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. 

Religious entanglements

1. Ever since Plato wrote the Euthyphro, philosophers have known that ethics and religion are like oil and water. Or, more precisely, that divine commands as such add nothing to the distinctly moral force of moral prescriptions. Does God command the good because it is good? Or is it good because God commands it? If the former, then the goodness of things exists apart from their being commanded by God. If the latter, then the notion of goodness is vacuous–it is simply what God commands. I take it the standard religious response is to suggest that this is a false dichotomy, that, somehow, it is in the essence of God or of God’s commands to be good. But I don’t get it. So, with most philosophers, I conclude that goodness (whether moral or otherwise) is distinct from being commanded by God. I’ll also go one step further and say, this time with most secular philosophers, that God and religion are completely irrelevant to ethics.

2. That being said, it is nevertheless undeniable that, all throughout the world, ethics is religiously entangled. The world’s diverse cultures all have moralities that are in some way caught up with religious myths. There are gods, or ancestors, or the law of Heaven, to back up the most important moral prescriptions. So, all philosophical arguments aside, there’s a need for an explanation here. Why is ethics, the world over, religiously entangled? 

3. The most plausible story that I’m familiar with runs something like this: our hominid ancestors usually inhabited roughly partitioned environments–i.e. they were in competition with neighboring hominid bands. This is the context in which group selection kicks in. Groups that find ways of getting along at least well enough to reproduce, raise children, make tools, find food, and band together to fend off attacks, raid neighboring territories, or maybe just conquer them outright, win. We are the descendants of such “winners”. Religious entanglement, on this account, is a function of the fact that, being already predisposed to see occult agencies at work in the world, those bands of our ancestors that took the further step of connecting those occult agencies with the enforcement or monitoring of social rules would have had an edge in cultural competition. If you and your tribe already believe there are unseen spirits at work in the world, and if you come to believe that these spirits are watching you constantly, and that they can reward you for being “good” or punish you for being “bad”… chances are, you’ll abide by the social code more consistently than your godless neighbors. And if the conditions are right, that means you’ll also outcompete them. (The basic account here is borrowed from Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project. The bit about being predisposed to seeing occult agencies at work in the world finds substantiation in, e.g., Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained.)

4. So the religious entanglement of ethics is, from the perspective of our best guess, a function of the pro-social effects of religious belief. Thus comes the natural follow-up: shouldn’t we secularists be afraid that exorcizing God from ethics will result in widespread societal breakdown? If believing in God (or the ancestors, or…) helped our ancestors band together and survive to mate another day, won’t “killing” God result in society falling apart? 

5. Not to be too glib about it, but… : I don’t know. I hope not. There’s more that draws us together than just the fear (or love) of God–even if that has played an important role for us historically. So my hope is that we’ll be clever enough to find ways to encourage each other to take others into account. But there’s no guarantee it’ll work, I suppose. More fundamentally however, the key point is this: the cat is already out of the bag. There’s no going back. We can’t wish ourselves back into religious ethics. God is already dead, even if some haven’t gotten the memo. As a humanist then, I conclude that our considerable creativity is best put to use not in trying to revive God, in trying to resuscitate him briefly on his way out, but rather in figuring out how to live without him. 

6. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s got this memorable image of kicking away a ladder once you’ve used it to climb up to some new insight. The humanist’s hope, I take it, is that, even if God and religion were necessary in human history to get us up to this point, we might still be able to kick away the ladder in light of the truth (that there is no God, and that none of religion’s substantive claims are true in the relevant way). But yes, I suppose alternatively, we could be unwittingly sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Oh well.


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?


My daughter’s dedication

These are the words I read at my daughter’s dedication, on behalf of her mother and myself. She is a year old this week.


Dear Zoe,

We are thrilled to have you in our lives. We are honored to be your parents. We love you.

We’re also a little bit worried that we don’t deserve you, that we’re not going to be very good parents, and that we’ll mess you up and give you all sorts of unpleasant neuroses. But we also think you’re probably resilient enough to survive and even thrive through whatever we, and life, throw your way. Here’s hopin’.

You have taught us, in just these twelve months, that you have a will all your own. You are perceptive, engaging, wonderfully joyful–most of the time–and you radiate love and contentment.

We don’t imagine for a second that we can control you or your path in the world with our parenting, that we can determine who and what you’ll become, or that we have a clue about how you should live your life. But we do have hopes and dreams for you. Not hopes and dreams about specific things (though your dad hopes you’ll play capoeira with him someday, and your mom hopes you’ll ride horses with her someday), but hopes and dreams about the kind of person you’ll be.

We hope you’re a good person. We hope you’re a kind and a courageous person. We hope you’re the kind of person that inspires other people to be better than they’ve been.

We hope, when you meet the poor, the oppressed, and the miserable, that you look them in the eye.

We hope, when you meet the rich, the privileged, and the smug, that you look them in the eye.

We hope that you comfort the afflicted, and that you afflict the unjustly comfortable.

We hope that you question the pretenses of the powerful, like Socrates. We hope that you question the value of clinging to treasures, like the Buddha. And we hope that you question the religion of the establishment, like Jesus.

We hope that you embrace simplicity, and the cause of the poor, like Dorothy Day. We hope that you embrace nonviolence, in thought and in deed, like Dr. King. And we hope that you embrace the dream of a better world, like all of us here at Milwaukee Mennonite, and like all the revolutionaries, the hippies, and the dreamers throughout the ages.

May you be strong and confident. May you be open-minded and empathetic. May you be bold, slow to anger, and quick to apologize. Speak your mind. And take care that what’s on your mind is worth speaking. Grow always in love and in wisdom.

Life is short–too short to be worried about screwing up, or to be worried about putting your foot in your mouth, or whatever. May you live, unapologetically. May you enjoy life, so much so that your joy spreads contagiously to those around you. And may you be surrounded by good friends on those days when joy is easy to find, and on those days when it is hard to find.

Whatever you do, whoever you become, we love you, and we will always love you, unconditionally.


Your mom and dad.