(—This is an improved version of the original post — “Faithfully Play Their Part in Our Society“, that’s not happening as much as I would like these days. Too many people are disappointing in this way. How about you? Disappointed, morally shaken? Mass shootings, thinly veiled self-seeking, abuse of position, lack of personal courage: Is this the theme for our times? It’s a moral failing. It’s a lack of moral clarity. What is morality anyway? Maybe this post will help. Please comment, I need to hear your thoughts and feelings!)
A lot of extremely unfortunate things happen in our world. They happen to people, and many are perpetrated by people. We want to know, why? We want to know, “can anything be done?” It’s clearly wrong, we feel and think, but who is responsible? Are they morally responsible?
Dr. J. Coyne uses “responsible” to mean, any series of causes that pass through you; i.e. you simply did the act/event , no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attached to it. He is consistent with his position of “hard determinism” and contends nothing is added of any value by calling a behavior moral or not. Our behavior just is. It is determined by causes — from the neurology of your brain to the quantum state of the universe — to be what it is (or was), and there is no alteration of it nor personal control.
Dr. Coyne is a biologist with the University of Chicago and the author of a blog, “Why Evolution Is True” (WEIT). His blog has a following of over 20,000 and has some rip-roaring debates about Free Will. Is Free Will true, or even possible? Dr. C says “No!” Everything, in a world best described by science, is caused, and this makes ‘morality’ an illusion.
I have often disagreed with the good doctor on these issues. I support how we commonly use the word “moral” and “morally responsible”, by and large.
(The Bible– painting by Van Gogh —and Koran in Islamic calligraphy. I do not support the often accepted idea that morality has a divine source. In fact, this post argues for a naturalistic explanation of moral good and evil.)
“Moral” does add significance; it does add an enhanced and legitimate meaning to responsibility, I believe. Actually, to my mind, “responsible” (the common use of it) often implies a moral sense, so “He is responsible” usually implies blame, or sometimes commendation: “He is morally responsible.” Coyne’s use — a human act is just another cause and effect in a giant chain of those — is artificial, an alteration, in my opinion.
If you are falling down an elevator shaft, it is happening to you (Coyne’s sense) but you are not “responsible” or better “morally responsible” for it. It is an accident. The doors opened, you weren’t looking, you stepped in, and the elevator was not there! Your falling was an accident, but it did definitely happen through you, and to you. In Coyne’s sense, you will be responsible for the mess at the bottom of the shaft (it’s what’s left of you), and, in the common sense use , we could loosely agree; but we certainly would not say you were morally responsible for it: You wouldn’t be a bad person, nor would we be shaken, disappointed, and even feel undermined by that unfortunate event, though it would certainly be considered horrible luck!
By contrast, Dayton is my home town. Following the mass shooting there, I felt betrayed and angered. People should not do that to other people! Especially in the home town toward which you feel great connection!
Similarly, though less severely, if you are waiting in line at a traffic light and the car behind you doesn’t stop and rear ends you, you then hit the car in front of you; you are “responsible” for hitting it in Coyne’s sense (your car hit the car in front), but not legally responsible nor mortally responsible. No cop would cite you. The car that hit you — whether due to drunkenness, distraction, or in the midst of a heart attack — would be legally responsible, and morally responsible if drunk or distracted, but not if having a heart attack.
The Crucial Distinction
We are now getting to the point of the distinction between “responsible” and “morally responsible”. It is amplified by Coyne’s rather artificial use of the word “responsible”.
“Morally responsible” points more explicitly to the element in these situations that involves Our Trust, Reliance, and Righteous Dependence on other persons to Faithfully Play Their Part in Our Society. “Morally responsible” tries to ‘get at’ the element of our lives, our social lives, that, as much as we may say and think, is Caused, it is also a situation Agreed Upon. To say someone is “morally responsible” implies that They did Not Have To Do It. They could have reflected upon their life further and in a better fashion; and thus done otherwise.
There are causes that bring us to live together — we were born this way, we know nothing different, it’s the way modern society (any society) works, people live together! — yet, we take it a step further, We Pledge Ourselves to It; we accept it, and this is the first step in our Reflection upon our self and others.
In many minimal ways, and often wholeheartedly, we state our allegiances to others. We state who we are: “I am an American; I am a school teacher, …a hockey fan, …an artist, …an Ohioan, …a Democrat, …a good person, …an atheist” . We say these things, and things like them, all the time. These statements seem to be a mixture of simple fact and a choice, fact and a preference. Or minimally, fact and acceptance: as when I acknowledge, “I am a man; I am old; or hypothetically, I am an alcoholic, …a depressed person, …mentally ill.
I can not change the fact that I was born in America, that makes me an American at least in a minimal sense; but I do not have to continue to live here. It’s a choice, a preference. I became a school teacher (fact) through a series of choices, but I did not set out in life, early on, saying that is what I wanted to do and march straight down that path. As a boy, I wanted (and tried) to become a baseball player, then an astronaut (read a number of books on the topic and followed space history avidly). In the 5th grade, the nuns even had me ‘searching my heart’ to see if I had “a calling to the priesthood”! Notice how I blame that on “the nuns”, but I can assure you, I was also a ‘willing’ — though young and impressionable — participant, for a while, in that scheme. So, life is not all preferences and choices either. It’s choices and facts.
I can not change the fact that I am old, but I can accept it. This fact becomes Reflected in a conscious awareness of it. I can, or should, or might, then do something about it. I should go to the gym more often. I might get my affairs in order. I want to eat better. And similarly, I may be a person with a mental illness, I accept this. What can I do about it, what might I do, …should I do, …want to do about it? Acceptance is the minimal position in a moral dilemma; it signifies the awareness of it. It signifies the shift from something we are — something that is happening to us — to something we Know About. This is a shift from a causal relationship to a relationship of Reference: I have ‘stepped outside’ the dilemma/the situation and now have Perspective, or Additional Perspective. I have a point of view on it and some reflective separation from it.
Morality is about what you do and did, but more so it is about your reflection on that, or lack there of.
Faithfully Being With Others
Our participation in our social way of life is, generally and very significantly, Accepted By Us even when it is seemingly and largely Forced Upon Us. It is as if we have Taken An Oath to our fellows that we will Live Together in the mutually acceptable way. Often we explicitly take Oaths that we will Do Our Part in relation to others Faithfully.
(Above we have various oaths being taken by people in various situations. Starting at top left, a doctor swears to serve their patients, immigrants an allegiance to their new country, citizens joining the military of their country, people swearing to tell the truth at a hearing or in court, in marriage an oath to be faithful to each other, a President swearing to serve the people of his country and uphold their Constitution. — photos from the public domain)
That is what Morality is based in. It is our commitment, above and beyond all the causes that have gotten us here, to this life together. We make a commitment to it. Our point of view of it, is, minimally, one of acceptance and basic respect.
And our oath to each other need not be explicitly made. In common and everyday situations, it is, as if, we have Taken An Oath to our fellows that we will Live Together in some way, or state, above that of “a war of all against all”, as Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher, put it. It is implicit in what we do and say, that we will behave with an agreed upon modicum of decency toward our fellows.
If you cannot do this, behave in this minimally decent way, options are available, if you can Reflect Upon It! In fact, in our society, You Have The Obligation To Seek Help, and even to Remove Yourself From Our Company until your affiliation improves! Move to Idaho and live alone in a cabin in the mountains. Stay in your apartment, if you live in the city, and come out as infrequently as possible. Seek emotional counselling! Write a novel or read poetry about your situation. Join an alternative political party or religious sect. Even, as a last and somewhat reasonable option, commit suicide. But, you have No Right to disrespect others and undermine our faith in our togetherness in many of the ways increasingly common today: mass and random murder, the abuse of positions of power or trust, and the lack of courage to speak up for what is right. That is being wrong, morally.
The Background of Morality in Nature, History and Religion
The Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, was one of the first (the 1600s) to explore and hypothesize about this idea of an oath to others, a Social Contract or Covenant. Significantly, he contended — and absolutely correctly, we here at naturereligionconnection.org believe — this oath is so important and functional that it establishes a new Level of Organization with new abilities that accompany it.
It establishes a new creature, contended this originator of social science. We here at NatieRel have called it “the human social organism” (see posts 4 and 5 in Freedom series); Hobbes called it “The Leviathan”. That is how closely we are connected! We function together as a single creature.
But this image and idea of “a larger embodiment” of individuals is not confined to politics and political philosophy. It is also exemplified in Nature and its various highly social ways of living for many life forms. We have flocks, schools, colonies, herds and packs.
(From top left, murmurating starlings, schooling sickleback, colony of army ants, herd of bison and pack of hyenas at bottom right. None of these biological forms of social living are consciously committed to by their participants.)
We have “parliaments” of Burrowing Owls
and the Portuguese Man-of-War.
(The Man-of-War is a siphonophore, like a sea anemone (which also has stinging tentacles). But, it is actually a Colony of 4 individual animals, called polyps. Its gas-filled bag is one; it functions is to move ‘the animal’ as a sail. Three other polyps hang below with individual functions of capturing prey, digest prey (the stomach for all yet its own animal) and reproduction (for all). It’s a strange arrangement and not yet fully understood! Photos and diagram thanks to National Geographic)
In religion, of course, participation in a larger embodiment/a larger unity is a prominent
theme. Ecstatic and mystical forms of religion often involve the participant in forms of consciousness and ritual characterized by loss of individual self. The Whirling Dervish of Sufi Islam, the Kabbalah of Judaism, and the tradition of “speaking in tongues” of Pentecostal Christians, all are examples. Even in the more institutional and dogma based religions, images and beliefs of a larger unity occur.
The tradition of “the mystical body of Christ”, mystici corporis christi, is prominent in The Bible and one of the favorite themes of Saul of Tarsus. From my Catholic school days, I still remember a piece of art with the exact theme of Hobbes’ Leviathan except instead of the King as embodied by his subjects it was Jesus embodied by his followers: the Catholic Church as the Corpus Christi.
Ironically, when I first published this post, I did not explicitly consider the use of “God” in oath-taking. An oath is a “solemn vow”and has generally invoked a deity, as witness, guarantor, retributive agency. This theme may generate an additional post.
Going Beyond Biology and Religion
The human way of being together, starts with biology but goes beyond it. Social animals are social via the evolution of their physical traits. But, as with some other large-brained animals, in humans a new form (or organization, or design) of sociability began to emerge: Culture. Humans are now most pointedly social, by being cultural. Beyond our living in close proximity and our division of economic labor, we share thoughts! A brain is an individual thing, but a Mind is connected brains working together within a cultural system.
“Memes” ‘infect’ our brains.* We have language, the predominant form of meme. We pass on our memes/thoughts. We socialize our children (see post four in Freedom series-“Persons in the Human Social Organism”). We discuss our thoughts, reflect upon them. All this is somewhat like programming a computer, except here, we — the computers — are reviewing and revising our own program!
A malcontent, or one suffering from mental illness, often has opportunity to review their thinking; usually, they have a variety of influences upon them. This provides Choice, Options. Those close to them also have moral responsibility to the the ill or depraved person, to themselves, and to their society. This is modern morality, the shared responsibility for our togetherness.
Individually, this process of review and revision is what we call, our personal history; but writ large — socially — it is Human History. Thankfully, this process has brought us to Democracy and the social safety net provided by most democratic governments. Currently, democracy is the most moral form of political organization but others are imaginable.** In this way, we have developed the basic interpersonal, agreed upon, respect that characterizes “us” — our society — and distinguishes us from “them” — social ways of life foreign to us. Ancient autocracies like those in Egypt and the Roman Empire, even modern drug and gang states that exist in Central America, are examples of living together without our kind of accord and characterized by fear, domination and manipulation. Slavery is another such example. The frequent and arbitrary outbursts of mass violence in America today extinguishes trust and civility, the Moral Basis that underlies “our” kind of modern society, at its best. We are deeply shaken by it, for it strikes at the roots of our moral togetherness. We no longer share thoughts, we receive bullets.
A Final Example of the Difference Between “Responsibility” and “Moral Responsibility”, and A Holistic Perspective.
The general background for this position on morality involves, also, a very curious argument that some respected philosophers have currently advocated. They contend that most of the things we believe must be true. Most of the things we say must be honest. A curious contention, but think about it; how would our lives and social lives be possible if they were not overwhelmingly true and real, our statements basically honest? Our consciousness would have no wheels that got traction; our togetherness no gears that meshed into other gears. It would all be spinning wheels — illusions — and manipulative or defensive interactions. No opportunity for the large scale cultural progress that have characterized our history.
It’s a holistic argument. Like wooden-ship sailors, who could replace a leaking plank or
two in the hull while at sea, but they couldn’t replace them all at once! We can tell some lies and sometimes violate our trust of others. We can have some mistakes in our belief system. In each case, we can revise our beliefs piecemeal and catch the few lies told in a democratic society, but there is no Reasonable Way to change all your beliefs at once, nor have a democracy fundamentally deceitful.***
Does that make sense to you?
Salesmanship is the final example. It is not a very exciting example of human togetherness but telling nonetheless. If a salesperson sells you a product that will do the job you want, if they do not lie about their product’s abilities, if they do not hide some significant defect, and if they allow you to make the decision to buy without undo pressure, that is moral salesperson-ship.
Of course, we all know that the caveat, “buyer beware”— caveat emptor — applies; the buyer also has moral responsibilities to look out for themselves. Each knows that the other’s interests are not completely symmetric with their own. Each knows that the other is “under pressure”, but not caused, to make some transaction. It is out of the independence of the two, buyer and seller, that their eventual moral interaction raises them to a new level of enhanced functioning. They both benefit. Each comes away with more than they would have separately. It is a win-win.
Morality is the affirmation, or betrayal, of our trust in other persons. It is the basis for the interaction of persons at their higher level of existence.
(Complex human interactions based on shared ideas and trust. This is moral responsibility and activity. From the operating room to the football field, from the organized flow of traffic to the stock market, from the classroom to voting, all are based on a foundation of trust—though with sanctions and penalties to re-enforce it.)
Most of us feel, and sometimes think, deeply about morality. Our trust has been shaken by current events. Can we live together? Can we act in unison, and pledge ourselves to this? Yes, we can and must! Morally responsible action is the basis of our human life at its most rewarding level: we must struggle to maintain it.
I hope this post helped clarify the Fact of Morality and bolster your preference for it. Your reflection is necessary. Today, a discussion exists; today the character of morality hangs in the balance, as it has at other times in our history. Act now. Human trust is worth the struggle.
(An estimated 4,000 workers rallied and marched for jobs and increased wages in Detroit on this cold day in March. At the Dearborn city line, police fired tear gas and bullets. Marchers scattered but then regrouped and pushed forward, throwing rocks and bottles, one mile into Dearborn heading for Ford’s largest auto plant. From an overpass, police sprayed fire hoses on the cold and advancing workers. Ford ‘security’ forces fired bullets. 22 were wounded by gunfire, 4 killed. The march was then abandoned.)
*For presentation on Memes, see D. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, chapters 10-11. The concept of Meme is a cross between concepts of a Thought, a Gene and a Virus. It allows Dennett to discuss Cultural Evolution and its changes of intellectual themes with great latitude. By contrast, Hard Determinism has virtually no ability to discuss the complexity, marvel and effectiveness of our intellectual lives except in vague platitudes about ‘adaptions to environments’ and ‘future neural discoveries’.
**Plato argued, with some plausibility, for a government by Philosopher-King. In general, the theme being explored here is that the origin of morality is closely associated to the origin of language. Both of these are then connected to the beginnings of Reflective Thought. Themes to be tackled in the future (Oh joy!?).
***There is a strange movie about a man who has no memory, long term (?) or short. He is totally freaked out, and, of course being a movie, determined to find out What happened, but also, Who did this to him! He has few lasting ‘connections’ to who he is and what he is trying to do. So, he takes a lot of notes, for himself, including tattooing some really important info on his body! “Memento” released in 2000. Nor is there a reasonable way to think that all, or most, of our beliefs are wrong. To think that consciousness is illusion, gives us no avenue to consciously come up with that idea. The argument undermines itself.
“This is modern morality, the shared responsibility for our togetherness.”