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.