Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Do We Need Morality?

My team at work tends to generate a lot of interesting lunchtime conversation (we go out for team lunch once a week) in part due to our Indian/US cultural split. We have two Hindus and one Jain on the Indian side and a Baptist, a Methodist, a "sort of spiritual" ex-Catholic and me on the American side, which certainly provides a variety of opinion. (The day our boss, the Baptist, was out, it turned out that all our Indians doubted reincarnation, while our Methodist and ex-Catholic both believed in it.)

One day our Jain team-member (he keeps all of Jainism's dietary requirements, but he says his beliefs are untraditional enough in regards to the gods that he upsets his mother) threw out a question that generated it's due share of controversy: Why do we have morality?

He contented that morality essentially set up a second and parallel set of laws, enacted by those without the political authority to control the legal system. Why have both religiously determined morality and legality? Why not just have a single authority with a single set of rules?

This struck me as an interesting question, because for the life of me I cannot imagine people not having ideas of morality that deviate (or may deviate) from whatever legal/societal restrictions they find themselves under.

Imagine for a moment a situation in which a priest/aristocrat class sets all laws and there is no religious our moral structure separate from that single set of leaders. It is announced, one day, that having a beard is a moral abomination and all men must shave daily or have their heads cut off. Everyone follows this lead but one man, as he lifts his razor in the morning, thinks to himself: "This is not right. I should be able to grow a beard if I want to. Cutting a man's head off because of his hair is wrong."

That man has just invented a personal moral system. So long as we are capable of receiving instruction from some other source and thinking, "No, that's not how it is. Things are actually this other way," we will have systems of morality which are separate from the law.

Now I should say, this line of argument did not win over my colleague. He argued that when someone looks at an precept that is given to him and thinks, "That is not right," he is simply wishing that he were in charge instead.

That really, is what leaves me most confused about the line of argument. I am frankly rather flummoxed as to how one could not see the holding of such a conviction as morality.


CMinor said...

Though I doubt it'll convince your friend, I could think of many occasions when I have thought "that is wrong" when I would really rather not have had the "charge" of moral arbitrator!

Perhaps it's cultural, but I'm inclined to see morality as a precursor to legality: "I should not" versus "Thou shalt not," if you will. I also see legality as concerned primarily with social order rather than personal conduct, which may explain why there are plenty of laws out there that are widely considered immoral (legal abortion, for example) or essentially amoral (some of the more picayune items among the levitical laws come to mind.)

Anyway, doesn't a single authority with a single set of rules strike you as a bit despotic? If some aspect of the "single set of rules" turns out to be especially burdensome to some living under it, from whence shall change come, if not from without?

Anonymous said...

I don't think there are two, parallel systems. Either there is a real cosmic/divine/objective moral order, and our legal system is a patchwork attempt to see through the veil and reflect that order, or there is no objective moral order, and therefore our laws are the only system in place.

The fact that we might be in error in either of the two realms (either how we understand morality or how we interpret it as constituted law) doesn't strike me as setting up redundant systems. It just means that something is wrong somewhere.

Darwin said...

I wouldn't so much say they were redundant systems but that our tendency to judge existing systems implies a belief that there is a "higher" set of moral norms than any one implemented set of rules that we may encounter. Thus, morality.

Anonymous said...

Well said. And your coworker doesn't buy that argument?

Because it seems like he's making a moral relativist argument - "that's just me wishing I was in charge" - and we know how useless moral relativism is for ordering society (even Rortian ironists believe that). If your coworker objects to the idea of a transcendent morality, then at the very least he should be able to acknowledge a non-theistic morality (say, based on naturalist/evolutionary principles). In either case, there's still a moral code that exists apart from the legal code.

Skippy said...

rofl...dude there IS a single morality with a single set of rules. God put them in the form of the Bible. But human beings don't want to follow it.