Whither Morality?

There are no such things as objective good and evil.  Human morality is a behavioral artifact of natural selection.  What’s that?  If there’s no objective morality then anything is permitted?  If there’s no objective morality then Hitler wasn’t really evil?  If there’s no objective morality then it’s just as true that female genital mutilation is “good” as that it is “evil?”  If there’s no objective morality, then “moral progress” is a fantasy?  To all this the answer is obvious.  So what?

What are you telling me?  That you don’t want to deal with reality?  That the consequences of the truth are so bad that the truth can’t be true?  That if the truth were generally known, civilization would collapse into a chaos of moral relativism?  That if the level of virtuous indignation among learned professors of philosophy increases beyond a certain point, objective good and evil will magically pop out of the luminiferous aether like Athena from the head of Zeus?  I don’t think so.

Good and evil are purely subjective constructs.  That is the truth.  What if, overnight, the entire human population of the planet suddenly accepted that truth?  What would happen?  I’m not the pope, dear reader.  I lack the divine gift of infallibility.  All I can serve up on this blog is my opinion, and my opinion is that nothing much would change, or at least not in a hurry.  In any case, I doubt the result could be any worse than the world of absurd morality inversions and self-righteous scarecrows we live in now.

We would certainly not all become moral relativists, because it is our nature to perceive good and evil as absolute objects.  I can show you examples of highly intelligent people who have accepted the truth of the subjectivity of moral claims, and yet continue to strike pious poses with the assurance of so many saints, hurling down anathemas on anyone with the temerity to rub their moral emotions the wrong way.  No, the orgasmic pleasure of virtuous indignation is much too great for anything like moral relativism to insinuate itself among us.  I suspect that, even if we all accepted the truth, nothing much would change in our moral behavior, or at least not in a hurry.

On the other hand, some of us might begin to realize that the behavior inspired by our moral emotions hasn’t exactly been accomplishing the same thing lately as it did when those emotions evolved.  Indeed, for many of us, moral behavior is accomplishing the opposite.  Where once it promoted life, now it promotes death.  In the radically altered environment we have created for ourselves, we witness the remarkable sight of both western liberals and Moslem suicide bombers joyfully embracing their own extinction.

Assuming that care has been taken to point out to these individuals some of the facts set forth above, I certainly have no objection to their rushing to their own destruction.  If they insist that they must because Allah demands it, or the “moral progress” of mankind makes it imperative, so be it.  I would, however, ask of them the same thing that I would ask of someone who is considered doing away with themselves by jumping in front of a passenger train, or leaping off a highway overpass into rush hour traffic; be so kind as to not involve the rest of us.

And what of the residue of mankind that decides, on sober consideration of the truth about morality, that they would prefer survival to the alternative after all?  Given the damage uncritical indulgence of moral emotions has done in our recent history, I suggest it would behoove us to constrain their sphere within the narrowest possible limits.  It seems clear that we can’t do without morality in our day-to-day interactions with each other as individuals.  There is simply no viable alternative.  To serve that purpose, it should be possible to come up with a simple moral code in harmony with our emotional nature that reduces friction among us to a minimum.  As noted above, we are not moral relativists by nature.  Most of us would tend to perceive the rules of such a code as absolutes.  “Free riders” who decide to ignore the rules, because of the absence of a God to back them up, or they because they conclude the rules lack objective legitimacy, or because they decide society has no right to constrain their behavior, would be dealt with in the same way that free riders have always been dealt with in healthy societies since time immemorial.  They would be punished in a way that demonstrated both to themselves and others that there was nothing to be gained and much to lose by their defiance.

On the other hand, when it comes to making broad policy decisions on a higher level, the reasons for making them one way and not another should be carefully scrutinized.  In the end, those reasons will never amount to a distillation of pure logic.  As Hume rightly pointed out, reason must always be the slave of passion.  An emotional whim of some kind or another will always lie at the tail end of the chain of logic.  It will be important to determine exactly what that whim is, and why satisfying it will work to what most of us would consider their advantage, and not their harm or destruction.

All this is painted with a very broad brush, of course.  In the end, the result would depend on a great deal of trial and error, not to mention the inevitable decision each of us will make regarding who belongs to their ingroup and who their outgroup.  The ingroup will never, under any circumstances, include “all mankind.”  It should be chosen wisely, based, among other things, on whether ones whim is to survive or not.

Would such a world, based on a clear appreciation of the truth about morality, be better than the one we have now?  That, of course, will depend on each individual’s point of view.  I think that, for most of us, the result will be agreeable enough.  If nothing else, it should reduce to a bare minimum the number of pious peck sniffs whose constant state of offended virtuous indignation is such a nuisance for the rest of us.

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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