Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Stop Scorching My Shrubbery

27 Jun, 2009 | Brian

A great failing of mine is the incessant need to have an argument, a failing I will now indulge, though hopefully in moderation. I cannot reconcile with the idea that (a) morality is a substance provided from On High and that (b) absent this Provider there is no way to have morality. Another form of (b) is to claim, arms flailing in air, that without a Giver of Laws everything is subjective and so therefore "anything goes." I should separate these statements into (b1) and (b2). What is advanced in (b2) is, I suppose, intended to lever me into accepting (a). Alas, this is what we in "the biz" (i.e., the business of starting up arguments and then verbally beating the crap out of our opponents) call a fallacious appeal to consequences. Claim (b1) is also a fallacy, only this time it's called a false dichotomy. Not only are both of these formulations wrong, they are burdened by serious philosophical problems.

First I will show why these positions constitute fallacies. The false dichotomy says this: Either morality comes from religion or morality doesn't exist. Put another way, it says that the only possible source of morality is religion. People who reject a religious origin for morality are said to have "no moral foundation." This is incorrect reasoning because there are, in fact, other possible origins for morality. It isn't an either/or proposition. For example, it is rather easy to come up with entirely naturalistic explanations for any moral behavior you can think of. I will show how this is so in a little bit. For now, it is sufficient that as long as I can come up with any other plausible origin for morality, the false dichotomy doesn't hold. A revised statement should therefore say morality might come from religion, or it might come from something else.

Now the appeal to consequences is just fear-mongering. It attempts to browbeat me into accepting a premise by holding scary results over my head. Looking at it more calmly, the consequence - anything goes - isn't necessarily true even if you accept the false dichotomy that morality cannot exist in the absence of religion. In a completely amoral world, anything would not, as they say, go. You'd still have self-interest, and if we are to keep each others' company in this mirror universe, self-interest alone would require making representations of trustworthiness. You can't have tea with someone who might murder you. More than likely, we would have to perform actions that prove our trustworthiness, for safety's sake, and I expect these proof-actions would look astonishingly like moral actions.

So even in a moral vacuum it's hard to demonstrate the kind of rampant abuses that we are meant to imagine. But we don't live in a moral vacuum. There are people walking around behaving morally all the time. We can take it as fact that morality exists. Putting aside for the moment where morals come from, I want to pose the question, "Why do people comply with the morals we can observe?"

This is where things get hairy for religious-based explanations. Under that scheme, I comply with morals because they are God's commands, and complying with God's commands is what I am supposed to do. Except then we must ask why I am supposed to comply with God's commands. Because God says so? That is an unacceptable tautology. Perhaps it is because such compliance is for my own good. Unfortunately, this is neither altruistic nor obedient. I am only acting in my own self-interest! That sounds just like the amoral mirror universe.

What is really awful, and much more like a genuine moral vacuum, is that most people insist the reason for complying with God's commands is that you will be punished if you don't. This is about as rotten a world as I can imagine. It is the world of the torturer. If a poverty-stricken man breaks into my home, hooks me up to a car battery, and shocks me until I hand over some money, my "donation" to him can hardly be considered charity. If the man only strips me, ties to me a chair, connects the battery leads, and threatens to pull the switch, the effect is the same. Morality ceases to exist. Quite probably no one's interest at all is served in such a nightmare scenario. Certainly not mine. (We don't need to analyze whether the shocker's interests are served, because the shocker is a stand-in for God in this metaphor.)

Morality driven by fear of punishment also does not match my observation or experience. I don't refrain from breaking my neighbors' windows simply because I don't think I can get away with it.

Here is a different way of thinking. Humans are social animals, with a hyperdeveloped social intelligence. Social interactions among humans are vastly more complex, and vastly more important, than we can observe in any other species. We quite simply do not exist apart from our social selves, which is evidenced by the enormous quantity of time and energy we spend on seemingly useless social maintenance. I mean, it is logically not required to continuously express how much we value members of our families. Unless there is a change in attitude, further communication on the subject is wasting resources. Yet we spend all kinds of effort (and endure all kinds of "waste") doing precisely this.

In an environment where social structures are primary, harms against social structures are counterproductive. It threatens me, and also others connected to me. Behavioral policies that strengthen social structures are encouraged; behavioral policies that threaten social structures are discouraged. It's as simple as that. One day someone phrases a beneficial policy in a catchy way, and it spreads ("A penny saved is a penny earned!"). A moral is born.