In his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (Viking, 2011), Steven Pinker begins a section called “Morality and Taboo” (p. 622) with the following short and provocative declaration:
The world has far too much morality.
Yes, I, too, had to re-read that sentence. Is he about to say there should be more immorality? Well, thankfully, not. He explains:
If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice [revenge, vigilantism, honor killings, etc.], the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor killing of unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples.
What Pinker is telling us is not too surprising when you think about it: the human moral sense can go off the tracks.
Unless one is a radical moral relativist, one believes that people can in some sense be mistaken about their moral convictions; that their justifications of genocide, rape, honor killings, and the torture of heretics are erroneous, not just distasteful to our sensibilities.
Pinker is careful to distinguish between behaviors that are deemed immoral and ones that are merely disagreeable, unfashionable, or imprudent. Only the moralized infraction is universalized, actionable, and punishable within the culture that prohibits it.
Some of these prohibitions are truly universal, or “pan-cultural.” In every part of the world, murder, theft, perjury, and extortion are considered moral infractions. Our revulsion at such acts reflects our species’ core moral values of fairness, justice, and the prevention of harm. Such values pre-date not only religion but indeed the appearance of homo sapiens sapiens. They have been promulgated exclusively via religion—and sometimes horribly abused and violated by it—only in societies where religion has been culturally all-pervasive.
But other “infractions”—e.g., apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and idolatry—have been shown to be culturally contingent rather than universal. They are violations of archaic purity and sanctity codes that might have served some purpose in iron-age tribal societies but that are useless in modern pluralistic democracies. They persist wherever the secular state has not developed or has not completely disentangled itself from religion.
A society that values individual freedom and autonomy cannot bind its citizens to sectarian claims about what constitutes a moral infraction. We cannot all be required to forswear martinis or short shorts because they are forbidden by sharia law, and Mormons cannot expect us all to forswear lattes and black tea. Why then, do so many Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons hope to universalize their prohibitions against homosexuality? These prohibitions have no rational basis and are as culturally contingent as the scripture-based codes from which they are derived.
Yes, we have far too much morality. Maybe it’s time to return to the true moral universals and reassess our culturally contingent ones. Instead of asking whether a behavior was forbidden by ancient scriptures, let’s ask, “Who is being harmed?” Or, as Sam Harris might ask, “How does our behavior affect human and animal flourishing and the health of our planet?”