There is a very interesting conversation about morality and faith, happening at my brothers blog, Dispatches From the Culture Wars. It is attached to a post about Brian Tamanaha's response to Emory University legal scholar, Micheal Perry. I am still working on what's becoming a very long piece on morality, faith, evolution and cognition. It was my original intent that this article be focused on the neurology of violence, especially torture, but I am finding it very hard to stay within those parameters, anyone familiar with ADHD, will understand why. I will address the topic of torture in the near future, but in a slightly different context. When I got into the discussion at Ed's blog, I wandered rather off and on the beaten track, so I felt it would be a good idea to bring it over here.
Micheal Perry, makes the assertion that the foundation for morality and indeed, human rights, is found in religion. He questions whether those without faith can have any real basis for morality or support of human rights. Brian does a decent job of responding to this notion, but I think, still misses the mark. When I get finished with and start posting (in multiple sections) a long article on morality that I am working on, it will become rapidly apparent that many folks subscribe to the notion of universal moral axioms. Such folks are almost universal in their support of socially constructed moral frames. In a distinct minority, not only do I think this is a bad idea, I think it's a dangerous idea. In large part, I think this is a semantic discussion.
It should be noted now, that this should not marginalize the discussion. While pedantry annoys the hell out of me sometimes, it's important to remember that language largely defines the reality we live. It is easy to decide that people are parsing things rather fine, indeed I am about to do just that, but often times, that is when language becomes most important. There are times when absolute precision is very important, in my mind, this is one of those times. I am going to take this opportunity to define the terms that I will be using in this post and future posts about moral philosophy. I should note that these will be my definitions, not necessarily that which other's who post here might be using.
What this discussion boils down to, is the difference between external and internal moral frames. While much of society puts a lot of focus on externally constructed moral frames, I am a believer in focusing on internally constructed moral frames. I should add, that I will, in future post go into much greater detail in these definitions.
External moral frames, are socially or religiously constructed moral frames. In religion, the obvious example is the dogma of the church, or other body of worship, as well as the dogma of holy texts. These are what outwardly defines or codifies right and wrong. In secular society it is more complicated. The short hand, would be defining the external moral frame, in terms of secular law. To an extent this can be accurate, but it is less than complete and sometimes counterintuitive. So added to this, are too often presumed universal axioms, such as “don't harm others,” or “don't infringe on the rights of others to be.” Finally, we have simple social pressure. This would be a secular amalgam to church dogma, in that it is more relative than any other aspect of moral framing. What it really boils down to is conformity. We want to fit in, so this aspect of morality often becomes assumed.
Internal moral frames, on the other hand, are that which are inherent to the individual. There is ample evidence that some aspects of morality, may well be genetic, or evolutionary in nature. This does not mean that that they are universal. Indeed, I accept that they may well be genetic, but would tend to reject the idea that they are evolutionary, simply because evolution implies that they are species wide. Being a Christian, I must also point out the biblical support for this aspect of internal moral framing. Rather than accepting dogma as the end all of moral framework, many Christians believe that the conviction of the Holy Spirit is the progenitor of our conscience, I take this a step further and claim it as the progenitor of our internal moral framework. Some, though certainly not all Christians would probably agree with me.
The thing is, that our inherent moral frame is also influenced by environmental conditioning. This makes for a messy, complicated situation. Indeed, this alone is a good argument against attempts to instill universal mores and external frames. Individuals are just that, individuals. We all react differently to the same stimuli, because we are different. While the internal moral frame certainly takes social pressures and religious dogma (for those who are religious), it is in no way dependent on them. In effect, the difference is that one should reject the idea that social pressures or religious dogma define morality. Instead, we should define morality as what we know inherently, to be right and wrong. This is not parsing it as fine as it seems and I did mention that to me, this is largely a semantic discussion.
To use the example of sexuality. Even in today's largely secular society, there is a strong tendency to equate "loose" sex, with immorality and not just in religious circles. This would be an example of what I consider an amoral ideal. Very few people in todays society, actually manage to live up to that ideal, even if they believe that not doing so is immoral. So you have people committing an act that they believe is immoral. What this in turn does, is weaken their adherence to the rest of their moral frame. In effect, it become easier to commit immoral actions, thus making morality essentially meaningless.
Ideally, morality should be the ultimate governor of our actions. Above the law, above social pressures, above dogmatic framing, morality should be the overwhelming control on our actions and behavior. For it to be effective in this regard, it by needs, must come from within. Anything that weakens it, makes it easier to commit acts that we consider immoral, essentially weakening our discernment of what is truly right and wrong. Morality must come from within. Whether through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, through genetic inputs, through environmental conditioning, or, as I believe, through all of the above, the moral framework, constructed from within, is a far more powerful governing force than any external construct can ever be. Yes, this is indeed moral relativism, but to date, no one has really come up with a coherent argument for why moral relativism is actually a bad thing. For that matter, no one has really come up with a coherent argument that morality is anything but relative or in any way universal.