All moralities have a surprisingly selfish idea at their core: that what is good for me personally is right, and what is bad for me personally is wrong. The reason we don’t habitually lie, steal and rape is not that God will be angry with us. It’s that it doesn’t work. We may score a few perks, but that kind of behaviour is bad for our long-term health. Criminals lead very stressful lives, and prisons are full of disappointed, broken individuals.
Humans are not natural loners. We are social, hierarchical primates, who thrive within the context of families, tribes, nations and countries. The more we co-operate with the people around us, the more we all benefit, and the stronger our group becomes. The loners and the small groups lose out in the evolutionary race, and the big, cohesive groups survive.
The inclination for social animals to care for each other is as primal as eating and breathing. Darwin put it this way: ‘I believe that any animal endowed with well marked social instincts, the parental affections being included, will inevitably acquire a moral sense of conscience.’
Religions give divine sanction to this kind of co-operative behaviour, but the Dalai Lama is right in saying that none of it requires belief in a god. We need each other and we like to be liked. Helping each other makes us feel good and really is good for us. The instinct to care for others, and the evolved behaviour that ensures that we do so, is hundreds of thousands of years older than any religion.
Social groups can be large or small, durable or transient, but they all work by rules which are enforced through rewards and punishments. A family, a sports team or a workplace each has its particular concepts of what is right and wrong, and its network of supporting customs, beliefs and laws. These can be very diverse and peculiar, but their fundamental purpose is identical: moralities strengthen the cohesion of a group, to the benefit of all concerned.
For this reason, moral principles are very similar across the planet and across time. Don’t be selfish. Think of others. Observe the golden rule. Be co-operative, friendly and helpful. If you look after me, I’ll look after you. Be obedient to the powers that be. Above all, follow the rules, even if you don’t understand them. If you do, you’ll be rewarded, now or later. If you don’t, you’ll be punished, now or later. The Pope, the Dalai Lama, the local imam and the Minister of Police would be in perfect accord with all of that.
When the rule of law breaks down, most people will suffer and the few that thrive will always have to watch their backs. In a co-operative, law-abiding society, however, most people will benefit, most of the time. Even if we have to sacrifice some personal liberties, it usually pays in bucket loads to be good, most of the time.
Moral codes are ‘good’ because they promote the well-being of a group and the people within it, but for this very reason they also have a huge potential for evil. Groups need to be strong because they are competing for the world’s resources with other groups. Despite their claims to universality and divine sanction, moralities invariably operate on a
primitive ‘us and them’ mentality. We love and care for ‘us’, but the rules don’t apply in relation to ‘them’.
For example, the French Revolution promoted the ideal of ‘Fraternite’, the Universal Brotherhood of Man. What could be more noble and beautiful? No more racism or sexism. No more class or religious distinctions. No more prejudice and persecution. Surely, this is what a fractious world desperately needs.
However, the writer Chamfort cleverly glossed the idea of fraternity as ‘Be my brother or I will kill you!’ and he soon proved his point. For his irreverence, he was sent to the guillotine – a rare piece of poetic justice, if ever there was one. Those who believe in Big Ideas hardly ever have a place for jokers.
Similarly, the Christian God preached ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in the Ten Commandments, but that was only in relation to ‘us’. A few chapters later, he exhorted the Israelites to commit total genocide. As they went to war, he commanded “You shall save nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites.” He even demanded that their women, children and animals be slaughtered.
God wasn’t contradicting himself. Moralities are always about strengthening the ‘us’ against the ‘them’. The logic of morality is inexorable: what is good for us is right, and what is bad for us is wrong. We can’t argue with that and hardly anyone ever does, especially in wartime.
As a general rule, we regard the deliberate massacre of civilians as a crime, but it is particularly barbaric when the other side does it to us. When the Germans killed a few thousand civilians during the Blitz, they were seen to be committing an atrocity. But when ‘we’, the British and Americans, carpet-bombed German cities for years, and systematically killed hundreds of thousands of women and children, that was seen as justice being served to criminals. As Germans, they deserved it, even the babies and the grandmothers. They started it!
We can easily see the moral faults of others, but it is far more difficult to see our own. In wartime, we find the worst atrocities occur not because people are bad, but because they are too moral, too obedient, too willing to do what is expected of them. This is invariably the easiest course for any individual to follow.
Hitler, Stalin and Mao deliberately killed maybe seventy million of their own countrymen between them. To do so, they needed millions of good citizens to do all the dirty work, some to wield the knives and some to do the paperwork. There is never any shortage of the kind of people that have been rather unfairly called ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’. They may well be 20-40% of any population.
Though we don’t like to admit it, we don’t regard people who say they ‘were just following orders’ as criminals. They hardly ever get punished, and we know why. They are just like us. They have the characteristics of good citizens everywhere. As Solzhenitzyn said, it would be so much easier if we could simply isolate the bad people and punish them. Unfortunately, “the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. And who is willing to destroy part of his own heart?”
It is easy to be obedient. It is far harder to be good, but are there universal moral principles that apply, or should apply, across all cultures? This is where the religious leaders greedily put up their hands and claim supreme authority. Without God, all is moral relativity and chaos, says the Pope.
I believe that we really can compare the values of one culture against another. One good way to test a morality is to see how it manages the us/them quandary, and to see whether it adequately protects the rights of the individual.
All the religions, old and new, East and West, fail dismally on the first count. Despite the public image of smiling monks, Buddhist societies have been every bit as bloodthirsty, and just as prone to religious wars, as Christian ones, as anyone familiar with Asian history well knows. Any religion that claims universality and the authority to interpret it, is guaranteed to be hostile towards those who disagree with them.
Most moralities place the rights of society above the rights of the individual. Sometimes this doesn’t matter much, since the social good tends to benefit the individual anyway. If this tendency goes too far, however, people become obedient robots, which contaminates both the society and the individuals within it.
So we can ask whether a morality gives adequate weight to the rights of the individual. For example, in certain societies if a woman has been raped, her ‘punishment’ is to be stoned to death by the members of her village. The rapist gets off with a mild rebuke, since he couldn’t help himself. In this way, justice is served, and the community values are strengthened, even though an unfortunate woman dies. We also see this principle lingering on in our society, when a judge ‘makes an example’ of a particular offender.
Most traditional moralities, as the above example illustrates, fail drastically to support the rights of the individual. Christianity encourages obedience and blind faith. Islam literally means ‘submission’. Buddhism, with its doctrine of ‘no-self’, denies any value to the individual. Hinduism is hardly any better. We can thank God that none of them except Islam has the power they once had. A religion with teeth is a dangerous beast.
For thousands of years, it was always the men at the top, the aristocracy and the priesthood, who decided right and wrong. We are now fortunate to have largely escaped that nightmare. Our liberal democracies guarantee a plurality of views and so tend to protect the rights of the individual as well.
We now have a choice we didn’t have just two hundred years ago. We can now think and speak freely and safely. We also have all the information and alternative views that we could ever need to come to an intelligent decision on any matter. This is an extraordinary debt we owe to the revolutionaries of the past. Questions of right and wrong used to be decided solely by the men in power and enforced by civil violence. Now we can make up our own minds, and do so in genuine if not perfect safety.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2007