Morality is a strange thing to have popped up in the amoral cosmic wilderness. The universe generally consists of facts that unfold as probability dictates. True, to understand these facts, scientists generalize and propose idealized models, and those models raise the old question of whether theoretical ideals such as perfect geometric shapes subsist in some heavenly realm to ground the mere approximations we find in nature.
However, moral ideals are stranger even than those useful simplifications of natural forms. We imagine there’s such a thing as a perfectly straight line, because that concept makes the math easier. Such simplifications can be taken too seriously, as in the case of economic models that oversimplify human behaviour to aid in the perpetration of large-scale frauds.
To say, though, that there’s a way things ought to be, regardless of how they actually are is to go a step further. The world as we know it wouldn’t end for mathematicians, as it were, if we discovered there’s no such thing as a perfectly straight line or round circle, if we had to concede that those conceptual idealizations are just useful fictions. Granted, Plato mixed up the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, but psychologically, at least, these three ideas aren’t united. To wit, if we could prove there’s no such thing really as the moral good, if moral and ethical ideals likewise turned out to be only useful fictions, society might no longer function.
Observations such as these have motivated theistic arguments from morality. Taking moral truth for granted, and assuming the strangeness or apparent unnaturalness of morality, theists such as the cagey philosopher Immanuel Kant and the more forthright writer C.S. Lewis have argued that the very existence of morality requires that God exist.
Happiness, Vanity, and Disappointment
Kant’s argument is more easily dealt with, I think. Kant said that we strive to be happy, which requires an afterlife, which in turn requires God, a benevolent, just, and wise deity. We could put this point in Aristotelian terms and say our behaviour exhibits a telos or an apparent purpose, which means we presuppose happiness as our goal, and that goal would collapse if theistic religion were a sham. Religion, then, makes possible human happiness, including the ethical actions we perform to make ourselves and others happy.
This argument is infamous in philosophical circles. To begin with, morality and the attempt to be happy would in fact be naturally possible even if religion were a sham, provided that most people were gullible while some would excel at telling persuasive lies. We often lie to ourselves or ignore unpleasant facts, surviving on fantasies, half-truths, oversimplified memes, and even outright delusions. Even if there were no God, we might invent the idea of God precisely to propel religious fantasies that make possible an orderly, pleasant way of life, one that precludes disappointment. The mere plausibility of this bleak scenario means that Kant’s argument shouldn’t be mistaken for a proof of God’s existence.
On top of that, the argument confuses utility with truth. Generally, we don’t say that something’s true just because we want it to be so. This is why Stephen Colbert could mock George W. Bush’s presumption of “truthiness,” the dismissal of evidence in favour of gut instinct, which might be thought to demonstrate a kind of manliness. (On the contrary, it would seem manlier and indeed more mature to be capable of facing up to harsh truths that run counter to our naïve hunches.) It’s also why there’s such consternation with how Trumpism takes this indulgence to new depths of lunacy.
To say that our goal or apparent purpose is to be happy is to say only that we want to be happy. The fact that we want to be happy doesn’t mean the universe is set up to ensure that we get what we want. Again, trying to be happy may be both personally and socially advantageous, but there’s no necessary or even probable connection between what we prefer and how the facts are. For example, scientific truths are often counterintuitive, since our intuitions evolved to help us cope with local conditions that have little to do with the wider situation. We’d prefer for the world to be intuitive, but that preference doesn’t negate the weirdness of Quantum Mechanics or General Relativity.
Finally, Kant’s argument ends up being circular. As idealistic as it is, Kant’s philosophy isn’t entirely subjective and human-centered, since he argues that perceptual stimuli derive from mind-independent sources. Still, all things as they appear to us are humanized, according to Kant, in that they’re processed by our mental faculties, which is to say our mind has the power to transform anything in the universe into something we can understand.
Granted, that human-centeredness is more psychological than metaphysical, for Kant. But if the moral argument for God were to presume a metaphysical kind of anthropocentrism, the argument would be circular. By contrast, mere psychological human-centeredness wouldn’t virtually presuppose that God exists.
For example, suppose there’s a mentally unbalanced solipsist who selfishly believes the world revolves around her, explaining away all conflicting pieces of evidence. This kind of anthropocentrism wouldn’t entail theism, because she wouldn’t even have the concept of an independent universe which only a deity could create; indeed, she might mistake herself for the deity, due to her mental illness.
However, metaphysical anthropocentrism would be the belief that the emergence of intelligent life isn’t accidental but is built into the foundations of reality. If we were to entertain such a happy miracle, there would be no need to go to any additional trouble of attempting to prove that theism is true. If the world were to revolve around us to that extent, human-like qualities would be fundamental, which means mind would be more fundamental than matter.
The relevance of this is that you need to assume human preferences matter somehow to the rest of the world, to support Kant’s claim that because we want to be happy, the world had better be structured to allow us to achieve that goal. The only way for our preferences to matter to that extent would be if the world fundamentally shared those preferences and had the capacity to fulfill them. The appeal to morality is secondary, then, to the vanity of Kant’s argument since the human-centeredness of his logic already amounts to theism.
Conscience, Morality, and Freewill
In any case, C.S. Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity is different than Kant’s. Lewis argues that the common experience of feeling subject to your conscience and obligated to do what’s right even when that feeling goes against your selfish impulses, the law, or any natural or human-made norm shows that morality is universal, objective, and based on a supernatural law-giver.
Conscience and morality present us with the right way to live and that way must be supernatural because we frequently fail to live up to our moral principles. We might say, for example, that Jesus’s criticism not just of selfish conduct but of selfish thoughts is utopian and unrealistic, yet we’re burdened with the knowledge that high-minded altruism is better than protecting ourselves out of fear or petty addiction to selfish pleasure.
The crucial move in Lewis’s argument is his claim that conscience affords us an insider’s view of what might lie beyond nature. If we weren’t self-aware, we’d have only an animal’s outsider’s perspective and would pick up just on natural laws and physical probabilities, missing the moral dimension. As the philosopher David Hume pointed out, there’s no external perception of the rightness or wrongness of events, which is why it’s fallacious to argue exclusively from a description of empirical facts to a prescription of how those facts should be.
A more complete description, however, would include the less idealistic inner voice we typically also hear. We’re internally prompted by at least two voices, an idealistic and a realistic one. This accounts for the idioms of saying that we “wrestle” with our conscience and that an angel and a devil sit on our shoulders and give us conflicting advice. It’s not as though conscience competes only with mindless impulses, as Lewis would have it; instead, we’re pulled in different directions, because we often face conflicts between our motives. We may think optimistically that we ought to help others, but we may also suspect that most people are cheating the system and taking care of ourselves, so we’d be fools to sacrifice ourselves out of obligation to principle.
The reason we experience these inner voices as being relatively weak, as mere prompts or guides rather than compelling forces is that as people we have some degree of freewill. This isn’t to say we have absolute freedom to break natural law by exerting the will of an immortal, immaterial spirit. But the conflicts between the areas of our brain and between evolution and social expectations are largely what prevent us from acting like animals with more easily predictable, streamlined and automated behaviour.
We’re so internally divided that our mind is effectively detached from any one neural or social program, so we have to choose between our competing desires and streams of information. We experience each contrary thought and feeling as being less than compelling, because those various conflicts are what liberate us in the first place. If anything, those abilities to rove between mental faculties and to reflect on the different aspects of a situation force us to choose between them and to feel responsible for our choices. We rarely feel so constrained that we can take no credit or blame for how we think, feel, or act.
Coping with Freedom and Encountering the Other
Are these inner experiences best explained by positing a supernatural basis of morality? I think not. What seems likely is that we turn to value systems to enable us to cope with our freedom. We seek advice from friends and family members on what we should do, and we put our trust in certain institutions and disciplines such as government, religion, and our line of work.
If we identified with nothing apart from our thoughts, we’d be condemning ourselves to stew in angst like Dostoevsky’s “underground man” or like Woody Allen’s perennial neurotic character. Paranoia and misanthropy can prevent us from taking a leap of faith, so that we’re caught up in rationalizations of our inactivity. We can’t make a decision because we feel too free; not beholden to anyone or anything, we identify only with the embattled sides of ourselves, with the various fleeting inner voices and trains of thought.
Most people are invested in others’ affairs and learn to care about something besides themselves. As the Jewish philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber stress, we’re defined largely by our encounter with the Other, which is the source of social negotiations. As children, we learn ours are not the only concerns that can be given weight, and we react initially by throwing tantrums because we realize we’re not crucial to the operations of a wider world. We have siblings, parents, or fellow students, and we’re generally taught to be civil and to care about them and not just us, if only because that’s a strategy for getting what we want out of society.
C.S. Lewis concedes that we’re taught morality, but he compares morality to arithmetic, saying that just because something is taught doesn’t make the lesson a mere social convention. Of course factual information can be socially conveyed, as Lewis says, but his analogy is specious. If we’re not taught the nature of empirical facts, the facts remain despite our ignorance. By contrast, if we’re not taught from a young age to be social, we grow up to behave more like animals than like civilized persons. Likewise, if collective ideas had never formed, including family narratives, arts, myths, and political ideologies, tribes and civilizations would never have developed and we wouldn’t have freed ourselves from some of our biological drives.
The teaching of social expectations is special, then, because that teaching sustains the social order, whereas empirical facts and mathematical generalizations derive from preexisting regularities.
The Evolution of Morality
As to how society came to be in the first place, we can put our trust in one particular narrative as in the case of Lewis who employs his account of morality purely as a step in defending Christianity. Thus, we can say God designed us to be free, but instead of following our Creator’s commandments we sinned out of pride, as in the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve. We form social groups, then, for either godly or sinful reasons: some societies and institutions are aligned with God’s will and others are perversely independent.
Alternatively, we can look at history to address the anthropological and sociological evidence in a less self-serving fashion. What we find, then, roughly speaking, is a very long period of gradual social evolution, called the Paleolithic, beginning with the first use of stone tools over three million years ago and ending with the end of the last ice age around twelve thousand years ago. Although there’s some evidence of culture in the Middle Paleolithic, social evolution ramped up fifty thousand years ago in the Upper Paleolithic, which is when the first prehistoric cave paintings were done, for example.
The Paleolithic ends with the Neolithic and the rise of agriculture and the transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to larger, sedentary societies. There we see further social evolution, including the Axial Age developments of enhanced self-reflective thinking, which led eventually to the Scientific Revolution and to industrialization.
These historic facts indicate that social organization wasn’t handed down by divine fiat, but evolved by long periods of trial and error, aided by revolutionary insights, some of which were likely inspired by experiments in altered states of consciousness. For example, slavery, polygamy, and patriarchy were common for thousands of years not because the ancients knew better and sinned by resisting their inner conscience. On the contrary, they didn’t know better, because the revolutionary forms of culture hadn’t yet been conceived of or preserved to be inculcated in those populations.
Indeed, the inventions of art in the Upper Paleolithic and of writing in the Axial Age are pivotal, because they enabled the symbols of collective wisdom to outlast particular generations. Prior to those inventions, even if early humans had had spiritual inclinations, they’d have been outnumbered by those who were still driven mainly by selfish evolutionary interests. They might have taught their offspring how to be friendly, but in such a dangerous environment, lacking a government or police force, their morality or spirituality would have been violently driven out.
The prosocial way of life evidently had to accumulate, meaning that this cultural niche had to wait for favourable conditions to emerge, before technology and human brain-power could cooperate in forming a civilized social order. The brain had to evolve to enable us to think differently and to free us from animal routines, and we had to feel safe enough to express our artistic or spiritual impulses; in effect, we had to wait for the development of technologies that could further liberate us from being preoccupied with the task of ensuring the mere survival of our immediate family members.
The Strangeness of Morality
C.S. Lewis says the general content of social values is universal, which he attributes to a common supernatural origin. There’s no need for that extravagant hypothesis, though, since there are more mundane sources of any such commonality, such as our genetic and historical inheritances.
But Lewis’s argument is concerned more with the form than with the content of morality. What’s miraculous for him is that we could feel obligated to act in an unnatural way. We should agree that much of what we do is anomalous in nature. Life in general is anomalous, which strangeness is explained by the enormous size and age of the universe that made possible the many trials and errors that likely produced the earliest, simple organisms by accident.
Human behaviour is bizarre even within the context of the animal kingdom’s strangeness. The unnaturalness of altruism and culture is due to our unprecedented degree of autonomy. We had to search for ways to cope with that freedom and with our growing power over nature, afforded by the knowledge that helped to liberate us. We sought to justify our freakish status among the other animals, so we told stories that lend us dignity and glorify our skills.
In general, we often feel obliged to do what we think is right, even at great cost to us, because we wish to associate with certain ideals. We want to think our freewill isn’t just an absurd accident that dooms us to feeling alienated in an indifferent universe. So we developed the concept that there are better and worse ways to behave — not just in the instrumental sense that applies to animals and to the achievement of their goals, but in the moral sense that applies to people.
Animals aren’t subject to moral imperatives because they can’t help themselves. By contrast, we feel subject to guidance as to what we ought to do precisely because we can do otherwise. Again, we defend the relative weakness of these moral prompts and inner whispers by saying they’re for the better. Animal goods consist in their getting what they’re driven to want, such as food or safety. As creatures with some freewill, moral goods can only seem like anomalous or even supernatural ideals because their intangibility reflects our estrangement from nature.
Disenchantment with Christian Morals
More specifically, if we’re talking about morality in the Christian context, we feel obligated to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of helping others, because we’re taught to admire the story of Jesus’s sacrificial death. However, Nietzsche pointed out that Christian morality represented a revolt of the have-nots, including slaves, women, and the ill and infirm. When we today, in internet-using, postindustrial societies see how Christian morality has been twisted to rationalize slavery, rapacious capitalism, the subjugation of women, imperialism, and anti-intellectualism, we’re provoked to pit that voice of Christian conscience against a more cynical, late-modern one.
To paraphrase the so-called “postmodern” views of writers such as Richard Rorty and Jacques Lyotard, we can feel solidarity only with irony. History teaches us to distrust authority figures. For example, modern philosophy invites us to suspect that monotheism arose as a way of belittling human tyrants, by beating them at their own game, which means religious altruism might be akin to the propaganda dictators use to pacify their victimized subjects. Being relatively all-powerful, the dictators themselves are corrupted by their position so they consider themselves to be above the law. Selflessness is for the herd of disadvantaged, domesticated “people” whom the tyrant condescends to rule. The kings and emperors who rule are free to do whatever they want, including killing folks at will.
Jews thought of their God roughly in those terms, and for all their theological speculations and rationalizations, Christians have no knock-down argument as to why the sole creator of the universe would be more like Jesus than like Caligula, Hitler, or Stalin. True, Christians identify the Creator with Jesus and spread that “gospel” far and wide. But because of the arbitrariness of that identification or “incarnation,” the Christian message was promptly co-opted by tyrants both inside and outside the church.
When the Second Coming never happened, Christians rushed to reinterpret Jesus’s otherworldly teachings as licensing such a thing as Christian empire. Thus we had the persecution of heretics, the crusades, the inquisitions, the witch hunts, the wars between Catholics and Protestants, European colonialism, the New Testament’s anti-Judaism that provided cover for the pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, and the barbarity of American Christian fundamentalism.
Thus, the selflessness of informed people today isn’t likely out of deference to what’s supposedly been revealed to be divine commandments. We late-modernists have been plunged into deeper freedom than that which afflicted medieval Christians. We can no longer easily surrender to the Church or to any civic religion or pop entertainment, because we’re incredulous towards all metanarratives, as Lyotard put it. We’re stuck in the alienation that characterizes an authentic person’s struggle with his or her freedom. Perhaps, then, we ought to put our heads together to devise a new way out.