On the Role and Legitimacy of Morality

No human being is obligated to conform to someone else’s conception of the Good.  Moral rules are expression of the subjective judgments of individuals.  As such, they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  It follows from this that virtuous indignation and moral outrage can never be objectively justified.  They exist, not as rational responses to the breaking of objectively legitimate rules, but as subjective behavioral traits that are usually irritating and occasionally dangerous to others.

Does the above imply that we should not behave morally in our day to day interactions with other human beings?  Of course not!  There is no other plausible way to regulate those interactions so as to minimize conflict and maximize mutual benefit.  We are certainly not intelligent enough to accomplish the same thing in real time using our meager powers of reason.  Imagine the tedium of a conversation in which each party had to carefully reason about the potential outcome and impact of every word he spoke.  It is to the advantage of all, or at least most of us, that moral rules exist, and that their violation be punished or otherwise prevented.  It is, however, reasonable to insist that those rules conform to human nature, be as simple and efficient as possible, and not be motivated by the claims of any religion, whether spiritual or secular.

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.

2 thoughts on “On the Role and Legitimacy of Morality”

  1. I would say that those rules should also take into account that we are almost completely controlled by our unconscious minds. We are not in the drivers seat of our lives, but merely a passenger. Our subconscious mind is the driver. We CAN influence the driver, however. We actally can convince the driver to go anywhere we want to go. But this often takes a lot of effort and desire. And on top of that we cannot know a possible destination unless the driver tells us about it (which means letting information through).

  2. We certainly run on autopilot a good part of the time, Christian. On the other hand, as you say, we have conscious minds, too, and can influence the driver. We can also reason about what the driver is “really” trying to accomplish, and whether the predispositions nature has equipped us with to reach the ultimate destination are still functional. That’s why defeat of the Blank Slate ideologues was so important. Once we recognize that we have innate behavioral traits, we can at least try to minimize the destructiveness of those that have become dysfunctional.

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