of these intuitions, as long as morality of result is a function of human happiness or behavior, can be even remotely correct, and so we are left scratching our heads from age to age wondering why we were are inclined to such deep-seated but contradictory notions of morality.

To clarify the contradiction: when one must choose between making a sufficiently moral person slightly happier or a less moral person far happier, the utilitarian and justice-based consequentialist philosophies clearly recommend different acts. And the libertarian, deontological philosophy that property rights constitute morality’s ultimate foundation could never recommend whole classes of acts, like theft or killing, even when those acts could be expected to increase total utility and minimize total injustice. Something has to give.

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.

We could simply conclude that one of these philosophies (or some other one) is right and the rest are wrong, but this seems almost as repugnant as the conclusion that morality doesn’t exist at all. I have argued that we could not invent the concept of color, if it did not exist, through the composition of other attributes like smell and sound, or the concept of morality, if it did not exist, through the composition of other attributes like color and size. Then how in particular did we come up with all our distinct, intelligible, contradictory moralities? What thoughts does a utilitarian weave together when he pauses to consider the idea of objective property? When we think about justice, what are we thinking about, if there is in fact no such thing?

Only when we call morality of result God’s glory can we reconcile at last all the moral inclinations of our hearts. Expose to the light of Heaven the fighting voices of your conscience and they suddenly realize that they are all true at once, and they unanimously fling their arms in the same direction. Property rights are real and inviolable—but the entirety of creation, our bodies and all, is the property of Someone Else, so with it we are always obligated to do exactly His will. Utility (whether total, average, product, or any other increasing function of it) is what ought to be maximized—but because there is a Person whose utility carries infinitely greater weight than ours, the utilitarian must always do what is most pleasing to Him. Good people do deserve greater rewards than others, but we know One who is infinitely better than we are, so justice always recommends doing what pleases Him. (Furthermore, it is the traditional Christian understanding that we would all be totally evil without His intervention, so He is owed the reward earned by every good thing that we do.) In theory, then, it should be no harder to imagine ranking states of the world in units of God-glorification—say, “glorias”—than it is to construct the units on which anthropocentric, consequentialist moral philosophies are built, such as “utils” and “hedons.” And though I have explored three such approaches to moral philosophy which are some of today’s most common, it takes little imagination to see how almost any other, from absolute monarchy to radical environmentalism, stands directly or indirectly on the same, singularly necessary, final moral concept, and that that final concept is an omnipotent and benevolent creator of all things. Every person’s only final intent, regardless of his preference or circumstance or moral thoughts, ought always to be to give the greatest glory to God.

I suppose the next question that comes to mind is, “then what is God’s will?” But even if I knew the perfect response (and I don’t) it would deserve its own paper. Deepening one’s understanding of God’s will is the work of a lifetime, and I’ll let people holier than myself try to put good answers to that question in writing. To those with clear vocations the God-glorifying path may be obvious, but to many of us it is not always so. We are left to pray, think, and act in our expected-morality-maximizing way. The first step to understanding of the nature of goodness itself is a recognition of God and His glory; as for where to go from there, I’m not the One to listen to.

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