On the Legitimacy of Morality

This post is about something that doesn’t exist; the legitimacy of morality.  To the extent that I even thought about the subject as a child, I believed that good was good and evil was evil because God wanted it that way.  Then, at age 12, I became an atheist.  I can’t recall exactly how long it took for me to realize that this had demolished what had previously served, in my case at least, as the basis for the legitimacy of morality.  However, it couldn’t have taken long, because I had already concluded in my early teens that the many people I witnessed around me striking pious poses and making fine shows of their virtuous indignation were simply being silly.  It took me quite some time to realize that they were actually just being human.

As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his book, The Righteous Mind, moral intuitions come first, and their rationalization later.  In fact, this was really just the reassertion of what David Hume had noted more than two centuries earlier;

…reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will.

…it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is an incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion.

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason.  Reason is, and only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

Haidt speaks of the “inner lawyer,” who goes to work as soon as we become conscious of a moral “passion,” throwing out a barrage of rationalizations to explain why what we “feel” is good is really good, and what we feel is evil is really evil.  It’s interesting that it’s immediately obvious to religious fundamentalists that these moral claims, when made by their secular counterparts, are floating in thin air, without support.  Secure in the contrivance of a God to secure the legitimacy of their own perception of good and evil, they have no trouble recognizing the baselessness of the moral claims of others.  Secular moralists are not nearly as clear-sighted.  Question the legitimacy of their moral claims, that is, the basis for their assumption that their own perception of good and evil applies to others besides themselves, and they will throw out a smokescreen of rationalizations.  Typical non sequiturs include, “What I claim is good really is good, because all other good people agree with me,” “What I claim is good really is good because it will promote ‘human flourishing’,” “What I claim is good really is good, because the following evils (supply your own laundry list) will not be really evil, whereas all good people recognize they are evil,” and so on.  Often these rationalizations take the form of attempts to evoke congruent moral emotions in others, apparently under the spurious assumption that if everyone agrees that they feel the same moral emotion, then that emotions must be objectively valid.

Any reader who would like to witness such a smokescreen need only question the objective basis for claims that one thing is “good” and another “evil” on the part of those who lack the crutch of a God.  Many such claims may be found on the Internet on any given day.  The chances that they will get a simple answer in the form of “The basis for the legitimacy of my moral claims is x,” are slim and none.

Why bother to object if it is our nature to be self-righteous?  After all, we are moral beings, and we lack the intelligence to rationally analyze every detail of our day-to-day interactions with others.  It seems to me that the history of the 20th century is a case study in the wisdom of bothering to object.  The innate traits that are the ultimate cause of moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present.  In spite of that, for centuries we have attempted to apply morality to situations and human relationships that were absent in our prehistory.  The results were often disastrous, but were particularly devastating in the last century.  Consider, for example, my previous post about the “Defenders of the Faith,” in which I presented examples of two highly intelligent men, both of whom surely believed they were acting on behalf of the “good.”  Objectively, however, they were acting as apologists for the two greatest mass murderers of all time.  There were many thousands like them.  Legions of Communists and legions of Nazis all thought they were fighting a noble battle on behalf of the ultimate good.

The lesson we should take away from this is not that we should avoid the mistakes of the Communists and the Nazis, and charge ahead to discover another “noble cause” that, this time, against all odds, will be “really good.”  Rather, we should drop attempts to come up with new and improved “noble causes” altogether, and be extremely wary of those who promote them.  Morality is the expression of evolved traits.  If that is true, than it is absurd to suppose that it can somehow acquire objective legitimacy.  It is indispensible for regulating the interactions of individuals, because it has no substitute.  For regulating the interactions among modern nation states and similar human groups of unprecedented scope and size, however, I suggest we attempt to use reason.  It is certainly a weak reed to lean on, but it may spare us another dose of powerful totalitarian states that derive their legitimacy from the next wildly popular versions of the “noble Good,” and possess weapons vastly more devastating than those that caused such mayhem in the last century.

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.

Leave a Reply