Saturday, August 5, 2017


327. Truth, nature, culture, and morality

Is morality a matter of absolute, objective, ‘outside’ truth? And if so, is it bestowed by God or by universal reason (as with Kant)?

Or is it contingent, relative, ‘inside’, an outcome from evolution of human nature. Or is it a product of culture, and hence variable across civilizations?

I think that the human being is not made by God, but that the human being has made God, as Feuerbach first said. But that does not mean that the notion of God is nonsensical. He is made with good reason.

Of course, it depends on what one means by ‘God’. It can be as in deism: a label attached by reason to the origins of the world. God as the prime mover, or as the totality of nature, with its laws, as in the philosophy of Spinoza. Or it can be the God of theism, personal, all-knowing, omnipresent, omnipotent, and providential, having designs with humanity and individual people.

Or is God cultural, as an idealization we make of morality, a guideline rather than an objective truth?

A growing body of research indicates that the human being has an instinct for morality, next to other, more self-interested instincts. There appears to be a natural, unreflected, subconscious inclination towards solidarity, equitability, and benevolence, next to an instinct for survival and protecting one’s interests, guarding one’s resources, if necessary at the expense of others. It is part of our constitution, not based on reflection and argument.

Frans de Waal showed that primates have it, in their nature, and some other animals seem to have it as well.

As I discussed earlier in this blog (item 205), there appears to be ‘parochial altruism’: altruism and solidarity within groups one feels oneself to belong to, at the price of suspicion towards outsiders.

That seems to form the basis for feelings and emotions of group identity, and of nationalism and discrimination.

Thus, morality is coloured, or tainted, if you want, by group identity. However, none of this means that there is no room for reason.

One can appreciate rationally that virtues of benevolence, regard for others, empathy, and a good measure of altruism, serve the good life, which is helped by agreeable and fruitful relations of collaboration and give and take.

And with such cultural means one can try to widen the group one identifies with, thus reaching for some form of universality without quite achieving it, and promoting ideas of equal rights.

This may help to sustain and nurture the natural sense of solidarity with the group and limit outside suspicion. This may be supported by an ethic of virtues such as reasonableness, moderation, justice, and the courage to stand up for them.

In sum, morality is a combination of feeling and reason, and does not need to claim to be absolute, which only breeds intolerance that obstructs the virtue of reasonableness.