Let me first pin down what I mean by "morality". I only wish to have a discussion about the "ought statement". I'm not concerned, for example, with thick concepts
, or social norms, even though those topics may be related.
There are two kinds of "ought statements", or imperatives
as I shall call them: the hypothetical imperative, which has the form, "If your aim is X, you ought to do Y," and the categorical imperative, which has the simpler form, "You ought to do Y." My thesis is the following: (1) Hypothetical imperatives are not "ought statements", they are "is statements" which prescribe a suggested means (Y) for attaining a certain end (X). These statements, as statements, can be objectively true or false. (2) Categorical imperatives are non-cognitive expressions of subjective preferences. They are not statements, and cannot be true or false.
I mean, if that's what you want to assert, then there really isn't a lot to talk about. "This category of discussion is inherently meaningless.... what do you think?" Well, how does it matter what I think if you have asserted from the outset that any such discussion is meaningless??
If I had to answer the non-cognitive view, I would probably start with aesthetics. Is it really the case that "She has a great body" communicates nothing in particular to the hearer?? I think that most anyone above the age of 10 or so, will understand precisely what is being communicated. Thus, such an expression is capable of being false (for example, if stated in regard to a morbidly obese, disgusting-looking woman).
Here is how I arrive at this conclusion. When we say the word "ought" in both kinds of imperatives, we are implicitly invoking the notion of choice among alternative courses of action; we are saying, hypothetically or categorically, that, "You ought to do X, as opposed to not doing X." Thus our subject is within the realm of praxeology, the science of human action.
Only the hypothetical imperative is consistent with the interpretive framework of praxeology, since it is explicitly affirming the nature of action within the means-ends framework. Actors seek to achieve their ends by employing means, and a hypothetical imperative is an evaluative statement about an actor's choice of means to attain an end. This evaluation can be correct or incorrect, and thus hypothetical imperatives are either true or false statements.
With categorical imperatives, which make no mention of ends, but only of means, there are three possibilities about their relation to praxeology. (i) The persons or things which "ought" to act according to these imperatives don't have ends, which is inconsistent with praxeology. (ii) People do have ends, but they are objective, and the categorical imperative is a prescribed means for achieving these ends now taken to be assumed. Yet this is also inconsistent with praxeology, in which ends are subjective. (iii) A subjective end is assumed, in which case the imperative is actually a hypothetical imperative with an implicit assumption. In practice (e.g. "Don't shoot me!"), categorical imperatives are usually used in the way of (i). We intuitively understand the subjective nature of value, and so (ii) is rarely ever seen. And (iii) is just silly (e.g. "Assuming you don't want to kill me...don't shoot me!). In practice, when a person A says a categorical imperative to another person B, A is usually substituting B's ends for his own, i.e. speaking to B as if B doesn't have ends of himself, and prescribing action that is in accordance with his, A's, own aims. Thus A is merely expressing to B what his subjective preferences are. A statement like, "Murder is immoral," might then better be understood as meaning, "Boo murder!" which is not true or false, but simply an expression of preference.
There is a fourth option you have not mentioned: that there is an end which is implied in all other ends. Please see my article on Suffering and Satisfaction: http://voluntaryistreader.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/suffering-and-satisfaction/
The above is the meat of my post, but I would like to ask a second minor question to the posters here, who are of a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist/voluntaryist strain I presume. If I am correct in the above, then how can you reconcile your political philosophy? Why not simply take yours, fuck everyone else, and leave the place on fire? Is the NAP not, simply, a subjective value preference? And on what basis can you condemn those who deviate from your philosophy? This is obviously a very open ended question, so splurge whatever thoughts you may have.
Sure, it's a great question. I think I will do a blog post on this at some point.
First of all, there are a lot of libertarians who fly their libertarianism merely as a flag-of-convenience. Many anarchists are not really anti-government so much as anti-this
-government - cf Bill Whittle's webcam boohoo-fest right after the 2012 Obama win. And many libertarians only want to watch it all burn so they can have a chance to build their own little tyranny (I call it the "Bane mentality", to borrow from the recent Batman movie).
But, surely, a consistent libertarian is made of something better than this. So, on the other side of the equation are the deontological libertarians... I call them the "NAP-fundamentalists." God has one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Aggress. And that's it. You have a duty to obey God's one commandment. We all do. I am a libertarian because I obey this commandment. The secular NAP-fundamentalists keep the deontology and discard the theological rationalization, leading to a bizarre kind of foundationless-yet-religious-commitment to the NAP as a universal deontological imperative*. Many people find this approach quite unpersuasive.
But is it possible for a person to be sincerely libertarian and
uncomfortable with the idea of baseless-self-sacrifice? I think it is and the answer comes through realizing the long-run, destructive consequences of your own, anti-human attitudes on your self. We are hardwired to cooperate with each other. Intentionally undermining this through statism, imperial religionism, or fair-weather-libertarianism is to inflict harm on one's own self, purely psychologically.
In addition, relating to others on a purely genuine level is more satisfying and durable. The fact is that other people are spectacularly good at seeing through our pretenses. You can act like you have their interests at heart - while not really having their interests at heart - but this fraud is quickly detected and people treat you like what you are: an asshole. Since assholes are not treated as well as non-assholes, it's in your own interests to learn to sincerely care about other people, that is, to inculcate the virtue of altruism in oneself.
Stated differently, both your own brain and the people around you will retaliate against you for mistreating other people. While people will not stop aggressing against you merely by virtue of becoming a good person, at least some of those who would have retaliated against you had you been a selfish jerk will instead cooperate with you, leading to a better outcome for you, overall.
So, it's my contention that it is a mistake to imagine that you benefit from mistreating others when given the opportunity to do so "without consequence". But this is a long-run cost/benefit analysis... you can't just judge each choice individually without respect to its long-run effects on your own psychology (learning/reinforcement of habits, guilt, fears, etc.) and on your reputation (how others perceive you). Aggressing against others changes you, and it changes how others treat you. Though it may require some maturity to be able to discern this, it is clearly a net loss to you, the would-be aggressor.
"It is not possible for one who secretly violates the provisos of the agreement not to inflict nor allow harm to be confident that he won’t get caught, even if he has gotten away with it a thousand times before. For up until the time of death, there is no certainty that he will indeed escape detection." - Epicurus, Principle Doctrines 35
*The most heavy-duty arguments in this direction have to do with the universality criterion and the claim that only the NAP can satisfy this criterion, etc.