For the last week or so, I’ve been engaged in a philosophical debate with my friend Marshall Edwards about many things, including the nature of morality. We’ve both determined that the 140 character limits imposed by twitter make a good conversation practically impossible, and have decided to take to our blogs to continue the discussion. To begin, Marshall has taken the position that society and circumstance dictate morality, and has written a bit explaining that. This article is my rebuttal to his own, a statement of my personal belief that there exists a Universal Human Morality, and that this code is what dictates the foundations of society. Please read his article, and while you’re on his site, cruise around through his archives a bit. I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to introduce you to someone that is not only an incredibly talented Kansas City writer, but also a good friend, worthy opponent, kick-ass Dynasty Warriors Kung Fu Master, and genuine nice guy. Unlike myself, Marshall actually has a degree in Philosophy and Religion, which I mention here because he won’t toot his own horn.
That said, I’ll do my best to show you that he’s not only wrong, but he’s Capital-W Wong, Coconut-on-Chocolate-Cake Wrong. Enjoy.
How do you define right and wrong? That one question has been the basis for practically all philosophy and theology. It’s a question that most people believe has no solid answers, and yet, it’s a question we can’t stop asking because we know, deep inside ourselves, that there most definitely is an answer. It isn’t even all that complicated. The reason we spend so much time complicating morality is because we are trying to assuage the guilt we feel for doing thing that we know are inherently wrong by justifying them with a redefined moral code.
We would feel guilty, and thus need to justify our actions, if we didn’t know on a primal level that what we were doing was wrong.
The fact that we’ve argued against the concept of a universal morality for almost all of recorded history is proof that it exists. It proves that it’s even more powerful than some things that are tangible and visceral. Humans are good at making things they don’t want to have around disappear. Ask Small Pox if you don’t believe me. Still, there are certain concepts and ideas that won’t go away, no matter how wisely or logically we try to argue them away. There are things that are just ingrained into the human genetic code and hardwired into the structure of our brain.
What We Think We Know
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to make a handful of assumptions, and I hope you’ll allow me the indulgence.
The first is that we’re going to assume, when talking about universal human morality that we are not including people with obviously damaged psyches. We don’t include these people because we define them by the fact that they are not capable of knowing right and wrong. We separate ourselves from them based on the fact that they do not have access to the universal moral code we take for granted.
Secondly, I’m going to assume that you, as the reader, are not one of these people. No offense to those that are, but there are certain metaphors that I intend to use that from my personal experience won’t mean anything to you. There is just a lack of reference point for you to work from.
I’m also going to assume that you are an adult human.
Finally, I’m going to assume that the reason you are reading this is because you either have a passion for philosophical debate or an uncontrollable and seething hatred towards myself. This isn’t so much a statement on you as a person, as it is on myself. You see, I have a bit of a martyr complex, and I just wanted to get that out of the way early.
One more thing, I’m also assuming that you actually read Marshall’s post. If you didn’t, I’m going to glower at you for the remainder of this post.
What We Want to Know
I’m not here to debate theology. I think I’ve made my views on religion pretty clear in the past, and I don’t want to trudge into that minefield again. I’m not entirely sure it’s relevant, anyway. My belief in a Universal Human Morality stands alone from belief in a higher power. That might not be true for everyone, some people might believe that God, The Force, Tippy the Magical Sock Puppet, etc, created the code and implanted it in us. Others might argue that it was because we couldn’t explain our ingrained longing to understand it that we rationalized the existence of God in the first place. It’s a chicken and egg situation, one that I’m not going to be part of today. The important part is, there are chickens and there are eggs.
What I am here to debate is the existence of a universal morality. An understanding of right and wrong that is part of us as humanity. It is encoded in our DNA and wired into subconscious brains.
Trust me, Marshall and I both enjoy philosophy and debate, and I’m sure that we’ll segue from this one topic into, well, probably dozens of others, and you are all encouraged to join us if you’d like, in comments here, on Marshall’s Blog, or even on your own website. I will try to stay on topic as much as possible, but, honestly, that’s probably just not going to happen. There is just too much seemingly relevant information. Most of it is probably garbage, but you never know when you’re going to find a diamond in the rough.
Why You Should Know Better
Human beings are group animals. We travel together in clusters called “tribes.” We have a need to do so. It’s part of us as much as it’s part of gorillas to form a band, monkeys to form a troop, and seals to form a harem. It has practical value, it is the reason we survive when there are giant, terrifying monsters in this world that want nothing better than to eat whole. We band together, and we are stronger for it.
In order for a group to survive, there has to be an order to how it is formed. If the group is chaotic and dysfunctional, than it is really just a gathering of food. Look to a herd of cows for this example. Cows are infamously selfish, and because of that, they are deliciously cheeseburgers. Creatures that have a more structured herd don’t get eaten as much. There is a reason we eat more chicken than duck, for example.
That structure, the ingrained understanding of what should and should not be done for the betterment of the entire tribe, is morality. It is the very definition of right and wrong. What is right is what makes the tribe stronger and better. What is wrong is what leads the tribe to being eaten by 30’ long alligators. It exists at our very core. It exists in all group animals, and it predates thought and society. It’s the fundamental understanding that makes us humanity.
Sadly, like all of the fundamental concepts of humanity, it has been perverted and broken over the entirety of human history. We have forgotten far too often that the tribe we belong to is Humanity, not our Nationality, Ethnicity, or Gender. We forget the goal is to increase the strength of the tribe, not our standing in it.
The subject of how to define morality is very simple. Something is right when it leads towards the goal of making life better for everyone in our tribe. From that we can extrapolate that something is wrong when it goes directly against that goal, such as cold blooded murder or targeting one person for who they are. Anything else is merely not a matter of morality, and is irrelevant.
Now, that isn’t to say that Marshall is wrong about being subject to social proprieties. It comes from the same root. We feel a need to make the tribe better, but we also feel a need to be accepted. This is not morality, it’s not a defining law of right and wrong, natural or unnatural. This is a simple matter of courtesy, and is extremely contextual. The Laws that govern these things are malleable, and at times ride along side morality, working with it, and at times standing in opposition.
Anyone who has watched an after school special knows that just blinding going with the crowd can lead to some pretty reprehensible behavior. Most people also know that trying to stand against social mores can leave you a target. It doesn’t change right and wrong, and can’t.
Morality isn’t made of clay, it’s set in stone. It might change, but it would be a slow, long process, over the course of millennia, not like society, that fickle bitch changes at the drop of a dime.
One more time, if you haven’t, jump over and read Marshall’s post. That’s the third time I’ve asked you, so you have no excuse. Also, if you want a rapid fire combination of Wacky Hi-jinks and deep, intelligent conversation, you should follow us both on twitter. (@MABrotherton and @PrairieCityPost)