Understanding of morality

My recent blogpost about my banning from Leitmotif has drawn a commenter who proceeded to give me a very lengthy and interesting reply. I was seriously impressed and started replying within the comments but seeing how big my reply was starting to become and how derailed from the original topic, I thought it might be worth giving it its own blogpost. What follows is Apple’s comment and beneath it you will find my own reply.

Forget about Objectivism. Let’s just focus on understanding what morality is.You sound like a nice guy just trying to struggle through life in a European society. Does the society you live in define what is moral? What is it that is moral in this society? Is it working 39 hours a week for a company, getting married at 29, having two kids, retiring at 59, living and vacationing to 69? Is that the moral life? WHO is society? Is it the local government? Is it the Eurocrat in Bruxelle?This is your life we’re talking about, man. Do you want to let somebody else or something else tell you what you should live for? As an atheist, there is no second ever-lasting life to look forward to. This is it! If so, I would think before you do anything in this life, you’d want to be damn sure you have figured it all out one step at a time.Morality is one of those pesky things that come up. Do you really know what it is? Ergo at Leitmotif, if I understand the gist, is remarking that, in your atheistic rush to abandon religion you in the process abandon morality. You throw the baby out with the bathwater. Is he right that morality is inescapable, even in the jungle? Who cares. But the point is you’re in a society, and there is a morality that many people in it accept. Is it right FOR YOU?As far as I can tell, morality is a collection of values to guide a man’s life. More simply, morality is a generic how-to manual for life. Like a car, you as a human being come out of an assembly line with the same owner’s manual. You may be painted black, blue, green; you may be a convertible, a hatchback, a sedan, a sporster; you may have six-cylinder, or four-, front-wheeled, automatic, or manual. But generically, you are like a car. And like cars, you have basic maintenance requirements: gas of this type here, oil of this grade here, anti-freeze fluid at this level here, brake shoes after so many km here, tire pressures per kpc here,

Unlike a car, which is designed and manufactured by some company, by some designer, by a creator, you as a human being aren’t designed by ANYONE, (Evolution is not any conscious entity; evolution is a process) But you still have basic maintenance requirements. But beyond that, even if there’s another twin you/car, the owner will want to customize it with different personality and style, accessories, companions, baggages, radio-station presets, aspirations,

Society didn’t design and create you. Society is just a bunch of people in a geographical area. They are just people like you. Do human beings have invariant maintenance requirement or not?

A morality, to repeat, is a how-to manual for life. And a human being is, as a matter of plain fact, an oxygen-breathing, water-drinking, omnivorous, thinking animal with varying desires for sex, rock-n-roll, sushi; Chances are very, very high that human beings have generic maintenance requirements.

That said, religions write a number of how-to manuals for life. Islam, for example, tells you to face Mecca and pray five times a day. That’s a how-to rule in the manual to a good life. Islam’s view of life is of a second, ever-lasting life. How Is this particular rule to be judge? Well, scientifically, you have to weigh it against human needs or generic maintenance requirements. Obviously, the goal –ever-lasting life– is false, and the means –praying 5 times a day– is therefore false. So, followers of Islam are using a how-to manual that is anti-this-life.

We can say this to just about every religion that posits an ever-lasting life or reincarnation. So, scientifically, religion provides moral codes that aren’t meeting the basic maintenance requirements for a human life on this earth.

But does that mean that morality as such is not a human requirement? You know what I mean? Every car comes with an owner’s manual. Just because human beings don’t come with one doesn’t mean that they don’t need one. We come with the ability to choose alternatives. Superficially, you choose vanilla and chocolate easily, but on the big choices that take your life in one long-term direction or another you do require some standard of maintenance requirements. (Driving without replacing shoe brakes after so many years will wreck it. Trust me.) Thus, morality, like oxygen, is a human need.

So everyone needs some morality, and everyone has to write his own owner’s manual–plus, to customize and accessorize his own life. But the question remains. As with organized religions, how does each person ensure that his copy of his maintenance manual is the CORRECT one and not some cheap, plagiarized version from a whole bunch of religious copycats? To be sure, the morality manual has to allow for customization. Some people are born stubborn, moronic, deformed, slow; some are born defective as a human being. Cars off the assembly line have defects too. So, the manual of life, while generic has to account for some slight differences. But at the very least, it has to get the generic principles the same for every car and every person.

You are then faced with two questions: 1) Is your moral code at the generic level a guide to your life to meet your human maintenance requirements as a living thing, a fucking animal, a thinking animal, a musician, a producer, a scientist, a businessman? 2) How are you customizing your moral code for your individual customized purposes?

The first question is absolutely crucial to get right if the second is to have any chance of coming close to correct. The first question is independent of you; it is not a subjective thing. It’s universal to every human being on earth, past, present, future. The second question is just about you, right here, right now.

If you throw out all religions and their crappy moral codes, I’m with you. But you still need to know how to conduct your life to meet your needs. Is a good life simply a mere subsistence–a subsistence of 2000 calories a day, 2 liters of water, a vitamin pill, and three conjugal sessions a week in an enclosed space?That may be a fulfilling life generically for an ape, but not for a thinking man.

WHO is privileged to write the moral code for everyone? No God. No one. Everyone is responsibile for writing his own owner’s manual, but the basic manual he writes–before he customizes it–is the same as everyone else’s because he is a human being, not an ape or a dolphin or a crow.

And that is what ethics is about. Ethics is a science that deals with studying man (not chimps) to define a proper morality at the generic level. Ethics is a science, like physics and biology and chemistry, to test each principle and weigh each in accordance to a human maintenance requirement. Its goal, like the goal of physics, is truth. In this case, the truth is in the realm of human conduct, at the generic level, truth for all humans, whether in a religious society, a secular society, or in a jungle.

Morality is thus the product of this effort of ethical/scientific inquiry? If it is scientific, morality is about the discovery of facts of reality–facts about human beings and the how-to of living. Morality, scientifically speaking, isn’t about a convention by this or that society. Morality is an objective discovery of what is true universally, to guide you on what ought to be done. What is true for you morally is also true for me morally (with some limited degrees of optional customization). In short, morality is a code of values to guide individual human beings.

Everyone human being has one whether he acknowledges it or not. He doesn’t have to discover a morality; he can choose from among the many moral codes available. But whichever he chooses, he has to take the consequence. The wrong moral code will give him a miserable life.

This is the sense that a morality is inescapable. It’s the job of ethicists and, yes, religionists to discover and define morality. (Well, in the case of religionists, they don’t discover; they get high, hallucinate, and dream it up.) But the responsibility to validate and accept a moral code cannot be shirked by anyone. You have one life to live, you cannot afford to be wrong at this fundamental level.

What are the basic principles for guiding your own life? THAT is your morality, dude? “There is no God to guide man’s life.” That is definitely one moral principle arising from atheism–the conviction that there isn’t a supernatural entity. It does offer moral guidance. It helps you to eliminate in one sweep a whole bunch of false, religious moral codes from consideration; these are codes that can potentially ruin lives, foremost yours. But there is more to a moral code than to reject other moral codes. What are the positive moral principles? What should you–or any man–do with your life? Considering your customized conditions living in the 21st-century in Europe in some town, with some degrees of competence, having two arms, two legs, presumably single, good-looking, what are you to do with your life, not just at this moment but in the continuous span of life ahead of you? Consider all the self-help books out there in bookstores. Which ones embody the correct moral code to help you improve yourself? Consider all the jobs out there, which ones will enhance your potential as a human being? Consider all the potential mates out there; which ones to choose from? By looks, by intelligence, by moral codes? By religion–bypass that… By ambition? By popularity? To make any choice in life, you really need a moral code. You need moral principles you hope to be universally true, not subject to revision by fickled bureaucrats or the consensus of some majority in society.

Do you have a morality? Of course you do. The code of values guiding you–the moral principles–are they true? Surely some are. Obviously, you are succeeding somewhat. But a comprehensive owner’s manual tells you what you can gain and keep by doing certain activities, telling you generically what is the best in you and how to go about achieving it. Do you know what is the best in you? Are you striving for it?

Everybody has a morality, just as everyone has a right to his opinion. Ah, but opinions can be wrong, and morality can be false. You know for sure the religious morals are false. How sure you know about yours?

Wow, heavy reply!First of all, thank you Apple for the lengthy reply and for taking the time to actually write the thing. Also thanks for the interest in me.I am not certain why you got the impression that I am uncertain about my morality or that I have abandoned it altogether. I have not even started discussing what I think is moral or not.
Needless to say that I agree with the gist of what you write. Morality is like a guide of conduct but I do not see it as something as powerful as a way of life. The reason is that its rules can easily be broken, given enough of an incentive. It is not that the person will (necessarily) have a problem with his life if he does break them, but he may have a problem with his fellow humans.Thus a more apt analogy, to take you car example, would be the rules of the road which, like morality, have various levels of severity or importance. For example, passing a red light of a busy street is a big no-no, so it could be related to a big moral choice like killing another human being. And just like in morality, there are other rules that are less important, even down to the custom unwritten rules of each area. You even have a basic “generic guideline” for both which you use to align you common sense: In morality it’s the Golden Rule, while in driving it’s “to avoid hitting other vehicles, pedestrians, etc”.
Strangely enough, even though these rules were written by consensus and do make the roads safer, you can still see that there are areas of the world where driving in a completely “illegal” way is the right, as in driving on the left side of the road. Because it is only illegal for us. And while it may seem strange or dissorienting, it still works…Hell! I could even throw religion in my example and show how an irrational belief, let’s say, that the great car factory in the sky will not take you in the afterlife of blissful cruising if you do not always drive below 40kph. It may seem harmless or just annoying (at least for the unfortunate person behind you) but it is still irrational. And like religion, there is no limit to how dangerous those belief can be and what rules they ignore or set up.

I could even argue that if someone from another planet were to come here and observe our rules of the road he would find us absolutely bat-shit insanse. Not because the rules do not work, but because in his planet, failing contact with our idea of rules, they have created something completely different and incompatible. Perhaps it is because of the way their cars are manufactured or because of their environment but in general it is because when they were designed, they were lacking contact with our idea. Now were a human from earth to go to that planet with the strange cars and environment, and design a appropriate “rules of the law”, you can be certain that they would be quite similar to earth’s.

You may argue thus that only one set of rules is the truly right, because it is less prone to accidents or whatnot, and you might be correct but, barring gargantuan differences in the numbers of accidents, nobody would change it. Maybe modify it with ideas from the other and thus evolve, but not throw it away altogether. Because none of the are objectively correct.
So, I agree that it is commendable for Ethicists to try and find the correct set of morals but I do not know how useful it will be in the long run. What comes out, although (hopefully) better, will still be subjective and it will need a strong memetic attribute in order to spread and enter the norm. Nevertheless, what you are not considering is that these morals are still being considered by humans with their own subjective perspective which is firmly grounded in the western morality. They are not creating morals off the top of their head, but rather they are using their current idea or morality to try and find something better. It’s like forced evolution! What may take humans ages to agree as something ethical (as what happened with the woman’s suffrage), these people might discover now. But good luck convincing anyone to use it (Like trying to convince someone for the moral right of woman vote in the 10th century…). Not only that, but many moral values sometimes require a catalyst before they can even start to take root. In the same way that the abolition of slavery demanded an Industrial Revolution.

So, what I am doing Apple, is not throwing out morality altogether. Nor am I considering all moral values to be on the same scale, as Evanescent and Ergosum want to think of me *[1]. I still have a sense of right and wrong and the root of it comes from my upbringing. However my own, subjective sense has evolved to the point where I personally do not accept many of commonly accepted moral rules. I avoid doing those things which would create problems with the law for me, and I do not always express my more radical ideas (altough this is what I’m slowly trying to do through my blog) out of fear of ostracising but I still keep them, not because I am irrational, but because I have judged them in my own mind and my own reason to be right.

However -and this will answer your final question – I am aware that I am not objective here. I do not perform the hybris of the Objectivist to assume that because I consider something moral, it must be rational. If, during the course of the conversation, one of my moral values are challenged and I am shown where and why they fail, I will either modify it or discard it altogether. This is not something that a person who considers morals something “Objective” will be willing to do however. For to accept that something he considered “Objective” all his life to be false, wrong or plain irrational, would have unfortunate reprecursions on his view of the world. “Who was it that decided this objectivity of the value for me” he will think (Bear with me, I know I am caricaturing).
Was it reason? “But that would mean that I was unreasonable! Irrational! And this simply cannot be for I know myself to be rational. Thus you are wrong and my moral value must still be true. We’re just missing something.”
Was it God through the holy scripture? “But that would mean that God is not infallible or that the Bible is not his word and this cannot be! I based my whole life on these rules so it must be true. There must be something else we are not considering. Let me ask my preacher…”

We all know what happens when a theist just knows that a moral value in the scripture is wrong. Because he must accept that morality is objective and comes from God, he will form excuses in his mind for this apparent problem and then ignore it. That is why it is so hard to change the morality of a person who considers morality to be objective, even when those morals are shown to be wrong. I do not suffer from such a drawback.

[1] To tell you the truth, this is a bit disheartening, I wanted to believe that other “rational” atheists would not be so quick to jump to conclusions. Like a theist jumping to conclusions from the label “Atheist. But I digress…

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