The Role of Morality

In the previous post, I pointed out that morality is a blunt and dubious tool for achieving the “well-being” of mankind, even assuming it is possible to achieve general agreement on what the well-being of mankind really is.  It would seem this should be obvious.  Morality is an evolved behavioral trait that maximized the chances of genetic survival in conditions that, for all practical purposes no longer exist.  It is irrational to assume that some plausible variation of emotional behavioral traits that evolved in times utterly different from the present are somehow likely to be effective tools in achieving goals, such as the well-being of mankind in general, that are completely different from the biological function they performed when they came into existence.  We can no more dispense with morality in the everyday interactions of individuals than we can jump out of our own skins.  The hard-wired emotional behavioral traits we associate with morality are a part of us, and we are far from being intelligent enough to simply shut them off by an act of will.  However, when it comes to public policy, we are more likely to achieve common goals by applying our powers of reason, weak as they are, then by seeking to find and apply some Platonic form of the “perfect morality.”

These assertions do not mean I am in favor of allowing mankind to sink into a swamp of amoral behavior, where dog eats dog, and the powers of darkness prevail.  On the contrary, I maintain that, if our goal is to avoid such a world, we are more likely to achieve that goal by applying our weak powers of reason, such as they are, than by relying on the innate behavioral traits of our species associated with morality, which evolved because they performed a function utterly different from maximizing collective well-being in a world anything like the present, and which are, in any case, still poorly understood. 

Consider what has happened when modern human societies have attempted to maximize collective well-being by applying moral rules in the past.  In addition to identifying the “good,” whose well-being is to be maximized, they have invariably identified the “evil,” as well, those “immoral” ones who are seeking to harm the “good,” and must be defeated and, if possible destroyed.  In applying morality to achieve social goals it is not possible to nicely separate “good” and “evil.”  The innate behavioral traits associated with morality must inevitably and invariably include identification of the evil “out-group,” as well as the good “in-group.”  Don’t look believe me?  Just look at the facts; as reflected in the entire recorded history of humanity.  Consider, for example, the Nazis.  Can anyone be naive enough to believe that they were all deliberately attempting to do evil?  On the contrary, they sought to maximize the well-being of the “good,” in this case, the German people, who were believed to be closely related to each other genetically.  We know what happened to their out-group, the Jews.  Another familiar recent example is the Communists.  They sought to maximize the well-being of the proletariat, who, according to theory, would inevitably become a majority in modern societies.  In order for them to achieve the “good,” it was necessary for them to eliminate the “evil,” in the person of the bourgeoisie.  The result was 100 million innocent dead. 

Are things any different at the present time?  Consider the most self-consciously pious ideological type in modern society, the “progressive” liberal.  Think the identification of “evil” out-groups is absent from their world view?  Guess again.  Visit any of their websites and you’ll find furious rants against greedy corporations, members of the tea party movement, Republicans, global warming deniers, etc., etc. 

If we would maximize human well-being, lets attempt to apply reason instead of morality for a change.  I make this suggestion, not because I consider myself more moral or just than others, but because I would prefer to avoid the inconvencience of neighbors who are trying to kill me.  As many who experienced the attentions of  Communists in the Soviet Union, or Nazis in Germany, or were tortured and killed as “heretics” in an earlier day might have testified, that’s an all too frequent negative character trait of the “morally good.”  Turning around and declaring them “morally evil” after the fact is small comfort to the victims.  This is getting old.  It’s time we tried something different.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Morality”

  1. I’m still not sure I understand the term ‘liberal’ as it pertains to the political spectrum of the United States. In Germany, we have the FDP, which classify themselves as liberal and lobby for more freedoms (at least that’s what they promise), including (prominently) the ability to found a corporation, hire and fire people as you want, and earn money as you want.
    In the US it seems to be more a label of a leftist political orientation, favouring government control of the population (maybe especially corporations). Practically the opposite of liberty (at least for a wealthy nation).

  2. The definition of “liberal” is irrelevant as far as this post is concerned. I’m not talking about a political tendency but a human type. It is the type of the ostentatiously virtuous, those who are more concerned with appearing to be good and virtuous than with actually doing anything that could actually be considered “good” or useful. It is the type of what used to be called a “do-gooder” in this country. Read the autobiographical works of H. L. Mencken, and you’ll encounter the type often, typically described as the “Uplift.” In his day, the Prohibition movement (to prohibit alcoholic beverages) was considered a prominent part of the Uplift, although it would hardly be considered “liberal” today. In the final days of the Roman Empire the type was probably best represented by Simeon Stylites and his many copiers, in the time of Christ by the Pharisees, and in the time of Shakespeare by some of the more extreme Puritans. The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne penned a wonderful description of the type in his novel, “The Blithedale Romance.” For my comments see:

    http://helian.net/blog/2009/06/15/human-nature/nathaniel-hawthorne-h-l-mencken-and-the-uplift/

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