Morality in a Material Universe (part two)

This second installment examines some of the implications of using an evolutionary perspective as the theoretical foundation for determining moral norms.  It builds on part one posted last week and begins observing how morality has in fact  evolved and, looking to the future, what this evolution means for human behavior.  The keynote is human autonomy.  “Natural law” of all kinds, idealistic and naturalistic, alienates us from embracing our authorship and responsibility for our behavior and the society it will create.


I am trying to establish the physical / metaphysical ground for how we should think about morality.  It is admittedly a speculative discussion but it has some immediate practical implications.

The first is that morality is a collective human responsibility, both in its design and its implementation.  It does not come down to us from “God,” the State, or the State’s “Church.”  Morality is the collective “survival strategy” of a self-conscious human community; the ultimate accountability belongs to the whole community.  State and Church are subordinate instruments that the community has created to carry out its designs.  Clarifying these relationships eliminates any temptation to abdicate our responsibility to some “sacred authority.”  Morality is what we want it to be; it will shape the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of persons we become.  Morality is human purpose in action at the deepest, most creative level.

The second is that the process of “muddling through” or “trial and error” continues to be the principal method by which society determines acceptable behavior.  The popularity of TV shows like “Judge Judy” and the many reality talk shows and soap operas are evidence of the public’s perennial fascination with the process of deciding what is right and wrong in situations that never existed before.

There is no area more illustrative of this evolving process than western sexual mores.  That the taboos and restrictions to sexual activity had all along been determined by “what worked” is confirmed by the sea change in sexual morality that has occurred in the last century ushered in by the availability of the means of avoiding pregnancy.  Once it became possible for sexual relations to serve as a vehicle of intense interpersonal familiarity without having children, sexual mores began to change.  “Having children” no longer defined “family” and therefore non-reproduc­tive sexual relationships, including people of the same gender, or the elderly (a laughable event a generation ago), became workable realities.  It is interesting in this regard that “non-repro­duc­tive” religious communities, like convents and monasteries which had always existed alongside the conventional family, did so on the condition that sexual expression be sublimated or repressed in service to “higher” goals.  These communities provided an alternative “family” for many who did not want to make their life’s work the rearing of children in a conventional husband-wife relationship.  Disconnecting sexuality from reproduction severed its iron link to the conventional family, and combined with a new awareness of the “spiritual” dimension in sexual expression, terminated the mystique of virginity as the high road to Christian perfection.  Together they conspired to bring about the sudden disappearance of these communities.

In hindsight it is now apparent that the “purpose” of human sexuality as “reproduction of the species” had all along been a narrowly  physiological definition of a pervasive human energy that took many forms beyond the specifically genital and reproductive.  Freud saw sexuality intimately linked to the life-force itself, which he called eros.  Spinoza called it conatus, and I contend it is the source of our sense of the sacred.  Freud claimed that the creative employment of sexual energy was the very driving force in the construction of not only Western culture but of human civilization itself.  Our “muddling through” since the end of the 19th century has resulted in a broad consensus: far from being specific to reproduction, sexual energy is seen as the general élan that pervades all of human life and is responsible for social bonding and creative achievement of all kinds.  This explains why sexual expression outside of the confines of the reproductive relationship (but not outside interpersonal responsibility) is no longer seen as damaging to social and individual well-being.  Even the pope seems to be tolerant of co-habitation. What is considered “moral” in this regard has changed significantly even during the lifetime of many of us.  Morality is the pragmatist’s quintessential case in point:  moral “truth” is what is determined — by consensus and over time — to work for human life in society, on this earth, in this universe.

Will future developments prove some of these these changes to have been premature, taken on too little evidence, insufficient data?  Perhaps.  But then they will be reassessed and adjusted.  Herbert Marcuse’s rejection of “repressive desublimation” in One Dimensional Man was an attempt at exactly such an adjustment.  It confirms the thesis: it is the accumulation of collective experience over time that determines moral norms.  Morality is community wisdom.  Any imposition of moral norms — codification — is understood to be ultimately tentative, not final, relative to current understanding, not absolute.  Morally normative behavior will evolve as long as humans are material organisms that survive socially in a material universe.

I am not talking about some new way to determine moral absolutes.  I am saying there are no moral absolutes.  “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is currently contradicted by war, pre-emp­tive assassination, “collateral damage,” self-de­fense, capital punishment, the decision to withdraw life support from those who cannot live on their own, medical triage and therapeutic abortion, among others — all considered legitimate exceptions.  160 million people died in wars in the 20th century.  This number of people killed intentionally by other people sanctioned by the highest (reigious) authorities belies any claim that the commandment not to kill is an absolute that derives from “human nature.”  Killing is no more “unnatural” than altruism.  We are all capable of either.  Both are human choices.  The rejection of killing is a moral goal we have set for ourselves to guarantee social harmony … and it is obviously far from being realized.  The general mandate to avoid killing human beings is solidly in place, but it must be acknowledged that it is relative, not absolute, and therefore more of the nature of a guiding ideal than a commandment from “God” or derived from the predispositions of the human organism — and exactly the same can be said for altruism.

Natural Law?

Our tradition claims that “God” issued ten commandments which we are internally obligated to obey because they allegedly correspond to the “purpose” embedded in human nature and so they reflect “natural law.”  We were taught that other requirements are not “natural” but are rather conventional, arbitrary, imposed by society; they are laws, like traffic regulations, whose coercive power derives primarily from social agreement and fear of sanctions and not from any internal compulsion to obey.

One would think “natural law” would be internally compelling; that’s what “natural” means.  Augustine thought so too, and when he was faced with the fact that we regularly flout the “commandments” he concluded that human nature must have been corrupted.  The reasoned principles of morality should have been as clear and effortless as eating a good meal; but we find them difficult to discern and even more difficult to put into practice.  Augustine built an entire world-view on the presumption that we humans were corrupt from birth and morally impotent; we needed the miraculous intervention of “God” just to lead a moral life.  His mistake was thinking moral norms were “natural law,” instead of what they are: the counsels of the community.  He did not understand that our bodies were structured by evolution, not by “God,” and our morals, ideals projected by long experience, consensus and choice.  What is natural to humankind, as to all forms of life, is not some rational “law” but survival and the enhancement of life.  Augustine was scandalized by desire and selfishness because he did not know, as we do, that we are organic xenophobic survivors in a material world who have embarked on an “unnatural” adventure in empathy, altruism and rationality by our own choice.  Morality is what we want, not what “nature” wants; morality is a struggle for us precisely because it is not “natural.”  But the choice is ours, and we have to assert our rights of ownership.

These two ways of looking at things — that they come from “Mind” or matter — differ as night from day.  The behavior in each case may look the same from the outside, but the self-under­stan­ding, the autonomy, the responsibility, the social collaboration, and most importantly the self-esteem and empowerment, are not.  Self-esteem and empowerment, to my mind, correspond to the core of Jesus’ message: the sacred value and autonomous responsibility of the ordinary human being.  His message undermined the terror tactics employed by the Roman Empire to control its conquests; it’s the reason they killed him.  Augustine’s vision, quite the opposite, generates alienation, isolation, self-loathing and dependency … and from there fear and obeisance before dehumanizing power.  This is not insignificant.  The very structure of our morality should integrate with our sanity and “spiritual” growth … to treat them as separate is to compartmentalize the human being.  The rationalized morality of our tradition has been taken as an isolated quasi-legal phenomenon — a matter of individual “crime and punishment” — when it should be integral to an evolving personal maturity-in-society.  Our ideals were used as “laws” imposed by “God” from without, not goals set by us, and they splintered us interiorly and condemned us.

It’s time we abandoned this antiquated thinking and put it in the museums where it belongs.  We need to encourage behavior that guarantees the sustainability of the human family nested in its fragile planet home.  This will entail a number of modifications to traditional morality.

 Morality is intrinsically social and ecological

Principal among them is the obligation to embrace our collective responsibility.  Morality is not a private matter between the “soul” and “God.”  The welfare of society as a whole, necessarily including its environmental matrix without which it cannot survive, is the focus of morality.  That means that social and ecological justice is not some optional preference over and above one’s “normal” obligations.  It is not the hobby of political junkies with the freedom to select from a range of dubious “values” some of which are crassly individualistic denials of social responsibility.  The “ten commandments” have often been cited in support of these individualistic attitudes.  But the ten commandments are the primitive moral achievements of an ancient agricultural people.  They are not sufficient for us today.  Granted they are implicitly social because they address how individuals are to treat one another but they omit any positive requirements for social living and environmental responsibility.  Moral obligation goes well beyond the classic ten commandments and their direct implications.

Another modification is the acknowledgement that morality is relative to circumstances.  Moral norms function as guides and ideals and not as absolutes.  It is a “situation ethics.”  Does that open the door to moral mayhem?  Not at all.  We are not dealing with some new phenomenon here; I contend that people have always “muddled through;” it was never true that we applied absolute norms; that was a manipulative fiction.  Absolutes were the abstractions of the intellectual elite that followed logically from creationist essentialist premises, but even in that world­view they were never applied as such in practice; they were a bludgeon which the authorities kept on hand for “crowd control;” they function as ideals not as absolutes when they are used for conscientious discernment.

People are naturally moral because they are programmed to find and do “what works” in society; it’s the way they survive.  If they seem to flout the moral code it is because as it is currently articulated it does not correspond to their fundamental needs as human beings or it is being imposed in a social context where survival requires they do things that otherwise they would not.  Natural law is a fallacy; there is no such thing.  The value of having moral norms is that they encourage seekers to look for answers to their unique situation in certain directions that the com­mu­nity has already explored and recommends; but these recommendations are not immutable.  Over time, the community discovers and decides what does and what doesn’t achieve that goal for all concerned.  But in all cases the goals and the decisions are ours.


One comment on “Morality in a Material Universe (part two)

  1. Bill H says:

    You said what I believe so much more articulately than I could have written. It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing who I really am. You have helped me and continue to help me articulate my beliefs and apply them with pragmatic, real-time, real-life applications. Morality as a community function, emerging from human not divine law and experience, and evolving over time are important points that you make. Your examples of “exceptions” and sexual mores are relevant and well expressed.

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