The Hobgoblin Of ‘Universal Morality’

I’ve never had any truck with the concept of some sort of universal, inborn morality. It’s always seemed so patently absurd to me, that it wasn’t until later in life when I was exposed to apologists’ moral arguments, that I realized that some people not only buy into the concept of universal morality, they use that as a cornerstone of their conception of reality itself. It’s a tremendously weak argument, one that I can refute in one single word. I’ll start with the TLDR refutation, and then move on to the more loquacious refutation.

Okay, one word refutation for claimed universal morality: sociopaths.
Patrick Bateman

Moving on.

Most of the time when the Argument From Universal  Morality is trotted out, there are a few facets that can be exploited by the apologist. I’ll classify the three most common forms, within the taxonomy of argumentation. And then I’ll explain why they all fail to achieve cogent, let alone sound, conclusions.

1) Weak-Teleology: Arguments relying on W-T often argue that the very fact that humans have strong preferences and experience revulsion, indicates a divine intelligence implanted everybody with ‘moral sense’. Under this view, our emotional reactions themselves were crafted in order for us to be made viscerally aware of good-and-evil.

2) Strong-Teleology: Arguments relying on S-T generally go a step beyond W-T arguments, and argue that our joy/revulsion at events, is directly determined in a case-by-case basic by divine will itself. Under this argument, those who don’t agree with the god-given-morality (of whoever’s decided to ‘correctly interpret’ god’s word), aren’t just disagreeing, they are objectively morally incorrect.  And, of course, those who don’t agree are either mired in sin or, perhaps worse, caught in the clutches of malignant and malevolent demons and devils; those who don’t prostate themselves to “god’s word” are, therefore, fools, patsies, or enemy agents.

3) Divine Command Theory: DCT argues that whatever god says, is right. Whatever god does, is right. And, more to the point, since no material (e.g. actually existing) authority can have absolute power and perfect knowledge (so as to facilitate judgment), no Earthly political/ethical/judicial system can possibly be more than a serving suggestion.  Under this system of morality, if god says that genocide is good, then genocide is good. If god says you can own slaves, then slavery is moral and good. What’s more, whenever we ‘correctly interpret’ a text (and therefore ‘update’ its meaning), we discover that god’s eternal, unchanging word has changed a bit, and what we thought was moral all along… that was really just a misreading.

Why These Apologetics Fail

As I hinted at with my one-word-rebuttal, any sort of coherent, recognizable, universal morality would have to not only be innate (that is, unlearned) in human beings, it would have to be innate to each and every human being on the planet.  The simple existence of sociopaths means that morality is not universal, nor is it innate.  W-T also fails on this point, since in a sociopath, feelings of joy and revulsion can be inverted when compared to neurotypical individuals.  If we are supposed to ‘love’ good and hate ‘evil’, then sociopaths should not be able to take joy in hurting people, or feel revulsion for, say, honest, gentle-mannered people.  And yet, they do.

The only possible defense that an apologist can offer on that point, is to claim that sociopaths “don’t have souls”, or that they’re being controlled by Satan, or what have you. If you find those answers convincing, then you’ve already stepped off the path of reason, and your belief system is revealed to be a veritable Jenga-tower of rationalizations, serving as a bulwark against cognitive dissonance. It should also be noted that most people would feel a fiercer revulsion for being in an elevator with someone who, say, has an accidental bout of explosive diarrhea due to serious illness, than we’d feel for a husband who cheats on his wife. And a person might very well take more joy in a hit of heroin, than in a day of community service in the hot sun.

Revulsion and joy, then, are indicia of our emotional/cognitive state, and not some sort of transcendent window into our souls.

When it comes to S-T, the argument is even simpler to eviscerate. Entire nations of people, (certainly not all of whom were sociopaths), have waged wars over gold, have traded slaves, have committed genocide, and so on, and so on, and so on. At that point we’re no longer discussing rogue sociopaths hiding in plain sight. No, then we’ve reached the level where the gestalt of countries themselves somehow contradicts god’s ‘universal morality’.  This would mean that millions upon millions of people had their innate morality virtually shrieking in revulsion at their deeds, even while they somehow felt intense pride and joy in their race/clan/nation/what-have-you, even as their armed forces were grinding babies into jelly beneath tank treads. This disconnect is so glaring, that advocates of the S-T argument will almost always resort to alleging the influence of ‘evil’, in one flavor or another. When people do what they’re “supposed to”, then it’s god’s will. But when people don’t do what they’re “supposed to”, why, then they’re acting on the orders of The Enemy.

S-T also fails, dramatically, when we look at how ‘innate-and-universal’ morality has existed in differing religious communities, in differing locations, and differing time periods, including but not limited to the evolution (heh) of religious practices within the same congregations throughout the decades.  People who were filled with ‘good’, who obeyed their time’s majority view of god’s ‘universal morality’, were still somehow duped or willfully ignorant of god’s will. Of course, this argument tacitly implies that, now, we’ve got it all right, unlike all those other poor, benighted souls.

Of course, those who study history will know full well that in the future, when the lens of time is directed back upon our era, we will be found lacking.

The third apologist argument, DCT, is virtually self-refuting. The argument that god determines morality by fiat fails when you realize the fact that god’s judgement is just as subjective as anybody else’s. One might as well replace god’s judgement with FinnAgain Zero’s, and as long as I install brain scanners into everybody’s skull and have supercomputers monitor them 24/7, and have a ruthless police force who will murder and torture at my whim, then I’d have as much ‘authority’ as god. Subjectivism doesn’t become objective even if the entity under discussion has ultimate power. To argue otherwise is to argue that, literally, might makes right. Or, perhaps, it makes Right.

I’d also like to say a few final words about the, quite frankly desperate, tactic of alleging that because we have joy and revulsion themselves, we have innate, god-given, universal morality. The flaw isn’t simply that the change of standards through time also changes what we find joyous or repulsive. The issue is that that it’s such an extreme leap with no substation at all, and it allows no counter evidence as both confirmatory and contradictory data, become evidence that you’re right. Those who follow (what you think is) god’s word, they’re proof of divine morality. And those who defy (what you think is) god’s word? Well, they’re also proof of divine morality, since they prove the influence of the Enemy.

For a perfect, unchanging, absolute, innate, god-given ability, it sure seems to be an imperfect, malleable, relative, and a mix of nature and nurture.  If we would be revolted by people who feed infants to starving dogs, that’s evidence of universal morality. But if we loved nothing more than watching a kid get torn to pieces by a pack of starving dogs? Well, that’s evidence of universal morality too… at the time. And in hindsight, it becomes evidence of a violation of universal morality and, therefore, it’s “the exception that proves the rule”, and we can still say that it proves universal morality.

In the final analysis, morality fluctuates based on the age we live in, and individuals’ nature/nurture inputs. Ideally, it is predicated on empathy and fairness, and therefore is accessible to everybody. It’s worth noting that there is empirical evidence that lower primates have a very clear conception of ‘fairness’, but that process is essentially one of numerical/quantitative comparison. It no more requires universal morality to say “I got one cookie and he got three, that’s not fair” than it requires universal morality to say “I do the same job as you do and make 70% of your salary, that’s not fair.”

Instead of viewing human civilization through the lens of ‘universal morality’, instead, think in terms of aesthetics; we all have a ‘perfect’ world that we carry around in the back of our minds.  For most people, it’s far more aesthetically pleasing to see healthy people, not people ripped to shreds by shrapnel. For most people, it’s far more aesthetically pleasing to believe that they live in a world where people are friendly and nice. And, of course, for people like Joseph Mengele, the height of aesthetic purity is medical torture. There’s no inherent objective ‘goodness’ in our actions – even murder can be deemed correct, in the right context and circumstances.


4 thoughts on “The Hobgoblin Of ‘Universal Morality’

  1. As a religious thinker, I’m always driven to think whats so important about morality for everybody anyways? The world isn’t full of sinners, no everybody is sure they are a saint that occasionally sins. There seems to be this desire to say I’m ethical, I’m good, etc. when what does it gain them. A gold star?

    Maybe that’s the place apologist should focus, the universal need to justify oneself morally. Wasn’t the tree about judging good and evil?

    In my own thinking I find no problem with God’s morality being subjective, as I don’t hold to there being any forms of the forms type objective reality, and God can dispose of or keep or reward anything as he sees fit. Is it evil to melt a toy solder even if it’s a really fancy one? Or does intelligence entail you to certain divine restricting rights?

    Yet I’m semi-comfortable with mild distheism, so God’s mean, etc. gains no traction with me. If it was fate or you really thought God wasn’t there or wouldn’t change folks would complain less; the whole debate tips people’s hands.

    Like the end of the book of Job, the whole idea of asking him to explain himself and expecting a response is ignoring “who judges who?” If God responds to you, then you’re the all judging God with subjective standards and he’s got to justify himself to you. It’s a catch 22.

    The definition of deity will effect how one can approach it.

  2. //There seems to be this desire to say I’m ethical, I’m good, etc. when what does it gain them. A gold star?//

    Ultimately, an ego boost, since thinking of oneself as more ‘moral’ translates to ‘better’, at least in our society. Or, as Chesterfield said, “most people enjoy the inferiority of their best friends.”

    //’Wasn’t the tree about judging good and evil?//

    It was, but since you brought this facet up, I’m going to tangent-off just a bit.
    The story of Good and Evil does revolve around Adam and Eve eating from the Tree Of Knowledge Of Good And Evil. But, before they ate the fruit, they were literally, necessarily, totally unable to tell Good from Evil. God, of course, then told them not to eat from the tree… but without knowing Good from Evil, how could they have known they were doing the right thing? And then, of course, after god prevented mankind from knowing that disobeying his orders was wrong and then left an obvious temptation right in the garden, while allowing the snake to hang out there, too… god decided to punish not just Adam and Eve, but to subject their descendants to eternal, unending torment, in perpetuity. And that, of course, was because they did something wrong, after god specifically had prevented them from knowing the difference between right and wrong. (And that isn’t even getting into the whole concept of god being incarnated as an avatar that was, then, sacrificed to himself, in order change the rule that he made, but still only for those people who like his avatar.)

    //Yet I’m semi-comfortable with mild distheism, so God’s mean, etc. gains no traction with me.//

    Fair enough, but then your deity falls outside of the tri-omni paradigm (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent). As such, it’s a whole other beasty. Of course, based on your theology so far, I couldn’t see you using one of the Arguments from Morality, in any case.

    //Like the end of the book of Job, the whole idea of asking him to explain himself and expecting a response is ignoring “who judges who?” If God responds to you, then you’re the all judging God with subjective standards and he’s got to justify himself to you. It’s a catch 22.//

    I think that’s putting it incorrectly. I don’t have to be “all judging”, for instance, to tell someone that kicking puppies is wrong, any more than I’d be be all judging if I told someone to stop kicking puppies. There’s actually an old Jewish joke that I’m reminded of.

    Three rabbis are sitting and studying together, and begin arguing about the proper interpretation for a passage in the Torah. Two rabbis side with each other, while the third tries to argue his position. He cites copious examples, discusses other theologians arguments, and brings all his evidence to bear. But the other two rabbis argue back with just as much evidence.

    Finally, in exasperation, the third rabbi calls out “If I’m correct, may god cause the walls of the synagogue to quiver like water!” Sure enough, the walls started to undulate back and forth and bend in waves. But the other two rabbis still argued their position.
    The third rabbi, now thoroughly frustrated, dragged the other two rabbis to the village’s stream, and said “If I’m correct, may god cause the river to run uphill!” And sure enough, the river began to flow uphill. But the other two rabbis still argued their position.
    Near his wits’ end, the third rabbi says “If I am right, may god cause the sun to stand still in the sky for a full month!” Sure enough, the sun stayed exactly still for a full month. But at the end of the month, the other two rabbis still argued their position.
    The third rabbi, having absolutely lost all patience entirely, shouted “If I’m right, then may god himself tell you that!” Sure enough, the clouds parted, a brilliant, warm golden light bathed the earth, and a clear, booming voice said “He is correct, the argument is settled!”

    The two rabbis turned and looked up at the clouds and said “Hey, you only get one vote!”

  3. fantastic article! religious people think they have innate moral compass, while their worldviews are learned from childhood

  4. this also explains religious conflicts, somehow god did not manage to give everybody the same “innate” moral code to live by 😀

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