What does it mean to do the right thing? What does it mean to be good or evil?
These questions have perplexed people since people began to be perplexed about things. They are the central questions of one of the longest lines of intellectual inquiry in history: ethics. Great thinkers have tackled it; whole religions have been based around it. But confusion still remains.
Well perhaps I should be humble before attempting to solve such a momentous question, seeing who have come before me. And indeed, I don’t claim any originality or finality in these answers. I’m sure they have been thought of before, and articulated more clearly and convincingly by others (though I don’t know by whom). Nevertheless, if only for my own sake I think it’s worthwhile to set down how I tend to think about morality—what it is, what it’s for, and how it works.
I am much less concerned in this essay with asserting how I think morality should work than with describing how it does work—although I think understanding the second is essential to understanding the first. That is to say, I am not interested in fantasy worlds of selfless people performing altruistic acts, but in real people behaving decently in their day-to-day life. But to begin, I want to examine some of the assumptions that have characterized earlier concepts of ethics, particularly with regard to freedom.
Most thinkers begin with a free individual contemplating multiple options. Kantians think that the individual should abide by the categorical imperative and act with consistency; Utilitarians think that the individual should attempt to promote happiness with her actions. What these systems disagree about is the appropriate criterion. But they do both assume that morality is concerned with free individuals and the choices they make. They disagree about the nature of Goodness, but agree that Goodness is a property of people’s actions, making the individual in question worthy of blame or praise, reward or punishment.
The Kantian and Utilitarian perspectives both have a lot to recommend them. But they do tend to produce an interesting tension: the first focuses exclusively on intentions while the second focuses exclusively on consequences. Yet surely both intentions and consequences matter. Most people, I suspect, wouldn’t call somebody moral if they were always intending to do the right thing and yet always failing. Neither would we call somebody moral if they always did the right thing accidentally. Individually, neither of these systems captures our intuitive feeling that both intentions and consequences are important; and yet I don’t see how they can be combined, because the systems have incompatible intellectual justifications.
But there’s another feature of both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics that I do not like, and it is this: Free will. The systems presuppose individuals with free will, who are culpable for their actions because they are responsible for them. Thus it is morally justifiable to punish criminals because they have willingly chosen something wrong. They “deserve” the punishment, since they are free and therefore responsible for their actions.
I’d like to focus on this issue of deserving punishment, because for me it is the key to understanding morality. By this I mean the notion that doing ill to a criminal helps to restore moral order to the universe, so to speak. But before I discuss punishment I must take a detour into free will, since free will, as traditionally conceived, provides the intellectual foundation for this worldview.
What is free will? In previous ages, humans were conceived of as a composite of body and soul. The soul sent directions to the body through the “will.” The body was material and earthly, while the soul was spiritual and holy. Impulses from the body—for example, anger, lust, gluttony—were bad, in part because they destroyed your freedom. To give into lust, for example, was to yield to your animal nature; and since animals aren’t free, neither is the lustful individual. By contrast, impulses from the soul (or mind) were free because they were unconstrained by the animal instincts that compromise your ability to choose.
Thus free will, as it was originally conceived, was the ability to make choices unconstrained by one’s animal nature and by the material world. The soul was something apart and distinct from one’s body; the mind was its own place, and could make decisions independently of one’s impulses or one’s surroundings. It was even debated whether God Himself could predict the behavior of free individuals. Some people held that even God couldn’t, while others maintained that God did know what people would or wouldn’t do, but God’s knowledge wasn’t the cause of their doing it. (And of course, some people believed in predestination.)
It is important to note that, in this view, free will is an uncaused cause. That is, when somebody makes a decision, this decision is not caused by anything in the material world as we know it. The choice comes straight from the soul, bursting into our world of matter and electricity. The decision would therefore be impossible to predict by any scientific means. No amount of brain imaging or neurological study could explain why a person made a certain decision. Nor could the decision be explained by cultural or social factors, since individuals, not groups, were responsible for them. All decisions were therefore caused by individuals, and that’s the essence of freedom.
It strikes me that this is still how we tend to think about free will, more or less. And yet, this view is based on an outdated understanding of human behavior. We now know that human behavior can be explained by a combination of biological and cultural influences. Our major academic debate—nature vs. nurture—presupposes that people don’t have free will. Behavior is the result of the way your genes are influenced by your environment. There is no evidence for the existence of the soul, and there is no evidence that the mind cannot be explained through understanding the brain.
Furthermore, even without the advancements of the biological and social sciences, the old way of viewing things was not philosophically viable, since it left unexplained how the soul affects the body and vice versa. If the soul and the body were metaphysically distinct, how could the immaterial soul cause the material body to move? And how could a pinch in your leg cause a pain in your mind? What’s more, if there really was an immaterial soul that was causing your body to move, and if these bodily movements truly didn’t have any physical cause, then it’s obvious that your mind would be breaking the laws of physics. How else could the mind produce changes in matter that didn’t have any physical cause?
I think this old way of viewing the body and the soul must be abandoned. Humans do not have free will as originally conceived. Humans do not perform actions that cannot be scientifically predicted or explained. Human behavior, just like cat behavior, is not above scientific explanation. The human mind cannot generated uncaused causes, and does not break the laws of physics. We are intelligent apes, not entrapped gods.
Now you must ask me: But if human behavior can be explained in the same way that squirrel behavior can, how do we have ethics at all? We don’t think squirrel are capable of ethical or unethical behavior because they don’t have minds. We can’t hold a squirrel to any ethical standard and we therefore can’t justifiably praise or censor a squirrel’s actions. If humans aren’t categorically different then squirrels, than don’t we have to give up on ethics altogether?
This is not justified. Even though I think it is wrong to say that certain people “deserve” punishment (in the Biblical sense), I do think that certain types of consequences can be justified as deterrents. The difference between humans and squirrels is not that humans are free, but that humans are capable of thinking about the long term consequences of an action before committing it. Individuals should be held accountable, not because they have free will, but because humans have a great deal of behavioral flexibility, thus allowing their behavior to be influenced by the threat of prison.
This is why it is justifiable to lock away murderers. If it is widely known among the populace that murderers get caught and thrown into prison, this reduces the number of murders. Imprisoning squirrels for stealing peaches, on the other hand, wouldn’t do anything at all, since the squirrel community wouldn’t understand what was going on. With humans, the threat of punishment acts as a deterrent. Prison becomes part of the social environment, and therefore will influence decision-making. But in order for this threat to act as an effective deterrent, it cannot be simply a threat; real murderers must actually face consequences or the threat won’t be taken seriously and thus won’t influence behavior.
To understand how our conception of free will affects the way we organize our society, consider the case of drug addiction. In the past, addicts were seen as morally depraved. This was a direct consequence of the way people thought about free will. If people’s decisions were made independently of their environment or biology, then there was no excuses or mitigating circumstance for drug addicts. Addicts were simply weak, depraved people who mysteriously kept choosing self-destructive behavior. What resulted from this was the disastrous war on drugs, a complete fiasco. Now we know that it is absurd to throw people into jail for being addicted, simply absurd, because addicts are not capable of acting otherwise. This is the very definition of addiction, that one’s decision-making abilities have been impaired.
As we’ve grown more enlightened about drug addiction, we’ve realized that throwing people in jail doesn’t solve anything. Punishment does not act as an effective deterrent when normal decision-making is compromised. By transitioning to a system where addiction is given treatment and support, we have effectively transitioned from an old view of free will to the new view that humans behavior is the result of biology, environment, and culture. We don’t hold them “responsible” because we know it would be like holding a squirrel responsible for burying nuts. This is a step forward, and it has been taken by abandoning the old views of free will.
I think we should apply this new view of human behavior to other areas of criminal activity. We need to get rid of the old notions of free will and punishment. We must abandon the idea of punishing people because they “deserve” it. Murderers should be punished, but not because they deserve to suffer, but for the following two reasons: first, because they have shown themselves to be dangerous and should be isolated; and second, because their punishment helps to act as a deterrent to future murderers. Punishment is just only insofar as these two criteria are met. Once a murderer is made to suffer more than is necessary to deter future crimes, and is isolated more than is necessary to protect others, then I think it is unjustifiable and wrong to punish him further.
In short, we have to give up on the idea that inflicting pain and discomfort on a murderer helps to restore moral balance to the universe. Vengeance in all its forms should be removed from our justice system. It is not the job of us or anyone else to seek retributions for wrongs committed. Punishments are only justifiable because they help to protect the community. The aim of punishing murderers is neither to hurt nor to help them, but to prevent other people from becoming murderers. And this is, I think, the reason why the barbarous methods of torture and execution are wrong, because I very much doubt that brutal punishments are justified in terms of further efficacy in deterrence. However, I’m sure there is interesting research somewhere on this.
Seen in this way, morality can be understood in the same way we understand language—as a social adaptation that benefits the community as a whole as well as individual members of the community. Morality is a code of conduct imposed by the community on its members, and derivations from this code of conduct are justifiably punished for the safety of the other members of the community. When this code is broken, a person forfeits the protection under the code, and is dealt with in such a way that future derivations from the moral code are discouraged.
Just as Wittgenstein said that a private language is impossible, so I’d argue that a private morality is impossible. A single, isolated individual can be neither moral nor immoral. People are born with a multitude of desires; and every desire is morally neutral. A moral code comes into play when two individuals begin to cooperate. This is because the individuals will almost inevitably have some desires that conflict. A system of behavior is therefore necessary if the two are to live together harmoniously. This system of behavior is their moral code. In just the same way that language results when two people both use the same sounds to communicate the same messages, morality results when two people’s desires and actions are in harmony. Immorality arises when the harmonious arrangement breaks down, and one member of the community satisfies their desire at the expense of the others. Deviations of this kind must have consequences if the system is to maintain itself, and this is the justification for punishment.
One thing to note about this account of moral systems is that they arise for the well-being of their participants. When people are working together, when their habits and opinions are more or less in harmony, when they can walk around in their neighborhood without fearing every person they meet, both the individual and the group benefits. This point is worth stressing, since we now know that the human brain is the product of evolution, and therefore we must surmise that universal features of human behavior, such as morality, are adaptive. The fundamental basis for morality is self-interest. What distinguishes moral from immoral behavior is not that the first is unselfish while the other is selfish, but that the first is more intelligently selfish than the second.
It isn’t hard to see how morality is adaptive. One need only consider the basic tenets of game theory. In the short term, to cooperate with others may not be as advantageous as simply exploiting others. Robbery is a quicker way to make money than farming. And indeed, the potentially huge advantages of purely selfish behavior explains why unethical behavior occurs: Sometimes it benefits individuals more to exploit rather than to help one another. Either that, or certain individuals—either from ignorance or desperation—are willing to risk long-term security for short-term gains. Nevertheless, in general moral behaviors tend to be more advantageous, if only because selfish behavior is more risky. All unethical behavior, even if carried on in secret, carries a risk of making enemies; and in the long run, enemies are less useful than friends. The funny thing about altruism is that it’s often more gainful than selfishness.
Thus this account of morality can be harmonized with an evolutionary account of human behavior. But what I find most satisfying about this view of morality is that it allows us to see why we care both about intentions and consequences. Intentions are important in deciding how to punish misconduct because they help determine how an individual is likely to behave in the future. A person who stole something intentionally has demonstrated a willingness to break the code, while a person who took something by accident has only demonstrated absent-mindedness. The first person is therefore more of a risk to the community. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible to prove what somebody intended beyond the shadow of a doubt, which is why it is also necessary to consider the consequences of an action. What is more, carelessness as regards the moral code must be forcibly discouraged, otherwise the code will not function properly. This is why, in certain cases, breaches of conduct must be punished even if they were demonstrably unintentional—to discourage other people in the future from being careless.
Let me pause here to sketch out some more philosophical objections to the Utilitarian and Kantian systems, besides the fact that they don’t adequately explain how we tend to think about morality. Utilitarianism does capture something important when it proclaims that actions should be judged insofar as they further the “greatest possible happiness.” Yet taken by itself this doctrine has some problems. The first is that you never know how something is going to turn out, and even the most concerted efforts to help people sometimes backfire. Should these efforts, made in good faith, be condemned as evil if they don’t succeed? What’s more, Utilitarian ethics can lead to disturbing moral questions. For example, is it morally right to kill somebody if you can use his organs to save five other people? Besides this, if the moral injunction is to work constantly towards the “greatest possible happiness,” then we might even have to condemn simple things like a game of tennis, since two people playing tennis certainly could be doing something more humanitarian with their time and energy.
The Kantian system has the opposite problem in that it stresses good intentions and consistency to an absurd degree. If the essence of immorality is to make an exception of oneself—which covers lying, stealing, and murder—then telling a fib is morally equivalent to murdering somebody in cold blood, since both of those actions equally make exceptions of the perpetrator. This is what results if you overemphasize consistency and utterly disregard consequences. What’s more, intentions are, as I said above, basically impossible to prove—and not only to other people, but also to yourself. Can you prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your intentions were pure yesterday when you accidentally said something rude? How do you know your memory and your introspection can be trusted? However, let me leave off with these objections because I think entirely too much time in philosophy is given over to tweezing apart your enemies’ ideas and not enough to building your own.
Thus, to repeat myself, both consequences and intentions, both happiness and consistency must be a part of any moral theory if it is to capture how we do and must think about ethics. Morality is an adaptation. The capacity for morality has evolved because moral systems benefit both groups and individuals. Morality is rooted in self-interest, but it is an intelligent form of self-interest that recognizes that other people are most useful as allies than as enemies. Morality is neither consistency nor pleasure. Morality is consistency for the sake of pleasure. This is why moral strictures that demand that people devote their every waking hour to helping others or to never make exceptions of themselves are self-defeating, because when a moral system is onerous is isn’t performing its proper function.
But now I must deal with that fateful question: Is morality absolute or relative? At first glance it would seem that my account would put me squarely in the relativist camp, seeing that I point to a community code of conduct. Nevertheless, when it comes to violence I am decidedly a moral absolutist. This is because I think that physical violence can only ever be justified by citing defense. First, to use violence to defend yourself from violent attack is neither moral nor immoral, because at this point the moral code has already broken down. The metaphorical contract has been broken, and you are now in a situation where the you must either fight, run, or be killed. The operant rule is now survival and not morality. For the same reason a whole community may justifiably protect itself from invasion from an enemy force (although capitulating is equally defensible). And lastly violence (in the form of imprisonment) is justified in the case of criminals, for the reasons I discussed above.
What if there are two communities, community A and community B, living next to one another? Both of these communities have their own moral codes which the people abide by. What if a person from community A encounters a person from community B? Is it justifiable for either of them to use violence against the other? After all, each of them is outside the purview of the other’s moral code, since moral codes develop within communities. Well in practice situations like this do commonly result in violence. Whenever Europeans encountered a new community—whether in the Americas or in Africa—the result was typically disastrous for that community. This isn’t simply due to the wickedness of Europeans; it has been a constant throughout history: When different human communities interact, violence is very often the result. And this, by the way, is one of the benefits of globalization. The more people come to think of humanity as one community, the less violence we will experience.
Nevertheless, I think that violence between people from different communities is ultimately immoral, and this is why. To feel it is permissible to kill somebody just because they are not in your group is to consider that person subhuman—as fundamentally different. This is what we now call “Othering,” and it is what underpins racism, sexism, religious bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia. But of course we now know that it is untrue that other communities, other religions, other races, women, men, or homosexuals or anyone else are “fundamentally” different or in any way subhuman. It is simply incorrect. And I think the recognition that we all belong to one species—with only fairly superficial differences in opinions, customs, rituals, and so on—is the key to moral progress. Moral systems can be said to be comparatively advanced or backward to the extent that they recognize that all humans belong to the same species. In other words, moral systems can be evaluated by looking at how many types of people they include.
This is the reason why it is my firm belief that the world as it exists today—full as it still is with all sorts of violence and prejudice—is morally superior than ever before. Most of us have realized that racism was wrong because it was based on a lie; and the same goes for sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and xenophobia. These forms of bias were based on misconceptions; they were not only morally wrong, but factually wrong.
Thus we ought to be tolerant of immorality in the past, for the same reason that we excuse people in the past for being wrong about physics or chemistry. Morality cannot be isolated from knowledge. For a long time, the nature of racial and sexual differences was unknown. Europeans had no experience and thus no understanding of non-Western cultures. All sorts of superstitions and religious injunctions were believed in, to an extent most of us can’t even appreciate now. Before widespread education and the scientific revolution, people based their opinions on tradition rather than evidence. And in just the same way that it is impossible to justly put someone in prison without evidence of their guilt, it impossible to be morally developed if your beliefs are based on misinformation. Africans and women used to be believed to be mentally inferior; homosexuals used to be believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Now we know that there is no evidence for these views, and in fact evidence to the contrary, so we can cast them aside; but earlier generations were not so lucky.
To the extent, therefore, that backward moral systems are based on a lack of knowledge, they must be tolerated. In this why we ought to be tolerant of other cultures and of the past. But to the extent that facts are wilfully disregarded in a moral system, that system can be said to be corrupt. Thus the real missionaries are not the ones who spread religion, but who spread knowledge, for increased understanding of the world allows us develop our morals.
These are my ideas in their essentials. But for the sake of honesty I have to add that the ideas I put forward above have been influenced by my studies in cultural anthropology, as well as my reading of Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Spinoza, Santayana, Ryle, Wittgenstein, and of course by Mill and Kant. I was also influenced by Richard Dawkins’s discussion of Game Theory in his book, The Selfish Gene. Like most third-rate intellectual work, this essay is, for the most part, a muddled hodgepodge of other people’s ideas.