I’ve done a couple of posts now about how religious reasoning is more secular than people think (for example here and here), but the reverse is also true. Secular moral reasoning is much less empirical than people think it is. At its core, it relies on what could be described as magical thinking, although framed without reference to literal supernatural forces. Even those who pride themselves on their devotion to empirical rigor and the scientific method will find themselves thinking in abstract terms, bordering on mysticism, when addressing moral questions.
This should not be a surprise. Moral reasoning is, for the most part, about how we treat other human beings, and human beings are notoriously difficult to study scientifically. They are complicated and sometimes deceptive, and their reactions change dramatically if they know they are being observed or evaluated. Even if we could construct flawless experiments on human nature, we are still faced with what Hume identified as the gap between “is” and “ought.” No amount of empirical rigor can convert an observation about human beings into an ethical principle.
This may sound strange, but I think the only way to derive ethical principles about how we should treat other people is by essentially tricking ourselves. For example, our brains tend to react to observations of pain or pleasure in others by “mirroring,” reacting as if we ourselves were experiencing that pain or pleasure. It’s easy to see that the utility of such an adaptation in enabling individuals to learn more quickly about what to seek out or avoid in their environment. But it’s important to note that our brain is, in a sense, tricking us. We are not really experiencing the same stimulus as the person we are observing, we are simply reacting as if we were. Although it’s not “real,” this “mirroring” reaction is one of the fundamental building blocks of empathy. (The mirroring reaction is often noticeably absent in psychopaths). This empathy can give rise to complex moral judgments, most notably the “Golden Rule,” which exists in some permutation in every moral code ever devised by human beings.
But notice that this powerful engine of moral reasoning is fueled by an illusion. It only works if we suspend our disbelief and embrace the feeling of being in another person’s shoes. If we adopt a rigorously empirical stance, we can only describe the experience as the firing of certain neurons in response to stimulus, with no necessary connection to any broader ideas about behavior. At most, a strictly empirical view might allow that we should avoid harming people in our immediate vicinity, to avoid unpleasant neural reactions. But the idea that we should care about working conditions in a sweatshop on the other side of the world would never even come up.
Empathy is a sort of mental trick, but it’s the best kind of trick. If you examine creation myths from different cultures, one of the recurring themes is that the creation of the world, or of human beings in particular, is often sparked by a trickster. Some crafty deity will steal fire from the sun or makes people out of mud, and the world as we know it springs into being. Humans recognize, on a very deep level, that a certain amount of deception is necessary to bridge the gap between what we are and what we can be.
The author Terry Pratchett articulated this idea beautifully in his fantasy novel Hogfather. The novel takes place in Pratchett’s Discworld, and the Hogfather of the title is a more atavistic version of Santa Claus. At the conclusion of the story, the personification of Death and his adopted daughter (it’s a long story) have this exchange about belief in the Hogfather:
Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—
Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
So we can believe the big ones?
Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.
They’re not the same at all!
You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet . . . you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.
When I think about my own attempts at moral reasoning, one of the books that I go back to again and again is C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. It’s written as a series of letters from a senior demon to a junior demon about how to tempt a human being into sin. It’s a very cogent and thoughtful look at the myriad and often petty ways in which humans can make each other miserable. Lewis does something similar in The Great Divorce, which uses the conceit of a group of damned souls from Hell taking a day trip to Heaven and exploring all of the ways in which they are keeping themselves locked out of the rest of the universe.
At the time I first read both of these books, I shared Lewis’s religious beliefs. But although I am no longer a believer, I continue to find both books no less useful in thinking about the psychology of moral behavior. This makes sense when you think about it, since both books are already operating on at least one level of abstraction: Lewis does not literally believe in Screwtape either. Lewis did believe, literally and passionately, in the divinity of Jesus. But, at the risk of sounding dismissive, I don’t find that additional level of abstraction makes any difference in my appreciation of Lewis’s insights. The ideas that Lewis explored through Screwtape, and for that matter through Aslan and the rest of Narnia, inform my moral reasoning as thoroughly as they ever did. I suppose in this way I am like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
That’s really where moral reasoning should lead us. We can argue with each other about whether our abstract ideas are literally true in some sense, but ultimately we can never know. All we can do is try to imagine the world as it would be if it were created by someone wise and loving and just. Then we must continue the messy, imperfect business of moving our world a little closer to that ideal.