In talking of right or wrong, we seem to instinctively regard ethical conduct as something fixed throughout time, black-and-white, clear-cut and absolute. Law makes it seem that way. Reflecting on moral dilemmas reminds me that it’s not that simple.
Predators terrorise prey in the animal world. Humans have killed and eaten other species for 2.5 million years, long before we developed humane slaughter technologies. When I reflect on this, I find myself thinking, it’s the way nature is, how can that be put in the category of being “wrong”? And yet you could argue that rape and murder occur “naturally” in the animal world; it doesn’t actually make it right. That’s the naturalistic fallacy.
The reality is that we have evolved with empathy and compassion which gives us certain values that we call “morality”. But we have evolved with certain other values like self-interest and a habit of brutally killing and eating other sentient beings, which can conflict with those moral values (at different points depending on how we’ve been conditioned to think and express our moral sense). It struck me recently how this conflict is reflected in our language about ourselves: we say we are “only human” to express our inevitable moral failures, yet we also describe kind treatment as “humane”, and talk of people being “dehumanised” when they are somehow stripped of their positive qualities.
Perhaps this conflict is one of the things that gives rise to religion. Many religions frame life as a struggle to overcome evil with good. The conflict becomes epic through religion. We want to be good, we idealise good, and religion – or God – is a convenient wrapper for that idealism. I scribbled these words down in my visit to the Sikh temple: “Nanak made one prayer: May I never forget you, O perfect treasure of virtue.” I think part of what made that visit such a powerful experience was because religion was always first about goodness for me. God as a perfect treasure of virtue. (I could relate far less to the songs about the God of Israel in a recent Liberal Jewish service I attended: our God is better than the gods other people worship, he is our friend and protector… just pushed all sorts of wrong buttons for me.)
The trouble with absolutising our moral values is that this over-simplifies issues. Jesus’ teachings are very morally idealistic, and I think part of where I went wrong with Christianity was taking them too far. Turning the other cheek too much for example will just turn you into a doormat. It also isn’t necessarily possible to absolutise all moral values, for example justice and mercy come into conflict with each other.
But I think we probably need ideals to some extent. We need laws to run our societies by, for a start. Is it possible that there are situations where moral idealism has done a greater good than would have been achieved otherwise (by Gandhi, Martin Luther King etc)? Ideals are things we can really throw ourselves into, especially when there is a seductive mystical element to it. That’s often not a good thing, but I wonder if sometimes it might be.