Morality means thinking and acting in accord with standards of right or good conduct according to the system of ideas of right and wrong held by society. Religious morality emerged as a survival strategy, so in most religions it is generally forbidden to kill other people, but there are occasions when killing is permitted. Most formal religious organizations resist the abolition of the death penalty (capital punishment) for criminals, and support just wars, yet many ordinary people interpret religious scripts against killing more literally, as does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its little sister, the European Convention.
Much less difficult moral problems can emerge from any environment—home, family, business, social, medical, and so on, and many may look just like any other kind of problem. None come with a flag that states, “Beware—Moral Problem!” So, the mind cranks up the same problem-solving routine it has been using since second-level thinking began. It gathers details about the situation that presents the problem and quickly formulates several solutions. It then has to decide which solution is the most appropriate. And this is where difficulties may arise, as a simple example might illustrate.
Imagine that someone in a store takes an item to the checkout counter and the clerk rings up the wrong price. If the checkout price is higher than it should be, most people would question it and ask for a correction. But, if it were lower, some might speak up while others might say nothing. This kind of situation, most would say, is a moral one, and the action taken would be the result of making a moral decision. The problem of which choice to make (speak up and pay more, or say nothing and save) can be simple for some. Many might invariably be “honest” and speak up; others might always choose to maximize their personal gain and would say nothing. People in either of these categories might not even notice that there is a choice; for them there is no problem to be solved, their mind-set automatically provides just one solution and they act upon the decision their mind presents without questioning it.
However, some would see that they are being asked to make a moral decision, and this is where difficulties can arise. To understand why, we have to discuss what’s happening in a little more detail.
Moral problems are actually very similar to mathematical problems. Like math problems (which have their origins in the abstract mathematical environment that defines them), moral problems arise from their own abstract moral environment. And we must understand the true nature of this environment in order to find satisfactory solutions. Moreover, the more difficult the problem is, the more we have to understand about its environment.
Moral problems ask the mind to decide which solutions are “right” rather than “wrong,” and which behaviours might be deemed to be “good” rather than “bad.” Now, as we have seen, the criteria needed to select the right answers for practical problems are found by examining the environment that presents the problem. But what environment actually presents moral problems? From where do they stem? This would be the rightful place to find the criteria sought, but this presents a dilemma: the universe contains no practical, concrete, “real” or verifiable moral environment waiting to be found and consulted.
Moral problems arise solely within the mind, and it is therefore the mind itself that both defines the moral environment and contains the criteria that solutions must meet to be deemed satisfactory. Everything that makes some particular concern a “moral problem” to a person is contained wholly within that person’s mind. Thus, it is the mind-set of the customer at the checkout counter that determines if being undercharged presents a moral problem, and it is this mind-set that provides the frame of reference that is drawn upon when the decision to speak up or remain silent is made.
We should stop here to consider what this means, and what we typically do about it. If a person is a practicing member of a religion, then they almost certainly possess an appropriate mental environment which they can consult when contemplating moral issues, and usually nothing stops the problem-solving process for them at this point. The most important function of any religion is to build such a mental environment, to teach followers what to believe and how to behave (that is, to provide solutions that resolve various kinds of moral problems). The “religious environment,” the neural networks constituting memories that those following a religion have spent time building within their minds, is available for exactly these occasions. It is rare (although perhaps now becoming more common) to encounter a moral problem that has not been already solved by others within the doctrine, but, if ever this does occur, then the adherent is expected to think about what has been written in religious texts, taught by their religious teachers, or said by a religious leader. The devout likely solve most of the moral problems they encounter by referring to one or more of these sources. More complicated issues might involve talking to a theologian or other respected authority. But there exists, for people following a religion, a relevant environment to consult, in which can be found the criteria to judge which solutions are acceptable, as well as the valued purpose that provides reasons for making the “correct” choice.
However, it may be that many moral problems are not actually solved this way today, even by the devout. Perhaps some, or even most, everyday “moral” problems are in fact solved by recourse to the individual’s social or cultural environment. In other words, perhaps when a person wants to know the “right thing to do,” they [possibly quite subconsciously] might think along these lines; “now, what does society sanction?” Or, “what would my group expect of me?” They might even think, “what can I get away with?” Or, “how far can I go without being caught?” The last two examples might be a little extreme, but they serve to make a point: that in many situations today we may actually be obtaining our values, our standards, the criteria we use to judge which solutions are morally acceptable, from the social sub-set we inhabit, not from our religion. I suspect that, to the extent that this may be true, it is mostly so because our religions are failing to keep up with the changing times.
So be it for those who have a religion to follow, or those who can be satisfied by adopting their society’s criteria of what a “good person” should do. People with these ideologies can make decisions (and feel or be certain that they have behaved morally) by consulting their knowledge of these constructed environments. But, what about those who have no mental religious environment to guide their decisions and disdain the vagaries of social standards? How can these people solve moral problems? Admittedly, there may be relatively few such people today, but there must have been many pondering such dilemmas before religions became common features of social life. Since we will shortly be investigating the emergence of religions, it is particularly important to explore what such people might do.
Presumably, some who have thought about such issues will have worked out their own value system, perhaps one based upon standards drawn piecemeal from one or more existing religions or societies they know about, but personalized in some manner. Others might just “play things by ear,” letting their emotions and feelings tell them how to behave as each situation unfolds. But a few, surely, would not be satisfied by such methods, and would want to work out solutions in a careful and rational manner. Where are these individuals to obtain the criteria they need to make moral choices? The physical environment holds none. The social environment has been ruled insignificant. Every religious source has been deemed artificial or irrelevant. And, they lack an appropriate internal, or mental, environment. How can such individuals solve moral issues rationally, and make decisions they can live with?
We are not quite ready to answer such questions yet but will do so in Chapter Three, where we explore how decisions are made. Before then, there are a couple of other issues that should be addressed. The first has to do with what people consider to be moral problems; the second asks why such problems arise.
It is difficult to provide examples of moral problems because what may be a concern for some, may not be so for others. But I will propose a few that may illustrate the point to be noted.
Consider a woman who has learned that the fetus she is carrying has a life-threatening defect. Some may see this situation as a moral issue, others may see it as a practical one. However, the point is, for this discussion, a religious person might have fewer options regarding the fetus than others; for example, abortion may be out of the question for those of certain faiths, and the woman may have no choice at all regarding her situation. Those without such a religion may have a greater number of options, but may lack guidelines of any kind; they would likely find it very difficult to make a decision about the fetus.
Another example: consider someone whose spouse is terminally ill, in considerable pain, and who expresses a wish to die. May the healthy spouse act to fulfil such a desire? How does a non-religious person make this kind of decision, if they see it as a moral issue? How do they justify the choice they make? (And, is this justification likely to be acceptable in law, or to society?)
An example that shows the global nature of moral dilemmas today: what criteria should nations use to determine if intervening in another country’s affairs is justified? Is committing genocide a moral problem? By what criteria is this decided? What “environment” defines the situation as a moral, rather than a practical, one? What “greater purpose” is there to be achieved that permits overriding the tradition of respecting another nation’s autonomy?
One final example: many see acts of terrorism, when innocent bystanders, children and adults, are maimed or killed, as morally reprehensible. But an unknown number of others see such acts as a short-cut to paradise. One act—two diametrically opposite views, with seemingly no middle ground to enable reconciliation.
Clearly, by providing the otherwise non-existent but needed mental environment, religions fulfil a necessary role. Just as clearly, current religions are unable to provide a singular environment that could apply to and be adopted by all nations of the world. Consequently, humanity has no common moral authority to cite, and no collective conscience. The sudden collapse of energy giant Enron Corporation illustrates what can happen to organizations that lack moral environments. We might ask ourselves if such things as terrorism or the wealth disparity between nations (which affects maybe a billion or more people) illustrate that civilization lacks the same thing and if global collapse is a possible consequence.
The second question we should touch upon before moving on is: what prompts the appearance of “moral” problems? If individuals possess no inherent mental “religious” environment and have to be taught in order to construct one, then why would any “moral” problem have arisen in the first place? What would have prompted its appearance?
This question is easy to answer. Moral problems arise simply because the mind has the words and language that makes posing such problems possible. It is our mind’s ability to manipulate words that causes it to ask, “is it right to do this?” Humans are so used to mentally seeking the best course of action to take when practical alternatives arise that it is done automatically whenever more than one choice is offered. To put it crudely, we simply daydream moralistic alternatives, and then become stuck when trying to decide, “what is the right thing to do now?”
Without the mental ability to pose and answer questions (i.e., to note and solve problems) we could not ask ourselves if anything were right or wrong. In short, we don’t agonize over moral problems because we must, we do so simply because our mental ability with languages makes it possible, as the “moral” problems presented earlier in this section demonstrate. Our daily requirement to decide how to behave (together with the fact that religions have made the words “moral” and “ethical” part of most people’s vocabulary) is all that is needed to prompt such inquiries.
We are now well equipped to investigate the nature of decision making. Doing so will provide answers to the questions asked earlier: how can individuals solve moral issues rationally, and make decisions they can live with, if they lack a relevant (possibly religious) mental environment?
- When individuals judge people (or more accurately but perhaps less frequently, people’s behaviour) to be “good” or “bad,” they most commonly use criteria valued by their own society. (Note that these values always mirror those espoused by the nation’s dominant religion; this is because religions gain their prominence by both guiding the state’s evolution and by being reciprocally supported by the state as it grows.) Society and its intertwined institutions (families, schools, churches, governing bodies, powers-elite, laws, etc.) collectively, over time, determine what is considered “good” or “bad” within that society. And society’s criteria provide adequate guidance for many, probably the majority, of us, for we often look no further when making a moral decision.
- These criteria reflect Kohlberg’s six stages of moral judgement: from Self-Interest (Punishment and Reward) through Social Approval (Interpersonal Relations and Social Order) to Abstract Ideals (Social Contract and Universal Rights). See Lawrence Kohlberg, The Meaning and Measurement of Moral Development (Massachusetts: Clark University, 1981). Or see Lawrence Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development. Volume I. The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 409-412. Kohlberg, and others, have found that children generally operate at the first two stages (Punishment and Reward)—as do many in prison; that most adults work at stage four (Social Order); and very few are at stage five (Social Contract). No one has yet been found at stage six (Universal Rights).
- Social mores, of course, are necessarily trivial standards in this book’s frame of reference because they are local and temporal. The criteria used to determine correct social behaviour vary from society to society and are constantly changing. (They can even be observed changing from moment to moment during emergencies.)