Morality: The Good at the End of the Rainbow

Fairy tales about pots of gold at the end of the rainbow are charming because we know the treasure is unreachable. The anonymous Irish story tellers who invented them didn’t have to know about refraction and the wave nature of light to understand that a thing that appears real may turn out to be not quite what it seems. The Good is like a rainbow. So effective are our minds at conjuring with our emotions that we perceive it as a real thing. Mother Nature brooks no shilly-shallying in such matters. It was necessary for us to believe the illusion to survive. She made it so powerful that, even though philosophers have pursued it in vain for thousands of years, we still can’t believe that it’s not there. We are still chasing after the end of the rainbow.

We should know better. After all, Socrates realized that the Good isn’t necessarily what it seems to be two and a half millennia ago. In Plato’s Euthyphro, we find him conversing in his famous dialectic style with one of the “ethics experts” of his day about the definition of piety. The man was so sure that he had reached the end of the rainbow and grasped the Good that he was prosecuting his own father for manslaughter. As Socrates demonstrated in the dialogue, the thing Euthyphro thought he had such a firm hold on was very slippery indeed. Read the Euthyphro and you’ll notice something else that hardly seems worth mentioning because it’s so obvious we take it for granted. Both Socrates and Euthyphro discuss piety, justice, good, and evil, not as feelings or emotions but as real things. That is also the way “righteousness” is conceptualized in the great monotheistic religions, and it is typical of the way most of the philosophers since Socrates have conceived of the Good as well. They do so because that is the way our minds portray it to us.

If, then, the manner in which the Good is perceived is as a thing, or an object, we are faced with the question of whether what we perceive as real actually does exist as we perceive it, independently as a thing-in-itself, or, on the contrary, is a subjective mental construct that has no existence independent of the mind. It seems to me that the most parsimonious explanation is that the latter is the case, and the Good exists in the minds of human beings as an evolved behavioral trait. This hypothesis seems to me to be particularly compelling in view of the mounting evidence that behavioral traits associated with morality are hard-wired in the brain, but would appear to be fairly obvious regardless. After all, if some of the most intelligent among us have been chasing a thing for thousands of years, but have somehow never quite managed to get their hands on it, it would seem to suggest that perhaps the thing they seek doesn’t actually exist.

The contrary claim, namely, that what we perceive as real actually is real, independent of our minds, is tantamount to a religious belief. After all, the entity we are talking about cannot be observed, or measured, or made the subject of repeatable experiments other than as a subjective mental phenomenon. If we believe in it, it must be as something incorporeal, like a spirit. It is a testimony to the power of the illusion that even highly intelligent avowed atheists can believe in this spirit of the Good.

The implications of the above as it touches on the legitimacy of the Good are clear. If an individual claims that what they perceive as the Good is legitimate, they are claiming that not only they, but others as well, should act in accordance with that perception. In other words, they are saying that an evolved trait that came into existence at a distant time in the past that was utterly unlike the present, for the reason that it made it more likely that the genes responsible for the expression of the trait would survive, has somehow magically become binding on other individuals, even if they happen to be unrelated to the bearer of the trait, and in spite of profound social and environmental changes since the time that the trait evolved. Such a claim, it seems to me, is absurd on the face of it. This quasi-mystical belief is nevertheless held by not only the vast majority of human beings, but by all but a small minority of the scientists who are currently active in the behavioral sciences as well. I have already examined some of these “data points” on my blog.

Does what I have written above imply moral relativism? No, it does not, nor does it imply moral absolutism, nor moral determinism, nor anything else of the sort that inevitably comes with an implied ought. I will take up the reasons for this in later posts.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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