unnatural state of mind provoked by acquiescence
Conscience Does Not Explain Morality
Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason…while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s decision
It is my opinion that morality as interpreted by the general public happens to be a conscience-centric one, focusing on self-regulatory behaviours (i.e. what you, personally, ought to do).
To most people it certainly feels like we don’t do certain things because they feel morally wrong, so understanding morality through conscience is something that intrigues me.
With all due respect to all of you morality bashers, you seem to have based your analysis of morality on entirely the wrong concept.
Understanding conscience can help understand morality, and no account of morality would be complete without explaining conscience.
There is a fundamental difference between moral conscience and preferences which are basically just 'moral rules' that are a hangover from the 'teachings' of the established religions.
This is the key distinction, then: moral conscience (regulating one’s own behaviour) does not appear to straightforwardly explain moral condemnation (regulating the behaviour of others). Despite this, almost every expressed moral rule or law involves punishing others for how they behave – at least implicitly. While the specifics of what gets punished and how much punishment is warranted vary to some degree from individual to individual, the general form of moral rules does not.
While we cannot necessarily learn much about moral condemnation via moral conscience, the reverse is not true: we can understand moral conscience quite well through moral condemnation. Provided that there are groups of people who will tend to punish for you for doing something, this provides ample motivation to avoid engaging in that act, even if you otherwise highly desire to do so.
Our moral conscience represents the fear of the cost of transgressing our moral code for fear of punishment. To the extent that morally undesirable behaviors tend to be condemned and punished, we ought to be expected to have a cognitive system to represent that fact.
To me that all seems a bit perverse. After all, many simply experience the sensation that an act is morally wrong or not and don’t necessarily think about their actions in terms of the likelihood and severity of punishment (some do think such things some of the time, but that’s typically not what appears to be responsible for the feeling of “that’s morally wrong”. People think things are morally wrong regardless of whether one is caught doing it).
That all may be true enough, but I am trying to understand why some experience those feelings of moral wrongness and not to just note that we do experience them and that they seem to have some effect on our behavior.
While our behavior might be proximately motivated by those feelings of moral wrongness, those feelings came to exist because they were useful in guiding out behavior in the face of punishment.
That does raise a rather important question, though: why do we still feel certain acts are immoral even when the probability of detection or punishment are rather close to zero?
There are two ways of answering that question, neither of which is mutually exclusive with the other. The first is that the cognitive systems which compute things like the probability of being detected and estimate the likely punishment that will ensue are always working under conditions of uncertainty. Because of this uncertainty, it is inevitable that the system will, on occasion, make mistakes: sometimes one could get away without repercussions when behaving immorally, and one would be better off if they took those chances than if they did not. One also needs to consider the reverse error as well, though: if you assess that you will not be caught or punished when you actually will, you would have been better off not behaving immorally. Provided the costs of punishment are sufficiently high it might pay in some situations to still avoid behaving in morally unacceptable ways even when you’re almost positive you could get away with it.
The point here is that it doesn’t just matter if you’re right or wrong about whether you’re likely to be punished: the costs to making each mistake need to be factored into the cognitive equation as well, and those costs are often asymmetric.
The second way of approaching that question is to suggest that the conscience system is just one cognitive system among many, and these systems don’t always need to agree with one another. That is, a conscience system might still represent an act as morally unacceptable while other systems (those designed to get certain benefits and assess costs) might output an incompatible behavioral choice. To the extent that these systems are independent, then, it is possible for each to hold opposing representations about what to do at the same time.
So, having mastered the morality equation in so far as it explains the behavioral aspect, I am still wrestling with my conscience.