I found this short essay of mine, written a year or two ago, while rummaging through some old files. I’d forgotten about it entirely. I may have abandoned it because it was getting too close to Kant ‘s categorical imperative. I don’t have time to revise it properly, but it’s sat in the proverbial trunk long enough.
One of the most important questions that every human being must address in his or her lifetime is the question of morality. In other words, how do we know what is good and what is bad?
There are many positions on morality, of course, held by various religions, cultures, families, and individuals all over the world, but which one is the most advisable? And should we even try to pick, granting the assumption that some positions are better than others – or that any given one is better than most – but instead create our own? There are several common ways of resolving the question of morality, and I’d like to discuss these before arguing for an alternative that I believe is the most attractive.
The first method of resolving the question of morality is a popular one: subscription to a religion with a fixed moral code. The question of morality is resolved with an appeal to a higher power or powers that professes absolute moral standards and condemns, or forgives, those who disobey. Even a religion that professes a more “gray” moral code is functionally the same in terms of responsibility; either way, reliance on religion for moral authority shifts the onus for decision-making to a deity/deities or scripture instead of the individual or even a community. Adherence, of course, to this divine code may be spotty, but it at least serves as a guide for all but the worst hypocrites.
A second method of resolution is a stance of moral relativism. Relativism, simply put, holds that all meaning, including morality, is relative, man-made, and governed chiefly by context, culture, and language. The extreme case of cannibalism is a good illustration. In some places cannibalism is morally acceptable, and in others, it is not; regardless, according to relativism, no locale or group can claim ultimate moral authority over the action. There is no absolute “good” or “bad,” only individuals and communities that agree on what is acceptable, and may very well clash if groups with different positions come into extended contact. It is not just man that is the measure of all things, as Gorgias put it, but acculturated humans in combination and dialogue with other acculturated humans that are the measure of all things. I should note that moral relativism should never be confused with nihilism, which discards morality entirely; relativism recognizes that the meaning agreed upon by communities, in particular, has value and authority within that community.
A third method of resolving the question of morality is the nihilism that I just mentioned, which takes relativism further, and too far for most. The nihilist throws out all moral standards, recognizing the authority of none, and claims that anything is allowable in a world where meaning is cheap. It is the individual, therefore, that enforces their morality onto the world. It is important to note that this may result in a philosophy of total unashamed selfishness, or a pattern of behavior undistinguishable from a saint’s. It is the refuge of both the insane and the fiercely independent.
A fourth method of resolution I will call, for the lack of a better term, physiological empiricism. It is similar to moral relativism, but its beliefs are grounded less in an understanding of the complicated and messy role of language and more in empirical observation. The physiological empiricist holds that morality is not quite entirely relative because it does have a traceable wellspring – the human body. Human morality, therefore, is an evolutionary byproduct of sentient beings that have two sexes, two arms, two legs, the limited perception offered by five senses, an omnivore’s diet, and a cognitively advanced brain and accompanying nervous system. In other words, evolution, a process following logically from the known processes of physics and chemistry, and game theory to explain how genes best each other in the reproductive cycle, produced the notion of morality. This position can be further extended by noting that religion and culture, as well as the other possible solutions to morality, are human inventions designed to allay nettlesome complications arising from the evolution of the body, including the very notion of morality itself.
There are serious problems with all four of these solutions.
For the first solution, that of religion, the sheer number of different religions, sects, and cults on this planet makes a choice among them a game of Russian roulette with a revolver that may or may not have a bullet in any chamber. You may be lucky enough to have been born in the “correct” religion, or not; in any case there is no way of determining validity besides faith. Untold numbers of people have no problem with this, but I do.
The second solution, moral relativism, has an uncanny ability to describe human interaction. On the other hand, it lacks the moral core that many people crave and runs into a significant problem when communities with different standards interact; it provides no method of resolution beyond, perhaps, a system of civic rhetoric (which I’ll get to later). It can also inconsistent with itself, by declaring an universal rule that there aren’t any universal rules.
Likewise, the third solution, nihilism, is hardly a balm for a feeling of spiritual emptiness, and the nihilist has no need of internal or external community resolution; it is generally not a philosophy for people who wish to live with and respect others.
The fourth solution, that of the physiological empiricist, too, can offer little solace or practical day-to-day resolution of conflict to the moral questioner, as it posits human beings are little more than fantastically complex machines evolved to promote the distribution and replication of genes. The situation it posits may be quite accurate, but it almost useless for resolving the question of morality.
Thus the question remains for the philosophically inclined. We are torn between a strong desire for certain, or at least reasonably certain, moral knowledge that can guide our actions and the actions of communities, and a recognition that the world is filled with innumerable moral claims that conflict, whether or not those claims are declared by deities or formed by humans through consensus. No obvious solution exists beyond a crude balancing of the urge for the divine and our flawed observations of the world.
Most people are not ethical philosophers, and yet most people, I would suggest, come to similar compromises, allowing as much faith-based spirituality or hard-nosed secularism into their lives as they can deal with at any given moment. Few of us have the luxury of being morally consistent in a world that constantly presents moral dilemmas that both challenge black-white morality as well as the gray alternatives. Ethics are expensive.
However, I would argue that the agnostic individual occupies a unique position in regards to the question of morality. Agnostics are skeptics, waiting for more information, and in that sense they are empirical and open-minded, natural candidates for the fourth solution of physiological empiricism. But at the same time, a consistent agnostic does not dismiss the possibility of some form of religion being an appropriate path.
Agnostics are not atheists, who by definition must hold onto a relatively firm position on a deity or deities; the agnostic reserves judgment and thus floats, unattached, between many viewpoints. This reservation of judgment comes from an interesting notion of responsibility to truths that may or may not exist, but at the very least are currently inaccessible. This agnostic conception of responsibility to the truth, I suggest, offers a possible fifth option for resolution of the question of morality.
The stereotypical center of Western morality is some form of the Golden or Platinum Rule, stated one way in Matthew 7:12: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” The ethic of reciprocity or fair play contained in this statement can be taken to be of divine origin, but it can also be construed in a relativistic or even physiological sense also; it is a rule derived from human behavior and the demands of living in communities filled with humans who are predisposed to react violently when their self-interests are not taken into account by others. It can also, however, be interpreted in terms of responsibility, in that those agreeing to the rule agree to take on a certain responsibility for their behavior, as well as for the welfare of others.
This maxim falls apart, of course, in many specific cases, as it has no notion of truth or how to manage what Greek stasis theory calls krinomenon, the point of judgment; the details of judicial enforcement of the rule in other words, are left to the reader. But the maxim becomes significantly stronger when its conception of responsibility is stressed. Each individual acceding to the rule has not only a right to be treated like all others given similar circumstances, but a responsibility as an agent to personally practice a policy of equal treatment. All actions in the Golden Rule’s bare-bones moral system are owned by their agent; there is no collective responsibility. Its moral system fails or succeeds based solely on individual moral decisions. In that sense, it is directly analogous to the success or failure of individual organisms in evolution; successful moral systems participate in an arena filled with many other reproductive strategies, and are replicated, marginalized, or rendered extinct through their direct contests with alternative strategies.
The Golden Rule might then seem to be a good choice for a moral core. The problem, however, is that it does not directly address altruism, another notion of responsibility that many are fiercely unwilling to abandon. There is no role in the rule for altruistic actions, only a careful measurement of the predicted response to the agent’s actions. Everyone must be treated fairly, but only according to a social cost. There is no moral charge to care for the poor, the sick, or the hungry; there is no responsibility not to kill if the agent is willing to be killed in turn (the Golden Rule technically allows wars without cause belli and even suicide bombing as long as the agent doesn’t mind reciprocation, which they hardly could in the case of suicide). In practice, then, as the agent is allowed to construct a moral system that pleases his or her standards and then willy-nilly inflict it on others, the Golden Rule (if isolated) can be attacked on grounds that it is fascist – or even nihilist.
How then, can the strengths of Golden Rule be combined with altruism in other to cover this loophole? I would suggest agnosticism is a pretty good answer. Agnosticism has a unique role of responsibility to the question of the existence/non-existence of God in that all options must be considered and all the evidence must be weighed before anything is resolved. However, agnostics must be moral agents in the world despite their doubts; pragmatic day-to-day decisions must still be made. These decisions, however, are made on the same moral basis of responsibility to the truth as the question of God’s existence, only quicker, through the means of a civic rhetoric that allows probabilistic decisions about questions that cannot be resolved unequivocally.
And thus, I would argue, agnosticism merges with altruism; the agnostic quest to find evidence for the existence/non-existence of God is best promoted through the successful spread of knowledge and ideas, which can only happen in a peaceful, productive society. In other words, agnosticism injects a peaceful morality into the Golden Rule through the concept of responsibility to the larger community. Indeed, there is no point to withholding judgment and operating on probability if there is no environment in which to further seek the truth. Therefore, the agnostic has a charge to create, maintain, and defend communities in which knowledge and ideas are celebrated and discussed. The disadvantaged, which under the more primitive and fascist Golden Rule could be disregarded, cannot be ignored; any and all of them may be part of the grand puzzle of existence, and the agnostic must, if he or she is to be logically consistent, acknowledge their potential to contribute to humanity and treat them accordingly.
Of course, this solution does not address the need for a divine presence, and a reasonable counterargument could be made that most religious people inject plenty of altruism into the Golden Rule all the time. What’s so different about agnostics? The difference is that in the place of a god or gods, agnosticism promotes a concern for the community and humanity as a whole. The agnostic fears not a supernatural power, nor the community itself, but a personal dereliction of his or her responsibilities to the community and the quest to answer the existence/non-existence of God. The purpose of the agnostic’s life, therefore, is adherence to the responsibilities of moral agency that he or she practices as a member of a community, in the sense that increasing knowledge and ideas are promoted by supporting the efforts of all the members of the community. Currently, I think this is the best way to promote a resolution of moral questions, if not the existence or non-existence of God. Your mileage may vary.