The myth of a moral sense

Our culture gives us conceptual tools to navigate everyday life. For us in the West, at this point in history, many of these concepts have roots in a basically religious worldview. Specifically, the way we think and talk about morality owes much to the dominance of Christianity (in some form or other) in our collective imaginings. These conceptual tools are largely obsolete. Most of them can’t be salvaged, and we’re better off without them. Morality doesn’t come to us from God; it isn’t a “natural law” written in the laws of physics, much less in our hearts; and the very idea of a ‘right’ answer in ethics is problematic, to my reckoning.

Image What we know is that human beings are hyper-social primates, and that our ability to temper socially disruptive private urges and replace them with pro-social behavior probably evolved because cohesive families and cohesive social groups do better in the struggle for existence (at least in the ecological niches our species has historically inhabited) than less socially-minded animals. Chimps and bonobos are relatively good at getting along, and they’re very clever; but not good enough to form the kinds of units and cultures that allowed human beings to spread out over the globe.

From an evolutionary perspective, the idea of a ‘moral sense’ that tells us what is (‘objectively’) right and wrong is implausible. And in any case, any empirically-minded world-traveler will see this myth for what it is. Freud’s language of a ‘super-ego’ is closer to the truth: we have (to varying degrees–some of us are sociopaths, after all) a sense of what we can and can’t get away with, given our social environment. Most of us aren’t Machiavellian little monsters, of course: we genuinely care about others (especially family members and friends/allies) in addition to caring about our own private interests. But our moral sense or conscience enters the picture not from outside of social life, but rather from within it, cueing us in to where the risk to our reputation is too great for the relative payoff of some behavior. The pangs of conscience are not disclosures of an objective right and wrong, but the internalized sense of what others want us to be (and what we ourselves sometimes want ourselves to be). This is why conscience speaks with as many voices as matter to us. In hyper-hierarchical contexts–those in which we are completely beholden to one ideology–conscience speaks with one voice, and its power is considerable. Outside the Church, the Party, or the vegan community (for example) however, the voice of conscience is fractured, simply because we care about the opinions and perspectives of many people. I might be hesitant to do or say something that my mom wouldn’t like; but with the right group of friends, I can do or say it fearlessly (for good or for ill!).

Yes, this is relativism. That’s our conundrum. There is no moral sense that lifts us above the fray. All we have are these conflicting voices with different priorities, different opinions about what matters more (financial security! consistency! integrity! simplicity! status! power! loyalty! …). And we have to make our way through the cacophony as best we can.

Ideologies that claim we have a moral sense are not so much pushing us to recognize something that is already there (it’s not) as they are trying to indoctrinate us into thinking like a particular group that agrees on the alleged deliverances of this moral sense. When we are brought into a community of like-minded people, the voices of conscience are less discordant. But that harmony is not a deep feature of the world or a disclosure from God–it’s just the effect of strongly belonging to a group of like-minded people. (Beware of such groups!)

The standard disclaimers apply: none of this is to say to all moral cultures are created equal. We always evaluate some set of values from the perspective of some other set of values. But some values are more general and useful than others. For me, considerations of truth and kindness are important. What’s nice about those values isn’t that I can prove they’re ‘correct’ (sorry!), but that I can hold them, tell other people I hold them, and have most people agree that they’re nice. They’re universalizable, I guess you could say. Not a magical property or anything like that, but given globalization, not a bad feature. (Of course, aspects of globalization can be criticized from the perspective of concern for others. That’s fine.)

The idea of a moral sense, at least as a discloser of objective moral truths, is a holdover from Christian modes of thought in which God gives all human beings a law which is written on our hearts. There is no god, and there is no such law, so the idea of a moral sense isn’t helpful. A more useful and a more truthful picture has morality as a communal co-creation, something we work out together (because war and conflict generally suck for most people, and peace is nice). It’s sort of a muddy picture, but that’s only because it’s truthful.


Daniel’s super simple spiritual advice for a happy life

Well, you know, “spiritual”–pertaining to the cultivation of the human spirit or mind.

1. Cultivate self-knowledge. Introspect. Examine your motives, your feelings, your moods. Know thyself. I know I can get caught in a mode of reactivity with no self-awareness. This is usually how I end up engaging in unhelpful behaviors, such as cussing out fellow drivers, staying up too late watching stupid Netflix movies, and so on. The more I learn to monitor my mood, my feelings, my thoughts, the more I’m able to channel my behavior in desirable directions (chilling out behind the wheel, slowing down, going to bed, etc.).

2. Kill your ego. For perfectly understandable evolutionary reasons[1], the vast majority of us engage in constant reputation management. I actually don’t think it’s possible not to do this at least some of the time, but then I don’t think reputation management is intrinsically wrong or anything like that. That being said, it is possible to cultivate a correctable self–to admit wrongdoing or error, to apologize, to laugh at oneself, etc. For a variety of reasons, it’s a good idea not to defend our ‘reputations’ in a knee-jerk way. It’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to make mistakes. You acknowledge them, and you grow. (When we do this, we by the same token cultivate a desirable reputation: the reputation of someone who does not cling to ego.)

3. Always* tell the truth. *you know, almost always. This is simply extending the ideals of self-knowledge and ego killing to the way in which we interact with people in our circle of trust. Telling lies is tiring, distracting, and potentially harmful to trust and to human relationships, which are, you know, the very stuff of a meaningful human life (for those of us who aren’t sociopaths!). Some people may be too dangerous to trust, or some societies may be hostile to certain truths (these are tragedies), so this isn’t an inflexible commandment. But, in general, being transparent brings great peace of mind, and makes possible very open and very healthy relationships (assuming all parties value truth in roughly the same manner). I try hard not to keep secrets, even ‘dirty’ secrets, from my partner. Our relationship is much better for it. And the peace our honesty produces may not pass all understanding (Bible joke, sorry), but it’s pretty nice.

[1] Further reading on evolution and reputation management: Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language; Richard Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems.

Questions and answers

I am a philosopher by training. Recently, however, I’ve been wondering whether my interest in philosophy as such will endure. I have at present no pressing philosophical concerns. My intellectual curiosity, I like to tell myself, is the same as it ever has been. But the drive to find answers to some question or other has been oddly absent.

Three puzzles have driven the bulk of my philosophizing over the past decade: first, the nature of the mind or soul; second, the existence of God; third, the nature of morality. Nothing amazingly original, I know. But these were the questions with the most existential import for me. I was raised a Christian, and so I inherited ways of thinking about my world that left me with unanswered questions. In part through philosophy (and in part through science), I have answered these questions to my satisfaction. There is no soul, and the mind is what the brain does; there is no personal God; and morality is a social construct, a tool we use to get along together and co-construct a form of life. 

These are not original answers, of course. But it took me a while to come to them, and so they’re rather dear to me. Now that I have them, I’m just not sure what there is left to say. The rest seems to flow pretty obviously to me: life is short and absurd; beauty is a function of how we have evolved and been socialized to appreciate certain phenomena; the world’s religions and other ideologies are selling first (a false sense of) certainty and second a (sometimes true) sense of belonging; it’s nice to know the truth, but truth doesn’t always lead to happiness; happiness is pretty important; etc. etc. etc. 

The questions I currently find interesting aren’t really philosophical questions. I’m interested in the future of food and water, in global distributions of wealth, in science education and the popularization of empiricism, in ecology and evolution, in space exploration, in the future of technology, in population control, in politics… The theme that unites these is simply that these are practical matters. They’re questions about how to live in this world we’ve inherited. And in one sense, that’s the natural progression: first you figure how the world works, and then you try to figure out what to do with that knowledge. I can’t claim to have a complete understanding of the world, but I do claim to have ruled out a number of misleading pictures. (That’s something, at least.) 

In a sense, this is the real promise of atheism and of empiricism. Once you move beyond debating whose god is really real, or which afterlife really matters, you can get down to the business of really living–here, now, in this world. Once you clear the cobwebs, and move beyond the smoke and mirrors, you’ve got a shot at collaborating with other clear-sighted folk to make the world a better place. If that’s your thing.