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February 12, 2012 / theslowblitz

The Illusion of Morality

The Illusion of Morality

In this day and age, it is unfashionable to hold to a universal morality. We refer to the is-ought gap, and the moral differences between cultures. It is normal, even good, in a diverse society for individuals to hold differing moral beliefs. Indeed, the modern democratic state is built upon diversity of opinion. Under this paradigm, anyone who claims to possess the ultimate vision of morality is a dogmatic and out of touch.

Despite this, we cannot escape from the dictates of the one true morality. We vote for a candidate because he is righteous. Our laws refer to universal moral rights and wrongs. When we read of the latest murder in the paper, we decry the erosion of society, instead of stating blandly ‘that appears to be morally wrong by my standards.’

We explain this difference in terms of general moralities, such as ‘killing is wrong.’ Killing seems to be one circumstance where morality is very clear about where it stands. I do not agree. There are several scenarios where killing might be justified, such as hanging a serial murderer, or killing in war. The boundaries of this statement are also questionable. Does it apply to animals or human foetuses? If so, to what extent?

Even if you were to very clearly define the boundaries of killing, it will almost certainly be questioned by someone else with a different set of moral beliefs. The matter no longer seems clear cut. The tyranny of the is-ought gap returns – there is no universal reference point upon which to base morality.

Why do our flawed moral conceptions remain so powerful? The answer lies in our mental design. What gives morality its force is our powerful moral intuitions. We feel revulsed by serial killers and grateful for war heroes. We look down on cheaters and praise hard workers. We are by instinct moral creatures, or so it would seem.

However, our moral intuitions frequently contradict. I may feel morally obliged to defend homosexuals, in the name of human equality. Even so, I may find myself feeling disgusted at incest  or bestiality. My consideration of human equality, where no harm is inflicted upon others, flies out of the window.

Reason is capable of reconciling our different intuitions; if I have just complained to my friend about being discriminated against, it becomes difficult to remark on a fat woman who walked past us wearing fishnet stockings. Instead, I would recognize such behaviour as hypocrisy, and mediate my action to ensure consistency with spoken word.

However, had I been complained a month before, I am much more likely not to have realised the hypocrisy. Were the person I complained to different, I would probably never notice the hypocrisy at all. Reason is lazy and corrupt; our need for consistency fails when we are unlikely to be caught.

Thus even with the mediation of reason, our intuitions conflict. We believe ‘killing is wrong’ the same way we believe ‘all Africans have dark skin’ and ‘all Asians are intelligent’. At least in the latter two, our priming against racism allows us to realize and correct for the error. Morality meanwhile, remains by definition virtuous and therefore questionable.

It is not necessarily bad that we believe in a singular morality. Consider the cab driver in London. He is unlikely to meet his passengers again, hence has no means of retaliation against fare cheats. He trusts his passengers will pay his fare despite this. It is not due to his sainthood; our personal experiences show we pay our fares most if not all of the time.

Were we to act for purely selfish reasons, we would not have any dealings requiring upfront costs, which includes every business transaction outside of bartering. This raises the question: if morality were so great, why does cheating exist? Also, why do we have differing moral intuitions, if differing intuitions might cause us to act differently, weakening the trust in society?

In an honest society, it is the liar who gains the most, hence our intuitions occasionally offer amoral solutions. However, if this instinct is carried out to too great an extent, trust in society is undermined, which ultimately harms ourselves. Reason is incapable of achieving such equilibrium. Here, the prisoner’s dilemma rears its ugly head again. Our intuitions, which have survived millennia of natural selection, can.   

Adaptability and diversity are similarly beneficial to our survival as a species. Adaption allows us to thrive in various environments, and survive even great disasters. Diversity of interests promotes specialization. It increases creativity by creating different points of view. When disaster strikes, diversification prevents the entire population from being wiped out.

Adaptability and diversity must come at the expense of consistency and unity. The society who views abandoning a member as an absolute moral wrong will collapse when crisis comes knocking. By maintaining the illusion of singular morality, we may have the cake and eat it too. Evolution has determined it better to ignore hypocrisy than lose this equilibrium, or worse, lock ourselves into unending philosophical conflict.

Morality in Society

Morality does not arise in vacuum. It is given breath by society though its conditioning. Though we are born with moral framework, fixed morality is antithical to our adaptive nature. The pieces have been put into place; a child born to Haitian parents but raised in America will come to believe in his inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This ability is not unique to children; when we enter a new work environment and find our collegues there amenable towards racism, we learn to laugh along to racist jokes and even use some ourselves. Were it a group of skinheads who were making the comments, we would more likely have shook our heads in shame.

Hence the great need to persuade others of our moral convictions. With each debate we enforce the power of our moral intuitions. Even better, we enforce morality of our own volition. It does not matter that our intuitions are inherently contradictory. We are capable of suppressing our own moral intuitions for the sake of argument.

If there were no true morality how would we govern society? What would laws without a basis in morality look like? They would look exactly like the laws we have today. A hodgepodge of rules catering to different intuitions, people and times, for even without metaphysical morality, moral intuitions persist. Those who are better able to persuade others will leave their mark in society and in law.

Moral nihilism is a fundamentally empty philosophy. In the place of metaphysical morality is not a dictate of right and wrong, but an understanding that any perception of morality is mere that, a perception. It is an attempt to reason together a coherent view of the world, ignoring certain intuitions, and sometimes not even an attempt at all, but unquestioned belief.












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