The Good Life

Disarmingly, Cheryl Mendelson concludes her introductory definition of morality by saying, “This is a slightly cranky but, I hope, clarifying use of the term morality.” Just how cranky and indeed unclarifying her definition is can be quickly illustrated. Morality, she tells us, began with the Protestant Reformation. It is a specifically European and by extension “Western” phenomenon that began in the sixteenth century, flourished in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, and declined in the twentieth. “I refer,” she says, “to other codes of right and wrong, with their own histories and psychologies, as ‘ethics’ or as nonmoral codes and cultures.” Plato therefore, although “admirable and great” was not “in our sense of the term, moral.” Which happily “is not to say that Plato was immoral or that we cannot measure his merit on a moral yardstick.”
A virtue of this approach, Mendelson claims, is that it avoids the problem of relativism; if the only morality is that of modern (post-sixteenth century) Western culture, then any difference from it in such codes of conduct as those of the Hopi, Bedouin, or Aztec, cannot represent a clash of moralities. Problem solved, by definition.

Let it be acknowledged straightaway that Mendelson’s book is not without its merits. By its end she has arrived at the same point as Socrates, though by an eccentric route, in saying that anyone who grasped the good would not willingly choose to live other than by its light. But it otherwise has to be said that this extraordinary and confused view about the nature of ethics, morality, their relationship, and the relationship of both to their psychological underpinnings in shared human nature, simply will not do.

Ethics and morality are different things, and not just because the former has a Greek root and the latter a Latin root. In formal philosophical studies ethics denotes the study of moral concepts and systems. In this usage, morality is practice, ethics is the second-order study of that practice and the ideas assumed in it.

But there is a more important use of ethics to denote the principles that shape an individual’s (or a corporation’s or nation’s) character and the actions and relationships that it determines. In this usage ethics is cognate to ethos, and the Socratic challenge to reflect on the question “What sort of person should I be?” is a challenge to consider one’s ethics.

Morality is an important and central component of ethics, but only part of ethics. It concerns our duties and responsibilities to others, and in certain ways to ourselves. Morality and mores are closely related, because mores — customs — help to organize and smooth the way people interact, minimizing conflict in the interests of cohesion and cooperation.

The difference between ethics and morality can be illustrated in the following way: it is an ethical matter what color you paint the front door of your house, since this expresses something about your view of yourself, your presentation of yourself to the world, your tastes, and more. But it is only a moral matter if it is such a hideous color that it offends the neighbors — and you refuse to care about their reaction.

It follows from these characterizations that any system of ideas and beliefs that influences how people behave is an ethical system, and that anything in that system that identifies certain actions, attitudes, utterances, and relationships as right or wrong is the morality it contains.

The important point is that this is universal. There is no community anywhere in the world or time that does not reflect upon and at least attempt to negotiate the ways its members live together, measuring how far its members succeed in the process and rewarding or punishing as appropriate, whether by praise and disapproval or by more emphatic methods.

This universality is a function of some simple but deep facts about human beings. The first is that humans are essentially social animals, where the word essentially carries great significance. We live in communities, from families to whole societies, and not just need to but have to. Although a great deal of conflict, greed, unkindness, selfishness, and worse is generated by the frictions of close community life, there is vastly more cooperation, mutuality, kindness, friendship, and plain old rubbing-along than there is conflict. The majority story in humanity is the millions of acts of ordinary courtesy and collegiality that, every minute of every day in every town and city, characterize the vast majority of the interactions between people, including strangers — in shops, on the street, on the telephone, in trains, in restaurants.

This is human nature: its essential sociality. Following from this is the fact that most human achievements are collaborative ones. Look at the buildings, streets, electricity supply, schools, hospitals, sewage pipes, train tracks, airports — these are the result of teamwork, and the story of humanity is a team story. Of course there are the individual geniuses and creators, the artists and writers, thinkers and leaders whose solo efforts can turn the tide of history. But that does not happen unless there are others to follow.

There is a simple test of the truth that people of all cultures have shared moral instincts. It is that all but the minority of abnormal folk will spontaneously shout out a warning when they see another — whoever that is: unless it is an acknowledged enemy — in unsuspected danger. If you see someone standing beneath a wall on top of which there is a teetering pile of bricks about to fall, what do you do? You yell a warning, without thinking about it, no matter who or what the endangered person is.

For these reasons the implication of Mendelson’s subtitle, “…in an antimoral world,” does not ring true to me. Ours is a moral world, and we are upset and outraged, disturbed and troubled by the bad things that happen in it precisely because the background is moral, not amoral or immoral. This is why regimes of human rights can and ought to be regarded as universal, and why murder, rape, slavery, torture, female genital mutilation (perhaps — as we see Germany now legislating — all genital mutilation), and cognate crimes of similar severity, are wrong without qualification or exception: morally wrong, corrosive of ethical existence, destructive of social life, anti-human, repugnant, and hateful. Such terms are themselves illustrative of the great importance all people everywhere attach to their opposites: to what builds community, binds people together, sweetens relationships, and enhances good possibilities.

Well: let us suppose that Mendelson had taken the wiser course of saying that she was going to focus upon modern Western morality, rather than trying to redefine morality as what modern Westerners think is right, and test another of her views. This is that morality is a construct that we build around a premoral psychological core. She accepts the view of Marc Hauser and others that our moral psychology is (in Hauser’s words) “an evolved capacity of all human minds” but then says “it does not follow…that morality is genuinely instinctual.” She attempts to escape a charge of contradiction by again employing the strategy of redefinition, here redefining instinct so that it does not apply to our morally relevant sensitivity to others. But this again will not do: since morality specifically concerns our relationships, and since the nature and conduct of our relationships is a function of our highly evolved psychologies, there is no way that considerations of morality can be detached from considerations of psychology.

The point is, therefore, that there is no such thing as a “premoral core,” despite the apparent anarchy of the infant and the belief that socializing a child is a process of repressing its wild animal nature. Another way to put this is to say that “wild animal nature” is a myth even as applied to animals. For consider: inter-individual and group behavior of other social animals is instinctive and evolved; that is plain. The fact that humans can and do reflect on their behavior, and can modify it if other trumping considerations are in play, does not alter the fact that the instincts are evolved from the same source as in the chimpanzee or dog. That is not a reductionist remark; it is a fact of evolutionary biology, but it acknowledges the place that other evolved features, in this case importantly both intelligence and self-awareness, have in the subtle, complex, multifarious, and sometimes difficult business of relating to others. It also explains why humans do bad things to one another in ways that most other social animals (but alas, not other primates) do not.

I should not like these disagreements to mask the fact that there are other aspects of Mendelson’s argument, construed as a discussion about Western moral values, that are interesting and right. I agree with her about abortion as justifiable, and in opposing authoritarian types of society that subordinate women. On the first matter she makes the good point that anti-abortion campaigns are “pseudomoral”: the campaigners’ “rage, powerful enough to result in cruel harassment, threats, and murders of abortion providers, does not arise out of moral concern. It is pseudomoral, and their often striking air of bad faith and playacting is evidence of this. Their angry denunciations of baby murder are one more example of the way contemporary antimoralism attempts to use the power of moral condemnation to undermine morality itself.”

I am not so sure about another of Mendelson’s anxieties, that we need to be concerned about the changes in child-rearing practices forced by the demands of our Western economies. The need for both parents to work, and the hours they are required to work, jointly result in child care being carried out by surrogates for some part of the family week. Is this a danger, as Mendelson suggests? For one thing, children are very adaptable. For another, not all families are as good as professional child carers (teachers, principally) at the business of helping a child to mature — perhaps because in the family setting more emotion is invested in the process. This does not mean a Platonic “state nursery” system should replace family life. But Mendelson’s concern that the passing on from generation to generation of moral values will be derailed if it does not happen in specifically family contexts perhaps goes too far in the other direction.

These are all points that a community debates with itself, and negotiates with itself, because all communities find themselves faced with moral choices, and often with moral dilemmas, that they continually have to have conversations about. Moral consensus traverses a range, back and forth as concerns, experiments, and experience direct. Mendelson’s book, for all its quirky definitions, is a contribution to the continuation of those conversations. The more such there are, the better.