The debate about right and wrong is ultimately one about authority. Very small children know this: as a child, if you told another child they weren’t supposed to do something, they’d say, “You’re not the boss of me!” or, “who says?” It’s about authority because a standard of morality always trumps one’s own personal desire. Otherwise, it’s not morality. Morality is the question of right or wrong, and if such a thing can be said to exist, it must be separate from what I do or don’t want, and it must be superior, or the whole question is irrelevant.
In this discussion, I’ll be referring to what ‘we’ would normally think. By this I mean people in general with a typical view of morality. I am not referring to any particular philosophy or religion. It is, by the way, very significant that most philosophies and religions share a pretty similar moral code, regardless of how they get there.
Morality can and does often coincide with what a person wants to do. We’d say that it was right for a mother to care for her child and yet many mothers care for their child because it gives them a deep sense of satisfaction. But morality must only coincide with that desire, rather than be equivalent to it, since if the mother desired to not take care of her child, and neglected it, we would say that was wrong. In fact, actions that we describe as wrong always are caused by someone’s desire. The thief desires to steal, and yet we say stealing is wrong.
If I don’t steal something because I don’t want it, we would not call that a morally significant action (or non-action). If I don’t steal something that I do want to steal, that might be moral, unless it is the fear of consequences that keep me from stealing. If I would steal it if I could but don’t because I can’t get away with it, then we don’t recognize that as being morally laudable. But if I have the opportunity to steal, would benefit by doing so, can see no consequences for stealing and yet don’t (I contemplate such a scenario here), then it seems to me logical to say that only a moral concern could have prompted such an action. That is to say, the only reason why I would not steal in such a hypothetical scenario is because I have a sense that to do so would be wrong. And of course, such a scenario is not truly hypothetical, for we find ourselves in those scenarios all the time. So morality can coincide with my desires, or not coincide with them, but they are not determined by them. Saying I really wanted to do something wrong is no justification for the wrong in anyone’s mind.
But that brings us back to the question of authority. Why is it wrong? The whole debate over abortion, for example, revolves around just this question. The pro-choice people say that only the woman in question can make the decision about whether it’s right or wrong, and that nobody has the right to tell her otherwise. “My body, my choice.” The pro-life side claims that there is a superior moral standard that says that it is wrong, regardless of the woman’s feelings or situation. The pro-choice side responds that they don’t accept that moral standard, which is to say they claim that such a moral standard has no authority over them, since they reject it. And round and round they go.
So who or what is that authority? The answer to that question will determine what kind of moral system you hold.
Since the enlightenment, the idea that reason is the source for all human knowledge has been extremely pervasive. It gave rise to rationalism, which was seen as the antidote for the superstition of the Dark Ages. It was believed that science would give us the answers to all of our problems. John Locke and David Hume said that the only source of information was our senses, and how our reason interpreted the information we got from those senses. And so, new moral theories were formed on the basis of reason. Utilitarianism in its various forms was one of the most popular of these theories, which held that reason dictated that the greatest good for the greatest number ought to be the rule. Parallel with the development in moral theory, religion was impacted very significantly. Thinkers such as Schleiermacher and, later, Bultmann expressed a belief that religion ought likewise to be reinterpreted in light of reason, with all that did not correspond to reason being rejected. And so the Bible was said to contain many fine moral principles, but the supernatural elements should be ignored since they could not be verified by reason. Revelation from God was rejected as an important source of knowledge, and science and reason were enthroned in its place.
But why is it that reason is judged to be the pinnacle of knowledge? What is it about reason that makes it the sole source of all knowledge? Can reason tell us about itself? Did reason tell me that reason was the best source of all knowledge? Did I learn reason by reasoning? And if not, how did I learn it? If reason is the highest form of knowledge, then nothing can lie prior to it or superior to it. But then how did I find out about reason? Reason applied to economics, for example, can tell me how to maximize the things that I value, but how do I determine what I value? One man might value material goods more than leisure time, and therefore work hard so as to have the wealth to acquire those goods. Another man might prefer to be lazy. Can reason tell me which of those two value systems is preferable?
And as the enlightenment wore on, more philosophers began to ask, if reason has eliminated the need for God in our morals and epistemology, on what basis are those morals even said to exist? How can I know anything outside of myself, if my own reason and senses are the source of that knowledge? Rene Descartes got as far as “I think, therefore I am”, but after that it got kind of sketchy. And if all that is truly real is me and what I perceive, then how can any authority outside of myself make any statement at all about what is right and wrong? Why should I not maximize my own pleasure all of the time, without regard for how it affects anyone else? What is it that tells me to value the welfare of other people? Is it not rational simply to do whatever I want all the time?
And that brings us to Nihilism, the teaching that there is no meaning or purpose to anything. Moral concepts are pure fiction, just one man’s attempt to have power over another. Only by recognizing that man had no purpose could man truly be free. Existentialism tried to pretty Nihilism up a little by saying that man could, in defiance of this meaningless reality, validate his own existence by living authentically, being ‘himself’, whatever that meant to him, but the same basic conclusion was there. Morality was just a fiction. We create our own reality. And if we are all just dreaming and none of this is real, who’s to know? And why would it matter? If we are all just artificial constructs in a giant and very sophisticated computer game, what difference would it actually make?
Ultimately, an abstract principle such as “reason” cannot be the source of morality. Reason does not simply exist in a vacuum, as if man could climb up a mountain, find “reason” and ask it questions. Reason is a tool used by thinking beings to analyze information. And reason depends on other things, a structure of knowledge in which to operate. Did reason teach me the difference between pleasure and pain? Or up and down? Did reason teach me to feel pity for someone else who is injured, or did I know that far before I ever learned to think clearly? Can reason teach me that other persons are even real?
And in regard to the moral question, will reason ever tell me to do something that is bad (in an ultimate sense) for me? If my reason tells me that something will benefit me more than it will hurt me (even if society says that it is a ‘wrong’ thing), would reason then also tell me not to do it?
Reason can only tell me how to pursue the values that I already possess. Utilitarianism, for example, claims that reason teaches us to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. But one must ask, why should I value the greatest number? Why should I not value myself over others? I feel my pain but I don’t feel theirs. If I am told that all men are equal and that I should therefore treat them as I would want to be treated, I would ask how I know that all men are equal? Many people disagree with that proposition. Did reason tell me that? Experience and sensory information would seem to suggest that all men are not equal. Some are rich or poor; some are smart or dull; some are powerful or weak. And if I am told that I ought to treat others as I would want to be treated, on the grounds that such behavior will likely secure the greatest welfare for me, then you have taught me to value myself above all others and to seek my own welfare, and have simply made a suggestion about how to go about it. My reason may provide me with alternative methods of maximizing my own happiness, such as stealing your car, and you might say this is irrational, but you could not say it was wrong.
So when we say reason is the source of morality, what we mean is that I am the source of morality. I determine for myself what is right and wrong. Most people, because they cannot live with the Nihilistic principle, profess certain principles of right and wrong, which roughly speaking are commonly held principles. The great majority of people believe that it’s wrong to steal, to lie, or to physically hurt people unless you absolutely have to. Nietzche would say that this is a simple failure of courage on their part, for failing to live up to what they say they believe, for fear of guilt, which is simply a phantom that society has imposed on you to control you. If there is no external measure of right and wrong, then I ought to please myself all the time. And when given the opportunity, when freed from external constraint, many people live out the truth of their rationalistic philosophy, more or less as Nietzche said they would. If someone contests that truth, then please account for the existence of all the security cameras, police, door locks and passwords.
Some resort to saying that society determines what is right, but nobody really believes this. Anyone who believed that would then be bound by their convictions never to attempt to change society; never to question a vote that was taken; never protest if that society stripped them of their possessions and freedom. Nobody would really believe that if society took a vote tomorrow and decided that for the good of society, you were to be tortured to death, that such a vote would therefore render such an action moral. .But that would be the implication of saying that society determines what is right. Pure democracy is just two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.
Therefore, at the end of the day there are really just two options. Either we posit a morality that is external to ourselves, an authority outside of all humanity who determines in some fashion what is right and wrong; or there is no authority outside of myself, and there is no right or wrong.