18 January 2009

On Making Morality Mundane

Recently, for my other blog, I wanted a more-concise description of morality than the multi-chapter description in my on-line book. The result is given below, along with suggestions about how progress might be made toward the goal of wider agreement on what’s moral and what isn’t. I start with some definitions.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the morality of any act is “the extent to which an action is right or wrong.” In turn, that definition obviously requires definitions for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – topics that I’ll get to, shortly. Here, though, I don’t want to participate in (or contribute to) arguments about distinctions among the words ‘morality’, ‘ethics’, ‘customs’, and ‘laws’. Instead, I’ll simply explain my planned use of those words, in which my emphasis is on distinguishing who decides what’s “right or wrong”.

Thus, by ‘morality’ I’ll generally mean that individuals decide what’s “right or wrong”. By ‘ethics’ I’ll generally mean that some limited group (e.g., a professional society) makes the decision (e.g., on an “ethical code” for lawyers). By ‘customs’ I’ll mean that the majority of some community has made the decision about “right or wrong” (e.g., about what clothing or what sexual activity is appropriate). And by ‘laws’ I’ll mean that some government authority has decided what’s “right or wrong” – and has the power to enforce its decision. Of these four concepts (morals, ethics, customs, and laws), I consider morality to be fundamental, because once a “sufficient number” of individuals agree on “the extent to which an action is right or wrong”, then ethics, customs, and laws usually follow – albeit, sometimes slowly.

Distinguishing who decides what’s right vs. wrong can eliminate some confusion. For example, the act of kicking a boulder would probably be judged as immoral (i.e., dumb) by the person with the resulting sore toe, but as far as I know, such an act isn’t unethical or illegal and isn’t customary (except, perhaps, for little boys). Driving a truck on the wrong side of the road is, however, immoral (dumb), unethical (I expect that any professional trucker’s association would agree), uncustomary, and illegal.

But more significant (than distinguishing among the words ‘moral’, ‘ethics’, ‘customs’, and ‘laws’) is the judgment about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of any act. If desired, such judgments can be assigned a numerical value on a scale running from, say, –10 to +10, with the value –10 assigned to an act judged to be “horrible” or “evil” or even “satanic” and with the value +10 for an act judged to be “perfect” or even “godly”. In reality, however, such values have nothing to do with any devils or gods – which is rather convenient, given that such “supernatural beings” don’t exist (claims by all clerics to the contrary notwithstanding). Instead, the source of all judgments about such values is experience.

Thus, experience has shown that it’s important for humans (and animals!) to have the ability to judge what’s right vs. wrong (and all shades in between). Unfortunately, though, such judgments are often contentious. In turn, such contentions arise in proportion to disagreements about goals or purposes. That is, moral values (as with any values) can be judged only with respect to some objective or purpose – and similarly for ethical values, customs, and laws. Consequently, to judge “the extent to which an action is right or wrong”, we must first judge the extent to which the PURPOSE of the action is right or wrong.

That result can seem to be a “show stopper”: what criteria are to be used to judge the extent to which a purpose is right or wrong? It is, however, not so much a show stopper as a “divider”, since different people, groups, and societies not only choose different purposes but also, of course, claim that their purposes are “right”. For example, many scientific humanists claim that the prime purpose of humans should be to help solve our problems more intelligently (or words to that effect), while “unscientific antihumans” (i.e., theists) claim that the prime goal is serve their god. As another example, Zionists maintain that their prime goal is to ensure that Israel continues to exist, while Islamic jihadis maintain that one of their prime goals is to “eliminate the Zionist enemy”. With such different purposes, different morals, ethics, customs, and laws usually follow.

To illustrate further, consider another extreme. Thus, if the prime goal of a Muslim extremist is to spread Islam throughout the world, so that everyone will parrot “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”, then slitting the throat of another “unbeliever” will score very high (maybe a +8) on such an idiot’s “morality scale”. Further, and as unbelievable as it may seem to enlightened humans, killing apostates is customary, ethical (e.g., for the police), and lawful in many Islamic countries.

In contrast, for those of us whose prime goal is to understand and who have concluded that beliefs should be held only as strongly as relevant evidence warrants, then on our “morality scale”, the act of highest moral value (scoring a +10) is to use our brains as best we can, which includes evaluating all relevant and reliable data. Therefore, upon finding no data that support the contention that any god exists (let alone Allah, i.e., “the god”) and finding suggestions (e.g., in the Koran) that Muhammad was “mad” (as judged by some who knew him), we scientific humanists judge the acts of Islamic terrorists to be the epitome of evil (i.e., scoring a –10). For the same reasons, we abhor the custom of killing apostates, we seek to make the act illegal worldwide, and we consider any policeman who enforces such a law or any lawyer who defends it to be unethical.

To reduce such contentions, it would appear to be useful to attempt to identify common purposes that all humans pursue. Stated differently, to reach agreements about morality (“the extent to which an act is right or wrong”), it would appear to be necessary to agree, first, on what purposes or goals are right or wrong, or more generally, to agree on priorities for human goals. At the outset, however, the possibility for such an agreement (on priorities for human goals) seems remote. No agreement seems possible, for example, between religious extremists and “unbelievers” (in their fairy tales), whom religious fanatics want to kill. Similarly, no agreement seems possible between Israel and Iran (whose president seeks Israel’s destruction). Nonetheless, there are reasons to have some hope for humanity.

To participate in such hope, consider first the obvious fact that all humans pursue a huge variety of goals, and we adjust our goals as conditions warrant. Yet, simultaneously, Nature has “programmed” all humans (and, in fact, all life) with the same prime goal (i.e., that goal for which all other goals would be sacrificed), namely, for life to continue. Those species not so programmed are now extinct. Unfortunately, however, Nature’s method for achieving the prime goal (of having life continue) contains features that individuals find either confusing or undesirable – and even more unfortunately, some unscrupulous people (namely, clerics) have found ways to capitalize on both the confusion and the undesirability.

Specifically, Nature found (by experience) that, faced with changing physical and biological environments, the most efficacious way for life to continue was to provide life (i.e., self replicating, information-laden molecules) only with temporary hosts (individuals with finite lifetimes) and to rely on random mutations (e.g., occurring during sexual reproduction) to provide new hosts more fit for survival in modified environments. Most individuals are apparently quite satisfied with the sexual aspects of Nature’s method (although Catholic priests may be exceptions), but simultaneously and understandably, most individuals are dissatisfied with Nature’s method of discarding used hosts (especially, their own deaths).

Thereby, Nature obviously squeezes individuals in a powerful mental vice. On one side of the vice, Nature requires individuals to avoid death, to strive to survive, to thrive, to reproduce, and to help their offspring do similar. But meanwhile, on the other side of the vice, individuals feel the impenetrable crush of their inevitable death. Being placed in such a vice, many individuals understandably seek escape – and not just temporary escape (e.g., via medical assistance) but also permanent escape (e.g., via mental aberrations available in most organized religions). Thus, primitive people imagined that they could live forever – and to this day, primitive people still cling to such a delusion (available and foundational in, e.g., Hinduism, some sects of Judaism, all Christians sects including Mormonism, and all Islamic sects).

If participation in the “life-after-death” delusion were the only aberration of religion, then possibly it wouldn’t cause much harm. Most unfortunately, however, clerics throughout the world have caused (and continue to cause) enormous harm – not only by parasitically peddling the delusion that people can avoid death (an activity comparable to selling snake-oil medicine or other illegal drugs) but also by simultaneously maintaining that the delusional goal of eternal life is the basis of morality.

Granted, the clerics’ logic may appear to be sound: if morality (“the extent to which an action is right or wrong”) can be judged only with respect to some objective and if the prime objective is to attain eternal life, then morality should be evaluated with respect to the goal of attaining eternal life. But though the logic appears sound (sufficiently sound to convince the majority of humans alive today!), yet the conclusion is totally unreliable, since it’s based on the purely speculative premiss that life can continue past death – a premiss not only supported by zero evidence but also patently absurd (“life after death” being an oxymoron).

Throughout history, the tragic mistake of linking morality to such supernatural silliness has had enormous and enormously horrible consequences, from breaking families apart (as Jesus advocated) to the Christian Inquisition, and from religious wars to Islam’s current Dark Ages. As Arthur C. Clarke summarized:
The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.
To recover from this tragedy some obvious options are available. One option, described by Freud in his 1932 book Moses and Monotheism, is (essentially) to wait for humanity to “grow up” and discard its religious delusions. He wrote:
While the different religions wrangle with one another as to which of them is in possession of the truth, in our view the truth of religion may be altogether disregarded. Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end. Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Its consolations deserve no trust.

Experience teaches us that the world is not a nursery. The ethical commands, to which religion seeks to lend its weight, require some other foundations instead, for human society cannot do without them, and it is dangerous to link up obedience to them with religious belief. If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
One of Freud’s friends, Einstein, made a more progressive suggestion:
The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action… A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
Subsequently, and extremely fortunately for humanity, the internet has been developed, and with its worldwide use, potentials have vastly improved for enlightening all people, stimulating them to reject the supernatural silliness of all organized religions as the basis for morality and to adopt the solid foundation that has always been (and continues to be) readily available.

To see this “solid foundation for morality” more clearly, consider again the obvious fact that, as with any value, moral value (“the extent to which an action is right or wrong”) can be judged only with respect to some objective. In addition, consider again the obvious fact that the prime objective of all life is to continue living. Therefore, the obvious sound basis for morality for any life form is, was, and always will be the extent to which any act promotes its survival.

All life knows that the basis of its morality is for it to continue living – although it stretches the meaning of the word ‘know’ to say that vegetation “knows” what it’s doing; instead, its behavior is genetically “programmed”. Similarly, from programming in their DNA, all animals instinctively know that “the good” is to survive. For social animals, experience has given survival advantages to genes that programmed behavior that most humans describe as “moral”. Thus, as Michael Shermer wrote in his 2004 book The Science of Good and Evil (pp. 31–32):
The following characteristics appear to be shared by humans and other mammals, including and especially the apes, monkeys, dolphins, and whales: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peace making, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group…
For humans, however, with our greater mental awareness (especially of the future and of possible consequences of our actions), many of our moral choices require more thought than just relying on our genetic programming (i.e., relying solely on our instincts). Thereby, in particular circumstances, humans can find it difficult to identify and choose the most moral act. Consequently, many humans (apparently the majority of humans), finding it difficult to decide for themselves, seek “moral absolutes”, applicable for all circumstances, commonly hawked by their local clerics.

Yet, all the gibberish promoted by clerics notwithstanding, only one “moral absolute” appears to be available for all circumstances. It’s simply this: to ascertain “the extent to which an action is right or wrong”, we should always use our brains as best we can – which of course includes evaluating all relevant and reliable data, seeking advice from contemporaries and wisdom from the past, and attempting to foresee possible consequences of our actions.

That the desire to continue living is the basis of morality is, admittedly, a mundane result (using the word ‘mundane’ both in the sense of being ‘obvious’ and in the sense of being “earthly, rather than spiritual”). It also seems mundane to conclude that the only known moral absolute for humans is for us always to use our brains as best we can. Nonetheless, those mundane results are extremely important.

They lead, for example, to the obvious conclusion that wrestling the specification of morality from the clerics of the world, returning it to the people, explaining to them that the prime goal against which morality is to be judged is simply the goal of trying to solve human problems more intelligently (or words to that effect), and thereby making morality mundane, worldwide, would be highly moral. On my moral scale, I put it at a +9.