1.1. A science of ethics?

In this book, we are going to attempt to treat ethics scientifically. It was thought for centuries that there was no problem in this; but nowadays, if a person tries it, he is laughed at as some kind of anachronism.

Why is this?

Partly, it is because the progress in physics has led people to think that you can't do science unless you measure things; but actually, the measurement is not what makes physics scientific, but the testability of the theories by experiment.

But you can't test ethical theories, can you? It turns out that you can; and this is what we will be trying to do in this book.

A second difficulty people have with a scientific approach to ethics is where you can find objective data. People have such different notions of goodness and badness, rightness and wrongness, that there seems to be no hope of coming up with anything that everyone would agree on; and if you can't do that, you can't even start, scientifically; you have no data to base your conclusions on.

We are going to get round this difficulty by starting from the fact that people think certain things about ethical matters. Whether what they think is right or wrong is irrelevant as our starting-point; right or wrong, they think a certain way, and you can observe this just by asking people. It may seem that this isn't a very promising place to begin; but we will see that it can lead us quite a distance if we are careful.

The third difficulty people have is an outgrowth of the other two. Since it is assumed that you can't treat moral matters objectively, then people conclude that morals are a question either of emotions or religion or both--usually both.

But this can't be all there is to morals. Respecting people's rights is one of the major moral issues; and if this is a matter of "emotions" or "religion," then how are people's rights to be guaranteed? That is, if some Muslim felt that I, as a Christian, should be killed for blasphemy, do my rights yield to his religion? Shouldn't he be stopped from killing me

1.1.1 A self-contradictory ethical position

This indicates one of the  reasons for trying to find out whether there is any objectivity to morals. If there is no objective morality, then there are no such things as rights. If morals are a "deeply emotional issue," then why should I respect anyone else's rights unless I "feel deeply" about respecting them?

Most people's reaction to this would be, "Well, you had better 'feel deeply' about respecting our rights, because we're going to see that you respect them, whether you like it or not." This seems to indicate that people do think that there is something objective about morality; and so it is worth a try to see if the subject can be treated scientifically.

In fact, the notion that morals are not objective leads to a self-contradiction. People who hold that there are no objective moral standards reason in this way:

"There are no objective moral standards that apply to everyone. Therefore, no one has any right to try to impose his moral standards on anyone else."

Why does this contradict itself? It seems so obviously true. Ask yourself this: what does "No one has any right to impose..." mean? It doesn't mean that no one has the strength to do it; it means that it's wrong to try to do it, and should be stopped.

But "It's wrong for anyone to try to impose his moral standards on anyone else" is a moral standard that everyone is supposed to adhere to. So if there are no moral standards that apply to everyone, it follows logically that there is one moral standard that applies to everyone: let people alone. But that's impossible, if there are no moral standards.

So it can't be true that there are no objective moral standards, because if there aren't, there are. The view that there are no objective moral standards is objectively stupid.

So if someone tells you, "This is a moral issue; you have no right to impose your moral standards on me," you can retort, "Who are you to impose your standard of non-interference on me?" A person who consistently held that there were no moral standards would have to let others interfere with him whenever the other people felt morally justified in doing so. And there's no one--least of all the "moral relativists"--willing to admit this.

CAUTION: Note that the fact that it is self-contradictory to say that we can never interfere with others' morals does not mean that we can interfere whenever we please. (We will have to discover later when interference is moral and when it isn't.) It only means the following:

CONCLUSION: No one in practice believes that there are no objective moral standards. Everyone, whether he realizes it or not, believes that there are some things that everyone must do or avoid.

1.2. The two basic observable facts

Let us, then, make a try at developing a scientific study of ethics. There are, as it happens, all kinds of ways of approaching the subject, which is to philosophy what engineering is to science. That is, ethics deals with human behavior, but not with a description of what human behavior is, but with how human beings should behave.

DEFINITION: Behavior is the actions human beings perform, especially those actions which follow from human choices (and therefore which the humans are held "responsible" for).

DEFINITION: Conduct is human behavior in relation to some standard for judging whether that behavior is "good" or "bad."

Ethics, then, is about human conduct.

Some of the many questions connected with ethics are whether human "conduct" has any real meaning, in the sense of whether there is any standard by which human behavior can be judged. If there is a standard for human behavior, what is it? Is the standard, if any, one which applies to any human being, or does it only apply to the one who has it, or to the culture in which he exists?

What we know so far is that people think there is at least some objective standard for judging right and wrong conduct, because even those who profess to think there isn't one consider interference wrong. Clearly, that standard can't be the "objectively correct" one, because it contradicts itself.

But then (a) is this belief that there are objective standards a delusion (and there really aren't any), and (b) if there are, what are the "right" standards, and how are we going to recognize them when we see them? These are questions that we will have to try to answer.

But there is more. Supposing there are standards for human conduct, but a person (even knowingly) doesn't follow them, what then?

One answer is that society will punish him. But suppose he can get away with it; suppose he has such power that society can't touch him? Take Hitler. Few today would think that what he did to the Jews was anything but horribly wrong. But no one in his society did anything to him for it; it was for those who conquered the society to "bring him to justice"--except that he killed himself first. Or take Stalin. No one "brought him to justice;" he died in bed with honor, though he had killed, tortured, and enslaved thousands if not millions of his own people.

So society doesn't always punish people. Does this mean that, if you can get away with it, it may be (in theory) "bad" to do what you are doing, but in practice it's good? That is, if Stalin got pleasure out of killing and torturing people, if he got rich and powerful doing it, and if he won fear and respect from his people because of it--and if these were what he wanted--shouldn't he do these things? Why shouldn't he?

But people don't in fact think that the fact that you're better off for being immoral makes it good to be immoral, or means that you "ought" in any sense do to what is immoral.

That is, people put moral "badness" in a different category from artistic badness, logical badness, and other forms of badness. If you sing off key, and you want to hire an auditorium to give a concert, then no one says you "shouldn't" do it, as long as no one is forced to attend (which would make it a moral issue). If you want to reason illogically, so what? But if you want to murder people, that's another story.

BASIC ETHICAL FACT: People are reluctant to do what they think is morally wrong; they tend to be afraid to do it, even if it is to their advantage.

When people do something they think is wrong, there is the experience of guilt afterwards, which--as a psychological experience, now--is more than just, "Oh, I did something people don't approve of." We often do things others don't approve of and experience no guilt, because we think they have no business disapproving of what we have done; then we feel anger or contempt, not guilt.

The experience of guilt involves (a) the knowledge that we have violated the moral standard that we think is the "right" one, and (b) the fear that because we did, something bad is going to happen to us. The experience of guilt is the expectation of punishment.

And this implies that the "reluctance" we have to do something we consider morally wrong is actually a kind of fear that if we do it, then something bad will happen to us.

1.3. The question to investigate

As I mentioned, there are all sorts of questions to investigate in an examination of ethics; but if you are going to get anywhere, you have to be careful which one you choose.

Most people have tried to investigate ethics by tackling the question of the ethical standard; but there have been any number of theories generated from these investigations, none of which lead to any testable predictions; and the result has been that ethics (as a study) seems to remain in the realm of speculation, without our being able to decide in favor of one theory over another, as long as each one is internally consistent.

But you can't leave things like this, if there is in fact something bad that happens if you do what is "really" wrong. If Hitler can find an ethical theory to justify what he did to the Jews, does that make it okay? Just because the theory is internally consistent?

So that line of investigation doesn't look productive of the results we need. Hence, we will try to investigate the following question:

Question to be examined: Why do people tend to be afraid of doing what they think is morally wrong?

This is an interesting question particularly in view of the fact that we know that there are people who do what is wrong and get away with it. And each of us has had the experience (probably in some minor matter) of doing something we thought was wrong and yet being better off for it: lying, for instance, to save ourselves from embarrassment.

We felt guilty afterwards for a while, but the person we lied to never found out; and on the whole we were the gainers. But this doesn't teach us that we should lie when in similar circumstances. We still feel that we "lucked out" that time, but you can't count on it. So the fear is still there, even against our own experience. Why is that?

Refinement of the question: Where did this fear associated with immoral conduct come from?

That is, what we will be investigating is not precisely where people get their moral standards, but how the idea of "immoral conduct" got associated with "something bad will happen if you do it."

Did people get the idea because their parents told them this, and they got "brainwashed" into believing it? Did they get the idea because society disapproves strongly of certain acts, and this makes people around you afraid of doing them, and the fear just communicates itself to you? Did they get it because some God told them he would punish them if they did these things?

These are the main explanations of the origin of this fear attached to immoral conduct that we are going to investigate. All three of them have quite respectable authorities in favor of them: the first is essentially the theory of the psychologist Sigmund Freud, the second of the sociologist William Graham Sumner; and the fourth any number of religious philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas.


You are already inclined to believe one of these views. Be aware of this bias you have, and keep your mind open to the evidence. No one of the views above is a "fact." They are all theories developed to explain a fact.

The theories are only good if in fact they do explain the facts they are trying to explain. If they don't, then it doesn't matter whether you would like to "believe" them or not; they are false, and they aren't facts. We are not trying to develop a theory of morality that you can be "comfortable" with; we are trying to find out the facts, if any, and if we can.

1.4. Observed characteristics of the fact

If we are going to be investigating these various explanations of why we feel afraid to do what we think is wrong, then we had better first find out all we can about what this fear attached to our notion of immoral conduct is. Just as Galileo discovered important things about falling bodies by measuring how fast they fall (leading to Newton's theory of gravity as their explanation), so if we are to be scientific about ethics, we have to observe our data carefully.

There are six characteristics that we can point to about this fear associated with immoral conduct:

1 It is universal: Everyone tends to think immoral conduct must be avoided; everyone experiences guilt when doing something he thinks is morally wrong.

Even the so-called "pathological" person is not really guilt-free. These people tend not to feel guilt at what normal people feel guilt about (such as murdering people); but they have strange standards that they feel guilty violating. So we can say that everyone associates immoral conduct with some kind of fear.

NOTE: All this characteristic says is that the fear itself is "universal." What people are afraid of is not (see characteristic 4)

2 It is serious: People think that immoral conduct must be avoided even if you "gain the whole world" by being immoral. That is, people don't think that Stalin should have done what he did, even if he got power, wealth, and honor for it.

3 It tends to be associated with a divine source: That is, people tend to think that some sort of invisible being will punish them for being bad. Certainly there are enough people who have held this through history and who hold it today that we can say that this is a general characteristic of the fear, if not a universal one.

This is not to say that there actually is a god who enforces morality. What we are saying here is that enormous numbers of people think there is; and they at least claim that it is their fear of God that makes them avoid being immoral.

The above three characteristics deal with the fact of the fear itself. The following three deal with what it attaches itself to.

4 The definition of "immoral conduct" varies greatly from culture to culture, and is relatively the same within a culture.

Depending on how simple or complex the culture is, you find less or more variation on what "immoral conduct" means. In simple (the so-called "primitive") cultures there seems to be complete agreement on what is morally "good" and "bad"; in very sophisticated, complex cultures like ours, there is great disagreement--but not as much as there is between cultures.

So the fact that a fear attaches itself to some behavior is (as a fact) universal in all cultures; what it attaches to is not universal.

5 Each person or culture thinks that his or its standards are the "right" ones.

This is an interesting fact. If you think something is wrong for you, you automatically think that it's wrong ("really") for anyone. You may excuse other people ("because they don't know any better"), but you don't really think that if something is really wrong for you, then it's really right for anyone else in the same circumstances.

Even, as we saw, those who hold that there are no "real" standards think that therefore it is wrong to interfere with anyone else's following his conscience. This is the only thing that such people think is morally wrong--but what is interesting is that they think that this is "really" wrong for everyone.

6 The standard is basically negative. That is, we all recognize some acts to be morally good; but we don't have the same kind of "necessity" connected with them that we feel with respect to the things we consider "bad."

That is, when we recognize that it is morally good to give to the United Appeal, we also recognize that this is something that we don't have to do; it is a generous act. We only think we have to do those things whose omission is the practical equivalent of actually doing something bad. For instance, we think we have to eat enough to stay alive and not harm our health; beyond that, eating the "proper" food is not obligatory. We have to help others only to the extent that refusing our help is the same as doing them harm; beyond that, the act is good, but not obligatory. And so on.

[See also Modes of the Finite, 5.1.2]

1.4.1 How to use the observed data

These characteristics of the fear attached to what people think is morally wrong will give us something to use as a preliminary test of possible explanations of the origin of that fear.

To use some simple examples to show how this testing works, let us consider the following possible explanations:

Hypothesis 1: The fear comes from the fear of punishment attached to violations of laws.

If it did, we know where the laws come from (the legislature) and where the punishment comes from (courts and police). But if this is where the fear of being immoral came from, then why would people think that God would punish us?

Thus, this hypothesis fails to explain the facts. Our fear of being immoral cannot come from our fear of the punishment involved in breaking the law.

That is, our fear of doing what is illegal is different from our fear of doing what is immoral. And this is confirmed by the fact that people sometimes think that the laws can be unjust and immoral, and that they cannot morally obey these laws (as "conscientious objectors" think, for instance, about the draft laws).

Hypothesis 2: The fear comes from our respect for our parents, who taught us to obey them.

If it did, then those whose parents have died would no longer be afraid to be immoral, since the parents would not be around to enforce their wishes, nor would they perceive any "disrespect" to them. Thus, the fear would not be universal. Their wishes might carry over as something that "it is good" to do; but the fear of violating their wishes would no longer be serious. Further, if we obeyed morality out of respect for our parents, how did a divine source get attached to the fear?

Thus, this hypothesis fails to explain the facts. Our fear of being immoral is not a fear of being punished by our parents.

Parents, then, may be largely responsible for what our standards are, but do not seem to be the origin of the particular fear of violating the standards.

1.5. Association from early training: "the unconscious"

There is a version, however, of the "parental" hypothesis which deserves serious consideration. This explanation of the fear of being immoral goes this way:

Hypothesis: The fear we have of doing what is immoral comes from our early training, in which we were punished for "bad" acts. The expectation of punishment remains associated psychologically with these acts, even after we reach adulthood.

To expand on this hypothesis, what it says is that when we were very young and were punished for doing something, the punishment (especially as coming from our parents, who we thought loved us) was very frightening. The severer this punishment was, and/or the more often it was repeated, the more ingrained was the association, "If I do this thing, something terrible is going to happen to me." Thus, we would tend to avoid the act.

The hypothesis says that this emotion attached to the act carries over into adulthood, even after we know that our parents will no longer punish us. It still feels as if they will.

And since there is this feeling "If I do this, Daddy will spank me" with the knowledge that in fact Daddy won't because he can't, then the feeling acts as if there were an invisible, all-powerful "Father" who will "spank" us (i.e. "send us to hell") if we are bad.

Thus, the "obligation" we feel not to be immoral is really of the nature of a neurotic compulsion, and in extreme cases, people actually hear voices commanding them to do things, and when they do something wrong, their guilt becomes so great that their unconscious minds make them "accident prone" until something bad happens that can satisfy this emotional craving for punishment.

Test of the hypothesis against the data

Does this hypothesis explain why:

1. everyone would have a fear attached to immoral conduct? Yes, because everyone has been punished when very young.

2. people would think morality a serious matter? Yes, because they would not know what the punishment was to be, and it would seem to come from an invisible Being, and would have a "fear of hell" attached to it.

3. people would associate the fear with a divine source? Yes, because the emotion would create the feeling of an invisible "punisher" (whether there actually was one or not).

4. the definition of "immoral" would vary as it is observed to? Yes, because parents in a given culture would tend to punish their children for basically the same things, and in different cultures for different things.

5. people would think their standards were the "right" ones? Yes, because people would "just know" what God (the "punisher" of the fourth point) was commanding them, and would know that the command was serious.

6. the standard is negative? Yes, because pain is what tends to carry over as an association leading to a neurotic compulsion.

Thus, the theory passes the initial investigation. You would expect the facts about the fear to be what they were observed to be if this were in fact its origin.

Predictions from the theory

There are, however, some things that would also have to be true if this is where we got our fear of being immoral:

Prediction 1: No culture could change its moral standards within a short time.

This was actually a prediction of Freud; he used it to account for why the definition of "immoral" remained constant (as it had, in his time) for generation after generation. Unfortunately, in our own age, we are confronted with the following:

Fact: Our culture has experienced several drastic and sudden shifts in moral standards.

The "sexual revolution," for instance, occurred within the space of ten or fifteen years, and things practically everyone thought of as immoral and forbidden are now regarded by many people as simply a "different lifestyle," with no moral overtones.

But this kind of shift is impossible if morality is the result of an association with punishment arising from the way you were brought up. These people were brought up to think that extramarital sex, divorce, contraception, and so on were evil and deserved hell. If this theory were true, this "fear of hell" would still be attached to those acts in these people's minds--and it clearly isn't. You can't get rid of a neurotic compulsion by reasoning about it.

This is evidence against the theory

Prediction 2: We would feel as most seriously immoral those acts we were most severely and/or most often punished for when young.

This prediction follows from the nature of the association of fear with an act; the fear is stronger the worse the punishment or the more often it is repeated. And, of course, the acts we would be more afraid of would be the acts we would think were morally worse.

Fact: Children are most often (and most severely) punished for violations of manners rather than morals: for what annoys their parents and makes them angry.

That is, in fact very few children get punished for killing people. Most often, we get punished for slamming the door, leaving food on the plate, tracking dirt into the kitchen, shouting when Daddy has a headache, and so on. Based on the frequency of things like this, you would expect people to find such things morally quite serious.

But no one does. Why? This theory has no explanation.

Further, there are things that people were not punished for at all when they were young that they later regard as seriously wrong. I remember reading (some years ago now, because it would now be regarded as "quaint") an article in a psychological journal seriously puzzled about why boys who had not been taught about sex had this "strange feeling of guilt" when they masturbated and had an orgasm. (The answer is fairly simple, except on this hypothesis. A boy untaught about sex gets aroused in thinking about girls--so he knows that this has something to do with women--and then when the physical and emotional explosion comes from orgasm, he is understandably worried that he has trifled with something terribly important.)

This is evidence against the theory

Prediction 3: We would not be able to distinguish feeling guilty from knowing that we have done something wrong.

The whole point of this theory is that "knowing you have done wrong" is feeling guilty about doing something. It would be impossible to do something that you know is the right thing and feel that you have "sinned."

Fact: We do experience situations where we know clearly that it is morally all right to do what we feel guilty about.

For instance, people who have been brought up to be sexually modest are very apt to feel guilty on their wedding night when they undress in front of their naked partner--precisely because they are doing now what they have been trained from early childhood not to do.

But at the same time, they know that this is not only perfectly morally all right, but that it would be wrong not to do it, because now for the first time, they are in a situation where these acts are virtuous, not vicious.

So we have two different kinds of guilt-experiences: the guilt of doing what we were trained not to do, and the guilt we have at doing what we think is morally wrong. Very often they coincide (in a person who was trained to be moral), but they sometimes are contrary to each other; and in that case, we regard the feelings as trivial and the knowledge as the guide. (Indeed, in these cases, the guilt feeling adds an extra zest to the act.)

This is very strong evidence against the theory

Taking these three predictions into account, then, we can say the following:

CONCLUSION: Our fear of doing what is morally wrong cannot be due to a carry-over from our early training. Moral guilt has nothing to do with the way you feel.

NOTE WELL: This is not to say that the contents of our moral code might not be largely due to what we were taught by our parents; it is just that the fear connected with disobeying it does not come from punishment by them.

[See also Modes of the Finite 5.1.3]

1.6. Social pressure

We now have some additional facts about the fear of being immoral:

7. A culture's moral standards can change even within a single lifetime.

8. Cultures can distinguish manners from morals.

Let us now consider a different explanation of why we are afraid to do what we think is morally wrong:

Hypothesis: The fear attached to immoral conduct comes from the fact that the people around you regard the act as bad and not to be done, and are themselves afraid to do it.

This is the "social pressure" theory of morality. It doesn't deal with what there's a law against (though there may be laws against the acts), but with the unwritten "law" contained in the fact that people regard certain acts with horror. It also doesn't speculate about why people think these acts are horrible. What it says is the mere fact that people are afraid of these acts communicates itself to you and makes you also fear to do them without knowing why--and you in turn become another one of the people communicating the fear to still others.

That is, there are two kinds of "expectations" people have about your behavior. The first deals with what is "done" and "not done" in the culture, so that people can be comfortable with others. Thus, people expect others not to pour coffee into the saucer and blow on it before drinking. They tend to despise and shun those who violate these expectations. These are manners, or what William Graham Sumner sometimes called "folkways."

But there are other expectations where, when you try to do something, the reaction, instead of contempt at your ignorance or impoliteness, is, "Oh my God, don't do that!" If you ask why, they say, "Oh, no! That's a horrible thing to do!" And they act afraid.

Most of the time, the people you ask don't know why they think the act is horrible, still less what will happen to you if you do it. The reason they think it's horrible is not necessarily their early training or personal experience, but the fact that people they know think it's horrible. There are certain attitudes that get into the society somehow, and people adopt them; but once they are adopted, they tend to perpetuate themselves, because we tend to accept what other people believe.

Thus, for example, in our society we take it as "obviously true" that all men are created equal, that slavery is wrong, that discrimination is to be avoided, and so on. In other cultures, such as India, it is taken to be "obviously true" that there are natural classes of people, and that discrimination is the proper way to behave. Reasons can be given in both cases (the Hindu laughs at us and our "equality," when it is so clear that people have vastly different abilities); and the real reason why we hold these "truths" is often the simple fact that everyone else around us accepts them without question.

What the hypothesis says, then, is that the fact that the people accept without question that certain conduct is horrible (as opposed to "not done") is the source of our fear of doing what we think is morally wrong. The fact that no one knows what is going to happen creates the illusion that there is some invisible source of this "law," and that this super-being will enforce it.

Test of the hypothesis against the data

Does this hypothesis explain why:

1. Everyone would have a fear attached to immoral conduct? Yes, because everyone lives in a society, and so is subject to at least some form of social pressure.

2. People would think morality a serious matter? Yes, because they would not know what the punishment actually was, and everyone around them acts as if the act is horrible and is afraid of its being done.

3. People would associate the fear with a divine source? Yes, because people are not aware of the fear's being just the fact that everyone is afraid, and it would seem to come from some invisible "super-being" who will of course presumably punish its violation (whether or not there actually is such a being).

4. The definition of "immoral" will vary as it is observed to? Yes, because different cultures would have different social pressures and so different fears. Within a culture, subcultures would have their own special fears; and so as the society becomes complex, individuals belonging to different sets of subcultures would have different moral standards insofar as they reconciled the different social pressures acting on them.

5. People would think their own standards were the "right" ones? Yes, because they would have in fact got the standards from observing what "everyone" (i.e. everyone around them) "knows" is immoral.

6. The standard is negative? Yes, because again the whole issue is a question of fear, which is the basic negative emotion.

7. A culture's standards could change in a relatively short time? Yes.

But this needs some explaining. According to Sumner, if the life-conditions change, then certain acts which used to be harmful become beneficial to the people. In the beginning, those who do these things are regarded as immoral and evil; but as they prosper, more and more people follow them, and then the standards "catch up" to the practice, and what was before regarded as "bad" now becomes looked on as "good."

For example, once The Pill was invented, sexual intercourse could be engaged in in an apparently "natural" way (What is more natural than taking a pill?) without having children connected with the act. But if there are no children to support, why have the commitment of marriage connected with sex? Hence, people began having sex outside of marriage, and the sexual standards gradually began to dissociate sex and marriage.

Note here that I am not arguing that this reasoning is "correct" (in fact, it is fallacious); what I am saying is that it seemed so to many people, and in fact things happened this way, and so in our society much that used to be considered immoral about sex is now considered morally acceptable. If this theory is true, this is, of course, all there is to the matter. It used to be really immoral to have sex outside of marriage (because "everyone" thought it was), and now it's really all right (because people think it is all right). If the theory stands up, this statement can be taken as factual and valid.

8. Can we distinguish manners from morals? Yes, because the social pressure connected with manners, no matter how severe it is, is not conduct that the society is afraid of, while the moral code of the society deals with what it regards as a threat to its existence, for whatever reason.

Thus, the theory fits all the facts we have so far observed, including the data that the Associationist Theory cannot explain.

Predictions from the theory

But there are also some things that must be facts if this theory is really where we get our fear of being immoral.

Prediction 1: The standards of the society can never be "wrong," nor be thought to be wrong at the time.

The standards may later be recognized (after a change) as having been wrong; but they cannot be thought in that society to be now wrong, because the standards are precisely what the moral obligation is in that society at this time; they are precisely what defines "morality" for the society and are the only definition of it.

Fact: Sometimes people in the society think its standards are wrong.

This is inconvenient, but it is certainly a fact. There are, for instance, quite large numbers of people in our society who think that the "sexual revolution" is wrong, however practical it might be; there are many many others who think that abortion is wrong, even if there are many who think that it is right.

This might be due, however, to subcultures that are out of step with the feeling of the larger society. Hence,

This fact does not prove anything one way or the other.

Prediction 2: The culture cannot change its standards on the basis of their present "wrongness."

This is a variation on the preceding prediction. If the whole culture changed its standard because it (as a whole) recognized that the present one was somehow "evil," then it would be judging its own standard by some "higher standard," and on this theory there can be none. Standards can change, on this theory, if the change follows a change in lifestyle; but they can't change for the reason that the standard is somehow recognized as wrong or evil.

Fact: Sometimes cultures do change their standards for moral reasons and not for practical ones.

For instance, the civil rights movement came about, not because it became practical for Blacks to be treated as well as Whites, but because the community as a whole recognized that it was treating Blacks as if they weren't really human--and human beings must not be treated as if they are not what they are.

This same sort of thing was really what got rid of slavery in this country (Sumner's bad history to the contrary notwithstanding). It was certainly impractical to free the slaves, in whom so much wealth was invested. The Southerners recognized that it would ruin them economically--which it did. But the fiction that Blacks were "really" no different from animals (and so could be owned) became impossible to sustain, especially as more masters had children by their Black slaves. But once they were recognized as human beings, they were automatically recognized as something that could not be owned or treated like animals, however "practical" this might be.

Hence, changes in moral codes do not always follow changes in life conditions; sometimes they lead them.

This is evidence against the theory.

Prediction 3: Reformers would be regarded as immoral people.

The reason for this prediction is that the society's standards on this theory are the only real definition of "moral" and "immoral"; and hence any "reformer's" disagreement with the standards would automatically be a mistake or evil. Appeal to a "higher source" for morality is absurd on this theory; there is nothing that can be appealed to "over" what the people happen to think is right and wrong at any given moment.

Fact: Societies distinguish between reformers and evil people; they listen to the first, and condemn the others.

Martin Luther King, for instance, who preached that the treatment of Blacks was inhuman, was regarded as a troublemaker, but not as an evil person. He was not thought of as we today think of drug pushers, who don't see anything wrong with promoting the use of cocaine or heroin.

And the reason King was regarded as good is that he presented evidence to the society that it wasn't treating Blacks the way it claimed to be treating Blacks: that segregated eating facilities meant that Blacks had bad food and few opportunities to get it; that segregated schools were "separate" but far from "equal"; that segregated toilet facilities meant that Blacks had to walk often for blocks before they could relieve themselves, and so on. The drug pusher, on the other hand, cannot present any real evidence that taking drugs is good for the person who takes them--which is what he claims. Quite the contrary.

Reformers, then, seem to present facts to the society which show that it is being inconsistent in doing what it considers "good": that its actions are fundamentally (even if unwittingly) dishonest. And when the evidence is convincing, the society listens to the reformer, and changes its standards--usually reluctantly, but it changes, once it is convinced.

But this could not happen if the society was in fact the one that defined "right" and "wrong." It implies that there is a standard against which society itself and its standards are to be judged--and the society recognizes this.

This is evidence against the theory.

Prediction 4: The standards of any culture would simply be the set of acts the people regard with horror, and would not be a rational conclusion from a basic standard.

This is clear from the nature of what social pressure is. Why the people fear doing something is not what creates social pressure (and therefore the fear in the individuals); it is simply the fact that they do fear this act. This is another of Sumner's predictions.

Fact: The moral standard of any society, and in fact any moral standard of any person is always some version of this proposition: You must never deliberately do what is inhuman.

If this is so (and in the next section I will give some examples showing that it is), then this means that people and societies consider themselves subject to the "command" to act consistently with what they really are, irrespective of what others think they really are.

This "command" (if it is one) is the same in every society; and hence, it doesn't come from society, because the society itself is subject to it.

[See also Modes of the Finite, 5.1.3]

1.6.1. Examples of "immoral=inhuman"

Before we get into the implications of what this means, let us try to see if in fact a society's view of what is immoral coincides with its notion of what acts are inhuman (or are inconsistent with the reality of the person acting).

Cannibals eat people, and don't see anything wrong with it, don't they? No, not really. Anthropologists were surprised to find that when these tribes referred to those of other tribes as "dogs" or "pigs," they meant this literally: that those of other tribes were animals, not people. Cannibals only eat (a) already dead bodies, or (b) members of other tribes (which aren't "people").

The slave traders also justified their trade on the grounds that Black people weren't people but animals; they were thought (by the scientists, mind you) that Blacks were the result of the rape of women by orang-outans. Those who advocate abortion today consider that "science" shows that fetuses aren't human beings, but are "blobs of tissue." Eskimos, who had the custom of giving their wives to visitors for the night, also had the view that women weren't "really" human beings.

Orientals used to hold that suicide was moral to "save face," which meant to avoid bringing disgrace on the family or group to which the individual belonged. But these same Orientals considered that the individual life was the "animal" life, and the "human" aspect of a person's life consisted in his belonging to the family or group (which is where he differs from animals). Thus, the physical life could be sacrificed in order to preserve the "human" aspect. The same went for what was behind dueling in the West. A person's "good name" (or his relation of "honor" to others) was where he differed from the beasts; and therefore, to protect his "honor" (his human dignity, or essence as human), he had to put his physical life at risk on the "field of honor" (i.e. under certain rigid conditions).

Karl Marx considered that the respect in which humans were different from beasts lay in the fact that humans use tools to transform nature (whereas beasts adapt themselves to nature). Hence, when one human uses another as a tool (when one hires another to work for him), then the first is dehumanizing the other, because the other's essence as human now belongs to someone else, and this is slavery. Therefore, Capitalism, which as a system involves the capitalists' not doing any work (and so not acting humanly) and hiring others to work (and so enslaving them) is an essentially inhuman system and must be destroyed. And from this comes Communism's "command" to work for the "classless" society, where no one will "own" anyone else's work.

Many contemporary thinkers hold that there is no such thing as "human nature"; humans are free to do what they want with themselves. And this is why in our society, interference with another's choice is for practical purposes the only "really bad" thing; because if we are in fact free to make of ourselves anything we want, then nothing is inconsistent with our reality except interfering with a person's doing this.

I am not here trying to judge the objective correctness of any of these views; I will do some of this later on. The point here is simply to show that the moral code of any society or any individual always depends on what that person thinks it really means to be "human": acts that are consistent with his definition of "true humanity" are (to him) all right; and acts inconsistent with this definition are morally wrong.

But this means the following:

CONCLUSION: Society's standards do not in fact determine the moral code for any person, nor does fear of social disapproval constitute the particular fear that is the fear connected with doing what is immoral.

Note, however, that society's standards may have a strong influence on the contents of a person's moral code, simply because if everyone else around you thinks that a given act is perfectly human, you will be inclined to accept that without question.

But society's standards do not determine the person's moral code, because this code depends on the person's own view of what is in fact inhuman behavior, whatever the people around might think. Individuals may adopt others' views without question; but they can also think things through for themselves.

Nor does social disapproval constitute the fear connected with being immoral, because we sometimes have to brave social disapproval in order to avoid being immoral (when our view of "human" differs from society's). People who tried to free slaves faced a lot of hatred and fear from those who owned slaves; people today who are against abortion face the same thing. Conscientious objectors face hatred from those who consider that they are shirking their obligation to their country; and so on.

So if we consider that we must avoid immorality, then the grounds for this cannot be (a) early training, or (b) society's disapproval. We think that, somehow, in the long run, it is not worth it to do what is inhuman.

And why is that?

This is what we must investigate in the next chapter.

Summary of Chapter 1

Ethics can be treated scientifically if we can find some data and test ethical theories against the data. The data will deal with the way people think about ethical issues.

There must be something objective to ethics, because the position that there are no objective moral standards contradicts itself, in that this position will not allow for interference with a person's actions; but not allowing interference is an objective standard (which allows interference with those who are interfering).So everyone in practice believes that there is some kind of objective moral standard (even if they don't agree on what it is).

The basic ethical fact that starts our investigation is that people are afraid to do what they think is immoral, even if they gain by it.

The question to be examined is the origin of this fear of doing what a person thinks is immoral.

The observed characteristics of the fear are that it is universal, serious, associated with a god, attaches to different definitions of "immoral" depending on cultures, attaches to what a person thinks is the "objectively right" definition, and is basically negative.

These characteristics are used to test theories explaining the origin of the fear; it must explain all aspects of it.

The fear cannot come from legal punishments, because then we would not think a God will punish us; nor can it come from respect for parents, because then it would not be universal, serious, or be attached to a divine source.

The "early training" or "unconscious" theory: The fear might seem to come from early training and the habitual association of punished acts with the expectation of punishment, because this fear can carry into adulthood without our remembering the actual punishment. It might seem to come from these because this explanation would account for why the fear is universal, serious, and all the other observed facts about the fear.

But it cannot actually be the origin of the fear we have of being immoral, because then no culture could change its standards in a short time, and they do; we would feel as seriously immoral things that in fact we think are trivial; we would not be able to distinguish feeling guilty from knowing we have been immoral, and we do make this distinction.

The "social pressure" theory: The fear might also seem to come from social pressure, which is the fact that if people around you are afraid of doing something, the fear communicates itself to you. This would seem plausible because this explanation also accounts for all of the observable facts about the fear as actually experienced, plus the two that it would allow for (some) change in moral standards and the ability to distinguish manners from morals.

But it cannot actually be the origin of the fear we have of being immoral, because then the culture could never change its standards on the basis of perceived "wrongness" of the standards, and it sometimes does; because reformers would always be regarded as evil people, when in fact they aren't; and because the standards of a culture would be haphazard, when in fact they follow from the culture's definition of an "inhuman" act.

Exercises and questions for discussion

1. If it's self-contradictory to say that you can't ever interfere with someone else's morals, when do you think it is legitimate to interfere, and when isn't it?

2. If the fear of doing wrong doesn't come from the laws, how do you account for so many people changing their moral views on abortion once the Supreme Court permitted it?

3. How do you suppose that people who hold that morality comes from God account for the different and often opposite views on what is moral in different cultures?

4. Perhaps we give ourselves the moral obligation, the way people give themselves New Years Resolutions. Test this hypothesis.

5. Suppose somebody violates the moral obligation (whatever it really is) without realizing it. Should he be punished?

6. But doesn't morality simply consist in "Don't do any harm to anyone else?" If you want to harm yourself, so what? Hint: How could you motivate anyone not to harm others?