Morality and Ethics

What is the difference between morals and ethics? When I was a kid, this question really bothered me, mostly because I couldn’t actually see any difference between them. As far as I could tell, they were both just sets of rules designed to make sure people treated each other nicely. At that time, I still believed in God; I’d only been exposed to the friendlier parts of the Bible through the Catholic school I was attending; and I was only just starting to have my beliefs unwittingly moulded by our racist, sexist, partriarchal society; and so it all just seemed like common sense. The logic behind the Golden Rule is quite easy to grasp, after all, even for a child (and even with all the obfuscating religious propaganda surrounding it). And yet people still made this big deal out of morals and ethics, and the apparent differences which I couldn’t make sense of at that time.

I get it now, though.

What we now consider to be moral behaviour is a set of rules, usually revolving around definitions of “right” and “wrong”, that naturally emerge when social animals learn to cooperate for mutual benefit. These rules are much more highly refined in humans than in any other animal, but they are still a product of evolution, as I was attempting to explain the other day in that huge post about violence. They have since been co-opted and distorted by a long line of religions, usually without any overtly malicious intent, but more through unavoidable ignorance. One of the reasons why religion has played such a long-lasting role in human development is because it is a social behaviour formed around these basic moral rules, which allows people to live together without their more selfish tendencies taking control and destablising the group dynamic (hence most religions revolving around love, the strongest of the social emotions). That is also why most religions preach peace and tolerance, and yet so easily go to war with one another – because they are really just social groups vying for survival in much the same way that individual organisms would. Peace is fine within the group, because it provides social cohesion, but outsiders are still fair game (so you get rhetoric about chosen people, sinners, the damned… anything that justifies treating certain people differently whilst still maintaining an overall belief system that is ostensibly directed towards treating people in very much the opposite manner).

This traditional approach to morality breaks down in a globalised, increasingly-borderless world, like the one that we are now beginning to create. You can’t have Us versus Them when all people are held to be equal. That is very much the problem that most societies are now struggling with, because up until quite recently, one of the defining properties of social behaviour was an outside source of pressure that forced people to work together, because the only other choice was to be overwhelmed by that pressure. That’s why social behaviour arose in the first place, and without that outside pressure, we seem to be a little lost. Presumably this is because there is nothing forcing people to join in with social groups, and so they inevitably start to ask themselves, well, why should I bother to? What do I gain from it? Would it be as advantageous as a more selfish path? This is also one of the reasons why people like to manufacture and exaggerate foreign threats, like terrorism, immigration, etc – because counterintuitive though it may seem, it makes them feel safer and more connected within their own insular communities. We have grown so accustomed to fearing external threats that when we can’t see any, we just make them up – and because these fears have little basis in reality, they are easily distorted, and before you know it, a ragtag group of poorly-trained terrorists is being held up as a dire threat to the entire civilised world. And people accept this, because it comes naturally to them. It might seem kind of ironic that moral behaviour relies on having an oppositional force to keep it in check, but when you look at the long history of violence between religions and social groups, all these weird behaviours and fears start to make a bit more sense. (The Watchmen graphic novel captured this struggle beautifully, and carried it through to its logical conclusion – but the movie completely fucked it up, so steer clear of that.)

Of course, the other problem with traditional morality is that, as a result of its religious associations, most people see it as a sort of high-handed, impossible-to-live-up-to set of rules, and so they don’t really see it as something that is worth pursuing. This situation is no accident: for centuries now, religions have held control over their followers specifically because their rules were unrealistic and impossible to follow. This creates a feeling of guilt in those who are taught to believe in this type of morality, which the religion then exploits by offering a way to assuage that guilt. All you have to do is surrender yourself to a higher power, and your sins will be forgiven. This might not be a deliberate manipulation in all cases – it’s very easy to start believing your own hype, after all – but regardless, this distorted morality has become a problem not only for the established religions, which are currently finding it much harder to convince people to believe in their ridiculous rules now that we’ve been freed from the external pressure that would have previously motivated people to join in with social groups they disagreed with; but also for anyone who rejects these rules, and is subsequently left with no moral viewpoint to believe in at all.

You might assume that this is the part where I say, okay, it’s time we reinvent morality for the modern age – but the thing is, there are plenty of people who have already done that. Violence is being increasingly rejected the world over; there are lots of Christians who now accept and support homosexuality and other types of behaviour once held to be unthinkably immoral; there are lots of Muslims who promote women’s rights and reject the fundamentalist (and inaccurate) interpretations of their religion that have been popularized in the West as the source of all evil and terrorism; there are Jedi who have started to question the black-and-white dogma surrounding the Force… in fact most definitions of morality tend to be quite flexible and adaptable (for better or worse, in some cases). Social behaviour is a product of evolution – and therefore, unsurprisingly, it continues to evolve. Moreover, cultural ideas are no longer confined by the extremely slow pace of genetic evolution, and so they can change very rapidly. It might not seem like it from a human perspective – but just compare the massive social upheaval over the past fifty years since the rights movements began with the millions of years it usually takes for evolution to weave its magic.

So we don’t need to worry so much about trying to change morality, because that change is unavoidable and inevitable. Morality is really just the lump sum of everyone’s selfish desires, broiled together until a mutually-beneficial and fairly unselfish product can be produced (which has traditionally just meant that people were able to accept their place in the social hierarchy, but then, if morality was perfect to start off with then there would be no need for it to evolve). It think it’s actually somewhat poetic that such a cruel and wasteful process as natural selection could give rise to such a thing. And it’s obviously quite reassuring to know that there is a logical progression to this point, too. But that doesn’t mean we can take it for granted. The real trick, now, is to try and monitor this process of change, and ensure that it doesn’t get skewed too far in one direction. Because whilst this process is self-correcting and mostly balances out in the long run, when you look at the history of social upheaval and revolution throughout human development, you see that these corrections more often than not come at great cost. If we intend to avoid repeating these mistakes over and again, our new goal should be to try and take the process of change out of the hands of natural selection – as I said, it is a horribly cruel and wasteful process – and turn it into a system of artificial selection, which will hopefully not only be more beneficial to humanity as a whole, but also greatly accelerate our development into the future. This is already happening to a certain degree, but I think we are kind of stuck between the two systems at this point in time, and the process is still very ill-defined and poorly understood.

It is here that we run into a somewhat unexpected problem, and we also return to my original point – the difference between morality and ethics. In broad terms, ethics is usually defined as the philosophical analysis of morality, but when we look at it from the perspective of the natural, evolutionary development of morality, what we actually see is that it is a shift from mutually agreed-upon moral rules to a more individually-deliberated set of ideas. It is no longer a social behaviour, but an exercise in self-justification (quite possibly brought about, or at least influenced by our newfound freedom from the external pressure that had previously motivated social behaviour). Which means that all too often, unfortunately, it’s just a form of cognitive dissonance. Strange though it might seem, this is actually where a lot of bad ideas get their foot in the door.

Of course, due to the ever-changing and increasingly-sophisticated nature of morality, we are left with little choice but to study its nature in order to determine the best course of action. I’m not saying that ethics are a bad idea, just that we need to be very careful in avoiding some of the pitfalls that arise when an individual tries to determine what is best for everyone. The tendency to avoid questioning our own beliefs is so strong that it is almost impossible to avoid falling back into patterns of self-justification. It would be a good idea to learn from the traditional system of moral development, and expose ourselves to as many alternative ideas as possible, in the hope that the best ideas can emerge and succeed on their own merits. Wishful thinking, sure, but then, in a system based around constant change, perfection is impossible anyway, so we don’t need to worry about trying to obtain it. We are not arming ourselves to try and reach some kind of ultimate goal; we are instead preparing for a never-ending journey, with no destination. The competing forces of other people’s views should help balance out our individual shortcomings, in the long run.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the problems with our current approach to ethics is the way the subject is often pursued in a highly specialized and narrowly-focused way. So people will tell themselves that they are developing an ethical approach to behaviour, but what they are actually doing is inventing an alternate set of rules that can be applied to a specific situation in order to justify something which otherwise would have been considered unacceptable. The results speak for themselves really, when you look at, say, the world of business ethics, where people routinely make decisions that literally ruin other people’s lives, and they justify it by telling themselves that it’s “just business” and that’s simply how the system works. In any other setting these same people probably would have made very different decisions, but because they have given themselves over to the capitalist ideals of profit and the pursuit of success at any other cost, they blind themselves to the very real consequences of their actions. Whilst there is certainly logic behind their actions, when viewed as part of the bigger picture you would have little choice but to call it selfish logic, and therefore, from a moral standpoint, wrong. Hence the need to invent an alternate set of rules, and label them as “ethics”. Which is for me quite fascinating: even when participating in activities which are hilariously and obviously wrong by any sane definition of the word, people still have this innate desire to justify their actions, even if only in their own mind. This might have been a useful safeguard against harmful behaviour, if humans were rational beings – but unfortunately that is clearly not the case. Which means what we are left with is significantly worse, because a person who believes they are justified in holding harmful ideas is much more dangerous, and much harder to argue with, than someone who is incapable of justifying their actions.

And if you still don’t believe me, then note the “E” in PETA*. Enough said, motherfuckers. ;)

If you find yourself with no other choice but to invent an alternate, contradictory set of rules to deal with a specific situation, then that is a pretty sure sign that there is a problem somewhere along the line. It’s just a question of whether that problem lies in the situation you are trying to justify, or in your overarching moral viewpoint. So to go with an obvious example, if you believe that people shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and yet 98% of the population does exactly that, then there is clearly a conflict that needs to be resolved. You have to ask yourself, are your moral views unrealistic, or is there some other problem preventing people from living up to them? In this case we can obviously trace the moral viewpoint back to unrealistic religious morality (perhaps caused by panic over the consequences of sex, in the time before reliable contraception and birth control) and the attempts of a patriarchal society to exert control over people’s sexuality, to maintain familial order. These views are no longer in line with modern morality and therefore need to change – and in the minds of many, they already have. This is just one of many ways in which we hold ourselves to a different level of morality than previous generations ever considered. But whilst in this and the vast majority of other cases, things have definitely improved, it’s worth remembering that evolution doesn’t equal improvement; it just means change. Which is why we have to pay close attention to this process, and ensure it doesn’t go off the rails.

Despite what the major religions would have you believe, morality is not synonymous with virtue; and indeed throughout history it has had much more in common with the tyranny of the majority. When you throw everyone’s selfish desires into a melting pot, some are inevitably going to outweigh others. The main force counteracting this has been our gradual empathetic awakening, which I detailed in that violence post, but progress on this front has been extremely slow and patchy. So whilst we may now look back into the past and think that people were shockingly or bizarrely immoral by today’s standards, the thing is, they were likely living up to the moral standards of their day, too. Their behaviour only seems worse to us because morality has evolved since then – which raises some pretty serious questions about why people think it’s such a good idea to turn to ancient religious texts to try and build their moral viewpoints. Even if they did have a few good ideas back then, why you would want to discard all the moral development in the intervening period is quite beyond me.

Hmm, I’ve lost track of whether I was trying to build up to some kind of point here. Mostly I am just so sick of arguing with people who are so caught up in the desire for self-justification that they completely shut down any chance of rational debate. How do you break through this mental shield, and open people’s minds? Answer that, and you’ll probably solve a whole bunch of problems right then and there. Thing is though, we are not only wired to resist facts that challenge our beliefs, but we are also taught to do that very same thing from an early age. Right the way through school, we are constantly told that we need to perform well to get into good classes next year so we can get good marks and go to a good university and get a good job and earn lots of money and if we screw up even once along the way then our lives will be ruined forever. Mistakes are punished, and treated as a source of shame. The fear of being wrong is drilled into us unrelentingly, and finds a welcome home in the hardwiring of our brains. What we need, instead, is to teach people that no matter where they’re at, the only thing they can truly be sure of is that their existing beliefs are either largely wrong or at least erroneous – and that by trying to deny this fact, they are shutting down their capacity for growth. Maybe then, we could finally free ourselves from the mistakes of the past.

*In case you’re unfamiliar with my views on this, I don’t have anything against animal rights – I just prefer them to be promoted by non-sociopathic organisations.

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