Why we need less morality, not more

Morality. Of all types of opinions, we hold our moral ones most tightly, utter them uninvited most frequently, and are most outraged when they are breached. The sub-text of every tabloid shock headline is ‘and this should not be’. In journalistic and political writing, all we have to do is preface our complaint with ‘it is an outrage that…’, and we know that we have gained some kind of an aura as moral pundits, superior to those we criticise.

One of the very best places to find moral outrage is Facebook. Once the hangout of students and other cool folk, Facebook is increasingly populated by grumpy middle-aged people and others whose intent it is to police the moral values of, well, everyone. Students and other cool folk long ago migrated to Instagram and Whatsapp, and, as often as not, maintain their Facebook accounts just to keep in touch with grumpy relatives.

Alongside the personality quizzes, pseudo-maths puzzles, (where have the pictures of cats gone?) and general chit-chat, Facebook is the best place to pep up your daily moral outrage by seeing pictures of things you don’t like, with comforting text implying that you are a morally superior being by not liking them. If you are of a liberal tendency, you can be outraged by Republicans, right-wing Christians, oil companies and -ists of many kinds. If you are of a conservative tendency, you can be outraged by Democrats, extremist Muslims, feministas and -ists of most other kinds. If you sit somewhere in the middle, pictures of an empty House of Commons debating something important may well fill the gap.

A bit of moral outrage seems to tickle a spot in most of us. Newspapers have been selling on that basis for years. Far be it from me to try to limit people’s access to moral outrage. However, I do want to argue that such outrage is not a part of our moral sense at all, and that it can be quite dangerous: my ability to be outraged by, say, Donald Trump, can easily give me the impression that I am a moral person.

Our very best moral outrage is naturally reserved for hypocrisy. Ever since Jesus pointed this one out, it has been a perennial favourite. Most of us are able to keep in mind the things that we oppose. If we catch ourselves doing them, we generally drop our opposition to them and get wound up about something else instead. By this means, we can retain our stance against hypocrites, while making sure that we do not fall into their category.

Hypocrisy, though, is the symptom, not the cause. It is an outward expression of our natural and innate tendency toward self-deception. That we have learned to catch ourselves (usually) before making hypocritical statements merely demonstrates that we have gained some skills in thinking before we speak, at least in regard to a rather unfashionable vice.

Let me attempt to delve a little deeper.

The foundation of our shared morality—it seems to me—is in an innate sense which we all have which is often referred to as ‘conscience’. Our sense of right and wrong is intuitive rather than rational—at least, for things which are ‘obviously’ right and wrong. Some people have argued that conscience is identical to empathy, but I think this leads us very quickly into a cul-de-sac. The two senses overlap in many cases, but there are issues of morality such as stealing from a corporation where it is very hard to argue that the failing was an empathic one.

To some extent, what we regard as conscience is heavily shaped by upbringing and by society around us. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating with your fork in the right hand and your knife in the left, but for most British people, this prompts the same kind of reaction as the temptation to take a larger slice of the pie than the next person. However, anyone who spends much time with children (or who remembers what it was like to be a child) knows that ‘it’s not fair’ is a cry that does not have to be taught. Whether children get the notion of fairness from their parents or not, it is one that resonates early on, and is much more easily retained than that business with forks and knives, even though it is an abstract concept.

Here is the tricky bit. For most of us, when we are deciding whether something that we are contemplating is right or wrong, we consult our conscience. If introspection does not give us an immediate answer, our moral reasoning tends to proceed on the lines of ‘this is like that, and that is wrong’. 1

However, when making our moral pronouncements about the behaviour of others, we tend to first try to articulate a rule, and then apply it to other people. Making moral pronouncements would seem to be merely a distillation of our sense of conscience, but is it?

A few months ago, there was an article on the BBC website about filtering on motorways when three lanes are brought down to two lanes. According to the article, correct driving is to remain in your lane as long as possible. When filtering from the right, it is the other drivers’ responsibility to let you in. Interesting as it was, the article was nothing like as interesting as the comments that followed it. The language people were using was the language of morality, and, as the debate progressed, there were real signs of outrage. Just last week, LBC showed a cyclist and taxi colliding, and asked ‘but who is in the wrong?’ Perhaps the headline drew in those most interested in a moral debate. Either way, the language of the debate was moralistic, not technical.

It should be quite evident that the Highway Code is not a matter of intuitive conscience. It is a set of conventions for driving which form the basis for passing the UK driving test. As any driver coming from mainland Europe or the USA can attest, the most fundamental UK convention, that we drive on the left, is not intuitive at all. It certainly isn’t a matter of superior morality. What’s more, when a UK driver goes to Belgium and drives on the right, they are not being hypocritical by doing so.

I give this example because I hope it shows that our willingness to make moral pronouncements and then to reason from them is not actually a function of our moral sense at all. The commentator who argued (with quite a high implication of moral outrage) that it is a driver’s duty to filter as soon as ‘lane closed ahead’ was signed up (and the many who agreed with him) was doing exactly that. Most of the commentators on the LBC thread (at least, when I last looked) did exactly the same thing: they first created a ‘rule’, and then applied it to the situation. In most cases, the rule they created was not in the Highway Code at all, and the commentators who argued from the Highway Code were often dismissed by others.

I don’t intend to make a pronouncement about the cyclist or the taxi driver. What I’m more interested in is this as an example of our delight in rule-making and pronouncement.

Any system of justice, of course, relies on being able to make pronouncements. Roman law, indeed, relies on written rules, and even Anglo-Saxon precedent law has come to rely increasingly on regulation, often codifying what was previously judged on precedent. But law and morality are not the same thing, and were never intended to be.

While legal regulations have mushroomed, popular moral prescriptivism has exploded. In the last few days I have read articles and seen memes that tell me that it is immoral to explain things, immoral to accept refugees if there is any homelessness in one’s own country, immoral to own guns, immoral to control guns, even (I assume in jest) that it is immoral to put up Christmas decorations early. Political Correctness brings with it an ever tightening set of strictures, but its opposite, US Republican-style anti-political correctness, seems just as laden with rules, just about different things.

There are only three moral thinkers who, to me, have contributed substantially to the debate, and all of them have sought to reduce a super-complexity of moral rules down to just one or two positions.

John Stuart Mill, building on the work of Jeremy Bentham, posited Utilitarianism as a single moral theory which allowed us to dispense with other rules. I don’t agree with Utilitarianism, but I recognise its importance. The notion of ‘the maximum good to the maximum number of people’, when taken alongside minimising harm, is a framework which large, impersonal bodies, such as corporations and governments, can use effectively in many circumstances. There are lots of examples of where applying Utilitarianism would produce a result which was unjust, or even evil, and many of these have been condensed into moral philosophy puzzles involving crashing trams and other such crunch cases.

Immanuel Kant proposed the notion of a Categorical Imperative, which is “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction”. From this he derives: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Further, “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.”

Kant’s notion of the Categorical Imperative is widely cited (though not quoted) as something which it is not, quite. On that, more in a moment. On grand moral questions, it is well worth asking “if I did this, and it were to become the universal rule, would I be happy?” However, on day to day moral questions, issues of personality and personal style crowd in. As an Extrovert Intuiting Thinking Perceiving person (though I’m actually borderline on three of those), I have a view of the kind of things that make me happy, and which I think would make everyone happy. Some people do want a world full of parties, trying out the latest gadgets, bright clothes, late nights and loud music. To others, this would be hell on earth. One of the reasons for the explosion of new moral prescriptivism is that many people now imagine that they are legislating members of humanity.

Nonetheless, when applied as a personal code, Kant’s view is, I think, preferable to Mill’s, and Mill’s to today’s ad hoc prescriptivism. Mill’s needs a calculator to operate, whereas Kant’s needs a bit of introspection.

The moral thinker (it should surprise no one that I make this claim) who I think takes us the greatest distance is Jesus of Nazareth. He proposes two ‘laws’: ‘Love the Lord your God’, and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. When pressed on ‘who is my neighbour’, the answer is ‘anyone you encounter’. His other formulation is ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative is often confused with this last pronouncement, typically referred to as the ‘golden rule’. Its negative form, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do to you’ is relatively widespread before Jesus, but he is credited as being the first to put it forward as an injunction to ‘do’ rather than than ‘refrain from doing’. It differs from Kant’s in that Kant is saying that you should only do that which you would want to be a universal rule. Jesus’s is more direct: ‘would you want it? Then do it’, and requires nothing in the way of extended introspection.

What Mill, Kant and Jesus all have in common is that they are proposing one or two simple rules by which moral agents (ie, us) can evaluate the actions we are about to take. Mill’s view can be applied retrospectively, in the sense of ‘did that produce the maximum good?’, but that is not its intention. In each case, they are rules for us, rather than rules for us to impose on others. Indeed, neither Kant’s position nor Jesus’s can be applied to someone else. I cannot know whether, at the time, someone did something because it was what they would want done to them, or because they wanted it to be the universal rule, or for entirely selfish reasons.

If we could simply wipe out all the extra moral rules, the extra bits of ethics, custom, judgement, prescription, outrage and memification, and go back to any one of Mill’s, Kant’s, or Jesus’s formulations—in other words, have less but better morality, rather than more but bittier—then we would be in a much better position to evaluate our own behaviour ahead of time, and be possessed of a much better understanding that it really isn’t our business to evaluate other people’s.

So, for everyone poised to create that new meme, or to post an outraged remark on Facebook or as a comment to a BBC article, or to pen the newspaper article that prompts storms of outrage, or to make a speech in the House of Commons denouncing this group or that group, or to create new legislation that forces people to behave ‘better’ (whatever better is), let me offer one final moral remark, also from Jesus of Nazareth: ‘Do not judge others, lest you be judged yourself.’

Show 1 footnote

  1. Piaget, followed by Kohlberg, of course, argues that this is the form of reasoning only engaged in by those who are relatively morally developed. However, experimental evidence has not generally supported their view: we see quite sophisticated moral reasoning among children, and, indeed, children’s literature which is popular among children tends to have an intuitive rather than rule-bound moral sense.

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