On Morality

Morality. It’s lots of things.

What is the moral choice? What is the right thing to do? What is just? What is good, and what is evil?

I think those questions are problematic. The problem is that they assume that there is one answer, one meaning to “good” and other moral terms. The truth is more nuanced.

Assuming we want to be rational, there is only one “code” of behavior that should really interest us – the code that furthers our desires. Rationality obliges us to act to further our will to the extent we can. Doing so isn’t good, nor is it bad – it’s just rational. To prefer some other code – that’s irrational.

People will try to sell you other codes. They will say, for example, that the moral viewpoint is the objective one, and preach to serve the common good, to transcend your petty personal desires and consider others’ wellbeing equally. Not because that is what you want, but because that is “right”. But why should you be interested in this “right” code? If you want to consider everyone equally, by all means do so – but if you don’t want to do that, why should it matter to you that you are not being “objective”? If it doesn’t matter to you, if you have no will to act out of such an “objective” viewpoint – then such “objectivity” is irrelevant to you. Demanding that it will matter to you even though it doesn’t matter to you – that is irrational.

A common mistake in moral thinking is that there exists some “absolute” moral code, or that morality is established by the will or commands of God. But even if God exists, his will and commandments shouldn’t interesting to us in of themselves; these things will only matter to us if we have the desire to follow them. Similarly, any abstract “absolute” code is meaningful to us only to the extent that it reflects our personal desires.

Of course, a large part of our desires is exactly the kind of desires that I allegedly opposed in the previous paragraphs – desires about absolute justice, empathy to the suffering of others and the will to relieve their suffering, and so on. That’s all nice and dandy, but it doesn’t change the fact that the foundation for your personal morality is still your personal desires – even if these include such altruistic desires.

For this reason, questions like the ones I opened with have no single answer. Different people have different desires and mental structures. This one has a lot of empathy and the other little; this has a highly developed sense of justice and this a highly developed sense of honor; and so on. Advice that will suit one will therefore not suit another. It isn’t possible to provide useful answers, answers that one will be wise to heed, without taking into account the variety of humanity.

Nevertheless, there are also similarities. People are still people, and share the same coarse mental structure, despite their differences. For this reason, it is possible to give tools that will allow each person to consider the ramifications of his choices based on the basic moral instincts he has, and even to offer general guidelines to balance and reconcile his different moral intuitions. This isn’t “one answer”. It’s a body of answers, that still leaves the key task of weighing and making the moral choice at the hand of each person. You cannot read off the answers at some place – you have to find the answers that suit you individually.

The first wisdom, therefore, is self-awareness. A person has to come to know himself, his desires, better. But this is not the end of the moral work, for our desires are not set in stone. We can modify them in various ways. Learning history, anthropology, evolution, and other sciences – as well as literature – allow a person to expand his horizons and adopt values that he would never have considered before. Trying to think rationally about your moral preferences, by weighing moral dilemmas and theories and discussing them, also allows one to gradually shift these moral preferences. And a range of psychological activities and techniques can allow one to consciously and delibrately alter his habits, character, and eventually his most basic emotional responses and moral values. Self awareness is the easy part – self growth, which is the real moral and “spiritual” adulthood, is far more difficult.

All of this was concerned with our inner lives. But a large part of our will concerns the rest of the world, so an understanding of the world is vital for moral thought. It is here that the disputes between the religious and secular are the most pressing, since their worldviews are so different. If you believe that the world stands on the learning of the Torah, you moral conclusions will be very difficult from those of the atheist that thinks “learning Torah” is a sheer waste of time. When the Ultra-Orthodox Jews want to increase Israel’s funding for learning the Torah at the expense of, say, healthcare – they are behaving rationally. They’re just wrong about the nature of the world.

Studying the world and the ramifications of different choices isn’t easy either. Different choices, especially at the social and economic levels, can have highly non-trivial ramifications. In some sense, investigating these ramifications is easier since these are objective subjects, that are investigated by entire fields of science – as opposed to your own moral character and desires, which require personal work. But understanding fully the range of sciences and areas needed to form a well-founded opinion, in any major social, political, or economic choice, is so difficult it’s practically impossible. All that we can do is to try to improve our personal knowledge and understanding, in an attempt (that can never be achieved) to arrive at truth.

There is another major difference here between the modern-scientific viewpoint and the traditional-religious position. The religious are certain that someone – God in principle, and the great religious leaders in practice – already has the right answers. Modern man knows that no one knows that truth, and that he cannot find it based on authority. He has to strive on himself, by himself, to find the answers that are relevant to him. This is much more difficult, but is part and parcel of the mental maturity that is entailed in the concept of Enlightenment.

Sociological breakup of basic moral intuitions.


I’ve been speaking of morality for a while now, but how can we separate the moral sphere from the rest of life? Arbitrarily. Names aren’t important. What’s important is for us to understand the ramifications of the desires we are discussing. Do we want to forbid some actions? Certainly – we want to forbid rape or theft, for example. Do we want to allow some actions, even though we prefer people won’t do it? Certainly – we want to allow people to pray for false gods, for example, even though they’re wrong and lead others into error. This is a key difference, that has meaning in our public lives. Whether want want to call what we want to impose or obligate as “morality”, or perhaps what we want to condemn or condone, or so on – that isn’t an important difference. It’s just a choice of words.

Still – what is included in the moral sphere? Well, our most basic moral intuitions engage in several kinds of moral judgment. It is important to keep them apart, otherwise one can make embarrassing mistakes such as claiming that a choice that leads to greater suffering is therefore the immortal choice.

The first level is the level of consequences. We judge a certain state as good or bad according to its content, and therefore judge the right choice by the state it leads to. If choosing option A will leads to great suffering while choice B will alleviate great suffering, one should choose option A.

The things we value about a state of affairs are varied. We value suffering and happiness, but also freedom, truth, justice, standard of living, and so on. Generally, one can call what we value “human prosperity” or “good”. Different people will value different things, but internal reflection and historical awareness generally leads people to agree to a fairly specific set of values. This set explicitly rejects certain emotions. For example, disgust is a personal feeling and thus cannot serve as the basis for a moral decision; the fact that you find homosexual sex, or S&M sex, or eating crabs, as revolting doesn’t give you any good reason to forbid someone else from engaging in these acts. Similarly, enlightened morality rejects almost completely desires that are based on group loyalty when these conflict with universal principles such as justice. Thus, for example, it would be immortal to favor your group at the expense of others.

Oh, yes – justice. A sense of justice is accepted as a legitimate basis of morality. I speak hear of procedural justice, that is on justice that is based on equal opportunity and treatment, that rejects discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criteria. A person that isn’t accepted to a high-tech job because he is black is being discriminated, but a white actor that isn’t accepted to play the role of a black person on a film isn’t being discriminated against – being black is part of the inherent requirements of the job.

Another foundation of accepted human morality is empathy. Suffering must be alleviated, and prosperity and happiness promoted. Thus, while justice alone says that we should not aid a person that chooses to live in poverty, compassion for him and his family requires that we provide them with some minimum standard of living, if possible.

Another foundation is positive freedom. This is the mental and practical freedom of a person to do things. Discussions of freedom often focus on releasing people from prohibitions, but this is only a partial view of freedom. No one forbade a medieval European from flying to America, perhaps, but such “freedom” is vacuous since he could not do it or even conceive of the option of doing it. Our actual freedom to fly to foreign countries is both our ability to do so, and our awareness of this option. This has moral significance, as it increases the wealth of our desires as well as our abilities to manifest them.

Another aspect is Truth and the awareness of people to it. Truth is counted by most as a good onto itself, that is as something worth having for what it is regardless of any useful applications of it. Clearly, truth is often also very useful, but it is a Good thing regardless of this fact and thus forms a part of human flourishing. People that are in owe of the horseshoe neblula, for example, are at a higher level in this respect than people that think the milky way is the remains of a celestial cow. And while every truth may be valuable, we particularly value cosmic truths and truths relating to other moral principles – such as the human state in general.

One can think of other constituents of morality, such as the presence of love or integrity. But it is perhaps worthwhile to stop at this point to emphasize again the problematic nature of balancing and weighing the different factors. There is no formula that will tell us how much poverty should we accept in return to how much economic growth of the rest of the population. There is no objective way to balance the suffering that exploiting the environment will bring to the next generations against the happiness that it yields now. Balancing our different desires is ultimately a subjective exerciser, and we must balance them as best we understand our values and the world.

Which brings me to the next level of moral judgments, which is the level of personal deeds. We don’t want to demand moral perfection from people, as by their nature they are limited in their capacity and understanding. Instead, we demand good intent. If a person earnestly acted out of a desire to increase human prosperity, with due diligence – any failure on his part to do so isn’t his “fault” and is not a moral failure. For example, if a driver deviated from its path in order to not hit a pedestrian but, as it turned out, this pedestrian was a terrorist that proceeded to kill dozens of people – their deaths are not the driver’s fault, and his decision not to run over the pedestrian was the right one given the information he had at the time.

Let us dwell for a moment on the concept of “moral failure” invoked here. How can someone fail morally? One sense is that he deviates considerably from the moral consensus of the developed and self-aware. Although people are different, nearly all agree that murder for example is wrong so that a murderer is failing to act according to the enlighteend and objective (in the sense of “shared to all viewers”) mortal consensus. Another sense of being “wrong” is that the murderer is most likely normal himself, and thus he fails in that murdering is not something that he would himself want himself to do, if he would have given the matter proper and serious thought.

Thus another aspect of judging the act is judging the emotions and desires that motivate it. If a person acts out of love we would perhaps want to say he acted “morally”. Or maybe we want to reserve saying he acted “morally” if he acted out of a desire to further human prospoerity. Or so on. Again, the label “moral” is less important here; what’s important is that we consider whether we approve of choosing on this basis and under what conditions, whether we want to forbid or allow such choices, to encourage or discourage them, and so on.

This basic moral intuition can stand in contrast to the previous, consequentialist, intuition. It may be, for example, that in the cold cost-benefit analysis of human prosperity the parents of a retarded child would be wise to kill their child by exposure; but even if we accept this questionable calculus, we could still judge such an act harshly as a horrid lack of love and even basic human decency.

Another important aspect of judging the act lies in distincitons such as whether we want to forbid it. We are here thinking in terms of rights and obligations, in which “immoral” can mean something like “violates a person’s human rights”. This is a third basic moral intuition, that is sometimes opposed to both the consequentialist and the value (which value or desire stand behind the act) intuitions. For example, if a person has a choice of whether to kill three people or one, he should, says the consequentialist, choose one. But if a doctor can murder a random person and harvest his organs to save three others – we would say he should not do that. Even though both choices have the same consequences, there is something morally admissable about the first choice and inadmissable about the second. The difference lies in the distinction that a doctor does not have the right to take the lives of another, whereas in the first example the person had to take the lives of another and the only question was whether to take the lives of one or three.

Again, balancing these three general approaches – consequentialism, values, and rights – is something each person has to do on his own. Many philosophers try to base all of morality on one of these approaches, but I think this is a mistake in moral thinking. All three intuitions are basic components of the human psyche, that lead to contradicting wills. Balancing and choosing between them has to be done by each person on his own, not by philosophy or pure reason.

Science helps us understand ourselves.

So where does all this leave us? Not very well off. The greatness of Western society is that its the first human society that dared to say outright that it doesn’t know. And part of this lack of knowledge is in the field of morality. We don’t really know yet what we know and how to achieve it. It’s not that the West doesn’t present answers – on the contrary, there is as I described a fairly wide agreement on the principles, nature, and even the general content of morality. But these answers are not particularly hopeful.

Morality is a most difficult field. Our greater scientific understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe, and the philosophical formalization of out basic intuitions and their contemplation, allows the enlightened Western man to discover and shape his moral desires better than our ancestors could, and lead to the liberal morality that I briefly sketched above. But person progress is still difficult, self awareness is fuzzy and hard to reach, decision on balancing different values are painful, and understanding the consequences of our choices for complex systems such as human society is often nearly impossible. Morality is difficult. C’est la vie.