Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Moral Principles: 10 Myths You’ll Be Relieved to Debunk

Though we think they make us kinder and wiser, they often do just the opposite.

1. Moral relativism is avoidable: While we often talk as though we have the last word on morality, no one ever really gets the last word for the simple reason that we can always challenge the morality of one’s way of reasoning out his last word. I start with this myth as a personal concession that my ideas here about what are moral myths are as open to challenge as any moral assertion. You may well disagree with my assumptions about what’s morally true or false. 

2. Living by moral principle always makes you nicer: First, it depends on which moral principle.  Nazis had theirs, for example: principles they embraced as enthusiastically as Martin Luther King embraced his. Now you could say that the Nazi’s principles weren’t in fact moral, but then we’d have to come up with a clear definition of moral principle, a definition we could agree on despite our differences over which moral principles are good or bad.

Moral principles are universal dos and don’ts, best understood as constraints on what you do. Of all the things you could do, moral principles urge particular actions, a constrained set of acceptable actions to take.  We all have our do’s and don’ts. Moral principles are distinctly broad and firm do’s and don’ts:  Always do X.  Never do Y, or whenever you’re in situation A always do X—always kill the Jews. Always fight inequality.  

Second, as constraints on what we do,moral principles inevitably disappoint someone who wishes the constraints were elsewhere. Nazism victims were disappointing to say the least, but so were MLK’s. We can agree that Nazi principles were not nice to Nazism’s victims, and that MLK’s were ultimately nice to the racists ruling America, but that is still a matter of opinion. The racists didn’t think so. Most generally, being nice to one party means being not nice to another party. Giving generously to one means not giving generally to another.

Third, when we want to stick it to some party, there’s no better way to do so than by moral principle. Don’t say “I want to hurt you,” say that moral principle demands that I hurt you. That way you can feel lofty when hurting people. There’s not a single moral principle that can’t be exploited by someone who wants to block, thwart, or hurt someone.  Even “Be nice” can be used as a way to get people to buckle under your control.

3. Moral principles are unnecessary: Given these problems with moral principle, we might wonder if maybe we’d be better off without them. Just be practical, dealing case by case, never leaning on broad do’s and don’ts. 

But that’s impossible.  We may not be able to identify all the moral principles that shape our actions, but we live by them nonetheless. Our intuitions, shaped by instinct, emotions and thoughts and culture are generalities we employ when dealing case by case.

4. Living by moral principles always makes you wiser: Moral principles are ways to stop wondering, to stop seeking the wisdom to know the difference between what one situation calls for as compared to another. The broader your moral principle the less you have to wonder. The principles decide for you what the best action is. That’s their advantage but also their disadvantage. We’ve all watched people stop wondering with what, to our minds is an overly hasty lurch toward moral principle. My boyfriend beats me. Should I leave him? Of course not, because love conquers all.

5. Moral principles are best kept simple: The simpler the moral principle the more sweeping the constraint and therefore the blunter the instrument we use for making our decisions. In practice, even though people may claim to operate by broad moral principles they rarely do. Instead, they apply their principles selectively and ignore the complicated question about where to apply and not apply them. We simplify locally and complicate globally. For example, if we say, “I’m going to support my friends because I live by the moral principle that it’s always good to be nice,” we’re ignoring the way that supporting our friends means not supporting our enemies equally, which they’ll think is not nice. While this example may seem far-fetched it isn’t. It’s as near-fetched as any of the many kinds of factionalism, tribal exceptionalism, us vs. them conflicts we see all around us.

6. Moral principles are cost-free: While no one says this outright, it’s implied by the way some people pile on their moral principles in the service of some force they insist is real—but isn’t really in evidence. For example, the Catholic Church’s insistence that birth control is immoral because it displeases God as they imagine him. Moral principles are, by definition firmly held, inviting a “spare-no-expense” attitude. 

In practice, though, every constraint we impose comes at the cost of enforcement. It takes real work to live by moral principles, not just giving them lip service. We should be parsimonious with our sweeping constraints, limiting them to practical standards, committing to the moral principles that help real beings generally and in the long run. 

Perhaps we get the impression moral principles are cost free because we don’t think through what it would mean to live by them completely. Perhaps too we think they are cost free because the sanctimoniousness they afford us is so self-satisfying they feel worth it. In a world in crisis, we can’t afford to pile on every moral principle we think sounds nice. We have to get practical about where we impose constraints.

7. The older the moral principle the truer it is: If anything hampers practicality about moral principles it’s Toga Cred, the belief that a moral principle is credible and right because it has been held a long time, and was espoused by some guy in a toga, loin cloth or dhoti centuries ago. Such principles have the advantage of getting us this far, but not necessarily of taking us any further. We should be as practically discerning about moral principles as we are about other goods and services these days, asking what they really get us and at what cost, questions we ignore when we’re impressed by the fact that they came from someone a long time ago with mythical importance to us.

We should care less about pleasing past generations than future ones. Past generations knew less about how the world works and certainly less about how our world works. Appreciate their efforts, but think through what really applies today. 

Now, there’s no need to over-compensate, saying that if it’s old it must not be right (which could be called lab-coat cred, the belief that a moral principle is more credible if it’s espoused by a modern scientist in a lab coat). Ultimately there’s no substitute for thinking through a moral principle’s consequences—what would be the practical consequences if we really lived by it.

8. A moral principle is true if it’s espoused by someone by someone famously important.  Einstein is famously quoted as saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."Acting insanely certainly sounds bad, so there’s a moral principle implied here: Don’t be insane, in other words don’t do the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

How do we square that with “At first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” or “perseverance furthers”? If you can think of even one example of perseverance furthering, then Einstein’s moral principle must be wrong even if he was right about relativity.   

Again, there’s no substitute for thinking through the practical consequences of living by a moral principle.

9. It is moral to believe in a higher moral authority: History strongly suggests that it’s highly immoral to believe in a higher moral authority. It may be motivating, but of what? Of a confidence that you are on the side of good, fighting the core sources of evil in the universe. 

Believing in higher moral authorities stunts our growth on thinking through the practical consequences of the moral principles we claim to live by. No need to think things through, instead simply say “I subscribe to this moral principle because it’s what God wants” and then crusade on behalf of your imaginary authority. 

There’s no evidence whatsoever of a higher moral authority in the universe. He’s simply our imaginary friend who agrees with us. For a compelling historical account of the origins and consequences of this belief in a higher moral authority, a belief that drives most religions, the idea that our moral debates and battles on earth play out an epic universal battle between good and evil, check out religious historian Elaine Pagel’s new book, The Origin of Satan (here as an audiobook).
Once you have a higher moral authority, you’re inches from claiming that He’s fighting against Satan so it’s your moral authority to kill whomever you decide, for is Satan’s spawn here on earth. 

We do have to kill evil people sometimes—for example, in wars against dictators—but we had better be carefully practical about it, and practicality flies out the window whenever we decide that we must kill because our authority originates in a higher power’s authority. 

10. Moral principles are more fundamental than moral dilemmas: Moral principles are our sometimes desperate, sometimes sporting bets on how to respond to moral dilemmas. Moral dilemmas are therefore much more fundamental. They begin with life, an organism’s practical effort to regenerate itself. Our moral principles are continuous with life’s accumulation of functional biological adaptations, the general dos and don’ts of adaptive traits and behaviors, all of which are responses to the fundamental dilemmas life faces in trying to survive, questions like “Should I exert myself here or elsewhere?"

If you want a good moral approach, you could do far worse than the serenity prayer, which outlines not a moral principle but a moral dilemma in a wondering quest for wisdom, in other words, better bets, for example about where to serenely stop exerting and where to courageously continue working. I’ve drafted over a dozen variations on the serenity prayer that cover a variety of fundamental moral dilemmas.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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