Uncommon Sense

February 12, 2011

The Myth of the Moral Higher Ground

Filed under: beliefs,Religion,value — Derek @ 9:17 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Moralisers make a fundamental error when condemning those whose behaviour or expressed value system falls short of their own standard. It is an unavoidable error since it is based on a notion for which we have no direct evidence; it is something human society has assumed to be true based on religious preconceptions.

The concept of free will is not clearly understood by many, who seem to think it is a God-given ability, that it exists independently of any social or cultural conditioning and that all humans have equal capacity and ability in this regard.

The first assumption is that free will is God-given and of course a prerequisite assumption would be that there exists an entity such as God, and that it exists within the confines of our own ability to define such an entity. Assumptions and Faith are close cousins, since they both regard something to be true without any reference to reality. They are inevitably dangerous to the practice of knowledge for that reason, and should be avoided as the basis for understanding of any sort. Any reasonable person must demand evidence for the existence of any proposition.

This leads me to the next assumption – that ‘free will’ exists independently of any social or cultural conditioning. We would have to find an ability that somehow transcends the associations of colour, religion, sex, nation, species and their concomitant prejudices, not to mention the personal needs of ego and social pressures. That these associations and needs influence our choices  is undeniable, and how we would go about isolating this ‘free’ component is not readily apparent. Since it already an abstract concept rather than an observable, measurable phenomenon, we already commit reification when attempting to analyse this tenuous idea.

But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is a capability few possess. Given the degree to which most people remain associated with the cultural and religious beliefs that they are introduced to (indoctrinated in?) as children, and given the degree of partisanship most people display with regard to their nation, local sports team, familial pursuits and other cultural icons, ‘free will’ seems to be the exception, not the rule. The emotional hysteria that accompanies an International sports event is a case in point, when people demonstrate their affiliations with all sorts of predictable and definitively conditioned behaviours, from the wearing of identity clothing, to waving of banners, to chanting and singing. The modern version of the war cry, if not as destructive, is no less primitive. Left to make their own choices, the majority will copy each other, and these associations were all derived, in most cases, without conscious application to a decision problem, but by the associations of proximity and social interaction.

In the world of the Arts and even in Literature, the absence of selective, considered choice is evident. Most people’s musical preferences are derived from what they have grown accustomed to and their favourites ‘selected’ by association with emotional experiences. If they are not introduced to a given genre of music, it is unlikely they will develop an appreciation for the form, with the result that their own limited range is both conditioned and prejudiced.  The quality of the music itself never enters the frame. Best-sellers get there by virtue of buy-in from a social collective, not because they contain quality writing. In both the Arts and Literature, it is ignorance and narrow social selection that drive the numbers – the influence of peers, the zeitgeist and the social aspirations of consumers unquestionable. The issue of quality remains the ambit of precious few.

In Democratic countries, we say that people have the right to vote independently. Whether they have the ability to do so is debatable, given that they are bombarded with propaganda and misinformation and given that most of them do not have the first understanding of the issues.

It is this difference in ability that leads me to the last assumption: that all humans have equal capacity and ability to make decisions. More importantly, since we are talking about morals, we would have to show that all humans have the same capacity and ability to make moral choices. Since moral choices are inevitably more complex than simple ones like which car to buy, which music to listen to, or which book to read, which itself may have a moral component, it stands to reason that the mental ability to weigh up moral dilemmas, to process general rules in application to specific circumstances, and to consider the global effect of a local action, firstly require a wider knowledge base, and secondly a mental ability to process all of this in an integrated fashion. Given the ignorance and intelligence of most humans, it is surely self-evident that it is completely impossible that this capacity is equal in all humans.

It becomes entirely rational, then, not to expect the moral choices made by the ignorant and unintelligent majority to correlate with those made by knowledgeable and intelligent people. It is simply an unrealistic expectation. We could, of course, moralise concerning those who wilfully remain ignorant and those who have the mental capacity to understand but still insist on making choices and behaving in ways we find deplorable.

But to expect the great majority to do so is to behave immorally ourselves. They need our education and upliftment, not our condemnation.


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