Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is there a universal basis for morality? Part One

We live in an age of utter cynicism. There are many reasons for this, but prominent among them is the horrible direction in which "progress" has taken us.

The nineteenth century was an age, to a large extent, of positivism and belief in natural, inexorable progress toward some better state of collective being. The dominant paradigm of the intellectual world everywhere reflected that basic optimism, which itself was based on the values of the Enlightenment as carried by its missionaries, the merchants and rising "middle class" everywhere. Science would bring increased freedom, and steady improvement in everyone's lives. Reason would lead naturally to increased cooperation and universal brotherhood. Civilization would become humane, its legal structure evolving toward "natural law" based upon universalities.

While the first World War was a massive, horrifying shock to this optimistic worldview, the second World War put it to rest, and we have since been passing by its grave daily on our way to work, casting it scornful, disapproving glances.

Indeed, an age of optimism has given way to an age of cynicism. Somehow the Enlightenment did not bring what its prophets augured, though it has brought to a select few profits and power undreamt of before. Science, instead of bringing freedom and improvement, has, for most of the world's population, only resulted in more efficient and inescapable forms of exploitation and control. It has, for all of us, brought the horror of vastly more effective weapons of mass destruction and of individual annihilation.

Reason has become a whore, used spuriously by those who have no respect for it and who cast the worst of aspersions upon its actual adherents, giving us a more scientific, self-absorbed consumerist tribalism rather than universal brotherhood. Civilization has merely improved its capacity for propaganda, collective self-deceit and war. "The worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction..."

The law has abandoned any pretense at universality, instead scoffing at the idea of morality as anything more than "generally accepted beliefs" (which, given their previous bases for morality and their belief in the natural universality of their own narrow views, is probably a good thing anyway) and wholly reflecting the cynicism of the age.

The events of the twentieth century have resoundingly and painfully rebuked humanity for its arrogant assumption that evolution -- biological, social, cultural or otherwise -- is "progress," that history is a natural progression toward better, higher. No, evolution is adaption to circumstances, not improvement, and it is noteworthy to remember that the height of evolution is the development of sophisticated predators, not its unusual and unique hominid children that have come to dominate the planet. History has no guarantees that the world of the future will be a better one, and current events suggest it may be steadily worsening.

So, it is no wonder that the most prevalent epistemological attitude toward philosophy, morality and truth is a disapproving denial of universality, and indeed in many ways of objective reality itself. Post-modernism is a reaction to the foolish, self-righteous strutting of an eager modernism that has since shown itself to be nothing but a charlatan. But is it the answer? After all, if we accept post-modernism, we, as a matter of course, have little hope for peace and true progress toward a better world. And, indeed, post-modernist thought tends toward self-absorption and abandonment of interest in the outside world, concentrating instead on one's own limited "circle of influence." Post-modernism, in fact, plays right into the hands of the worst of us, those who love power and thrive on conflict.

I once heard someone say that the optimist is someone who sees the value of everything and the price of nothing, while a pessimist is someone who sees the price of everything and the value of nothing. Could it be that we have swung from one unsustainable extreme to another? Could it be that, rather than defining the extent of what is possible, modernism and post-modernism merely express two possible answers among a larger variety available? Might there be another answer that provides humankind with a new possible direction, with new hope for that universal brotherhood that today, given the comeback of fundamentalism, fascism and sheer cynicism throughout the first world, seems laughable?

I have thought long and hard on this subject for most of my life. I have wondered at it as a puzzle to be solved. Is there a way to resolve the conflicting views, needs and perceptions of all human beings into a social, or at least intellectual, reality that is consistent and truly universally-applicable?

Put another way, is there a universal basis for morality that is not culturally-biased, based on superstition or collective self-deceit? One that is not self-serving, serviceable only to the needs of a certain region or nation, or even species-specific? A morality that is not only logically-consistent and able to withstand the deepest of scrutiny, but also compelling and useful to an ailing, technologically-advanced humanity in thrall everywhere to the worst of men using creeds of bigotry, hate, propaganda and fear to control their wards?

I think there is. I will elaborate in a second post. For now, however, I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on the matter.



C. L. Hanson said...

Your first point seems to be that rejection of universal absolutes was inspired as a reaction to seeing the optimistic worldview fail to produce the expected results. That may be where the idea started, but that doesn't mean it's wrong...

As far as indifference vs. passion is concerned, my opinion is the following: holding a belief passionately often prevents people from sincerely questioning it, even when it would be appropriate to do so. Additionally, a person's passionately-held beliefs tend to warp all of the person's other beliefs because they'll (unintentionally) choose their opinions regarding things they don't care about in such a way as to be consistent with the beliefs they care about. Yet I don't think that passion is a bad thing or that indifference is better any more than I think being dead is better than being alive. ;^)

Regarding universal objective reality: that is such a tricky question!!! Qzed (Robert) wrote a great piece on the subject just the other day.

I look forward to hearing the next installment!!! As an advance warning (if you're interested in convincing me as you said you would ;^) ), one of my main objections to the idea of universal morals is tied in with a lack of universal values, and specifically lack of agreement on the way things should be in the best of all possible worlds.

Johnny said...

Nice Post!

I have thought about this problem a lot myself. At one time I was bitten by the post-modern bug and rejecting anything resembling universal values.

However, I found that solution very debilitating, as you point out in your post. I tend to be more moderate now, having strong criticisms of modernity, without being full blown post-modern.

As far as universal morality, I find Jurgen Habermas's work very intriguing. It is a communicative ethics which establishes norms based upon procedural justice. It is not universal in the modern sense, but it is able to accomodate legitimacy in social nomrs in a way that post-modern theorists cannot. I tend to side with him in my views on ethics.

Cele said...

Oh mi gosh, sometimes I get lost in your post. Your intelligence definately out paces mine, but if I understand where you are going here is my thought(s).

It seem from infancy we teach our children to value what we can hold in our hands, over what we hold in our hearts. We aren't teaching respect for ourselves and for others.

In the wake of crime I too often hear, "How could they do that they are 1) so good looking, 2) rich 3) popular 4) have every thing they could want?" Not need, want. It is all based on shallow, superfluous values, not on integrity, not on honor, not on esteem beyond the almighty dollar and where it will get you. Power, Wealth, Beauty the three strenghts of our society.

We do not take the time to understand and value the otherside - of anything. If we can not understand their ways, we bend it to ours, or try to. And then don't understand why "they" don't get it, instead of why don't we get it? Our wars are based on greed, misunderstanding, and hatred. If we can not make it see our way, we rule it, cage it, kill it. Anything can be solved (in theory) if you throw enough money at it.

Hmmm, how's that working for us as a collective species?

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I think it's interesting what you wrote. I'm not able to delve into deep thoughts my SML at this time.

:) Hope you are doing well.

Gluby said...


I read QZed's post and commented on it. Very interesting!

On passion versus indifference, we run into the problem of which those of us who have been mired in particularly-manipulative religion are only too aware; passion fired by ignorance and fear. The problem, there, is the stoking of the spirit with inflammatory ignorance.

This is a whole other subject that I intend to write about later, but, in a nutshell, I will say that I think passion versus indifference is perhaps the wrong way to phrase the issue, as passion implies a preponderance of emotion. To me, the issue is conviction versus indifference (or, put analogously to QZed's terms, concern versus despair). Conviction, after all, is belief backed by emotion too, but, unlike the concept of passion, it does not imply the assumption of emotion as the controlling element. Conviction is passion reined in and put to work by reason.

But, nevertheless, even conviction can be a dangerous beast. What is the difference between the person of conviction who betters the world and the person of conviction who brings about harm? The difference, or at least 90% of it, is one of fact, of reality. Thus, facts -- truth -- matter. A lot. Truth is a big issue for me, and I intend to go into it in depth later.

I still have hopes of convincing you! :)

Gluby said...



Me too -- I had adopted that outlook as well for a time.

I have read somewhat of Habermas (mostly reference to his public sphere theory), though not much, and I've never read his own actual writing. As you see, though, I checked Wikipedia. :) Having read that, I do share his described belief in the ability of humankind to overcome what I call our instinctual dark side through its potential for true "communicative competence." And I also highly agree with his beliefs that this potential for genuine, cooperation-producing communication is suppressed (decisively, in my opinion) by the major structures of our social life, such as the market, the government, religious organizations and the media, which are all given over to apologetics and defense of a particular power structure -- an oppressive one, the world over. And, indeed, with such massive hegemony -- control over all thought-forming institutions -- it is no wonder that "the logic of the system supplants that of the lifeworld," or, in other words, of reality.

Plus, there is the simple and inexplicable joy I get from saying the word "Habermasian."

The procedural justice position you describe is very popular among well-meaning liberals of today, and, in the legal field (where the rubber of this perspective meets the road of social reality), is what we call the liberal legalist position. However, the problem with that position, in my view, is twofold. First, it is something of a retreat from a true moral standpoint. And, second, it is subject to the problem critical theorists describe: that, to again use Wikipedia, "[l]aw is simply politics. Legal language is a false discourse that helps perpetuate hierarchies: [men] over women, rich over poor, majorities over minorities." Or, in other words, the law overwhelmingly serves the interests of certain groups of men over the interests of all others, and they will fight to keep it that way. The problems of the Western order go far beyond what a little proceduralist wrangling can fix.

My take on it is that liberal legalism is merely the staking out of a moderate position between those two extremes of perspective -- truth as what certain self-interested and powerful men say versus truth as a myth -- as if they were the opposite ends of a one-dimensional plane or axis, which plays into the hands of those self-interested and powerful men by ignoring the potential for a two- or three-dimensional range of possibilities that would provide the source material for real change.

Put succinctly, I do not think the problem is one of moderation between extremes, and I think that view conceals the true nature of the problem. The problem is that we are simply in the wrong direction altogether, and that we need to get out of this vicious cycle. Figuring out a valid universalist basis for morality is a key step in that direction.

Thanks for the great comment!

Gluby said...


Yeah, LB always tell me I write looong posts. I actually try hard to keep them short!

Thank you for the compliment, but I would argue that you should see me singing "I'm just Wild and Hairy" to LB while doing a highly-undignified sort of can-can dance before you comment any further on my supposed intelligence. :)

It's terrible that "morality" has been largely left to the purview of religion, while the schools try to avoid angering the rather easily-angered conservatives. Meanwhile, consumerist America finds that teaching Power, Wealth and Beauty as the height of merit is quite profitable and productive of a docile citizenry that is inured to and will tolerate anything. It's terrible for humanity, but good for a few members of it.

I definitely join you in your lamentation for where we are. But I think we all fall prey to one assumption far too easily. Is it really "us" killing, ruling, caging? Certainly we all have those instincts, but is "America" killing children in Iraq? Is "humanity" destroying the environment at a prodigious rate and killing and enslaving itself?

I think it's a bit too far to argue that, though that seems to be the common assumption. Between powerlessness, true and abiding ignorance, and repression, the vast majority of manking bear no responsibility or agency for the actions a corrupt few so eagerly claim to do in its name. We all can "get it," and many do, but the worst among us silence, shame or stigmatize them. And the rest, who are ignorant of the reality they represent, are swayed by their arguments.

No, there is a difference between leaders and led, between those in the know and the rest in the dark. The trick is for the rest of us to stand up and be aware of that difference, and to assert our humanity against the incessant demands of their power, which, in the end, depends upon our consent.

The corrupt always work to corrupt others, to convince them that theirs is the only way, that we're all like them. Thus, what I seek to do here is to argue that there can be another way, that their arguments are specious and self-serving, and they have been given far too much credibility.

A great example would be the common presumption that the Roman philosophers were these eternally wise men who had seen it all and realized fundamental human limitations all the way back then. Western society is built upon this presumption. However, if one looks deeper than their writings and arguments, and look at their positions and actions in their societies, one might find that they were slaveowners, slumlords and profiteers using rather cynical ratiocination to justify their predation upon those around them. Cicero is a prime example.

Anyway, despite it all, look at all the good of which humanity is capable. It's not "humanity" that suppresses and harms those people; it's certain humans. We have a legacy of culture that amounts to a massive amount of collective psychological baggage that we need to move past.

As is often said, another world is possible.

Oy. I got on my soapbox again, didn't I?

Gluby said...

S&M Lisa,

I hope things are going well! Any deep thoughts you may have later are still welcome in the night deposit box.

JulieAnn said...

Great post. I think it is too difficult to deconstruct societal views of morality given the many factors that create the concept of morals. For example, a person may act moral, but does that make them moral? Or does the intention itself make a person moral, while the actions, taking on more complex qualilties, belie the true nature of the individual?

I'm prone to macro out and say that we as a culture have lost our souls. We seek externals to try and compensate for this. We tattoo our bodies to profess meaning within, and the deepest it can go is on our skins. We are a society that has banished ourselves from the inner world and the psyche.

I'm looking forward to installment #2.


Gluby said...


Oh, yes, indeed. And it is all too easy to spout off one's views in a way that seems to indicate one is stating the whole of the case, rather than just a significant part of it... which I think I did in this post! So, for the record and just in case I did not limit what I am saying appropriately: yes, I am only stating a significant part -- one variable -- in the formula that results in cynicism among the citizenry of Western industrialized countries. But I do think it's a really significant part.

In regard to what you say about losing our souls, I think we are saying something quite similar when I say we have abandoned the field of morality, losing respect and even understanding of the concepts of "morality," "truth" and "honor." Instead, our educated subculture has opted for a relatively mild, well-ordered hypocrisy.

About intent versus effect as the hallmark of true morality, that is indeed a hell of a subject. For the record, though, I am not so much inclined to be speaking of a metaphysical concept of morality -- i.e. whether one is truly praiseworthy -- as I am of what direction a universally-beneficial morality would take a conscientious being.

Agh. It's too much for me tonight. I'll just say that I think all of us have a strong capacity for altruistic behavior, and the goal of the peacemakers among us, those who would help build a better society and world of the future, is to find a way to reliably tap that part of people's psyches to balance all of our interests, as well as the interests of all "feeling" life.

With groggy-eyed cheers,

JulieAnn said...

(clearing my throat) Ehem...uh, part two?

Just one of many said...

I may be a cynic, but universal morality/ethics are not possible. Maybe if we all receive a lobotomy or rejoin the Morg(same thing BTW!)
You would have to take out self interest from the equation. We often base our morality/ethics upon self-designed goals. We bend and twist them to fit an agenda.
Individualism would have to be erradicated completely for this to work.
My own two cents!

wry catcher said...

I have nothing intelligent to add to this conversation, at least not at the moment. But your 'upcoming hits' have been distracting me for a while now, and I am especially intrigued by this one: "Repression, Superficiality and Facetiousness: Why Do We Joke Less When We're Happier?" Would love to read more about it - just the title intrigues me greatly. But I am the queen of humour as a defense mechanism/way to get people to like me, so I'm still muddling through many things about that fact.

I also would dig the 50 things post.

Gluby said...

Ach! Life, life. My apologies for taking forever. It is forthcoming.

Please don't beat me!

I know, I know. It's a cynical time, and those who trumpet "universal" morality the loudest have tended to be the bastards whose interest is to keep us divided and conquered anyway, or at least controlled. I think religionists have too long dominated the moral discourse while the truly principled (not those who act from metaphysically-deferred self-interest -- divine fear of punishment/hope for reward) have been intimidated into relative silence.

But don't dismiss it too soon. Universality is possible and necessary. But I'll save details for later. For now, it's sufficient to say that you give us (humans) too little credit. Self-interest exists alongside altruism. When people fear (whether it's economic insecurity or literal fear for life), they are far more given over to their worst instincts. But when they are given a chance not to live with unreasonable conditions, they fare far better. Just because altruistic love is intertwined with self-interested love does not invalidate that altruism, or relative altruism if you contest the existence of true, pure altruism.

Anything you add to the conversation is by definition valuable. Yeah, I've been looking askance at those damned old ideas too. I just need to sit down, let the distractions fend for themselves,and chain that finicky, ADD little bitch of a muse to the keyboard. I sometimes think they should incorporate a picture of me into the standard definitions of "desultory."

Ci ao
(origin: Roman; "we slaves" -- class consciousness and solidarity among the Roman slave population extended into their greeting, which has endured far past their particular working-class subculture...)

Just one of many said...

Pure altruism is only attainable in a Utopian society. Where no competition is necessary for existance. When it truly comes down to who will survive, MOST people will choose themselves. Idealism is wonderful because it is full of ideas yet to be realized.
I, for one, would abhor a society that was free from toil. Boredom would set in...and that's when the REAL trouble would set occur.
It reminds me of Huxley's 1984. Utopia that is only obtainable through use of mind altering drugs. Till one day, a person realizes he is an individual, capable of causing and feeling pain. THAT is humanity.
With that said, I think your ideas on improving society are AWESOME and praise worthy!! Keep it up!

Gluby said...

Thanks, JOOM!

On Huxley, interestingly, Brave New World was not a warning about utopia. It was primarily a warning about consumerism and educational propaganda and their use to create a petty, self-absorbed and ultra-conformist society. One might also say it was a criticism of "better living through chemistry," but, um, Huxley became a great lover of psychadelic drugs... :)

So, actually, we're already far more similar to Huxley's dystopia than most could have imagined we would become. Complete with our soma.

I am definitely no believer in any social system which requires universal conviction -- i.e. utopia. Utopias only work where all members share the convictions founding it. Even if the system is able to effectively brainwash all its members with a high success rate (Mormonism, anyone?).

Nope. Practicality is essential to practicability. A sustainable social system must both protect its members from each others' worst impulses and allow its members the space for the expression of them.

Just one of many said...

Huxley was not expounding upon Utopian ideals, but the fundamental flaws in it's attainability. Only through cohersion could it be obtained; albietly, to a certain limit.
My purpose upon drawing upon his writting was to show that individuality must be weeded out at all cost to serve as a protection and a unification. It was set upon the fall-out period of war and destruction. Desperation a necessary need bred the depravity it had become.

I think the crux of the matter lies in your statement: "Practicality is essentioal to practablitity. A sustainable social system must protect each other from each others' worst impulses AND allow its member the space for expression of them."
The bitch of the matter is who is to decide what is the "worst impulses". If I enjoy being bitch slapped and anal sex, is that the worst of impulses or merely to be frowned upon?? In order to impose limitations, you set a person or group to legislate to the masses.
I really would like your opinion...this fascinates my illiterate ass!! HUGS!!

Gluby said...

Your ass is most certainly not illiterate. We're all autodidacts -- some of just have a lot more conventional "wisdom" indoctrinated into us to unlearn first. I always love what you have to say!

Oh, no. If there's one pulpit I pound regularly, it's that of substance over form. Calling variance from Christian/Victorian sexual restrictions and other archaic taboos "immoral" is a horrible twisting of whole idea behind morality based on moral formalism. I would define, for my purposes, moral formalism as the rigid classification of activities as moral or immoral on the basis of their adherence to social convention and religious strictures. This is a very tribal and tyrannical form of morality.

After all, interracial sex was considered just as "immoral" as other taboo sexual activities.

The error of formalistic "morality" is that it focuses, usually to the point of tunnel-vision, upon a laundry list of behaviors themselves -- the acceptable and non-acceptable conventions, formalities, social relationships, family forms, activities, etc. -- rather than the principles and ultimate effects and intentions behind them.

So, the answer is that, in a society founded upon rational morality of the kind of which I speak, no one would legislate such things.

So what would be "immoral," our "worst impulses"?

It's actually far easier than is generally thought to pinpoint our worst impulses. Our worst impulses are based in fear, insecurity, hate, sadism, aggression, predatorial exploitation of others, and so forth. There are some behaviors that are virtually guaranteed to be immoral (the things that shock anyone's conscience -- torture, rape, murder, etc.) But many are moral or immoral depending on circumstances.

Actually, your example is excellent to illustrate the point. If you enjoy having certain forms of rough sexual play and anal sex, and someone indulges those particular desires with you so far as you desire and to your satisfaction, that is a mutually-beneficial and consensual relationship that is healthy, or at least not unhealthy in itself. (It would be unhealthy, for example, if the reason you liked to be slapped was because you felt you were worthless and deserved mistreatment; details are everything. But that is an issue of psychological health, not immorality.)

The harm is not in doing this or that, but in disrespecting the dignity, will and freedom from unwanted intrusion of our bodies and personal space by another.

After all, what is truly the harm in bitch-slapping you? Is it the physical pain? Well, if you want that pain -- say, if it is emotionally cathartic or exhilarating and endorphin-producing for you -- then that particular physical pain is something of value to you. How is it different, for example, from the self-inflicted pain marathon runners are well-known to suffer in their running "addiction"?

Is it because being bitch-slapped is humiliating? If it is in private among two respectful and consenting parties who understand the "rules" and boundaries of this mutual experience, this game, and neither feel debased or humiliated, then that is a non-issue as well.

Then the problem is neither pain nor the message of the slapping in itself; the problem is where the pain or the message are undesired. The harm is in the violation of another's dignity by the infliction of unwanted pain.

The issue can obviously become more complicated where manipulation is involved, but for my purposes I am assuming two people who are truly peers and not being subjected to an overall pattern of degrading manipulation.

As is prosaically said, "you can't rape the willing." But when you overstep the line of consent, when you violate the will and dignity of another, you have stepped back into the realm of rape, and then it is the violation of will and the harm to the other person it produces that is immoral.

I hear a lot of people get lost in this dilemma when pondering "the golden rule" (do to others as you would have them do to you). It's not about the particular behavior, but rather that you want people to respect your desires, your dignity and your well-being as you would have them respect yours. The golden rule does not mean you must wish bitch-slapping and anal sex on everyone else; it means you must wish them the freedom to determine the appropriate bounds of their own sexual and social relationships.

There is much room for interpretation of this, and there are moral dilemmas that remain difficult within this framework, but far less than is generally assumed.

Universal morality of the kind I advocate leaves most issues currently associated with "morality" well alone, proclaiming them as issues of individual discretion.

We truly have to let go of formalistic kinds of morality that focuses on laundry lists of taboo behaviors and focus on the real harms, many of which are just fine and dandy in our society and in our dominant religions.

So, after all that I just wrote, short answer: no, rough sex play and anal sex are neither to be considered immoral or frowned upon. They are as valid and appropriate as any consenting adults, free of physical or mental coercion, choose to make them.

Lemon Blossom said...

I know I don't comment on your site enough. I just want you to know that you do inspire me and I am often astounded by your insights, even if I don't tell you.

"It's not about the particular behavior, but rather that you want people to respect your desires, your dignity and your well-being as you would have them respect yours."

Wow, I love this part. I had never thought of the golden rule in such a way before.

"The golden rule does not mean you must wish bitch-slapping and anal sex on everyone else; it means you must wish them the freedom to determine the appropriate bounds of their own sexual and social relationships."

I also love this part for the visualization of wishing bitch-slapping and anal sex on everyone as well as wishing them freedom to determine relationships. :)

Just one of many said...

OMG!! I never had such a stimulating read!!

Gluby said...

Thanks, Amy. You have no idea how much that warms my heart.

Hellmut said...

In response to Chanson, logical positivism failed not because of the World Wars but when it became clear that Gottlob Frege had failed to contain logic within itself.

Frege's failure meant that there is no rational foundation for mathematics and contradictions emerged within the discipline.

Struggling to resolve the contradictions, the mathematical methodology dispute arose between Bertrand Russell and Luitzen E. J. Brouwer.

Russell proposed to resolve the contradictions by redefining certain assumptions. Brouwer, however, argued to reformulate classical logic. Particularly, Brouwer argued that the tertium non datur, p v ¬p <=> TRUE, is incorrect.

Unfortunately, Brouwer lacked the formal proof but when he talked to people long enough, he could somehow persuade some mathematicians. Hence his alternative logic was called intuitionist logic.

In the absence of a formal proof, however, most mathematicians embraced Russell's new assumptions, which means that contemporary mathematics had to surrender the faith into its rational foundation and had to settle for a pragmatic foundation. Ultimately, we accept mathematics not because it is true but because it works.

Therefore we are currently not in the position to invoke mathematics as the foundation of reason.

However, Brouwer's efforts have since been formalized and Konrad Lorenz and his student Lorenzen have developed a proof that rejects the tertium non datur in dialogue logic. As we are speaking, dialogue logicians are exploring avenues of applying their findings to set theory.

However, I do not know of dialogue logicians that have taken up Frege's project of generating a self-contained logic that could be the foundation for mathematics.

The important thing to remember is that the foundations of mathematics remain contested. Therefore we do not know if reason has a foundation.

Jonathan Blake said...

I know the iron has grown cold, but I don't see the second promised post in this series. If anyone is up to it, I have thrown down the gauntlet and am awaiting anyone who would like to prove a universal morality. :)