What is morality?

1. We human beings are social animals. All of us who survive to adulthood have been taken care of by someone else. Usually several someones. At a minimum, someone kept us fed and sheltered. This is the context in which most of us come to appreciate–to value–human contact. So not only do we generally need each other to provide for our basic needs, we also, often enough, enjoy each other’s company. 

2. It is in the course of learning to navigate interpersonal relationships that we learn the vocabularies of cooperation. We learn to use words like “friend”, “kind”, “share”, “mean”, “nice”, “obedience”, and so forth. These are the building blocks of morality. By verbalizing and negotiating the expectations we have of each other in our various social roles (mother, father, child, sibling, friend, citizen, student, etc.), we co-create a world that makes sense to us, that we can depend on, and that we know how to navigate. Moral rules and ideals grow naturally out of our social condition.

3. Whether we like it or not, we are also status-seeking primates. We have a strong tendency to want to get ahead, to climb the social ladder. Beautiful people typically have a head start (although what counts as beautiful varies from culture to culture). And in societies with legacies of colonialism and conquest, certain social groups are privileged relative to others. Ever since we moved beyond the hunting and gathering lifestyle of our ancestors, our societies have been stratified in these and other ways. The moral rules and ideals we live by typically codify these arrangements in some form or other. So, at least today, it would be misleading to think we all have an equal role in “co-constructing” morality. Some of us have very loud voices in the conversation. And others of us can’t be heard at all.

4. In very religious societies, religious authorities typically have very loud voices. Popes, prophets, pastors, and the like speak for God (or for the ancestors, or for whomever the dominant mythology credits with creating moral rules). It is assumed that these people know better than others what counts as a good life. Often this is because they tell elaborate stories about what life “really” is. In the Christian circles I grew up in, for example, this life (life “on Earth”) was pictured as a probationary period before the next life (“real” life, life “in Heaven”). And of course, only the pastors really knew what Heaven was going to be like, and how a person could get in. So they got to tell us what rules we had to follow (which they were getting, allegedly, straight from the Bible).

5. Being a pastor or priest in a religious society gives you power over people. It doesn’t matter if your religion is a religion of meekness or sacrifice. What matters is that people believe you speak for God (even if it is oh-so-humbly). Because we’re status-seeking primates, power is intoxicating (even if you can’t tell you’re intoxicated). This means that people who, for whatever reason, end up in power, tend to do what they can to stay in power. Sometimes their power plays are transparently Machiavellian. Other times they’re just the convenient result of maneuvering they think they’re doing for other reasons (for example, ousting and publicly denouncing a trouble-maker for preaching “a different Gospel” out of zeal for “the truth”).

6. The struggle for status and power creates winners and losers. Sometimes, the losers band together to challenge the legitimacy of the rules and ideals that have left them on the outside. This way, you get competing systems of rules. If the society in question is highly stratified, so that there aren’t that many winners, but there are lots of losers, the value system of the winners gets overthrown simply because its appeal is much too narrow. The “losers” include more people, and so, in the long run, they win (the meek inherit the Earth! …).

7. It’s important to notice that even though moral systems can be more or less inclusive, the drive for status is always there. What changes is the cultural expression of the status game. In a racist system, for instance, you have to be of the privileged race to have high status. This can be hard to sustain in the long run, especially if other races are “uppity”–if they band together and challenge the ideology and power structures (laws, police behavior, etc.) that sustains the privileged race in its privileged place. It’s also true that stark inequalities of power and status are often maintained through lies, for example about how much “better” the privileged are than the rest of the human “herd”. So often, the losers of the status game only need to tell the truth about themselves (and about the privileged) to undermine the felt legitimacy of the social arrangement. This was (and still is) an important part of the feminist movement and other liberatory struggles. These transformative moral movements are essentially attempts to democratize the production of our moral ideals. We can’t do without expectations and rules in social life, but we can make those mutual understandings more mutual. Often, the more mutual the understandings are, the more stable they are over the long haul too. These movements often gain the bulk of their momentum from the disenfranchised, since they’re the ones with the most to gain. The already powerful, by contrast, typically resist social change that threatens to weaken their position.

8. Humanists believe we can create moral ideals and moral systems that work well for everyone. We don’t think we can reprogram ourselves not to want social status. But we think we can reprogram our societies so that social status is connected to things that benefit others, rather than things that impoverish others. So humanists value kindness, compassion, justice, and equality of opportunity. We call “good” people who help other people (directly or indirectly). And we call “bad” people who hurt other people. We’re humanists because we try not to draw lines between the kinds of people it’s worth helping. So, according to the humanist view, it doesn’t matter if a person is Black, white, mixed-race, or of any other ethnic background, gay or straight or trans or queer, ugly or beautiful, fat or skinny, able-bodied or disabled, clever or a bit of a dunce (you get the idea). That person should have a reasonable shot at a good life, free from harm, and free to pursue whatever happens to strike his or her fancy, so long as no harm to anyone else is involved. Building that society is hard work, and there are all sorts of practical problems along the way, of course. But the point is that we can make moral progress, we can build a better world, if we set our minds to it.

9. So what is morality? Morality is a tool we use to get along together. It’s also a tool we use to get ahead in life. But bad things happen if we get ahead at the expense of other people. They resent us, and in any case, those of us who aren’t sociopaths usually want genuine, mutual relationships with other people. So we can’t burn every bridge. The solution is to (co-)create moral rules and ideals and systems that work for more or less everyone: to advocate for kindness, understanding, compassion, world peace, and so forth. To hold up as moral exemplars people who inspire us with how they affirm others–or at least, with how they stay out of the way of others. That’s compatible with all sorts of life paths (including competitive ones, like being an athlete–but all good competition presupposes a more fundamental cooperation: it’s not really “winning” if the game is rigged). And it’s a vision I find attractive. How about you?