We are social animals. Our genes are “hard-wired” to absorb the language patterns of our group during our first years, as infant and small child. While we are learning what is to become our native language, we are also absorbing the common- sense values of our peers, including their moral framework. As with language, the specific ethical precepts the small child learns are those of the peer group, but the process is natural, biological, and inherited; it is part of our human nature, the common inheritance of humans everywhere.
Until quite recently social groups have normally regarded their own internal ethical standards as absolute, universal, and right. Validated by their priesthood, their moral guidelines formed an integral part of that portion of their world views that they accepted as a matter of faith. Other groups’ standards, where they differed, were usually seen as aberrant, abnormal, and wicked, the result of worshipping false gods. Thus ethical standards were part and parcel of a general human condition in which language, religion and culture operated together to divide groups from each other while reinforcing solidarity within the group.
We now know enough about human origins and human social evolution so that we can begin to develop a new perspective on this question of where ethics come from. Once we accept the fact that morality, like language and religion, is culture-specific rather than universal, the scales fall from our eyes and we see the world around us in a different and humbler light. We see that there is no morality in nature as such, there are only forces and processes that have operated over millions, even billions of years to bring about our present condition. God, at least the God we used to worship, can now be recognized as a device of the human imagination. Morality, it follows, is equally a human invention. Common sense must replace the scriptures and the priesthood as the validator of our moral code. And why not? Part of the modern humanist ethic is the core belief that humanity, not some imagined deity, is ultimately responsible for our common fate and future. We are our own saviors and redeemers, as Corliss Lamont so eloquently put it. It is up to us, just us alone, both to develop the ethical principles guiding our conduct, and, through common sense or acceptance by the majority, to validate them.
I believe that modern men and women have arrived at a stage where they can and should rid themselves of the belief that the morality of their own particular group is right, and alternatives are wrong. This is not at all the same thing as asserting that we do not need any ethical principles. Even the most enlightened modern men and women continue to need moral standards. Generally accepted rules of conduct are just as essential as language to the kind of creature we are. They may lack the universality of natural laws like the law of gravity but they are just as much a part of the universe we inhabit as human beings. We cannot do without them.
Why is this? We still need ethical standards because they provide an essential lubricant that reconciles the selfish interests of the individual with the interests of the group. Moral behavior allows people to get along with each other. It is an essential ingredient of common sense.
It is a common fallacy among those who still cling to the old-fashioned faiths that giving up that faith necessarily involves a descent into amorality, a social jungle where dog eats dog and the devil take the hindmost. Quite the contrary. In our time, as a new humanist spirit slowly infiltrates and supplants old-fashioned theism, modern ethical structures are gradually altering the moral precepts that were codified by the old religions and sanctioned by the common sense of bygone generations.
Admittedly it is not easy to replace or modify old ethical principles, ones that have served many previous generations well, with new and untested formulas. But that is exactly what the current situation calls for. In the search for answers to new moral dilemmas, the theists, the ones who still believe in the old gods, are at a disadvantage. The answers they come up with are likely to be flawed to the extent they are based on precepts that were designed many generations ago under quite different conditions. It is up to the humanists, the people who recognize that our future is ours to shape, and are relatively unencumbered by loyalty to ancient ethical baggage, who must take the lead.
The humanist neither rejects old moral principles out of hand or accepts them as a matter of faith. He or she develops and asserts ethical standards based on a candid assessment of the state of contemporary society and its needs. Such an assessment has to be at the same time realistic and visionary. It accepts the social system as it exists and works within it, while supplying a directional thrust based on a sense of where society ought to be heading.
Where do we humanists turn to find answers to contemporary ethical issues when the old scriptures are inadequate? How do we go about developing the new moral codes and precepts when we need them? The answer is right before our eyes, but it is as complicated as life itself in these turbulent, issue-laden times. It is in every daily newspaper. Take, for example, the medical profession and the new life sciences like genetics and biological engineering. A host of ethical issues arise these days, and are being lustily debated in the media. They affect the whole human lifespan: in vitro fertilization, partial birth abortion, assisted suicide– to name but a few. The media assiduously report answers that are being offered by a host of authorities and agencies, all weighing in passionately from differing perspectives. We are close to a consensus on a few of these issues but for the most part, they are still largely unresolved. There is a ferment here, but it is not aimless. There is a direction. A global society driven by exploding technological capabilities is seeking new consensuses about a whole new galaxy of problems.
In seeking consensus on new moral principles we continually find ourselves embroiled in contradictions between what is desirable and what is practicable. Is capital punishment a good thing? No. But can we abolish it right now, everywhere? No, global society is not yet ready for that… Is abortion a good thing? No, not in principle. Should we therefore pass a law against it? No, we should rather work toward achieving a society in which there will be no need, no demand for the practice…
That sense of direction can be very hard to achieve for the individual swept up in the whirlpool of debate about such a plethora of issues. Some of us are more conservative than others, in the sense that we prefer to hang onto the moral precepts of our forefathers even when they fit only badly with the new circumstances. Some of us are more progressive. But all of us are more progressive on some issues than on others. Each of us in other words is a kind of microcosm reflecting the confusion of society as a whole.
Personally, I see this confusion as a necessary attribute of an extraordinarily creative transition period, one that is full of promise for a brighter and more rational future for my descendants. Today’s uncertainties will lead to tomorrow’s new moralities. Some of the new moral precepts will not work very well, and will be modified or replaced. Meanwhile, new problems will be producing new issues which will eventually add to the fine print in humanity’s new moral code. That code in turn will constitute a kind of new plateau, on which future societies can build toward a future so bright we can scarcely imagine even its broad contours.
Not very many people share this optimism at present. Most of us see at least as much harm as good being done as we tear our old, theism-based moralities to shreds. Where I see the glass half full, they see only the empty half. The real difference between us is my perception of a directional thrust, a tendency for good moral principles to emerge out of the current chaos, principles which can gradually supplant the old morality. Those who lack this perception find it difficult to feel anything other than pain at the apparent aimlessness of the times. It is easy to feel like the dog in Aesop’s fable, the one that dropped his bone when he became confused by the sight of his reflection, and ended up with nothing.
This essay concerns process not substance, so I am deliberately avoiding taking stands on specific issues except for a few very brief illustrations. Issues can and should be argued, but not here. The message I would like to conclude with here is this: the current generally perceived malaise about moral rootlessness is misplaced; out of present turmoil will come new and better ethical guidelines, hopefully of a universal nature.
I think there are sound rational grounds that support this optimistic view. But in addition, I have a more subjective reason for my belief: it makes my life seem more interesting, less discouraging, and more fun.