What is the source of morality? Many would reply, God is the source. Others would say, reason. Others still, nature. These explanations often overlap, but all who espouse them agree on one score: any code of conduct that is based on convention – that is, on history and tradition – can scarcely be called morality at all. It’s conformism, hypocrisy, falsehood, the way of the bourgeois and the Pharisee.
I believe that, on examination, that judgment must be completely reversed. Reason never enters into questions of value. Nature provides the raw material of good and evil, but history provides the thou shalts and thou shalt nots. Even religion depends on the variable ability of a people to grasp how God in his heaven might relate to mere mortal men. The ultimate source of morality will be found in tradition. We are all Pharisees.
Let’s tackle the explanations one at a time. Since the time of Socrates, reason has been the God of moral philosophers. Unlike the clear-voiced God of the bible, though, reason never gets to the point. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates reasons until everyone’s head explodes, but he never once extracts a single practical rule of conduct from his own bloviations. I suppose Socrates (probably) and Plato (without question) would tell me not to worry my pretty little head about it. Reason is hard. Most people can’t use it. We’ll just set up a few geniuses as Guardians, and the rest of us can do as they say.
Reason is a magnificent tool for analyzing the environment. It can tell me that the river is deep. It can infer that the man in the river can’t swim. It can project into the future, and predict that the man will drown, and it can involve me in a possible action, that of saving the man because I am a good swimmer. But I can’t reason my way into wanting to save the drowning man. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” David Hume famously wrote, “and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” If I save the drowning man, I will be driven by compassion or fellow-feeling.
The second explanation, nature, also has a long history. As used by philosophers, nature becomes a rhetorical stick with which to beat money-grubbers, status-seekers, and power-lusters, otherwise known as normal people, while glorifying the romance of Diogenes in his tub, Thoreau in his shack, and Californians among their windmills.
If we look to human nature, to our biological endowment, we’ll stand on firmer ground. Cognitive scientists like Stephen Pinker and Jonathan Haidt believe our species evolved a “moral sense,” which can be compared with our gift for speech. Just as our ability to speak is “tuned” in infancy to the sound and grammar of English (or Arabic, or Chinese), so the moral sense is tuned to the moral traditions of the community.
Consider that drowning man again. Unlike reason, human nature will prompt me to save him. But suppose I’m hurrying to make an important deal: human nature will also push me away from heroism, and toward self-interest. Or suppose the water is very turbulent and dangerous. I may follow my survival instinct, and let the poor man sink; or I may risk my life to save him, overriding my natural fear of death.
Curiously, people die to save strangers. Just as curiously, we eat with forks and excrete in bathrooms. Pinker likes to quote the Katherine Hepburn character in African Queen: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
What of religion? It considers morality to be commandments received from God – there’s your source. Nothing clearer. Yet, while religion unquestionably shapes human conduct, it does so through history, not in some timeless, absolute sphere. The God of Moses demanded an eye for an eye; the God of Jesus commanded that we resist not evil. If we assume that God didn’t change his mind, then the people receiving the message must have changed. The Israelites, once a warlike host, became a fastidious people.
The Ten Commandments are sometimes thought to be self-explanatory. But clearly they are not. They have exceptions. “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply in wartime. Also, the exceptions have exceptions. Killing in wartime does not apply to civilians or POWs. Soon one commandment branches out into an infinite regress, leaving the believer, if he rejects history, paralyzed from an infinity of choices. If that never really happens, it’s because every believing Christian grows up within a moral tradition that trains him, situation by situation, to perceive right conduct from wrong.
Secularists and believers may quarrel over God’s place in morality, but neither group questions the central fact that morality pertains only to the human race. God has no need of it. Animals, vegetables, and minerals stand outside of it. “Man,” said the wise sophist Protagoras, “is the measure of all things.” The source of morality is the encounter in history between human nature and a specific environment, one that includes other people. When we appeal to justice or right, we are appealing to the traditions of the community: to a shared memory of what is just and right.
Does that mean that we are contemptible hypocrites? Maybe so, but it doesn’t follow from an appeal to tradition. Does it mean that all morality is arbitrary, and therefore meaningless? That implies that some other sort of morality exists, possibly on a higher sphere. How could such a morality descend from heaven to earth, without becoming enmeshed in history? If I flap my arms, I still won’t fly. If we discard tradition, we still need a thousand specific judgments, rituals, and habits, shared with others, to keep chaos at bay.
Superhuman doctrines are, by definition, impracticable. Any attempt to declare war on the requirements of everyday life will lead to the moral equivalent of flapping my arms: truly bizarre and arbitrary behavior.