Various threads on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish over the last month or two, and the much-quoted opinion of Judge Vaughn Walker in the California gay marriage case, are calling me to put on my philosophical hat, to set out some philosophical drinks and snacks and a metaphorical water-pipe to try to entertain and inform my guests, on the subject of morality. Morality is one of the most human of concepts: every society has one or more, nearly everyone across the globe in all eras has been pretty sure that they understand what it is, and nearly everyone believes they use, hold or embody a significant piece of it in their lives.
Just mentioning the word morality tends to send our minds up into the heights of abstract thought. Judge Walker gets us back down on the ground, and headed on the right path, by reminding us that thoughts of morality are not a sufficient basis for denying people their rights, in a modern constitutional democracy. “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”
I would just like to pound the point a little further and deeper: morality is not a great basis for any kind of civic discussion or rational argument in a diverse democracy, because in the final analysis morality is always subjective. As I first wrote 30 years ago, morality is a classic case of a “mental event,” an event that occurs only within the minds of human beings. You may believe that your morality comes from a Holy Book, or from a Divine Judgement or some other source beyond the human mind, yet as a historical-philosophical kind of guy, I will forever argue that morality – just like several other abstract concepts that are near-universal in human thought such as beauty or justice – cannot be found in the real universe in any place but inside human heads, and I defy you to show me any other physical location where morality exists.
It’s actually a touching tribute to our creativity, to our ingenuity in finding reasons to justify that which we already prefer, that so many people vaguely believe that there is some abstract ideal of morality that could be found if we would all just look for it nicely. This Platonic ideal of a universal morality is a strong enough stereotype to recur again and again in all types of utopian philosophies, but it just doesn’t exist, as far as I can tell, in any type of reality. Even in societies much less diverse than our own, in which all individuals seem to follow one particular religious-ethical-moral set of beliefs, individual A can never be fully sure that individual B understands every situation calling for a moral judgement precisely the same way that A understands it. Even though their main beliefs may come from the same set of social institutions, from the same proverbs and the same books or traditions, their individual development and experiences brings about subtle or large differences in understanding.
Morality is essentially your own belief about which persons and what behaviors should be honored and respected, by you and by others, in a “proper” social order.
These differences in moral understanding, among individuals in a homogenous society, may not amount to much in the ordinary course of peaceful life. However, it’s always in moments of crisis, in times of testing, that the differences in interpretation of the same tradition – and/or the willingness of B or C to sacrifice their goods or social positions, or other desired values, as morality may demand in moments of crisis – demonstrate the subjective basis of morality in human life, as individuals take actions that create individual and/or social conflicts. In short, even when everyone supposedly shares the same morality in societies much less diverse than our own, people find reasons to do things, and others find reasons to yell and scream and fight, because they say those things the first people did are immoral. This is one of the basic dynamics of both small-group and large-group historical action, in all lands and in all times.
On the other hand, the strength of social systems of morality is shown by the vast majority of individual cases, in which individuals do accept the dictates of the dominant moral system of their group, even though it “gores other parts of their ox,” to alter the old proverb, and individuals do feel great regret for their lapses in being able to follow the dominant morality. And haven’t we all known cases of people who are so prepared to accept a negative judgement on themselves, that it seems they are blaming themselves for self-imagined moral faults that no one else even noticed?
Despite the subjectivity of morality, and the slipperiness of individuals in choosing whether or not to be bound by social systems of morality when push really comes to shove, concepts of morality are deeply rooted in human thought, and will never disappear from human thought. If you understood my system for analyzing the four simultaneous, overlapping social sciences that each of us are creating in our every moment of choice in our every day of human action and interaction, you would find it easy to understand how thoughts of morality are oh-so-basic and constantly self-generated in the average human animal, since morality essentially arises from the intersection of the two most social of the four simultaneous, overlapping social sciences. These would be what I call “the science of explanations,” which you would probably call by one of its more common names such as philosophy/ science/ religion/ ideology, in which humans are constantly creating and distributing explanations of what our world is about and how it works, and what I would call the science of politics, which begins on the most basic level with humans creating and distributing systems of what other persons they accord honor, status and rank to (which gives a foundation to the extreme elaboration and institutionalization of governmental structures in modern society, which house the narrow range of behaviors that are commonly called “politics” in American democracy in the era of idiotic electronic media).
You follow all that? In short, you (and everyone else) are constantly creating and distributing explanations of how the world works, and you are constantly creating and distributing ideas of persons and behaviors that you respect and honor. Morality is basically a combination of the two, a set of explanations of how the world works which depends on honoring and respecting certain behaviors in certain situations (and disrespecting other behaviors in those situations). Morality is essentially your own belief about which persons and what behaviors should be honored and respected, by you and by others, in a “proper” social order. You can’t be much of a human being if you aren’t constantly giving and receiving these two types of ideas, the philosophical and the political, if you aren’t deeply affected by the explanations you choose to use and the social behaviors that you choose to respect or disrespect. To have and hold and use concepts of morality is a very, very deeply rooted structure in human personalities.
Yet despite how deeply they may be rooted in our personality structures, concepts of morality remain fundamentally subjective as well. I cannot get into your skull and understand your sense of morality in the same way you understand it; you cannot get into my skull and understand my sense of morality in the same way I understand it. In the typical society of a few hundred years ago, one could generally be sure that one’s neighbors and acquaintances in a city would be members of one’s same culture that shared the same basic moral postulates: the prevailing religion, an understanding of the local kinship systems and beliefs, and so on. In such circumstances, there’s a small point in arguing about morality: while you and your interlocutors are unlikely to convince each other of your rightness, at least you might clarify differences in your interpretation of your overall shared moral system, or even find areas of contradiction or ambiguity in the moral system your society has evolved.
In today’s diverse societies, however, while you may believe that your own morality is founded on the finest principles and supported by the most divine angels, you never know about your neighbor, your co-worker, the guy in the next car on the freeway or the passenger in the next seat on the transit system: she may believe herself to be a devotee of Cthulhu or Cheney, or any other variant of a bloodthirsty ideology which believes you should be cut down mercilessly if you get in their way. A modern American Christianist Palinite’s moral system has little or no relation to the diverse sources and experiences that create and define the many subgroups of the American cultural left, for either side to make arguments based on their vision of “morality” and expect the other side to accept it, is to admit and announce that the speaker has no understanding of what drives the cultural opposition to their program.
We’re going to have arguments: but let’s try to keep them on sounder grounds than the subjective terrain of morality. Do argue about philosophy, about the explanations that we use to make sense of the world (and remember, I use the word “philosophy” to include all of the content implied by the words “science” and “religion”). These arguments aren’t likely to be highly fruitful either, yet presumably there is an underlying reality that each side can claim to provide better explanations for, and over the centuries we might be able to say “the bulk of the evidence favors this particular side of the argument.” Do argue about politics, about which persons and personality types should be respected, about what behaviors should be honored and rewarded and what behaviors should be dishonored and punished in various ways. This argument may often degenerate into arguments based on competing moral systems, yet again, keeping the focus on the basic question of political science in human societies, which persons are we respecting and why, may in time help clarify the issues and choices and improve people’s decision-making skills, and improve the outcomes for human societies as a whole.
Morality may feel, inside our minds, as if it is supported by outside forces larger than human beings; the moral choices we make (even if we do not “make “ those choices consciously) may seem, inside our minds, to be at the very core of our persons, of our self-images of who we are and who we wish to be. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s the way our human minds have evolved. Yet society has also evolved, and in a multi-cultural melange such as our modern United States, morality is so subjective and so non-transferable among individuals, there is simply no ground to be gained by arguing that “morality demands we do this and that.” (Quibbling digression: among today’s right-wing Palinites, it’s part of their ideology to claim that their moral system is the only possible moral system that can ever be, so that when they say “morality demands we do this and that,” it’s a defensive, self-isolating maneuver that reinforces cultural attitudes within their own camp. The maneuver does defend that particular ground within their camp, but gains no ground outside their already-existing territory.)
Even in the less diverse societies of the past, morality was always a subjective value, a mental event that existed only within the minds of human beings (even if they claimed that their morality had divine or eternal foundations of some sort). In today’s society, morality has become so completely subjective, it is really quite useless to argue about it, or from it, in any way. The basic science of explanations, philosophy/science/religion, has itself been shattered into a million apparently subjective shards which give no compelling guidance to a diverse, even self-contradictory, social system we barely understand (and in which our major media channels seem to be actively trying to prevent understanding). Until we can come to a better consensus on basic explanations of reality – something we can hopefully do before we totally destroy the planet that supports our human lives – we won’t have any hope of convincing anyone of anything based on concepts of what we call morality.