I’ve found on a number of occasions that people who conceive of morality as something handed down from on high don’t understand how there could be any alternative to that view. “If you don’t get your morals from [deity of choice], where do you get them?” The frequency with which this line of questioning appears demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what sort of a concept morality is and how we can coherently define it. The assumption at the heart of the misunderstanding is that morals must be things in the world—not necessarily that they must be tangible, but that they have an existence independent of the human mind. For a person holding this view, morals are fixed, constant, and external.
(Continued below the fold.)
This notion of external moral values is equally ludicrous whether the perceived source is a deity or a dictator. Morality is a value-based judgment system, a human-created way of applying conceptual labels to human interaction and decision-making. These labels, the words of moral judgment—good, bad, right, wrong, just, unjust—have no real-world referent, the way ‘pencil’ or ‘babboon’ do. They only exist in the abstract, which is to say that they only exist as products of the human mind, and this is the only way they really make any sort of sense—as linguistic constructions for describing and evaluating human behavior. People intuitively understand this, I think, but they persist in thinking of moral values as something existing independent of human reason (and often not even accessible to human reason).
Nature certainly doesn’t make sense as a source for morality, given that nature (pathetic fallacy aside) has no particular interest in whether we act “morally” or “immorally.” This is to say that two actions, one “moral” and one “immoral,” may have markedly different consequences, but nature has no real investment in one over the other for the sake of adhering to a moral system. Examined in this light, moral actions are not qualitatively different from immoral actions from any perspective other than a human one. The only distinction between actions, from a natural standpoint, is due to a difference in the direct consequences of those actions. Any attempt to claim the natural world as a source for arbitrarily chosen moral values is bogus, and is most likely an attempt to rationalize a supernaturally-based view of morality.
Defining the System
It is important for us to understand why morality exists, what purpose it serves in human discourse. Morality is most readily understood as a system we impose in order to make our lives easier—in terms of both individual quality of life and overall utility—and to turn them into something other than ‘kill or be killed.’ In its rational form (as distinct from the sense of ‘public morality,’ where things are arbitrarily chosen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for no logical reason), it is a product of extrapolating from rational self-interest. The impulse towards morality is not, fundamentally speaking, an impulse towards treating people justly or fairly for its own sake, but rather an impulse towards treating people justly and fairly in the hopes that they will treat us in such a way. An appropriately chosen moral value within such a system is one that strikes the right balance between self and other, in the sense that the negatives of obeying it ourselves are balanced out by the positives of everyone else obeying it. The most obvious example is the widely held moral prohibition against killing for reasons other than self defense. This is an appropriate moral value for us to hold, because we can reasonably (there’s that word again) expect that the desire to not be killed is more or less universal, that the convenience of not worrying about being murdered will outweigh the inconvenience of not being able to slit the throat of someone who pisses us off. That this is often overlooked in moments of passion in no way invalidates it as an ethos—it just means that there are situations in which people will make decisions based on something other than morality.
Extrapolation and Universality
You will undoubtedly notice a certain degree of speculation within such a system. This is unavoidable, practically speaking, given the overwhelming numbers of people on the earth; it’s not even remotely feasible that we interview the entirety of the human population, in order to have a truly universal representation of human desires. We must rely on experience and reason to give us a sense of what humans value, and which of these values must/should be considered unimpeachable—life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness, etc. As we’ve previously established, reason is the only universal language available to us for discussing and analyzing these issues; emotion is not irrelevant, especially when utility and happiness are so closely linked, but the fact that something makes us feel good doesn’t in and of itself make it a universal good in any sense. And there is a need for morality to come from a universally accessible source, because otherwise it becomes meaningless as a system for human behavior. If, say, concepts of morality were bestowed by Hypothetical Supernatural Entity #1, and Hypothetical Supernatural Entity #1 was only perceptible to a certain subset of the population, then the rest of the population couldn’t be fully participating in the system, in the sense that they wouldn’t have any direct access to these “moral values.” Likewise, there is a need for some sort of universal morality in our increasingly global culture; if ever there was a time when different cultures could function with drastically different moral systems without affecting each other, that time is long since gone.
To What End?
The end result of this sort of moral reasoning (post-conventional, under Kohlberg’s very useful rubric, which I expect I’ll discuss again at some future point) is less clear than the merits and methods of the process itself. The only coherent theory of morality, it seems to me, is one which falls under the heading of a social contract, given the lack of justification for drawing moral values from external (non-human) sources. We identify, by careful reasoning, certain values which we all implicitly agree to live by, in order that we may enjoy the advantages of civilization over a more animalistic, survival of the fittest system. The logistics of this are troublesome, as is determining the ideal relationship of morality and law, but the point is that we must embrace a rational definition of morality, wherein we recognize that moral frameworks exist only insofar as we create them and impose them on ourselves and, by extension, on others. It should also be recognized that morality is not, from a broad perspective, a necessity; rather, it is a particularly useful system we’ve concocted to keep from killing and raping and stealing from each other (which is to say: to keep from being killed or raped or stolen from). The sooner we recognize the necessarily rational nature of moral judgments and stop trying to assign some absolute “moral” status to random beliefs and prejudices, the more just and pleasant our world will become, and the less we will abridge the fundamental rights of others.