Do we live in a moral universe?

Do we live in a moral universe? How you answer this question is crucial to determining the course of your life. What I mean to ask is not whether men or society is moral. We know that men are corrupt, and although they appreciate morality, they don’t choose it as often as they should. We know furthermore than society is made up of such individuals and their choices. Instead, what I want to ask is more a question about the nature of reality itself. In our universe, is morality right? Is it good?

The way to measure of an idea or plan of action is to consider its fruit. When all things are considered and the result determined, is the fruit good or bad? One particularly potent way of examining things is to ask whether they self destruct. There are many bad ideas that are self-destructive. Their own successes result in the destruction of their intended goal. Drug abuse, requiring ever larger doses to achieve the desired high, is one example of something being pathological in that way. In seeking pleasure, the drug addict watches as all pleasure drains from life. If he doesn’t give up his bad idea, he may overdose and forfeit all pleasure through an untimely death. Self-destructive ideas are always bad ideas. Even when they work, they don’t work.

So, one way to begin exploring my question might be to ask, is morality self-destructive? Does making morally right choices result in the destruction of everything we seek to gain or preserve by making those choices? If morality is pathological, then our universe is not moral. In that case, being moral would be as wrongheaded as trying to become a drug addict. We would be forced to say that morality does not fit the nature of the universe we live in. Do nice (moral) guys always finish last?

But we can go further. We can ask whether morality is the best way to accomplish its own goal, or any goal. If, when all things are considered, we find that mixing some immoral choices with our moral ones produces a better outcome than strict adherence to morality, we would again conclude that the universe is not truly moral. In this case, we might say that while morality is not necessarily pathological, it is sub-optimal. We wouldn’t say “honesty is the best policy.” Instead we would say, “honesty is occasionally the best policy,” or “frequently the best policy.” Either way, morality would not be a reliable guide to our actions.

This claim is made implicitly more often that you may be aware. Whenever we are faced with a question that clearly has a moral component and someone suggests we ignore that and act pragmatically, they are implying that morality is a sub-optimal choice. When such a suggestion is made, it is very much the case that the person is claiming that right may not be best. Yes, they might say, telling the truth would be right, but it wouldn’t be good. And so I suggest you consider the question, is the universe moral?

If the answer is yes, then you can safely follow the dictates of sound moral reasoning. You can reject every immoral choice without bothering to guess at all the consequences. You don’t need to have a God’s-eye view of the world, you don’t need to see all possible futures; if a choice is immoral, you simply find another course of action. You can do so with confidence and without regret, because morality is a trustworthy guide to action.

It’s just as easy to see the course your life must take if you answer no. You must then work very hard to be clever. You can’t simply do the right thing in any situation. You will have to decide whether it is really the best thing. You must decide how to mix your honesty with lies, and temper your faithfulness with treason. And if you succeed, it will all turn out much better.

You will be successful, effective and wise. But you will never be trustworthy. No one could rely on your word, or predict you action on the basis of simple, obvious morality. They would have to have the same God’s-eye view of the world, and see all the possibilities and consequences as they really exist, before they could really count on you to do or say anything.

But then, since you yourself will never have that God’s-eye view, what we are really saying is that they will have to see things from your point of view in order to know how you’ll react. They would have to see things from the point of view of an untrustworthy person, someone who thinks that right may not always be good.

It’s at this point I would become very nervous, if I were considering coming to the conclusion that the universe is not fundamentally moral. I know that I have a tendency to see my own interests more clearly than the interests of others. I know also that my reasoning and my judgment tends to get clouded by my self-interest, and it tends to get clouded in my favor. And suddenly I wonder whether seeking some version of “good” that is divorced from what is right won’t result in my clouded judgment choosing the wrong and the bad with a sickening consistency.

Shall we do evil that good may come, or do we, in fact, live in a moral universe?


tiny lantern

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