On the Practicality of Non-Lethal Methods of Updating Morality

Character is destiny.  Societies tend to thrive when there are well-understood moral rules that are obeyed, or, in cases where they are not obeyed, the disobedient are punished so as to prevent their disobedience from doing harm to others.  There are no objective moral truths, so it follows that the moral rules referred to above cannot be based on such truths.  However, if the statements above are true, they will remain true whether there are objective moral truths or not.

It does not follow from the absence of objective moral truth that everyone “should” be allowed to rape, murder, and pillage, or do anything they please, for the simple reason that if there are no objective moral truths, there can be no objective “shoulds” either.  It may not be objectively bad to rape, murder, and pillage, but it is not objectively bad for the members of a society to punish or eliminate from that society those who do such things, either.  They do so by establishing moral rules, sometimes made explicit in the form of laws, and sometimes not.

Moral rules will exist whether the individuals in a given society have religious beliefs or not, whether they believe in the existence of objective moral truths or not, and whether they subscribe to any given philosophy or not.  Our societies have moral rules because it is our nature to experience moral emotions.  These emotions incline us to believe that there are ways that we and others ought to behave, and ways that we and others ought not to behave.  As noted above, these beliefs manifest themselves in the formulation of moral rules.  We experience these rules as absolute, objective things, even though they cannot possibly be absolute, objective things.  At the moment, the contradiction between this emotionally derived belief and reality is becoming increasingly acute.  In the first place, the religious beliefs that once supplied a rationalization for the existence of absolute moral rules are declining in some parts of the world.  It is also difficult to accommodate a belief in objective morality with the increasing realization that moral emotions are innate, and must therefore have evolved.  Finally, thanks to the vast expansion in our ability to examine and communicate with other cultures that has occurred in the last few hundred years, we have learned that, while there are significant commonalities across all moralities, there are also profound differences between them.  If moral rules are objective and absolute, it seems to follow logically that no such differences could exist.

It is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions that these contradictions have had little impact on our moral behavior.  Most of us still imagine that moral rules are absolute, or at least behave as if they were, regardless.  However, as a result of changes to the social environment such as those referred to above, individuals in our societies experience changes in their perceptions of what their moral emotions are trying to tell them as well.  They imagine that new “objective” moral rules must exist, and that old ones were never valid to begin with.  Occasionally enough of them experience the same illusion to force changes in the moral paradigm.  This process has certainly happened in the past.  Moralities have evolved as new religions became dominant, or new heresies and orthodoxies arose in old ones.  Now, however, it is occurring at an increasingly rapid, if not historically unprecedented rate.  The result has been moral chaos.  Deep fractures are opening in our societies between ingroups that prefer traditional versus those that favor updated versions of “absolute” morality.

Ingroups of the type referred to above typically define themselves ideologically, on the basis of a particular version of morality.  They recognize others who don’t agree with their ideological narrative not just as individuals who are wrong about particular facts, but as members of outgroups.  It is our nature to experience hatred and disgust in response to outgroups, and to vilify their members.  We seek to arouse moral emotions in others that cause them to hate and despise the outgroup as well.  We see the results of this process in action around us every day.  Obviously, they do not promote social harmony.  History has demonstrated the likely outcomes of the process over and over again.  In the past these have included mass murder and warfare.  We will continue to experience these outcomes until we recognize the problem and come up with more rational ways of dealing with it.  My own preferred method of dealing with it would include coming up with a better way to formulate our “absolute” moralities.

Through thousands of years of recorded history, we have never come up with a perfect form of government.  It is not to be expected that we will suddenly come up with a perfect way to formulate morality, either.  In fact, it would be impractical to even make the attempt unless the members of society, or at least a majority of them, understood and accepted what morality is, and why it exists.  That knowledge is a precondition if we would escape the prevailing moral chaos.  Supposing that society ever achieves that state of enlightenment, I offer the following suggestions as an Ansatz for establishing a rational morality.  I offer them not as infallible nostrums, but as suggestions.  In the event that a serious attempt is ever made to implement them, experience will certainly make it obvious whether any of them are practical or not, but we have to start somewhere.  With those reservations in mind, here is what I suggest for a possible “morality of the future.”

It should be minimal, limited to only those situations where it is indispensable.  It is indispensable in situations where it would be impractical to apply careful, logical thought.  Examples are day to day interactions among individuals.

It would have the support of the majority of those to whom it apples.

It would maximize the freedom of individuals to pursue whatever goals in life they happen to have, free from harm by others or excessive regimentation by government.

It would be possible to change it, but only at infrequent though regular intervals, according to an established procedure accepted by a majority.  Changes would not be made without thorough vetting beforehand, nor without the support of a majority of those affected.  Each change would require explicit recognition of the moral emotions driving it, and whether it would enhance the odds of survival of the responsible genes or not.

It would be in harmony with human nature.  It would not contradict or be in conflict with human moral emotions.

It would be sequestered from politics and other areas in which the possibility exists to examine different courses of action rationally and evaluate them based on explicit recognition of the behavioral predispositions/emotions driving those courses of action.

In keeping with human nature, once established, the moral rules would be treated as absolute.  those breaking the rules, that is, acting “immorally,” would be punished in accordance with the severity of the breach.

The moral emotions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved because they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Therefore, no decisions affecting society at large would be made without explicit recognition of the impact those decisions will have on the genetic survival of the individuals to whom they apply.  If they will not promote the genetic survival of the members of the society to whom they apply, a rational explanation will be required for why the action is still considered desirable.

Attempts to arouse moral emotions to accomplish political ends would be discouraged and/or punished.  To this end, it would be necessary to suppress the human predisposition to cast every decision and action in moral terms.  In other words, it would be necessary to act against human nature.  Obviously, this could not be done without carefully educating the members of society about the reasons why this is necessary, based on the disconnect between the environment in which the predispositions motivating the behavior in question evolved, and the environment we live in now.  It would be necessary for them to understand that behavior that evolved because it enhanced the odds of survival long ago now is more likely to accomplish the opposite in the radically different societies we live in now.

Attempts to arouse moral emotions with the goal of altering the moral law independently of the established procedures for doing so would be discouraged and/or punished.

Attempts to harm or shame others by arousing moral emotions other than those explicitly sanctioned by the existing moral law would be discouraged and/or punished.

Again, these suggestions would fall flat absent recognition of the evolved and innate origins of morality by the people capable of implementing them.  They will certainly require revision in practice, and are not intended as an exhaustive list.  However, I think they represent a step forward from the old fashioned way of updating moralities by mutual vilification, occasionally culminating in mass murder and warfare.  Although the old fashioned way has certainly been effective, at least for some ingroups, I think most of my readers would agree it has been somewhat unpleasant in practice.  Perhaps we can find a better way.

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.

3 thoughts on “On the Practicality of Non-Lethal Methods of Updating Morality”

  1. Social Engineering! I like it. Most of this fits well with the Matchism perspective on morality:

    Matchism does make a bigger deal about leaders (Moses, Confucius, etc.) as amateur social engineers defining moral codes (i.e., it’s not just conquest that results in shifts in moral codes).

    It’s also worth noting that a stab at the decisionmaking process you made can be found as example proposals on:

  2. I wouldn’t describe what I’ve proposed here as social engineering, and that includes the “nice” version of social engineering described on your website. I’ve merely suggested some ways we might avoid some of the more disastrous outcomes of reacting blindly to moral emotions. I doubt that what I’m proposing fits well with Matchism, although there are some similarities in terms of initial assumptions. For example, I don’t think our behavioral predispositions are nearly as malleable as you do. I think there are much more extensive similarities in human moralities than you do by virtue of similarities in innate moral emotions. I don’t believe these behavioral similarities can simply be socially engineered out of existence. Among these similarities is tribalism. You and I and everyone else on the planet share the innate behavioral traits responsible for it. We can limit the damage it does by being aware of it, but not by pretending it will go away if we want it to, or by assuming it can be nullified by social engineering, or by imagining that we are not personally subject to it.

    You, for example, practically wear your tribal identity on your sleeve. You are a left-leaning academic whose ingroup is defined by ideology. This is immediately apparent simply by looking at your comments on authoritarianism. Regardless of what Matchism might have to say about the subjective nature of morality, for all practical purposes you treat it as an objective evil. You pay lip service to the notion that leftists may be authoritarian, but that doesn’t prevent you from associating authoritarianism almost exclusively with your conservative outgroup. You do this in spite of the current prevalence of authoritarianism on the Left. The Tea Party movement, for example, did not attempt to limit freedom of speech by defining opinions they disagreed with as “hate speech.” They did not use acts of physical violence to prevent people from speaking on college campuses or anywhere else. They did not attempt to shut down traffic, destroy property, disrupt meetings and demonstrations, or generally use any similar means of exerting power, or authority, if you will, over people they disagreed with. However, one can find many examples of such behavior on the left the ideological spectrum.

    Look at the questions from Altmeyer’s book used to associate authoritarian behavior with the Right noted in the “Introduction” section of your website, and used to justify use of the acronym RWA (Right Wing Authoritarianism). They are all cherry-picked to a ludicrous degree, but you are unaware of the fact because of your tribal identity. One could just as easily “prove” that authoritarianism is more characteristic of the Left than the Right by simply choosing different questions. For example, one might ask, “Do you think that using force to deny speakers with destructive ideas a forum on college campuses may sometimes be justified?” “Do you agree that freedom of speech does not imply acceptance of “hate speech?” “Do you agree that owners of bakeries with strong religious beliefs should be forced to supply cakes for gay weddings?” “Do you believe that blocking traffic may sometimes be an acceptable form of political expression?” and so on. Using such “objective” studies, one can “prove” that either RWA or LWA is a more appropriate acronym, depending on one’s tribal identity.

    Your tribal identity, in turn, determines what you mean when you refer to the “better” or “more rational” society that is to be the outcome of the social engineering you propose. You don’t seem to realize that one type of society cannot be objectively “better” than another, and that ultimately such terms are mere expressions of emotional whims. Before I can accept use of the subjective term “better,” or decide whether I agree with it or not, I must ask what whim, what behavioral trait, is responsible for that conclusion. The conclusion can never be reached with pure logic. Pure logic is only capable of chasing its tail. An emotional whim or, as Hume put it, a “passion” will always be found at the root of every such logical chain. My question, then, is what whim do you seek to satisfy?

    I could cite many more objections to your philosophy, but I think I’ve already run on long enough for one comment. You should be able to gather from my previous posts what some of the other ones might be.

  3. Good god, man, this blog is a gold mine and a half.
    So many ideas and suspicions that i myself had before, i found here explored and extensively elaborated on. So much more makes sense now. I do not necessarily agree with all of what is written here, but still, it has been more educational and enlightening than anything i’ve read\listened up to this point regarding morality and such other things.

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