A “vulgar” morality is one based on opinion rather than a universally applicable principle. That’s the essence of our morality: the American way to good and evil. I find it useful to review, periodically, the reasons why.
Those who favor the rule of absolute moral principles have, across history, appealed to God (or religion), reason, or nature.
If we begin with God, we can see that faith and worship are perfectly sound platforms on which to erect a moral community. That was the way of the Pilgrims. That was also the way of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who made adherence to Catholicism the most important condition of loyalty to the nation. They banished the Jews and the Moors, and established an inquisition to protect Catholic practices.
Our own traditions spring from a diametrically opposed experience. The wars of religion in Britain ended with the defeat of the Stuarts, who had hoped — however feebly — to impose the Spanish model on the lands they ruled. John Locke, ideologist to the victors, proposed a different model in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Religious belief could not be compelled, Locke argued. The mandate of government wasn’t to save souls, but to keep the peace.
Those that are seditious, murderers, thieves, robbers, adulterers, slanderers, etc., of whatsoever Church, whether national or not, ought to be punished and suppressed. But those whose doctrine is peaceable and whose manners are pure and blameless ought to be upon equal terms with their fellow-subjects. . . Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing.
The most influential Founding Fathers followed the Lockean model. In the first words of the First Amendment, we read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” American morality rests on toleration among the law-abiding.
Are God and religion, then, wholly absent from morality? The briefest glimpse at American life would argue otherwise. God and religion have been, and remain, fundamental to shaping the American character. But this occurs in the private sphere, to individuals and families who seek various paths to salvation.
As a person, I may rely on my faith for moral certainty. As a citizen, I cannot appeal to that faith to compel or persuade others. Interpretations of God’s will differ on the most intimate questions, such as whether to allow divorce or abort a child. My only recourse, in public debate, is to our common customs and traditions, which have been endorsed by opinion over the centuries.
When we turn to the place of reason in morality, we find an ancient argument that has become a present-day superstition. The argument is that science, which has discovered universal laws for the physical world, can do the same for moral judgment. The superstition concerns a kind of cargo cult conflation of scientific and rational with virtuous and infallible.
The “scientific socialism” of Marx was a good example of such cargo cultism. The Marxist-Leninist regimes of Stalin and Mao persecuted whole classes of people believed to be in the grip of incurable error. In this, they were little different from Ferdinand and Isabella.
Because we perceive science to lie beyond the reach of ordinary people, and scientists to be an esoteric priesthood, the misapplication of science to morality must result in rule by an aristocracy: true for the Republic of Plato no less than for the Cambodia of Pol Pot.
Stripped of superstition, the facts of the matter appear in stark simplicity. Either morality is an object in the world, like the planets, or is isn’t. If it is, it must be considered the longest-running unsolved scientific problem in history — a source of confusion and dispute over 2,500 years.
A plausible explanation, of course, is that the question has been framed in the wrong terms. If that is the case, then an appeal to science is really a request for the opinions of a special type of person: scientists and philosophers. Since these persons lack greater access to moral insight than, say, a carpenter or car mechanic, the answers they offer will be partial, partisan, and contradictory.
The inadequacy of reason can be illustrated by the moral principles that thinkers have sought to extract from it, of which the most famous is probably J. S. Mill’s “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The formula exhudes aristocratic certainty: we are given happiness as the goal of life, even though wisdom, spirituality, or courage, among many other human qualities, may well be preferable to someone not J. S. Mill. But even if we grant happiness as the goal, it is difficult to see what actions follow. If the vast majority is made happy by human sacrifice — as in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or among the pre-Columbian Aztecs — is sacrifice then justified?
Science is a conventional model to describe and manipulate the objective world. It can help define the environment for moral judgment: if someone is accused of witchcraft, for example, the scientific model can be used to probe the reality of the accusation. It can also assist us to think clearly and critically. But it can’t provide principles of right and wrong action, and any appeal to such principles in science or reason will either confuse the question, or transfer responsibility for the answer to a self-appointed aristocracy.
The glorification of nature in the search for moral certainty, while curious, is easiest to dispose of. Science and reason at least describe problem-solving conventions; nature is just a word. If we take it to mean the world as it is, that tells us nothing about human behavior as it ought to be.
Those who have appealed to nature wished to justify wildly disparate behaviors: from the worship of predatory power to a meek, monk-like existence. All depends on whether one is appealing to the lion or the lamb. In fact, the glorifiers of nature have been uninterested in positive morality. They have simply used nature as a stick with which to beat the way of life of their communities.
That was true of Diogenes, who lived in a tub, and of Al Gore, who lives in a mansion. They looked around them and saw falsehood, hypocrisy, corruption, money-grubbing, and status-seeking, so they raised up by way of contrast an ideal of nature that was pure and true. The aim was to destroy, not build up.
Those Americans, like Thoreau and Gore, who have followed this line, made no effort to hide their contempt for the American way of life. Their appeal to nature can’t really be followed by the rest of us, wretched sinners that we are, unless we agree to abandon our worldly goods, like St. Francis, and move into a solar-powered tub.
America’s vulgar morality makes intellectuals nervous, because it rests on custom and tradition, ultimately on opinion, and thus appears to lack certainty. Each of the grand priciples listed above is a desperate effort to anchor morality to a fixed point.
I confess to trouble understanding the nervousness of the intellectuals. Our vulgar morality is mostly fixed and certain: the religious and the godless, the rationalist and the earth saver, all know that a drowning man must be saved, a child protected from harm, a spouse treated loyally, a neighbor in need assisted, a bully opposed.
Moral problems, filled with uncertainty, can be found in our way of life. But that is also the case with religion, which abounds with casuistic and theological questions. And that is also true of rationalism, as the human sacrifice puzzle demonstrates. As for nature, from a moralist’s perspective it takes on the appearance of a single enormous and unsolvable problem. (Stephen Pinker is fond of quoting the Katherine Hepburn character in African Queen: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”)
Human life is riddled with uncertainty. We deal with it by muddling through. Vulgar morality has the abiding virtue of acknowledging doubt, and rejecting the pretense of infallibility.