A positive moral fact is a statement of the form:
- “You ought to X.”
- “To X is morally good.”
- “To X improves the well-being of conscious creatures.”
‘X’ may refer to an action (tell the truth), a virtue (be honest), a value (respect truth), or a rule (obey the code of honesty).
But people and groups of people are selfish. Why should you as an individual or we as a community care about the greater moral good, care about universal norms, care about ethics? Why should anyone care about what he ‘should’ do? Where does this meta-imperative come from?
If we value scientific truth, rationality, and universality, we implicitly value ethics and objective moral facts (as Sam Harris argues in The Moral Landscape). Buy why should we value those things to begin with?
It all depends on our social environment. The ‘should behind the should’ comes from the social groups we belong to. Social belonging is what gives moral facts and values their practical significance.
When you say to a friend, “You should not lie to me,” you are implying that if he keeps being dishonest, you will at some point, depending on your seriousness and strength of character, stop respecting him, stop talking to him, stop being his friend.
The same threat of social exclusion underlies every ‘should’ and value in the world:
- In a tribe of hunter-gatherers, every member must follow the tribe’s moral code. Whoever doesn’t will be mistrusted, shamed, or even banished from the tribe and left to die in the wild.
- As societies became sedentary and civilized, they developed more complex codes, now known as legal systems that define the social consequences (punishments) for violations of the law, including the social exclusion of criminals through the prison system.
- Beyond laws, we still have our tribal shaming mechanisms. Racists, sexists, and animal abusers are publicly shamed, increasingly online on social media, and their employers often pressured to lay them off due to joint liberal values.
- On an international level, we have treaties based on shared values like humanitarianism. Human rights violations will, depending on a country’s integrity, result in reduced or terminated economic and political cooperation.
- Business partnerships, too, depend on mutual compliance with shared values and principles, without which cooperation will be terminated.
As a general principle, the more the value systems of two or more social entities diverge, the less cooperation there will be between them. The practical significance of moral norms and values comes from the social need of cooperation. If you don’t do what you ought to do or if do what you ought not to do, you will be shamed, denied cooperation, and ultimately expelled from the group.
Without a social group, a man has no social status, no power, and virtually no chance to survive. This is why every man must adhere to some set of values and some code of morality. Not because there is an abstract metaphysical obligation, but because failing to conform to a certain standard of behavior has severe negative social consequences for him.
By the same token, it is utterly futile to tell a man or a people “You shall not X” if he or it does not belong to and identify with the social group tacitly referenced by that appeal to morality. Moral proselytism cannot work beyond thorough integration into a cooperative social structure.
Now, to the extent that scientific truth, rationality, and humanity are important values in our Western civilization, we should adhere to ethics, particularly humanist principles, if only for the selfish reason of elevating our social status and improving our cooperative opportunities within a Western social environment. Yet, what priority do those values really have?
Non-universal values like culture, freedom, religion, tradition, masculinity, etc. are still prevalent and prioritized in many Western communities. People will not care much about impartial moral norms if they belong to a social group wherein they can be respected, gain power, become successful, and cooperate effectively by aligning their thoughts and actions with non-ethical values.
This, of course, is the root of all our fighting, debating, and misunderstanding, and it will keep spawning wars and conflicts, will cause suffering as long as different social groups exist, as long as humans exist.