Making Society Run: Secular Ethics

A few posts back, I briefly said something about my thought that ethics, or morals, in religion were not really morals. Or, rather, that religious based morality isn’t really morality. And I said I’d expand on that sometime. So, here are my thoughts.

Every religion in history includes a moral code of some sort, whether the ancient Greek codes of no human sacrifice and hospitality or the more recent Judeo-Christian-Muslim code that includes respect for one’s parents. On the surface, these look like good moral codes. The faiths look like the source of morality.

But, I argue, they aren’t.

The moral codes are good and all, but the faiths are not the source of morality. They are a reaffirmation of self interest. Why? Because every religion out there backs up its “moral code” with a system of rewards and punishments: if you do the good thing, you’ll get rewarded in the afterlife (or when you’re reincarnated); conversely, if you do the bad thing, you’re looking at an eternity of punishment. This is not morality.

True morality is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because of an expectation (unconscious or otherwise) of reward. True morality is not doing the wrong thing simply because it is the wrong thing, not because of an expectation (unconscious or otherwise) of punishment.

But, perhaps the reward-punishment effect can create morality.


Why not? Because as soon as the rewarder-punisher is removed (or belief in said being is removed), then there is no longer a reason to do the right thing or avoid doing the wrong thing. The sense of right and wrong has been replaced with a subconscious reward-punishment cycle, that fails when the punisher is removed.

All this said, ethics and morals are, in a way, social constructs. That is, without society (multiple people living together) there is no need for morality or ethics. Therefore, morals and ethics are basically cultural, but there are some universals that all societies need to function (anti-theft, anti-murder, anti-assault). After the universals, morals and ethics are based on cultural values.

This also ties into writing and worldbuilding. Considering morals and ethics as social constructs brings up the questions: What does society need to function? What does society value? What does society think it needs to function beyond the basics?

Black & White or Greyscale: Morality in Fiction

Morality is obviously a major issue in fiction. This is especially true in fantasy and sci-fi, perhaps because of both genres’ roots in medieval romance and classical epics. It also sells well, after all the question of good versus evil is an old and powerful story. It is so old that way back, authors could easily portray simple morality in their work and audiences would go with it. More recently, perhaps around the 1960s or 1970s, portraying simple black & white morality became less common, or more difficult. A more refined range, sense, approach to morality became the standard.

The moral continuum, greyscale morality, moral relativity, whatever, is both a boon and burden for both genres. On one hand, I think the genres, particularly fantasy, have become more realistic since embracing the continuum view. Sci-fi has been using the continuum for a variety of purposes for decades, especially in the cyberpunk and socio-SF subgenres/approaches. However, embracing the continuum view could be tied to various book banning attempts.

Sticking with the fantasy genre, several examples come to mind:

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis tend toward the black and white morality, whether elves v. orcs or Aslan (Christ) v. evil. This is comforting, easy, and simple. The good guys and bad guys are obvious and clear cut.

Fritz Leiber & Robert Howard, on the other hand, both contemporary to Tolkien throw the binary out the window. They wrote largely amoral figures who focused more on greed, desire, and the adrenaline rush than on such philosophical concerns as good & evil.

Michael Moorcock effectively tried to side step the morality issue in his entire body of Eternal Champion books. Instead, he shifted the issue to law vs. chaos, with balance being the greater good throughout.

George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling become two of the clearer greyscale moral continuum writers. As some have pointed on in the interwebs, there are really no truly good and few truly evil characters in his series. Rather, there are a lot of shades of grey (certainly more than 50 of them), with everyone effectively morally compromised to some degree, even Ned Stark. Rowling does this as well. She tends, like Marvel Comics, to create her greyness through relating personal histories. That is, her “bad guys” are understandable: Voldemort had his orphan years with a deadbeat Muggle dad and discovered his pureblood maternal line; Greyback became the monster that society believed him to be; the Malfoys play at “evil” to fit in with their social class, or what they believe to be fitting in. For the Marvel mention: Magneto/Eric is completely understandable – the holocaust survivor who has sworn to never let genocide happen again, regardless of the cost (if his methods were a bit different, he’d be a hero).

Personally, the moral continuum makes for more interesting characters and story. But, it does run afoul of the self-proclaimed morality police of the real world, who want things simplistic and easy (won’t get into a rant about that here). To refer to Terry Pratchett, he once said that he had qualms about Tolkien. He never trusted the elves (everyone said they were good, and we were supposed to buy that even though we never see them really being good) and always thought it problematic that there was no chance of redemption for the orcs, simply because they were orcs. In our reality, and maybe this is something modern readers want to see more of, there are bad elves and good orcs all around us, the good guys don’t always wear white hats (Luke Skywalker) and the bad guys don’t always wear black (imperial stormtroopers).

A Question of Morals

A couple conversations after class sessions near the end of last semester got me thinking, again, about morality.

What does this have to do with writing and worldbuilding? Quite a bit, actually.

Currently, I think our cultures generally have two views on morality: absolutist and relativist. The absolutist view says that there is a single, universal, objective system of morality, often viewed as black and white. The relativist position says that morality is, largely, a social construct that varies. Often the latter leads to the idea of morality as a continuum rather than a binary, something open to numerous shades of grey versus the black-white construct.

This should have obvious connotations for the creation of fictional cultures and individuals. For instance, in an interview with Tavis Smiley, Ben Kingsley recently stated that none of literature’s great villains thought of themselves as being villainous or evil. Rather, they all thought they were justified. As quick examples, we can look at Marvel’s Magneto, Shakespeare’s Iago, and Shakespeare’s Caliban. Simply knowing at Magneto is a Holocaust survivor is enough to understand exactly why he carries out his actions throughout all the Marvel lines, he thinks he is righteously acting to avoid another Holocaust. Likewise, Iago considers his actions righteous after Othello passes him over in order to pick Cassius as his lieutenant, despite Iago’s greater experience, competence, and proven ability. And Caliban certainly considers reclaiming the island of his mother from an invading usurper to be a righteous act (in fact, most of us would probably agree, if Caliban were not described as monstrous in appearance).

Questions of morality, particularly with worldbuilding in mind, also get us to pre-set systems versus self-explored morality. For the former, I’ll use Christianity, simply because it is one of the more widespread and unified systems. When a moral dilemma, I argue, those with a pre-set system of morality have an easy time determining the moral course of action. For instance, take the question of torture. For a Christian, the morality of torture is an easy question, simply ask, “Would Christ approve of this?” then check the Gospels (and only the Gospels, since they’re the only part of the Bible that purports to be Christ’s words). The answer is a pretty clear, “No.” Those without pre-set systems have to explore the question and consider it more fully, in many ways. Faced with the question of torture, first one must ask, “What is the purpose or goal?” Answer: to acquire information. “Then, does the act fulfill the goal?” Answer: based on the body of evidence from history, no (first, presented with pain, a subject will say anything; therefore, any information gained from torture cannot be trusted, and is therefore useless). Therefore, torture serves no purpose but to feed sadism. Therefore, it is immoral.

I pose the previous paragraph to demonstrate both socially formed morality (for building cultures) and personal morality (for building characters).

Questions of morality do vary in response from culture to culture throughout history. For instance, back in the medieval era, capital punishment (flogging, cutting off limbs, execution) was a moral act because society did not have the resources to incarcerate someone for a long period of time when 98% of the populace worked the fields to feed all of society. On the other hand, the place of capital punishment today is morally debatable, because we have more than enough resources to incarcerate people for life (with less than 5% of the populace working fields to feed everyone). Likewise, morality in fictional cultures should change, adapt, over time depending on the situation, resources, and evolution of both society and the species.