Tuesday 7 July 2020

Where do moral norms come from?


The question of where moral norms come from is fundamental to moral philosophy and goes back to the first thinkers who thought about ethics. One of the early answers given was by the Sophist Protagoras. Plato quotes him as saying “[man is] the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.” [Theaetetus  152a]. This amounts to the idea that everything is subjective. The subject (man) determines what exists, measures what is nice to taste and what is nasty, but not merely with regard to matters of taste, but also with regard to matters of existence, in fact with regard to everything, including morality.  Plato attempted to show that sophistry was mistaken. All subsequent European philosophy which A.N. Whitehead pointed out “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  [Process and Reality, p. 39, Free Press, 1979] has been essentially taking sides over this issue. Do we thing that moral norms originate with man? In this case we will whether we realise it or not be followers of Protagoras. Alternatively do we attempt to show that moral norms are not merely subjective, i.e. measured by man, but rather objective from a standard outside of man? In that case we will be followers of Plato.

Salvator Rosa Démocrite et Protagoras
The history of philosophy has involved many systems of morality.   Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill argue that we should act so as to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. A thinker like Kant on the other hand considered that it was necessary to “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” [Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals]. What this states is that doing good is not a matter of calculating the result, but rather a matter of considering the rightness or wrongness of the action. The utilitarian principle just treats people as a means to the end of creating the greatest happiness, but this could make it justified to murder if a beneficial result could be predicted. Treating others as ends rather than means to an end, means that we are supposed to do what is right to each individual even if it lead to a negative outcome. 

People have been debating the merits of these sorts of positions over the past centuries. But this is all to assume that we ought to be moral. But why should I do either what Bentham and Mill tell me to do, or for that matter what Kant or any other philosopher tells me to do. This is to take the question back to its fundamental essence. From where do I get my moral norms and why should I follow them?  Who is to make me? Perhaps, it’s in my self-interest to do so. But that is not morality. That is just another form of egoism. Perhaps, I realise that it’s my duty to follow a particular philosopher’s system of morality. But why should I follow my duty? Perhaps, I realise that rationality calls for me to follow a particular morality. But then why be rational? Let me be irrational just so long as I get what I want. Unless I can give a convincing argument to these questions,  all the philosophical moral systems developed over the centuries will amount to very little indeed.

This is our problem. Either I follow the system of morality out of self-interest in which case it is really the same as law (just a matter of pragmatism and self-interest), or I follow the system out of duty. But then I’m already moral. But whence this morality as it cannot be coming from within the system? There is obviously circularity here.

To break out from the circle it may be necessary to turn to something other than philosophy. One way to explore the nature of the origin of moral norms is to reflect on what it would be like if they were absent. One of the most important and most detailed treatment of this issue occurs in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.

The origin of morality or else its absence

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov’s philosophical and theological ideas are complex and develop in the course of the novel. However, near the beginning of the novel, in Book 2 Chapter 6, an idea is attributed to him by a character named Miusov who reports that at a recent meeting Ivan began by saying that if love has existed between people, it is only because they have believed in immortality. Moreover, without the belief in immortality, there would be no morality and everything would be permitted. If someone ceases to believe in God, then logically he should be an egoist and even become an evil doer. Ivan is asked by the Elder Zosima if this is his view and he says: “Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” [Pevear translation, p. 70]. The Elder seems to commiserate with Ivan, accepting that, indeed, he neither believes in God, nor in immortality.

There is no need to go into the ins and outs of Ivan’s theology, nor be overly concerned about who said what and when in the novel. The idea that is being put forward is that morality and love of other human beings in some way depend on immortality with the implication that immortality depends on God. The inference is that God and immortality are really one and the same belief or at least interconnected. To cease to believe in the one is to cease to believe in the other. But why should this be so? It is worth investigating in what way morality is dependent on belief in God or, perhaps, more accurately in the existence of God. 

Let’s look at the situation from the point of view of someone contemplating doing wrong. If by wrong we mean something like theft or murder, why do I not do these things? One reason is that there are laws and the police, and I realise that if I commit a crime, there is a reasonable chance that I will be caught and punished. I therefore decide out of self-interest not to steal from a shop or to commit murder, because I don’t want to end up in prison or have some other punishment given to me.

The problem with this is that if everyone thought in this way, law would rapidly collapse. The population of a country massively outnumbers the police. If everyone sat waiting for their chance to break the law, when they thought there was a chance of getting away with it, how could the police catch all of them? The law works only insofar as a minority of people are criminally minded. The majority do not break the law because they are scared of the police or punishment, but because they think breaking the law is wrong. But from where do we get this sense of wrong? From where do we get the concept of something being morally wrong?

Furthermore, what of things which most of us consider to be wrong, which are not illegal? Why should couples remain faithful to each other, why should we not tell lies? Is it that we fear that if we are unfaithful, perhaps, our marriage will break up, or if we tell lies, then no one will trust us further? But what if we know at this moment that we can tell a lie and get away with it? What if we are in another country when we have the chance to be unfaithful? And yet we might choose to remain moral. Why do people act sometimes in a way that entails self-sacrifice, why, indeed, are people kind and altruistic?

It’s worth focussing on how we actually learn morality. We learn morality normally from a mother who watches. From an early age, she sees me do something and says don’t do that. If I continue to do the thing which is wrong, she may punish me. Let’s say I steal sweets from the sweet jar. The first time, she says ‘don’t steal sweets, it’s wrong.’ And so I learn not to steal sweets while she is looking. I may think that I can steal sweets when she is not looking and so when she is in another room I creep up to the jar and steal a sweet. But mother is cleverer than me, she has counted the sweets. I’m asked did you steal a sweet? I say ‘no’. She knows better. She counts out the sweets, one is missing. I’m punished, moreover, she shows disapproval and I want that approval. I feel shame. In time I don’t steal from the sweet jar even when I know that I could get away with it. This feeling of guilt is developed in a myriad of ways such that eventually about a whole mass of matters I have an internalised sense of guilt when I contemplate doing wrong. This is what we call conscience. It is based on the idea of mother somehow overseeing what I do, even when she is not there.

But when I grow up and can reason about these things, why do I not realise that I can throw off this conscience? Mother is now far away. I know that she will not discover if I take from the sweet jar. Who else can be overseeing me? The police observe. And so I should be careful not to be caught. But this is simply a matter of self-interest and we are back to the idea of morality being simply a matter of law.  What about God? Can He take the role of the mother watching to see if I steal from the sweet jar? Perhaps. But if I begin to study philosophy, I quickly realise that this whole matter of God’s existence is rather uncertain. Descartes is not even certain of the existence of the outside world. Perhaps, all my perceptions are deceptions.  Any course of philosophy seems to see scepticism win out. First year philosophy classes are dominated by questions like “How do I know the sun will rise tomorrow?” But if I don’t even know this, how can the fact that a God who might exist and might be observing me steal from the sweet jar motivate my behaviour? Is God, indeed, not just an extension of the observing mother, who created my conscience in the first place?

The problem of morality goes far back. It is stated as well as anywhere in Plato’s Republic with the story of the ring of Gyges. If I had the ring of Gyges which makes me invisible, such that I could get away with any crime, would I refrain from doing so? Only if I would refrain from doing wrong, even if I could get away with it, can I be said to be truly moral. 

The idea of the watcher is present here also. If no one can watch, because I am invisible, would I steal from the sweet jar? I don’t steal from the sweet jar, even when mother is not around, because she has shown that sometimes she knows better than me. Eventually, I internalise this into conscience and I don’t steal even when I know I would get away with it, because I have this thing called conscience taught by my mother. But what if I realise that I’m being a mug, that this conscience thing is just a fraud? Why then not put on the ring of Gyges and do what I wish so long as I can get away with it?

Of course, here God can play a role. Even if someone wears the ring of Gyges and can do what he likes on Earth, God observes him. The idea of God and with it the idea of immortality is the idea that even if you get away with immorality on Earth, even if you are a criminal who is never caught by the law, still God watches. God is the ultimate mother and the fundament which underpins conscience. God’s justice, the fact that He can reward or punish can be seen as a reason to be moral, for it may seem to solve the problem of the ring of Gyges. Even if I am to get away with evil here and now, it may not be rational to do so if I am to be punished later in eternity. God is like a universal police force. The lawbreaker may not be sent to prison on Earth, but there is the equivalent of prison after death. Is this the reason that Ivan thinks that if there is no immortality, then everything is permitted?

The observant mother is now in the transcendent sphere and able to judge according to how I lived my life. There is no chance that I can escape detection. All my sins will be found out. But this is our problem. If I do good in order to gain salvation or to avoid hell, then this is really no different from law. It is in my self interest in the long run to do good. Out of egoism and selfishness, it would be rational for me to choose to do good in order to obtain a reward and to avoid punishment. But this is no more morality than the person who is law abiding solely because he fears the police. The police have simply been transferred to a transcendent realm with powers to detect every crime, even those committed with the ring of Gyges.

Perhaps, the solution is in this way. The idea that I can treat God as a policeman who rewards and punishes like the police and the courts is to misunderstand the nature of God. Salvation both does and does not depend on what I do, how I live my life. My actions are both necessary and unnecessary. Salvation is by faith alone and by good works.   

What this means can be explained in the following way. I must believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation.  Therefore, I must take up my cross and imitate the life of Christ as far as is possible. The lesson is that my faith is my action. This is the importance of the Epistle of James and its emphasis on how faith is about what a person does “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” [James 1:22]. What is it to suppose that someone has faith? It is to see that he acts in certain ways. This was the lesson from Wittgenstein. When someone says he can go on, the test is that he can go on [see Philosophical Investigations 179]. What does it mean to say that I can whistle a tune? It means that when asked I can in fact whistle it. There is nothing internal. Knowing how to whistle the tune means whistling it. If I can’t whistle I simply don’t know it. Likewise then, how can I know if I have faith? I must act according to it. There is no faith without action. Once I understand that faith is action, then there can be no question of faith without it. But and here is the crucial point. Although I believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation, I cannot bargain. God’s choice is free and from the point of view of eternity already made.

Thus I cannot act in order to obtain a reward and to avoid a punishment. I recognise from my faith the need to act as a Christian or try to act as a Christian. I also recognise that these actions are my faith. Without them I could not describe myself as a Christian at all, no more than I could describe myself as being able to whistle a particular tune.    But as regards my salvation I must trust in God. I realise, when faced with God, that nothing I could do would be enough. There is then no sense in saying that I am rewarded.  Therefore, I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace for my salvation.

This is not something that can be properly understood, for it depends on a Kierkegaardian paradox. Christian morality is the paradoxical unity of salvation by faith alone and salvation by means of good works. This is a genuine contradiction, and something that we cannot understand. A similar contradiction exists in the two ideas that salvation is a matter of predestination and that how I live is decisive for whether or not I obtain salvation. This is to look at the matters from the point of view of eternity and from the point of view of temporality. The combination of the positions is the truth. Just as Christ was the Eternal in time. So my salvation is the eternal in time. It is an absolute paradox and a matter for faith, not for reason. It is for this reason that the Bible at times seems contradictory on this matter. The thief on the cross will be with Jesus today in paradise, but salvation is a matter of waiting until the Day of Judgement. But this, too, is just the paradoxical combination of the eternal point of view with the temporal point of view. We cannot expect to fully understand these matters. Here indeed is something that cannot be fully expressed, something that defeats language and thought.  

Thus I believe both that my good works are decisive for my salvation, that how I live my life is crucial and that nothing I do could ever be good enough. I am saved from egoism by my realisation that God’s choice is free and that I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace. Thus I am not acting in order to gain salvation, for there can be no bargaining with God. Faith is action. It can even be said that I am saved by faith alone. For when I understand that faith is not, or not merely a matter of inwardness, I realise that faith is simply what I do.

It is the free choice of God that makes Christian morality and means that it is neither a matter of law, nor a matter of egoism. God’s free choice means that Christianity can never be a matter of self-interest. I have no guarantee, no matter how saintly I live my life. Thus we have the Bible story of the workers who turn up late getting just the same as those who came early [Matthew 20: 1-16]. I cannot gain God’s perspective. But I know that God is love and therefore I have hope.

But what I realise also is that finally my only way of relating to God is through Christ. When I try to relate to the eternal, the infinite, the omniscient and omnipotent, then I deal with what is forever distant and remote from my life. I have no way really of relating. I can try to relate inwardly and I can have a sense of this faith, but it is not concrete. It's like the idea that I can whistle the tune. Until I actually do whistle it, there is no whistling. Likewise with faith, it comes into existence through my actions. But when I begin relating to Christ, through imitation, living a Christian life, I relate to something, someone concrete. I can follow his lead. And through the fact that Christ is paradoxically both God and man, I in this way relate to God.


The debate started with Protagoras. How can we show that man is not the measure of all things? If we can’t then we have a problem. I will obey the law because I am scared of being punished, but why should I follow any other man made system of morality once I realise that it is human all too human? If I can make up my own rules of morality as I go along, how will they limit my actions? If morality is subjective, whenever I am faced with temptation, I can simply change the rules to suit me. Practically speaking, a subjective morality is barely a morality at all. As soon as I reflect that society’s rules are arbitrary and not grounded in any objective reality, why should I follow them to my disadvantage? In this case those areas of life that are not governed by law become more or less a matter of taste and what I can get away with. But here is the problem. If I no longer have an objective morality, those areas of life that are covered by law also become a matter of taste and what I can get away with. If I can successfully get away with a crooked business deal, why not do so? If I can steal with impunity, what is stopping me? Of course, the law will still deter me, but then it simply becomes a matter of calculation. Can I get away with it?

Someone who believed that morality was objective might be deterred from putting his money in a tax haven, because it was wrong. He might feel that he had a duty towards his neighbours and his country, because it was the right way to live his life. But why should I do any of these things now? What objective standard of morality tells me to have a duty towards anyone or anything?

This is our problem. If the norms of human morality are not to be subjective and more or less matters of taste, they have to come from somewhere other than man. But where?

We are unlikely to find moral norms in nature. Animals kill and steal and they are animals precisely because we do not consider them to be moral beings. It is for this reason that a dog that kills an infant is not put on trial for murder. What is it that distinguishes man from animals? It is that we are moral beings. But from where do we get this morality? It is this and this alone that distinguishes us from animals. But this is to suppose that there is something radically different about people. If we are just rather more clever versions of chimpanzees, why should we not treat each other like animals? Why not eat each other?

The condition for the possibility of the world that we all accept, a world where there is morality, is that Protagoras is wrong. If he is right, then there is no reason why I should follow any moral course that any philosopher tells me to follow. If everyone in the world realised that morality was bunk in the way that Henry Ford said history is bunk, then society as we know it would rapidly collapse. Our whole sense of ourselves as moral beings would be shown to be lacking in foundation. But how can it be that in human society, not just here but everywhere there is morality that most people take to be objective and not merely a matter of taste? This in itself perhaps can be taken as a reason for believing that man indeed is not the measure of all things and that there is a standard that transcends us a measure by which we are judged that is not merely human.

I may not be able to prove that God exists and that Christ was his son, but I can show that God is the fundament of morality. If God does not exist, then ultimately everything is permitted. It is for this reason that Ivan is to be pitied. 

The pity is that the unbeliever’s unbelief is for him the truth. By making himself the measure he can never transcend himself. He therefore puts himself in a position where God cannot help him. This is his eternal punishment. It is not that God judges him and condemns him, but rather that God cannot even judge him, cannot even notice him. His hell is that his atheism turns out, for him to be quite accurate. 

Just as from a watch we can reasonably infer a watchmaker, so from an objective morality we can infer a standard that transcends us. The alternative is to have no standard, for a subjective morality can change as often as a woman wants to change her dress and can neither govern nor control conduct. We are then faced with a choice either to believe that there is a transcendent source of moral norms or to believe that there are no moral norms at all. If that were to be the case then everything might be permitted, but we would all have to be pitied for we would have no more than the law of the jungle and a struggle involving tooth and claw.