Moral Integration, or the Pros and Cons of Moral Absolutism and Ethical Pluralism

Aaron writes this wonderfully thought provoking reply to my post about moral motivation apart from reference to God:

I had an argument a few years back with someone over this. She thought I’d go to hell for not believing in Jesus, even thought she thought I was a great person. I found that troubling. It doesn’t matter to her why I am good person? To me, it’s morality that counts, not the source. And in my opinion, there are at least two paths toward being a morally sound person.

One is to pursue it because you feel that what is good is good. That’s the secular approach.

The second is to pursue it because of a belief enhanced by your spiritual background that what is good is good. That’s the religius approach.

The difference is whether or not you believe there is a moral God. If you do not, it doesn’t mean you have no moral compass. In fact, those who use a secular-based morality face a MUCH harder path, and if they remain dedicated to it, religious folks should be respectful.

Those who are religious face a choice — follow a code of morality for the reason that the rock band Rush calls “kindness that can kill” (fear of God’s might); or do it because they feel that a particular code of ethics in a religious tradition enhances a sense of morality they would feel regardless of what source it came from.

If the code you follow is one that is inherently along the lines of your personal belief, a choice and not out of fear, then does it matter who the author is?
Well, think of it this way: God may be reaching us in different ways. Should you and I believe in the same set of values, you through a secular search and me through a religious one (or in my case, a secular search that ended up enforcing my religious upbringing), then neither of us should condemn the other for believing in the same thing!

Following God out of fear is cowardice. Ignoring morality out of failure to believe in God is cowardice. Those who seek morality, whatever the method, are those truly blessed.

Thanks so much for this reply, Aaron.  I think it raises some interesting issues.  I think when Christians tell Jews (in your case) or secularists (in mine) that without Jesus we cannot attain heaven that they are (1) adhering to New Testament claims that our sins are all that matter to God and that without allying ourselves to Jesus we cannot have those sins forgiven and (2) psychologically they are expressing their priority of a moral community over a moral action.

So, what is happening here?  I think the natural human tendency is to make our world fit together as well as it can.  And I think that religion and conspiracy theories thrive for their ability to fill in all the blanks for us.  And morality is a place where this comprehensive attitude logically manifests for several reasons.

(1) Morality relates to our fundamental values and so it needs to be related to the rest of our identity in a consistent way or we will be in great cognitive dissonance, which our minds abhor.  So, it is crucial that we understand our lives as consistent with our abstract values and we will go to all manner of lengths to rationalize our actions rather than deal with the unsettling disharmony between our behavior and our ideals.  This is why it is really hard to apologize and part of why I think the sin-redemption, fall-forgiveness narrative of Christianity is such a psychological hit.

Within a Christian interpretation of your failings, it’s not just an inconsistency between your biology and your various psychological drives and your express ideals.  Rather, it’s your fallen nature that makes sense of your failures.  Now you might interpret our biological and psychological limitations in our ability to do what we think is good as a scientific way of saying “fallen nature” but the problem is that insofar as this is just our faulty hardware, people are afraid there’s no culpability possible.

So, that doesn’t reinforce the moral identity.  If I feel at odds between my psychological and biological impulsions and my abstract values, there is not a priori reason to blame the biology and psychology rather than the values.  In other words,  sometimes I might have to revise my values and sometimes I might have to subject my biology and psychology to counter-disciplines because I recognize that my value judgments are good ones and worth adhering to.

For the Christian, however, the biology and psychology is just fallen and, according to the doctrine of Original Sin, we are culpable for this.  So the Christian does not have the cognitive dissonance problem and there’s no threat to reigning value paradigms.  They do not ever need reconsideration and reinterpretation when they don’t fit our biology and psychology.  We just need to ask forgiveness.  And when we inevitably fail again, we just rinse and repeat.  And the fundamentalist evangelical homosexual who accepts this account of the world never lets her biology and psychology be evidence for reevaluation of the values that counter her biology and psychology.  Rather, she tries to repent endlessly.

I, from outside the Christian paradigm think that if our values start to harm our abilities to flourish they need reassessment.  If someone’s homosexual orientation is incompatible with a value system that only prioritizes heterosexual relationships, and this person’s love needs, their ability to fully participate in institutions and community, and their abilities to integrate their minds are harmed by their received values—then they have to reassess those value judgments and do the difficult work of creating new paradigms for looking at sexuality which carve out a space in which they too can flourish.  And this is the remarkable and admirable journey that the LGBT community has been on in the last however many decades.

But why is there resistance to such values reconsideration?  Because morality is both psychologically experienced and socially inculcated in terms of strong rules.  Our very natural need for moral intergration is often going to want to be able to interpret the moral feeling of absolute prohibition and the moral feeling of non-negotiable obligation as having a categorically binding character on us.  To participate in a moral discourse and practice is most organically possible when morality is taken as an inflexible guide.

When we are playing baseball the whole game wouldn’t work if there was any possibility that someone might change the rules midway.  Since moral principles are means for both adjudicating disputes and for self-regulation, moralists of all eras have suspected that any questioning of received moral tradition is the questioning of all values whatsoever.  They have integrated their particular instantiation of moral tradition as identical with morality itself.  This makes for the most consistent integration possible and for the easiest way to accept the rules.  They’re binding on everyone and they’re absolutely binding.

This means I can’t make myself an exception when circumstances favor me and it means that you have to respect the rules when you act towards me, and so I am both restrained and protected by these rules and I get sure guidance from them that saves me existential anxiety about what my obligations or freedoms are.  So, these are great benefits that most people feel from taking morality as universal and unrevisable.  And moralists fear that reinvestigation into particular moral judgments relativizes moral obligation altogether by treating what are supposed to be the rules by which we judge as things subject to investigation and reassessment themselves.

And then, the question from within the reigning moral paradigm to which one is obedient becomes, “who are you to presume to start rewriting these rules we were all supposed to follow?  how is that fair?” etc.

So, this is a major component of my theory of normal moral psychology and the first causes of a moralistic attitude that is highly judgmental, traditionalistic, and inflexible.  Now, the next component is group identity.  The functioning of morality as I have theorized it above requires a group that is all on the same page.  And, of course, historically, group identities and moral communities were formed on ethnic lines.  Hence, the Old Testament Jews are a unique moral community formed around an ethnic identity. And the neighboring peoples?  They are totally outside the moral community, God’s not even interested in them, they must even be obliterated altogether.

Why?  Well, I think it’s partly this thinking about the need for the belief in universality which guides integrated practice.  If you’re not part of our community with our absolutes, we cannot tolerate you lest you corrupt our standards and make us feel less necessarily tied to and integrated with our practices.  We have no room for such pluralism.  This continues to today, of course, with each culture looking at the neighbor and as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra puts it (in the section of Thus Spoke Zarathustrat titled “The 1001 Goals”) we see in one culture called evil what is “decked out in purple” in another.  The burqa is not just a cultural difference between the West and Muslim world.  It is a sign of utmost piety and moral self-discpline and scruple in many Muslim quarters while the West does not just shrug at it but sees it as an affront to our most core defining values of equality, liberalism, and self-determination.

So, culturally this remains with us, this tendency to cluster ethnically around moral systems at odds with our neighbors’.

What Christianity does though is it opens up its morality beyond the borders of its original Jewish community and turns group membership into a matter of belief rather than national origin.  The Other is now the unbeliever, not the neighboring tribe.  The Other is a sinner who has not joined the community and so is wicked and trapped in sin.  Only group membership and participation in group rites can make one clean.  To keep Christian moral integration from falling apart, the wall between world and church has to be erected.

Even the more liberal Christians who tolerate more values evolution will seize on some point of identity marking difference.  Something must remain “corrupt” about the world and Other about it or the line between Christian and outsider will be nonexistent and then with no Other to Christianity, there is no Christianity.  It has no definition without an Other that is not it.  That’s the paradox of community.  Inclusiveness requires exclusiveness.  Hospitality assumes the precondition of the possibility of hostility (as I believe Derrida explicated provocatively—or at least that’s what I took away from an explication of him by John Caputo).

Christian moral identity is structured in such a way that its categories for self-assessment and moral integration, its narrative of fall-redemption and sin-forgiveness, requires rejecting those who have not submitted to the life-guiding rituals as out of the loop of salvation.  The rituals themselves are (usually) what matter because they make the Christian’s moral life meaningful.  At least this is the case for the fundamentalist ones who need a strong identity between abstract value and their tradition’s particular conceptions and instantiations of moral practices.

So, yes, you and I, without Jesus, outside the community and its rituals and its practices of moral integration, simply cannot be genuinely moral no matter how conscientious we are.  We cannot erase the stain of Original Sin (out-group status) unless we accept Jesus (and join the in-group, with its internally intricate categories for identity formation.)

Now, I for one am very, very sympathetic with you in your view that what matters is not whether one’s behavior is moral but why—and not where the why is answered in terms of a belief answer like the fundamentalist Christian might demand, but where why is a reflection on whether you (a) have a good will and (b) express the opposite of cowardice—bravery, power, human flourishing, in that behavior.

I see a morally infantalized conformist who is good because he has no courage to test a limit to be contemptible.  Similarly I also find contemptible a moralist who cannot handle the challenge of personally investigating and integrating her values in a process with some indeterminacy.  And I find a moralist who cannot make judgments about the relative room for others to work out their conception of the good life with some flexibility to be potentially dangerous.  And the person whose behavior conforms with expectations out of fear of punishment alone is a coward.

But, I do understand the bonding problems psychologically when we stop being all on the same page with our values.  And there are genuine dangers of lax personal standards growing in the less scrupulous.  And there is greater room for people to slide from values pluralism to a rationalizing form of convenient relativism which gets them off the hook in their minds from having to strive for any higher ideal.  So, I get why the moralists are worried.

As a multicultural and values-pluralist society, we have great challenges and risk great tensions as we let competing moral frameworks and value hierarchies intermingle amongst each other where cultures gone-by demanded far more uniformity for the sake of social cohesion and moral clarity.  We have wonderful benefits to our diversity and we are a rich people for it but we also have to tend to the task of cohering everyone around common rallying points and core common values or we will not be able to contain so much multiplicity indefinitely.  Figuring out how to do that is the great American experiment in a nutshell.

I also understand that someone’s false religious beliefs do not hinder the cultivation of many virtues. My favorite example of this is the Samurai.  I don’t think I am a more excellent specimen of a human being just because I think more truthfully and less mythologically than they did.  They can be braver, more disciplined, more powerful, self-mastering, honorable people than I even if they are wholeheartedly deluded or if some of their practices would be offensive to my culture’s ethical priorities.

So, in light of all this, I, as a convinced secularist, can cede that it is quite possible that even though I think your religious beliefs false in content that they can both as myth and as discipline provide you with a comparable or better set of virtues than my own (assuming that the disadvantages of intellectual vice don’t detract from your gain in virtues over me) and also as long as your participation in religion which is edifying to you does not promote institutions which are for others the route to intellectual vices and spiritual confusion. I think it’s incumbent on tolerant, moderate religious people to make a concerted, active effort to combat bad intellectual and spiritual habits of their more fundamentalistically inclined fellow religionists.

For more on those last two views, I kindly encourage you to click the links provided and to engage the ideas therein in the comments sections underneath those posts.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.