Common Morality and Guilt

In this post on morality, I said it was highly significant that most philosophical systems ended up at relatively similar moral codes. Why do I think it’s significant?

Whenever I attack other systems of philosophy as having no proper basis for morality, I am frequently accused of attacking the adherents of that system as amoral. If I say that atheism has no basis for morality, some atheist will come along and think that he’s falsifying my point by saying that he’s a very moral guy, despite the fact that I never said anything at all about any individual’s morality.

Far from falsifying my point, that simple fact makes my point.

Since the time of the Greeks, civilized people have been seriously debating many different philosophical ideas. One of the ideas they bounced around was corporeal monism (everything is made of one thing- fire, water, earth, something else). Now, in the physical sciences we are so far ahead of the Greeks, it’s just ridiculous. They were no slouches, given that they had no microscopes or anything, and they got a lot farther than a lot of other people, but we run rings around them today.

But when you examine the dialogues of Socrates about morality, you discover that we are asking, and failing to answer, basically the same questions today that they were asking 2500 years ago. Is something wrong because it has bad effects? Or is it wrong just because it’s wrong? If God dictates right and wrong, is it moral because he decreed it, or did he decree it because it’s moral?

Now, despite all of those very different approaches to morality, most Greeks thought that stealing and lying and needlessly inflicting violence on others was wrong. Like all people, the Greeks nevertheless engaged in all of these activities, but they still condemned them in others.

Throughout history, we have continued to wrestle with these problems. And whether you were Hume or Kant or Aquinas or Occam, you tried to account for morality whenever you did any serious work in philosophy. A philosophy that doesn’t address morality isn’t much of a philosophy. And more often than not, the approach seems to have been, “Let’s try to discover a rational basis for the moral feelings that we already have.” And so great thinkers sweat and stew and work out a system that lets them start with “I think therefore I am” and deduce from there that people shouldn’t rob liquor stores. They then point to their philosophical system and say, “See, that’s why people shouldn’t rob liquor stores”. But they rarely seem to address the fact that everybody already knew that they shouldn’t rob liquor stores. Why do all the philosophies start at completely different points, use completely different methods, but in issues of moral theory usually end up in the same place?

It’s such an odd state of affairs that the very moral codes that the philosophers claim to be deducing can then be used to falsify the philosophical system that was supposed to underlie those same moral codes. One of the objections raised against Divine Command Theory, for example, is that it implies that God could command a great crime, and it would then be moral, an idea which most people would find repugnant. As another example, one of the charges against Utilitarianism (“greatest good for the greatest number”) is that it could be used to justify torture or slavery, if more benefit were accrued by more people than were harmed by it. But if the moral codes themselves can be used to falsify philosophy, and the philosophies tend to lead to the same moral codes anyway, then it seems to be very likely that the philosophers may have got it backward all these years. Rather than starting with some principle that they think makes sense, and deducing moral codes from them, perhaps the truth is that the moral codes themselves are logically prior to the philosophical truth. That is to say, our moral sense ought to be teaching us what the universe is all about, rather than our own speculations about the universe serving as the basis for determining our moral codes.

A very few people actually were consistent, and took the idea that our philosophy determines our moral sense to its logical conclusion. We call those people Nihilists. Nihilists realized that if our moral sense were the product of our philosophical speculations, then morality couldn’t be truly said to exist. Very few people wish to live in a world governed by those conclusions, and pure Nihilism (thankfully) has been very rare. When we got even close, we got World War II.

So then the moral question proves the failure of Rationalism and the Enlightenment to come up with a fully functioning epistemology. Reason and science simply cannot be the source of all knowledge, since the conclusions of reason and science are falsified if they disagree with “common sense” morality. The Nazis may have thought that their little project was rational. Many agreed with them at the time. But the results proved them wrong, on a moral basis. Nobody even asks the question whether the Holocaust made rational sense, and rightly so. It was a crime. Morality is a rather big part of our functioning as human beings, and our moral nature is not subject to the dictates of reason. Something that is wrong, is wrong, regardless of reasoning. I cannot ‘logic’ a crime into a virtue.

And more important than that, if we all share a relatively common moral framework, the question is “why”? Why does everyone think it’s wrong to kill innocent people? Even people who kill innocents usually have to justify it to themselves, by saying that they deserved it somehow. Why are humans hardwired with this basic sense of right and wrong, which is logically and epistemologically superior and prior to all religions and philosophies?

And if it’s just nature, like a bird that knows how to build a certain kind of nest, why does nobody actually follow that moral code that they all know about? “Nobody’s perfect”, “I’m only human”. These are clichés, so often are these sentiments expressed and so pervasively are they felt. What naturalistic explanation can be found for the universal existence of a moral code, and likewise universal failure to live up to that code? The common awareness of guilt, of moral failure, is what has spawned the existence of all the religions of the world, because the fact of that moral code points irrefutably to something which is external to me, which put that moral code there. It is that something which we call God. Some have told us that guilt is the product of those religions. But you can get rid of the religions and you will still have the guilt. You might have a few outliers who claim to be guilt-free, who claim to have freed themselves entirely from the shackles of morality, or who claim to perfectly live by whatever code they express. But don’t believe them. Spend a little time with such a person, and at their most consistent you will find a psychopath and at the least consistent, a simple liar.

Guilt is the thing. Guilt is the whole issue. It is guilt which fuels all political movements; all moral crusades (all actual crusades too); all religions; all philosophies. Freud was absolutely correct in recognizing the destructive effect that guilt has on human psychology, though he was utterly wrong in its nature, source, or what to do about it. In fact, everyone who proposed to do anything about it was likewise utterly wrong. Many religions and philosophies propose schemes by which man can expiate his guilt, somehow work his way out of the mess, and more and bloodier wars have been fought for this reason than any other, and people have still failed to find relief from their guilt. Many other philosophies and religions have attempted to define away the problem, leaving their adherents desperately and constantly searching for the secret, hidden wisdom that will finally tell them that there is no guilt. Trillions have been spent on psychologists, counselors, government programs, drugs and entertainment to try to talk us out of, distract us from, or give us false solutions to our guilt, with only very meager, temporary results.

But as the source of morality lies outside ourselves, so too does the guilt. We can’t just wish the guilt away, because it’s real, and it’s not just subjective. Guilt is not merely something that you feel, that you could talk yourself out of. We feel guilty because we are guilty. We are guilty because we were made with a conscience, a conscience that we have very badly abused and violated. That conscience testifies to us of an eternal standard of right and wrong, rooted in the very nature of the One who made us. Our offense therefore is against that One. And since that One is perfectly holy, and can never lie, and never for a second pretend that He’s not God, He can also never for a second pretend that we’re not guilty. The feeling of guilt that every man, woman and child has is the feeling of being alienated, separated from the One who created us, and is the feeling of being cut off from the source of our life and well-being because of that guilt. And it is the feeling of impending doom, the death that is the ultimate result of that guilt.

The source of the solution to the guilt problem therefore can never lie in us. It can only lie in God. There is only one philosophy, one religion, which both acknowledges the guilt problem and also acknowledges my inability to solve it.

And that’s why I’m a Christian.

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