Morality: The Persistent Delusion of Objective Good

Morality is a set of human emotional traits. The emotional responses we associate with morality exist because they evolved. Morality is, by its very nature, subjective. It can exist only in the form of feelings in individual minds, and has no independent existence as a thing in itself outside of individual minds. Its existence in our minds does not depend on any rational thought process or series of logical deductions. Rather, it is fundamentally emotional in nature. We consider a thing good because we feel that it is good. Computers can execute rule-based logical algorithms and arrive at true conclusions. However, they do not experience emotions. Therefore, they are not moral beings. The perception that something is “really” good corresponds to a fundamentally emotional response. Without emotion, there can be no morality, and without it we would not make moral judgments.  We do not perceive the good as a real, objective thing because it actually is real. We perceive the good as a real, objective thing, because perceiving it in that fashion made it more likely that our ancestors would survive and reproduce. Because the good is not a real, objective thing, it is not possible for moral judgments to be legitimate in themselves or in any way objectively valid.

The above conclusions are, in my opinion at least, the bottom line. In other words, they are true. We can reason about them and come to logical conclusions about whether they will have negative or positive consequences as they relate to some goal or aspiration we might have for ourselves, or for mankind in general, but the truth is indifferent to our goals and aspirations. It remains true regardless. In this post-“Blank Slate” world, as we sit on the shoulders of Darwin and gaze about us, it would seem these truths would be obvious. After all, if we see some rule violated that we associate with “the good,” our minds do not respond by executing a logical algorithm leading to the dispassionate conclusion that it is true that the rule has been violated. Rather, we respond emotionally. We may experience outrage, or become indignant. If we go to a movie, and see the bad guy bite the dust, our response is not limited to the rational observation that a human animal acted in a way that had a less than zero probability of leading to that outcome, and, as one of a set of potential outcomes, that outcome (biting the dust) actually did happen. Rather, we again respond emotionally. We may experience gratification, or, if we are really involved in the plot, exultation at the victory of “the good.”  In claiming the objective legitimacy of moral judgments, we are really claiming that emotions that evolved in animals with large brains for perfectly understandable reasons, and that are analogous to similar emotions in other animals, have now, for no apparent reason at all, magically come to life on their own, and become objective things independent of the minds that experience them.  Logically, that notion is absurd.

These truths, however, are not obvious.  They are not obvious to most of the people on the planet, nor are they obvious to those to whom it would seem they should be self-evident; the evolutionary psychologists, neuroanthropologists, ethologists, and others whose research is daily adding to the overwhelming evidence that morality is the result of innate features that are hard wired in our brains.  It’s not surprising, really.  If we shed the illusion of objective, legitimate good, there is much to be lost along with it.  We must free ourselves of the overwhelmingly powerful feeling that what we perceive as good is a real thing.  With it we must give up once and for all any claim to a logical basis for the immensely satisfying feeling that we are morally superior to others.  We must give up all the claims to wealth, status and power that claims to moral superiority or to a superior knowledge of the “real” good imply, whether as religious leaders, partisans of messianic ideologies, or recognition as ethics “experts.”  No wonder then, that the delusion of objective good is so hard for us to give up.  The problem is that it simply doesn’t exist.  No matter how passionately we embrace this falsehood, it will not be transmuted into truth.

Allow me to suggest that it would be wise for us to throw aside our blinkers and embrace the truth instead.  By doing so we will not suddenly plunge the world into chaos.  We are moral creatures, and will continue to act as moral creatures because that is our nature.  Understanding why we act as moral creatures, and the true nature of our moral emotions will not alter the fact.  In our day-to-day interactions with each other, we must act as moral creatures, if only because we lack the cognitive capacity to carefully reason out the logical consequences of every move we make in real time.  However, my personal opinion, and one which, it seems to me, follows logically from what I have stated above, is that we should stop trying to apply morality in politics, international relations, or any other modern form of collective interaction between large numbers of people that had no analog at the time our moral emotions evolved.  We should also resist attempts by others to apply morality in such situations, other than to the extent that we must take our own nature, and with it our moral nature, into account in constructing a society that is suited to the kind of creatures we are.  I suggest that this is a reasonable course of action, not because it is “really good,” but because I consider life a wonderful thing that I wish to savor while I have it, and because I cannot savor it if I am constantly threatened by other human beings.

How is it that I am threatened, or, for that matter, how is it that we are all threatened by continued attempts to apply morality in politics or to any of the other forms of mass social arrangements that have emerged in the modern world, and which are utterly different from anything that existed at the time morality evolved?  In the first place, quite obviously, because morality evolved for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the goals that massive political and other organizations, such as modern states, set for themselves.  Consequently, there is no apparent reason to expect that acting according to moral emotions will be an effective way of pursuing those goals.  There is abundant evidence in the recent history of our species to confirm that they are not only ineffective in pursuing those goals, but potentially extremely dangerous.

Consider, for example, Communism.  It was embraced by millions of the most intelligent and idealistic people on the planet as the path to “human flourishing,” confirmed as such by the most advanced “scientific” theories.  It was a quintessential attempt to apply morality in the context of modern states.  For its adherents it represented the incarnation of “the good,” transcending the petty minds of individuals.  It ended in disaster, after having caused the deaths of tens of millions of people.  In many of the countries it controlled, those killed included a grossly disproportionate number of the most intelligent and productive members of society.  These countries, for all practical purposes, beheaded themselves.  How is it that this noble attempt to achieve a perfect state of human happiness via the revolutionary imposition of “the good” ended in a debacle?  For the same reason that most such attempts always fail.  Human morality is dual in nature.  Where ever there is an ultimate “good,” there is always an ultimate “evil” to go right along with it.  In the case of Communism, the “evil” was the bourgeoisie.  To insure the triumph of the “the good,” it was necessary to wipe out “the evil.”  As a result, tens of millions who were unfortunate enough to have a little more than their neighbors, or whose clothes were a little too nice, or whose farms were  a little too productive, were murdered.  The lives of tens of millions of children were poisoned because their parents were supposed to have been in the wrong class.  They were often brutally punished for not taking care to be born into the right social class.

The other obvious example that dominated the 20th century is Nazism.  In this case, the German people and their welfare became “the good.”  Hitler hardly considered himself an evil man whose goal in life was to deliberately make everyone else as miserable as possible.  He passionately believed he represented the ultimate good, and that it was his destiny to lead the German people to a different version of “human flourishing,” thereby acting for the ultimate good of all mankind.  In this case, too, the “good” implied an “evil.”  The “evil” was the Jews, and the result was the Holocaust.

What about attempts to impose religious versions of morality on society?  Ask the tens of millions of victims of religious wars.  Ask the countless heretics who were burned.  Ask the hundreds of thousands of innocent women who were hung outside the gates of European cities over the centuries as “witches.”  Ask the miserable inhabitants of the Papal States in the 19th century.  Ask anyone in Iran today who happens not to be a devout Muslim.  Ask the victims of Islamic terrorism.

In spite of the monotonous repetition of these disasters, those of us who should know better still don’t get it.  They are so devoted to the illusion of their own moral goodness that, instead of coming to the seemingly obvious conclusion that morality itself is the problem, or, more accurately, the attempt to apply it in situations that are utterly divorced from those in which it came into existence in the first place, for reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons that it evolved, they conclude, against all odds, that the solution is merely a matter of “getting it right.”  They are cocksure that they are smarter than the myriads who have tried exactly the same nostrums for achieving “human flourishing” before them.  Finally, at long last, they fondly believe they have discovered the “real good,” and it remains only to stuff it down the throats of the rest of us poor benighted souls.  Open wide!

I have a better idea.  Let’s stop playing with fire.  What is the alternative to imposing some bright, new, freshly cobbled together version of morality on society?  We have large brains.  For starters, we might try using them.

One thought on “Morality: The Persistent Delusion of Objective Good”

  1. THANK YOU. HERE IS A SHORT STORY. IT GIVES A SENSIBLE REASON FOR THE POWER OF ORGANIZED RELIGION.

    “INTELLECTUALLY I AM AN ATHEIST; IN THE COMPANY OF OTHER I AM AN AGNOSTIC; BUT WHEN BARBARIANS ARRIVE AT THE CITY GATES, AND I SEE THAT THE PRIESTS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG, I REPENT AND GIVE ALL GLORY TO GOD ALMIGHTY.

    Two large, equally manned and spirited military forces are faced off on opposite sides of a wide fertile valley. Both sides are skilled, well-led, and have comparably weaponry. The destinies of two great cultures will be determined on this day. Many will die before the sun is set, but a unified culture is all that stands in the way of pillage by foreign armies. A clear winner will emerge.

    You look out over this piece of land you call home. You must now declare your allegiance. Which side will it be? The small force of loyal men under your command is divided of opinion, as are your trusted counselors. You turn to your most trusted counselor as he explains once again.

    “Sir, the soldiers, of the army to our right are learned in arts and science. As we also are learned, we feel kinship with them. But sir, they will surely lose this day for they have not priests; they have not certainty. They cling to this single life with fear in their hearts.

    Sir, the soldiers of the army to our left live without fear of death. They believe that they are immortal descendents of the Gods. Sir, perhaps ten thousand years hence we might choose otherwise, but in this age, our future is one of territorial wars of survival. Today we side with this army to our left.”

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