Thursday 28 February 2019

Where do morals come from - in theory, in practice?

Looking for morality...

This is a tough question, for anyone - tough to answer, tough to explain, in a convincing way. And it has the same toughness as more obviously controversial questions relating to the objectivity of beauty and aesthetic quality

I take it that readers of this blog will recognise that morality is - in some sense - real, and not merely 'a matter of opinion'. But what kind of real is the tough one.

I remember before I became a Christian, I had a deep conviction of the reality and necessity of truth (and beauty) - but I found it hard to imagine the reality of The Cosmos - stars and planets, inter-stellar gases, great chunks of rock... and to ask, where could be the morals in that?

If physics was true, then how could there be such a thing as morality? Where could it be hiding? Inside each atom? In the pattern of everything? Wherever 'a moral' might be located, it seemed undetectable by our instruments, and got left-out by all the theories without any apparent harm to them.

But even after I became a Christian, I could not avoid a discomfort about the explanations of where morality came from. From what God said, as transmitted in scripture, as transmitted in the institution/ authority/ traditions of the church - or its leaders, or ordained priests, or by the work of theologians.

All of these seemed to envisage morality as ultimately a collection of laws - being imposed-upon that same universe that physics was describing. Two things - the cosmos, and the 'legal system' that God applied (by various hypothesised proxy mechanisms) onto the humans dwelling-among an otherwise inert collection of rock, fire, gases...

I find this an incoherent, hence unsatisfactory, account of reality. God created physics (and all the dead stuff), then some living things, then Man - and only near the end did morality get added-to the creation, plastered on the surface - as it were... Is that supposed to be how morality works?

Of course nobody would admit to believing exactly such an exaggerated caricature - but it does have the contours of what is a normal way of understanding morality. Morality is a system of rules that God has decided-upon for Men; and we read of these rules in scriptures and catechisms, from which we ought to derive our laws and social practices... something like that is the ideal, but what an unsatisfactory, detached, arbitrary way of comprehending morality!

But doing better than this is impossible unless we discard the usual physics-picture of the cosmos. If morality is really to be felt as an integral part of God's creation - then it must permeate every-thing; and for every-thing to be moral means that everything is alive, and conscious to the extent of capable of moral behaviours...

More than that, everything must be an intrinsically moral entity.

Once we have that picture in our minds - a picture of cosmos as consisting of living, moral Beings; there ceases to be a deep problem of 'where morality is located': morality is located in Beings.

Thus, men are moral because everything in creation is moral (and there are no 'things').

And morality ceases to be a set of laws, various transmitted, variously implemented - and instead morality is known by every thing/ Being in creation.

If morality is to be understood as an intrinsic part of reality, then there are no Things, only Beings.

So - we all, every-thing, knows morality - because it is built-into us; but what differs is how explicit, how self-conscious we are about it. What differs (in the first place) is whether we know consciously what we know from its reality.

It is from this that we get the multi-layered aspect of morality. There is the built-in morality that we understand in the sense of living-it; then the morality which is known consciously. Then there is the expression of this conscious knowledge of morality in communication with our-self, and then the communication of this to others.

While we all share the same universal morality (and we share that with every-thing/ every-Being) - there is incompleteness of conscious knowledge, and even greater incompleteness of its expression and communication.

And we may consciously go-against that morality. The more conscious the Being, the greater the degree to which the universal morality may be denied or broken.

In the end, however, we are left with the practical human, societal problem of what to do about disagreement in morals. It is true that morals are the same for everybody - but even among honest people there is different self-knowledge about morals, based on different degrees of capacity and self knowledge - and this is compounded by the problems and constraints of communication.

On top of this is the problem of dishonesty, of sin; whereby people deny what they know is true morally, where they propose what they know to be false morals - and do so for some evil reason.

Conversation about morality often circles around the problem of developing moral consensus, or persuading people to stick to a moral code or practice - or what to do about people that claim not to know or deny morality.

What we do about morality in practice will depend on the actuality of a specific society - for example, it is hard even to imagine anything moral coming from modern Western society - hard to imagine any 'system' that would identify and implement moral behaviour, given the degree of dishonesty, corruption and inversion among the people (and especially the leadership).

If people do not want to be moral, then they won't be moral - at most they may be compelled to behave (passively) in a particular way - but, even then, there has to be moral beings to do the compelling; and those in a position to compel nowadays, are (as a generalisation) among the most depraved of all people, ever.

In sum, here-and-now I don't think we can focus on morality in practice, except for ourselves and perhaps our immediate circle. The main challenge is to acknowledge the reality and universality of morality. And to do this requires a very fundamental metaphysical reconstruction - a change in how we understand the reality of creation.



Francis Berger said...

Reading thought-provoking posts like this in the morning is hazardous to my employment situation.

In all seriousness - great post.

What you describe in the first half is an idea I have wrestled with for a few months. Is this similar to animism (with the Creator(s) at the core of it all, of course) or have I missed something?

It hurts to admit it, but I agree with your assessment of in the second half. It is difficult to imagine focusing on morality in practice beyond ourselves and a small circle of family/friends.

William Wildblood said...

I see morality as coming from the conflict between how things are in reality, in other words, the truth of our spiritual being, and how we are in our corrupted selves in this physical world. There are no morals in heaven. There don’t need to be because there is no division between what is and what should be.

Perhaps, though, the real source of moral truth lies in the fundamental reality of love so if we ask where morals come from, that is our answer. Which ties in with your point about “If morality is to be understood as an intrinsic part of reality, then there are no Things, only Beings.”

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - Yes - this is pretty much what is often described as animism.

I have found that - when it comes to justifying my moral convictions to others - it is hopeless. Mostly, people aren't interested to know (they just want me to do what they want me to do). But even if they would listen, they would be arguing from such different premises that they would not agree.

Beyond this, writing persuasively to justify some general ideas runs into the same problem. It ends up with 'me against the world' - so there it is futile to expect The World (in all its wide and conflicting variety) to be persuaded by one person, even if that one person happened to be correct.

So I simply try to discover for myself what is right - and then stick by it as best I may.

@William - "There are no morals in heaven." - I think this is correct, in the sense that disagreements in Heaven would take the form of discussing different ways to achieve the shared goals - but the shared goals (morals) would be universal.

I see this mainly in terms of the choice to join Heaven being the choice to be a part of that commnity's morality, its goals, its loving state of being - and the divine gift of us being remade to be able to live by that choice.

Epimetheus said...

Interesting. I'm thinking of Genesis 1:31 -

"And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."

Bill Arkle said in his lecture that God created every sentient soul with a sliver of divine fire, taken from his own essence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@E - In Arkle's Geography of Consciousness, he clarifies for me that although God made creation such that it was initially Good - this was not his ultimate aim. And certainly Goodness is not the primary goal of this mortal life, since we are made so prone to evil and this world so full of evil.

If being Good was the priority we would never have left Heaven - but then we would not be free, and could never (like Jesus did) develop to become like God.

So mortal living is partly about us trying and failing to be Good (Christ came to save sinners, not the Good; but repentant sinners, who want to be Good) - but mortal life is mainly about learning from the experiences.

If we had to choose one word for what to aim for in mortal life that word would not would not be Good - it would be Love.

Bruce said...

I don’t know where (or if) this fits into your discussion but the two moral commandents/laws/rules are love God and love your neighbor (the 2nd being a subordinate likeness of the first). All moral laws/rules are derivatives or specific instances of two simple moral realities. All the other laws & rules are God trying to teach us “how.”

This seems consistent with your view (from the 4th Gospel) of love as primary.

Bruce said...

“It is difficult to imagine focusing on morality in practice beyond ourselves and a small circle of family/friends.”

Mr. Berger, by coincidence I saw this discussion of “storge” at the Oz Conservative” blog recently – it seems to fit with your observation.

“Paul, in Acts 1:31, says of the unrighteous that they are without storge, translated usually as "without natural affection". This is part of a longer text in which Paul states that God reveals himself to man in the creation, but that the unrighteous choose to act nonetheless in a series of naturally disordered ways, one piece of evidence for this is that they lack "storge".

Then there is Paul's second epistle to Timothy, in which he writes "But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love [without storge], unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous.
That Paul regarded such natural kinship relations, and the duties flowing from them, as being part of a rightly ordered community is evident from other passages. Paul writes for instance, in 1 Timothy 5:8, that "if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever." Similarly (1 Timothy 5:4) "But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God."

Bruce said...

“but mortal life is mainly about learning from the experiences”

Bruce, sometimes I think you downplay the importance of obedience. I don’t think obedience is some sort of arbitrary test. Creatures with free will. The importance of obedience is in the practice necessary to master command of the will. Why? God can’t make free-willed creatures into something like him if they don’t have some degree of command of the will. I don’t know what degree of command of the will is required to fix us but certainly an important part of mortal life is to work on this. This is why agape love is so often tied to obedience – “if you love me you will obey me.”

Bruce Charlton said...

@B - I do downplay obedience, and deliberately. It is a virtue in childhood wrt parents - but this blog isn't for children.

Obedience is the choice to substitute another will for our own - and that is not our ultimate goal as persons; at most it is a means to the end of agency.

Obedience is not a general virtue - it all depends. As an adult, there needs to be discernment. If one can discern an individual or an institution to whom you judge obedience to be due; then it can be a good thing.

But if not? If we do not judge the authority of any other human person or institution to be superior to our own?

And that is our situation. We live in degraded times, and obedience to institutions is a short route to evil. Obedience to a superior individual makes sense, if such can be found - but there aren't many.

Obedience to God is therefore a direct matter - and most of us cannot (in all honesty, and with the greatest possible consideration) identify any person or group whom we would trust above our-selves to represent God to us.

At least that is my situation. I spent several years trying to find a church (or even just a spiritual adviser) to whom I could be obedient; but my deepest intutions warned me off all available options.

Such is the pace and scope corruption of our time and place, I would find it hard to recommend obedience as a path, even when it comes to the best churches with the best track-records; I fear that all of them are vulnerable to corruption, even in the short term of a few years.

Instead of obedience in the traditional Christian fashion (as of a monk to Abbot, priest to Biship, layman to Priest); I would recommend the same attitude as we adopt to a teacher of a skill or discipline when we are learning.

I would go so far as to state that obedience is neither achievable nor achieved in this era - many of the people who argue the primacy of obedience, I simply don't believe practice obedience in the spirit that it used to be practiced. I doubt their truthfulness when they say they do. Whatever they actually do, it is something else.

This cannot be helped. I think of obedience in terms of the evolutionary-development of consciousness. We are now, like it or not - but we ought to like it - trying to develop from spiritual adolescence to adulthood. That is our unavoidable task (because we cannot become chidlren again). Some traits that were virtues in a child, are not virtues in an adult.

whitestone said...

Doesn’t morality reside in the conscience and isn’t the conscience universal. And isn’t the purpose of the conscience to maintain harmony with the divine nature of things? and isn’t harmony with the divine nature of things manifest in the laws of physics? Don’t we pollute the world through immoral action.
Is It too simplistic to state that morality comes from god and resides in the conscience. Do we ever really need to have a crisis of conscience. Doesn’t everybody just know what’s right. The great challenge for human is to listen too and be true to ones conscience. I don’t think it needs to be more complicated than so. Sean Fowler