Friday, September 25, 2009

The Source of Morality: Part I

Over the next several weeks I’d like to introduce you to a discussion about the source of morality that I was part of a couple of years ago. This is a brilliant debate that TJ started on his blog with a dear friend of his, Bill. This discussion is a series of essays, the first written by Bill and serves brilliantly as the introduction to the topic, the second written by TJ, and the last is essentially a follow-up chime-in by yours truly in which I effectively barge in on their discourse. I wanted to bump it up to the front of the blogosphere again for a couple of reasons: first, because it is not every day that you get to read a brilliant discussion about the possible origins of human morality posed by a Christian, an atheist, and an agnostic in which all parties are frank and honest about their beliefs; and, second, I thought that it would be interesting to see if it might generate a similar type of discussion here about some other topic. So, if anyone would like to engage in this type of conversation on any topic please let me know.

I have tried my best to do very little editing to the original posts. However, I did have to do some clipping in order for the discussion to flow a little better here since blogs are essentially living forums, and it wouldn’t work to simply do a drag and drop. I encourage the reader to visit the original posts on TJ’s blog. I further challenge the readers of The Missing Piece to think about what each of the authors have written and join in the discussion. So, without further adieu, here are the essays. In the interest of giving the readers time to digest the material I will split the exchange up into four parts: Bill’s essay, TJ’s Essay, their follow-up arguments, and my essay. So here we go. Are you ready for a month-long banter about the source of morality? I hope so. Enjoy, and thank you TJ and Bill for letting me be a part of your brilliant conversation.

Bill’s Essay:

I guess the place to start in regards to the subject of “The Source of Morality” would be the very definition of the word itself. The word “morality” is defined by Wikipedia as “The concept of human behavior which pertains to matters of right and wrong.” The definition seems to be straight forward but what it is and where it comes from has been the subject of much debate. The word “concept” is just that, a concept, and it basically means that there is no empirical or scientific proof of its origin; meaning that you can’t put a drop of this and a drop of that in a test tube, mix it all together and come up with morality. But I do believe there is some evidence that exists that may help shed some light on what morality is at its core and where it comes from. This evidence presents itself on a daily basis and I think that if we look a little deeper into our own actions and expectations of others we will discover some interesting facts about morality and its source.

Often times we hear people arguing with each other and saying things such as “How would you like it if I did that to you?” or “Hey! I was next in line. Wait your turn.” Everyone has said these sorts of things, adults as well as children. The interesting thing about these types of statements is the reason for saying them in the first place. Is the person who says such things saying them because he happens not to prefer the other person’s behavior? Or is he appealing to some standard of decent behavior that he expects the other person to know about. Most of the time when someone says these things to us we are quick to make an excuse as to why we did the thing we are accused of or why we butted in line. It would seem that both parties to the argument are thinking about some kind of law or rule of fair play that has been broken. Call it Rule of Fair Play, Morality, The Law of Right and Wrong or whatever you wish. It would seem in these cases there is a definite agreement between the people involved as to what fair play (or right and wrong) really is. In fact, quarreling means trying to show the other person is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in doing that unless both parties had already agreed on it; just as it would make no sense calling a foul on a football player unless there was an agreement on the rules of football.

Now, this Law of Right and Wrong is also referred to as The Law of Human Nature because it is assumed that everyone knows it by nature and does not need to be taught it. Of course you may find some odd people who don’t seem to know it but if you take the human race as a whole it appears that decent behavior is known, in some degree, by all people. If this wasn’t true then there would be no sense in condemning the actions of someone like Adolph Hitler or even the Rwandan Hutus when they slaughtered 800,000 Tutsi civilians. In other words, what right do we have to say that the Nazis or the Hutus were in the wrong unless Right and Wrong are real things that the Nazis and Hutus ought to know as well as most of the human race? If there was no standard of Right and Wrong, then how can we blame them for their actions?

I am aware some people say that The Law of Right and Wrong is unsound because different civilizations have different moralities. I don’t believe this is true. There have been differences in their moralities but nothing that would amount to a total difference. If you look at the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, Hindus or any of the others you will see just how alike their moralities really are to each other and our own. Take Selfishness for example. Civilizations throughout history have differed on who you should be unselfish to – whether it was only your own family, or your countrymen or so on. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired in any group of people. Men have differed as to whether you can have one wife or five. But they have always agreed that you shouldn’t simply have any woman you liked. See, there are levels of selfishness and greed that are unacceptable in all civilizations. No matter where you go, things like selfishness and greed are not something to be proud of.

Once I realized that there is a Law of Right and Wrong I noticed one problem; the problem is that sometime this year, or this month or, more likely, this very day, I and every person I know will fail to practice the very behavior that we expect to receive from others. If there is someone out there who thinks they always conform to this code of conduct then please forgive me. They really should stop reading this. And now, I turn my attention to the ordinary people who are left.

The points I wanted to make so far are: First; that people all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way and can’t really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not actually behave that way in many situations. They know the moral law and they break it. It’s as simple as that.

There are a few different ideas about the source of Moral Law. Some of these ideas seem to have merit at first glance but they start to fall apart when examined in depth:

The first of these is the idea that Moral Law is really what we call “The Heard Instinct” and that it gets developed just like all the rest of our instincts. It’s my belief that Moral Law is something altogether different than instinct. Now, we all know what it feels like to be driven by instinct whether it be motherly love, sexual instinct, instinct for food or the instinct to help someone in trouble. Instinct means that we feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. Suppose you hear a cry for help coming from someone in danger. You will probably feel two desires – the desire to help or the desire to stay back, away from the danger. These two desires come from instincts. The desire to help is the Heard Instinct and the desire to stay away is the instinct of Self Preservation. The interesting thing we find here is that in addition to the two instincts, there is a third thing in us that tells us to follow the instinct to help and suppress the instinct to stay away. Now, this third thing that judges between the two instincts cannot itself be either of them. The thing that encourages the instinct to help must in fact be something different than either of the two instincts. It’s like playing the piano; the sheet music that tells you which notes to play cannot itself be the notes on the piano. The Moral Law is the sheet music and our instincts are the notes. Moral Law tells us the tune we ought to play and our instincts are the keys.

The second idea is that Moral Law is a mere creation of society. Some people believe that all of the laws and codes of conduct are a mere product of thousands of years of social evolution and it is passed down by education for the benefit of all. They believe that it’s just a human invention. I agree that social justice and ideas of right and wrong are passed down from parents to children. No doubt we have all been taught some form of decent behavior by our parents or teachers. But this is not broad enough to answer the question “Where does Moral Law originate?” The real question is “Where did society get its idea that we ought to behave decently to one another?” Why would most human beings throughout history feel inclined to behave in a certain way even though there might not be any consequences for misbehaving? Something inside us says “Do the right thing”.

The other view, in my opinion, that seems to explain the origin of morality is the religious view. According to it, there is something behind the universe that seems to be more like a mind than anything else we know. And this ‘Something’ is conscious, has purpose, and prefers one thing to another. Now this view has existed as long as any other view. At any place in history, when powerful thinking people come together, this view has been a prominent player in the topic of morality. If there is ‘Something’ behind moral law then it would show itself to Man in certain ways or remain altogether unknown. The statements ‘There is something behind it’ and ‘There is nothing behind it’ are both statements that science cannot make. Science uses experimentation and observation to come to a conclusion about the outcome. Science takes a drop of this and puts it on a drop of that and records what happens. Basically, science is an outside observer. It only looks at the elements being tested. Please don’t get me wrong. Science is both necessary and useful in many ways and I would hate to be without it. I, personally, am a science nut. But in the case of morality, science can offer us nothing in terms of its origin. Now, the religious view would be difficult to defend if it were not for one thing. There is one thing that we know more about than any other thing in the universe. And that one thing is Man. We don’t merely observe Man, we are Man. We have what you could call ‘inside information’. And because of that we know that Man finds himself under Moral Law and cannot, as much as he may try, get it out of his head. Also, he knows that he ought to obey it. Science can’t touch that. If someone from another world did a science experiment on the human race they would never know that we had Moral Law. How could he? His observation would be based on what we did and Moral Law is about what we ought to do.

So, it comes down to this; we can say that the universe simply happens to exist, and is what it is for no reason, or we can say there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. This Power behind the universe and Moral Law, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts. It would be the reality that makes them. There is only one case we have that can give us the information we need to know about this Power. And that case is US. If we are a product of that Power, you may very well expect it to communicate to us in some fashion. Since this Power would not be one of the observable facts inside the universe, then it would stand to reason that it would show itself inside of us. It would show itself as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is exactly what we do find. In the only place we can expect to find an answer, that answer turns out to be YES. It seems to me that there is ‘Something’ that is directing the universe. It’s telling me to do the right thing no matter how painful or inconvenient it may be. I call this ‘Something’ by another name. I call it God. Or more specifically, Jesus Christ. But that’s another subject altogether, isn’t it? We’ll save that one for another time.

Brilliantly done, Bill. Next week we hear from TJ.


Dan from Berthoud said...

Dan, I followed a link here from one of your posts on

I really appreciate the discussion you're trying to foster here, and it's one I've personally been exploring myself.

But do you realize that "Bill's" treatise is plagiarized (paraphrased?) almost word for word from C.S. Lewis' outstanding book "Mere Christianity"?

It's a great book, I recommend it. But please give C.S. Lewis credit for doing the "heavy lifting" in the thinking department. (I also posted this to the blog you cited as the original source).

Dan said...

Welcome to the blog, Dan.

Although Bill is amply capable of defending himself, I think I will field your concern. As I said in the introduction to my blog over a year ago I believe that (most likely) throughout the history of the human species all of the thoughts that any of us have ever had have been already articulated by others and repudiated by others many times over. It's generally foolish to believe that anything that any of us say is original. Well, unless you're trying very hard to say something that nobody has ever thought of, Like :"I'm going to swallow these Christmas lights, jam this lamp up my arse, and back over myself with my dune buggy!" Probably nobody has ever said that before, but you get what I mean.

As such, rigorous citations generally mean very little to me. Of course I am aware that CS Lewis was leaned heavily upon here, but who did he lean on? King James? Shakespeare? Herodotus? The over-use of citations in modern times leads directly into the logical fallacy of appealing to authority even though the ideas of the "authorities" have already been voiced at one time or another over the last 100,000 years. Besides, this is designed to be the type of discussion that you would have over a beer at the pub or over a glass of scotch and a cigar on your deck. There is no room for words like "plagiarized" here any more than you would use it in those settings.

Please feel free to join into the discussion. I am always interested to hear arguments from as many different angles as possible.

Dan from Berthoud said...

*shrug* It's your soapbox, so you can post whatever the heck you like (and it's a free country, blah blah blah) - and I appreciate you posting my comment. I just wanted to point out that, far from just echoing the same basic ideas as Lewis which he could certainly have arrived at independently, Bill's arguments (in "Part 1") were literally copied from another source, without credit. As both an author and ardent supporter of efforts like the "Creative Commons" artistic licensing movement, I take some offense at that.

If I were chatting with a friend over a beer in a pub about this topic -- which indeed I have done on more than one occasion -- I would probably begin by saying, "As CS Lewis pointed out, blah blah blah...". Unless I was really drunk and couldn't remember, in which case I'd at least slur my way through saying, "It seems like I remember reading this somewhere, blah blah blah"...

Anyway, as they say, "Cheers".