It would seem to be one of the most important issues in the world and yet we never seem to really think about where our morals come from. They determine what we do, how we treat others and how we interact with the world at large and yet we seem to go through life accepting whatever is in there and thinking that it’s normal.
Our morals seem to form early, probably because of early programing from parents and schools and friends and whatever other influencers are in our young lives. And most of the time, with some notable exceptions, that’s fine. But what isn’t fine is the fact that we go through most of our lives with the same moral system. Sometimes, it’s like they harden inside of us, become an inflexible and unquestionable compass for our behaviours and words. For all the growth we do, all the growth we try to do, it’s very seldom that we look at our morals and where they come from. And it’s even more rare that we rationally examine them to determine if we can justify them.
You see the results of this all the time. You see people who hurt or denigrate others because their moral system says that it’s okay to do so, that the person in question deserves it in some way. You see groups who dehumanise other groups because of religious or political doctrine that has been twisted to fit their own views on the world. And you see people die because someone else says that it’s the moral thing to do, or at the very least, that it’s not immoral.
And they’re wrong.
And it’s not always just big wrongs, wrongs that kill people. It’s the little wrongs as well, the ones we almost don’t see. It’s the morals we were taught as children, never re-evaluated and never questioned, that cause immense damage to others, and to ourselves. And yet we still don’t question them.
I once believed in capital punishment. I don’t know why, a combination of reading too many crime novels and the morality I was taught growing up I guess. Australia doesn’t even have the death penalty and yet I believed that we should. Until I realised that it couldn’t be rationally justified. Philosophy taught me to go through the arguments, check for holes in them, and check that they led inexorably to the conclusion. It taught me to be rigorous in the way I thought. And so I had to let that belief go. I had to let go of the part of my moral system that believed that capital punishment was justified in some cases.
And that made me wonder what other beliefs I held that couldn’t be supported, what other morals of mine were braced on such flimsy underpinnings. And so I went through them, one by one. It was an exhausting process, and it’s still not over. I’m starting to think that it will never be over. I still uncover surprising pockets of beliefs that shore up a moral that can’t truly be justified. And if it can’t, then I get rid of it.
Why aren’t we taught how to do this by our parents or by schools? That’s not really a question, and I’m sure you can see why. The institutions that raise us, that teach us, that mould our minds, they don’t want us to question. We are taught to obey, to fit within the culture and context we’re born in. The entire process of growing up is the process of teaching us to believe, act and be the same as the people around us.
There has been a lot of rebellion about that in certain circles in our modern world, and even more talk about rebellion that pretends that’s the same thing. But one thing I don’t hear talk about is moral rebellion. I don’t hear arguments that encourage us to confront the morals we were programmed with, using our supposedly highly evolved brain to evaluate them without emotion, without bias. And that’s the hardest thing about the process, to look at them from a purely rational state.
This means that ‘because mum said so’ and ‘because my church said so’ and ‘because my social group said so’ become bad reasons for believing something. It means studying and reading, evaluating your thinking through the lenses of a thousand ideas and viewpoints. It means stepping out of the box of your context and the curated messages within it, it means never trusting your mind when it tells you that something is obviously true, and it means tearing down anything within your mind that can’t be rationally justified.
That’s enough work to keep every one of us going for the rest of our lives.