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Moral Pluralism in a Postmodern World

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An essay by Michael Werner, February 25, 1995

"No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid side. What passes for cooperation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed." -Michael Ghiselin, The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex

"The good life is one guided by reason and motivated by love" - Bertrand Russell

Ours is an age of moral exhaustion. Our postmodern age, wrought with a disintegrating social and intellectual culture, finds itself too crippled to present a defense against either fundamentalism or ethical relativism. At least in a monolithic culture you generally have only one option for moral belief. The dilemma for most Americans today is the range of choices. We simultaneously have a revival of fundamentalism, a growth in the variety of religions, a whole host of secular moralities and in many quarters, a nihilistic relativism. For rationalists, ethical foundations based on unaided reason have been found to be hollow. Casting off old moral traditions has been easier than ever, but it has been harder than ever to come up with new answers that are personally satisfying and intellectually honest. Moral doubt is pervasive. Many scholars consider all moral theoretical questions to be misguided and missing the point of how morality is actually derived. A profound postmodern skepticism questions any "system" of belief. Michael Ghiselin in the initial quote questions our real motivations for altruism. Many postmodernists say our morals are only a culturally derived self-serving system of beliefs. Many say we ask the wrong question and say that morality is what we do, not what we think. Others look at morality more as sensibility toward caring and concern, i.e. an overall sympathy for others.

Still, the old questions persist. "Where do we get our morals?" "Is there an ethical system to follow?" "How do we best achieve morality both as individuals and as a society?", and "Why be moral?" The questions persist because as Robert Louden says, "Moral theory is an indispensable expression of human curiosity."[1] Moral theory is even more important today in our unravelling society because many people feel they have only two choices, fundamentalism or a nihilistic relativism not seeing any middle ways. Last fall's election fulfilled, in many ways, what James Davidson Hunter titled his book after - The Culture Wars.[9] The wars he speaks of "can be traced ultimately and finally to the matter of moral authority." He identifies the cleavage to be between orthodoxy and progressivism. The cultural wars are fought on many battlelines, but are really about unresolvable differences over the grounding for ethics. The orthodox tendency is "towards a commitment to an external, definable, and transcendent authority," while the progressives tend to see ethics evolving out of our experience. The fundamentalists have understood all too well that these moral differences are unresolvable and hence their eagerness to do battle against what they see as a barbaric morality. I say this not in derision, but in an appreciation for their commitment to moral purpose despite my belief they are misguided.

So is there a legitimate basis for morality? Can we answer the predominant intellectual trend towards radical ethical relativism? Even Bertrand Russell said that he refused to believe that killing children was wrong just because it was repugnant. He was raging against his own inability to identify some transcendent universal basis for morality that has a sounder basis than emotion and sentiment. He was raging against his own inability to settle on a rational foundation for ethics.

The history of abstract philosophy is littered with discredited moral theories. All attempts to develop a comprehensive system of ethics have failed. If I were to fish in a pond and not catch any fish, I might decide to move to a different pond. So, too, with ethics. We may be mistakenly searching for ethics in the pond of abstract philosophy when there are other more fruitful ponds available. THis is what John Dewey called " our funded experience". This century has shown us that the fishing for ethical foundations is better in other ponds.

The problem much of philosophy is that it sets up a false dualism. At its most rationalistic, it implies that we can separate our minds from our bodies and by using abstract reason, come to some logical conclusions about human behavior. Witness the failure of celibacy in the Catholic church an institution that denies the power of the sexual drive. Witness the failure of communism in its denial of our self-serving nature. Witness the failure of an Ayn Rand objectivism that denies our altruistic nature and overinflates our ability to be rational. The failures of abstract ideologies to provide a basis for living show how they have sought to impose a utopian view on the world and ignore how the world actually works. So lets fish in other ponds. Let's start with cognitive neuroscience.

Scientific knowledge advances dramatically when new analytical tools become available. Right now the science of the mind is such an area. Startling advances are opening new vistas in how we think, and in this case, how we make moral decisions. We are only in the buggy whip era of our understanding of consciousness, but even so, science already offers us intriguing new insights into who we are. Let's rephrase the question from "What is a moral decision?" to, "How do we make moral decisions?"

What we have found is that the mind operates "more like a committee" than a single "self" in the words of Robert Ornstein.[2] All of the small subprograms in the brain vie for attention. Very powerful programs like breathing, hunger, and self preservation have "superhighways" coming from the older mid brain which are preprogrammed from birth. Other brain programs are learned and stored such as 2+2=4, drive on the right side of the road, a "stitch in time saves nine." For much of this century the dominating line of thought was that our minds were clean slates ("tabula rasa") and infinitely pliable by social conditioning.[3] We now know differently. The subconscious plays not just an important, but, possibly, even dominant role.

There is much research to suggest that what we term rational decision making, may mostly be rationalizing. For example, subjects in one study were asked to watch a rotating clock hand and press a button when they chose to. Three times were recorded. One - the time the button was pressed; two - the time the subject said he/she decided to press the button; and three - most interesting, the time the nerve impulse pressing the button was monitored to leave the brain and travel to the muscles in the arm controlling the button. Surprisingly, the signal to the arm was already sent before the subject said that he/she had decided. This means that the decision was already made before the "conscious" mind decided.[4] I don't think this undermines the concept of free will. Still, this and other studies make one question how much of our thinking is only to justify a decision that has already been made deep in unknown recesses of our minds. As William James said, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are rearranging their prejudices."[5]

Much moral and social critique has developed in the last half century around the realization that the subtle subconscious needs for power and control, the twisting of reason to justify personal enhancement permeates all our thinking. History shows us how we have sacrificed human welfare to rationalized abstract ideology. There seems to be no area of our thought that is not tainted in some way by self-promotion. A skeptical pursuit into moral theory and action can lead to a postmodern relativistic nihilism unless one looks deeper.

One thing seems certain. Human morality stems only from human concern. While some of those concerns such as selfishness and tribalism may not please us at times, the fact remains that from all we know, morality is not found in a God, or in a book, but in us and reflects human needs.

Evolutionary psychology has been most enlightening in this regard. This intellectual pond has been reluctantly fished due to the history of social Darwinism which seemed to justify a fatalistic uncompassionate, "you get what you deserve" morality. More recently, the powerful explanatory features of this perspective have received a broader look. The primary message is that we tend to believe in things because it helps our genes survive. The recent popular book, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright has effectively argued that morality is grounded in human biology. Natural selection provided adaptations that maximized our genes' survival when we were in hunter gatherer societies.

The evidence seems to show that "Our noblest impulses spring from our genes' wiliest ploys."[7] Nature has provided us with a number of messages in our brains that adaptively enhance the chance that our genes will survive. Some examples are our drive to obtain social esteem, our drive to obtain our mates' confidence, our compassionate protective nature for our genetic progeny, our value of honesty as well as our proclivity to deception. The mind is a virtuoso performer of paradoxical proclivities. There is a genetic advantage in having morals that are adaptive and flexible. Our genes survive better if we share food in a small genetic community and at the same time have some self-serving deception to keep food for oneself. It feels good to be altruistic (to a point) because our minds tell us so for genetic advantage. It feels good to be caring to children because there is a genetic advantage. A reciprocal altruism is indeed part of being human, but it can be attenuated in a whole spectrum of responses. We can minimize the impulse to compassion in war, or can magnify our impulse in a caring community. Our flexible conscience is indeed one of our great adaptive abilities. The subconscious crafting of a completely self-serving image of moral standards developed as an evolutionary strategy to enhance trust. Like all adaptive traits, this one survived and grew because of its effectiveness. The fact that most of us live in modern industrialized societies, but are equipped with stone age minds relatively unchanged for 100,000 years provides for part of our problems. Our instincts for aggression and domination served us well as cavemen and woman, but are poorly adaptive for life in a modern business office.

It may seem that this analysis can be highly reductionistic. The opening quote by Michael Ghiselin erroneously presents morality as only an innate instinctual manipulative drive. Certainly this is what Bertrand Russell was getting at when he questioned not torturing children just because it is emotionally repulsive. But, in fact, the emotions are where morality is literally felt. Studies of patients with damaged ventromedial prefrontal connections to the mid-brain (where emotions and basic survival skills reside) exhibit a lack of moral center and an inability to decide amongst various alternatives for future action.[6] This occurs despite the fact that such patients can reason perfectly well. It seems that, while our rational neocortex can weigh various cost-benefit options, the final decision may well be made by our emotional stone age voices. It's as if the subconscious primal voice can be the final arbiter in close decisions and a leading moral salesperson in the committee of our minds. There is literally a visceral response in a moral decision. Something evil makes one's skin crawl. Protecting a helpless child elates us. Injustice leaves one with a "sick feeling in the stomach." The conscience is a physiological state that evolution has found to be useful in our genes' survival. The emotions reward or punish certain behaviors we now call moral. Our emotions motivate us, not a rational decision. Note that Bertrand Russell said, "The good life is guided by reason and motivated by love" and not the other way around.

The irony is that a rational analysis of morals leads one to the conclusion that it is those messy, primitive emotions that account for a scientific foundation of morals. And as we well know, emotions can lead to lots of harm in human affairs. For example, the overly compassionate heart cannot sever an abusive relationship. The genetic longing for community can result in social conformity and a lack of critical thinking. Or, the impulse to moral outrage can lead to lynchings.

Thus, our brains are filled with many adaptive programs. Some of these are hard-wired from birth, others are modulations of genetic impulses to the particular environment as evidenced by the huge range of moral behavior among societies. Culture reinforces necessity, and our morals adapt to the culture. Still, there are those behaviors that are hard to change or ignore. I cannot will myself to completely disregard my emotions although I have a great deal of control over them. The voices of self-preservation and self-interest, for example, are awfully hard to ignore.

Moral decisions derive from a complex process of the brain weighing competing and interacting voices. Some of those voices are our evolutionary voices, our culturally derived voices, our voices of experience, our rational voices and any number of other voices all selling their point of view. Out of this cacophony, moral decisions are made. Ethical dilemmas many times occur when the struggle between our various moral senses remains deadlocked.

Now that we have examined how moral decisions are made, it is easy to see how we can affect moral decisions by raising or lowering the individual voices. Civilization is the process of raising the volume of certain cultural voices and lowering some of the instinctual voices. Ideologies provide intellectual tests of approval. Experience builds a database of outcomes in order to predict outcomes of similar situations. The more experience one has, the more certain the prediction of outcomes.

Despite our ability to build elaborate cultural moral restraints, the historical evidence shows that our most hideous barbarism is easily tapped. The Holocaust demonstrated that all of us have a treacherous, predatory human nature under a thin veneer of civility. It's not just the other person, it is all of us. So which voice do we listen to? Whichever is strongest at the time.

But ethics demands we ask which voice we should listen to or try to enhance. Religions traditionally demand we listen to ideological prescriptions supposedly given by transcendent beings. Utilitarians see the choice being made on a rational assessment of alternatives and choosing the most effective outcome for human welfare. Moral intuitionists call for doing "the right thing." Very popular today among some feminists, are the calls for morality that is based on an overall caring and concern. Morality is an act not a system of thought.

In each of these cases morality is shoved into a tiny box. Religion constructs a man-made ideology, ignores its real roots in self-interest and power and control, and calls it God's word. Rationalism underestimates the power of our primitive impulse to rationalize. Rationalism also over-estimates reason's ability to process all the rational outcomes and make a decision. We now know that the brain just does not work that way. Moral intuitionism ignores the fact that many of our intuitions are harmful. Do we listen to the compassionate inner voice or the one of violent impulses? Process oriented care and concern programs (very popular in liberal religion today) ignore the limited power and biological origin of that process. Care and concern may not lead to the happiest outcome. Love is not enough for the moral life and many times is mere emotional manipulation.

What I offer is a moral model based not on how moral decisions should, could, or must be made, but how we actually do them. It might be thought of as a type of moral pluralism, but not just for pluralism's sake. All of the moral voices, the rational, the intuitional, the experiential, the legalistic all seem to actually have a role in the decision making process and all seem to perform checks and balances on each other. All moral theories have at some level some truth about them. Most importantly, we can look at some of these as tests rather than as rules.

For example, we use simple moral rules which religionists offer because the brain works in a similar fashion using short easily understood messages. When making moral decisions, we all refer to moral rules such as "Do unto others..", "be kind", "honesty is the best policy," and "do not kill." We can look at these not as absolute hard and fast rules, but flexible principles that test our various alternatives. That is why simple aphorisms are universal -because they are short, useful, and generally true. Rational methods are effective because they can utilize short effective tests for moral belief. An example of a utilitarian test would be, "Which alternative moral choice will increase overall happiness and minimize suffering the most?" A Kantian test asks, "Does the moral alternative seem to be universally applicable?" A pragmatic test asks, "What value will this alternative have in the end?"

Moral intuitionism can be an integrative check against the mind's power to rationalize. Intuitionism checks a decision against those evolutionary derived visceral emotions. A "gut check" should always be performed on tough decisions.

Acting out of care and concern is a lived morality which can check some of our worst excesses of self-interest. When confronted with a tough moral choice without clear guidelines, one helpful thought, for example, is to do the "loving thing."

Human egotism loves to build moral ideologies. It would be so nice to have a simple formula for right and wrong, but a biological model of morality disallows it on physical grounds. While a competing voice model of morality is messy, it is what we have. Interestingly, it also provides an exit from a moral relativism.

Ethics and morals are relative from a broad perspective. But this is not to say that ethics are arbitrary. We are thrust not into an arbitrary world, but into one of certain social reliance, certain genetic instincts, certain cause and effects. I must interact with others in society. I must listen to my mind's competing voices. I must live or die with the consequences of my actions. These are not relative in my life. Ultimately, all ethics arise from human need because ethics emerge from a very objective human world.

Much is made in philosophy of the naturalistic fallacy. It says we can't get find how we ought to behave from what is in the world. For example, just because I have a biological urge towards power and dominance does not mean that I should act upon it. At this level the naturalistic fallacy is true. Still, our actions have real objective consequences and those have to be in line with our ultimate goals. I can't point to any single ultimate goal for us to achieve, but I believe enhancing human welfare is our primary moral goal. Other goals might include the minimization of suffering, making decisions that are fair, and the enhancement of human freedom and dignity. I think the evidence shows that these and others are universal human goals. Still, universality of concern is not normal or natural. It is our biological nature to be tribal. It is only through an evolving morality that we can transcend our moral narrowness.

Moral consciousness emerges from a maturation of the mental life. The famous studies of Lawrence Kohlberg show how individuals grow out of a purely egocentric morality. The feminist Carol Gilligan expanded this notion by showing how women tend to see a developing morality more in terms of greater care and concern. A skeptic might argue that these "higher moralities" are merely the results of increased social conformity to someone else's special interests. I think not. I think the most recent research shows that this is actually the rational voice of experience saying what is good for all of us.

If we look in another pond, that of game theory, we find a rational basis for moral belief. Computer studies of competing theoretical environments have shown that the best strategy for survival is a reciprocal altruism. For example, computer simulations of the famous prisoner dilemma where two prisoners have a choice of remaining silent or informing on the other with varying punishments, have shown that reciprocal altruism is the best rational strategy for both individuals. Altruism is not just in our genes, but is a rational methodology for social living. We should always have a deep suspicion of our motives, but at the same time a "good heart" is really the best choice for our life.

In sum, what do some of these findings tell us about morality? For one thing, they confirm scientifically in many ways what morality has always been about. Most people look at morality situationally. Still, as John Dewey pointed out, we can't separate the means fron the ends. They are intertwined. Laws are not timeless truths, but context dependent regularities. We use them not because they are "true", but because they work. Our moral thinking is in the form of slogans, aphorisms, quick rational tests, standards of general behavior, visceral emotive responses, all permeated with a bias towards self-interest.

Ethics seeks to discern why we should transcend personal interest. A universality of ethics exists because of our shared world and shared genetic heritage. Our feeling of "moral righteousness may well be something that natural selection has created so that people would employ it selfishly."[7] Still, we can transcend our personal interest because it makes us feel good, it is rational to do so, and it is in our overall best interests. Morality can be based on instinct, reason, and compassion. We don't need a supernatural basis for morality because morality is in the world. Morality is immanent rather than transcendent.

A holistic approach to morality allows us to use and enhance all of our minds' tools. It asks us to healthfully integrate mind and heart, reason and compassion.

Moral sense is natural.[8] Our moral nature is malleable to a point, and many studies have shown that there are, indeed, casual connections between cultural deprivation and immoral behavior. Perhaps we should not worry so much about how we make moral decisions as much as how we develop a culture of care, responsibility, and morality. There are many systemic cultural pathologies that on a daily basis erode our moral will. Although there is no rational proof, I believe that there are higher moral values. Call them moral pleasures if you will. They include such things as honesty, fairness, sympathy, and a willingness to help others. You can argue that these are no different than our emotional impulses to cause cruelty. The difference is what moral values do to me. They ennoble me.

Only we have the power to change ourselves and our world. Developing a moral theory or ethical grounding is not just an intellectual exercise. My simple answer to the question of the grounding of ethics is that it is based on reason, compassion, responsibility and a belief in the worth and dignity of each human being. I can't prove these, I just know they seem to work, have a strong basis in reason and science, but ultimately are a matter of faith.

It is a morality that asks, and I would venture to say, even demands that we work together to enhance the overall good. It is a morality that has standards which are time tested in the court of human lives. The morality I describe here has no ultimate goal, method, rules, or system. The confluence of all these things in our minds precludes eliminating any one of them. The art of morality comes as we apply the various hues guiding and testing our ethics into a painting that is unique in every situation. Our morality seeks not a regimented form and style, but a moral landscape of evocative higher value that transforms the world and ourselves.

[1] Robert Louden, Morality and Moral Theory,(New York, Oxford University Press), 1992, p159

[2] Robert Ornstein, The Evolution of Consciousness, (New York, Touchstone), 1991

[3] Carl N. Dengler, In Search Of Human Nature, (New York, Oxford University Press), 1991

[4] Benjamin Limbet, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1985, 8:529-66

[5] George Seldes, The Great Thoughts, (New York, Ballantine), 1985, p205

[6] Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error, (New York, Grosset/Putnam), 1994,

[7] Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, (New York, Pantheon),1994, p344

[8] James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense, (New York, The Free Press), 1993, p229

[9] James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars, (New York, Basic Books), 1991

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