In the video a system of morality called “secular morality” is presented. This conception has as its foundation the dialectical pair “well-being/harm” – and the object is to maximize well-being and avoid harm. To label actions as “moral” and “immoral” (good/bad) according to this morality, a “moral triangle” is presented, consisting of the points “intent”, “well-being/harm” and (moral) “rights/values”. An action is given the label moral if the intent is to cause well-being, the consequence is well-being, and no moral rights or values are violated. An immoral action is just the opposite.
There are three points to the critique I give here: intent, rights/values and well-being. Given that the whole basis of the morality is well-being/harm, we have some objections and questions to how and why intent and rights/values make their way into a system of labelling actions according to this morality. Lastly, such a system will have to rely on a clear and specific understanding of well-being, but such an understanding seems so far to be lacking.
The presentation deserves one’s attention because of the healthy consistency in its framework. It has a wider scope than presented here, making clearer a lot of points on morality issues in general.
Animals not possessing our level of consciousness were in the presentation said to be exempt from the concept of secular morality, since they do not have awareness of their actions causing harm. Therefore, one cannot say they have intent to cause harm, and this part of the triangle is not satisfied. However, perhaps too much value is being put on being conscious about something; a bias of european philosophy, which has usually depended on free will. The main argument against theistic morality is logical inconsistency: the connections cannot be proved. But if the lack of proof is a reason for disbelief, the fact that free will probably cannot be proved (please give it a try!) means it should also be disbelieved.
If there is no free will, however, what is the essential difference between being conscious or unconscious about something? The want to cause harm comes then just as natural and irrevocable as the tiger’s desire to kill its prey. The only difference is that in some thing that is called consciousness the thought “this will cause harm” occurs, but such a thought does not influence whether or not the action will be carried out. In the traditional sense, one separates between conscious and unconscious actions in that the former can be controlled, while the latter we have no control over. Without free will, this is not the case: in this sense, the attribute is as meaningless as the colour of the hair. What does the consciousness add to the equation, if the eventual choice is determined by external factors?
The general reason for forgiving people who were “insane” at the moment of action is that they could not control and prevent it, and it is unjust to hold them accountable then, but the man who does an action consciously chooses it no more than the sick chooses his disease, assuming there is no free will. All the traditional concepts of justice and deserve should then be abandoned.
Even with free will, the point of intent is not clear from considerations concerning only well-being/harm. Is not the harm/well-being of an event or actions independent of the intent, in many cases? Then should not intent only be included in as much as it affects well-being/harm?
With that said, intent can still be placed in such a triangle, if one is to have one. This deserves some explanation though, for it is not obvious. Actually, having intent in the triangle is “obvious” for most people, but this follows from preconceived notions of values and principles, and not from this “secular morality”. I can only assume that the goal of morality is not just to place empty labels on events and actions, but to give some direction to follow (of course not by duty or demand, but desire and/or choice), and therefore the different labels should prescribe different reactions and measures. It is fruitful to divide such a morality as this into two scales: social and personal. The social scale covers society; how to organize and behave in society as a whole. Personal scale is one’s own internal life and choices. Clearly, such a separation implies that laws and social norms should not be very restrictive on private life, and this is necessary to achieve well-being.
On the social scale, intent is important in the sense that to achieve well-being (or simply to avoid harm), one should respond differently to an, by the knowledge possessed by the involved, unavoidable accident than to a conscious act. On the personal scale one can apply the same argument. Even more subtle, but all the more important, is our natural differentiation of these cases, and to achieve well-being for the self, is it not to follow our inner flows? This point I fear is underestimated and misunderstood in general, and it deserves more attention than I can give it here…
Now the redemption of intent has been achieved only through considering well-being/harm, which was in fact the whole definition for the morality, and therefore I was surprised to find intent in a triangle. For if the importance of intent in this morality follows only from well-being/harm (and what else could it possible follow from, since this is the whole foundation!), then should it be a point of its own? – should not at least this connection be explained?
Rights and values
It is not possible that a right or value is being violated without being detrimental to well-being when it is the only possible basis of formulating rights and values. And in a moral system where the foundation is simply based on well-being/harm, abstract rights and values do not exist on their own, but are merely formulations of general ways to think/behave in order to maximize well-being (or avoid harm – is this the same?). To consider whether or not a right/value is violated by an action would then require to consider the well-being/harm caused by the action, rendering the point of rights/values in essence useless; – in practice it only has the function of a shortcut.
The only way to include rights and values I can imagine at the moment (not that my limited imagination should be an argument for anything) is to claim that while some single actions done by some individuals do not cause harm, it would be harmful for society if such actions were allowed in general. Some milder version of the categorical imperative. It may still be some particular cases where breaking the right would result in the greatest amount of well-being, and thus be a moral action by the foundation of morality, which presents some dilemma.
For instance, it may be the case that more well-being than harm can be achieved by stealing (say, if the thief “needs” it, and the victim is someone or some organization too big to even notice what was lost), but if everyone did it, it would cause more harm than well-being. Depending on how well-being should be measured, one may find that some, by common standards, harsh actions are morally right. It will cause a lot more well-being than harm if one decided that Bill Gates only needs, say, 0.01% of his wealth, and the rest should be taken from him to help the poor. The only harm caused is to his feeling of attachment to numbers in a bank account. Going on like this, one may eventually even justify murder, and not only in the case of self-defense or military service (the old collision of Crime and Punishment).
There is also the difficulty of formulating general rights that actually truly follow the well-being criteria on a deeper, personal level, simply for all the wealth of different people and situations. Most actions that can be formulated purely on well-being/harm would fall outside the realm of any right or value. This presents the problem of measuring well-being or the lack thereof in individuals, which is an impossibility since the experience of it is subjective.