I sincerely ask readers to bear with me in this article. This brief dissertation on morality is my response to a request by a fellow Kaieteur News columnist, Stella. She has stated that Ramjattan, Trotman and Holder, the three leaders of the Alliance for Change (AFC), should resign their seats in Parliament. She believes it is the morally right thing to do. She wants me to accept that it is indeed a moral judgement these three parliamentarians ought to make.
Stella has introduced in the debate, one of the most complicated issues in human knowledge – a definition of morality. On the basis of this philosophical nuance, it becomes virtually impossible for me to answer her question. Neither Stella nor Frederick Kissoon can define morality and arrive at a mutually satisfying agreement.
The line between absolutism and relativism are so complicated that only the late Pope John Paul among international leaders that I know so far, has taken such a categorical stance on the contours of moral values. And I don't think that his purist position was acceptable.
John Paul himself practiced double standards because he conveniently traveled both paths. He admonished Latin American Catholics to eschew liberation theology. But in Eastern Europe during communist rule, John Paul was a consummate practitioner of liberation theology with a European twist to it.
If Stella thinks that the gang of 3 from the AFC should resign from their respective parliamentary seats for moral reasons, then my understanding of epistemology based on the arguments of two of the most brilliant minds human society has ever produced, philosophers David Hume (England) and Immanuel Kant (Germany), would make it difficult to accept her moral reasoning.
One of the great debates in philosophy is the triangular disagreement on what it morally right and morally wrong between Hume, on the one hand, Kant on the other, and a separate contribution from the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. It is definitely outside the scope of a newspaper column to discuss the philosophies of Hume, Kant and Bentham on morals. But very brief notes should suffice.
Most students who studied philosophy would know that all the past philosophers asked the same question – What is good? Hume broke with tradition by asking – What do we mean by good? The first traditional question in philosophy centers on the search for norms - that is, for standards or principles of right and wrong. Hume's question, in contrast is the pursuit for facts about what moral judgements are, what sorts of things are deemed to be good. Hume argued that moral principles are neither divine edicts nor discoverable by reason. He went on to state that even if we accept divine creation, we cannot affirm anything about the moral qualities of the Creator.
He rejected the role of human beings setting guidelines for their own action by speculating on the moral judgement of their Creator. Neither can moral values come through reason, he argued. This position of Hume on reason rests on his approach to epistemology which has four assumptions. (1) – Thought consists of having ideas. (2) – Ideas are derived from impressions of senses. (3) – Every thought that something exists is a factual claim. (4) - Factual claim can only be established through observation.
What Hume is saying here is that when we arrive at moral principles, we came through the route of sense impression. He wrote, “Morality is more properly felt than judged of.” We accept moral rights and reject moral wrongs from our emotions not through reason. Reason cannot settle moral question just as how it cannot determine whether a portrait is beautiful or not. Kant disagreed, accepted that reason can lead us to moral judgement, and came up with a brilliant rebuttal but to my mind he doesn't demolish Hume. Let's summarize Kant.
He takes two positions. (1) Scientific inquiry can never reveal to us its principles that we know hold without exception. For, example, science, based on experience, reveals to us physical laws that hold true but science cannot tell us about these concerns in the future. (2) – Moral principles, however, hold without exception. For example, if it is wrong to hurt babies, then it would be wrong for anyone, at any time to do so. The reader can see clearly here that Kant is saying that moral principles hold without exception; scientific investigations cannot reveal what hold without exception. Then Kant goes on to a brilliant proposition.
Moral principles are always expressed in the imperative – “do not steal” or “be kind to others.” Now since this moral imperative must hold without exception, it is different from a hypothetical imperative which is really about something we ought to do if such and such an end is desired. For example, “if you wish to be healthy, then live moderately.” This imperative is opposed to the moral imperative that holds unconditionally. What all of this means is that human beings should do what they do because it is right and not because of any other purpose, say because of happiness or because it pleases your friend. To do so is not to act morally.
Kant went on to argue that you should perform your moral obligation because it is your moral duty not because it is asked of us. The fine part of his theory is when he said that it is not the effects or consequences of your moral act that determines whether it is good or bad. These are not within your control.
What is in your control is the intent with which you act. According to Kant because a morally good intention is one that acts solely for the sake of doing what is right, it follows that there is no moral worth in say, helping others because you feel sorry for them. There is a moral worth in helping others because it is the right thing to do.
I think both Hume and Kant could be used to argue that it is not an easy question for the gang of 3 to decide that it is morally wrong to stay in Parliament. But one can even throw in the moral philosophy of the English thinker, Jeremy Bentham. He argues that the morally best decision is one that produces, compared with all other possible alternative acts, the greatest amount of happiness with everyone considered. What this means is that the moral judgement must bring the greatest happiness to the greatest numbers. One can argue that if the three parliamentarians stay in the National Assembly and fight for the Guyanese people then it would have achieved what Bentham meant. Sorry about all this philosophical jazz, Stella.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
What is Moral Judgement - Freddie Kissoon
Here's Freddie's very academic response to my column, Freddie, Tell Me What You Think About the AFC Now