In one of BBC’s Planet Earth episodes, there is footage of a chimp tribe conducting a raid on another chimp tribe. You can see the video at this link, it is some amazing footage. I was recently thinking, though, that it is interesting that we do not see this scenario as one that we should interfere in. If these were indigenous human tribes, I think this footage would be extremely controversial. How could the surveyors stand back and watch as one group of people violently members of another? I think that we somewhat instinctively view these occurrences as amoral – chimps are animals, and there is no reason for us to interfere with their activities. However, I do think that this presents some interesting opportunities for exploring my moral system.
I have some very strong utilitarian tendencies. I tend to think that maximizing well-being is the good. It is difficult to say what the best method is to maximize well-being in the chimp scenario, obviously interfering will increase the well-being of the attacked tribe, but the well-being of the attackers will decrease. That being said, I think that most people would consider human aggressors in an analogous scenario to be acting in a morally reprehensible way, and that well-being should not be gained through such violence.
Are the chimps acting in a morally reprehensible way? My inclination is to say that they are not. My current (very Aristotelian) thought on the matter is that immoral acts do not exist. This is a claim that many will find controversial, but I’ll draw out my line of reasoning.
I think that to act as an agent means to act as one thinks one should act, and also to continuously investigate their own ideas of should. My concept of agency has two primary elements. First, an agent must take responsibility for their choices. Second, an agent must acknowledge that their initial state in autonomy is not of their own making. The second element is important, because someone who recognizes only the first is still acting merely as the world dictates (imagine someone who has been morally indoctrinated – they may act against some of their inclinations, but this action is still imposed upon them by the world).
By this definition, when someone acts as an agent they act as they think they should, and they also seek to develop their notion of should. Therefore acting as an agent means to act morally, by one’s own perception. If someone acts immorally, they are not being an agent but instead are being ruled by the world.
This account does have a hole in it. What of those agents who think they act morally but actually are acting immorally. My rebuttal is that I cannot find someone who is dedicated to doing as they think is right and also is engaged in self-reflective analysis of their own beliefs to have acted immorally. They are, I would say, doing all that could possibly be asked of anyone. I think it is possible that they could find later in life that they regret their actions, and I can certainly see myself disagreeing with their actions – but I do not think they can be considered immoral.
If there is no immoral, where does this leave moral? By this account morality is properly the domain of agents investigating their own actions. Proper moral questions are normative questions asked by agents – in other words, agents asking ‘what should I do?’
Thank you for reading, let me know what you think,
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