If there’s anything less interesting than a post defending morality, I can’t imagine what it might be. Nonetheless, here goes…
We’ve heard the statement, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” but I’d like to point out that morality is the one set of facts that really does care about your feelings.
Some people question whether morals are facts at all and not just personal preferences. Our frequent disagreements encourage that doubt, but let’s look a little deeper. Two firemen may disagree about the best way to enter a burning building, but they both want to save the child trapped inside. Our ethical arguments are often like that. Most of us want to reduce suffering. We agree about something very important, but disagree about how to get there.
Adding to the confusion, we tend to argue about buildings already on fire, and in that urgent, terrifying moment, who wants to talk about how to prevent fires?
So, our conversations about ethics often miss the point because we argue about the wrong things at the wrong time, and this is where morality can help. Far from a set of dry rules, morality cares about our feelings. It exists to increase our peace and reduce our pain. It pleads for a society in which people do not prey upon one another or injure themselves.
Even so, we don’t hear much good about morality in our day. It’s treated like a minority view, but throughout human history, in almost every place and time, morality has said the same thing*. Don’t cheat or steal. Tell the truth. Respect your ancestors. Protect the weak. Treat others as you want to be treated.
Of course, we don’t really need to be told these things. Something inside us confirms they are true, and we’re unhappy when this code is violated at our expense. We know the code. We respect the code. Yet we have turned away from the code as a guide to our culture, and the consequences have made our nation less united, less kind, less happy, and less safe.
Perhaps it is too late to go back. The fractures in America are hard and deep, and, to be frank, some people like it that way. Anger is becoming the new religion, and it’s certainly easier than love.
But there are good reasons to go back. The dazzling elegance of this world, our startling abilities to think and love and choose – these still shout that life is no accident. Our shared belief that kindness is good and cruelty is evil only proves our knowledge that people are important.
Add to this the shocking fact that even morality’s detractors claim to be moral. If, as Mr. Darwin proposed and conventional wisdom now assumes, our lives are a biological accident and not a divine creation, we should admire domination, not kindness. We should aspire to deceit and not courage. And yet, surprisingly, cannibalism is discouraged in polite society, though it perfectly reflects polite society’s view of human life.
It seems that humanity is doomed to recognize the difference between right and wrong. This is a terrible inconvenience to jerks (like me) who would misuse their fellow man, but it simultaneously provides protections that make friendship, family, business, and a free society possible.
Morality may not be an exciting topic, but it is the one set of facts that really does care about our feelings, preventing excruciating fires that destroy lives and relationships.
* See C. S. Lewis’ survey of the Tao in “The Abolition of Man.” (https://www.amazon.com/Abolition-Man-C-S-Lewis/dp/0060652942)
“Treat others just as you want to be treated.” -Jesus (Luke 6:31)
“Do not murder. Be faithful in marriage. Do not steal. Do not tell lies about others. Respect your father and mother. And love others as much as you love yourself.” -Jesus (Matthew 19:18)