What is the Proper Sphere of Morality?

I have often discussed what the proper sphere of morality is not.  My conclusions are based on the conclusion that morality depends ultimately for its existence on mental traits that evolved in times utterly unlike the present because they resulted in increased fitness in the context of those times.  If that conclusion is true, then it follows that attempts to apply morality to entities that didn’t exist in those times, such as modern nation states, are irrational.  Given the nature of moral emotions, they are also predictable, but that is beside the point.

What, then, is the proper sphere of morality?  We certainly can’t dispense with it entirely, any more than a zebra can dispense with its stripes.  We are moral creatures because that is how we evolved.  It is our nature to experience moral emotions, and it is natural for our actions to be influenced by moral sentiments.  There is, indeed, no alternative to morality in regulating our routine, day to day interactions with other human beings.  We lack the mental capacity to logically analyze all those interactions in real time and arrive at well-reasoned decisions to regulate our own behavior, according to some complex algorithm, like so many biological supercomputers.  The proper sphere of morality is, then, that in which it cannot be dispensed with; our routine interactions with other human beings as individuals or small groups.

As we know from observing its manifestations in diverse human societies, moral behavior is not uniform, but can vary greatly under the influence of culture and education, even though the same evolved traits, or at least similar evolved traits, are the ultimate cause of all these variations.  I suggest, then, that, within the constraints imposed by our nature, moral rules be kept as simple as possible and, to the extent possible, serve to promote harmony and eliminate friction in our societies.

And what of the interactions of nations, political parties, super-national organizations, and other modern social entities to which morality is irrelevant because it evolved at a time when nothing like them existed?  We should seek to apply our powers of reason to regulate their actions and interactions in the pursuit of rationally arrived at and generally agreed on goals.  I know, human reason is a weak reed to lean on, and keeping morality out of such spheres will always be difficult because it is not “natural” for us to ignore and/or suppress our moral emotions.  However, if our history teaches us anything at all, it should be that there are consequences to the irrational application of morality in spheres irrelevant to its reasons for existence, and those consequences can be not just harmful, but devastating.  Consider the history of the 20th century, for example.  Communism and Nazism were no less moral and ethical systems because few people today would consider them “good.”  The “good” systems of tomorrow may well become the Nazism and Communism of the day after tomorrow.  Moral emotions have always been far more effective than dispassionate reason at justifying mass murder.  “Good” always implies an “evil” to go along with it, and we will never succeed in distilling it out of any future moral system, no matter how “enlightened.”  Millions of Jews and “bourgeoisie” were murdered in the name of fighting “evil.”  New outgroups will inevitably take their place in the moral systems of the future.

Let’s not go there again.  If we at least try to let reason be our guide, at best we stand a fighting chance of avoiding future Holocausts and the World Wars of the 20th century, only fought this time with massive arsenals of nuclear weapons.  At worst, we may at least avoid the inconvenience of having to take all manner of self-righteous posing and ostentations virtuous indignation seriously.

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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