What’s the purpose of moral rules? My answer: To prevent people from causing harm to other sentient beings.
Of course, other people have different answers. For example, most conservative people would probably want moral rules that promote family values, purity, loyalty, obedience to authority figures, etc. Personally, I reject such answers.
Growing up in a society, people develop a “gut feeling” about which actions are good or bad. The society instills into us a ready-made set of moral rules, and most people go through their lives without even questioning these rules. In fact, religions and conservative mindsets actively discourage people from questioning the moral rules they were taught since an early age. For example, “Anal sex is bad, it is an abomination. Why is it bad? Don’t ask; don’t even dare to think about such silly topics.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the devoutly religious people who fail to question everything that was taught to them. The rest of us sometimes do it as well. That’s a pity, because once you carefully examine the current moral rules we have in our society, it turns out that many of those are outdated or just silly.
I think that the purpose of moral rules and laws is to prevent people from harming other humans and animals. From there, I can examine every single moral rule or law we have, and determine whether it prevents people from harming others or whether it is merely oppressive and ought to be discarded.
Let’s start with some actions that are currently moral and legal (sometimes even socially encouraged) but ought to be condemned instead. I can think of some examples: amassing billions while sharing a planet with others who are starving and homeless; tolerating sweatshops; every possible form of bigotry and discrimination; keeping farm animals in conditions that cause them pain and suffering; causing avoidable environmental pollution; accelerating genetic erosion among plant and animal species; building nuclear weapons; starting wars; destroying seed banks; engaging in predatory lending; speculating with real estate thus limiting poor people’s access to housing. And so on. By the way, here I intentionally picked a sample of actions that American Christians are happy to do. These actions cause harm, so I think that they ought to be considered immoral.
Now let’s look at the other side of the question, namely, actions that are often considered immoral but should be perfectly fine.
Let’s start with sexual behaviors. I’m fine with incest, as long as everybody involved are adult and consenting. I’m fine with necrophilia, as long as before death a person willingly signs a paper to donate their body to some necrophiliac. I’m fine with polyamory, open relationships, polygamy, etc. as long as everybody involved knows what’s going on and agrees with the terms. I’m fine with kinks, fetishes, consensual BDSM, and all kinds of non-harmful paraphilias (and I think that psychologists shouldn’t label those as disorders). I think that people should be free to do with their genitals whatever they want as long as they don’t cause harm to others (no rape, no pedophilia, no groping, no street sexual harassment, and so on).
Next: appearance. In my perfect world, everybody would be free to do with the visual appearance of their bodies (body modifications, choice of clothing, hairstyles) whatever they want. If somebody wants to cover their entire body with piercings and tattoos, that’s fine with me. If they want to walk around naked, that’s fine. Whatever. Just wear a mask during a COVID-19 pandemic, and don’t intentionally spread diseases. Other than that, whatever.
Modesty norms are problematic and thus fun to deconstruct for multiple reasons. Firstly, there’s gender discrimination. Both men and women have nipples, so women’s nipples cannot be the naughty bits. Does that mean that having a bit of fat under the skin is what’s naughty? But wait, the average male sumo wrestler has bigger boobs than many women. The only possible conclusions we can reach is that women are required to cover their chests thanks to sexism. As for modesty norms in general, they are silly. On this planet we have plenty of cultures (indigenous tribes) where people do just fine by living mostly naked. Thus the society might as well leave all the naturists alone and let them decide how much clothing they want to wear in any situation.
And then there’s desecration. Burning of national flags, lèse-majesté, blasphemy, etc. should be acceptable. People might as well do what they want with pieces of fabric, various objects, and imaginary gods. Just don’t destroy other people’s property and don’t cause fire hazards. And don’t drive while high on weed or other recreational drugs.
And no, I don’t think that free speech ought to be absolute. I am not OK with hate speech, bullying, death threats, expression of bigoted opinions, etc. situations where words can result in harm for some person.
Presence of harm or lack thereof is how I determine whether some action is acceptable or no. For example, in general, I oppose theft, because it causes harm for the victim. But I am fine with dumpster diving (stealing food from other people’s trash bins) and long as you don’t destroy property and don’t make a mess.
Moral Foundations Theory
If you consider discussions about morality interesting (as I do), you might have already heard about the “Moral Foundations Theory.” From Wikipedia:
Moral Foundations Theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. It was popularized in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.
The original theory proposed five foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. It now includes a sixth parameter, Liberty/Oppression.
According to Moral Foundations Theory, differences in people’s moral concerns can be described in terms of five (later expanded to six) moral foundations:
1. Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm; care is about “the suffering of others, including virtues of caring and compassion.”
2. Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating; fairness is about the “unfair treatment, cheating, and more abstract notions of justice and rights.”
3. Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal; loyalty is about the “obligations of group membership” including “self-sacrifice, and vigilance against betrayal.”
4. Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion; authority is about “social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and the fulfillment of role-based duties.”
5. Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation; sanctity or purity is about “physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness, and control of desires.”
6. Liberty; opposite of oppression.
According to MFT: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible.” And MFT proceeds to argue that, because humans face multiple social problems, they have multiple moral values—they rely on multiple “foundations” when making moral decisions.
The problem with MFT is that it is partially pulled out of thin air. Sure, some scientists thought about the problem a lot, made some questionnaires, and came up with plausible sounding explanations, but this does not guarantee that their brainchild will be any good. After all, there exist plenty of competing theories that also aim to categorize people’s moral concerns.
But this blog post won’t be a criticism of the MFT. Plenty of people have already written those. For example, here is one. For a moment, let’s put aside the question of whether the MFT actually is a valid framework that proposes an optimal way how to categorize people’s moral concerns. After all, discussing the differences in people’s moral attitudes is much simpler when you do categorize them somehow, even if said categories are pulled out of thin air. When you can add some structure to your blog post and lump various moral concerns into a few categories, then that adds some clarity and simplifies communication.
In case you are interested in learning more about the MFT, here is one of the chapters from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, in which each of the foundations is explained in greater detail.
This one is something I care about. Not because of emotions like compassion or shared pain. Right now, on this planet, there are several humanitarian disasters unfolding in front of the journalists who report about them. Yet the overwhelming majority of people don’t lose any sleep and don’t feel much (if any) emotional pain due to being aware of these problems. I assume you know that people, including children, are living in cages on the USA southern border. I assume you know that children die of malnutrition and preventable diseases in various poor countries. Yet all this knowledge doesn’t really make people feel that much emotional pain.
Instead of being guided by compassion (which in people appears to be limited to those in their nearest vicinity), I want to live in a society that strives to increase the wellbeing of all sentient creatures while decreasing their suffering. Moreover, we shouldn’t cause harm for others. Sure, each person should feel free to pursue their own happiness, but they should do it without hurting others in the process. As they say, “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Besides avoiding causing harm, human societies can increase the overall wellbeing for everybody by cooperating and working together, which allows tackling various problems that a single person cannot solve. This is why the humanity should care for each other and try to reduce harm.
Equality, fairness, justice, and rights matter for me a lot, because once a society fails to ensure equal rights and equal opportunities for everybody, some unlucky people get harmed. Living in an unfair and unequal world is great only if you were lucky to be born in a wealthy family as a white, straight, cis, able-bodied male. Otherwise you are out of luck.
Also, fairness is essential for human cooperation and thus survival. For example, in a world without refrigerators, every time when one farmer kills a pig or one hunter catches a deer, the entire community shares the food, because it cannot be stored for long. Such sharing and cooperation is impossible among a group of people where everybody seeks opportunities to cheat and steal and nobody trusts each other to return favors and help once they have some problem.
This one actually is contrary to my values. I oppose nationalism, which is the main reason why humanity is on the path of mutually assured destruction. Even if we don’t end up with a nuclear war, the bloated military budgets and the inability to cooperate on an international level is among the chief reasons why the global warming is highly likely to wipe out a significant portion of all the people currently living on this planet.
It would be wrong for me to treat better some person merely because they happened to be born within some arbitrarily drawn lines on the map. It would be even worse for me to divide the humanity into my ingroup and outgroup.
When it comes to friends and family, I do treat them differently than strangers, but this isn’t about blind loyalty. After all, I did remove from my life some of my relatives whom I disliked as people. Instead, this is a matter of cooperation, returning favors, and reciprocity.
Again, this one is also contrary to my values. I have little respect for social hierarchy, and a blind obedience to some authority figures is harmful. If I were in an airplane and the pilot told me to not panic and stay in my seat during the emergency landing, I would follow the orders not because they were given by an authority figure, but because following such orders would be the smart thing to do. If I were writing a master’s thesis and my professor told me about some problems with my work, I would follow their instructions, because they are more knowledgeable than me and not because they are automatically right due to their social status. On the other hand, if some authority figure said that putting people in concentration camps is a good idea, I would strongly object. Sometimes people in authority positions are right, on many other occasions they are wrong. I always reserve the right to think and decide for myself.
Overall, whenever possible, I try to exempt myself from various social hierarchies. I prefer being a part of more egalitarian organizations in which everybody’s voice matters, people discuss their disagreements, and try to look for compromises instead of barking orders from above.
I oppose the existence of social hierarchies in many situations where they aren’t crucially necessary, I loathe the obligations of hierarchical relationships, and I have little desire to obey. My respect must be earned on a case-by-case basis (yes, there exist people whom I respect due to me acknowledging their achievements and insights, and no, I don’t start to automatically respect somebody just because of some job title they have). As for the fulfillment of role-based duties, sometimes such duties are reasonable, while on many other occasions they are plain silly.
Of course, I can imagine situations in which a failure to obey orders results in other people getting harmed. But then the problem would be the resulting harm rather than insubordination to the authority figure who happened to give a good order on this occasion.
And this one isn’t just contrary to my values, idolizing various objects and people is something I perceive as abhorrent. No, a woman’s value doesn’t depend on whether she is a virgin on her wedding night. No, various objects like crosses or national flags cannot be considered as sacred, and artists or protesters shouldn’t be punished for desecrating or burning them. Immigrants aren’t “dirty.” Poor people who are forced to do various unpleasant jobs aren’t “untouchable,” and their lives aren’t worthless. Sex workers aren’t “fallen” and thus worth less than other people.
I wouldn’t want any fecal matter in my food, because that would increase my risk of getting sick and not because that would make me impure. Limiting the spread of diseases is a practical concern; this has nothing to do with morality.
I do strongly oppose humiliation and degradation as part of bullying, abuse or torture. When a sentient being is getting hurt, then there’s actual harm being done, and that’s not acceptable. But supposedly sacred objects like crosses or flags are not sentient, thus there’s no need to outlaw the desecration of various objects. And, no, some religious figure shouldn’t be sacred and above criticism either. I am fine with the Pope or some country’s president having the same human rights as everybody else, but they do not deserve any extra protections from criticism.
I care about liberty, because once some people are deprived of freedom, it causes them harm. Oppression, in its various forms, tends to result in suffering, both physical and emotional for the victim who was denied basic human rights and dignity and forced to do things against their will.
I perceive as immensely important the distinction between harm-inflicting violations of morality and violations of convention. I consider violations of convention and tradition as bad only when they cause harm. Otherwise said tradition or convention ought to be abolished. And I happen to think that preserving and maintaining outdated traditions and conventions is inherently harmful in itself, because they deny people freedom, police their personal lives, limit their choices in life.
Another argument against taking traditions seriously is just how wildly they differ among different communities who share this planet. I simply cannot take seriously a claim that “it is wrong to appear in a public place with a naked chest” if I know numerous societies in which nobody minds people being in public without covering the same body part.
Of course, it’s also possible to argue about what constitutes “harm.” For example, I have no doubt that nationalists feel bad while looking at burning flags in public places (or even due to being aware that somebody somewhere might be burning a flag in private). I have no doubt that homophobes feel bad looking at two men kissing on the street. But I still tend to just disregard statements like, “I feel bad looking at your immoral actions.” In such cases the problem is with the conservative person rather than with the one who engages in some harmless activity. Moreover, “I dislike looking at your actions” cannot be a valid reason for denying other people a right to do with their lives and bodies whatever they want. After all, unlike traditions, freedom is something I value highly.
Unfortunately, for the sake of my own safety, I am routinely forced to follow various moral norms that I consider silly and would rather see abolished, for example, we have all kinds of unnecessarily strict dress codes in this society.
This post has been long already, but I’ll add one more example. From Jonathan Haidt:
5. The Sanctity/degradation Foundation
In early 2001, Armin Meiwes, a German computer technician, posted an unusual advertisement on the Web: “Looking for a well-built 21-to-30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.”Hundreds of men responded by email, and Meiwes interviewed a few of them at his farmhouse. Bernd Brandes, a forty-three-year-old computer engineer, was the first respondent who didn’t change his mind when he realized that Meiwes was engaging in mere fantasy. (Warning: squeamish readers should skip the entire next paragraph.)
On the evening of March 9, the two men made a video to prove that Brandes fully consented to what was about to happen. Brandes then took some sleeping pills and alcohol, but he was still alert when Meiwes cut off Brandes’s penis, after being unable to bite it off (as Brandes had requested). Meiwes then sautéed the penis in a frying pan with wine and garlic. Brandes took a bite of it, then went off to a bathtub to bleed to death. A few hours later Brandes was not yet dead, so Meiwes kissed him, stabbed him in the throat, and then hung the body on a meat hook to strip off the flesh. Meiwes stored the flesh in his freezer and ate it gradually over the next ten months. Meiwes was ultimately caught, arrested, and tried, but because Brandes’s participation was fully voluntary, Meiwes was convicted only of manslaughter, not murder, the first time the case went to trial.
If your moral matrix is limited to the ethic of autonomy, you’re at high risk of being dumbfounded by this case. You surely find it disturbing, and the violence of it probably activates your Care/harm foundation. But any attempt to condemn Meiwes or Brandes runs smack into John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which I introduced in chapter 5: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The next line of the original quote is: “His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.” From within the ethic of autonomy, people have a right to live their lives as they please (as long as they harm nobody), and they have a right to end their lives how and when they please (as long as they leave no dependents unsupported). Brandes chose an extraordinarily revolting means of death, but as the Penn students in my dissertation research often said, just because something is disgusting, that doesn’t make it wrong. Yet most people feel that there was something terribly wrong here, and that it should be against the law for adults to engage in consensual activities such as this. Why?
Imagine that Meiwes served his prison sentence and then returned to his home. (Assume that a team of psychiatrists established that he posed no threat to anyone who did not explicitly ask to be eaten.) Imagine that his home was one block away from your home. Would you find his return unsettling? If Meiwes was then forced by social pressure to move out of your town, might you feel some relief? And what about the house where this atrocity happened? How much would someone have to pay you to live in it for a week? Might you feel that the stain would be expunged only if the house was burned to the ground?
These feelings—of stain, pollution, and purification—are irrational from a utilitarian point of view, but they make perfect sense in Shweder’s ethic of divinity. Meiwes and Brandes colluded to treat Brandes’s body as a piece of meat, to which they added the extra horror of a splash of sexuality. They behaved monstrously—as low as any humans can go on the vertical dimension of divinity that I discussed in chapter 5. Only worms and demons eat human flesh. But why do we care so much what other people choose to do with their bodies?
I am not afraid to live a block from a released prisoner (I strongly suspect that I must be doing this already, after all, I live in a city). Personally, I’d happily live in this home for a week for free. I love traveling and I don’t earn much money, so I love free accommodation. And I dislike the environmental harm caused by burning homes.
I’m fine with euthanasia when it is performed by doctors in a tightly regulated setting. I am not fine with random people killing their acquaintances or friends with the victim’s consent. If it was legal for anybody to kill other people with their consent, people would abuse such a law. Charismatic and manipulative people can easily convince others that they want to die, especially if the victim has some mental health issues like depression. For example, we have seen countless cases of cult leaders convincing their followers to gift them all their material possessions and become their sex slaves (or even commit suicide). If it was legal to kill people with the victim’s consent, some manipulative people would abuse this opportunity and cause harm to people who wouldn’t have wanted to die in different circumstances (if they hadn’t met the manipulative person in the first place; if they had access to therapy and received help with various problems in their life). Moreover, it is also possible to trick another person to say something in front of a video camera by convincing them that this is a joke.
Also, I do not oppose cannibalism in cases where the dead person died of natural causes and before death signed a paper confirming that they want to have their body eaten. Modern burial and cremation industries cause immense environmental harm, and doing pretty much anything else with dead bodies would cause less pollution. Personally, I intend to donate my organs after death, and, if legally possible, maybe donate the whole body for scientific research or medicine. But I wouldn’t really mind if somebody just ate my dead body, because I dislike the idea of causing environmental harm even after death. By the way, prior to colonialism eradicating various cultures, on this planet there were groups of people among whom eating the dead remains of their family members was socially encouraged, because this way they demonstrated their respect to the dead person. Again, why was cannibalism supposed to be oh so terrifying? And why is burning or burying dead bodies good? More importantly: why do people expect me to blindly follow such arbitrary norms and customs?
Speaking of consent, something that I have mentioned repeatedly throughout this blog post—just like moral rules also consent should serve the purpose of preventing harm to other sentient beings. When there’s a probability that a failure to obtain another person’s/animal’s consent could result in you accidentally hurting them, then you have to obtain their consent before you do something with them. Before hugging another person, ask if they like hugs (some people feel uncomfortable when touched by others). Before petting a dog you saw in some public place, ask their owner if said dog likes being touched by strangers (some dogs perceive such experiences as scary or stressful). But if some action you are planning to do cannot possibly harm anybody else, then asking for their consent/permission/informing them about your intentions is probably unnecessary.
The final note: please be polite. If you disagree with me (and morality is a matter of opinion, so disagreements are likely), I prefer rational arguments that explain and defend your positions.
After all, if somebody typed “this was a terrible blog post” without even giving any arguments, then I would have no reason to take their opinion into consideration. So please don’t do that.