What is a moral community? To whom do we owe love, respect, allegiance, and caring, and why? What does it mean to be ‘good’?
As communications technology progresses at an exponential rate, we’re all coming into closer and more constant contact with people from all over the world. One result of this: some clashes between people of disparate cultures and belief systems seem particularly violent and extreme, but such partisan violence is commonplace throughout history. Yet we’re also cooperating as a worldwide community as never before, adapting practices and beliefs, with an increase in tolerance and mutual respect between people who might have had trouble finding enough common ground for fruitful interaction in times past. Since we can now see the faces, hear the voices, and observe the lives of people far away as if they’re next door, we identify with them more, perceive them no longer as abstractions but as people like ourselves, and come to care for them nearly as much, and sometimes just as much, as people that just so happen to live their whole lives geographically near to us. Conquest, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, holy war: all of these violate moral beliefs now common throughout the world. We seem, as a whole, to be enlarging our moral communities.
So what binds these moral communities, and where so the morals by which they live come from?
As a direct result of this new virtual cosmopolitanism (in a sociological rather than a philosophical sense), many are now convinced that morality is relative to cultures and belief systems. All ethic and cultural peoples have moral systems, and while most contain a few common prohibitions and values (child murder is wrong, health is good), all vary on at least some points, and some widely (women should / should make important decisions independent of men; sexual liberty is / is not good).
While the relativistic view of morality is understandable and generally comes from a generous spirit of tolerance, I believe this theory is, for one thing, ultimately of little use in solving the problem of how the worldwide community is to live together. If morality is entirely relevant to belief system, for example, how can we be justified in claiming that a man does wrong when he kills his wife accused of adultery, if his belief system teaches that this is right? How can we be justified in claiming that a trader in finance does wrong when she gambles her clients’ life savings away, when the business culture she works in operates on the premise that this is the right way to do business? A moral theory which explains the nature and workings of human morality needs to demonstrate that it works, that it offers compelling answers and workable solutions to such challenges, in order to qualify as a candidate for a true theory. If the global human community wants some firm moral grounds on which to promote human flourishing, we need to look elsewhere than moral relativism.
Most importantly, the current evidence from the findings of clinical psychology and other disciplines that study human behavior just don’t appear to support the theory of moral relativism.
Another moral theory is moral realism, which many believe is the only acceptable alternative to moral relativism. Mores (moral conventions or laws), according to the moral realist, need to be fixed, immutable, and eternal in order to be true or binding. A highly influential, widely accepted version of this view was thoroughly described and explained by theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which in turn is an interpretation of Aristotle, the great philosopher and logician of 4th century Greece. Aquinas argues that morality is built-in to reality and can be discovered in the “natural law”. Natural law is the totality of the observed, predictable workings of the universe: just as the law of gravity is an unchanging feature of the universe, so is the moral law, and to discover either, we need only carefully observe the world without and within us. To put Aquinas’ view most succinctly: we can derive the ‘ought’ directly from the ‘is’. This is a compelling theory, in my view, reassuring in its promise to deliver concrete and universal results.
Yet David Hume, the great Scottish skeptic philosopher, famously overturned this view in the 18th century, pointing out that there is no direct logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. To say something is the case is not the same as saying it should be the case.
One example that illustrates why I think Hume is right is the set of complex issues regarding human reproduction. As Aquinas, modern evolutionary biologists, and indeed most of us, would agree: human beings, and indeed all living creatures, generally have strong instincts to mate, and the biological equipment which most individuals have makes it so that the result of frequent mating is the production of offspring. You could even say that we mate because we are equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively.
Here’s the presumed logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ in this case: Aquinas (and many modern evolutionary biologists) would say that because human beings generally reproduce, one of the main, if not the primary, purposes of the human race and therefore, all individual human beings, is to reproduce. Since we’re generally equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively, individual human beings should have sex only to reproduce.
‘But wait a minute!’ one might say, with Humean skepticism. The scientific evidence reveals to us that at least half, and probably more, of all offspring who are conceived are naturally aborted by the mother’s body well before birth, sometimes because of genetic defects, the current state of health of the mother, or some other reason. And that’s just before birth. In some places in the world today, and especially in Hume’s day, a very large proportion of all children born die before the age of five because they have no access to effective treatments for most diseases. If you put that number together with still births and natural abortions, you end up with a very, very large number of unsuccessful reproductions, a majority, in fact.
So if you try to derive the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’ in the case of human reproduction, you can just as well end up, logically, with the weird result that since attempts to successfully create offspring are usually unsuccessful, well, then, human beings ought not to reproduce! Most would find this conclusion not only weird but unacceptable, I think for the very good reason that people generally place a high value on continuing the human species and on the individual’s right to decide whether or not to have children.
Now, to be fair to Aquinas, it’s still the case that, despite so many failed instances of reproduction, the human race generally is successful at reproduction. Added to that, say some evolutionary biologists, the fact that all living beings evolved some sort of reproductive capacity, it’s still the case that every being that has a choice should try to reproduce, whether or not individuals fail. But how if you belong to a species where reproduction is so successful that if everyone reproduces, the species as a whole is threatened from overcrowding? Or, as it is in the case of a highly social species such as humans, the young do very well in a community where there’s plenty of individuals around who don’t have offspring of their own? In fact, the human species (unusually) far outlive their mating years, and biologists believes it’s a survival mechanism for children to also have grandparents to help rear them. Aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends fulfill the same roles in society, as auxiliary parents and as overall contributors to the flourishing of the human race as a whole.
Perhaps Aquinas was only partially mistaken, and instead should have said that we should place a high moral value on the reproductive function of the human species as a whole: maybe having children is one among many virtuous choices we can make. He did allow that some instances of refraining from procreation are good (he was a celibate monk, after all!) but he also used procreative instinct arguments to say that any and all sex acts that don’t involve reproductive intent are immoral This, to me, represents an attempt to derive a universal moral law, then apply it to get a predetermined result: people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they do have sex do wrong, and people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they don’t have sex do right. (Hmmm… did he accidentally end up a moral relativist here, in this matter at least?)
This is only one of countless examples where we find that morally committed, good people disagree on the fundamentals of what constitutes goodness and virtue. We find that this disagreement is among individuals and communities not only across space, but also across time. A classic example of this in Middle Eastern and Western cultures is the contrast between the moral precepts of the Old and the New Testaments, and also between the morals in the whole Bible compared to the morals of today. According to the New Testament, after all, it was still acceptable to own slaves and prevent women from speaking in church, which would be morally impermissible according to the mores of most societies and religions today.
It could be that the moral relativist and the moral realist theories are both implausible. Maybe morality is not relative nor immutable: maybe it evolves. Maybe you can say something is true about morality just as you can say something is true about the human species itself: although the human race is neither immutable or eternal, it still evolved. Yet human beings all descend from a common ancestry and are identifiable in that they share in a distinctive spectrum of traits, so the criteria for being human is not relativistic either.
I think that human sexuality, in fact, also provides an excellent example of not only how a species, but how morality itself, evolves.
Originally, for human beings as for most other creatures, sex evolved for the purposes of reproduction, but over time, as our brains got bigger and our behavioral, emotional, and cultural capacities became more and more complex, sexuality began to be expressed for other purposes as well. As our ancestors became more social and formed larger and larger supportive groups, the young were better protected and better fed and therefore, were more likely to survive. The pressure for individuals to reproduce as often as possible was greatly reduced. Human beings (like our large-brained and social cousins the bonobos and dolphins) also began to enjoy sex for its own sake and re-purposed it: using sex to court potential mates, express friendship love, and dominance, use it for recreation, politics, and so forth. Some of these purposes of sexual expression have, over time, come to be recognized as beneficial, some have not, and some are still debated.
Just as sexuality evolved, so have the moral precepts surrounding sexuality. With the exception of certain
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groups who seek enforce a traditional sexual moral code (usually for religious reasons), over the centuries and millennium sexuality has been appreciated as a much more rich and complex domain of human social relations. As we look back in history, a favored few in society have enjoyed a more liberal set of sexual mores (Greek and Roman elite males enjoyed gay sex without fear, and European nobility and royalty not only regularly enjoyed the company of paramours, they were expected to), but as societies became more democratic and open, these liberal moral codes were extended to the general public. Overall, people are now more prone to judge the morality of sexual behavior according to principles of consent, honesty, reciprocity, and respect, rather than a traditional list of prohibitions.
Here’s a story of how the larger evolution of morality could have happened:
In prehistoric times, human social groups were very small, since survival depended both on strong social cohesion to feed and protect everyone, especially the young, and on not exhausting natural resources. Over time, as the body of human knowledge increased and new technologies were created and perfected, human societies grew to include larger numbers of people. So new adaptations, institutions, and practices arose to create and cement human solidarity in these new larger groups who were less homogenous, even though many general characteristics still tended to remain the same (skin tone, hair color, bodily morphology, etc).These adaptations, institutions, and practices included languages, epic stories, religions, national and ethnic identity, cultural practices, political affiliations, and so on. All of these were constantly being invented, were growing, changing… evolving. And as we’ve already seen, the size of our social groups are growing as rapidly as the communicative capacities of technology. To a cosmopolitan (in the philosophical sense this time), it’s likely only a matter of time before the human race will and should consider itself one large community, with a commitment to upholding basic shared moral principles, though particular or localized secondary moral systems could add their own restrictions or requirements.
Morality is not immune to evolution, and I think doesn’t need to be in order to be capable of being understood in terms of true and false. Again, many things change over time, often drastically, and still can be correctly or incorrectly described and referred to. Not only do I think that morality evolves, I’m also glad that it does, comparing some ancient moral codes to some modern ones. Again, we can look to the Bible for examples of this: consider the ancient Biblical endorsements of slavery and genocide, and compare that with their modern near-total rejection. And the Old Testament notion that women and children were chattel that could be killed for any number of transgressions fills most people today with righteous horror.
These and other changes in moral convictions could be entirely attributed to conditioning, of course. Yet, such conditioning that informs the behavior of most individuals can, perhaps, constitute a form of social evolutionary pressure over time. Whatever the precise mechanism(s), when I consider what history and archaeology tells us about moral attitudes over time, and when I put that together with the fact that human beings evolved from small-brained, non-moral creatures, it seems that morality must have evolved too.
For an organism to evolve, it must be a dynamic system, composed of multiple parts that can be added, subtracted, or changed. If morality evolves, it appears that it likewise can’t be reducible to a single foundational principle. If it’s a traditional monist system, there’s no room or impetus for change, since there’s only one, continuous element or substance that determines the nature of the subject at hand. It’s partly for this reason, and partly based on other evidence (such as how human actually make moral decisions), that I suspect that human morality is actually a pluralist system. Our moral judgments result from balancing various norms against one another, combining, elevating, or rejecting one or more depending on the situation at hand. For example, most cultures place a high moral value on personal integrity, reciprocity, mercy, punishing the guilty, love, protecting the innocent and vulnerable, and more, and consider at least a few of these while making each moral judgment. There are many that I just don’t think are reducible to a more basic principle or value.
So where do these moral values come from? How do we justify judgments based on them? How do we
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know how, when, and to whom to apply them?
Morality not only appears to be based on more than one value or principle, it also involves more than one type of mental processes or cognitive tools. Daniel Kahneman provides one account: a fast, instinctive, emotional process, and a slower, reflective one; Daniel Dennett provides a related explanation of the human mind, originally less capable, enhanced by a ‘toolkit for thinking’. We can apply such a tiered or multilevel system to this story of moral evolution. One is instinctive or more basic, where morality appears to originate. The social instincts, such as empathy and cooperation in humans and other intelligent social creatures, belong to the set variously described as Kahneman’s ‘system one’, or as Hume’s ‘passions’. The slower ‘system two’, Aristotle and Kant’s ‘reason’, is the part of us that self-consciously reflects on our own emotions and thoughts. So far as we know, only human beings engage in this sort of multi-level mental activity. What the research of social psychologists as Jonathon Haidt reveal is that most of us, most of the time, make our moral judgments quickly and emotionally, and only justify ourselves afterwards, selecting those arguments that best support our own case and neglecting other concerns. This evidence favors Hume’s theory of ‘passion’-centric morality over Kant’s almost wholly rationalistic theory. Yet, we do apply rationality to create, universalize, and enforce a more consistent, regularized moral system on communities, to the benefit of most.
So the basic, foundational instincts that fostered increased cooperation and a drive toward reciprocity were, over time, bolstered by conscious reflection and perfected, enforced, and made more sophisticated through culture. Sounds to me a little bit like the selective, ‘ramping-up’ natural process of evolution by natural selection!
The evolution of morality can be illustrated by analogizing our moral instincts as the genetic mutations, and the use of our slower reasoning process as the selective pressure that allows the instincts to be enacted, or overrides them in order to create a system that best leads to our flourishing. Consider racism and ethnic hatred, instincts that, even today, seem unhappily all too pervasive. The instinct to bigotry might still be a part of our ‘moral DNA’, so to speak, arising as they probably did in the aforementioned circumstance of reinforcing solidarity in small communities struggling to survive. But over time, as we’ve seen race and ethnic hatred lead to suffering and mass slaughter that need not have occurred, the selective pressure of reason, aware of the lessons of history, overrides these ancient instincts and motivates us to value the widely beneficial attitudes of empathy, tolerance, and a sense of shared dignity instead. We used our reason first to regularize moral instincts into rules that apply to the community at large instead of just to the beneficently inclined. Then, we used our technology to widen the spheres of our moral communities, and these spheres are widening as moral communities absorb into ever larger ones.
Over time, we have developed a concept of goodness as that which fosters human flourishing, those instincts, guided and perfected by a natural-selection-like process and by reason, that inspire nurturing and just behavior on the largest scale possible. We can credit goodness, that expanded, instinct-derived and rationally-perfected sense of justice, reciprocity, and beneficence, as the driver of the human race’s ever more cosmopolitan sense of morality.