Reflections on Ethics 91
Is fear really the true essence of morality?
by: Alan Parfitt
Is fear the true essence of morality?
God-fearing Christians obey the Ten Commandments, if I understand the doctrine correctly, not because they necessarily believe them to be intrinsically right, but because they fear they may otherwise not receive the desired heaven ticket on Judgment Day. That is in itself a fairly logical position to take, if you happen to believe in God, Heaven and Entrance Requirements, and if you are – like so many others- motivated by high rewards, or what you may wish to call a smidgen of self-interest. What such a position has to do with morality, however, escapes me (as it would escape philosophers such as J.S. Mill). Yet these are the same people who deny me, as an agnostic, any access to morality. Sorry chum, morality is for the religious only, not for mindless animals like you. Strange…
Many Christians (and indeed Muslims, Hindu and many of the the more intellectually minded pagans) maintain that their faith guarantees them the moral high ground –indeed the ONLY moral ground- by inverting this reasoning and pointing it inside-out at agnostics. The thinking is: why should anyone (i.e. you, me) act morally if there’s nothing in it for us at the bottom line, in terms of e.g. eternal life, forty virgins or whatever. Or for the more negatively inclined: endless purgatory, sorrowful rebirth, eternal torture, etcetera if you get it wrong. And so the reasoning concludes: you agnostics simply cannot be moral, because you have nothing to gain and nothing to fear fear from being so! Again, this reasoning is comprehensible only from the viewpoint of self-interest –a viewpoint which in my limited vocabulary equates to either immorality or amorality when used as an ethical basis. Consider:
- Surely the essence of morality is doing what is right regardless of any collateral detriment to oneself? And surely any threat of the nature ‘I command you to do X or else (unspeakable retribution)’ is by its very nature immoral?
- Surely the essence of morality is doing what is right regardless of any possible reward? And surely any promise of the nature ‘Blow up a truckful of innocents and I’ll guarantee you forty virgins’ is by its very nature immoral –particularly, but not exclusively, from the virgins’ point of view?
- And surely the essence of deciding what is right and wrong should lie, ultimately, in independent soul-searching rather than carefully guided scripture exegesis?
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying agnostics are moral and Christians and Muslims are not. Of course I’m not saying that. Many people with strange ideas do good things, and many right deeds are committed for the wrong reasons. Many moral acts are committed with a perverse kind of (il)legitimacy, and that is, in a greater human context, probably just as well. It can be argued that killing Hitler in 1943 would have been a great idea, even if the possible perpetrators happened to be largely motivated by personal gain. Something similar could be maintained about waging war on weapons of mass destruction, designating nations of hunter/gatherers to multiple axes of evil, bombing Dresden and Hiroshima, or (with an eye to the future) taking out a Kim or two, Netanyahu perhaps, an ayatollah here and there, maybe even the Pope or Palin. All of these actions could in nthe aftermath prove to have been beneficial to mankind –as could not doing so. But does that make any of them intrinsically moral? Surely not. Morality ain’t that simple.
Nevertheless, when it comes to morality, agnostics have an unfair advantage over all others: we are moral (or immoral) because we want to be, not because we have been forced, threatened or coerced into it. That is not to say that there are more moral agnostics than moral worshippers. Perhaps the other guys try harder, or there’s more of them, or whatever. I simply don’t know, and I don’t care. But I do know that we, in theory, have it easier. And I do care when the holier-than-thou community claims I cannot be morally motivated because I don’t believe in their particular juju. That is offensive not only to me, but also to the forces of reason. Aristotle, like me, would not be pleased.
So, moving on: what is truth? Hey guys, give me a break, how should I know? But I do know a lie when I see one. Even a lie that has been pervasively repeated for over two thousand years. The lie that says: if you don’t agree with me, you are a bad person.