No Morals

moralsI do not believe in objective morality.

This stance is not very popular. Having taken this stance, I cannot make statements such as the following.

  1. Hitler was evil.
  2. You shouldn’t intentionally hurt other people.
  3. You should live altruistically.

Because I deny objective morality, I cannot use terms such as “evil” or “righteous” in my description of people or actions. I am confined to an ontology that ends at my emotional response to people and their actions. The actions of Hitler make me extremely angry, but they were not evil actions. Attributing evil seems to be merely a human attempt to convert a subjective emotion into an objective quality. This conversion takes place in only in the mind. The term “evil” has no consistent definition, but rather vaguely maps onto emotional dispositions towards particular actions.

Perhaps the emotions that most present when actions that are tagged “evil” are the emotions of rage and disgust. But there are other sentiments that also contribute.

  • The yearning for justice. We all have a strong notion of fairness that permeates our lives. We want to believe that those who cheat and take advantage of others cannot escape without some kind of retribution. The attribution of “evil” to an action is prerequisite to assigning condemnation and worthiness of punishment, whether that punishment be in this life or the next. Often emerging from this pseudomoral process are fabricated notions of postmortem torment for those who have wronged us and others.
  • The insecurity inherent to an unpredictable environment. We want our world well-defined. We want others to be kind to us, and we want our kindness to be recognized. Assigning moral rules gives us a framework from which we can index our behaviors and the behaviors of others, and apply the necessary social pressure to make “proper” behavior more consistent. These rules also gives us a rehabilitating sense of guilt when we transgress them.
  • The need to ennoble our identity. We need to contrast our lives with the “evil” around us. This contrast serves to partition us from association with those that behave in ways that enrage us.
  • The need for meaning. When enraged about a particular behavior, unless we can go beyond the emotion and attribute “evil” to the emotion, we are left with a certain sense of dissatisfaction. We strongly want to publicly categorize the action as “evil” and distance ourselves from it.
  • The salient emotion of guilt. Guilt feels very real to us. It may seem to us that this emotion must have a moral referent called “evil”. Instead of saying I feel guilty, we often wrongly go beyond this and feel compelled to say I am evil. This embellished and weightier notion of guilt often creates dysfunctional psyches that despair of any hope for living up to personal or social expections.

So “evil” has no source other than our emotions. Most extant religions of the world in various ways strongly affirm “evil” as a notion that is somehow substantiated by corresponding condemnation and punishment. However, they cannot find an objective source for “evil” outside their holy texts.

There are also non-religious humanists who attempt to retain an objective notion of “evil”. These attempts are hopelessly doomed due to the inability to construct a coherent system of morality that transcends subjective notions and arbitrary rules that are inevitably tracked back to the constructor’s emotional disposition.

We would all like to be able to use “ought” and “should” unqualified at will. But this would be intellectually dishonest. “Ought” and “should” must be indexed to a particular goal in such a way that removes any moral connotation. For example, instead of saying that you ought not steal, which is a statement without a goal, I prefer to say to ensure your future happiness, you probably ought not to steal. This may feel unsatisfying, but it is the only intellectually honest way to categorize behaviors. If someone threatens to harm my children, I do not have to go though a complicated maze of moral considerations. I simply ask what I value and what my goals are, and what actions best preserve my valuables and accomplish my goals. If this involves killing those who threaten my children. I would do so without guilt.

So I do not believe in an objective morality. Does this make me dangerous to others? No. First, as just stated, I have goals. These goals most frequently require that I participate in society in a way that makes others feel good. To a large degree, I need the cooperation of others to be happy.

In addition, I am naturally an altruistic person. This altruism is an emotional disposition that has emerged from my evolutionary heritage. Had I been born a tiger, I would perhaps have a much lower dosage of altruism. If I had been a koala bear, it might have been higher. However, I am close to an average human (no comments from my friends please). I have extended to a fair degree my circle of friends to whom I act altruistically. I can, however, quickly react to someone who is behaving contrary to my interests. In these cases, I must determine what, if any, response will maximize my accomplishing my goals and preserve my interests. There are no moral guidelines, nor does there need to be. There are only the pragmatic guidelines I have formulated for myself consistent with my rational assessment of my goals, plus my emotional disposition towards those goals.

However, I am not an anarchist. I believe that it is usually consistent with the common values, interests and goals of a society to establish laws through the aggregate will of its constituents. This system of laws is not moral. It is still merely a reflection of a composite of emotions.

Emotions, as phenomena that correspond to brain activity, constitute the highest level of objective ontology. Anything above emotions is merely fabricated with no objective foundation.

The emotions are powerful that tempt us to construct a morality with which we can feel more secure about identity, meaning, justice. Guilt seems to have a referent. However, there is no objective morality. Hitler acted in a way that, in my opinion, was quite contrary to his goals. He was not , however, “evil”. If I would have had the opportunity to kill him in order to preserve the interests of myself and others, I may have done so, but not out of some sense of obligation to a fabricated moral code.


4 thoughts on “No Morals

  1. internet elias says:

    Interesting post! But, for me, I can’t agree since I fully ‘know’ the reality of the Good Spirit (God) and the Bad Spirit (Lucifer). And both are powerful forces. I’ve made a choice for the Good Spirit since I believe all things revealed of Him are true, logical, and desirable. Therefore…for me… a higher ‘chosen’ spirit influences the inner spirit of each man. Emotions are the outcomes of those influences……be they Love from God or Hate from Lucifer.

    • Thanks for your comment, but you’ve merely introduced an awful lot of entities without giving any evidence for them. And why the needless multiplication of top-down entities to explain things such as emotions concerning which cognitive science has clearly explained the causation bottom-up? I already know what the bible postulates. I’m only interested in entities that come with justification for their existence rather than an ontological free-for-all.

  2. Andrew says:

    “There are also non-religious humanists who attempt to retain an objective notion of ‘evil’. These attempts are hopelessly doomed due to the inability to construct a coherent system of morality that transcends subjective notions and arbitrary rules that are inevitably tracked back to the constructor’s emotional disposition.”

    Interesting. Even as a Christian, I never bought the “all cultures have the same basic principles of not lying, stealing, killing, etc. therefore there must be a God who is the basis of this common morality” argument. Stealing and killing are both unproductive, so that’s why we denote them as “wrong.” Later when I learned more about game theory and evolutionary psychology, I was more able to express my ideas. Essentially, I believe that

    An action is evil if it is analogous to defecting in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
    The greatest evils are analogous to choosing options that are worse off
    for everyone.

    In fact, it is due to our evolutionarily developed mechanisms of feeling guilt when we defect and feeling good when we cooperate that has enabled us to thrive as a species. These emotions have skewed the payoff matrix in the direction of cooperating, which benefits the species as a whole. Of course this is just a rough idea, though; I haven’t been able to make it strict.

    But wouldn’t this be a more objective idea of morality? I’m sure I’m not the first to think this.

    • Good thoughts, Andrew.

      It seems to me that the words “evil” and “morality” are far too tainted with connotations (top-down injunctions) to be redeemed and reformulated into anything productive.

      Perhaps “code of behavior” is still meaningful in place of “morality”.

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