The Truth about Morality: Is or Ought?

Not long ago, the “Men of Science” in anthropology were furiously denying that ancient hominids hunted, and that chimpanzees were anything but inoffensive and pacific vegetarians, and that human behavior was significantly influenced by human nature, in the teeth of abundant evidence that such notions were not only wrong, but ridiculous. Today, discussions of morality have fallen into a similar rut. It is perfectly obvious that the very existence of morality as commonly understood ultimately depends on the presence of innate mental traits that evolved at a time when the human condition was a great deal different than it is now. However, to admit that fact would be to admit at the same time that “ethics expert” is an oxymoron, and to reduce the sublime joys of self-righteousness to an embarrassing absurdity, and to finally admit that Good and Evil don’t really transcend the petty minds of individuals.  In a word, it would amount to rejecting the way things “ought” to be on behalf of what “is”.  Hence, the fact is ignored and denied. We shouldn’t be surprised. This rejection of “is” on behalf of “ought” has happened many times before.

There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, for this stubborn embrace of the fallacy of transcendent morality.    Legions of philosophers, whether believers or not, were terrified that if the rationalizations propping it up were kicked out, we would all become immoral or, at best, amoral.  This delusion is based on the groundless suspicion that, unless some chain of logic based on unquestionable axioms is provided proving that we ought to act one way and not another, society will immediately collapse in an orgy of murder, robbery, rape and deliberate refusal to obey the traffic laws.  Even worse, we might all become (gasp!) moral relativists.  This further fallacy is based on ignorance of the innate grounding of morality, and the more than dubious belief that religion has had the net effect of promoting “moral niceness.”

Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence.  However, the old gods have always been a reliable prop for objective morality.  Furthermore, it has been plausibly suggested that there are innate underpinnings for religious belief itself.  I doubt that we “instinctively” believe in magical supernatural beings, but you have to hand it to the old gods.  They certainly scratched us where it itched.  When they disappeared, something new had to be found to do the scratching.  Enter secular religion.  The quintessential example is, of course, Communism.  Like the supernatural tyrants of old, it was a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it.  Alas, the new god died a much quicker death than the old ones because the paradise it promised was here on earth where it could be fact checked instead of the sweet hereafter.  However, when the new god evaporated with unseemly haste, we did not simply give up on secular religion as a bad job. The itch was still there.  New secular religions sprouted to fill the gaps as soon as the old ones died off.  The various versions touted by Sam Harris and the rest of the New Atheists are familiar examples, and come complete with all the same delectable moral certitude and watertight justification for bludgeoning of the unrighteousness as the old ones.

It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect humanity to relinquish its cherished “oughts” anytime soon in favor of simply recognizing the “is” of morality and dealing with it.  However, I still suggest it as a contingency going forward.  Whatever our personal whims happen to be, it seems to me we are more likely to satisfy them by acting according to that which is true than to that which is false.  We might have some chance of putting the constant murderous and disruptive bickering and warfare inspired by religious belief over the centuries behind us, avoiding the untimely death of another 100 million in the name of some future version of “scientific Marxism-Leninism,” and ending the constant annoyance of living in a world full of ostentatiously righteous poseurs.

And what of the drawbacks of accepting the “is” of morality, and kicking out the props of the Good-in-itself?  Would our societies suddenly and spontaneously descent into anarchy?  Would the bad guys win by default?  I think not.  We do not need, nor have we ever depended on, religions of the secular or old-fashioned flavors to act morally.  We act morally because that is our nature.  Obviously, there are great variations in the details of moral behavior among human societies, even though they spring from the same innate roots.  We are not rigidly programmed to act one way and not another like so many insects.  This gives us some flexibility.  We cannot simply jettison morality.  We must depend on it to regulate our social interactions, at least at the level of individuals and small groups.  Under the circumstances, I suggest we keep it as simple as possible.  Reduce moral rules to an elementary common denominator sufficient for maximizing social harmony and minimizing mutual injury.  At the level of large states, reduce the influence of moral emotions to a bare minimum, and seek to apply reason to the pursuit of social goals within the constraints of our limited intelligence.  Here, of course, I am not speaking of “is,” but of some of my own, personal “oughts.”  However, to the extent that they want to survive and even, to some extent, enjoy life, I think others may find them serviceable.


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 “The Truth about Morality: Is or Ought?”

  1. Second: science will play a crucial role in understanding morality. The reality is that many of us do share some broad-brush ideas about what constitutes the good, and how to go about achieving it. The idea that we need to think hard about what that means, and in particular how it relates to the extraordinarily promising field of neuroscience, is absolutely correct. But it’s a role, not a foundation. Those of us who deny that you can derive “ought” from “is” aren’t anti-science; we just want to take science seriously, and not bend its definition beyond all recognition.

  2. “Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence.”

    It all depends on what you mean by “God” and what you mean by “believe in.” The historical origins of the concept are key to understanding what exactly it is, you either do or do not “believe in.” Forget the supernatural. Forget cosmology. Approach it as an atheist:

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