In Being Bad (Another Prelude), posted before the Morality as Playing Games series, I raised what I referred to as a question of “meta-meta-ethics”. That question was not so much about how you construct a morality (meta-ethics) nor how you apply your theoretical basis for morality (normative ethics) nor about what people believe about morality (descriptive morality), but rather about the purpose of morality – why you might want to construct a morality in the first place.
I also asked “why do we have (or pretend to have) this morality when we so often, and often so easily, throw it away?” and “are there specific situations in which acting contrary to our morality might, paradoxically, be the right thing to do?”
I did threaten to return to this topic and address it in light of Morality as Playing Games, and thus I shall.
First I must defend the assertion that “meta-meta-ethics” is a term that might be needed. It has been argued elsewhere that the questions I’ve raised, to the extent that they have any validity, “come comfortably under meta-ethics”. The person quoted, however, made that assertion in context of a claim that “why you might want to construct that morality in the first place” was functionally equivalent to “why ought we try to determine what we ought to do?” – a question which was supposedly senseless.
My argument is that within meta-ethics it is most certainly not a valid question. When you are mucking around in meta-ethics, you have already accepted that you should be moral and you are just flailing around trying to work out how. For this very reason, I proposed the term “meta-meta-ethics” to describe the sort of question that you should reasonably address first - a question to which, in most cases, you’ve just assumed that there is a perfectly valid answer, even if you can’t really work out what it is. Unless of course, you unthinkingly leap into the mire of meta-ethics and then claim that because you are already there, it is obvious that you must have had a reason to jump in.
I accept that “meta-meta-ethics” is an awkward term. I also fully accept that there is probably a better term, but I know that it cannot be “meta-ethics”.
Alright, now let us look at these questions in light of the series of articles that I have recently posted.
My main contention is that, as per descriptive evolutionary ethics theory, morality is about survival. If a group has an ethical structure which is poorly suited to promote survival, then over a period of time, that group will eventually die out or be subsumed by a group whose ethical structure is better suited to survival. The lineages of members within a group who are less able to utilise the communal ethical structure to promote their own personal survival will also eventually die out. Therefore, eventually, you end up with only groups with ethical structures that promote survival and a preponderance of group members who are skilled at manipulating their group’s ethical structure.
If we were to consider building a new ethical structure, or modifying an existing one, then we should be very careful to keep that in mind. There are examples of where such attempts have failed miserably. The Nazis tried to change their ethical structures to the extent that it would become acceptable, at least within the ruling elite, to sanction the destruction of whole classes of people (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies). This proved to be a disastrous modification to morality on their part, since sufficient numbers of people in the world decided that this was unacceptable and they acted to eliminate the group (ie Nazis).
It is likely that some other, more well-meaning (from my personal perspective) initiatives are also doomed to failure. For example the idea that everyone should be given self-determination, as part of whatever notional group they may wish to consider themselves a part may be doomed to failure. In Australia, there is a great wringing of hands over deeply rooted problems in the indigenous communities, with endemic alcohol addiction, appallingly low standards of living and life-expectancy, and disproportionately high rates of violence and incarceration. The widely accepted solution is to grant more autonomy and special recognition to indigenous peoples. Perhaps this may actually be the solution, but there is a disturbing possibility that it will lead to the slow elimination of Australia’s indigenous peoples. Such a failure would, in the future, be compared alongside the accidental destruction of peoples by disease (Central America) as well as more intentional efforts to commit genocide (the eradication of Tasmanian aborigines).