When considering the foundations of morality, the place to start, which is often overlooked, is in answering the following question: why do moral problems present themselves to us in the first place? Other animals don’t seem to ponder the moral implications of their actions, but humans do. Why is this?
To answer this question, a useful place to start is with theory of mind, which is the ability to mentally switch perspectives and to imagine the beliefs, needs, feelings, and desires of others. Children develop this capacity around the age of 4, and you can test for it by using the false-belief task. Here’s an example of how the test might go:
- First, show a child a box of Bandaids and have them guess what’s inside. They’ll likely reply, “bandaids.”
- Then, have them open the box to discover a different object, like a toy.
- Finally, taking a figurine boy, and bringing it over to the Bandaid box, ask the child what the figurine would think is in the box.
If the child says the figurine thinks there’s a toy inside, the child lacks theory of mind, as they assume other people have the same knowledge they have. If the child says the figurine thinks there are Bandaids inside, then the child has the capacity to switch perspectives and consider how knowledge and point of view might differ in others.
While the research is controversial, most (if not all) animals lack theory of mind, and without this capacity, moral problems simply don’t exist. Life for most animals is the pursuit of self-interest, and even behavior that appears on the surface to be altruistic is driven entirely by instinct. Moral problems can only occur to an animal that is able to consider how actions can affect others, and how those actions might make others feel.
If I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you, I can’t imagine why my actions can harm you. If I can imagine what it’s like to be you, I can imagine how my actions can harm you, and it’s only when I can consider things from your perspective that moral problems arise.
Morality can only make sense, and is only coherent, in terms of how our actions impact others. Therefore, any moral proposition that does not take into account the consideration of others is not only wrong, but incoherent. The idea that one should act only in their own interest is not morality at all—it’s a regression to the amoral world of lower animals.
To think about it another way, I can’t propose solutions to moral problems that do not consider the reason why the moral problems occurred to me in the first place, and they occurred to me in the first place only in consideration of the needs of others.
Adam Smith, who is better known as the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations, recognized this, and proposed, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that “sympathy” (what we would today call “empathy”) is the foundation of morality. We experience the pains and pleasures of others by imagining what it is like to be them. As Adam Smith wrote:
“However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though they derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Our evolution as cooperative, social animals not only allows us to switch perspectives with others, but it also provides us with vicarious positive feelings when others experience pleasure and happiness, along with negative feelings when others experience pain or hardship. Smith writes:
“When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter into your grief I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die: but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you, and I not only change circumstance with you, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon your own account, and not in the least upon my own.”
This switching of perspectives not only produces sympathy, it is also the origin of all moral problems. Therefore, the solution to moral problems must also lie in the same principle of interchangeable perspectives and sympathy.
Sympathy, to Smith, is not a sixth sense, but a judgment guided by reason in response to an emotion. Sympathy requires imagination—the theory of mind—and allows us to compare how others would act with how we would act, and vice versa. Because we know that others are engaging in the same process, we seek mutual sympathy with others to achieve mutual happiness from a shared standpoint.
As social animals, our perspectives are too intertwined to not be relevant to morality, and our desire for fellow-feeling and mutual sympathy explains why we all constantly consider our actions in terms of how others will perceive them. This is an inescapable psychological principle.
In normal, everyday interactions, we all can easily switch perspectives with the people we interact with and consider our actions from their point of view. If we decide to harm people intentionally for our own benefit, then we’ve obviously committed an immoral act because, as we’ve said, moral problems are defined by the impact we have on other people.
As a social species, these immoral actions will weigh heavily on our conscience, and the social, legal, and psychological penalties for these actions can be devastating. This is the reason why most of us act morally most of the time, because our own happiness is deeply intertwined with others and with society.
For the more complex moral dilemmas involving more people, we take the concept of interchangeable perspectives up one level of abstraction. Rather than switching perspectives with someone specific, we split ourselves into a moral actor and a judge. As Smith wrote:
“When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of. But that the judge should, in every respect, be the same with the person judged of, is as impossible, as that the cause should, in every respect, be the same with the effect.”
Who is this impartial spectator? This fictional entity is crafted by our evolutionary instincts and emotions, our societal norms, our education, and our reason. People know instinctively what is right and wrong from the theory of mind and from our cooperative nature as social animals, and then, using that as the foundation, can build further rules that consider the well-being of others.
This is why you find some variation of the golden rule underlying all ethical and religious systems. The golden rule states, in some variation: do not do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself. If this is not a perfectly concise expression of theory of mind, I don’t know what is. The golden rule, which is an expression of our basic moral sense of sympathy, precedes religion, it is not derived from it. (In fact, no religion would have ever been founded and widely accepted without this foundational moral sensibility.)
This basic moral sense operates perfectly well unless it is interfered with by any of the following:
- Any religious or philosophical system that convinces us that other people or groups are inferior, evil, corrupt, or otherwise not deserving of the same treatment as ourselves or others in our group.
- Any set of beliefs that convinces us that our needs take priority over others, or that we or our group are superior to others.
- Any set of beliefs that debases our own humanity with the idea that the pursuit of pleasure is worth the harm it creates in others and the degradation of our character and conscience.
In the absence of these ideas, our moral sense and reason can help us build an effective system of morality without the necessity of an absolute set of moral standards or rules, but instead with the guiding principle that our collective well-being as a social species is dependent on our mutual sympathy. Moral progress is achieved whenever ideas are promoted that draw us closer together, collectively as human beings, while moral regression occurs whenever ideas seek to divide us into separate and competing groups.
This is also why, in terms of moral actions, we all feel compelled to provide justifications for our actions, regardless of what they are. If I can imagine things from your perspective and I know you can do the same, we both have the reciprocal obligation to provide justifications for our actions that we both can accept.
Theory of mind extends a couple layers down. I can not only imagine what you are thinking, but I can also imagine that you imagine what I am thinking, and so on. This intertwined perspective that we both experience demands reciprocal cooperation of behavior.
This is the basis for a host of ethical frameworks, from the golden rule to Kant’s categorical imperative to T.M. Scanlon’s contractualism. The idea is that we all owe each other justifications for our actions, and that those justifications (unless influenced by considerations that have nothing to do with actual human harm or flourishing) over time will result in moral progress as we reflect on optimal arrangements to achieve mutual sympathy.
So the answer to the question “who determines what is good or bad?” is no one and everyone. There are no simple answers, and there will always be disagreement, but what’s more important is the justifications given for actions, rational dialogue, and the evolution of moral knowledge that results from this process.
Theoretically, morality is difficult to express in terms of universal laws, but in the course of your own life, you’ll probably notice that things go rather smoothly, and that you are not constantly embroiled in theoretical dilemmas. You get along just fine with others, you feel compelled to justify your actions, and you consider how your actions affect others, while expecting the same from them.
The main task for moral philosophy, as I see it, is figuring out how we can extend this normal everyday functioning and mentality to encompass ever larger groups. This can be accomplished—not by building up sophisticated moral systems that add anything more to the concept of mutual sympathy—but by abolishing the dogmatic systems that operate in universals and division.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith