With morality, social is better than solitary

Morality is of the highest importance–but for us, not for God
Albert Einstein

There are obvious contrasts and unexpected ironies in the differences between the sources of the moral behaviours of secularists on one hand and religious believers on the other.

It turns out that those of us who hammer out individual moral codes without divine assistance are more truly members of a meaningful group than are all of those religious believers gathered together to pray.

To many people, it won’t seem like it should work this way. Aren’t believers part of something general, even universal? And aren’t secularists, rejecting God’s ways, lonely wanderers in a moral wasteland? That’s what many of the faithful believe. They reserve their Christian pity (and sometimes their human scorn) for the suffering infidels. There but for the grace of God go they.

Closer examination of the moral underpinnings of secularists and the faithful paints a very different picture, one which illustrates the surprising paradox that the secularist, whose moral code is based in the self, achieves social unity; while the believer, whose moral code originates socially, outside of the self, in truth acts alone.

An internal, secular moral sense is social, inclusive, co-operative and enabling. An external, religious moral code is solitary, exclusive, competitive and constricting. It’s instructive to examine the ways in which these opposing descriptors are true.

A secular moral sense is internal. It develops in each individual through a combination of genetic predisposition, reason, and life experience. There are no arbitrary rules to follow. Instead, there is the human impulse to know and to understand.

Human understanding makes us social beings. We know what gives us pleasure, makes us unhappy, fulfills us and disappoints us. As we grow rationally and learn from experience, we come to see that others appear to act in similar ways, from similar motives, and with similar emotions. We learn which kinds of interactions with these other moral agents advance everyone’s happiness and meet everyone’s needs. Usually, we find that some version of the Golden Rule works best as a place to start. (It matters that this moral centerpiece comes through reason and not through command.)

Secularist morality tends to be inclusive. The more an individual moral agent learns and experiences, the wider his or her sense of community becomes. If there is progress in history, one of its most important features has been the advance from the self, to the family, to the clan, to the tribe, to the society. As time has passed, more and more formerly excluded or oppressed groups – ethnic, religious and racial minorities; women; children; sometimes even other higher animals – have been recognized as being “like us” and have been included in the growing group within which we find social identity and with whose welfare we are mutually concerned. We practise Non-Zero Sum games that acknowledge the existence and the legitimacy of others. We go through life, for better or worse, as a group, as a society. Rather than “I am saved!” we exclaim “We are all in this together.”

In order to satisfy our needs and desires, in a secular world there is no other resource, no other arbiter, than the social group. Without outside recourse, you either act alone and take your chances — or you join with others, you become co-operative. People learn early in life that, among other things, sharing begets sharing; many hands make light work; and it’s tougher for a bully to take on a group than an individual. If all you have is the group, if you’re not going to be saved by miracles or prayer, by angels or fairy dust, you’d better become part of the group.

In the end, your participation in groups of different sizes, from the mated couple to the entire species, is enabling, making possible the achievements and satisfactions, both personal and social, that are available to us in this world. There are no pre-conditions, no forbidden fruits, no Thou Shalt Nots. We are free to be all that we can become, defined and realized in concert with our fellow humans.

But  is this secular morality better than religious morality? Yes, it is.

A religious moral code is external. It consists of one or another set of rules, usually proscriptions rather than permissions. These rules are promulgated either directly from the deity involved or through some earthly representative or group of inspired interpreters. The source of the moral code is outside the believer, whose duty it is to obey the imposed strictures. Indeed, the believer has no other responsibility than this obedience. Internalize the rules, and behave accordingly. There’s no need for deep thought or even superficial understanding. In fact, some religions put a special premium of grace on not understanding.

The believer’s moral rules are for him or her alone. Moral tests are entirely solitary. Salvation depends on living according to the code, and salvation is always an individual thing. No one goes to Heaven or to Hell because of someone else. It’s always a matter of a personal pact between the believer and his or her God. The rest of the universe can go to Hell, quite literally – your future depends entirely on you.

But what about the sense of shared joy felt by believers when they gather together into congregations to worship? How can that be solitary? In an ordinary social sense, theirs is a community. Of course it is. And it has the social benefits of other communities. But  it’s not a moral community. The  gathered celebrants share activities, they experience similar emotions – but their fates remain entirely individual. They are like flood victims who have been plucked one by one from their rooftops, whose survival is random and individual, and who just happen to gather in the same relief tent afterwards; they are not at all like a group of shipwrecked sailors who share a single lifeboat and depend on each other for support and vital resources. The believers’ group is a group as a result of similarity of circumstances, not  through true interdependence. They remain, in all the ways that matter to their salvation, solitary.

Following their God-given rules, believers do great good in the world. Of course they do. It would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. But the moral code that dictates those good works cuts both ways. The believer’s moral isolation,  the personal pact with God, too often also functions as a destructive moral insulation. The frustration, suffering, or death of other people is secondary to the believer’s need, at the risk of his or her very soul, to follow the arbitrary rules. If that means withholding life-saving medical treatment from the child of a Jehovah’s Witness, or stoning a raped Muslim woman to death in the public square, or exulting over God’s punishment of homosexuals by bringing down Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, well, so be it. It’s God’s will. Ours is not to reason why. Thanks to its combination of external rules and individual salvation, the same moral code both comforts and condemns, saves and sacrifices.

Religious morality is not only solitary but also exclusive. The two are not the same thing. Gather a group of Christians or Muslims or Hindus together (each one a solitary moral agent, of course) and you have a collection of potential residents of that group’s particular heaven. The members of the other groups? They’re all going to miss out on salvation. To a Christian, Muslims and Hindus are going to Hell. To a Muslim, no Christian or Hindu will enjoy 72 virgins in paradise; to a Hindu, Christians and Muslims will endure endless cycles of earthly reincarnation. Not only is each believer a lone moral agent, but only those other lone agents who practice his or her particular religion have any chance of earning the final reward of choice.

(This sense of exclusivity has a particularly distasteful application in the current vogue for the Left Behind books. The obscene glee with which some fundamentalists long impatiently for their tickets to Heaven exhibits itself in both drooling anticipation of personal reward and an un-Christian gloating over the suffering that awaits the rest of us. There are even Armageddon holiday tours, in which the devout gather for snapshots in Israel – here I am, at the spot where I’ll be transported to paradise while you burn. Even worse, there’s been considerable speculation that the foreign policies of the United States during the Bush II administration were calculated to hurry along the End Times. I’m going to go to be with God, and the sooner it happens – the sooner your world ends and your eternal suffering begins – the better for me!)

With some versions of Christianity, it gets even more perverse. Salvation is competitive. Not only do you have to obey the rules, and the right rules, but you may have to outperform your relatives and friends for one of the limited spaces in Heaven. From Calvinist predestination to the Mormons (who bowed to social pressure not so many years ago and proclaimed that non-whites were no longer automatically damned), various churches have taught that there are only so many places in Heaven. Either you’ve already been chosen to occupy one of them (unless you screw up by living an impure life) or you’ll have to lessen your own children’s chances by beating them to one of the remaining free seats — it’s hard to imagine a more selfish Zero-Sum game of musical chairs!

The isolated, exclusive, competitive morality of the believer is ultimately constrictive. It is a superimposition of the divine on the human. Its most damning characteristic is that it confines human morality to a narrow and quite arbitrary range of behaviours. Inspired, it allows no change. Unchanging, it promotes no growth. It limits and restricts.

I’ll take a human moral sense over a divine code. Any day of the week.


4 thoughts on “With morality, social is better than solitary

  1. Having a human moral sense still leaves fallible human beings with the need to develop an individual moral code , something many people find hard to do . I’m still not sure what to do about the copyright issue in the modern technological world.

    • We so often call ourselves “fallible” or “imperfect” that even the non-believers among us do not often consider that the phrase posits the existence of an external standard against which we are being measured. As a non-believer, I reject the general notion of external morality–and every catalogue of arbitrary rules. As Pinker points out in the full article which I summarized in the previous post, the specific moral code of one’s religion is best understood as a cultural iteration of apparently universal, human moral categories (harm, fairness, etc.). This awareness can help us to understand such contemporary dissonances as a Saudi prince’s being less afraid of a murder conviction in England than of condemnation as a homosexual at home.

      (As for copyright laws, I will remain prudently silent on the subject.)

  2. Following Chomsky, Pinker suggests a universal basis for multiple moral codes which can lay differing emphases on the relative importance of Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity. That leaves the development of a moral code for the individual a much more complex matter than a simple division between internally developed and externally imposed standards. The daily news is indeed full of examples of individuals struggling with differences. Someone following a moral code laid down by a given religion still has to act as an individual. Individuals developing moral codes for themselves are referencing from some external influences.

    • Nothing you say is in dispute, nor does my post intend to suggest that having a secular moral sense makes moral choices easy. What I am suggesting, with Pinker and others, is that the imposition of an external/religious code, which cannot be modified, allows no learning. If I am a social moral agent, I am more likely — more able — to adopt standards which are inclusive of others than I would be if a pact of holy writ with my god-myth of choice were my primary focus. A strong case can be made that moral progress — the elimination of slavery and institutional racism, the emancipation of women, the end of colonialism, environmental sensitivity, animal rights, etc. — is substantially the result of the rational weakening of religious dogmas. They weren’t called The Dark Ages for nothing.

      (My next posting will expand on this last point as part of my disagreement with the anti-Enlightenment attacks of Postcolonial Theory.)

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