Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Inherent Morality (again)

There is no moral value inherent in man. There are certain basic instincts which are close to being universal, but there is nothing that could qualify as morality which is common to all, or the great majority of, people or even to all societies and social groups. The moral universal does not exist.

We* value our own lives and instinctively protect them. We more or less instinctively protect those close to us emotionally, or those with whom we can identify an emotional link. But we do not, even instinctively, value all human life, and intellectually we allow so many exceptions that the common conception of a fundamental sense of the value of human life is reduced to nothing.

There is no absolute right and wrong, designed to apply to our actions, to be found within us and discovered by all of us. There is a desire for a moral code, as there is an innate ability and desire to communicate by language, but, as with language, the way it is manifested is largely arbitrary, and is a result of the interactions of the members of the society we are born into over many generations.

A moral code is like language in many ways: it doesn’t matter very much how it is manifested, what matters is that it exists and we can understand it. It varies quite unpredictably with time and place, and is largely incomprehensible to those outside the time and place to which it belongs. Everyone speaks their own version but large numbers of people share enough of it to understand each other and to feel their membership of the group that is defined by it.

What is right and what is wrong is an invention of our minds. We need that invention, for reasons that may have to do with the need to reconcile our ability to analyse our own minds with our instincts and limitations. But it is something we make for ourselves. (Like God.) These needs, or instincts, or ideas, can easily be taken advantage of, manipulated consciously, by individuals and organisations, and indeed they are, but they are used because they exist, not invented for the purpose.

Moral relativism is a term which is in itself a moral judgement. The right and the wrong we believe in are not necessarily- are not usually- our own inventions, we borrow them from others, we find them and accept them, gratefully, or unquestioningly, or we have them forced upon us, or we derive them from our own experience or intellectual consideration, or we do not even notice we have them until they are brought into question by someone or something.

It is possible for people who believe themselves to be good to believe in the fundamental goodness of things which others would find utterly abhorrent and indefensible. This is an observable truth. Female genital mutilation, for example (which is one of the things which got me started on these thoughts) is still carried out because many of the people involved, doubtless including many of the mothers, some of the practitioners and some of the girls themselves, believe it is right, and they do it because they believe it is right. It is not a conspiracy of evil men against women, it is primarily a conspiracy of the human mind against itself, and it is only one of many, though it perhaps causes more harm than most. To recognise that it is usual done because those involved believe it to be right, doesn’t stop me from declaring it to be wrong.

We must denounce what we believe to be wrong because otherwise we can have no morality, and we need it. I can call female genital mutilation not only wrong, but evil, by which term I presumably mean not only that I would not do it myself, but also that I would very much like everyone else not to do it as well. But there are people who not think it is wrong. There are people who believe it to be right, morally necessary and a superior course of action. There are people who believe they must kill their daughters if they ‘dishonour’ them in some way. Many of those involved, including, on most occasions, those who carry it out, the parents of those who suffer it, and sometimes, I don’t doubt, the victims themselves, believe that it is better to do it than to not it.  These are widely extended practices, and they exist because enough people believe they are right to keep the belief alive in the general moral sense of the society.

*We refers to humans in general.


James Higham said...

What is right and what is wrong is an invention of our minds.

You did very well down to here then went astray. There are very much moral absolutes, such as not killing or taking your father's wife and the fact that these permeate disparate societies gives the lie to moral relativism.

CIngram said...

I'm aware that I overegg it a bit, but I find it quite disconcerting that the more I look for moral absolutes the more I find that there are people who believe in all kinds of things that most of us think of instinctively as wrong. You have to look very hard to find anything that isn't hedeged about with caveats.

The example you give sounds solid, now I think about it. It's a starting point back from the nihilistic conclusions I seem to keep reaching.

James Higham said...

We all must confront these things at some time.

CIngram said...

Does that mean that I am simply reaching some kind of intellectual or spiritual maturity? And these enquiries are a normal stage for those who make that journey?

It would be comforting to believe it, and that I will eventually reach agreement with my understanding.