Morality in the Modern World

For many centuries now, it has been up to religion to decide what is right and what is wrong. Religion no longer holds the firm grasp on society that it once had, and although I personally find myself in relief, we can’t deny that religion has been one of the most potent influences in maintaining guidelines of human action. Even if many of those guidelines were unreasonable, it’s undesputable that religion preached many practical, general rules: do not kill, do not steal, do not deceive, etc.

This does not mean that religion is the only driving force behind morality, the oldest code of law ever discovered, The Code of Ur-Nammu, mentions no punishment from the gods above. The ancient Greeks and Romans, an even better example, taught morality as a sort of wisdom, that each action should be decided based on reason.

But compared to eternal damnation, reason is a poor substitute for influence.

In modern times, many writers and academic authorities have tried to substitute religious ethics with some truly dumb ideas. Upon seeing that people don’t share the same moral beliefs across the globe, many have concluded just that. Instead of determining why such a discrepancy exists, the “normative” moral relativists, along with many post-modernists, seem to conclude that there is no belief more correct than another. To blow up the world could be a good thing as long as someone believed it so.

So it seems we’ve forgotten what morality actually is. I will not attempt to defend a specific branch of ethical philosophy; I intend to take the best parts from each. I am not the first person to be disappointed with the popular branches of ethics. Most, if not all, of what I’m about to say has been said before. I will steal a great deal from Henry Hazlitt’s Foundations of Morality, which I believe to be one of the greatest works on the subject. It goes mostly unnoticed, unfortunately fated to collect dust on the shelves of only a few libraries. I hope to revive his teachings and help to bring urgent review to this subject. As religion deteriorates, the world around us struggles to find meaning in what we do. I intend to help find that meaning.

Ask a rock of its opinion on morality and you’ll find yourself in an awkward conversation. This is the problem with the belief in natural laws. To believe in such a thing requires that you believe reason has nothing to do with morality, that our only duty as rational actors is to discover and enforce the natural laws of the universe — that apparently guided the rocks before us. So we come to our first lesson, without reason, there is no morality.

Although morality must start at the individual, it only occurs when individuals are in contact with other reasoned individuals who share a common goal. If you’re the only person on Earth, you will have a hard time establishing a system of rules with the various wild animals, some of which you’ll have to eat.

But it does start at the individual. There’s no such thing as “collective thought,” as I can’t know what anyone else is thinking nor decide any action for them; I can only do these things for myself. We are lucky that the vast majority of people, if not all, share various common, long-term goals. People tend to want to maximize their freedom to pursue their own self-interests. People tend to value security, and people tend to desire our greatest happiness and well-being. Such goals are best achieved by common means. At the very least, we all have this common goal — we all want other people to allow us to pursue our self-interest, whatever that self-interest may be. A broad way of saying this is that we all share the goal of social cooperation.

Morality can best be described as the putting-aside of our own short-term interests to achieve our greater, long-term interests.

To elaborate, how would you get to work in a world where no one could see past their immediate self-interests? There wouldn’t be a lit brake light in sight, only the remains of what used to be brake lights scattered across every intersection. Suddenly, drivers would believe they deserved to reach their destination before every other driver, and the most devastating game of bumper cars would begin. But as beings with rational capacity, we understand that it’s more practical to put aside our short-term self-interests and sacrifice two minutes at the traffic light. It’s not that we’re sacrificing our individual interests for the interests of society, but simply sacrificing our immediate, personal objectives for long-term, personal objectives. In the end, this allows every individual in society more freedom, lifts the burden of worry about the conduct of his fellow man, and this allows each individual to maximize their satisfaction in the long run.

“Without this sacred regard to general rules, there is no man whose conduct could be depended upon. It is which constitutes the most essential difference between a man of principle and honor and a worthless fellow” … “For not at least of the advantages of our all acting according to commonly accepted moral rules is that our actions are predictable by others and the actions of others are predictable by us, with the result that we are all better to cooperate with each other in helping each other to pursue our individual ends.”

— Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, (1759)

So morality is not some mystical set of rules that preexisted humanity, but simply a practical set of guidelines to further social cooperation, in the same way that capitalism is the most practical set of behaviors to further economic efficiency.

Morality or the study of ethics specifically, is not a true science. At best, it is a social science, like economics, which is not subject to the same standards as say physics or mathematics; these deal in specificity: 2+2 always equals 4.

Actions or rules of action are best described as expedient or inexpedient, advisable or inadvisable, helpful or harmful. We can even be less specific by saying that certain actions are, in general, good or bad, and we wouldn’t be incorrect in the use of such vague words.

But the use of the words right and wrong, are more specific, and must be used with the utmost caution. As humans, we are unable to predict the future and all of its outcomes, we can only make an educated assumption of the consequences of each action. We cannot say with complete certainty that Action A will produce Consequence B, we can only create general guidelines of actions that people ought to follow.

There seems to be only a few instances when a certain action can be declared, beyond a reasonable doubt, wrong. I don’t think there could ever be a scenario where blowing up the planet, with everyone still on it, simply for fun, could be seen as a good thing. That reason of intent, “simply for fun,” does actually change the scenario quite a bit, because this person has attempted satisfy his immediate, impulsive desire of having fun, at the expense of all happiness in existence, including his own long-term interest.

The fact of the matter is that if we can find at least one instance where a certain action is always harmful, we can confidently claim that at least one thing is wrong, and the avoidance of that thing is right. However, scenarios like this are unlikely, and we must not forget that morality is a practical matter.

Morality, in its practical application, is the creation general guidelines and rules of action that help produce best practices to further social cooperation.

“If we act under the influence of impulse or fear or anger or passion, we do the thing that gives us most momentary satisfaction, regardless of the longer consequences. If we act calmly after reflection, we do the thing we think likely to give us the most satisfaction, (or least dissatisfaction) in the long run. But when we judge our actions morally, (and especially when we judge the actions of others morally), the question we ask or should ask is this: What actions or rules of action would do most to promote the health, happiness, and well-being in the long run of the individual agent, or (if there is conflict), what rules of action would do most to promote the health, happiness and well-being in the long run of the whole community, or of all mankind?”

Henry Hazlitt — Foundations of Morality, pg 44

Happiness and well-being are not so easily measured, so we could restate this more accurately as, allowing the realization of the greatest possible number of interests for the greatest number of people.

More in this series:

I Did a Good Thing But Only to Make Myself Feel Good
Manners in the Modern World
How Much of Your Stuff Belongs to Me
Common Ethical Dilemmas
The True Purpose of Justice and Punishment

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