Morality, step by step

The idea that morality from God is morality at all is rather absurd. Should one devote a moment of thought to the matter, it quickly becomes obvious that behaving a certain way because some entity said to do so is entirely devoid of any concern for humanity. That concern may be there as a supplement, but it is not the cause for any action. (In reality it is, but the Moral Majority likes to pretend they’re doing it all for God, not out of some more substantial source of morality.)

Before going on, however, there is one idea that needs to be done away with here. It’s this notion that morality must be objective in order to be morality. This entirely false. There is nothing which inherently demands that morality be ultimately objective in order to exist (well, except for that pesky Moral Majority – but their demands are subjective opinions, so scoff).

Morality derived from religion is merely morality as dictated by men (and only men) of the past. That’s it. But let’s suppose it actually means something. Let’s suppose that an all-powerful god really has told humanity what is right and wrong. What stops God from suddenly changing the rules? If God decrees that rape and murder are totally awesome things, then so it is. The characteristic of being all-powerful demands it. But how many people would readily accept such things? Far from being meaningful, this pernicious idea of ‘objective’ morality has no viscosity; it is allowed to flow and move. More importantly, it allows for no input from any human.

A subjective morality – the only tenable morality – is in the hands of humanity. The closest thing it can have to an objective basis is that of reality. Our morality may move and change with the facts and evidence, but we can go beyond such temporal constrictions and base it on universal principles. Most of mankind once believed that it was okay to enslave certain people because they demonstrated some characteristic or (more often) trait which made them inherently lesser. With the advance of science (and to the chagrin of religion), it has been empirically determined that there is no such inherent lessening property. People of different races are not fundamentally different. In fact, the Human Genome Project taught us that people of the same race can be more genetically diverse than people of different races. (Of course, there was good evidence long before that to help us determine the sameness between and among races and groups.)

The universal principle by which we live in regards to slavery is that it is wrong to make humans do work against their will without just compensation. (A child being forced to eat his peas, for instance, would be given just compensation in the form of health.) We derive this principle partially out of empathy. What if it was me who was enslaved?. Importantly, this is far from simply being a selfish desire. Instead, it is that if we allow some humans to be enslaved, we allow ourselves to be enslaved, and this undermines the goal of doing anything productive, something for which we all strive on some level.

This, of course, raises the issue of why it is good to be productive. (The term does not refer to a particular level of productivity, but rather taking in more energy than is released overall, i.e., living.) Again, the question regresses to yet another question because the answer is that most humans want to live. Why is it good to live?

The answer here is that it isn’t good or bad to live. Living is something which simply is. Our desire to do it (which, incidentally, we could call objective in at least one sense) is powerful. We want life, whether good or bad. That is universal to us as a species. This is ultimately our source of morality, and in several senses. First, our desire to live is borne of the very fact that we are alive: we are here because we are descended from a long line of ancestors who shared the exact same desires. Second, it is agreed upon by humanists, atheists, secularists, Buddhists, theists, and philosophers that in order to call something moral, it must have some sort of basis. “It is wrong to enslave” has its basis in the principle described above. “It is good to live” has its basis in our inherited desires. Every other normative claim can have its basis ultimately boiled down to that phrase (which itself, again, has a basis).

The most glaring flaw in the above paragraph (had I not a response to it) would be that we have desires to do a lot of things, but that doesn’t make anything right or wrong. Agreed. However, those desires are not universal to us as a species. The ones which are universal all come down to living (such as eating). Furthermore, it is necessarily true that the only ultimate desire we can ever maintain is the desire to live. By virtue of being alive we inherit this desire.

What, though, of the minority who doesn’t wish to be alive? What of the Alan Turing’s, Budd Dwyer’s, and Kurt Cobain’s of the world? These cases can always be boiled down to environmental factors, not inherent desires. Turing faced chemical castration and a heap of undue scorn for who he was; Dwyer had been criminally indicted and faced serious jail time and ruination of his career; Cobain was heavily depressed and a drug addict.

But rather than all this, perhaps a more salient point on this matter would be that humans inherently have moral systems. With what we fill those systems may be subjective, but this still goes to an earlier point: morality need not be objective to exist. It is with our familial and personal desires, universal principles and philosophies, experiences and empathy that we create our morality. Ultimately, the vast majority of humans come to a consensus on at least one basis: it is good to live. We need not go further to continue to find middle ground. If we agree on an underlying principle, and if all which follows in our discussions is based upon that agreement, then it is meaningless to then say that we disagree on some other principle.

Finally I turn my attention to an oft-ignored idea. What is the point of morality? It certainly isn’t to demonstrate that one can act according to some objective idea. This goes to the first point that acting without concern toward humanity is not morality at all. Indeed, instead of morality being inherently defined as something objective (which is a notion taken for granted by so many), it is rather defined as something which is a human concern. Go beyond humanity and you’ve gone beyond morality. This, fundamentally, is what morality is all about. Our systems of morality are inherent in all of us and the reason is their utter usefulness. We need and want them in better utilizing our role as individual members of humanity.