thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

So be good for goodness sake

with 3 comments

Question mark

Why should I?

It’s a good question. Last time I suggested that teaching the Golden Rule was in every way a better option for atheist (and indeed non-atheist) parents looking for ways to instill moral values in their children. A better option, that is, than resorting to religion.

Terry Sissons responded with the $64K question: Why follow the Golden Rule? Why treat others as I would wish to be treated?

There are times when I think it could be the biggest $64K question of all.

I fear though that my answer may disappoint. On the other hand I do not think we can ever give a 100% categorical answer to why we should behave ethically. If we could, it would not be ethics. It is to do with what I referred to before as the ‘the unique openness of moral thinking’.

I mean by this two things. One is that whatever principle or formula is proposed as the foundation for ethics (Kant’s categorical imperative, Golden Rule, greatest balance of pleasure over pain etc), or whatever psychological or cosmic feature is proposed as the goal of moral behaviour (human happiness, survival, oneness with God etc), we can always ask ‘But is it the right thing? Is it the best thing?’ So it cannot be the answer, otherwise we would have got to the point where we can no longer ask those questions, so we can no longer morally evaluate it.*

Moses and the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt)

Moses and the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt)

[*This, by the way, is why I think those who believe the moral law is the will of God need to think long and hard about the ethical implications of that view. If the moral law really is the will of God, and we think we know the will of God, then haven’t we abandoned our moral right and moral duty to decide what is right and wrong in circumstances we never knew we would find ourselves in? To ‘pray to God for guidance’ in such circumstances seems to be either abnegation or a re-assertion of autonomy disguised as obedience.]

The other thing is individual choice: why should I do the right thing?

But first of all I want to explain why the emphasis on the Golden Rule rather than any other ethical principle or meta-principle – for example the categorical imperative.

In a series of articles entitled The ethics of belief (in particular the sequence from Any fool can make a rule to Categorically imperative, and then in later sections like Three wise mentalities and Food for thought) I try to show where I think the Golden Rule and the categorical imperative overlap. I also try to explain why I think some of the common ‘objections’ to the Golden Rule miss the point, and how key weaknesses in the categorical imperative arise either from Kant’s insistence that it should hold for all free rational beings (rather than all human beings), or from his essentially teleological interpretation of those beings.

The third strand in The ethics of belief concerns the growing body of evolutionary theory as a possible explanation of how reciprocal altruism could have developed in certain kinds of social animals – humans included.

What I am suggesting is that humans may have evolved as self-conscious social animals to feel themselves under a general moral obligation, one which could be fairly accurately formulated by the Golden Rule. (I would go further and say it is the best formulation I have come across. This is particularly because, as I have argued in Precious metal rules OK? and elsewhere, there is every reason to see the Golden Rule as reflexive – you cannot be said to be applying the Golden Rule unless you are applying the Golden Rule in the spirit of the Golden Rule.)

But humans have also evolved as self-conscious social animals to have the choice, and to know they have the choice – they can choose how to respond to that feeling of obligation.

GE Moore

GE Moore

I am absolutely not arguing that because we humans have evolved in a particular way, then we as humans are under a moral obligation to behave in specific ways aligned either to how we have evolved or how we might continue to evolve. That would be unsound – and far too close to what GE Moore would have called the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ or what David Hume would have described as arguing from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’.

But I am saying that evolutionary considerations are relevant to ethics. It is not that ‘what is good [for humans] is what promotes [human] survival’. But it is likely that the kind of moral values humans actually have, the kind of moral attitudes they adopt, and the kind of moral behaviour they display, could be explained in terms of the evolution of humans both as human beings and as social beings.

I said a weakness of Kant’s approach is that he wanted the categorical imperative to apply to all beings who are free and rational, and therefore to any being who is free and rational. It is theoretically possible for a completely solitary – not necessarily human – individual to be both free and rational. I think Kant ends up in a blind alley when he tries to apply the categorical imperative to ‘duties to self’.

But we do not need to go there. Humans have evolved as social beings, with self-conscious free will, with the capacity for empathy, and with inbuilt moral ‘grammar’ and attitudes. An example of an inbuilt moral attitude is our ability to recognise and categorise a ‘cheater’. An example of moral ‘grammar’ is the recognition that some choices are ‘right’; that others are ‘wrong’; that one choice may be ‘better’ than another; that we understand the concept of ‘blaming’ another person for making a ‘wrong’ choice; and so on.

Certainly we do not all have the same moral attitudes and make the same moral judgments. We have different moral strengths and weaknesses. Also our moral nature as adults depends to an extent on our upbringing and the kind of society we live in. This is familiar territory.

Mythical noble savage

Mythical noble savage

But there is also a growing consensus that there is not, and never was, a ‘noble savage’ – a kind of human being who is ‘pre-moral’ because he or she is ‘pre-social’. It is possible to say for example that the reason why x% of modern Western Europeans think, say, judicial killing is wrong has got something to do with the fact that they are modern Western Europeans and have therefore grown up in and been exposed to a modern Western European social and political environment. But it is not possible to say that the reason most if not all modern Western Europeans think anything is either right or wrong is because they have grown up in a modern Western European sociopolitical environment – one which just happens to have the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – whereas other possible sociopolitical environments may not have these concepts.

There is no meaningful concept of a ‘pre-social’ and therefore ‘pre-moral’ human being. This would fly in the face of what we understand about the evolution of social animals in general and of human beings in particular.

We are social and moral beings with the capacity for empathy, as we are warm-blooded bipeds who communicate by means of language.

So we finally come back to the question of teaching moral values to children. A lot of what we explicitly or implicitly teach our children is what it is to be a person, what it is to be a human being. I mean this in the most simple, down-to-earth way. We teach our children what we human beings eat, how we learn and work, how we structure our days and how we communicate with each other in the world we and they find themselves.

We therefore also teach our children how people behave to each other, how other people like to be treated and how people do not like to be treated. We teach our children that there are differences between people, and that people like different things. The Golden Rule is an excellent guideline to follow when we do this.

But we also teach children that we and they make choices, and that choices have consequences. If we are lucky – and in this respect we are lucky far more often than we are unlucky – our children will have enough empathy to understand the parallels between how they feel and how they can make other people feel.

If we were not so lucky, if the majority of human beings did not have this empathy, we would not be having this conversation.

So to get back to the $64K question (Why follow the Golden Rule? Why treat others as I would wish to be treated?) I would say there is no external binding obligation. How can there be? There is no law of nature that says good things only happen to good people and bad things only happen to bad people. We choose and we take the consequences.

I don’t mean: ‘we must face the consequences’, only that the consequences will happen, generally speaking. Yes we may be ‘lucky’ (in a very different sense of ‘lucky’!) and ‘escape the consequences’. Yes it’s possible that we can mistreat people all our lives and be adored by the world despite this. We have the choice to see if we can live that way.

The point about ‘instilling moral values in your children’ is that you cannot do this if your children do not understand what it means to be a moral agent. Some of that understanding will already be there, waiting to be engaged with.

You cannot ‘instill moral values in your children’ by putting up every kind of smokescreen in the vain hope that they will never see that ultimately they have the choice. Or by pretending there’s a God who knows if you’ve been bad or good, when deep down you don’t think there is.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

8 September 2010 at 8:37 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Since it was my question you addressed, I have paid particular attention to your answer. I agree with just about everything you have said.

    But there is a gap, I think, in that your approach reflects the thinking of an educated adult aimed at educated adults. Parents trying to teach their four-year-old not to smash the toy of the boy next door, or explain to a six-year old why he shouldn’t hit his baby sister or to a clever seven-year-old why she should face the consequences of telling the truth might need a different approach. Which is why, I think, there are those parents who chose to use God as part of their explanation with the belief that their children, like they themselves, will grow out of it.

    I have found that Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning often helps parents. Broadly speaking, young children give potential punishment or reward as the main reasoning for behaving in a way their culture has taught them to believe is right or wrong. Eg: “Mom will make me go to my room if I hit the baby,” or “I can’t watch television until I’ve finished my homework.”

    Gradually, this orientation is replaced with concern for social approval and about what other people think – I want Daddy to think I’m a good girl, I want my friends to like me, or even I want the approval of legitimate authority so I will win the prize, get the promotion.

    It is only with young adulthood that moral reasoning may be based on universal principle or concern with the welfare of the broader community, characteristics that Kohlberg argued appears in every major religion. (Although, of course, so does the reasoning using reward & punishment – ie heaven and hell.)

    Kohlberg’s developmental approach deals with the “why” of moral behavior, while the “what” varies from group to group. But I find it does provide a context for explanations which are suited to a child’s understanding and which do not necessarily involve God.

    I’m not sure I’ve said with sufficient clarity what I was trying to, which is that “why should I be good?” is a question that often has to be answered slightly differently depending on the person asking the question.

    In any case, thank you for this entire discussion, including your further thoughts on “evolutionary morality.”


    Terry Sissons

    11 September 2010 at 3:33 pm

    • Thanks Terry.

      Of course I agree. The actual content of the message has to be age-appropriate. Plus there’s the whole developmental psychology aspect which I wouldn’t claim any expertise in.

      I was thinking more of where the eventual chains of ‘why?’ type questioning could lead, at any age those chains could happen at. Eg:

      ‘Don’t do that?’

      ‘Why not?’

      ‘Because it’s wrong.’

      ‘Why is it wrong?’

      ‘Because you could hurt your brother.’

      ‘Why can’t I hurt my brother?’ …etc.

      I cannot imagine there are circumstances where a ‘God’-type explanation would work where a ‘Golden Rule’-type wouldn’t work, at much less risk of future baggage.

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      11 September 2010 at 5:07 pm

      • Agreed! And I think you know that I’m not advocating “god” as a reason for moral behavior, most especially from someone who him/herself thinks “god” is an idea children should eventually grow out of. What I’m trying to do is to understand the reasoning of parents who do this. I will confess my motives are inevitably to try to change their minds.

        The thought of writing a How-To book for non-believing parents has actually crossed my mind. I do wish someone would do it.

        Or perhaps they have. I don’t do a lot of searching through parenting books these days.

        Thank you again, Chris.


        Terry Sissons

        11 September 2010 at 5:21 pm

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