In this five part series for Critical Mass, Luke Andreski, author of Intelligent Ethics and Ethical Intelligence, explores the nature of morality and what that tells us about how we should act in an amoral world. In his third article he takes a look at moral authority. What provides the force behind the ‘moral imperative’?
A physical threat
The first article in this series identified seven essential characteristics of any code of behaviour claiming the title of ‘morality’. They were:
👉 The presupposition of sentience
👉 The affirmation of freedom
👉 A compelling source of authority
👉 A definition of what’s right or wrong
Let’s consider the fifth of these: the authoritative and compelling nature of morality.
If anyone says to you, “That is what you ought to do,” it carries a degree of authority which suggestions such as, “That is what I’d like you to do,” or “Do it because I’m telling you to,” simply don’t possess.
It’s intrinsic to morality that it has a greater reach than physical threat or personal entreaty. You might be entirely alone, in a faraway place, but what you ought to do still applies.
So where does this far-reaching authority come from?
In the past God has been used for this purpose – to back up moral claims and give them a seemingly indisputable power.
“Why’s this the right thing to do?!? What a stupid question! It’s because God says so.”
This is an answer we are no longer able to deploy. God has become problematic.
- Many of us have stopped believing in any form of God or gods.
- Morality applies whether there is a God or not.
- Many of the rules once enforced by ‘divine authority’ have been found to be arbitrary, inconsistent, prejudicial against minorities or gender, extreme or unjust.
- God is local, specific to one culture or another – but morality transcends culture. As we saw in the first article in this series, the concept of morality requires universality. Anything else is just individual whim or cultural norm.
So, without God, where can morality find its imperative? What sort of authority or source of conviction does a universal morality need?
Our preceding analysis of morality offers some clues. The essential characteristics we identified earlier determine that morality’s source of authority:
- Has to transcend the individual.
- Needs to be greater than any group, community, culture or even civilisation.
- Needs to be accessible to any autonomous sentient.
- Can’t be local, based on local traditions, beliefs or myths.
Further, morality’s function, as discussed in the second article in this series, is the unification of autonomous sentients. As such, its source of authority must be accessible to all sentients, whatever their background or culture. It needs to be something we all have in common – something which is objective not subjective, factual not mythical, substantive not ethereal.
So what satisfies these criteria?
To begin with, we can exclude inner voices, intuitions or epiphanies.
Feelings can vary between individuals, let alone cultures or civilisations; inner voices and epiphanies say different things to different people; and you and I can have completely opposing intuitions about even the most basic issues.
If the authority you are appealing to is home-grown and personal it lacks the requisite universality and power. It becomes little more than shorthand for “What I want” or “What I’d prefer”.
Morality needs authoritative back-up for why we all ought do something – why all autonomous sentient beings should comply – and that back-up has to be universal. It’s not what an individual might want or what communities, nations or even societies choose to do. It’s what everyone should do, anywhere, anytime.
Concepts constructed by specific cultures or groups also fall short of our needs. ‘Divine purpose’, ‘intelligent design’, ‘human nature’, ‘the historical imperative’, ‘economic necessity’, ‘the power of love’ – none of these satisfy the universality required by a sentience unification system. In some cultures these concepts would be meaningless. In others they would be disputed or dismissed.
Worse, many of these concepts invoke what the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls ‘magic dust’ – namely, intangible or magical entities invented to answer some dilemma or question, and which normally can’t be measured or disproved.
We need something better.
I’d like to suggest a compelling candidate for providing morality with its authority – the ‘oomph’ behind the ‘ought’.
I’ll begin with a riddle.
It’s something we all share.
It’s tangible, appealing, accessible and always there.
It’s both empirical and experiential.
Among sentients it’s universal.
In comparison to any individual sentient it’s more or less eternal.
It’s something that looks back at us from the mirror.
It’s in us.
It’s outside of us.
It is us.
Have you guessed it already?
The answer is, of course, life.
Life is powerful, awe-inspiring, magnificent, tenacious – the source of meaning and agency in an otherwise meaningless universe.
Life is what every living being shares. It imbues our every living moment.
Life is the source of everything we are, the source of everything we do.
So, what better authority for morality can there be than its own source?
What better authority can there be for a sentience unification system than the universality and agency of life?
In the next article in this series, published on Critical Mass tomorrow, Luke Andreski asks whether the nature of morality determines its content. Does what morality is constrain what anyone can claim it says?
Luke Andreski is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal and Ethical Intelligence collectives. His books include Intelligent Ethics (2019), Ethical Intelligence (2019), Short Conversations: During The Plague (2020) and Short Conversations: During the Storm (2021).
Intelligent Ethics is available here.
You can connect with Luke on LinkedIn, https://uk.linkedin.com/in/luke-andreski-ethics, or via @EthicalRenewal on Twitter https://twitter.com/EthicalRenewal
Luke is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal collective and author of Short Conversations: During the Plague (2020), Intelligent Ethics (2019) and Ethical Intelligence (2019).
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You can find the next article in this series, ‘What Morality Says’, here: https://creatingsocialism.org/what-morality-says/