01.10.2007

Who Decides Right and Wrong?

All moralities have a simple, but surprisingly selfish,idea at their core: that what is good for me personallyis right, and what is bad for me personally is wrong.The reason we don't habitually lie, steal and rape isnot that God will be angry with us. It's that it doesn'twork. We may score a few perks, but that kind of behaviouris bad for our health in the long run. Criminals leadvery stressful lives, and prisons are full of disappointed,broken individuals.

Human beings are not naturally self centred loners.We are social, hierarchical primates, who function bestwithin the context of families, tribes, nations andcountries. The more we cooperate with the people aroundus, the more we all benefit, and the stronger our groupbecomes. The loners and the small groups lose out inthe evolutionary race, and the big, cohesive groupssurvive.

The inclination for social animals to care for eachother is as primal as eating and breathing. Darwin putit this way: "I believe that any animal endowedwith well marked social instincts, the parental affectionsbeing included, will inevitably acquire a moral senseof conscience."

Religions give divine sanction to this kind of cooperativebehaviour, but the Dalai Lama is quite right in sayingthat none of it requires belief in a god. We need eachother and we like to be liked. Helping each other makesus feel good and really is good for us. The instinctto care for others, and the evolved behaviour that ensuresthat we do so, is hundreds of thousands of years olderthan any Johnny-come-lately religion.

Social groups can be large or small, durable or transient,but they all work by rules which are enforced througha system of rewards and punishments. Even a family,a sports team or a workplace has its particular conceptsof what is right and wrong, and its supporting networkof customs, beliefs and laws. These can be very diverseand peculiar, but their fundamental purpose is identical:moralities evolve to strengthen the social cohesionof a group, to the benefit of all concerned.

For this reason, moral principles are very similaracross the planet and across time. Don't be selfish.Think of others. Observe the golden rule. Be cooperative,friendly and helpful. If you look after me, I'll lookafter you. Be obedient to the powers that be. Aboveall, follow the rules, even if you don't understandthem. If you do, you'll be rewarded, now or later. Ifyou don't, you'll be punished, now or later. The Pope,the Dalai Lama, the local imam and the Minister of Policewould all be in perfect accord with all of that.

In a state where the rule of law has broken down, mostpeople will suffer and the few that thrive will alwayshave to watch their backs. In a cooperative, law abidingsociety, however, most people will benefit, most ofthe time. Even if you have to sacrifice some personalliberties, it usually pays in bucketloads to be good,most of the time.

Moral codes are "good" because they promotethe wellbeing of a group and the people within it, butfor this very reason they also have a huge potentialfor evil. Groups need to be strong because they arecompeting for the world's resources with other groups.Despite their claims to universal application and divinesanction, moralities invariably operate on a primitive"us and them" mentality. We love and carefor "us", but the rules don't apply in relationto "them".

For example, the French Revolution promoted the idealof "fraternite'", or the Universal Brotherhoodof Man. What could be more noble and beautiful? No moreracism or sexism. No more class or religious distinctions.No more prejudice and persecution. Surely, this is whata fractious world desperately needs.

However, the writer Chamfort cleverly glossed the ideaof "fraternite' "as, "Be my brother orI will kill you!" He soon proved his point. Forhis irreverence, he was sent to the guillotine - a rarepiece of poetic justice, if ever there was one. Thosewho believe in Big Ideas hardly ever have a place forjokers.

Similarly, the Christian God preached "Thou shaltnot kill" in the Ten Commandments, but that wasonly in relation to "us". A few chapters later,he exhorted the Israelites to commit genocide. As theygo to war, he commands, "You shall save nothingthat breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, theHittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. . ." He wanted the men, the women, children andeven the animals to all be slaughtered.

God wasn't contradicting himself. Moralities are alwaysabout strengthening the "us" against the "them".The logic of morality is inexorable: what is good forus is right, and what is bad for us is wrong. You justcan't argue with that. And hardly anyone ever does,especially in wartime.

For example, as a general rule, we regard the deliberatemassacre of civilians as a crime. However, it is particularlybarbaric when the other side does it to us! So whenthe Germans killed a few thousand civilians during theLondon Blitz, "they" were committing an atrocity!But when "we", the British, carpet bombedGerman cities for years, and systematically killed hundredsof thousands of innocent women and children (the menhaving all gone to the Front), that was justice beingserved to criminals! Of course they deserved it! Eventhe babies and the grandmothers. They started it!

We can always see the faults of other societies, butit is extremely difficult to see when we violate ourown standards of justice. In retrospect, we find theproblems usually arise when people are too moral, tooobedient, too willing to do what their society expectsfrom them. This is invariably the easiest course forany individual to follow.

It is much harder to make up your own mind and actupon it. It is literally unnatural to do so, and frequentlytoo dangerous to contemplate. We build memorials tothe soldiers who massacre civilians, and easily excusetheir "inadvertent" mistakes. On the otherhand, no one admires the courage of a whistlebloweror a conscientious objector. So foolish! They usuallyachieve nothing but shame for themselves and their families.What were they thinking of?

Hitler, Stalin and Mao deliberately killed maybe 70million of their own countrymen between them. To doso, they needed millions of good citizens to do allthe dirty work, some to wield the knives and some todo the paperwork. There is never any shortage of thekind of people who have been rather unfairly called"Hitler's willing executioners". They maywell be 20 to 40 per cent of any population.

Though we don't like to admit it, we don't regard peoplewho say they "were just following orders"as criminals. They hardly ever get punished, and weknow why. They are just like us. They have all the characteristicsof good citizens everywhere. As Solzhenitsyn said, itwould be so much easier if we could simply isolate thebad people and punish them. Unfortunately, "theline between good and evil cuts through every humanheart. And who is willing to destroy part of his ownheart?" We can hope to avoid doing evil, but wecan't avoid the inclination towards it.

It is far from easy to be good, even according to one'smoral standards, but are there universal moral principlesthat apply, or should apply, across all cultures? Thisis where the religious leaders greedily put up theirhands. Without God, all is moral relativity and chaos,says the Pope.

I suggest that there is a hierarchy of moral values,and that some cultures really do have better valuesthan others. One good way to test a morality is to seehow it manages the us/them quandary, and to see whetherit adequately protects the rights of the individual.

All the religions, old and new, East and West, faildismally on the first count. Any religion that claimsuniversality and the authority to interpret it, is guaranteedto be hostile towards others. They may not now havethe power to enforce their views, but we only have tolook back in history to see what happens when they do.


Most moralities tend to place the rights of societyabove the rights of the individual. Most of the time,this doesn't matter much, since the social good tendsto benefit the individual anyway. If this tendency goestoo far, however, people become obedient robots, whichcontaminates both the society and the individuals withinit.

So we can ask whether a morality gives adequate weightto the rights of the individual? For example, in certainsocieties if a woman has been raped, her "punishment"is to be stoned to death by the members of her village.The rapist gets off with a mild rebuke, since he couldn'thelp himself. You know what men are like!

In this way, justice is served, and the community valuesare strengthened, even though an unfortunate woman dies.The individual suffers for the good of all. We alsosee this principle lingering on in our society, whena judge "makes an example" of a particularoffender.

Most traditional moralities fail drastically to supportthe rights of the individual. Christianity encouragesobedience. Islam literally means "submission".Buddhism, with its doctrine of "no self",denies any value to the individual. Hinduism is hardlyany better. Thank God that none of them except Islamhas the power they once had. A religion with teeth isa dangerous beast.

Fortunately, in the West, we have now largely escapedthe nightmare of religious and political tyranny. Forthousands of years, it was always the man at the top,the king or the priest, who decided right and wrong,and that was that! Nowadays, our liberal democraciesguarantee a plurality of views and so tend to protectthe rights of the individual as well.

Although most people will always go along with a nuancedversion of popular morality, we now have a choice wedidn't have just 200 years ago. We can now think andspeak freely and safely. We also have all the informationand alternative views that we could ever need to cometo an intelligent decision on any matter. This is anextraordinary debt we owe to the revolutionaries ofthe past. Questions of right and wrong used to be decidedsolely by the men in power. Now we can make up our ownminds, if we choose to do so.

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